The Semi-Permanent Condition of Online Experimental Design

Semi-Permanent, a festival programme initiated by the Australian Design Is Kinky team recently debuted in the States at New York’s Lincoln Center. SP05 NYC was a collaboration between Design is Kinky and NY based The Happy Corp Global.

The enthusiastic crowd received a tasty goody bag (trendy and Diesel-branded) full of magazines, design-coupons, the beautiful 240 page full-color SP05 NYC catalog and, of course, the Happy Corp freezbee. The participating speaker’s fields ranged from design (Chuck Anderson), illustraton (Paul Pope, Fafi), animation (Peter Sluszka), and visual effects (The Orphanage, Lobo), to photography (Charlie White), Fashion (Threadless/Skinnycorp, Visionaire), Architecture (Diller Scofidio + Renfro) and online experimentation (Insertsilence, Joshua Davis). The event was peppered with motion-graphics screenings, competitions and parties.

Joshua Davis, the artist previously known as Praystation, has been a mainstay at design festivals for the last decade, and holds a warm place in the heart of the creative design community for practically inventing the experimental Flash scene.

I first met Josh at the Ars-Electronica Festival in Linz, 2001 in the third Vector-Lounge session, where he was awarded a Golden-Nica for his work on Praystation. Back then, Joshua ran three influential sites: Dreamless – an experimental web community unlike any other forum, where hacking was welcomed; Once Upon A Forest – a dreamy lyrical journey to the world of Marutu, another one of Davis’s alter-egos; and Praystation – an experimental Open-Source playground in Flash ActionScript as a creative medium, defining Flash as a great platform for Code-Art. The site consisted of a calendar of daily Flash experiments, and to many old-media designers (including your humble writer) these were the sparks of inspiration that flamed a huge passion for new-media experimentation; a friendly invitation to design using code and an example of the potential of Flash as a user-friendly platform to merge the two.

Josh’s presentation to the European Digi-Art audience was somewhat subtle, in contrast to his ultra ego-burst reputation. He spoke about his interest in quantum physics and nature-generated patterns. He showed how these inspirations influence his Flash experiments, and also how they became the basis of research for client work by the now deceased Kioken, the studio he used to work for.

Later in 2001, after two years of Open-Source generosity, Davis pulled the plug. Luckily, the trend Joshua started was picked up by many others and the Web was – and still is – flooded with Open-Source .FLA files available as reference (Praystation Hard-Drive has become a collectors item CD package containing the now unavailable first two years of work). Dreamless closed down and Once Upon A Forest also went into hibernation.

Despite it’s closed-off status, Praystation remained a source of much inspiration and Joshua has pushed on with his journey into Code-Art and design. In May 2003 I saw him again when we were both speaking in the Offf festival in Barcelona. The man was bursting with adrenalin – compared to his half-asleep, jetlagged co-speaker Jemma Gura, he was just unstoppable. Enjoying every bit of the designer-as-rock star fantasy, he was the perfect performer, tattooed and wise-cracking and sharing some pretty good ideas to boot.

He showed his then-latest thesis about generative design systems, declaring, “Why work hard when you can create generative systems that will create random compositions for you?” and “I’m a spacebar junky!” as he thumbed the spacebar repeatedly to generate new compositions on screen

He was defining rule sets for objects to be sized, positioned and colored on the screen, and presented with Jemma a co-created piece of work commissioned for the Whitney Artport online Net Art exhibition space. They were jamming with graphic elements: map bits; location names as typographic objects and some other graphic samples, partly based on Japanese ornaments.

Behind a barrage of curses and attitude, the Offf presentation, titled The Art of Flow, was illustrating a compelling idea: claiming that the end of the design process arises from a set of decisions and rules of composition, color and typography, rather than a single one result of these decisions. Joshua was using code to set these decisions and rules and the point he made was relevant to more than just code-art. It was an inspiring lesson for the design process in general.

I have been following Josh’s work via joshuadavis.com for some time now, especially since last year when he rebooted Once Upon a Forest as a platform for his generative compositions and experiments. Since I just moved to NYC, the Semi-Permanent presentation was a good opportunity for me to check in on the guy, to see what gems would be forthcoming from the design superstar’s laptop. After a particularly feminine presentation by Fafi, Joshua-Davis-Mega-Star was in Da Mutherfucking House: “I know you had a couple of speakers whispering to the mic yesterday with nobody hearing a word, well… not anymore!”; “I’m the last presenter so I get to stay on the stage for as much as I want!”.

He definitely wants to stay. After a brave confession of his first art-school attempts to paint “like a couple of dead pricks from the 15th Century” he swiftly moved to the main theme of his presentation. For the past six months he’s been working on artwork for Tool, the legendary West coast prog-metal band: “Here’s a video of me in the rehearsal studio with the band!”; “Here is Adam, Melvin and myself shooting guns”; “Here’s a picture of me pissing in the Tool toilet covered with gold and platinum albums”; “Here we are in Adam’s mansion”; “And here’re the graphics I made for them”.

It’s not that it wasn’t well presented and well designed (and it was, without doubt, a typically amusing, funny and energetic presentation) but I ended up seeing, more or less, the same graphic work and hearing the same ideas I heard more than two years ago. It was ‘The Art of Flow for Tool’ or ‘The art of Tool’ or ‘A Tool for Art’. Nothing new since Offf 03? The six month experience with Tool resulted in very similar work to back then, only with different segments (skulls, bones, testicles and Japanese ornaments). Despite the high-energy, rollercoaster performance, the presentation was something of a disappointment.

The original idea behind The Art of Flow has, in a way, been contradicted. What was an inspiring example of how the result is not the climax of the design process has become a single result in itself. What was an inspiring example of the diversity, dynamics and infinite nature of the design process has become design mannerism. The man who was once always at the cutting edge of the experimental Flash scene has been walking over his old footsteps.

Or let’s look at it another way: Davis is still at the cutting edge of the scene, it’s just that the whole scene has stagnated, with little of note for the last two years. Many of the artists who dominated the cutting edge of Flash have abandoned it during the last two years for many different reasons: it’s a clumsy processing engine; it’s support of image, video and sound manipulation, and it’s scripting language, is limited; it’s annoying inability to work with extensions, it’s insufficient support for international languages and, simply, it’s uncompromising nature in an ever more standards-complient period of web design is holding it back.

Some web designers moved back to HTML/CSS design. Some animators preferred video motion graphics platforms to push their animations further. Many of these Code-Artists (flight404, Amit Pitaru, Many Tan and Jared Tarbell, to name a few) continued their visual experiments with the Java based platform Processing. Being a much more powerful code oriented platform, Processing offers many features that Flash fails to provide, such as perfect pixel control, better processor efficiency, realtime 3D, advanced video and audio processing, motion tracking and more.
Unfortunately HTML can’t support animation that easily. Video is still not adopted as a wide standard for the web, and doesn’t allow for realtime interaction. lastly, the Java plug-in is not as popular as the Flash plug-in and the platform is still not as appealing to designers, giving up the timeline metaphor that is Flash’s main advantage while being in this case it’s disadvantage. A new gap was created between online experimental design (gone video) and experimental code (gone processing with mainly coders doing it, despite the original stated goals of the great people behind the processing platform).

Like many other designers Joshua never crossed to the processing side or the video side and like the rest of the experimental Flash scene, his pace of experimentation has slowed down a bit. The man who used to re-invent himself every three days has stopped doing so because of the limits of a software platform? Can it be that the man who pushed the limits of this tool and was the reason half it’s users fell in love with it in the first place has become shackled by his own killer-app? In a way, while working for the band Tool it seems that Joshua has been working for the Flash tool itself.

I’m not trying to say, “Hey Josh, try processing and give us a call”. I’m trying to raise a question: how come a creative force such as Davis can allow himself to be so dependent upon a single piece of software, the development of which is essentially subject to the whims of a software monopoly’s shareholders (unlike Processing for example, which is an Open-Source platform developed by it’s community with a stubborn open-code approach).

I refuse to believe Josh Davis has finished his role at the cutting edge of the scene. I saw the man only yesterday and he’s bursting with energy and passion for what he does, but doing it so well he might have unbalanced his own pace with the pace of the tool.

I’m writing these words just a few days before the distribution of the long-awaited next version of Flash. Flash 8 has some major improvements in its architecture and might definitely open new options for Flash experimentation that were not available before. The new version is amazing comparing to the older ones but it’s far from the perfect solution, considering the cracks in it’s hull. And even if it was everything we wanted it to be, don’t you think it would be a bit sad to see a brief spring of experimental web design after such a long winter only because of a new software version? What would that say about our creative process? What does it say about the freedom of our art? There is still space for experimentation, unsubjected to the development pace of the software, like Maramushi’s Flickr Graph and News Map visualization, or Dunun’s inspiring zoom-in interface, both based on content rather than technology.

I think Joshua Davis’s work is a perfect barometer for which to measure the state of cutting edge web design. Believing in him as an enormous creative bulldozer I will keep following his work, believing his talent should not be subjected to a commercial platform. The semi-permanent state of experimental webdesign is dependant on us thinking outside the (software) box, understanding the point Joshua Davis was trying to make over two years ago – if we build a new set of rules for our design process, maybe the next time we hit the spacebar we might find ourselves on a new platform.

Semi-Permanent NY
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York
(9-10 September 2005)

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