There was a time when high-minded creatives looked down on the digital space as a realm where poor design prevailed and artistic merit was in short supply. Thankfully, few would be bold (or perhaps stupid) enough to make that argument today. Further proof of the explosion of creativity being enabled and supported by new technologies was visible in New York last week, as It’s Nice That teamed up with website-building platform Wix to host an event centred on design and art in the digital sphere.
Over 200 people gathered in the Wix Playground, a space in the heart of Chelsea, for an evening of talks by some of the most impressive and experimental artists and designers working in the city today, a line-up curated by It’s Nice That as part of the Wix Playground Presents events series. Self-taught animator and illustrator Nicole Ginelli kicked the evening off with a look back at how she has spent much of her career bringing music to life, whether through her work at Pitchfork (where she worked as interactive designer), or with the music videos she’s made for artists like Elderbrook, or through animations she’s made for MTV.
Speaking about one MTV project, which depicts a caterpillar becoming a butterfly (among other things), Nicole said: “It was a dream gig. The prompt was totally open; I think they just said the theme was ‘technology’. I collaborated with the amazing musician Yaeji, who did the custom sound for it. In the end the caterpillar gets to find their true butterfly self through oneness with technology. Maybe we’re all the caterpillar,” she added, with half a smile.
To round off her talk, Nicole premiered a 360-degree interactive music video she’s created for the Seahawk track Eyes of the Moon. The video is, quite simply, epic and stemmed from a belief in “jumping into projects without really knowing what you’re doing and just following your pure enthusiasm”, as she put it. She then went deeper into her process, explaining how she brought the concept to life using Cinema 4D and After Effects.
Nicole was followed on stage by Ekene Ijeoma, an artist and designer whose work forces us to look with fresh eyes at myriad social issues. One of the key topics he has tackled over the years is the reimagining of American symbols. His talk focused on one such project that began in 2017, called Deconstructed Anthems, a series of music performances and sound-reactive light installations in which the Star-Spangled Banner is repeated several times with notes removed at the rate of mass incarceration, finally ending in silence. Because the anthem was performed by a self-playing piano, Ekene had to write a bespoke programme that removed the notes at the correct rate.
Ekene’s talk also presented Wage Islands: Immigrants, a sculpture that submerges a topographic map of New York underwater to visualise where low-wage immigrant workers can afford to rent, as well as a design he made for The New York Times looking at how the Robert E Lee monument in New Orleans might be repurposed. This project imagined the monument wrapped in a spiral staircase that would allow members of the public to walk to the top and see the city from the lofty position enjoyed by the statue of Lee for over a century. “On the spiral staircase you’d learn about the history of the African-American struggle for equality,” Ekene explained. “But on the way up, you’d also pass people going down, to show that the fight for equality is an ongoing struggle.”
Ekene’s talk was followed by a short break before artist, educator and creative coder Zach Lieberman took to the Wix Playground stage to talk the audience through his varied career, starting with earlier projects in which he designed a typeface by tracking a car, and revealed the code behind complex light installations. He then presented some of his jaw-dropping projects using augmented reality, like Weird Type, which allows you to play around with type in virtual space. “What’s amazing,” he said, “is how when you create a tool, the world takes it on and does things with it that you would never have imagined.” With Weird Type, for example, “people realised that if you use enough small type, you can make it look like snow, or if you just use a bunch of Os, you can create a long tunnel in space.”
Ending his talk, Zach encouraged the audience to be open and to help others get a leg up into the creative fields. He pointed to his Open Office Hours scheme, which is an open invitation to anyone in his wide network to set up a call with him to discuss anything from technical issues with a project to problems with invoicing a client.
This topic of giving other creatives a helping hand was also picked up by Carly Ayres, who followed Zach on stage and rounded off the evening’s talks. A partner at New York interactive-design agency HAWRAF, Carly spent much of her talk focused on the challenges and rewards of setting up and running your own agency, and offered the audience dozens of tips on how to do it right. Similar to Zach, she and her partners invite creatives into their studio once a month for HAWRAFLive, a few hours of open discussion, advice and conversation.
Carly’s candid (and very funny) talk laid out some real home truths, including the inevitable trade-offs between “making good work and making good money” and the importance of making sure you’re “always learning”. She also chatted about her revelation that transparency can be at the heart of a design business (HAWRAF has made its financial records public, a move that is, according to Carly, “really easy when things are going well and really hard when you’ve had a less-than-good year”).
And then, in the spirit of true transparency, Carly ended her talk by dropping the bombshell that she and her partners are looking to close HAWRAF after four years of operation (a comment that caused a few audible gasps around the venue). “Don’t worry, though, folks,” she said. “This is a good thing. Sometimes you have to kill your darlings.”
With all four talks over, the Wix Playground became an open forum, as the speakers stuck around and members of the audience had their chance to speak to them and continue the discussion – over a beer (or two) and a pretzel. If any of them were in any doubt on arrival about the level of creativity on offer thanks to digital technologies, few could have left feeling the same way. As Nicole, Ekene, Zach and Carly all showed, it’s not just that the digital space is a place to exhibit creative work – new digital tools are also allowing artists and designers to push the boundaries of their fields in incredible and unprecedented ways.
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