Zach Lieberman

Episode 11 C-19 Virtual Summit

Zach Lieberman is an artist, designer, computer programmer, and educator living in New York City. He creates artwork with code and experimental animation tools. He’s the co-founder of the School for Poetic Computation. His projects have won the Golden Nica from Ars Electronica, interactive Design of the Year from Design Museum London as well as being listed in Time magazine’s Best Inventions of the Year.

How did you start your journey working with code? 

ZL: Well, at first I studied fine art. I was studying printmaking and I was really happy, I spent all my time in the printmaking studio and I was just really, really happy as an art student, but I had to get a job and everybody was talking about web design and y2k and how the world was going to end in the year 2000, and my friends were getting jobs in these web design studios, so I started applying too. 

     I didn't have any portfolio, so I would show up to these interviews and bring slides of my paintings because I didn't have any background or any experience with software. And somehow I got an internship that turned into a job at this company that was really busy and it gave me an opportunity to learn Illustrator, Photoshop and the like, and I discovered that you could go to the bookstore, to Barnes & Noble, and get a $50 book pretty much for anything; you could get a book for Photoshop and a book for Illustrator. And I would literally just carry the books in my backpack, go in the morning, eat my lunch, hide to look things up in the books and come back in the afternoon and fix things. 

     And I discovered Flash. Usually when I give a talk, I'm like, “who remembers Flash?” And there are increasingly less hands going up, but it was a really important tool for me because it was a tool for doing animation and animation on the web, and the crazy thing about it was that it had such a nice interface, the timeline and key framing and these sorts of things. But there was also the scripting side of Flash and the idea that you could write code, and I just fell in love with it. I was experimenting and I had always loved animation, but I didn't know how to do it. I never went to film school, you can make flip-books and do sequences, but I never felt like I could make something move, and here was this tool that was all about motion, it was this amazing thing where you were writing text and then you would see language being turned into movements. 

     When I was a really young kid I remember my mom signed me up for a class where I learned Logo, which was this old school programming language that displayed a turtle, and you could indicate the turtle to turn 10 degrees and go 20 pixels and turn 30 degrees and go 50 pixels, etc, and even though I was really young, I remember the magic of taking language and turning it into movement. And then here was this tool (Flash) that was connected to this thing that I had experienced as a young child, and it was so beautiful to me. There were also these people sharing code, so it was not only about the tool, but also the community around it. Folks like Joshua Davis and James Patterson and just that kind of Flash, creative coding community. You would see Yugo Nakamura doing these crazy interfaces, and it was so vibrant, it was just so interesting so I fell in love… I was really hooked so I decided I wanted to learn this. 

     Then the economy crashed, we were really busy at the studio and then had no work at all so I decided to go to graduate school. I was applying to “proper” Graphic Design graduate schools, but the programs that I was getting accepted to were these experimental design and technology programs that were really weird, you couldn't tell exactly what they were, but they were not your typical masters and graphic design programs. And during that time I still wanted to learn proper design, and I was reading all these history of graphic design books by Ellen Lupton and Steven Heller, for example. I ended up going to Parsons, and there were two types of classes. There are classes which are “fake work” where you have to build a portfolio, and there were classes which had extremely weird stuff, just experimental strange classes. I hated the fake work classes and I loved the experimental weird stuff classes, one of which was held by Golan Levin, he was a graduate from MIT from the Media Lab. Golan introduced me to a lot of things and we started to collaborate and work together after I graduated in 2002. We were doing projects at Ars Electronica and creating installations, traveling, and so on. So I sort of fell into media art through graduate school. I didn't know that this could be a career but then I found my way in that direction. 

What are some people or events that have had a special influence on your work that may have changed the direction of your career?

I mean, for me, it was definitely the John Maeda book Designed By Numbers, which I can't remember how I was introduced to, but I do remember the magic. So I was really interested in computation, I would go to the bookstore and hang out in the computer section of the bookstore, but there were these terrible books… books about C+, Learn C+ in 21 Days or Learn Java, you know, very technical books that just told you how to do stuff.

     However, Designed by Numbers had a very different approach, it is such a different book because Maeda is not talking about how, he's talking about why, and for me that was a doorway; it got me excited about this medium, because these other books were not speaking to my heart and soul, and then you pick up this book and it has entire paragraphs about randomness and what does randomness mean, and what does it feel like. And not like how to use a pseudo random number generator, but just what they are, what's the meaning of it? And for me that was really special and magical.

     Also, seeing an exhibition in New York by Nancy Burson, an artist that works with computational photography; or the work by Jason Sullivan. There was also an exhibition called BitStreams at the Whitney Museum in 2001, and for me, that was just seeing this side of media art that I didn't know about. There is also the serendipity of it: you go to a museum and you think you're going to see something and you turn the corner and you stumble upon a completely different thing, and it is that moment of just accidental discovery right there. For me that was Jason Salomon’s artwork, which is basically the movie Titanic, but with every frame of the film turned into a single pixel of color, so you can read the movie from top left corner to the bottom right corner and the whole movie is translated into one image.

     It was really amazing to think that you could take data and transform it this way and that there could be a story there too. And if you saw the movie Titanic, you'd be able to recognize the different elements of the movie, you could really read the image and it would tell you something about the story, and for me that was really profound.

What was the moment you decided that “poetical computation” is something that you wanted to do? 

I think generally speaking the way we define the field we are in is “creative coding” right? But I always felt like creative coding is a very strange term because it makes you wonder if there are other types of coding that are not creative? If you're working on something that does not have visual output or if you are coding for a bank or a website or a database, is that not creative coding? So we started to wonder, is there another way to use language to describe what we're doing? I was just starting in school and we wanted to figure out provocative terms that would set the kind of tone of the school. So we did a lot of brainstorming and came up with “poetic computation.”

     And the idea here is that the actual job is not coding, but making poetry. And I think this is a really interesting distinction and something worth talking about or thinking about, oftentimes as an artist that works with technology, first you have the technology and then the art is kind of tacked on, so you could be interested in machine learning and then find an artistic approach with it. Or you have artistic projects and projects that are driven by poetry or art that the technology is in service of. And when I think about these phrases like “creative coding” or “poetic computation,” the challenge is always, how do you celebrate art first? How do you celebrate projects that are led by art, that are driven by art? Artistic concerns, design concerns and not technology first. 

How do you go about creating so many iterations, can you tell us more about your creative process?

Sure. So, I post sketches on Instagram and Twitter that are like a public diary of my creative output. I'm trying to make something every day, I'm not religious about it so I'll skip some days if I just don't feel right or if I'm traveling, but it definitely has become part of my practice now. 

     And a lot of what I'm doing is iteration, which is basically taking the same sketch or idea and saying, what if I change this? What if I change that? And code is such a great medium for that. 

     You are basically creating these graphical forms that are parametric, that are defined by numbers, so you can take a number and you can adjust it and make it larger or make it smaller, and these numbers relate to each other and the relationships are not always linear. In my opinion, most people think of the practice as typing, as if I am writing code to make art then it must be that I am just typing, typing, typing. But actually a lot of it is just about adjustment, changing numbers, adjusting, adjusting, adjusting. And I feel like it's not dissimilar to a musician working with synthesizers that is just tuning, tuning, tuning and playing in the parameter space trying to come up with something new, and I think for me, the challenge is finding the smallest thing that I can do that leads to something new, what is the tiniest change? Can I take something I did yesterday and surprise myself? Maybe I'm excluding something or rotating it or revolving it or drawing it 10 times or 100 times or 1000 times and I just want to see how it can tell me a new story.

When working on such projects, you can sometimes feel like you are swimming in the sea, letting yourself be carried by the waves and at the same time going against them, into the deep. At any point given, do you feel like you are getting tired of all the experimentation?

That's a really interesting way to describe it, I never thought about it like that, but I do like the idea of waves. Sometimes I feel like it's really quiet and I'm discovering nothing new and then sometimes it'll be like a new algorithm or a new approach and then it's like I'm surfing. Me, I like to describe it as if you are wandering around a city in the dark, and you have to figure out your way and at every intersection, you wonder if you should go straight, left, or right. You have to make this constant decision, and sometimes you want to wind up in a new neighborhood that you've never seen before. So it's exciting. You circle around a little bit and see what's going on with each place.

     Sometimes you'll turn the corner and realize you shouldn't be there, it doesn't feel right or it feels uncomfortable. And then it's actually like you want to go back to a territory that is comfortable. And I do think that the movement from comfort to discomfort is really important in the creative practice. You need to have those moments of discomfort where you are lost, where you feel uncomfortable. And then you need those moments of comfort too, and in my case, I have territories I always go back to, where I know I'm safe, so I'll go back there and I'll iterate, and then I'll move from comfort to discomfort and back to comfort. 

And then, with all this going back and forth, how do you decide that whatever you are working on is ready? 

So whenever I’m sketching I take screenshot after screenshot and put them all into a folder called “every day,” so I feel it is a little bit like being a photographer... if you're a wildlife photographer, you get out into nature and take a bunch of photographs and then you look at them and say “this one is the best, right? I've taken 20 photographs, but this one tells me something, it is speaking to me.” It’s the same with me, I'm building these things, which I don't totally understand and I'm trying to document them and then figure out what is the thing that I've captured that better expresses what I am trying to convey, and that might be taking a video, trimming it and finding the right moment and making aesthetic decisions. And oftentimes I post things when I feel surprised, so if I'm coding and I'm changing something here and there and I feel surprised then I'll post it. If it excites me or if it feels like I've discovered something new or significantly different than the previous thing, I will post it. But a lot of it is about intuition.

     And just to go back to this notion of poetic computation, we really want to celebrate poetry rather than coding, art before technology. And the word poetry... if you're in the technology world, you always talk about demo, like making a demo. In at M. I. T. It's called “Demo or Die,” that's the motto. But the word demo can very easily become the word poem, so if you rearrange the letters, you know, you can go from making demos to making poems. 

     Have you noticed how poetry is always in the back of the bookstore? You always have to go to the back of the bookstore and there you will find these thin books that are low budget and self-published and from independent publishers; they are full of books written by people that are trying to use the right words in the right order to express what it means to be human and alive. I try to write poems through movement and through code and through really focusing on how motion can create emotion when I'm making these sketches. And a lot of times they're very simple, they start with something like a blob shape and just experiment with what would happen if it expands and contracts and how would I color it and how would I shade it? And I'm quite interested in 3D forms that feel like 2D, and 2D that feels like 3D. Slightly ambiguous or slightly flat where your brain has to do a bit of work to understand what you're looking at. 

     Oftentimes the sketches are just really random. For example, I figured out how to track my fingertips and then I found the 1000 most common words in the English language and I connected them to my finger, so it is as if you're almost using your body to explore a type of computational system, like you have information and you can use your body to move through that information.

     There is this other project called Landlines that I did with Google where they have satellite photographs from around the world. They were looking for an interesting way of exploring them, so I built a tool to draw where, if you draw a curve it finds that curve somewhere in the world. So if you draw a hook, it will find a hook, if you draw a straight line it will find a straight line, if you draw a triangle it will find a triangle. 

     I love projects like this because they're about using your body and using gestures to explore a computational system. We write our names all day, but can we use our bodies to access information in a new way? Your body is something that you understand and it is so intuitive, so can we use it in an expressive way? And a lot of times the projects have this very pretty frontend, but then there's a lot of work on the backend, and science, and data science, and engineering optimization, that goes into a project like this.