Who are the people with the power to design the system we live in? Digital artist Peter Burr investigates

16 August 2019


Known as the first rural “hippie commune” in America, Drop City was a counterculture artists’ community formed in southern Colorado in the mid-sixties. A commune iconic not only in its cultural ideologies, but also in its playful approach to homebuilding.

In his latest work, also titled Drop City, digital artist Peter Burr explores ideas of utopia, design solutions and digital environments. The new media artist, known for his video game aesthetic with underlying philosophical tones, has been experimenting with the limitations of computer displays for the last seven or eight years. As part of a wider project exploring the communities living off the detritus of a desktop environment, Drop City is a sobering film exploring our ever-deepening experiences with digital realities.

Below, the New York-based animator discusses the ins and outs of Drop City and how he took inspiration from a short-lived hippie commune to create a six-and-a-half minute digital film.

How did the idea for Drop City come about?

Peter Burr: I like the idea of people finding their way out of their own problems. A few years ago I came across the book Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander written in 1977, it indexed a system to help ordinary people solve complex design problems – like building a functional city for themselves for example.

Living in New York, the challenge of actually using such a utopic self-help book got to me and, as an artist working with computers, I like playing around with these design concepts. There’s a hubris to the sort of power we taste when building dynamic simulations rendered realistically in 3D CGI. I can’t help but reflect on my own lived experience as if I was one of these simulated units. Who are the people who hold the power to design the system I live in IRL? Where does my well-being fit into their conception of this world?

INT: How did you develop the aesthetic of this work?

PB: For the past seven or eight years, I have been playing around with the limitations of computer displays and rendering technology. In 2012, I made a film called Alone With The Moon that adapts the first computer graphics tool I ever used in my life, MacPaint, into an animation.

One of the things I liked about this program as a kid, was the way it used patterns instead of colours. Because the computer display was black and white, you had to mix various patterns to build out a sense of depth and volume. So through the development of Alone With The Moon, I embraced these restrictions while adapting MacPaint’s workflow to contemporary graphics programs.

Alternatively, with Drop City I’m imposing this technical limitation on tools from the video game industry as essentially, I like how this creates a curious mix of really complex visual elements blended together with super simple and restrained ones.

INT: Can you tell us a bit about your creative process with this film?

PB: This film is part of a larger project about communities living off the detritus of a desktop environment. Prior to this work, I made a piece called Descent with Mark Fingerhut and Forma that shows a medieval village plagued by a deadly virus. You can download this piece and run it on your PC, when you launch the executable file it infests your desktop with rats as their world devolves right in front of you. With Drop City however, I was interested in extending this idea further and I’m currently in the process of building it into a full-blown interactive simulation slated to premiere at SXSW 2020.

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Jyni Ong

Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.

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