Theodore Watson is the classical man in the shadow. The genie of the lamp, the one who turns the impossible into possible, that transforms an idea into reality. No matter how hard or ambitious it is.
Because of my character, because I’m fascinated, I’m always shocked by those kinds of people: great technique, enormous ability in code writing, genial ideas among interaction design and generative art, complex systems for simple interactions, often funny, surely effective. There must be obviously a reason why they’re not so well known. Maybe they’ve a lack in the conceptual point of view; maybe they’re hard to classify both in the design and art world that barely recognize hybrids and ambiguous languages dictated by the potentialities of the machine code.
The “case” of Theodore Watson, let me say, is a little bit different. I think you could use the word “ingenuous”, if it’s true as it is that lots of his code has been used and brought to the big public by international well-known artists. So, when behind the planetary success of Laser Tag inside Graffiti Research Lab ( hosted on Digimag 30 last December 2007/January 2008) there are codes and generative interfaces born by studies and researches of Theodore for its last project “Generative Graffiti”, we do not count international projects developed by artists using his openFrameworks anymore. People such as United Visual Artists or Golan Levin used his creative open source library to simplify C++ language, created together with another unrecognized genius such as Zach Lieberman.
Moreover, don’t forget the success of the exhibition “The science of Sleep” that accompanied the launch of the homonymous film by Michael Gondry. It’s been hosted a couple of week in Milan as well, inside Costume Nationale spaces. The success of the movie has been conditioned in such a way by Theodore Watson‘s interactive and funny creations and by his software.
But this is Theodore, maybe even better. Maybe his point of view doesn’t talk about ingenuousness. Maybe it is the choice that always keeps faith to the open source ethic. Always share useful code, even when someone could use its primordial spark. Because someone can ameliorate your work, share it, use it. We could debate on this for a long time, but this is not the right space to do it. It is better to let Theodore talk, trying to give you the best critic on a splendid artist work.
Marco Mancuso: Looking at your activity, you divide your projects in “artistic” and “design”. I’m interested in work of designers like you. You have an attitude in creating works that can be accepted by both worlds (do you know the Italians Limiteazero?). How do you perceive this integration?.
Theodore Watson: I think the reason I divide my projects as such is because I think I don’t feel comfortable with them being in either category. I think the work I do is often not practical enough to be considered straight design. At the same
time I am not beginning these projects from a highly conceptual starting point, they start much more often as ideas like “wouldn’t it be cool if I could do ….”. Then it is a matter of making it and adjusting the design as you are developing it. I definitely think it is important to have a good idea to start from but I also place a lot of importance on adjusting your design based on feedback you get as you are making it. I feel that artists who only work with concept and have someone else produce their work end up with work that is very inflexible. It is exactly like their original concept but they miss an opportunity to bring more life into their work by not being involved in the act of making it.
Marco Mancuso: Which are the technologies and software you normally use? I mean, how do you follow a new idea, where was it born and how do you develop it technically?
Theodore Watson: Once I have the idea I try and sketch it out on paper to get a sense of how it would look. For most projects I usually have a wish list of things I would like to be able to have working. A lot of them are quite ‘out there’ so not everything makes it into the final design. I think it is good to really go crazy in this stage of the process and not worry too much about practical issues like whether it is feasible, within your budget etc. This is especially important if you are both the person designing the concept and also the person building and programming it. It really helps to think about these two roles as two separate people, so when you are doing conceptual development you don’t think how hard you making things for yourself when you have to program it. The programmer in you will want to make things simple and will tell you to make the ideas less complicated. It is very important that you don’t listen to the programmer (in you) at this stage!
Once I have hammered out the concept, interaction etc I then look at how I can make it work. This is the moment you switch over to your practical half. The first thing in this phase is to break down the project into a series of problems that need to be solved. Like how to I track a person and also know the way they are facing? How can I distinguish the laser from the rest of the image?
It is worthwhile to spend time doing research, looking into other work that might be similar and how they have solved the same issues that you might be facing. I usually program in C++ which is very powerful but can be quite slow as you can end up writing a lot of code. It is good to spend some extra time in the research phase to really pick the best way to tackle your problems as you don’t want to waste time heading off in one direction to later find that it was not the best approach.
Often I build small tests that deal with just the individual problems. Then once I am confident they are the best approach I put them all together into the final software.
The last stage is the most important as it is when you install the work in the actual space. This is the time the project is in the actual context that it will be seen in and so it is when the theory of how your imagine it would work can really get tested to see if it works in practice. As this point you are also testing the interaction, fine tuning parameters to get the behavior and response just right. A lot of time in shows/festivals there are a lot of other people setting up, lighting crews etc so the best time to work is at night when you are the only one in the space.
Marco Mancuso: I’d like to talk about the code you wrote for Laser Tag of Graffiti Research Lab. We interviewed them for Digimag and I had the opportunity to invite them personally at Enzimi in Rome in December 2007. I’d like to know how your collaboration got started and what do you think about the invitation from Moma of New York the same month.
Theodore Watson: I had already worked with James and Evan (GraffitiResearchLab) before when I was at Eyebeam, I had made the Generative Graffiti project and we were always bouncing ideas around. We first discussed the Laser Tag project after I had left New York and had moved to Amsterdam. The Atelier Rijksbouwmeesterin the Netherlands had contacted GRL and offered them a grant to produce some work in Rotterdam. Evan and James came over and we discussed some ideas of possible things to do. One of the ideas was based around using a Laser Pointer to write graffiti on a building. Evan had done some tests on a small scale at his house and it worked pretty well but we had no idea if it would work on a building that was 80m high and 40m wide. So for a month I set about researching the hardware, developing the software, trying to solve as many problems ahead of time as possible. When Evan and James arrived in Rotterdam with the projectors it was the first moment where we could actually see if it was going to work. After setting the cameras and projectors up we tested it and it worked almost perfectly. It was a real shock and also a relief because up until that point it was completely theoretical. Over the next few days we tested it with graffiti writers and made improvements to the software based on their feedback. Features like dripping paint and bevel tip brushes were a direct result of their feedback.
Since those cold nights in Rotterdam last year, Laser Tag has been shown all over the world including, Mexico, Hong Kong, Italy, Australia, Taipei, Switerland, Austria, London, Sweden, Spain, New York, Canada…. Also with some time now to work on the project I could put out a 2.0 version which is Mac, Windows and also recently Linux compatible. It has new brush styles, an improved interface and can even send the tracking data over the internet to be visualized by other applications (Flash, Processing, Max/Msp etc).
When we do run Laser Tag we like to do it outside as it is really meant to be a tool for the urban space. The reason we agreed to do it indoors at MoMA was because we thought that if we could invite some of New York’s most wanted graffiti writers, next time they are standing before a judge trying to defend their graffiti as art they can say that they have been shown in the MoMA which should add a lot of weight to their defense.
Marco Mancuso: You worked with Open Frameworks libraries both for Laser Tag and Generative Graffiti. Did you directly work on this project of the library together with Zach Lieberman? Could you tell me something about the principal functions of this tool and which are the differences with other generative tools such as Processing or VVVV?
Theodore Watson: openFrameworks is what I primarily use for my work. It is a C++ library that I have been developing alongside Zachary Lieberman. The idea with openFrameworks was to provide a collection of useful code for making creative applications. As artists ourselves we wanted to develop better tools so that we could make better work.
C++ is a very powerful and flexible language but it can be quite difficult to get started. We created an environment that provides you with a window, mouse and keyboard input and a collection of very useful code. So for example instead of having to write 90 lines of code to load and play a movie file you write two lines. This leads you to spend more time on writing the creative parts of your application and makes it a very quick system for developing new projects in. openFrameworks is also cross platform so you don’t have to change anything in your code in order to turn it into a Windows application, a Mac application or a Linux application.
openFrameworks is closest to Processing in terms of how you program and we took a lot of inspiration from Processing. Where it made sense to, we tried to keep the the API the same – so what is beginShape(); in Processing is
ofBeginShape(); in openFrameworks. A lot of the people using openFrameworks have come from a Processing background so this makes it easier for people to go back and forth between the two. The main advantage to openFrameworks over Processing is really to do with the programming language it is using. openFrameworks being C++ can run a great deal faster especially when it comes to intensive applications that have to process a lot of data. This gives openFrameworks a big advantage in areas like signal processing and computer vision. Another big difference is that we provide the source code of openFrameworks uncompiled inside your project. So you can always look at the code for say loading a movie, see how it works and change it if you need it to work in a different way.
Even though openFrameworks is still in private beta there are more than 3000 people worldwide using it for their projects. Already we have seen large scale installations being made with it from people like UnitedVisualArtists, Jonathan Harris, Chris O’Shea and Golan Levin. openFrameworks will soon be released to the public and we are very excited to see what new things people will make and how OF will grow.
Marco Mancuso: The code you use and the technology used for Laser Tag are completely free, open source and publicized only on the Net. You collaborated with Eyebeam in New York . Your ideas inspired many groups/people in the world in being active with the technologies inside their urban landscapes. How do you connect with the international open source scene and which one is your approach to free software and technologies in general?
Theodore Watson: Eyebeam definitely had a big impact on the way I looked at open source. The Eyebeam openLab which is where the GraffitiResearchLab came out of had a requirement for the people participating in the program that all projects made their had to be open source. At that point I had been keen on open source but only really in the sense of sharing useful code. I had written a video capture library for windows over the Christmas break which must have
taken weeks to develop and there was no question that I would release it open source. But now there was this idea that the creative code you wrote should be shared too and that was a bit more of a challenge for me to feel comfortable with. I remember after Generative Graffiti Evan was pushing me to release the source and I was hesitant, not so much because I didn’t want people to copy my code but actually because I was ashamed at how messy it was. But as Evan put it, “messy code is better than no code”. So that was the end of that.
In terms of open source we are not hardcore GPL or license nerds, we just put the code out there and let people use it. For Laser Tag the only restriction was that it couldn’t be used for advertising, marketing or promotion and we are very tough about that. The software was designed as a reaction against advertising so it would be quite perverted if someone used it to sell a product.
Marco Mancuso: I didn’t know, but I saw on your website that you collaborated with Michael Gondry for the exhibition “Science of Sleep” that I saw here in Milan last year at Costume Nationale spaces. Can you tell me something about this experience and the projects you developed for it?
Theodore Watson: Working on the Science of Sleep exhibition was a really amazing experience. It was also a ton of work! The idea was that they were recreating sets from the film into the Deitch gallery space and wanted to have some of the elements be interactive to help immerse the person into the space and the world of the film.
I remember when Michel Gondry was explaining what he wanted and then he asked if it was possible, I remember thinking “jesus, I think so” and so I said “yes”. In the end it all worked out but I was working night and day as the schedule was incredibly tight. The evening of the opening there was people lining up 3 sides around a Manhattan block to get it in, it was crazy! The show was incredibly popular and since then I have also installed it in Paris and Milan.
There were four pieces that I worked on for the show. There was a piano that had a screen in it and when you pressed the keys it would play a video of someone else playing the same key on a different piano. You could have up to eight notes at a time and you would then see eight people playing those eight notes. Michel Gondry managed to sneak himself in there, I think he is on the highest ‘A’ key of the piano.
Another installation that was very popular was the ‘rope controlled eyes’ which allowed you to pull on two ropes hanging from the ceiling which then would pull open the corresponding eye of the actor (Gael García Bernal) on a large screen in front of you. The sensors I used for that installation had some inherent noise in them so there was always a small flicker or twitch in the eyes, but this actually leant itself really well to increasing the realism of the piece.
I also built a lighting system that could react to what was happening in the scenes playing on two 90″ LCD displays. The displays were positioned behind a window frame so it created the impression that what you were seeing was outside. When the sun would rise in the scene through the windows the lights would change color to reflect that. When the volcano erupts the lights flash red and orange and it really feels directly related to what you are seeing. It was a nice way to create a stronger connection between the space and the world of the film.
Marco Mancuso: Last but not least, some of your projects such as Funky Forest or Daises (but Vinyl Workout as well) are absolutely funny and create immediate interactions, working on the poetry of passage between nature and technology. How much this attitude is important and which is the possible dialogue between the two?
Theodore Watson: I think mostly I like for people to have fun with my installations, that is why they are not really art because I am building them from the perspective of what I would like to play with if I was a kid again. To me science and nature are fascinating and by using them as subjects to build my work around it gives me an excuse to try and understand them in more depth. Funky Forest was a project I worked on with Emily Gobeille ( zanyparade.com ), we used the metaphor of a forest but the design was very different from what a real forest would look like. Instead we created our version of a forest that still used the common elements that children would know but instead gave it a fantastical twist that made it very unique. I don’t think we were trying to supplant nature but instead take inspiration from it.
The natural world is actually a world of systems and interaction and so I think it is a perfect theme to explore within the medium of interactive installations, where we can play with these rules to create a new reality.