Archive for March, 2007

Architectures of Control

Whimsical video manipulations are everywhere when you walk into the joint June Bum Park/Pascual Sisto show at bitforms, each playing games with size and perception. From III Crossing, which shows a gigantic hand manipulating real pedestrians and traffic in a busy intersection to Puzzle 3 showing a classroom from above where each desk is a puzzle piece and students slowly, amusingly work it out to The Occupation, where we watch as two hands reconfigure a quaint country setting into an ever-growing strip mall.

And it’s that last video that gets you thinking that there might be something deeper here. Look around again and it hits you. They’re all asking questions about the nature of control: social, physical, political. What everyday limits do we not even think to question?

Walking to the next room, you find the same ideas in Push/Pull as it rearranges video of seemingly endless lanes of traffic with kaleidoscopic results. On one wall, you see the cars coming, on the other you see them going. It’s really quite beautiful on its surface, even hypnotic. As you stand in-between, though, claustrophobia can creep in. Strict lines where you want freedom, external control where you want self determination. Or is the regularity and predictability reassuring? (video)

When we visit Chelsea, we typically hit bunches of places but, with this show and U-Ram Choe back in January, bitforms is making a pretty convincing argument that it’s worth the trip by itself. There’s more on Park/Sito show at Or see them by themselves: June Bum Park, Pascual Sisto.

Also fantastic in Chelsea are Amy Culter’s gorgeously off-kilter illustrations, Jean Shin’s extra fun keyboard keys art, Darren Almond’s meditative video juxtaposition of railroad, landscape, and monks in Tibet, and stunning photos of nuclear plants amongst middle America from Mitch Epstein.

Street Candy, Media Mocked, Designer Words

Street art sexy comes by way of Ghostboy’s Bristol stencils, calling out the walking contradiction known as the home of the free. Deuce Seven looks on as you wander across the Williamsburg Bridge. Super storefront sticker placement changes the meaning of a most generic display. And Good magazine offers up a lovely video summary of the final days of graffiti haven 11 Spring Street.

Demitri Martin delivers a hilarious mockery of the showdown between media giant Viacom and YouTube giant Google. Regular Threadless contributor Ole Ivar Rudi proved that Michael Knight will never die with the completely brilliant Knight Ride. And I can’t quite decide if I love or just kinda like Landjugend’s video trip to hyphen happy web 2.0 corporate mashup heaven. It’s totally rebelling against something, but not really sure quite what. Still, it does manage to serve up a torrent of visuals to match the supercollage sound that’s the hallmark of the fabulous music sampler it promotes. Admirable.

Cleverly designed words got my former colleague Vinnie Lauria honors for best business card at SxSW. Avaaz uses words in motion to show us the real source of the clash of civilizations. But my favorite bit of the week has to be animal-shaped words out of the Netherlands that ask us to think about what happens when animals become extinct and only words remain.

Update: Houtlust posted two new videos from the only words campaign.

Wii vs. Your Teeth

Seen in a recent demo session at work, these Wiimote plaque removers had me smiling on sight. When the creators controlled a game by brushing their teeth with them, though, I spit out my drink. Welcome to Wii Oral Sports.

The game (shot here) involves keeping your character alive in a perilous fish tank. Only by brushing your teeth with the correct motion and making sure to cover every last tooth can you escape harm. The idea, of course, is that kids don’t do the greatest job of dental care so anything that helps them avoid rabbid tooth is goodness. Some might complain the game has little to do with the real-world task but that just earns extra charm points in my book.

Heck, they even showed playing improves brushing behavior in an experiment. Once the game was taken away, though, bad habits returned. We all know what the solution to that one is, don’t we? Wii for everyone! Nintendo needs to get on the stick.

The demo was titled “Lifestyle Ubiquitous Gaming: Making Daily Lives Fun” and shown as part of PerComm 2007. It was built by a bunch of folks from the Distributed and Ubiquitous Computing Lab in Tokyo.

For more unlikely tooth defense techniques, witness the Cavity Creeps.

Graffiti Gold, Kids Get Shot, Boots on Fire

Street Art, Sweet Art installations

On the week, you gotta be infatuated with the photos coming out of the (unfortunately named) Street Art, Sweet Art show in Milan. Wooster picked up a fantastic rabid rabbit (or dog?) under bridge in Vienna, too. And Minnesotan street artist Deuce, whose work has been catching many a sideways glance on NYC streets of late, went big time on the cover of the Village Voice (pics).

Photoblog favorite Raul Gutierrez shot kids in Songpan and hit three home runs in a row (one, two, three). Crayola tossed out a kid imagination filled spot for its new color explosion pens. Oh, and don’t miss Être et Avoir (To Be and to Have), a completely charming documentary about a one-room schoolhouse in rural France. Released in 2003 but only on 14 screens stateside; it deserves a good deal more attention than that.

I just can’t stop laughing at the Russian power boots (pics). Particularly the bit about the missed opportunity of selling the 22-mph gas powered, ankle-strapped pogo sticks to the public. No time like the present, people! I’d love to see the lawyerspeak scrawled on the back of that box.

Are You Sure You’re Black?

Am I black? It’s the subject of some debate.

At least once a month, someone somewhere will ask me what my ethnicity is. “African American” is the answer. And then comes the follow-up question: “You’re not mixed?” I don’t mind answering so much as what happens after. My answer goes something like this:

Well, slave-holders kept no records, so it’s really impossible to know the ancestry of many African Americans in any detail beyond the fact that their ancestors were slaves. But it is a fact that slave masters raped female slaves, producing mixed-race children, so who knows?

Awkward silence. But if it’s awkward for the asker, imagine what it’s like to know your great-great-grandfather was considered property under United States law and be reminded of that fact every time you write your last name. Al Sharpton (of all people) said it well. The point is that many black people in the Americas may be multi-ethnic by some definition, but that history was discarded. And in that history lies the double-edged sword that our ethnicity is at once defined and obscured by the horrors of slavery.

So, it’s particularly ironic that, once I made up the list of The First 11 Black Videogame Stars, I realized that I had become the judge of who is black. (It’s not like I could ask.) Some folks were in, others out, some “borderline” cases were fudged. (A few folks mentioned Torque from The Suffering, but he sure doesn’t look black.) And then there was the Jade debate. “Hey, Jade. Are you sure you’re black?”

The experience of determining blackness (with a few hundred of my closest friends) really got me thinking about the nature of race in a way I hadn’t before. As someone who grew up in the United States keenly aware of my racial identity, I never considered the fact that, well, being black means something quite different around the world. Here it’s governed by one drop rule and all the awful history that goes with it. Alternate definitions abound elsewhere. But it always seems that the darker your skin, the lower your social status. Is there a place that’s an exception? I’d love to hear about it.

It makes me smile to imagine a colorblind America, but bits like Sentencing Project and Kiri Davis’ Girl Like Me remind us of how far we have to go. Failing that, I at least hope some future Genographic Project will tell me where my ancestors came from. The next time someone asks me my ethnicity, I’d love to say “I’m Ghanaian and Dutch. Now let me tell you about my great-great-great grandparents…”

For more on the worldwide definitions of blackness, see black people.

Art Activism, Africa, Animated

Paprika star Chiba Atsuko

The past week saw a good deal of serious and a good deal of fun. Buy(Less)Crap hit both, giddily busting up BonOprah’s Product (Red) with an anti-consumerist message. James Cauty worked the ironic angle, putting a happy face on Iraq war images (quite literally) in his Operation Magic Kingdom. Adbusters-worthy material both.

We got two views of Africa: one from inside and one from out. Ghanaians were showing Africa can do cool Web 2.0 projects with Semapedia, but the folks who made the posters for the Africa-China summit managed to put Africans straight back in the jungle.

And the video highlight of this year’s Game Developer’s Conference seemed to be LittleBigPlanet (it’s fly), but my video highlight of the week has to be the lovely surreal trailer for Tokyo Godfathers creator Satoshi Kon’s new film, Paprika. Due in June, but who can wait? Grab some tracks to hold you over.

Why Your Avatar Matters: Being 3D in Web 2.0

3D avatars are everywhere these days, from Nintendo’s Miis to World of Warcraft to Second Life to the newly announced PS3 Home. But, while 3D avatars have been generally accepted in the game world, questions remain for applications beyond gaming. That’s what makes Second Life a bit of a special case since it’s not a game out of the box but more of a 3D MOO, a social space where you can build stuff. Perhaps, then, it makes more sense to think about Second Life in the context of social software than in the context of games. After all, social software is the place where end user content creation is king.

And when you think about Second Life alongside Web 2.0 poster children like Flickr,, Gmail, and 37signals, one thing becomes clear: where web 2.0 is typically characterized by strongly targeted apps designed to get things done efficiently, Second Life is anything but. For one thing, there is no quick-turnaround trip into Second Life. When you enter the world, you can expect to be there for a good while. Not that that’s necessarily bad, but it is different: lightweight vs. heavyweight.

So the question becomes: If those prototypical social web applications are so tightly written and deeply social then what exactly is the use of the more heavyweight, time intensive experience Second Life provides? Of course, that’s the $100k question that everyone is racing to answer. And, since building stuff in Second Life has become my day job, I’ve been thinking a good deal about it. So far, the most interesting feature of Second Life to me comes down to this: I can stand next to you.

It sounds trivial at first but, as near as I can figure, that’s where all the really special stuff in Second Life comes from — the stuff you don’t see in the more traditional web2 gadgets. If you’re standing next to me, I know it. And the fact that you’re there brings social rules into play (strange as it is) — I feel obligated to say something, I feel obliged to wave, I feel weird if I do nothing. That kind of exchange can also happen on the web, but there isn’t the same sense of presence forcing lurkers to delurk or risk becoming social pariahs. The social acceleration 3D avatars provide can’t be ignored, from the ease at which folks walk up and talk to well-known figures (somehow you don’t have the same permission on im) to those folks that stop by your creations and ask about them, opening up opportunities for collaboration. Imagine, for instance, being able to see the folks currently looking at your photos on flickr and have them know that you know that they’re there — through a mechanism we naturally understand: personal proximity. I can see you standing next to me.

Community-focused 3D avatar worlds have been tried before, but Second Life (and compatriots like, too) are happening at a particularly opportune time. A time when Web 2.0 ideas are everywhere and give us new ways to think about the future of the 3D MOO.

image grabbed from flickr

E-mail It