[Editor’s note: I wrote John “J-Walt” Adamczyk with some provocative questions about my notion that work will come to be a form of artistic performance in the future. I was interested in his innovative performance graphics control interface, The Anitar. J-Walt uses the Anitar in a performance mode much like a musical instrument, but it is a complex controller which can be used to create performance level graphics and software objects which are more commonly produced by design “work” . These include 3D forms, music, and animation sequences or even interactive game worlds or virtual environments. I share here his equally provocative reply. ]
Computers have no essence. They only adopt the metaphors we give them. We can make them whatever we want them to be, and in turn, we can use them to make whatever we want.
The Anitar is a new interface, and a step in the development of my live Spontaneous Fantasia performances. It’s hard to describe my performances in a few words — even people who have seen my shows have a hard time doing that. On the other hand, the concept is very simple: I get up on stage and draw. Through my interfaces and software, my gestures create 3D environments, sculptures, creatures, and characters. I animate the creations and move through the space as I create.
That simple concept is just the tip of the iceberg. What I do with this mode of performance is to create live animated movies. Each piece has a different theme and structure, but I leave a lot of room for improvisation. I create pieces that are about an ecosystem coming to life, or of a character exploring a city that I create around him. I combine elements of various art forms in my performances: theater, illustration, dance, music, architecture. I perform the shows wherever video can be projected. I’ve performed hundreds of shows on flat screens, in 3D, and in high-resolution immersive planetarium domes. I spend a lot of time expanding and re-writing a large software project for my shows. My system enables me to perform landscapes, fractals, walking figures, solar systems, and a variety of dynamic geometry. I’ve adapted many techniques from standard CG production — and I plan to employ many more as my shows evolve. There are other techniques that make sense within a performance context. There are still worlds to discover and explore. If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to do this for decades to come.
Except for documentation, I almost never save my creations. I don’t want them to become precious objects; I only want them to exist for the moment. I clear them away to make room for the next versions. This way, I embrace the process and allow the objects to be transitory. My artwork is about the process — the act of creation. It’s a celebration of the life energy that makes creation possible.
I’m doing stage performance, so as I develop or adopt an interface, I have to look at it for how each interface is going to work for an audience. I adopted a drawing tablet as my first interface for a number of reasons, but mostly because a drawing pen carries with it the metaphor of drawing; and drawing is the most basic, and most sophisticated method of visual synthesis. I combined the drawing tablet with a joystick to allow me to fly — adopting a flight control to allow flight. Other buttons and sliders make up my “standard” interface. They allow me to select various techniques and control parameters for drawing and animation. Little by little, I’ve been moving more toward a “rock show” metaphor for my performances, so a guitar seems a natural step. The Anitar is little more than taking my tablet/sliders/joystick interface off its podium and slinging over my shoulder!
Peter, you’d mentioned that you believe that performance relates to the future of work. I’m totally with you on that idea, because that’s what I’ve been doing for the past several years. When you ask if the Anitar can be used to do “actual ‘productive’ design work”, the answer is “yes”, but I guess I have some explaining to do. First of all, even though it looks whimsical, the Anitar is a mature, expert interface. It’s designed to create the kind of performances I’ve been doing for years, and take it to a new level. Secondly, the idea that it could be re-purposed for creating static content (like movies) is looking backward.
When I worked with real-time systems for movies, I discovered the joy and instant gratification of experiencing forms blossom into existence. Dynamic systems allow us to create endless variations and explore expansive cyberscapes. However, 20th century art and entertainment forms don’t appreciate these possibilities. Choosing a single variation for an effects sequence flattens a system to a mere shadow of its possibilities. Relegating complex phenomena to a visual gag or as background to a hackneyed narrative reduces wonder to wallpaper.
My performances are a departure from the animation and games industries toward something I find more exciting and worthwhile. I’m pushing the envelope in my work, creatively and technically. CG production has plateaued with techniques mostly developed in the early nineties. Back in the day, each of us in CG used to be responsible for entire shots and sequences — but then the industry went wide, slicing production into an array of menial chores to be doled out to replaceable technicians. That’s the opposite of what computers are supposed to do for us.
Computers are supposed to help us each to do more than what we could do before. I’m working on that. Someone once asked me when I thought it would be possible for a single author to create an epic like “Doctor Zhivago” — the movie, not just the book. My response was that it’s now or never! If we want to pursue this type of deep authorship, it’s up to us to pursue the tools to give us that power. On the other hand, if we want to continue the large studio approach… well, our work is done.
Engaging in performance is another matter altogether. Performance is a difficult way to do anything, compared to preparing things beforehand. You have to make things work more simply, and you have to be willing to compromise your desire for perfection — but you get so much in return, which is why people continue to be passionate about live performance. Embracing real-time creation opens avenues toward exploring evolutionary and dynamic systems and sharing joyful discoveries with the world. The same joy of exploration that I felt in the studio is what drew me to performance, where I can share that experience with an audience.
I consider what I’m doing with performances as reaching out on a few levels. On the surface, it’s a show. It draws people in with a fun and entertaining concept, and I try to have enough action and variety to have something for everyone. At another level, my shows always revolve around the creative act. Even though one can watch the video as though they were watching a movie, and there is a sequence or narrative to follow, people also watch me create all throughout the show. The pieces are of and about the act of creation, and the act of animation. The things I draw are never static, but in a state of movement or transformation. My role as creator is ever-present. The acts of creation and animation are fun. We animators usually experience this fun in the studio, but I’m sharing this fun and sense of wonder with an audience. At yet another level, my show is a dream come true. I wave my hands to create a world and bring it to life. I call this “The God Dream” — the dream of creating my own entire world through the sheer force of will, and instilling that world with your own aesthetics and morals.
It’s a common dream. The children’s book “Harold and the Purple Crayon” is a famous expression of the God Dream. Early cartoons expressed this dream all the time. For instance, Max Fleischer’s “Out of the Inkwell” series depicted a hand drawing characters which escape the page and wreak havoc on the real world. The movie “Fantasia” expresses the God Dream when conductor Leopold Stokowski raises his arms and pretends to conjure the movie into existence. It’s a powerful scene — but Stokowski was only acting. Fast-forward seventy years, and I am actually doing it. I believe I’ve taken the expression of the God Dream beyond what anyone else has previously done.
By adopting a mode of performance, my method of creating things is inseparable from what I am creating. So, when you’re talking about performance being a method of doing work, I know exactly what you mean. Beyond what I personally am doing with my shows and in the realm of animation and virtual realities, I see my performances as a metaphor for how we can approach everything we do. The action and the product are one and the same. The potential with this approach is that one’s life and one’s work are inseparable. In my work, I want to blur the line between the virtual worlds I create on-screen and the life that I lead to create those world. Also, when you watch me create a CG world with the stroke of a pen, it’s not much of a leap to imagine creating a physical world with the same gestural approach, while being immersed within. My hope is that some people in the audience will take another step, and imagine them applying performative methods of creation in other domains as well, e.g. gardening, architecture, terraforming, molecular design, etc.
There is an aspect of fantasy in my show, but I try not to escape to the fantasy. Rather, my intention is to make the fantasy a reality. My show has aspects of a magic show in that I seem to work “magic”. However, I’m not trying to trick anyone. I’m not presenting the image of a show. I’m not pretending to interact with the video. I actually am doing what I say I’m doing. That the show is full of wonder is a reflection of the artistry and technology that I put into the show. It’s closer to watching the performance of a dancer, musician, or juggler on stage. My shows focus less on illusion, and more on achieving a special feat.
It’s important for me to have my life and my artwork cooperate harmoniously. The opposite of this is when an artist agonizes over his or her artwork. Most creative people have worked on projects that might have turned out well, but were also terrible experiences in the process. I’ve done projects like this, both personally and professionally. This way of working is an awful way to live. When you find yourself doing this, you have to step back and reconsider. This is a very important concept for artists, engineers, — and for everyone else. Gary Snyder wrote, “Master the twenty-four hours.” Rather than separating our daily lives from our work, we should find ways to make them inseparable.
Performance is not always a path toward spiritual growth. It can work in the opposite way, creating a growing rift between an artist’s personal life and his/her stage life. Performance can enhance a bipolar disorder. Stories of miserable clowns, drug-abusing musicians, and psychotic actors are common in the performance world. It’s yet another trap that artists can fall into, and it’s a challenge to avoid.
The more I can express my interests through my artwork, the closer connected the artwork is to my life. I’ve long been fascinated with fanciful geometries, visual music, illustration, jazz, and immersive worlds. I’m able to pursue all of these with my performances. My shows are made of my style of programming, my style of drawing, my music, etc. Though the shows can be spectacular, my style and personality shine through the content, presentation, and format. People who have seen my show tell me that it’s different from what they’ve ever seen, but at the same time they recognize a cohesiveness and maturity to the shows. I’m gratified that my shows come off this way. I try to keep in every aspect from being contrived. I want my shows to be a celebration of an artistic act, and not to be so much of a show-biz “act”. The more I succeed at this, the closer I am to living an ideal artistic life.
Though I’m making some bold claims here, I have to admit that my work is a work-in-progress. Every piece I design, every performance I stage is an opportunity to take an incremental step forward. I can’t make the mistake of over-reaching. I worked in VR in the mid-nineties, and that was an industry that over-reached, and ended up with an empty bag. We tried to invent everything all at once. Since we couldn’t do that, we ended up with just a few demos, and not much art that survived the decade. I need to work on this project incrementally. I have to remind myself to work on art, not a system. I need to create art with the system, and not get so involved with the technical details that I never have more than a demo. So I take the incremental approach, and work on the God Dream one show at a time.
I was hoping people would pick up on the God Dream when I performed at the SIGGRAPH Electronic Theater in 2005. I was hoping people would at least see it as a way to approach not just CG — and of approaching every kind of creation. I was hoping people would notice that the entire 17-minute visual and musical performance was created by a single individual. Some people saw the departure I was taking, but a lot did not. Many were just there to watch the movies, and what I was doing didn’t even register. What they were looking for was a classical, 20th century approach toward moving imagery. I was moving away from the preciousness of a classical mode, and into something more free. Now, I’m taking it another step further. The simple act of taking my rig off a podium and creating the Anitar is a perfect expression toward this freedom, don’t you think?