Digital Bankruptcy, the Path to Happiness & Light!

I never was the kind of artist who wanted to keep making variations of the same work over and over, striving instead to always work on distinct projects that span a variety of styles, media and executions. As a young artist in 1986, I was greatly influenced by an exhibition at the New Museum, Choices: Making an Art of Everyday Life, a show about artists who made their lives the subject of their work. That exhibit inspired me to work in new ways and places like Coney Island, where my work became accessible to wider, more populist audiences beyond just the art world. That memory resonated in recent years, as I began a new aspect of my art practice. Beginning in 2015, I have embraced a different life theme each year; Magic (2015), Play (2016), Curiosity (2017), Happiness (2018) and Love (2019).

This blog has been silent for over 18 months, and there’s a reason behind that. At the end of 2017, I went into digital bankruptcy, losing a Drobo array containing all my digital backups going back to the mid 1990’s. I could have spent a fortune rescuing it, but opted instead to let it go and just move forward. This, along with a second visit to the temples surrounding Siem Reap, Cambodia lead me to reconsider life’s priorities and explore happiness instead.

Having worked with computers more than half my lifetime, I’ve become increasingly aware of how machines have rewired our brains with notifications and constantly connected internet culture. Like many others, in the aftermath of the 2016 election I began to question if digital culture has indeed improved our lives, or if it is just further dividing our society? Despite all of man’s knowledge being at our fingertips, the ways social media has been abused to spread misinformation, erode civility and divide society is truly upsetting. There’s a lot to be said on that subject, but one thing’s for sure; “always on” digital culture had begun to leave me feeling pulled in many directions and unable to be as focused as I once was.

The exploration of happiness brought me back to regularly practicing yoga and meditation, which was something I began to study in the early 1990’s at Jivamukti Yoga School in New York. My original intention for this was to learn sword swallowing, but what I learned was so much greater, and the change I have felt since resuming a daily asana and meditation practice has been profound. Training the mind to be quiet has spread throughout all aspects of my life and become the driving force behind art that I have been making these last few years. If you follow me on Instragram, you probably have seen some of this work, but it’s all building toward a “light bath” installation, a meditative environment involving lumia reflections and refractions generated by shining light through these glass sculptures. I’m excited about this work and am pleased to share some of it here for the first time:

Lumiaware tiles, designed and cast at Corning Museum of Glass residency in 2018.

Apsara #13, made of 8 centrifugally cast tiles, fused and joined hot. Made in 2018 at Corning Museum of Glass, the last piece made during that residency.

Pentagonal and hexagonal cones, cast at Corning Museum of Glass

Apsara #3, 2018. Hot joined 5 and 6 sided cones, forming partial truncated icosahedron crystalline form.

Apsara #9, 2018. Hot joined castings

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Apsara #11 Corning Museum of Glass, 2018

Apsara #13, 2018, made at Tacoma Museum of Glass

Apsara #32, 2018. This 16″ diameter solid glass sculpture is made of 30 diamond shaped cones, and is the maquette for a larger 22″/300+lb ball currently being assembled.

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Apsara Uruvashi, 2019. 22″ diameter. This larger scale assembly of cast glass cones, a truncated icosahedron (soccer ball form) is composed of 20 hexagonal cones, with all the pentagonal spaces being negative space. One thing I particularly like about this piece is that the cones don’t fit together perfectly, so the whole piece is split open down the middle, embracing the chaos of the universe within its ordered assembly.

In July and August of 2019, I received another residency at Starworks in North Carolina. This residency included time for both glass production and the beginning of prototyping the lumia installations that are the end goal of this work. I was able to engineer wall mounts for some of the pieces, while simultaneously exploring a number of methods of generating lumia light refractions. Here are a few images from this next phase of the project’s development.

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I’ve been calling these glass sculptures Apsaras, after the heavenly dancers of light which adorn the temples around Angkor Wat. This prototype installation showcases one of these complex glass sculptures lit with white light against a color field of  slowly shifting colored lumia refractions.

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As light is projected through these slowly moving forms and reflected off irregular mirrors, subtly morphing lumia patterns emerge.

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“Lumia” appeal to me in the intangibility of light and their call for us to be present to the moment. Art that truly cannot be bought or sold.

I am actively seeking opportunities including residencies, exhibitions, and teaching engagements in support of completing this work and am really excited to see what happens next. Stay tuned!

Lumia: The Art of Light (and Glass)

I’m pleased to announce that I have been awarded two high profile glass residencies in 2018! Both the Corning Museum of Glass and the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington have awarded me residencies to make a new body of work about light. Based off a series of pieces I made at the Pilchuck Glass School and Detroit College of Creative Studies in 2017, I will be using CNC carved graphite molds to make glass castings to be assembled into a series of hot assembled geometric structures. The finished glass pieces will be used as lenses to generate lumia; slowly shifting and varied compositions of light refractions created by shining intense light through the glass.

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The work evolved from my investigation of workflows for digital design to glass casting, and has been heavily inspired by the artist Thomas Wilfred who worked from the 1920’s-60’s creating light compositions, or “Lumia”. Wilfred described lumia as the “eighth form of art” and he was highly influential, but his work was largely unknown until the last year when Yale and the Smithsonian Institution mounted a retrospective.

I’m using Wilfred as inspiration, but also seek to take his discoveries to a new level, using new technologies such as LED lighting and lasers in conjunction with some of the glass forms I have been making. I think of these subtly changing and mesmerising light refractions as the perfect pure expression of art as something ethereal and intangible. I have proposed creating an interactive installation that generates lumia in response to the environment. Tentatively entitled “We are the Light”, the work is my reaction to society’s divisive politics, materialism, and constantly connected life with digital devices. The work will aim to induce calming moments of reflection and meditation for the viewer.

Here are some of the glass pieces I have been creating:

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And these are some early experiments with what kinds of Lumia can be generated using them with an RBG laser:

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The residencies begin in late April, so I am currently splitting my time between designing and carving graphite molds and experimenting with light sources and motorizing their movement. It’s exciting work and I can’t wait to share where it all goes!

TED Talk: Why I Built a Time Machine!

I spent the spring at TED this year, working on developing a VR piece about Coney Island’s Luna Park, and writing a talk about how technology has shaped entertainment. Cramming a TED talk into six minutes was no easy feat. The idea was to look back at the past as a lens to consider how technology during the first and second industrial revolutions defined the last century of entertainment, then to speculate how the dawn of today’s natural user interfaces will lead the way to new forms of entertainment that will extend into the next century. So, here it is at last, my TED talk!

The talk centers around a project I have been working on over the last several years- a historic reconstruction of Coney Island’s Luna Park as it appeared a century ago. The work done at TED this year resulted in a prototype VR experience allowing users to virtually walk through Luna Park as it existed in the milestone years of 1903, 1908 and 1914, and jump between these years as they explore. There’s tons more modeling to do to build out the experience, and after the talk I just had to put it aside for a while to reflect on why I am doing this completely obsessive project.

The current state of VR seems like an in-between technology to me. This isn’t where we are going, but rather a stop along the way.  I’m guessing some AR/VR device will eventually come along that mixes with just the right software experience to become the tipping point for mass adoption, but I think we’re still a ways away. In the meantime, it’s my hope to keep working on building out the Time Machine so that when technology finally catches up, it will be ready. There’s lots more work to be done modeling and then the exhaustive texturing that will really make Luna Park look like the glittering and glowing city of fire that it was.

A lot of my thinking about the piece left me thinking about how to turn this into a product that will interest people other than a very small group of Coney Island history buffs. It’s playful, but is it a game? Or maybe the rides get built out as virtual rides and that could justify its existence as a software product? I toyed with the idea of using it as a collection game where we can roam the environment exploring and collecting people from the Scan-A-Rama archive.  Then it dawned on me… this is literally a Time Machine, and there are tons of other places I would travel in time if I could. Where would you go if you could travel anywhere in time and space? That’s when I realized that this is–  the first proof of concept destination for a Time Machine platform.

I have a vision of the Time Machine as a set of camera controller objects that allow anyone who is passionate about a place to build their own time machine that can travel to ancient Egypt or whatever place they are passionate about. That’s my real “big idea” coming out of TED- that the Time Machine platform should be an open source library of template Unity files empowering anyone to create and share their explorations. This could be a great tool for architects, archaeologists, crime scene investigators, history and literary buffs– anyone interested in experiencing places that can no longer be physically visited, and which bear examination as they changed over time.

Time jumping is definitely a feature that is already out there as a software principle. Consider Undo/Redo, the DVR, or Google Street view, which already has about 15 years worth of data. What happens when Street View hits 50 years, or a century? Time travel is coming, it’s just going to be different than what H.G. Wells predicted. The Eye in the Sky episode of RadioLab also talks about another form of time travel that has definite ethical issues. In an increasingly digital world, I predict that temporal travel will become more pervasive, so where would you want to travel? I look forward to hearing from potential collaborators or anyone who is passionate about places they would want to travel to.

If you have a Windows VR setup with an HTC VIVE, try out the Time Machine prototype yourself. Special props to Matt Laverty of Atomic Veggies and developer Daniel Alhadeff for their help on the project!

Download Prototype for 64 bit Windows systems with HTC Vive.
Controls: Use the controller touchpad to move, press the small button above the touchpad to jump between the years of 1903,1908 and 1914 (For example, while looking at the entrance)

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The Time Machine!

So, its happening… last week I time travelled and took a walk in turn of the century Luna Park! It was really exciting and gave me a huge boost that this project is going to be amazing. It’s one thing to see the models of the buildings on a screen, but wearing the VR headset, you’re literally standing in the middle of the scene and have been teleported through time and space to turn of the century Coney Island. It also gave me the vision that what I am creating is actually a time machine. My hope is that as the viewer walks through and explores the virtual world, that they will be able to hit something on the controller to ‘jump’ to the next point in the timeline to see the architecture around them change.

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I spent a day last week out in New Jersey visiting my friend Matt Laverty, who worked with me at Funny Garbage, and now runs his own studio Atomic Veggies, which is focused on VR. He works out of a coworking space in the old Bell Labs building, a cavernous space designed by Eero Saarinen. After spending years in disrepair and being abandoned, the whole campus is being revitalized as a 21st century tech hub.

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Interior of the Bell Labs Building

I wish I could show you what it was like to really stand there in the middle of Luna Park, but it was truly magical. In the meantime, here’s some of the work on the models as it is unfolding. Matt and I are working on texturing the buildings as well, but right now the models are the main focus. Stay tuned for more soon!

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Luna Park VR Project

I’m already in my fourth week here at TED and am starting to amass a nice collection of newly modeled buildings to go into the VR recreation of Luna Park. The hope is to complete a few more structures in the coming week and then bring them into Unity so that I can begin doing some tests for the cell shading style they will be rendered in, and explore specular maps to be used for the thousands of tiny electric lights covering all the buildings. Here are some screenshots of the newest buildings, as well as a sample cell shaded view from the original prototype. Its pretty exciting to finally be working on this again!

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The 1907 entrance, under construction

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A finished 1907-8 version of the entrance

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The 1914 “pinwheel” version of the entrance seems more in people’s memories of Luna Park, so I decided to go ahead and build that version as well. 

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I am super happy with the way the pinwheel version of the entrance came out. The park changed so much year to year. How cool would it be if we could travel in both time and space as we explored Luna Park? This is one of my goals for the piece.

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A Trip to the Moon was the original simulation ride, offering passengers a voyage on the spaceship Luna from Coney Island to the moon, where they disembarked into caverns made of green cheese and were greeted by Selenites and an assortment of fanciful creatures of the moon.

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The current state of my Trip to the Moon.

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The current work in progress: 20,000 Leagues under the Sea

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Cell shading test from the prototype… I am pretty happy with this style- though it needs to be a little less pink and more midnight blue, but it still lacks the electric lights to really shine

Stay tuned for more!

 

Fred at TED!

It’s been hard to keep my mouth shut the last two months, but I am finally able to announce that I will be spending the next 3 months as a Resident at TED, working on a project to recreate turn of the 20th century Thompson & Dundy’s Luna Park in VR, with an accompanying TED talk in June.


This is the next step in the evolution of a project that I have been working on on and off for over 20 years, since I first went the NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program in the mid 1990’s. Back then, I created a series of Quicktime VR panoramas of Luna Park, and then a few years ago when 3D printing became widely accessible, I rekindled the project to produce a 3D printed model of the park that was exhibited in the Coney Island Museum. This upcoming phase will be focused on recreating the entirety of the park as a VR experience which will allow viewers to explore the park firsthand. It is my hope to share the models under a Creative Commons licence that encourages others to use virtual Luna Park and encourage its use as a virtual meeting place in the future.

There are several themes I am thinking about in regards to the TED talk I will be doing in June, but the general idea I am working with is about the history and legacy of technology as entertainment, specifically Luna Park’s role in defining everything we do for amusemnt today. Luna Park came out of the golden age of world fairs, a time when attractions in the 1897 World Columbian Exposition were effectively the physical manifestation of a memory palace containing all of man’s culture and knowledge. It was the real world embodiment of everything Google is for us today. The park was not only a showcase for fantastical, otherworldly architecture, it transported the melting pot of American immigrants to exotic locales around the world, even to the moon, anticipating what the future of entertainment would be like. Electricity, phonographs, motion pictures, infant incubators, simulation rides, they all began at Luna Park. I cannot wait to virtually resurrect it and share it with the world!

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A screencap of the Luna Park VR prototype, with cell shaded rendering style

 

There is Always Hope: A Love Letter for America

Happy Valentines Day.
America broke my heart in 2016 but I’m committing to this being a year of positive growth and transformation so I’m sending this message of love out to the world in the hopes that collectively we can all channel our anger, hurt and disappointment into constructive avenues that will make a difference in the world. I didn’t want this post to be just more partisan politics, it’s high time people came together to rediscover the common threads that unite us, not divide us. If you’re like me, you feel like you spent the last 3 months in a permanent panic attack, livid with rage, scared, constantly near tears, hurt, isolated and confused by a world of fake news, denial of science, alternative facts and shock events. Facebook proved to be a bubble made up of primarily cheerleaders who shared my politics. I found myself being upset by and upsetting people, some close, some not so close, from both sides of the political fence. Insults were hurled, friendships were lost, families torn apart. I regret some of the things I said and did, and I know I’m not the only one. We need to have a healing moment, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to come from Washington.

Valentine’s Day is here and it sure feels like love has disappeared from the world. I have been looking for the remotest signs of hope, specifically any kind of vision of how red and blue states can find a common ground to come together. This interview with Jon Stewart touches on so many relevant points, but starting at 3:54, on through when he talks what makes America exceptional, I again begin to feel hope that maybe there can be a common ground. His point is that people are naturally tribal and want to segregate into tribes, but what is extraordinary about America is the way it can transcend that.

I also found some inspiration in my Twitter feed this week when I saw Cory Booker tweeting at some harsh critics a message of love and compassion. I can’t seem to find the exact tweet that inspired me, but this article in the Washington Post talks about how he handles haters. New York state governor Andrew Cuomo picked up on themes of love and unity last week when a train full of passengers scrubbed off Nazi graffiti.

This is America at its best. We are a diverse people, but when we come together, magic happens. This is the exceptionalism Jon Stewart is talking about. Maureen Dowd’s recent piece in the NY times also talks about the Trump’s Gold lining and Americans coming together in reaction our new leader’s divisiveness. Flipping the channels last night I happened upon Accidental Courtesy on PBS’ Independant Lens, which profiled musician Daryl Davis, an African American musician who has spent over 30 years befriending members of the KKK. Slowly, through face to face meetings in which both sides talk and listen, he has put a human face on blind hatred and led many of them to shed their robes and renounce their ways. His story was an inspiration and lesson about a path in which all Americans, red and blue could maybe come together after this election.

If you’re like me,  you’ve probably ruffled someone’s feathers one way or another this year, but today may be a good time to reach out and make a plan to meet in the real world for a drink to begin to mend fences.

I love you America.
Happy Valentine’s Day ❤