Systems of Art: An Interview with Colin Clark

Picture of Colin Clark

Today I get the chance to introduce you to Colin Clark, who creates systems for making art on the web. He is the Associate Director of the Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University. I first met Colin when he presented at my Soundhackers meetup in 2015, where he presented about his software Flocking which you’re about to learn more about. Colin is beyond generous with his time and energy and is an inspiration in thinking about how your work can affect an infinite amount of people around you.

Could you tell us a bit about your background and the kind of work you’re doing?

I’m an artist and musician. I don’t play music as much as I used to, and I’m also an inclusive design researcher. So my artwork revolves around what I call “post-computational systems” meaning I’m very much interested in the kind of cultural currency that computational systems circle in, both formally and socially.

This is inevitably connected to my inclusive design practice as I’m also the associate director of the Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University where I work with our team of designers, developers, researchers, to create policies, technologies and design methods to support the full diversity of human inclusion.

Can you tell me a bit more about what the art entails and what are post-computational systems?

So I create software tools to make my artwork with. And these have invariably started as little things that I wanted to do for my own practice or something I wanted to learn and understand better. Back around 2010-2011 I had been working for close to a decade with Supercollider, a digital signal processing environment that runs on Mac, Windows and Linux computers, and I found myself despite having read every book I could find about Supercollider, thinking about Supercollider, which is quite an interesting environment, because it takes many different programming languages and draws inspiration from them into one programming language and digital signal processing environment. I wanted to learn more about how these things work so using technology that I was interested in, (mostly web-based technology), I built a system called Flocking which is a web-based composition and signal processing environment.

And this was really just kind of a weekend project, I think I was actually sick with a cold at the time and I thought I was well enough to say “I’m bored, let me learn something”, and I often learn by making things, so I started what I thought was just a quick experiment to build with very new-at-the-time Web Audio APIs that were coming into web browsers, I built a whole signal processing environment, and slowly over the years have been growing that more and more. 

And at the same time my own creative practice was starting to shift: I had composed for both electronic media as well as new music, small ensembles, chamber music and I had sort of felt various unconnected frustrations with how performances and how the classical music environment works that I wanted to get back into image making and bought a video camera and went back to school. I did a Masters in Fine Art here at OCAD, where I started creating videos that it in some way reflect a relationship with sound. But most of my videos are silent.

So having built this whole audio digital signal processing environment, I started to become interested in how musical signals and algorithms could actually influence the videos I was starting to make, and so I built another programming environment, which I called Aconite, which is a web-based video compositing environment. The idea is that it gives you the basic tools for playing back multiple layers of video and then providing you with effects like playing with opacity and other effects using a technology called WebGL. 

I’ve probably done about 3 hours of videos using Aconite. And this was a personal thing. I was curious about, what would it look like if I used these musical or sonic structures and then fed that into the video environment? The media archaeologist Wolfgang Ernst talks about how media technologies create their own scales and systems of time and how they directly influence our human perception of time. He talks about sound having this silent or implicit aspect even when you can’t hear it, there are lots of sound or signal technologies that affect your sense of time.

So, my artwork, especially my video artwork is really interested in how musical senses of time and signal processing affect your perceptions. And this connects as you can imagine with my inclusive design work thinking about multiple forms of representation – if you can’t hear sound can you see the effects of sound? Of course in a totally different way by watching these videos or whatever else I’ve done, I’ve also done work with sonification and various forms of visualization. That was a long answer to your question!

That’s great. So when did you finish the MFA in Fine Art?

I think it was in 2016, I did it part time while continuing a full time research practise here at OCAD. It took me four years part time, and by the time I finished I had a long screening of videos, some of which were specifically algorithmic, meaning I had written software to make them work, others were a little bit more indirect. I was interested in the formal processes, the way that certain technical operations even if they weren’t algorithmic, could again affect your sense of time and that kind of thing. 2016 I finished that MFA.

So you have the two frameworks, what kind of things are you doing at the moment?

That’s a good question, there’s now a third technology that’s aiming to bring these two frameworks, flocking the sound one and aconite the video one together. So in January I did a two week residency at a place called Signal Culture in Owego New York, and Signal Culture is like a home of a whole tradition of video art that I became more aware of in the past few years which is very much video performance, performance in the sense of being able to treat video as a kind of live or musical medium. So Dave Jones, an engineer who built all of these analog video processors, starting in the 70s, and if you’ve seen any Gary Hill videos, Dave Jones’ electronics are a big part of Gary Hill’s work in the late 70s, and it’s amazing this tiny town in upstate New York that really seems to be a centre for all kinds of video artists who are interested in the relationship of video and music to time.

So I spent two weeks in Owego in a studio, shooting video, and making a thing that I’m calling Bubbles, which is a visual programming environment. It’s designed to be very simple. I call it a “modulation laboratory”, so you can bring layers of video and then start playing with different parameters. I’ve probably got maybe months if not years of programming work to get that more polished, but I’ve been putting out video pretty regularly mostly kind of poetic meditation on time through the footage that I shot while I was in Owego.

When I was on this residency there was a guy named Dave Mosier who does a lot with analog and digital video processing technology, and I showed him my prototype, you know a couple of weeks work. And he said “I just spent a couple thousand dollars on a korg kaptivator”, which is a video sampler, and he said basically it did what my software does. “How much am I going to have to pay for this when it’s available?”, and I said “it’s free, it’s open source.”

Well with Flocking I know you’ve built up a community that contributes to it, I’m wondering what you did that, and if there’s a similar thing happening with Aconite and will be with Bubbles as well?

I’m more conservative with Aconite mostly because I learned over the years how much work it is to support and maintain a community. I think there’s been lots of writing about the downsides to open source as a way of working and the way that invisible labour propagates. Often in open source, you have very big companies who are using the software for free while you have maintainers who become increasingly overworked. Whereas the Flocking community has always been wonderful, and it makes it all the more satisfying, you know if someone has a bug or a problem, and often they’re in a hurry they’re stressed, they might be complaining a little bit, but you know the thing about flocking and other creative tools is I can always say, after I fix their problem, I say “send me a link to what you’re working on”, and it makes it so satisfying to do that work and see all the artwork that comes out of it.

For me I’m interested in a creative practice that is connected even when it’s not intentionally connected. I like the idea that I can make a tool for my artwork, and somebody else without having to make art like me or be in my neighbourhood can do things with the same technology and maybe give something back to me and to others so that in a sense my work is sort of like writing poems or something – it’s very small and fairly low key, quiet stuff, and yet the way I can connect that work with a whole a field of other artists is by creating tools and sharing it with them. Of course as I’ve said it has its downsides, it can be stressful and time-consuming and I’ve become quite slow with Flocking because of how much work on my weekends and evenings it can be, but every time I see Adam Tindale do a performance with Flocking, or other artists who make websites with it, it makes it worth it.

How do you release your work at the moment? You said you post videos, how do you do that?

Yeah, so the past two big pieces I’ve done have been installations. I show them in a space, usually I’ve designed the piece in some way for the event or the space. I think in both cases in the last two they were designed as part of conferences that I was somehow involved in and then I post the videos on Vimeo. I release them as Creative Commons licensed meaning again there’s some questioning of the conventional intellectual property models for how artwork, you know again I want to see my artwork used in the context of community. And community means reciprocity fairness, that kind of thing. And then I also post things to Instagram.

The one I’m doing now, I want to be a cinema piece. I love, almost more than almost anything I love sitting in a dark room and having that experience of light coming on you and the scale of a cinema and that sort of thing. Installations are great for a different model of time, and it’s the time where you can come and go, people are sort of getting a glimpse of it and they do something else. So the last piece that I did which was an installation, was a series of three portraits and it played in a room filled with oil painting portraits while we were doing other activities, our social events, our conference talks that kind of stuff. But it became another part of the space, like another personality in the space and I really liked that. But it’s really nice to just sit a dark room and be quiet for an hour or two.

You said you went on the residency. What are the benefits of a residency for you, and you how do you find different residences and different events to be a part of, because seems like they help you work on your art?

I think most artists like residencies, and they’re a big and important thing. This was my first residency, I found out about it by learning about Signal Culture and then becoming totally obsessed… I felt like in some ways I had been practising through my MFA, like without knowing, I knew lots of video art history, but this is one thing when I saw Dave Jones’ work and other artists in Owego, I thought “there is a context that I’ve been working in that I’ve been missing!”. 

And so you know I just did some research and found it. I’m on a good media art mailing list, I think it’s called Flicker that posts screenings and opportunities. For me, because I have this design practise that keeps me busy, two weeks of time somewhere else was hugely creative and then to be there. So Signal Culture in particular really thinks about who they pair up. There are two studios at any given time, so I had amazing conversations with two artists who were there, and met a number of artists who were visiting while I was in town. It’s a place to go to be quiet and work on your work, and let it unfold. What I’ve found is that when I’m working, and most creative coders feel this way, when you have a project deadline, there’s a time horizon that you have to cut things off for. Because it’s like it’s got to get done and this piece has got to be shown.

So to resolve that with my interest in taking a piece of my artwork and using as a way to catalyze a community around it, in a sense of people who could use those tools, you are always rushing the parts that might make the most use to other people or for other artworks. And so by going to Owego I had to weeks to say “no rushing”. They didn’t want a piece finished by the end of it, they just said start a piece. So with Bubbles I was able to get the infrastructure, the thing that you of course always would have to rush, spaghetti coding, you know when the deadline is approaching. This time I was able to take it slow and understand how every piece of code fit together. Every day I would draw a new version of the UI so that I knew where it was going and where I wanted to take it.

Is it safe to say that you’re probably more of a fan of releasing a framework of code, rather than a snippet?

So I do all three, there’s a framework, there’s a piece, and there’s a snippet. I tend to make frameworks because I want to be able to give a whole platform of things for people to try to do. I also want to make the process of making my next piece easier, and for me the only way to do that is with a framework, because if I only had snippets, I’d be going “where did I put that one? Where did I post this?” If I make a framework, what I’m trying to do is while I’m working on a piece, and this is why I’m slow as an artist, I’m always thinking “can I put a little in here, so that the next piece is a bit easier?”. But I love gist, github’s post a snippet, and there’s like various paste sites. For me making a whole artwork is more interesting than doing a demo.

What advice do you have for younger people at the university, what do you try to tell them about working in the creative world and doing these kinds of projects, that you maybe could’ve told yourself when you were younger?

I think I alluded to the challenges of open source earlier. I think sharing your work is what makes an artist. So an artist doesn’t share, doesn’t have opportunities for crits (critiques), the great thing about a screening or hanging an installation is you see it not through your own eyes but other people’s eyes. And I think it’s the same for creative coders so you need to see your code through, in some way, the practise of other people, and if even just a little piece of it that you can share with someone else, I think it’s incredibly useful to do so, and to create a kind of sociality around coding, because often with coding you’re in your studio, or your basement, or attic or wherever and it’s solitary, so to create a community around it is really important. And also to be ready that creating a community can be really hard work. Sometimes it’s ok to take your time and ignore the bug reports.

Thanks Colin for taking the time to do this interview. Make sure to stop by his site, watch some videos, listen to music and download his software.

Interview edited for length and clarity when needed.