Friday Night in San Francisco and the GIF Art Is Pumping
It was a Friday night co-working happy hour in San Francisco. The 3-D body scanner was out. An interactive version of Flappy Bird was cued up. And the GIF art was pumping.
The monthly happy hour, called Rendezvous and meant to showcase local digital artists over cocktails, started at a co-working space called @GeekdomSF at 7 pm. At 7:01, it was already packed with about 150 tech workers looking to nerd out over some source code and dancing GIFs.
“It’s an eager crowd,” said organizer Jordan Starpause Gray, who wore a patterned t-shirt and a mohawk.
I got a ginger beer and bourbon and headed to the back room where a crowd watched and applauded as people posed for a 3-D body scanner. One at a time, partygoers stood on a wooden platform that turned slowly while the scanner took their dimensions. There was a Settlers of Catan board game on the table. The bookshelf was organized by dust jacket color. Manoj Dayaram, a software artist, was watching with friends and debating the beauty of the unstructured scripting language PHP (“it’s too chaotic” vs. “yes, but it allows for freedom”).
“People always tell me software’s not art because the process of making it is so bound by rules. So it’s not a creative process — it’s too methodical. But any kind of art follows some rules,” he said.
He was particularly interested in the idea of beautiful source code, the functional writing that makes a program happen.
“Writing artistic source code doesn’t change how the source code runs,” Gray said. “But beautiful source code evokes different emotions. It’s about making the process, not just the product. But it’s a hard argument to make. Everyone can look at this 3-D scan and see what it is trying to evoke, but you have to have some level of proficiency to appreciate artistic source code.”
Gray, who started Rendezvous as part of his art/tech organization Codame, began throwing the parties a few years ago when a bunch of friends came to San Francisco for a Flash developer conference. Hundreds of them ended up listening to electronic music and messing around with Flash on a foggy rooftop. He found the best programmers were the ones with the quirkiest aesthetic eyes.
“That’s how new interfaces get designed, that’s how we got the mouse — by putting questions in front of artistic people,” Gray said.
This year, he has made the parties a monthly happening and started an adopt-an-artist program.
“It’s our small way to reconcile the gap people are feeling between tech coming in and artists going out,” Gray said.
The current artist in residence is Weidong Yang, who founded Kinetech Arts. Yang does installations with depth sensors, so people can move (or dance) to interact with projections on a wall. Usually he makes people look like they’re playing with fire. That night he was on site at the Moscone Center preparing an installation for Box.
“They always end up doing video game moves,” he said.
Projected along one wall was an interactive video game called Leapy Bird, in which participants waved their hands to get a cartoon bird to hop over pipes and other obstacles.
Amy Lee, the game’s creator and an iPad musician, said the game told the story of Codame.
“Obviously we didn’t start here in the land of pipes, but in a lot of ways we did,” Lee said. “We come from video game culture. This is an interactive story, so what you’re looking at is not a static piece of art. You have to be involved. This isn’t a passive gallery.”
On another wall was an interactive GIF display created by 24-year-old Donald Hanson. People could play with a control panel that looked like a club DJ table — tweak a knob and a GIF goes flashing onto the screen.
“GIFsoft is a VJ program I designed to do live visuals at shows, but I have turned it into more of an installation for interaction,” Hanson said. “It’s running in a Web browser, and all the controls are mapped to CSS properties so when you adjust them you’re changing the layout of the webpage.”
It’s really fascinating tech-wise, I said.
Hanson laughed: “We find it’s quite fun, too,” he said.
Lo and behold.
I left as two partygoers met and toasted across the GIF control panel.