The Science of Sustainability

Collaborative Creativity in the Digital World

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When you think of digital art, Photoshop or a Wacom tablet may come to mind. And yes, drawing on a screen instead of a pad of paper is certainly one kind of digital art. But digital art can also happen on an entirely different level: art can be made with lines of code.

Take The Johnny Cash Project. This music video for Cash' recording of the song "Ain't No Grave (Gonna Hold This Body Down)" was created by artist Aaron Koblin in collaboration with director Chris Milk. Each mesmerizing frame was hand-drawn–and not by Koblin.

Instead, Koblin wrote a sophisticated computer program that would encourage anyone, anywhere, to draw and submit a frame for the video. Contributors are given a black-and-white photographic template and a custom drawing tool to create their own interpretation. The tool records each drawing session, so you can select any frame and re-live the artist's process of creation. Drawings are also categorized by style and number of brush strokes and rated by the community, and, like a true engineer, Koblin has made all this information user-accessible. You can watch different version of the video: "highest rated frames," "most brushstrokes per frame," "pointilism frames," etc. (The project could use more pointilism frames, if you're looking for a niche to fill.)

The Johnny Cash Project - Aaron Koblin

The Johnny Cash Project - Aaron Koblin

Koblin is fascinated by this kind of collaborative creativity, made possible by today's interconnected world. If you're wondering what kind of artist makes a video out of other people's art, rest assured, it's far from a parasitic endeavor. Each frame is thoroughly credited to its artist, and the raw engineering skill and design vision behind The Johnny Cash Project are truly impressive.

Koblin currently leads the Data Arts Team in Google's Creative Lab in San Francisco. (Did you know they had a creative lab? I didn't!) His other projects include such whimsical endeavors as Bicycle Built for Two Thousand, which collected over 2000 brief voice recordings into a version of the song Daisy Bell, and The Sheep Market, an array of 10,000 hand-drawn sheep facing to the left. The workers for both projects came from Amazon's Mechanical Turk service.

eCLOUD at SJC

eCLOUD at SJC - by Koblin, Hafermaas, and Goods

Such "software art" may seem restricted to the internet, but it can actually be the power behind installation pieces as well. The centerpiece artwork in the newly renovated San Jose airport, eCLOUD, was created by Koblin along with Nik Hafermaas and Dan Goods. Constructed of hanging panels that can be electrically switched between transparent and opaque, eCLOUD is designed to mimic the behavior of a real cloud under any weather conditions. Custom software constantly downloads data about current international weather conditions and applies these to the eCLOUD, causing the collection of panels to resemble a cloud in, say, Buenos Aires.

Of course, eCLOUD is more beautiful than informative. If you want to know what the weather's like in one particular location, you're better off whipping out your smartphone than waiting for eCLOUD to come around to it. But hey, it's pretty cool art.

h/t to The Finch and Pea via ArtScience Nexus

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Category: Blog, Engineering

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Danna Staaf

About the Author ()

Danna is a marine biologist, a science writer, a novelist, an artist, and an educator. She helped found the outreach program Squids4Kids, illustrated The Game of Science, and has blogged at Squid A Day since 2009. She holds a BA in Creative Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a PhD in Baby Squid from Stanford. She lives in San Jose with her husband, daughter, and cats.
  • Michael Shulman

    Is there something collaborative about eCloud? Or is it only similar to Koblin's other work in that it uses software?

    • http://cephalopodiatrist.com Danna Staaf

      It's a collaboration among weather patterns around the world! =) No seriously, it's a collaboration among three artists, but it doesn't have the crowdsourcing aspect that much of Koblin's other work does.