IS IT ART YET?
Notes from the 4th OFFF Festival, Valencia 2004
Through its four years of activity, OFFF has become one of the most interesting festivals in the world of new media. Started in 2001 by a bunch of Spanish guys who claimed: “We Are the True Clowns”, it was initially a very Flash hype focused event, and was named the Online Flash Film Festival (OFFF). Since last year the Flash focus has been replaced by a new title: Experimental audio / unusual video, as the curators feel the two fields are getting closer and closer – music you may look at; images you may listen to. This year, the festival took place in the Feria Valencia, about five hours drive to the south of Barcelona, its previous home.
The theme of this year’s festival was: “I am not a Digital Artist, I am a __________”. OFFF has decided to open the Pandora box that has been shouting “Open me!” for years now. OFFF has decided to explore the fragile tension between art and design, a tension that has grown profoundly since the rise of the net and its new art form. The curators invited studios and individuals that explore this question directly. Apart of Roots, the main speakers program, ‘Loopita’, the sound-art performances and Cinexin, the screenings, the festival introduced a new venue: The Show Place – an exhibition space for installations and interactive projects.
“Grafitti is Not Art!”
claims the LRPD (Less Rain Police Department) that has put together “Vandal Squad“, a special task force fighting online graffiti. Quote: “Vandals claim that they have no problem downloading spray painting applications. For demonstration purposes only, the LRPD has decided to offer such an application, so that the general public can witness by themselves the damage that can be caused by its use.”
Following this strict “for demonstration purposes only” approach, the LRPD has created an extraordinary piece bridging gaps between the physical and the simulated experience of graffiti spraying. This project reveals a deep and dedicated research on the nature and aesthetics of graffiti painting, and has managed to simulate the thrill and the excitement of the act itself. My Girlfriend, Galia, an old-media artist and a true dedicated technophobe spent hours using the application, she never previously considered being a “digital artist”.
The (slightly cynical) title of the LRPD is a cliché used by the authorities to cast out street art as vandalism – “Graffiti is not art!”, meaning, had it been real art, it would have been OK. This statement as far as I see it can be read as a key for understanding this art vs. design/street-style/pop-culture tension. The artiness is grounded in the art-world mechanism and does not easily allow itself to be vandalised. For graffiti (or design) to be art it has to be subjected to the ways of the art-world which are totally different than the ways of the street. Only then would the authorities allow for such acts to be accepted and to be accounted as a part of the culture – as art.
When I talked with LRPD Officer Carsten Schneider about Lessrain’s approach to non-commercial project he has stated these are experimental projects and that he does not see himself as an artist, nor does he aim at ever being one. Vandal Squad has managed to make a successful transfer from the screen to the Show Place by installing three computer posts allowing the creation of digital graffiti pieces, that once submitted are added as wagons to a train animation projected inside the Show Place. Running from the computer post to the train projection feels like viewing your tag from far after working on it all night.
The much awaited presentation of the WeWorkForThem studio was delayed by half an hour due to problems adjusting their connections. Their work is amazing; they have been leading trends in graphic design for years and ever since have been copied by every third design student that has an internet connection. They’ve done a great job designing the visual image of OFFF, and their strong visuals have been beautifully implemented through the whole identity of the festival.
Unfortunately it seems that even after fixing the technical problems, Mike Young and Mike Cina has preferred to stay disconnected. After 30 minutes of what was later discovered to be some kind of live mixed jam (far too slow to be relevant), the Mikes thanked the audience and concluded with a WeWorkForThem trivia game. The five lucky fans who knew where Mike young lives, what the names of their five websites were, and so on, won the desired WWFT DVD. Well, Mikes, if you’re reading this, following your work and appreciating it I was looking forward to hear you talk. If you’re fed up with the whole “oh, not another conference” thing, then don’t bother. I know you have a lot to say, and I don’t think, being one of the major headlines of this year’s festival, you can make do with a screening that could have worked much better through your website, and this ego-trivia that didn’t add to our appreciation of you.
The Rock Star Motivation
When talking about what motivates them in the design world, the Singaporean quartet, Phunk Studio replies with all their heart: “We wanted to be invited to parties”. They started by presenting a portrait of the four of them, with Kiss make-up. They claimed they think Kiss’s music was crap but their visual image was one of the strongest, and in a way they would like to see themselves more as a band than a studio.
Through out the whole presentation they have kept presenting themselves as a trashy group that more or less works intuitively and does whatever it pleases without wasting precious fun-time on stupid things like thinking. Quietly, in a very non-pretentious way, they presented some innovative graphic projects and some not-as-shallow-as-they-claim-it-to-be political statements. In the Show Place they presented Control Chaos, a work they originally did for an exhibition they held in New-York. Control Chaos is a melting pot of Eastern religions, 80s Hong Kong TV series and Phunk’s own visual vocabulary. Phunk’s free spirit approach to creativity is far from being trashy; they treat every project, whether it is commercial or independent, with a great deal of sensitivity and passion. Their Singaporean extra-cultural-bonus is a major part of their charm and I have the feeling they will keep being invited to parties for a long time.
I Am Not a Digital Artist, I Am An Irresponsible Designer
Kyle Cooper’s presentation had been well promoted by OFFF weeks before the festival took off. Kyle Cooper is considered a designer that pretty much changed the way Hollywood perceived movie titles. In 1996 he was one of the founders of Imaginary Forces studios, and designed the titles for David Fincher’s Seven. Since then he has been responsible for some critically acclaimed graphic manipulations on the silver screen and has a very impressive resume.
Lately Copper has left Imaginary Forces to start his own Prologue films, this presentation – unfortunately not given by the star himself, due to a last minute change of plans – was a showcase of the titles, commercials and other motion graphics mainly done at Prologue. I was clapping for most of the videos presented until the titles for Dawn of the Dead. In Dawn of the Dead, a remaking of a Romero’s classic zombie movie, the survivors of a worldwide plague that is producing the flesh-hungry undead, take refuge in a mega shopping mall. Then, why the hell did Mr. Cooper decide to portrait these zombies as Iraqis and to modify American news broadcasts from the war in Iraq as broadcasts of the world war against the zombies? When the first frame of a zombie movie is a crowd praying in a mosque, and the following ones are pictures of American GIs fighting zombies in sunny army bases in the deserts, something’s rotten, and it ‘aint the zombies. I owe my sharp senses to Palestinian video-artist, Jacki Sallum’s work Planet of the Arabs, an eight minute collage of American movies portraying Arabs and Muslims as inhuman. Jacki’s work is based on Jack Shaheen’s book “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People” and is mixed as an intense action sequence. It’s a shame Kyle Cooper didn’t absorb the words of Aunt May to young Peter Parker (Spiderman – another title he designed) – “With great powers, comes great responsibility”.
Time To Panic
The Experimental Audio side of the festival has undoubtedly been the more, hmmm… let’s say… experimental side of the festival. Most of the shows were audiovisual, trying to examine the boundaries of both sound and image computer manipulation. Alex Bordanova says he doesn’t define himself as a musician, and sound artist fits much better. Panic Mode, the name of his act, is taken from an 80s videogame in which when going into Panic Mode the player needs to juggle a crazy amount of balls simultaneously. Alex says, in his performance he wants to explore the edges of the computer’s ability to compute. As far as he sees it, a performance that ends with the computers crashing after five minutes is a successful one.
Chris Masuy from Luv2.TV, who collaborated with Alex on his performance, Dreams and Conflicts, has another perspective on the term experimental. He claims experimental is a title given mainly to projects that fail to touch the audience and if somebody reviews his show as experimental then that’s a bad sign for him. Dreams and Conflicts was installed in the Show Place as well as headlined the first OFFF.NIT party, and the visuals were very extreme, sometimes, unwatchable, as they roll a narrative based on the pig market to criticise a sick commercialist world.
The Loopita stage in which the audio performances took place had affected more than just its own space. In the Prologue films presentation a not-so-secret volume war raged between the Roots stage and the Tujiko Noriko & Lional Fernandez performance on the Loopita stage. At some moments you could actually hear the soundtrack of the Prologue films videos being re-sampled live in the Loopita stage and amplified back to the Roots in extra loud echoes from Tujiko’s singing. The closing act on the Loopita stage was the slightly gimmicky but nevertheless amusing performance from the Vegetable Orchestra who played amplified vegetables and invited the audience to eat the instruments as a soup when the show was over.
Diesel have been supporting OFFF for three years now, and each year they give the Diesel Award for Emerging Talent to one of the finalists in the different categories of the main OFFF film contest.
This year Diesel has managed to make a very interesting use of its part in the festival to promote the brand. The Diesel space in the Show Place didn’t present the Diesel logo anywhere, the word Diesel wasn’t heard in any of the 25 videos works exhibited. The theme of the Diesel exhibition was dreams; the room was floating between heavenly clouds and had fluffy pillows on the carpeted floor. Two tubes came out of the ceiling and the crowds were invited to watch the videos lying on the back, staring into the plasma screens at the bottom of the tubes. The artists who made the videos for Diesel were given dreamy phrases like “I’m a traffic light”, “The Geisha will show me” or “My dark horse is horny” and were asked to create a short video piece as a visual response to the text.
Some of the works were really good, some even brilliant, and the whole loop of 25 videos, divided by dreamy fashion shoots were selling Diesel’s brand in a very precise and sensitive way.
I find Diesel’s commitment to a different branding approach inspiring. It is not another brand only giving money and flattering itself by the title “we support the Arts”, Diesel actually initiate artistic projects and has established itself as a supporter of the online design community through it’s OFFF support and its various online projects.
I guess we can say they were less adventurous when they decided to offer free drinks at their party; it seems the free alcohol concept always works! At about five on Saturday morning I realised there was a certain presentation I wanted to see at eleven. When I realized it was my presentation*, I went to get my two hours of sleep!
*Naturally, I am not going to review my own work, but I can tell you it was an installation called The Web is a Living Organism, that it was presented at the Show Place, and you can check it online for further information.
One Second For A Lifetime
If I mentioned the sponsorship issue I must point out what I see as an incredible addition to this year’s festival: The One Second Video Festival. The brief was very simple, OFFF has published a call for proposals for one second films and Media Temple, the sponsor of the competition has promised hosting for a whole lifetime to the random winner in this bizarre competition. The screening of more than 70 films and their credits took less than three minutes and was hilarious. The good ones made excellent use of finding the right balance that lets the audience fill the previous and the next seconds. The concept of time and movement was reduced to a minimum and the format proved itself perfectly.
The undisputed judge of the competition was Deep Dread – a machine (basic Flash random function) that has chosen the lucky winner. Fortunately the choice was good.
I Am Not a Multilingual Artist
Another addition to the festival was the Chat Room, panel talk sessions that tried to evolve the concepts of the festival through conversation. Not being a Spanish-speaker I attended only the one held partly in English. Area3, Innothna, Cocoe and Hi-Res tried to overcome the lack of a common language and discuss the main theme of the festival: Art or Design?
I was looking forward to delving into the most interesting point of the festival, but since the simultaneous translation for the Chat Room (and the Open Room) had to be cancelled shortly before the festival this great opportunity was missed. I heard that the strictly Spanish talks, like the one titled “Latin Power” were more successful.
Area3 is a design group from Barcelona whose work has been critically acclaimed both in the art and the design worlds. Their presentation focused on an audiovisual platform they’ve been using for both for interactive and linear works. They have disassembled their brilliant video “I’m a net artist” to segments following both the allegoric and visual manipulations they used in the piece. They mixed technology, trends, new-art-stars, money, fame and the new art form of technophobia, saying “it’s new but it already has a pop sub-culture”. Area3 has offered an interactive taste of their audiovisual platform in the Show Place and their presentation showed how they summed it all up into a movie clip. In the open-source spirit they’ve offered their help to anyone who tries to use this platform, too.
We Are Not Digital Artists, We Are Professional Inspirers
The closing presentation of this year’s festival was from on-line heroes, Hi-Res!. One of the most innovative studios around today, I once defined them, in a Pixelsurgeon news post, as the ones that made this kind of hypothetical conversation possible: A: “Have you seen the movie?” B: “No, but I’ve been to the website.” I still think they’re brilliant, and they gave a very interesting show, exactly the one needed to close the festival.
Florian and Alexandra has told us their story, how they drifted from Fine Arts, Music and Product Design to London and started their experimental (in the goodway) Soulbath project, that has brought them to the attention of Darren Aronofsky, and to the creation of the Requiem For A Dream website. Throughout their presentation they kept playing with the title of the festival “I am not a digital artist, I’m a _________”. They spoke of this fragile tension they experience on a daily basis, working for corporations like Lexus and Apple and presenting their work in venues such as the Ars Electronica festival.
They focused on three special projects. Shiny Vitas, an interactive installation created for the Feed festival. In this installation, three illuminated statues respond to the distance of the viewer by the volume of their sound. The characters are the skeleton (that used to be alive), the robot (that never was alive) and the panda (who, as they claim, won’t be living much longer). Projected on the floor in front of the characters is a pool of words that swim like fishes, when you try to catch a word it is colored red and whispered in your ears.
Another project Hi-Res! singled out was the one they did for the Christian Aid Foundation. Lifeswitch is based on a manipulation of the paradise syndrome, the thought that although we may have everything, we really deserve a better life in the sun somewhere. Through Lifeswitch you become convinced that you’d be better off living in Zambia or the Dominican Republic, with the bananas and the beach, not a care in the world… when you’re already starting to pack, you get to see the reality and are asked to re-evaluate your state by comparing it with these poor countries. The emotional process you’re taken through, allows for a much deeper and sincere appreciation of the first-third world relationships and the problematic concept of philanthropy.
The last project was the MTV International Styleguide, claiming to hate having to work with styleguides themselves, this was a tough one for Hi-Res! The main idea was to provide small MTV retailers like MTV Croatia for instance with a pack of goodies to start their visual language two steps ahead of the direction of the international brand. Hi-Res!’s solution was inspiring, literally. The “goodie pack” they made, including a whole bogus operating system, was aimed at inspiring the creative teams while maintaining a specific direction of inspiration that would build a different, yet non-chaotic, creative responses to the main identity.
I think what singles out Hi-Res! as an extraordinary creative force is their patience and ability to inspire as a basic part of each design they create. At some stage of the presentation Alexandra referred directly to the big question: “Is it art yet?”
Well, Should It Be?
Really, do we need this title? Do we need to get this OK from the authorities that we are not vandals, or the puppets of the commercial world? Do we need to wait for the art-world to recognize us and save us from the grey world of being “only a designer”?
Personally I don’t think so. The world of digital creativity is divided into various discourses, they are very different, and one is not better than the other. I keep hearing designers with low self-esteem saying that Art points the way for us, but I’m not sure that is always true.
There are designers pointing in much more innovative and relevant ways both specifically to us as designers and to the average culture-consumer in general. We see designers being welcomed in the Art world, not by crawling to the system’s feet, but by simply doing what they do best.
Hi-Res!’s Shiny Vitas has its roots deep in the character-design world, that’s pure contemporary design discourse. Area3’s Carnivore client, World Wall Painters, is a clever mix between design world aesthetics and an Art world platform. Lessrain’s “Graffiti is not art!” statement echoes art = system, non-art = freedom.
To make things even more complicated, when the last lights at the Feria Valencia closed on the last hour of the OFFF festival, LRPD Commissioner, Alexiou Vassilios, decided to buy one of the prints from Phunk’s Control Chaos work. You have independent works (of art, design, or whatever you want to call it) being created, exhibited in a critical space and sold; now I’m really confused. I am not a digital artist, I am a …I don’t know, If we can’t call it design or art then I guess it’s time we find a brave new word.
(1 – 4 July, 2004)