Between Words & Images Print E-mail

thumbnail 01(San Diego Reader February 3, 2016)

Now open at Cedar and Kettner downtown is yet another San Diego monument to the commute: a $24 million, trolley-side, ten-story (three levels below ground, seven above), 645-space parking structure, bestowing on County Administration Center employees slots by day and on Little Italy revelers slots by night.

But wait. This architectural hunk of ugly doesn’t have to be unfun. What if the block-squat building could speak, its concrete walls dance, its Navy grey surface draw, not repulse, our attention? What if the community the structure serves—our aesthetic and practical necessities—could be evoked with digital animation?

Not long ago, such a civic-minded idea illumined the imagination of Justin Manor, a 38-year-old computational artist, new to San Diego since 2012. The Boston-bred, Massachusetts Institute of Technology grad heads up Sosolimited, a software design company, in downtown’s Columbia district.

Manor, who’s as vibrant and articulate as his data displays, steers Soso’s ship. In a fifth-floor open-space office, he and each of his five-member crew sit at desks before Hi-Def screens. They work comradely close, dissolving any too-long silence with bites of geeky humor. The south-side window looks out on the Santa Fe Depot, which houses, in addition to the railroad’s waiting room, the Museum of Contemporary Art and, on its outside wall, a vertical scroll of Zen-like aphorisms by the light-emitting-diode (LED) visual writer, Jenny Holzer.

Manor and his PC Merlins concoct all sorts of infographic ventures. One corporate example, Sosolimited has built a touch-screen display for Qualcomm, accessible online or in the company’s San Diego headquarters. The software graphs with interactive pop-ups thousands of the Q’s patents. It’s a Curriculum Vita organism that uses finger swipes and spreads with a neuronlike grid of invention and patent info.

I ask Manor to describe his fantasy for LED-painting the Cedar and Kettner structure, whose surface he likens to “undulating fins.” By day, he says, it has to be “another boring concrete box to put cars in.” Come dusk, it could light up with colorized brio.

He says Sosolimited would turn the Cedar Street side “into a very low-rez movie screen.” Appearing nightly would be San Diego-friendly projections. Images of whales swimming by. Cartoon characters during Comic-con. Palm-laced sunsets. Scrolling messages: Go Padres, Goodbye Chargers. Images of fireworks to parallel the live volcano-bursts of color on the Fourth of July. Maybe warnings of terror attacks or child abductions.

At his wide-screen terminal sits Colin Wagerman, a Sosolimited designer or “creative coder.” (Soso men have hair cut short on the sides, less short on top.) He is, as their website states, one of those gifted “programmers who design and designers who program.” Wagerman’s already made a trailer to illustrate the Cedar and Kettner’s colorized sizzle (the target is the County Board of Supervisors). If approved, he will devise video streams to cruise across its sides. “One digital texture,” he says, “could manipulate itself for hours and hours without repeating itself.” The LED-wired dazzle would emanate from a locked-up computer on site, running software from the cloud. 

All Startups Are Boyish

Sosolimited’s innovative panache seems derived from Manor’s manner. Nothing in his squarish physique is imposing; his intelligence, though, is commanding, an alloy of swagger and resolve. He knows which side of the artistic/commercial divide he’s on. At times, he can’t quite mask his intolerance at a client’s resistance to provocative art. To civic purse-holders who may balk at a video installation, he’ll adopt a rakish tone: “You want the kids involved in government, do something fun for them.”

Sosolimited began in 2002 when three MIT post-grads (his partners, John Rothenberg and Eric Gunther, remain in the original Boston office) began creating live electronic light-and-sound shows for club nights, museum openings, and art festivals—the fresh “tech-art scene,” back in the day. The esthetic goal, then as now, is the live reinvention of music-fueled video and data visualization. Manor says that the challenge at first was to create, every week, “something we did not do previously.” Improvised live and gone. No product, no memory, no remuneration. “Whatever was the worst economic decision—we were making it.”

These mashups ran their course, with pecks of international interest. But Manor and buddies kept moving, shaping live video to deconstruct politics—presidential debates—with a sarcastic bent. In 2008, McCain vs. Obama, they built systems for “live analysis and transformation of political discourse.” Their collation of keywords spoken by the candidates brought forth algorithmic “word-cloud” visualizations. For example, they tracked and showed on screen the use of “we” and “I” pronouns, the latter considered by linguistic analysts to expose the more honest candidate.

Manor has a wisenheimer’s love of deconstructing media seriousness. He loves upending post-debate spin rooms, skewering CNN’s purported objectivity with instant critique. He wanted “to strip away the production that goes into politics,” he says, get at its recondite nature. He hoped the gig would “psychoanalyze” the candidates in real-time. But such media presentation is expensive, and he lacks a “big media partner” to pursue it on a national level. News groups can hire coders to write political speech algorithms. They don’t need him. He also realized (as do most viewers) that streaming infographics can overwhelm the viewer with TMI, too much information.

What interests Manor and Sosolimited instead is “to set up the blueprint” of political data visualization and “let other people take it to the next level. For me it’d be cool to click a button” and activate, during a political speech, “a bullshit detector,” a live, on-your-TV Gore Vidal commentator. Nobody wants such a button. “Cox, Comcast, ABC, Google—[they’re all] anti that.” Why? “Political speech is bought speech.”

When Soso’s debate mashups elicited big news coverage, the three realized, belatedly, they were “giving away intellectual property.” Solution, make a company. They did and, twinkle-twinkle, Glinda’s wand brought forth big-ticket orders for data visualization software and computational structures. Perhaps the most extraordinary is the dynamic nature-conjuring sculpture for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science.

The museum has an atrium at its center, five stories of open space for which Sosolimited designed an undulating ribbon, ten feet wide by ninety feet long, composed of bathroom-tile-sized liquid crystal display (LCD) panels. The structure is like a rollercoaster chunk with the texture of a tennis net, a hump and a dip. Across its canvas of panels travel black-and-white patterns from nature, based on life but also simulated on screen—birds flocking, grass waving, leaves falling, water dropping on water, or the camouflaging skin of the cuttlefish. Sosolimited created the software that projects these rushing-by images; the sculpture itself was built by Hypersonic, a structural engineering firm. At least a dozen individuals and companies collaborated. It took two years to make.

Manor clarifies the sculpture’s body-like being as an “organism” for which “Sosolimited provides its nervous system.” Once the squawks of birds and rain plunks are added, we have a hyper-dynamic audio-visual piece that may be as “entertaining” as any natural realm can get. 

Art Is Technology

While it’s tempting to think the cellphone and the app have every intention of making our lives insipid with distraction and isolation, the possibility of progressive art forms, based in low-cost, easy-to-use digital technology, is burgeoning exponentially.

Such is the core idea of Andy Horwitz, a lecturer at UCSD (his popular course is “Theory and Practice of Cultural Production”) and a freelance curator. His most recent project was last summer’s show at the San Diego Art Institute, “Ephemeral Objects.” The tech-heavy exhibition featured thirty-four local artists, including Manor, who have been “exploring questions about the nature of experience and materiality and proposing new ideas for an expanded field of art in the digital age.”

Every so often, Horwitz says, a tad cheekily, people rediscover that art is remade by the addition of new tools. Art and technology have “never been separate. Leonardo da Vinci was an engineer and a cadaver dissector. People are always trying to develop new tools to implement ideas and visions they have.”

Data visualization and infographics “are just techniques,” Horwitz says. “We use them for business purposes,” say a PowerPoint about quarterly sales growth. Applied to art, such data may have no utilitarian purpose, only “a conceptual one.” Which is the difference between an “artful use of technology and its business application.”

And yet to take such business applications and apply them to art’s role as provocateur and audio-visual beauty is changing how the conservative art world regards the upstarts of technology. Because of TV, film, and video, Horwitz believes everyone is starting to understand that “programming”—such as writing code, working with Photoshop, or creating glitch art—is “no different from working with a paintbrush or a guitar or anything else.”

Perhaps the most exciting, though still controversial, idea of late is that digital art can, when combined with public data, express a community’s emotional, aesthetic, and civic needs. As an example, Horwitz cites Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial. Initially called an abomination because it failed to render heroic soldiers in bronze, the work later became a citadel of grief for veterans on pilgrimage. Judging by its usefulness as a civic sculpture, we—local leaders, especially, who are unversed in evaluating new art—have to trust that artists can direct our emotions in ways we cannot predict. Nor should we.

Boston’s Cream Pie of Installations

Sosolimited’s most famous foray into civic art is a light sculpture recently unveiled in Boston. The Crisscross Signal Tower, rising next to a downtown subway stop, is a tree-like form, “a twisting band of poles,” or light tubes, Manor says, based on the familiar visual grid of the Boston subway system. Its trunks of light display real-time colorized readings of “residential complaints” in each of Boston’s twenty-one neighborhoods. Residents file concerns via phone, texts, Twitter, even in-person. The colors reflect the number and intensity of resolved or unresolved Bostonians’ municipal needs. Sidewalk trash (red light), potholes (orange light), unremoved snow (blue light).

It turns out that Boston’s South End, the toniest part of town, has the most grievances, in part, because the upper crust expects the city to do its job, whether police patrols or snow removal. The roughest neighborhood, East Roxbury, has the fewest gripes, in part, because poorer residents distrust government as well as fear reporting problems, the “snitch” mentality writ large.

Boston bought the concept from the architectural firm, Höweler and Yoon, who then hired Sosolimited to do the graphics. Manor says the project was approved because councilmembers liked “having a lens onto the conversation between citizens and their government [that would] make the city a better place.” He hopes Sosolimited’s sculptural portrayal of 3-1-1, Boston’s non-emergency complaint line, will enhance civic pride. To city leaders, highlighting neighborhood needs is worth the cost of real-time graphics, a kind of colorized municipal performance art that is also Hi-Def pleasurable. Can we hope for such an artsy/techy installation in our midst? 

How Much Dazzling Infographics Can We Stand?

Yes, Manor says, after I ask, the one-percenters have seeded some fantasy works for Sosolimited. “We did a one-off piece, a set design for an opera. The design was bought from a very wealthy person to give to the Prince of Monaco. LED lights for a personalized opera.”

That’s impressive. But I wonder how rapacious the digital landscape of the future will be. Fifty million people in Tokyo, slow-footing through some Blade-Runner-like movie set? A constant flood of billboarded “Walking Dead” previews or fly-by-your-face drones offering Debt Relief? Will we even go outside much, in hot, smog-filled air? Will we, instead, be sleeping with androids, dreaming of electric sheep?

I ask about Sosolimited’s sensory-pummeling first-ever media wall, glitzing the foyer of the iHeartRadio theater in Burbank. It’s a 25-foot-wide Jumbotron—color-text-sound-video display—that projects a moment-by-moment Twittersphere of pop-music/digital phantasmagoria. Sosolimited’s website notes that the wall “seamlessly integrates live video feeds from the concert venue, archival video, photography, real-time tweets and brand messaging.” Anyone with eyeballs, except adolescents, will drown in its graphics.

“We built that for a 14-year-old audience and aesthetic,” Manor says. “It’s a thousand times brighter than a cellphone. It’s impossible to ignore, even though the 14-year-olds probably can.”

Such successes belie Sosolimited’s Boston youth. Then, it took seven years before they had paying gigs, civic or commercial. Now they have seven projects lined up for that city alone. The same, he wagers, will happen her, erelong, once their LED-illuminated ballets and data shrines join streets and skyline and garner public adoration.

“Somebody in this town will give us money to do something interesting,” Manor says, with bravado. “I can convince them.” On such bluster many a city has been built or redesigned by the artist-occupier—if he gets the chance. 

Oceans of Colored Light

At one point, I try to get a grip on this can-do-anything realm of the programmer, which is all new to most of us. I say to Manor and staff, gathered round, “As a writer, I think with words, sometimes in musical rhythms. How do you guys think? Graphically?”

Manor says, “I’m somewhere between words and images.” Much of the time, he says, he sees “an ocean of colored lights moving.”

Alex Olivier, an apprentice designer who’s been with Sosolimited for two years, agrees. Her tied-up bundle of hair bears a ribbony swath of purple. “Sometimes I think in LED’s,” she says. “When we’re coming up with a project,” she says, “half of the ideation process is to have a vision in your head and, then, try to find the words to describe that to clients or to each other,” those she works with. “There’s also points when we know what we want the project to do, conceptually, but we don’t know exactly what the form should be.”

This idea is intriguing. Lights, action, form. Should the next piece be a light sculpture? Should it be lights projected onto surfaces? Should it be strictly online? Should it be an electroluminescent screen in a corporate foyer or a hands-on museum? Forget about what it costs or who’s going to approve it hovers like a homily above the tidy, computer-throned desks of Manor and Wagerman and Olivier. Money aside, what should it be?