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Ninjaneers at SXSW

by Dane Walters 9 Mar 2013 6:48 PM

A look at the intersection between fine art and tech.


On Friday,  I attended Ninjaneering: Where Fine Art meets High Tech. The Panel explored the convergence of art and technology in recent years and looked at how the two will continue to intertwine as computers become smarter, and new visual mediums and techniques are developed.



Maurice Conti from the powerful 3D design and engineering software company AutoDesk, offered the historical perspective to start the conversation.  He has a “love affair with art and tech” and the only example of an art form that he can think of that didn’t use technology was interpretive dance.  He speculated that the first tech ever used by man was fire.  It was with fire that man was first able to light the cave walls to create the first pictographs.                                                   

Michelangelo could not have created the masterpiece of the Sistine Chapel without the pigments, and paint technology of the day.  Impressionism gave birth to the beginning of mobile, when oil paint in tubes allowed artists to paint where they never could before.  He goes on to say that painting was primarily used for documentation. Until photography came along, there was a huge need to document and copy events, and documents.  Photography freed the impressionists, and other painters of the time, to explore a world of new possibilities with the subject matter of their work.

Conti moves on to his first contemporary example of art and tech.  Janet Echelman makes amazing installations of nets over public space.  She worked with auto desk to create 3d interactive models of her designs.  With the software, she was able to test the way her nets would bend and stretch, how wind would effect them, and what making changes would do to her over all design.  The computer enabled her to work through her creative process to achieve the designs she had envisioned before ever touching the nets.

He goes on to say that today, there are a million applications across Mac and PC platforms,  most with creative pursuits.  Tools are becoming more powerful, and at the same time easy to use.  This is the first time in history that this has happened, and this can have good and bad effects.  Music, just decades ago, was only mastered by true musicians (Jimi Hendrix slide on the screen) but today, anyone with a computer can use software to create complex compositions without ever playing an instrument.  He shows an example of a garageband project, that his kids will “patiently listen to.”

He shows an image of a laser cut from card board statue of liberty that appeared at burning man.  He says it took little craft and effort to make.  Compared to the work of Fredrico Diaz who used robots to create Geometric Death Frequency- 141.

Robots in action:

Conti closes by speculating on what is next.  Will computers begin to create? “Even today, computers create things from an aesthetic standpoint that are compelling.”  How will this relationship evolve? Will there be a partnership with computers and people where the people “start it off” and the computer gives feed back.


Heather Shaw, CEO of Vita Motus

Heather got her start in automotive design.  She says that a big part of that is researching future trends and where the market is going.  This got her into the work of futurist, and what they were predicting about technology.  This got her interested in Moore’s law, and turned her on to the idea that we are living in a time where computers are becoming exponentially more powerful every day.  Again, Shaw used music to compare how much things have changed in just the past few decades.  We used to carry around cassettes and CD’s, and now everyone has a phone with a thousands of songs in their pocket.

Shaw moves on to her first example of her work, a massive 30,000 person “Dance Temple”  tent built for the Boom Festivile held every year in Portugal.

Her next example is of the absolutely extraordinary stage set using a sculpture with musically timed projected canvas for electronic artist Amon Tobin’s ISAM tour.  Having been to the show in Dallas last year, I can tell you that this is truly one of the most amazing blends of art, music, and design out there.  She say that the design, in concert with the projections, defies gravity and space.  Amazingly, the entire installation instals and calibrates in thirty minutes.  In closing, Shaw says that she is excited to see what is coming next, and where tech will take Art.

(Must watch!)


Jen Lewin, artist.

Lewin’s early work used hand painted silks with electronics.  She moved on to create large robotic butterflies, and large robotic moths that people could wear. From there she moved on to create large Laser harps.  This is the first time that she had made a piece that was truly interactive with a group of people.  The Harps were set up at burning man, and were used by up to 60 people at a time.

Laser harp?

Jen shows a few more examples of her recent work, and then goes on to show what she has brought with her to south by.  The Pool will be installed in Republic Square Park in austin from March 10th – 15th, running from 7pm to 1am.

Here’s how it works:

Lewin goes on to say that up until The Pool,  she was making everything herself from scratch. From doing this, she met other artist who wanted to know how her art worked.  This led to collaborations (Such as the pool) that helped her move her focus on interactive art, and gave her the ability through collaboration to control LED’s that could make pixel accurate playback, for videos.  She is using this new ability in her latest work. An interactive Edison Orb.


John Taylor, Co-Founder, LumiGeek 

Taylor starts off by defining what a Ninjaneer is. A generalist, catalyst for others’ visions, facilitators and interpreters, making sure art will work as planned.  He shows a venn diagram with art, engineering, and design.  How they work together, and where they overlap, is where Ninjaneers reside.  We work in the “edge effects” where the 3 fields overlap.

John’s first example, Peter Hudson’s Charon that was installed at Burning Man 2012:

Taylor was fortunate enough to be involved in the project from “cocktail napkin to final product.”  He says that a variety of technologies were used for the project. CAD work was used to figure out the structure, and how it would be made portable, and graphic software was used to figure out the timing of the strobing lights.

John’s next example covered the work he did with Jen Lewin (above) on The Pool.  He shows a time lapse video of the work that he and the team did to hand-solder the 120+ controllers that illuminate the pads.  They are standing in one spot, stacking a mountain of finished components next to them, one at a time.  Repetition, and replication is a huge part of what his work involves. He jokes that he will be excited when he has Fredrico Diaz’s robots working for him.  In closing, John tells the attendees that he hopes the panel will help to inspire people in attendance to go out and create.

Well, all of the interactive art and tech discussion made me want to see it in action.  I decided to go check out the Interactive Opening Party presented by Frog design, that promised to be a truly unforgettable interactive party experience.  Something that I thought was really cool, was that the party featured crowd sourced music.  There was a row of what looked like ATM machines that allowed party goers to vote on music and select what was coming on next, and later in the playlist.  At the end of the row, a huge screen, showed statistics about what was coming up next.

Heres some media from the party:




Interactive light bright

Interactive bicycling

Interactive bathroom

Interactive zen