This work is designed to appeal to beginners as well as industry professionals, terminologies are not deliberately described for the layperson, but all new terms are introduced with a link where underlined, in order for beginners to discover new terminologies and for all readers to discover more about artists, tools, and approaches discussed herein.
// This is an interactive article, key terms contain links //
Interview with Nordic Audio Visual Artists (NAVA)
about their interactive audio visual installation ‘Tiny/Massive‘
at Reykjavik’s Harpa Music Hall during the Winter Light Festival, February 2019
& their work in creative coding
Annabel Strange, April 14th-December 21st 2019
AS: Annie Strange – interviewer
JJ: Jonas Johansson – “anywhere based artist transforming light & technology through play, ice and //un//human intervention”
OH: Owen Hindley – Creative technologist making experimental VR experiences & immersive theatre alongside a background as a sound engineer, based in Iceland
KH: Katrín Hauksdóttir – Katrín Hauksdottír: Motion artist and illustrator working along the darkness of the uncanny valley while bringing light through facilitation and joyful collaboration. Based in Stockholm.
AB: Atli Bollason – Musician, Icelandic power house, curates A/V acts & electronic artists for Sónar, based in Iceland
ORIGINS OF NAVA
AS: So you met through Harpa? //Reykjavik landmark music hall where I first met NAVA during the Winter Light Festival//
AB: Most of the NAVA events we’ve had were hosted here //in Reykjavik// so I’ve been the local producer and a lot of the organisation has fallen on my shoulders.
I had this…idea five years ago, to take over Harpa and do something interactive. Pong was the first idea that came to me. Using Harpa as the screen and using the gyrometer in people’s smartphones as controllers. I had floated this idea with a few coders that I would meet randomly at parties and such.
Nobody really took to the idea until I met Owen by chance at a birthday party and he was down to make it happen. This was in April, and we did it in August so there was a short lead up time.
Before that point, Harpa had only been displaying pre-made works by Ólafur Elíasson.
He’s a well known artist but he’s also one of the architects of the building; so the whole facade with geometric tubes, and each tube has a light, that’s his work. This was the first time he let someone do something like this with this.
This was in August 2014 and it kind of snowballed from there. The following February, there was Sónar Reykjavik – like a satellite electronic festival happening – and we decided to re-do Pong where we added visualisers. We fed an audio signal through code and it was visualising music.
The people that wrote this code were people Owen had worked with in the past and he pulled together a group and this widened the group that plays with Harpa a little bit. The following year during Sónar in February 2016, I had come up with this concept and object design for a light organ and Owen’s partner Yuli Levtov from Reactify Music did the coding and Jonas helped us to kind of put it all together I guess; so that’s how we met. So we ran this interactive light organ for the early part of the evenings then in the latter half of the evening we ran visualisers.
By this time, we had established a relationship with Sónar Reykjavik. So 2015, to 2018, we always did something during that time and from 2016 onwards, Jonas came over and this partnership all began to solidify. We didn’t really mean to…found any sort of organisation, this wasn’t the idea.
AS: Would that have felt too ambitious at that stage?
AB: In a way, yes…it would have felt too…structured because what was so nice about this was that we could just play with the screen – I mean with Harpa – so the CEO, the board of the building, the artist, everybody was happy with how this was going so they were
always happy to let us try more stuff out. We did a local competition for ideas during Winter Light Festival a couple of years ago and I was on the jury for that.
It was very organic, how it all came about. So actually, when I think of it in an international context, it was a little crazy that we could do what we did. Often we hardly had to explain what we had to do by the end of it.
AS: So there was a permission framework for trusted deliverers like yourselves?
AB: Exactly. So that was very nice. Then Jonas had worked a lot with open calls in general, just that format, and he had been part of this Countdown Stage at Roskilde festival, so he brought Rasmus from that and I guess the meeting of Rasmus, Jonas, Owen and I became this NAVA concept. But to date, we’ve only done three things as NAVA – Sónar last year, we had an open call for VJs that we then paired with musicians who came to play there.
AS: Countdown was about collaborations between the musicians and the coders as VJs.
AB: Yeah, and this was basically a xerox of the concept we’d brought to the Countdown Stage at Roskilde. Most of this was held in Kaldalòn – like a small theatre in Harpa with an incline. So we did that, then we did Tiny/Massive at Harpa, and we were going to do the same thing that we did at Sónar last year, but Sónar was cancelled so we threw our own event in Bíó Paradís instead.
AS: Was that the one day event, Skaðablót?
AB: Yes it was great, were you there?
AS: I wish! No, Katrín told me about how they threw that together after Sónar was cancelled. Like how did that feel to put all this energy and so many people into a project
then have nowhere to take it? Obviously you made lemonade there, it’s never nice when that happens but the fact that you pulled together and made something great from it is so inspiring – I can tell there was a lot of work that must have gone into changing the gears whilst keeping the energy the artists had engaged.
JJ: Thank you for acknowledging the amount of effort that goes into this. I was mortified.
My first response was to think of solutions. Flights were booked and I had an Airbnb for all the artists. I have this quite naive wish of us all staying together, and believe that some of the best meetings happen over breakfast. Sónar cancelling has fuelled our desire to create something of our own, without being bound by another organisation. I love the challenge of turning a negative turn into a positive experience, and I seem to share that with the rest of the team.
KH: Our response was to stay hopeful and calm and see if we could make the best out of things. Fortunately a lot of people going to and performing at Sónar still wanted to make something happen so we weren’t the only ones looking for that opportunity. We were excited to put together the other one day festival Skaðablót with the DJ collective Plútó,
OH: This event was a great success, and had probably much more of a focus on the visual aspect of the performances than what would have happened at Sonar. It’s set a high benchmark for what we do in terms of the prominence of the visual artists, so we’ll be looking to replicate this in future NAVA events.
KH: We knew that the festival goers would celebrate a party to make up for the loss of Sónar. It ended up being true and a great deal of fun.
As something to learn from and look forward to in the future – yes, this attitude is definitely something we want to keep. In regards to future festival projects – it’s hard to say. The willingness of the artists (musical acts as well as visual performers, DJs and VJs) to come together and make the best out of things was just magical.
AS: Where do you see the role of NAVA as holding space for other artists to be creative and develop their work and exposure in the public realm?
JJ: Through the years I’ve received positive feedback regarding facilitation, leadership and as part of a team. I am able to conjure large amounts of energy and am very driven by providing foundations for others to build upon.
There’s an artistic quality to curation, and to facilitation, that I am interested in – and by being able to witness these artists explore their craft aids my own practice.
KH: NAVA was brought together as a need to connect with other people with the same interests. We noticed the lack of community for ourselves and the lack of space made for these collaborations. I do however think change is happening in the communities and forums online; but the physical collaboration is still missing for the most part.
JJ: The NAVA projects we do are large projects where other artists help shape them, give them edge. We wouldn’t be able to create the impact we want without the participatory aspect; and that’s where a lot of the NAVA work comes from: building community, exploring the transformative qualities of immersive experiences and audiovisual arts.
OH: Because we’re only able to offer limited support to artists creating work for these projects //such as on Harpa//, I think we sit at the point where it’s either developing artists wanting an opportunity to work with a large, public facade, or more established artists looking for a challenge. Because we have limited resources at the present, and our location, we’re not able to magnify their work and offer the exposure that larger organisations or festivals might, but instead we aim to provide a community of individuals working in the same field, and fostering connections between those artists, so that we can all support each other in the future, as well as spreading news of other opportunities, etc.
KH: We’ve put emphasis on giving the artists space to perform, collaborate, connect with other artists and specifically held workshops and meetings to give them dedicated time to discuss and reflect on their work and the community.
My role is quite fluid – in regards to helping our invited artists and participants, I’m a facilitator and all-around go to.
Since I’m probably one of the less technically skilled person in our team, I tend to put more emphasis on the social and personal engagement and well-being of our artists. Like in many other communities I think we all value our differences to make us stronger.
AS: Jonas was saying it was more about the community aspect, where you would all be in the same space so you could wake up and chat about your dreams of coding or whatever.
This is just a style of communication, taking direction, being very clear about where you’re going and communicating very clearly, so it often takes the form of these seminars and just very open discussions about what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it; and it’s been very helpful.
AS: And this is a uniquely Scandi thing, do you reckon?
AB: I think so, yes. This is definitely something they learned in Kaos Pilot and Hyper Island, I’m sure. And they do it very well. That’s been a great aspect of this whole thing, we bring people here, and I’m often amazed that they come, because they receive almost no compensation, Last year it was around 200 Euros, I think this year it’s maybe 400 Euros. But people come, and they spend a long weekend even, doing this one performance, but then just hanging out, and chatting.
This last time, we booked just a big Air B&B, and we all stayed together, cooked together, so the communal aspect is really strong.
JJ: Some of my strongest personal moments are with friends and machines. I have a strong DIY spirit and tend to spend hours building and working alone. From an experience at the Roskilde festival, where I answered an open call, I was humbled and amazed by meeting other visual artists and seeing their work. It rekindled feelings that had been dormant for years.
Being able to create that space and feeling for someone else, and at the same time being part of it myself, it’s hard to describe but it makes it all worth it. And I think it’s essential for the art form to move forward.
KH: The highlight for me is the connections and insights during the collaborations. Seeing the community build and the ecstatic faces of our artists while and after performing.
I’m always very interested in the technical parts but I do tend to focus on the human connections more than the gear.
“Today we reached a major milestone: 100 million repositories now live on GitHub. Powering this number is an incredible community. Together, you’re 31 million developers from nearly every country and territory in the world, collaborating across 1.1 billion contributions. Repositories are where you store code, but they represent much more: ideas, experiments, curiosity, and moments of inspiration. A core sample of what’s possible when we work together by the millions.”
– Jason Warner, Github, November 2018
AS: What are your thoughts on how economic barriers are affected by the possibilities of creative coding and open source programming
OH: Super interesting question. I’m speculating here, because I don’t have any metrics or data on this – but I would imagine that open source programming environments and tools have been a huge help in breaking down economic barriers to creatives wanting to create. If someone wants to become a sculptor in bronze, they need access to significant amounts of heavy equipment in order to make this happen.
Plus, whilst a lot of knowledge on how to sculpt in bronze is now likely available online, the practical, one-on-one training is probably kept within institutions that aren’t available to everybody. Creative coding on the other hand, requires only a programmable device, internet connection and time //a significant barrier to some still, but likely a lower one than for bronze casting//. Even with low-powered, cheaper hardware, an artist is able to produce incredible offline work. more complex realtime projects still require specialist and expensive hardware of course; but much of the knowledge around the subject is freely shared online, so aspiring coders can spend their time taking tutorials often at no cost to develop their practice.
I imagine there’s also a number of benefits outside of the arts sphere that open access to coding tools and training gives that could help individuals break through their circumstances, being it building their own digital tools to increase efficiency in their own businesses or just their personal lives, or simply through the increased technical literacy that comes with being a programmer, they will be able to make more informed decisions in this modern world.
JJ: There’s more players today and the financial models have had to adjust heavily. Most of the new tools rely on monthly and annual pricing, an evolution that the video game industry is trying as well, for instance with Google releasing their vision of virtual game rentals.
It’s no longer viable to release trial versions of software, instead new environments are released with minor water marks or export restrictions and since the creators are often only one person, pricing is sometimes even donation based. Platforms such as itch.io, producthunt.com help provide these creators with a platform for marketing, presentation and exposure.
Instead of this one expensive tool, we now, for both good and bad, rely on a plethora of tools doing bits and pieces of the bigger picture. Many of these do cost at some point, you can think of it as games being released with DLC //downloadable content//, but for the most part they are open sourced and can be easily extended.
There’s more of us contributing. The economic threshold is small. The community is open. We work with components and create our own systems, instead of relying on big corps – it makes us self-reliant. Building an immersive multimedia experience that connects everyone in a room, in an arena, in a city, in a country, in the world.
KH: I feel like there isn’t enough funding and interest from those who unknowingly could benefit from creative coding and open source programming.
However, we create the opportunity to educate and share this knowledge with a wider audience, by hosting and curating workshops and spreading this knowledge and passion. I think that people in general need to be thinking further ahead and outside of the box.
AS: When we’re talking about a place in history where cheap computers and control units like the Arduino and Raspberry Pi are so available to the public, do you think this has changed people’s economic capacity to think and do for themselves?
AB: For sure! On the one hand it definitely has; but on the other – look at Apple, making the same mistakes they did throughout the nineties, where it’s becoming a much more closed off and expensive architecture – you can’t upgrade this at all [points to my Macbook] this is like a disposable thing you can’t upgrade in any way.
AS: Well, you can but it’s expensive to have a technician change the processor or the ram.
AB: Whereas maybe ten years ago, it would be quite easy to change it yourself. So you have trends happening in opposite directions, simultaneously.
AS: So in terms of the cheaper alternatives and open source software being so freely available, that’s economically changed the political agency people have.
AB: It’s so good. Like this workshop I took helped me realise how simple it was, that you’re just modulating an electric signal and even realising how cheap it can be was quite eye opening to me; because even though I’ve made these projects with Owen and Yuli, I don’t think I fully understood how it was working so that was quite liberating. The number of sensors you can buy for almost nothing, its so cool! Light sensors, motion sensors, all the creative ways you can combine them or the way you can interpret the readings of them…
AS: It really opens up the possibilities for people.
AB: But also, something I’ve found, and I won’t say I struggle with it, but something I think about, is that still, I find that even the uses of this technology is still very predictable. It’s just being used in the same way over and over. It’s very quick to become gimicky.
I think this is why when we’re teaching, we really stress that…we had two weeks, and the first week we got them to figure out the concept – like, why are we doing this, what is it for? Before the how you actually do it.
AS: When you say ‘bulletproof concept’, you mean something that won’t be diluted difficulties they can eventually overcome in the how?
AB: I think more on the level of meaning – why are you making this, what does it cast a light on, how is it different from other similar concepts or activities…is there some political dimension here? Does it speak to any sort of historical fact? I think these things tend to be, if not forgotten then buried at the cost of just, you know, demoing a gadget.
AS: Yeah, when you’re trying to realise that vision, I suppose with the limitations of the tech, if you make sure your concept is bulletproof, you’re not going to lose too much of those nuances. You’re going to keep fighting for a solution, aren’t you?
So it has changed your mindset, when you go away from that like I was saying earlier on?
Like that’s given you an extra layer of musical liberation.
AB: Yeah. For sure. And now, I’ll hear something that’s obviously not made and I’ll feel this art is trapped in a way by its own tools, like they haven’t turned to the liberating aspects of coding //laughs// so to me that’s really inspiring, and it’s just really crazy that people will come together and watch and listen to people code. And of course people are live coding shaders – like visualisers basically –
AS: So live coding for visuals.
AB: Yeah. And there’s really not a scene for it here. Did you attend any of the Ravelost events? This electronic music festival a couple of weeks ago? It’s very small, DIY, they had an algorave last year but I don’t think there was any this year. So there’s no scene for it.
AS: Live coding’s really popular in Aberdeen, my tutor Jun is a big advocate for it.
AB: It’s very cool. I mean, it’s very interesting, you could say in a way that it’s disappointing, but a lot of the live coding stuff sounds super similar; but again, I think this is just to do with the bundled sample packs and stuff. So I think once this is more established, I think it will break away from that a bit.
But it just goes to show, the tool always impacts the outcome, right? But I think there’s definitely more that can be made from that. And yeah, it was so liberating these few days that I spent learning this and I’ll have to come back to it this summer for sure.
For me, I think very inspiring texts have been from the Situationists – French philosopher- activists in the late 50s and the riots of ’68 came out of their thoughts – anyway, they were obsessed with the city; how to modernise the city, how to make the city a more adventurous space, you know?
And they came up with these strategies for traversing and making the city more for yourself; going on what they called derives, long walks with the intention of breaking the norm. And the texts are all available online with good translations, there’s something called new urbanism, which was very inspiring for me at least.
PARTICIPATION VS CONSUMPTION
AS: How do artists like yourself work the line between arts for spectator consumption and creating arts for participation in the context of creative coding?
JJ: So much of my work is done for personal exploration or innovation of the arts and technology. I use spectators and audience as a reminder that certain criteria must be met for it to be interesting and relevant to others besides myself and the co-creators.
These criteria often help drive innovation as it creates challenges that normally wouldn’t be there. Spectators are all different, use different devices, have different knowledges going into an artistic experience.
Creative coding, to me, is about simplification and complication. Easy to learn, difficult to master. It’s fantastic as it allows multiple perspectives to dive into a whirlpool of creative arts. I walk this line by constantly collaborating with others, honing my technical skills as well as exploring the artistic qualities of the work being presented.
OH: I guess for much of the time during the creative coding process, we are making tools for ourselves, after which we move from the general case in the domain of those tools to the specific one in order to produce a given artwork. However the line at which we ’stop’
and present the work is highly variable, or blurred, for example if the piece includes live data, some of the ‘general-ness’ still remains, and it’s the incoming data that turns it into the specific; for example, if we build something that visualises air quality in a city, we only build the system that turns data into visuals – the general case – but it’s on the actual day that the data causes a particular pattern to appear – the specific case.
if we extend that even further, and we give some of those tools to audiences to do with what they wish, we’re enabling those audiences to express themselves in new ways – or allow creators to come in, and focus on the execution of a concept within certain boundaries, and not need to worry too much about the implementation details.
Personally I’ve split my work into two kinds when considering this – one, such as programming templates for other artists to create content for Harpa, I’m in a supporting role – the work I do is designed to give as much freedom and flexibility to the artist as possible. The other is where I’m creating an artwork myself, in which case I like to take a holistic view of the end user’s experience, which often doesn’t leave much room for deep creative participation at all //except maybe in the form of playing the game I’ve designed//
KH: I believe that we want to show the public the array of technologies that can be used with a creative purpose and even encourage people to play around with them themselves – hence the technical workshops we’ve held.
It’s definitely something that isn’t done enough – as a concrete example in Iceland there had never been a open source software workshop such as the Touch Designer workshop we had this year and the participants were very engaged and interested in more of those.
AS: Do you think there’s maybe not enough examples of people doing crazy awesome things on buildings with coding like NAVA? I think the more people experience things like what you do at Harpa, the more it opens them up to the possibilities of what can be done with coding.
AB: Yeah I think one of the reasons we do this, for example, is at first even though I didn’t know how to code, I still knew that with coding and electronics, you can do almost anything; so it was really mind blowing to me that every time I would float this pong idea, all the programmers I would meet and speak to, all I would get is ‘it can’t be done’ and ‘it’s too hard’.
I just knew that was the wrong answer.
I’ve worked for festivals in the past, and even just coming up with functions for websites, so often I would get the same answer from web programmers that it can’t be done.
AS: Because they’d not seen it before; they’d not seen an example.
AB: They’d not seen an example of it or they could just not be bothered to, I don’t know
what their reason was. So it was so nice to meet Owen, and he was like, “yeah, of course”.
We contacted the people that designed the lighting system for the façade of Harpa and even they said it can’t be done. I don’t know what it is, it’s just like some sort of fear or something; of doing things in an improper fashion, or just doing things they weren’t built to do. But this is where creativity comes from, right?
AS: As long as you can guarantee it’s not going to catch fire or something, then why are we not trying it?
AB: Exactly. So there’s this, like people are afraid to try; but you know it is a problem that so many of these spaces, or buildings, or whatever we’re talking that could potentially do
this – they’re privately owned, and whilst this shouldn’t inherently be a problem, it seems that capital or private entities are just averse to any sort of risk in this sense. I don’t know what this fear is, is it of risking the group using the screen as a platform, or some sort of subversive message, I don’t know.
It’s like you say, is it the simple risk that it will catch fire, or you know, ‘they’ll ruin it, they don’t know what they’re doing’.
AS: That just means it’s all the more impressive that you got Harpa.
AB: This is one of the great things about being in Iceland, it’s just so small. So the lines of
communication are so short – I mean the CEO is just an email away! He just reads his or her own emails, it’s not filtered along the way.
It was just a case of explaining the idea, and phrasing it in such a way that it sounded like we could pull this off, without fxxking it up. Once we’d established that connection it was so easy. Whereas, I don’t know, in the United Kingdom, just getting to who would make the decision for…what’s this building in London, almost like a white vase? It’s in Central London. I don’t know how many gatekeepers you would have to pass.
AS: Billions. It’s all the bureaucracy and red tape, they love it over there.
AB: So we’ve been lucky here. And to tell you the truth, we’ve not been putting in as much work as we should to explore other spaces and make that happen.
But when we do find the time, of course, this would be a great portfolio piece, playing card to have, for sure.
AS: It’s good that you’ve documented that as well so you’ve got that to show the gatekeepers, like, we’ve got this massive building, they let us do it so why don’t you?
AB: For me, it is really important that this is sort of about taking the building back.
Like, in the UK especially, there’s been so much privatisation of public spaces, like there’s hardly any public parks as I understand it. You have these pseudo styled to look like public spaces, but as soon as someone like sits on the stairs, or if anyone’s sleeping rough or anything, they’ll just be escorted off the property right away.
So it isn’t public: It belongs only as capital to the land owners. It’s given this veneer of being public, and I think this is a really tragic development. One that, even only symbolically, can be countered by these arranged takeovers.
AS: I think with community engagement in the arts, one of the main goals for the communities is to reclaim their spaces; and to take ownership of their spaces so they then respect them.
I know there’s a lot of initiatives in the U.K. about reclaiming green spaces for themselves, and taking ownership of keeping it clean as it’s a part of the fabric of their identity. Like the identity of the community is bound up with where they live, and the interaction of the spaces and resources around them.
If they have no ownership of that, and it’s just owned by a company that never visits, that’s bound to have an impact on the people psychologically, isn’t it. So there’s a real benefit to the community from what you’re doing there.
AB: Definitely. Also, thinking conceptually, there’s no reason in this day and age, with this technology, that things be as static as they are. There’s much more potential for facades that are ever changing. Screens are one thing, but you also have kinetic architecture, which for me, it’s more fitting for contemporary times. When everything online is super dynamic, why don’t we see that in the structures?
JJ: Regarding Sónar it’s very much about the collaboration between a visual artist and musical act. Here we want to create new meetings that may have a life after the event, and at the same time provide a beautiful canvas and setting that the visual artists can use to fully express themselves. Some of the NAVA artists invited aren’t necessarily live visual artists and it’s exciting to see them apply themselves to a festival environment. With Sónar we target the organisers, we target the artists, and we target the audience.
We want organisers to see the power of these collaborations, the artists to continue exploring their art form which may or may not be audio first, and the audience helps challenge us with their expectations and energy.
With Tiny/Massive, we invited artists from all fields; game design, motion graphics, web developers, shader artists etc. to create for the façade of the Harpa concert hall, for a unique canvas – 77×13 pixel resolution but on a large building. We worked heavily on providing a creators kit that helped the process for all levels of creators. You should be able to present work which is aesthetically driven without having technology constrain you. With Tiny/Massive we truly wanted to share possibilities that modern technology provides us, and apply it on a shared canvas.
The software used for Sónar is not necessarily open source, but our approach to inviting others is very much open source. It’s transparent, it’s non-rigid.
OH: Tiny/Massive started from the ideological viewpoint that we should be able to have differing relationships with these enormous structures that dominate our cities and skylines, and technology is just one way to make that happen – in the case of Harpa, a particularly effective one. So the idea of PONG from Atli came first, the technological implementation came second, as a response to that.
As we’ve gone on, we’ve developed it more as a platform for creative coding, however I’ve always personally tried to keep the platform open to artists using all sorts of mediums, e.g. film, stop-motion, hand-drawn animation etc. We’ve had one or two submissions that have fallen into this category, but I think due to the nature of the building we’ve attracted far more people from the motion graphics and creative coding community, which is something I’d like to work on in the future – bringing a more diverse set of artists to create content for Harpa. We would like to do a similar project on another LED facade somewhere else in the world again soon.
For me it’s the subversion of a large, iconic public building into something fun and playful. It reminds everyone that this building belongs to the people – as it was completed with public money – and as such we can, on occasion, reclaim and interact with it in a variety of different ways, as opposed to the purely passive experience of seeing it dominate the skyline, which it does normally.
AS: There’s obviously a great enthusiasm there for the people that you’ve brought together, and they’re seeing what you do – from an outsider perspective, I was just getting into coding when I saw Tiny/Massive back in February, but the fact that you had such a genuinely open call and perhaps even people who didn’t have the confidence to contribute an idea to the call, they had the full template for Harpa there to play with at home and they might never even speak to you, but it’s inspiring. So the hangouts must be a cool part of what you do for developing developers.
AS: It’s that openness there that’s brought people together. I think that’s what’s really special special about NAVA: there’s this very cold, digital realm, and you bring a human element to that with the community, and the discussions, and the meetups; how those ideas meet in the middle and develop.
AB: Very much so. I think the core concept with Harpa, it’s a very big building, and it’s beautiful; but as a building, it still has something clinical to it, it’s steel and glass.
The structure is huge. In a way, it’s out of scale with its environment, so I think any sort of interaction between the citizens of Reykjavik and the building redefines that relationship between you and the building. It’s not as imposing if it’s a playful space.
AS: So it becomes a character in the landscape, rather than just an object.
AB: In a way. It becomes something that you can level with, or it can reflect what the
citizens are feeling. It just makes for an open space. It’s a public building but the facade becomes more of a public space and I think that’s something interesting to achieve from a project.
So on the one hand we have that, and on the other, we have these collaborations through Sónar and Roskilde and I think it’s again about reclaiming and elevating the position of the visual artist in this context; which is often secondary, right? You don’t know who the VJ is.
AS: It’s seen as wallpaper, isn’t it. Like music runs the risk of so much too; they don’t respect it, they don’t want to pay for it, so anything that rebrands that value is a plus.
AB: So we get the VJ’s name on the poster! And making sure that the tech is good, like that there’s a decent screen – it’s a bit ridiculous, but often, it’s not the case.
Most often, it’s not the case to have a halfway decent projector screen.
So that’s what we wanted to bring. We still haven’t fully figured out what NAVA is really. We’ve floated some ideas, but it is just a concept around visuals, be they projected, or more interactive or generated.
EDUCATION IN THE CODE
AS: How have developments in school education in programming affected engagement and perception of creative coding and digital art consumption/creation?*
JJ: As an educator I’m responsible for introducing creative coding in several instances. I read several evaluations and I can also follow the students as they enter a professional life. From what I can tell the introduction of coding in education helps students, all of us, to demystify technology.
We do need to demystify technology and become more self- reliant as big corps do their best to keep their secrets. So much of digital art is still about technical novelties and hopefully the demystification can move us towards innovative design experiences, experiences that help transform the way we behave and approach the world, each other, ourselves and our environment.
We need more perspectives, more communication – a stronger general understanding of the tech that we surround ourselves with. Having that we are able to bridge competences, and develop a strong critical thinking.
AS: So Atli, you went to a coding workshop when you were ten, would you say from your experience that education in coding has improved over the last, say, ten years?
AB: I don’t know for sure, but it must have. This one I went to when I was ten was like summer workshop, like a private thing. Some kids would take a sailing course, or whatever the programme was.
Now, I know for a fact in, like, grade six or seven you can choose to take some programming courses. I mean, this is huge – I couldn’t do this when I was a kid. I have a friend in Canada who’s been volunteering to teach coding and problem solving there. At his daughter’s school. I could not imagine doing this when I was a kid.
AS: The first thing I coded on was a BBC Micro, One of the first mainstream computers. There was a lightsaber game, like a duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader and I
coded it so I could take Darth Vader’s lightsaber off him – he still killed me though.
I was just playing around with the code; and I had the opportunity because the school had that.
But now in England, they have this thing where about six or seven years ago they recognised that because the teaching they were giving us was just word processing, or desktop publishing, it was teaching us to be consumers rather than creators – and they realised that that was almost neglect in a world governed by computers. I don’t know if that’s reached over here yet.
AB: It is! I know for a fact kids can at least take it as an electable here.
AS: It’s mandatory in England for some key stages. They have to learn podcasting,
editing, coding, and stuff like that.
AB: that’s interesting. I mean, they should be.
AS: And that could maybe help the kids get to that mindset of strong critical thinking Jonas was talking about.
AB: Definitely! Big time. Just understanding the workings of a computer. It makes no sense not to learn this because computers are everywhere, they’re just so ubiquitous.
This is an incredibly important tool to have, and in a way, I could have remedied this for myself because I showed this interest when I was ten and I often wish I had pursued it at a younger age.
You mentioned that Darth Vader game, I did some hacking, like resource editing. I always had a Mac growing up and there was this thing called Res Edit or something and you could just open resource forks. So I would switch out graphics and change the sounds, things like that.
There was a game where you were meant to trek around the screen picking up hamburgers, hotdogs, it was like a fast food game where you had to look out for carrots and fruit.
AS: Programming you to want vegetables.
AB: I was this huge Apple fan because I had this Mac when I was growing up and I was like the only kid in class to have one. I was a huge Mac advocate during the dark ages for Apple. I changed all the resource forks so you were an apple, and you had to pick up processors and Mac branded stuff and avoid Intel and Bill Gates characters.
AS: You really went for it, you made a choice and applied that to the existing code.
OH: I’m not entirely sure how education in programming has advanced in schools versus public outreach programmes by the big tech companies, e.g. Google. I feel like programming education in schools is slowly growing, but the results may not be seen for another decade or more, as my limited experience of introducing such programmes even into higher education can be an extremely slow process due to the size and nature of these institutions.
It can’t happen quickly enough in my opinion though, for the same reasons we talked about for breaking economic barriers, the more people are made aware of and are given agency over the digital landscape that we now live in, the more they will be able to make informed decisions and operate more successfully within that landscape.
KH: Recently I’ve seen growth in availability to programming education and definitely seen a peak of interest in it. I’ve specifically seen more women and non-binary in these fields, which is so great!
People in general also seem to understand better what creative coding is and it’s getting more understanding and acceptance from society, which also affects how many people who are interested actually seek out to engage with it.
//*see appendix i//
“Zach Lieberman’s relentless “always be iterating” is still relevant.”
AS: Can you provide a few examples of other creative coding artists, projects, and collectives you are interested in and inspired by?
OH: NAVA came from a desire to coordinate these opportunities for different artists to work together, plus a practical need to present a unified body to funding organisations. For me there’s no specific other organisation that I’ve taken inspiration from when working with NAVA.
JJ: I’ve recently been heavily inspired and motivated by the work of Sindre Sorhus. His work is more geared towards utilitarian applications, but I am inspired by the way he communicates his work and lives his life.
His work is used by millions without them even knowing it, it’s in thousands of applications, and at the same time it’s educational in the way it’s presented.
Besides Sindre, Zach Lieberman‘s relentless “always be iterating” is still relevant.
Constantly sharing and building. It’s again his way of presenting his process and work that makes me curious and inspired. I find myself drawn to these artists, where education is a big part of their work.
OH: I’m currently enjoying the work of artists such as Cabbibo, and Marpi with their organic, aesthetic-defining work, but also more established studios such as FIELD //who I’m lucky to share an office with when I’m in London//. Rhizomatiks in Japan are also a fantastic collective, technically groundbreaking and aesthetically wild.
KH: VJ open lab is all I could think of to add to that off the top of my head.
AS: What are your favourite tools for working with on this kind of thing, in terms of coding environments, in terms of hardware? What’s the most accessible approach for people that don’t have the background in coding to protect their ideas from creative limitations?
AB: When we’re working out a problem, Owen and I, I’ve got enough knowledge of the code to make suggestions and maybe add to the direction. I can’t always fix the bug, but I can have some kind of insights and overview. This is something I never could have done a few years ago, so this is just from experience; but I haven’t devoted as much time to studying the code as I would have liked. My interest is generally, especially just lately, more in hardware based video generation, video synthesisers and stuff like that. So I’m trying to focus more on that.
AS: Like modding the sxxt out of an 8bit Nintendo or something? I’ve noticed a common theme with a lot of coding artists – we all liked to take things apart when we were kids,
see what happened, and find out how they work. Then there was circuit bending and things like that. So anything that starts freeing you up to play with the more hands-on creative tools is great.
AB: When I was a kid, a really good friend of mine, Leo, one of my oldest friends, I met him at a coding Summer coding workshop when we were around ten. This was like a visual basic workshop, and I could code HTML and stuff, dawn of the internet, but I didn’t follow it through back then. I got more into using digital audio workstations. And I took the Arduino workshop and it was great. For me, when you’re still so close to the electronics part, that was really eye opening for me, just following a signal, this sort of thing; because a lot of what I do with video works like that. I’ll take noise, then I’ll filter some colours out, I’ll record that, and I’ll bend that, then I’ll re-record it. So just following the electronics signal, through the code and back into the electronics, I could very easily draw parallels with what I’m used to doing with video for example.
Cinema and Unity, and the occasional use of Max, Processing and TD //Touch Designer//.
Regarding hardware I’m a big user of micro-controllers and micro-computers**, as well as any sensory equipment I can get my hands on/hack. Working with smartphone devices has also become a large interest of mine, especially due to AR //Augmented Reality//.
AB: So when I’ve been playing with music – and this is no news for anyone that’s coding on a daily basis – but even on the first day with Tidal Cycles, I was reminded how digital audio workstations like Ableton Live or Cubase impact the output so much. So it was really refreshing just to have no grid.
AB: So liberating. Honestly. And even after a day, I was really re-thinking how rhythms function. And it’s just the application.
AS: Rather than going 4/4 on a grid.
AB: Just so easy to overlay, like, prime numbers or something; which would actually be really hard to do in Ableton Live. It would be quite a lot of work. But it’s so simple there,
it’s just one line but it creates such interesting spiral patterns. So that was very inspiring.
So I’ve been following lot of live coding recordings, or stuff that utilises those tools in composition, and seeing a lot of those performances online; and it really feels like a cutting edge in music.
//**see appendix ii//
AS: Finally, could you talk a little about the hardware needed to interface with the lighting façade at Harpa? How did you connect the information to the display?
JJ: The call for submissions for this project was mostly for work with Processing and Touch Designer, I’d say we put as much effort into providing templates for Unity and After Effects, if not more. Half of the contributions were video work.
Harpa has a machine that controls all the LED fixtures of the façade, it’s in the basement of the building. Owen made the code required to easily send video to the building and based on his work and templates we can provide it to others. There’s a lot more going into it, but we have essentially just made it very easy for others to interact with the building.
OH: The overarching concept was to give artists control over each individual light, but not to have them worry about the details of implementation. So, we came up with a screen-capture based solution that meant that if an artist was able to display pixels on the screen //in the correct resolution//, we could show that on the building. Specifically, this was done using Syphon, sending to Unity, which converted the image into a bytestream to be sent over the network to a partner machine in Harpa’s basement, which then converted this image into an Art-net stream, which in turn was converted to DMX by a pair of standard interfaces, which then drives the lights.
But by having everything as a screencapture, it meant that we could remain almost entirely agnostic about the submission formats from artists – as long as they ran, they would work. In practice this actually worked pretty well, and we’d do it again – and avoided any issues of excluding particular artists on the basis of their chosen toolset, which was an objective of the project.
AS: It can be difficult to get the funding for all this, but it’s great that people can be a part of exciting and inspiring discussion and all. It’s like a shared pool of possibilities though;
that potential to grow together.
Jonas said you had been working with Anna Weisling to create a manifesto to bring your aims and objectives together. What’s the plan with that?
AB: Anna and Rasmus ran a workshop in April and I guess the idea is to pool the ideas that were raised in the workshop, to create a manifesto or guidelines for future work. I think we’ll have a more clearer idea of what that will be this Summer. I hadn’t met her before, Rasmus knows her. She’s a researcher, so we’re curious to see what kind of a spin she can put on things.
AS: And that workshop they did, was that about coding or more the community engagement side of things?
AB: This year, we only did like a community thing, but throughout the years we did a parallel workshop with the events we were doing; like last year at Sónar we did an Arduino for beginners workshop called D.I.Y. Lighting Rigs based around a software called Protopixel which is just a light mapping software. They make a little DMX box…
AS: For controlling stage lights?
AB: Well, for controlling LED strips. So we have LED strips, the box, and just playtime. And we did a Resolume course, like a VJ course. We’ve done that one a few times, I think three times, we’ve done that.
Then leading up to Tiny/Massive, Owen and I taught a two week course in Listaháskóli //the Iceland Arts Academy// that was basically a two week Tiny/Massive course. So it was a mix of the students from architecture, music, theatre, graphic design.
We split them into three groups of four and said
‘come up with a concept, and execute it’.
Most of these people had no prior knowledge of coding. So the idea was to get people to think, to overcome this fear of executing stuff, and instead just come up with a bulletproof concept and then we just sort of said, ‘figure it out’.
One of the groups just took the route of making video using after effects and stuff which was still perfect for their concept.
AS: So it’s still their choice. It’s about giving them access to the tools to preserve their ideas.
AS: What was the highlight as organisers to deliver interactive projects in the public realm with projects like Tiny/Massive at Harpa?
What is the next public realm project for NAVA?
JJ: The meetups have often been the highlight for me. The opportunity where we sit down, introduce ourselves and share. Seeing these people who, have maybe like me been working by themselves for a long time, suddenly become invited into a “community” is powerful.
Of course I love seeing the work, become inspired, and challenge myself artistically; that’s something I can always fall back on – but it’s the community work that I feel is truly important, and that, in the long run, is able to help push each other.
We hope to continue Tiny/Massive and explore new types of canvasses. It’s such a great project to open up private architecture to the public, and at the same time provide a canvas which all these modern technologies can work with.
We also want to explore the idea of a NAVA event or festival – perhaps gathering would be a fitting word. From our last meetup, we left with several ideas that I’d like to pursue; such as creating an online agency for audiovisual artists assisting with ways of artistic representation and more.
I’d also love for NAVA to be able to provide financial support or technical support as a grant, and am currently discussing how a ‘projector grant’ can be achieved
to help artists present their vision without having to find poor quality projectors from friends or educational institutions.
AS: What did the public respond best to at Tiny/Massive? What, in your opinion are the benefits or limitations for participation in creative coding on this scale? How did the public respond to the work as consumers when not engaged in participation on the bus?
JJ: The public absolutely responded best to the well crafted interactive experiences with strong game play elements. We had 2-3 experiences which were presented for only 30 minutes but could have been their own permanent pieces.
The benefits are many. The artist gets a unique challenge, moving away from small 15″ screens to something completely different and majestic. This is no simple feat, to maintain artistic integrity when moving into such scale. I believe there’s also a huge benefit of seeing your peers take on an equal challenge with different perspectives.
OH: The public responded very well to a range of content on Harpa, from highly interactive competitive games, to linear videos, to more conceptual pieces. However I think the noisiest reactions came from the games, particularly anything resembling an arcade-style interaction. I think this was because of how much instant control it gave people over the building, and how much of a subversion of its normal purpose it is – literally turning a gigantic edifice into a games console is kind of subversive!
JJ: I believe the public who were not in the bus maybe did not understand that it was live, interactive, made by artists. Since the work is displayed on a public building and there are normally some kinds of light present it //the interactive element// may have gone unnoticed by many. The visitors that we spoke with were all quite amazed, maybe even confused. In some ways Tiny/Massive was primarily for the artists.
OH: The benefits of coding on this scale //which, in terms of pixels, are very small, only 77 x 13 – but obviously on a huge building// are that it’s fairly straightforward to create good quality content in a short space of time, with more time able to be spent on the interaction and conceptual design.
Normally with buildings of this scale, projection is used, the requirements for graphical fidelity are much higher, which eats up time,
but in our case, it’s less of a concern.
JJ: My favourite memory is of the father and child participating in an epic battle of Tiny Space Game by Tomi Makinen. The father just couldn’t stop himself from breaking the current record and seeing the happiness in him and his child was emotional.
Kría Birgisdottir – Questions on Education to a school teacher in Reykjavik
AS: Around 6 years ago or maybe further back, the UK recognised that the education for what we then called literacy in information technology was not preparing future generations for a world governed by computers as there was little provision for programming and how things work. My generation were taught more to be consumers than creators and the Department for Education recognised this and made significant changes where part of the curriculum would be focussed via skills such as podcasting, programming in Sketch for Android phones and working existing parts of the curriculum through tech learning. Were similar changes made to schooling in Iceland?
KB: Yes, similar changes have been made here – but it is going slowly because there are so little money put into the system. I’ve only been working in one school and we don’t have computers or iPads for all the students – not even for half of them … but this varies between schools.
AS: Is programming for Android/iPhone/raspberry pi/arduino or something similar taught in schools in Iceland? If so, from what age?
KB: Kids get only one lesson per week in learning how to use all kinds of programming – but it is more used for the older kids from 7 – 10th grade.
AS: Are art and music taught in schools in Iceland? Also from what age?
KB: Yes both is at least in my school, art and music from first grade and acting from fifth
AS: Are lessons in these subjects a compulsory part of the learning programme, or are they free electives where they get to choose? If they are free electives, what kind of choices do they have – eg would they have to choose programming over art or humanities etc?
KB: They can not choose.
AS: Do you know of any initiatives such as summer schools or workshops where kids can learn art or programming?
KB: There are some programmes – but not enough.
AS: In the UK and the US, the Raspberry Pi Institute donated many of their Pi computers
and starter sets to schools. Was a similar initiative in place for Iceland?
KB: Not that I know of – at least not in my school
Interview with Danish VJ Mads ‘Mad ES’ Knudsen
This follows on from a conversation about Touch Designer where Mads described his setup for the festival. The earlier section was entirely technical, so not included in the text; but the recording can be found at the link HERE.
MK: I go from Touch Designer to Resolume, which is good for like, just, playing clips and triggering stuff. And I have my Syphon from Touch Designer to Resolume, so right here I have my vista, actually Touch Designer mountains, which moves through sound and has this always moving texture and moving lights as well.
AS: So is this like a sequencer for stuff you put in Touch Designer almost? Like a way of controlling all those different things, you just have one space to move that about?
MK: Yeah. Because Resolume is really for, it has the mapping function, and it has a great overview for all of the content that you have and it’s really easy to go around all the interfaces assembled.
So you can also map the clips from Resolume and all the parameters. And it has like…most people use Mad Mapper for…
AS: I was going to say, do you use that as well?
MK: Yeah, for more complex stuff, like for buildings, Mad Mapper is totally favourite tool.
AS: So you wouldn’t so much use Resolume for buildings?
MK: It depends, like, because it’s pretty good…
AS: Is it maybe just not quite as reliable as Mad Mapper? Because I know professional artists that use it.
MK: I think it’s a cultural thing because the mapping function in Resolume is not until recently gotten pretty good. But yeah, I would say Mad Mapper for complex assignments, I would still rely on Mad Mapper. Because you can do more stuff; it’s more intuitive.
You can do your LED mappings, and you can do more layers in a more sophisticated manner. So there’s a lot of advantages still by using Mad Mapper.
AS: So you’re using a Mac here?
MK: No, it’s actually a custom build mini computer. I just built it. So it’s the smallest
computer in the world you can build with a full GPU //Graphics Processing Unit//.
AS: So it’s got a good, massive graphics processor?
MK: Yeah it can just fit.
AS: Does that get hot?
MK: No actually, I’m super, super, super surprised by it; the airflow in that case is excellent.
AS: So it’s got to be pretty hardcore, right? Like for encryption and sxxt like that…
MK: Yeah, you can’t really…it’s a bit hard to get a hand of because they don’t really want the public to get it; but it’s possible to get on Ebay and stuff like that.
AS: For like licenses? Like, you had to track that down? Was that expensive?
MK: Not really actually. It was like $20 or something. Because a lot of companies get it in
bulk, and maybe they don’t need all those licenses; so they get rid of them.
AS: For spare change. So roughly, how much would you say that cost to put together?
MK: My computer?
MK: With the GPU? //counts in Danish// like, $2,600.
AS: US dollars? That’s a lot. Was it mostly the GPU that costed?
MK: Yeah, kind of. It’s not the best GPU actually, but the case is expensive. And the motherboard is expensive, because it’s what you would call a small form factor, mini build. So it gets a bit more expensive when they do things smaller.
AS: Of course, yeah, so do you ever use like a Raspberry Pi or Arduino or anything like that?
MK: Yeah I have a Teensy //USB development board// and a Raspberry
MK: A Teensy is kind of equivalent to an Arduino, but it’s more powerful; so you can drive more LEDs for example.
AS: More complex stuff, yeah. So would you say, if I don’t get chance to interview you later, I’ll just ask this: Do you think, like, economically, open source coding and Raspberry Pis and all those sort of computers being available so much, do you think that’s changed, like, economic boundaries to coding?
MK: Yeah, for sure. It’s an open source kind of thing in itself, when the price gets lower because it’s more accessible to the public. So yeah, for sure, it’s made a huge impact for a lot of beginners to start coding and making stuff.
AS: So it’s an easy doorway into it?
AS: So can you think of any success stories where maybe developing countries have been able to find a creative voice through coding that they wouldn’t have without this change of economic availability?
AS: To use for what?
MK: I don’t know if they’re big in one specific field, like if that triggered one field. I’ve just seen, like, the Indian people are getting up on coding through Raspberries and minicomputers.
AS: Ok, I feel like I should probably go, but one last question: Do you know much about coding in schools in Denmark? I know we talked about that earlier.
MK: Not really, it’s too long since I’ve been in public school.
AS: And you’ve not worked on any school projects?
MK: No, I only teach visuals in the folk schools but we don’t do programming there. It’s more like cinema, teaching, like, mapping, and visual arts.
AS: And that’s in what, like, secondary school?
MK: No, it’s a folk school; like a thing you do after high school.
AS: Like college?
MK: Yeah kind of, but it’s more like you live in a…for my example, it’s a folk school called Engelsholm which is a castle and people pay to go there and they attend the subjects they really like; to maybe figure out what they want later, at university or art school, stuff like that.
AS: But is that a kind of a private academic thing, where you need money? MK: Yeah, you need money.
AS: So how would you suggest kids get into it?
MK: For coding?
AS: Yeah, so they can get really engaged in it so they want to start with other things.
MK: I would say, like, I think the most engaging way to like fast forward, to get into coding, would be, like, using the minicomputers that are cheap and available nowadays; because you get a fast output. And that’s good for young people because their attention span is not like, 100%, like their attention span is micro.
AS: That’s the word I was going to use!
Email interview with Rasmus Stride of NAVA
– later contribution pasted here as an appendix
AS: Jonas tells me you make work in alternative museum experiences.
How has the availability of open source software and more reliable, cheap, and compact devices such as Raspberry Pi and Arduino changed museum experiences?
AS: Would you say there is a good standard of interactive museum experiences available from what you have seen or read about?
AS: What’s your favourite alternative museum experience you have made, and same question for other works you have seen?
AS: You make work in real time during shows, would you say coding has changed much since you started using it to create visuals? Has it got smoother or brought more problems?
AS: How much fun and learning have you found in running the Roskilde open call? Have you had many people who didn’t make the cut for previous gigs improve since previous applications you’ve run?
AS: Aside from talking about your work with Harpa, I am interested in discussing in the context of how open source creative coding has affected economic barriers to audio/visual arts and how recent changes in school education towards programming, coding, and understanding how things work to become creators rather than consumers have affected engagement in and perception of creative coding.
What are your thoughts on how economic barriers are affected by the possibilities of creative coding and open source programming environments?
AS: How do artists like yourself work the line between arts for spectator consumption and arts for participation in the context of creative coding?
AS: How have developments in school education in programming affected engagement and perception of creative coding and digital art consumption/creation?
AS: Please provide some examples of other creative coding artists, projects, and collectives you are interested in and inspired by?
AS: What are your favourite software environments and hardware to work with?
AS: Now to your work as coordinator.
In reference to NAVA, where do you see your role as holding space for other artists to be creative and develop work and their exposure in the public realm?
AS: What brought NAVA together, was it from a need to coordinate individual artists together, or inspiration from other organisations?
AS: NAVA have worked in a more traditional music festival context and also in more public realm contexts – is this because you want the public to see more creative use of the available technologies, and encourage engagement in creative practice with open source software?
AS: How did you respond to Sónar being cancelled at such short notice this year when you clearly put a great deal of effort into developing NAVA artists’ engagement with the festival? Has this development been carried over to future festival projects?
AS: What did the public respond best to at Harpa? What, in your opinion are the benefits or limitations for participation in creative coding on this scale? How did the public respond to the work as consumers when not engaged in participation on the bus?
AS: Finally, could you talk a little about the hardware needed to interface with the lighting façade of Harpa? The call for submissions for this project was mostly for work with Processing and Touch Designer, how did you connect the information to the display? Be as much or little technical in your description as you like.
//Massive thanks to all who participated in this study,
and especially to NAVA for being so accommodating//
Ólafsfjörður, December 21st 2019
End note: All interviews conducted by email April 14th-August 8th 2019 except Atli Bollason @ Glò Vegan, Reykjavik 11th June 2019, Mads Knudsen @ Fjósið stage, G! Festival, Faroe Islands 13th July 2019 and Rasmus Stride by email on 21st December 2019