Hero Worship

Archive for the ‘Concept’ Category

Hacking together a thesis: part 1

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

As I’ve been working on my current animation-web-photo-what have you thesis project, I’ve spent more time than usual researching tech solutions. This has been something of a luxury as I’ve had the opportunity to experiment with a number of languages and frameworks that I normally don’t get the opportunity to use. On the other hand, it’s also been a struggle for me to choose the tool best suited for the job, because as anyone who codes knows, it’s the worst feeling in the world to be knee deep in one platform and come up against a major structural incompatibility with a core aspect of your project.

When I began this project I knew I wanted to build an interactive animation that changed based on an automated analysis of online user-generated text. Based on my previous animation experiments, I wanted the animation itself to be combination of traditional 2-d frame animation and composited photographs. I knew a little about developing web apps and natural language processing, but hoped the details of the project would develop as I learned more about the technology.

Because of the text analysis functionality, I decided that python was a good choice for a core language. Python also has a number of libraries that allow it to interface pretty easily with the Flickr api and Flickr  was where I had decided to pull images and text from.

I first experimented with Google App engine’s SDK for python, mainly because it was free. I was pleased with it at first, but soon became frustrated because I kept having to modify all of my python libraries to run correctly with the weird version of Python that app engine utilizes. I gave up and decided to build the back end of my site as a stand-alone install of Django on Apache with a PostgreSQL database. So far I’ve been really pleased with this choice. Aside from a bit of a hang-up in I encountered in efficiently serving static media, Django has really impressed me with its well-designed, easy to use data structure and accessible learning curve. (I know I’m late to the game in this regard, but I’ve already decided to run it as the back end for a number of my other projects after this one is wrapped up.)

In terms of hosting, for a while I was messing with Amazon’s EC2, but have since switched over to Webfaction. I think it was the right choice, as EC2 was a bit too barebones for someone with no experience in server administration. (I now know why sysadmins are so justifiably grumpy all of the time; their job is very, very difficult and they deserve far more appreciation than they receive.) I’m still using EC2 instances to run some topic modeling scripts real-quick-like, but all real-time processing functionality has been transferred to Webfaction. Once I was on Webfaction, it was a snap to install all of the natural language processing python libraries I needed (NLTK and Gensim) and their dependencies and get back to work.

Coming next, Part 2: Building an online animation engine wherein I sacrifice all developer cred and choose flash.


Monday, October 18th, 2010

Manikin reveals its internal structure through the user interaction. Manikin takes the form of a multi-user game that is set in a fictional city surrounded by a dome. In the city, players have the ability to interact with and manipulate the city’s inhabitants in two different modes, vector mode or developer mode. Each mode gives players a different perspective of the game and provides them with different options for interacting with the citizens of the city. The game play is organized around the same principles and rules that loosely define object-oriented programming. While experimenting with different strategies, players discover these rules and manipulate them in ways that allow shifts from centralized to decentralized systems. Players receive feedback in the form of game response.

Developer View

Vector View

Hardware Setup

Summer Research

Sunday, July 11th, 2010

Currently I’m doing a summer workshop with several different groups of high school students on new media literacy- specifically I’m spending a great deal of time having them analyze a variety of online tools and platforms that they personally rely on. This process has brought to my attention some specifics regarding the issue of online youth empowerment.

Within the groups I’m working with at the moment, an interesting dichotomy has emerged between the platforms they accept and those they reject. For the platforms or tools that they reject, they either exhibit extreme skepticism of their utility and a fear of privacy issues. These hesitations do not come from the direct experience with the platforms themselves, but rather through a general sense of wider privacy debates taking place in the media, and a youth cultural stigma against online interaction.

For the platforms that they do choose to accept, they tend to have a sense of the practical utility. They however have a diminished, if not completely non-existent sense of the larger functionality of the platform, particularly on issues of automated personalization and data ownership.

I’m continuing my work with these students and additional groups throughout the summer and into the fall. Currently they are working on analytical projects, but gradually we will be moving in to more practical projects based work. My goal through these workshops is to continue evaluating this dichotomy of acceptance and rejection, and also conduct research to address a number of questions that have emerged.

First, what criteria determine which platforms are accepted and which are rejected? For example, students are often dependent on facebook but reject twitter completely. There are clearly some obvious reasons for this, but interestingly, I’ve found so far that their largest criticism of Twitter is that it is a network for “stalkers”, however they don’t apply this same criticism to facebook, which shares many similar features. Often students seem to feel more comfortable using networks in which the parameters for use are clearly and strictly defined. Platforms with a more open-ended approach are generally disregarded. This pattern coincides with a greater educational trend that my colleagues and I have been encountering, where students are increasingly uncomfortable receiving assignments that do not have explicitly defined objectives and guidelines.

Second, both as educators and media makers, how do we foster a more sophisticated understanding of online functionality in youth users who both rely heavily on these systems, but are unable to leverage them in ways that maximize their personal, professional and social footing?

How do we allow them to simultaneously be aware of some of the potential risks and disadvantages of these platforms, while still enabling them to take advantage of the opportunities and benefits they offer?  Overall, how do we simultaneously create technical platforms and educational systems that create a sense of personal agency?

Keyframes + Composites

Monday, March 8th, 2010

The look of the animation is starting to come together. Video data has been gathered, key frames are almost complete Now the real work begins.





and a test video for the actual compositing:

Exploring Tests from jennifer jacobs on Vimeo.

[digital/online/networked] wandering

Monday, February 8th, 2010

Statistical data indicate that in terms of numbers, American cities are in decline. Since 1950, the majority of metropolitan population growth, (around 90 percent) , occurred in the suburbs. Roughly two out of three Americans lived in the sprawl extending outward from cities (via the Washington Post). Many individuals who inhabit cities view this transition as a sign of a larger cultural deterioration.

citytaken from my plane seat AFTER the captain had asked us to switch off all of our electronic devices


The cultural merits or limitations of suburban life aside, it is often asserted that one of the defining features of urban life is the regular potential for unpredictable and unintended interactions with a wide variety of strangers in a diverse set of environments. Jane Jacobs, in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities discusses this in her theory of the “ballet of the sidewalk. She states:

[Sidewalks] bring people who do not know each other together in an intimate private social fashion and in most cases do not care to now each other in that fashion…yet if interesting, useful and significant contacts among the people of cities are confined to acquaintanceships suitable for private life, the city becomes stultified. Cities are full of people with whom a certain degree of contact is useful or enjoyable, but you do not want them in your hair- and they do not want you in theirs either.

The probabilistic contact that the sidewalk and other public spaces provide allows for a form of interaction that is by in large specific to centers of high urban density. Because of the frequency with which people in these environments encounter strangers, the majority of interactions are limited to temporary occurrences without lasting effect. Despite this, the potential for significant interactions that result in creative output for the individuals involved is much higher because of the rate of interaction itself. As Jacobs elaborates, the rate of meaningful interactions with a creative outcome is high enough in a city like New York, that it creates the perception of New York itself as a catalyst for creative processes and cultural development. If a creative outcome is a goal in spite of the apparent decline of urban environments like New York, the question becomes, what new spaces, virtual or physical, foster creative, spontaneous interactions?

people on a subway platformpeople on a subway platform

I propose that online,networked space has the saturation density and technical architecture necessary to facilitate a form of diverse, public interaction comparable to that found in a highly populated urban area. The current standard of online identity as anonymous increases the average individual’s willingness to engage in a communication framework with other people who are outside of their immediate community. In fact, some sites like 4chan and Chatroulette are predicated on this very idea. Despite the fact that these online spaces bring with them the cultural baggage of the Internet itself, they regularly facilitate developments that extend beyond the context of the sites they were generated in, and they defy the conventions of those sites in the process. Image macros developed on 4chan message boards have evolved into larger cultural Internet trends that reach astronomical distribution rates among online users, and are even referenced occasionally in offline culture. Whereas these occurrences are the exception rather than the norm, their persistent occurrence is a testament to the creative potential of certain forms of online networks in which spontaneous engagements take place.

The process through which these connections are made, discovered and reflected is the result of a form of semi-objective exploration. Research being done about communities like twitter, facebook and wikipedia demonstrate the emergence of a demographic of users who browse through these communities in a non-patterned, non-hierarchical fashion. Their objective is exploratory and abstract, and while there are connections between the media they view and individuals they associate with, the path they follow to access them is in many respects the digital equivalent of wandering. In her 2009 talk on social media use, media researcher Danah Boyd likens the exploration of the non-objective online user to Baudelaire’s concept of the flâneur (link), an individual who walks the city to understand it. These online users play a similar role as people who come to understand the space they inhabit by progressing through it without a determined purpose. Similarly, like the flâneur, their presence helps to shape the larger group behavior of the spaces they inhabit.

hooray for flow charts! (click for enlarged version)

A project is currently in the works to study the parallels in public interaction between physical urban space and online network space. I intend to examine how the role of the individual unfolds in both of these situations. I specifically want to demonstrate any contrasts between risk and depth of connection, chaos and control mechanisms, security and surveillance, and levels of engagement. I will explore contrasts using time-based work created with a combination of animation (both traditional and generative) and video. The video will be taken of real physical urban environments and serve as the backdrop for an animation, which will define the individuals who engage in various forms of interaction.

The comparison between these two spaces will be achieved by viewing one in the visual language and mechanics of the other. In this case, the elements of the urban street network will be filtered through the structure of an online network. The differences between the way we actually experience these spaces and how they are conceived in the piece will be emphasized through massive and non-linear jumps in context- a practice that is naturally facilitated through the hyper-structure of the web, but realistically inconceivable in a physical environment where rules of linearity and travel time are explicit. The city will be treated as a database, and its elements will be organized in an indexed structure. The underlying narrative of the piece is of an uncertain search- a process of looking for something that the searcher has yet to define. The piece will trace the path of an individual as she travels through a fictional city on this search, documenting her encounters along the way. The points of interest along the journey and the interactions she has with other people will be familiar to an urban audience, but the way in which these points are referenced, displayed and changed will be in accordance with database and hyper-media architecture rather than the rules of physical space. Non-linear access, user variability, aggregation, and duplication will influence how the experiences of the individual are displayed.

stay tuned- Next week: Storyboards?!?

Surface Value Working Version

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

Surface Value from jennifer jacobs on Vimeo.

Surface Value is work that addresses the relationship between femininity and surface value. Since the advent of photography, the nature of the object has undergone constant change. In many respects, images now take precedence over objects, experiences and events. These images are pervasive in nature and dictate a new value system in which worth is determined through constant accumulation and revision. This value structure is becoming inscribed on us as individuals wherein we take the perceived value of the images we surround ourselves with as an indicator of our own worth. As a result, our identities are becoming as disposable as these projections. Surface Value uses the archetype of the android as a metaphor to explore this condition. As the piece progresses a roving camera, meticulously explores the central character, a female android. As an object, the android is purely surface. Its interiors are as accessible as its exteriors and both have been crafted with the expectation that they will be closely examined and evaluated. While these surfaces are beautiful, they are also two-dimensional. The android is not more than the sum of its parts as indicated by the fact that we never see all of it at once. Because it is artificial, the android while appearing valuable will inevitably be dismantled and discarded through the scrutiny it is meant to withstand.

Feminine Aspects of Surface

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

Another question from a group member on the piece:

One thing that jumps out at me about what I’ve seen of the piece so far is that the images are very “female.” I don’t know if this is something you’d address in your piece or not, but I wonder about the connection between having an android have gendered characteristics (like painted fingernails and lipstick) and ideas around “surface” and artificiality of identity. 

I’m glad you said something about the markers of femininity i’ve placed throughout the piece and i probably should have addressed them before hand. The selection of these images- made-up lips, painted nails etc, and the gender of the android as a female are very deliberate choices. I want to make a clear association between this type of false identity and a woman because i believe that women more than men are valued for their surface appearance, and discarded just as quickly. My animation attempts to associate this process with destruction and violence. A big part of my inspiration behind this piece was my reading of Jon Berger’s Ways of Seeing. The book examines western cultural aesthetics and talks about the idea of “the male gaze” and how it shapes art and advertising. One passage that resonates with my piece specifically talks about how a man’s presence suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you, while a woman’s presence expresses her attitude towards herself and defines what can and cannot be done to her. Berger says that a woman must continually survey herself because how she appears to others is ultimately what will determine her success. As a result of this idea, the concept of the value of surface in our culture holds more weight when addressed in terms of the feminine.

Surface Concept Clarification

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

This question was raised about the concept behind my piece:

I just finished looking at your updated blog and I was really captured by your last statement that you made “At its core I am attempting to address this question: 

As the surfaces of our culture become more ubiquitous and intimately tied to our definitions of ourselves, what will be the end result when they are discarded?” 

which really caught my attention because it made me wonder if our culture would ever get discarded.  If anything I believe that it would be added on since it would need a basis…unless I misinterpreted your sentence.  Why would you think it would get discarded?  


I’ll try to answer your question as best i can. I’m not suggesting that culture as a whole is something that can be erased instantaneously. Cultural shifts are a gradual and amalgamated process. It appears to me that the rate at which cultural icons and trends are emerging and subsequently being cast off is increasing rapidly. My piece is meant to portray an exaggeration or type of symbolism of the end result of this accelerated cycle. There will be, i believe a breaking point Eventually something will have to change in how we process our culture and furthermore, who dictates our culture to us. I’m very interested to see what that will be.

Surface Concept Continued

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

Munsterberg postulates about the parallels between a piece of technology- the film projector/ camera and the psychological processes that human beings operate under. He talks about how the way we process memory is very similar to how events are depicted on screen. This innate connection between our mental processes and our technology is what fascinated me about Munsterberg. I often use the archetypes of androids and robots in my own work and I felt that these symbols resonated well with some of the concepts he presents. Film is a byproduct of technology that shows how we think through a direct representation of our mental imagery. A humanoid robot is a counterpoint to this process in that it shows how we wish to perceive ourselves. Both these symbols show humanity’s predilection for self-emulation, although some of this may be subconscious on our part. Making a film about the examination and deconstruction of an android is a way of exploring the relationship between artificial consciousness and our own awareness, and deciding where the line that separates the two lays. But in saying this, I want to make this clear that this is not a piece about the nature of “artificial intelligence” but rather the reproducibility and superficiality of our own psyches. This is where Holmes’ piece comes into play. I should emphasize that the ideas expressed in his writing had a bigger influence on this project than Munsterberg. The idea Holmes presents is that the value of objects will eventually lie in their surface images and the reproduction of these images, rather than the objects themselves. For me, this idea is embodied by the android. They are manufactured objects, facsimiles that are representations of the organic in a detached way.  As a result they are all surface, they are perceived as valuable, but innately also disposable. This quality of destruction, detachment and disposal is at the center of my piece. At its core I am attempting to address this question: As the surfaces of our culture become more ubiquitous and intimately tied to our definitions of ourselves, what will be the end result when they are discarded?

Art Versus the Individual

Thursday, September 25th, 2008

Last week I completed my first experience with true anonymous public art. Today, I returned for the first time to the place of the act and found my works had been vandalized and destroyed. This was the end result I fully anticipated when I began this project, however despite that, I was left with feelings of antipathy. I’m not sure exactly who or what these feelings were directed at, however I was surprised to find that they existed all the same. Thinking more on the issue raised a great deal of personal questions for me about the concept of true public art and where it stands in context to the individual.

As I recently learned, the idea of art as an elevated form of creation is a relatively new idea. It makes sense that in our highly individualized culture in America, this mode of thinking would be reflected by an idolization and elevation of the figure of “the artist”. Inevitably we focus on the creator to contextualize their creations rather than holding the works in the sphere of public response and effect. It is not what is done but rather, who has done it. This may be natural within a conventional art setting, but I find it interesting that it has also become a large part of the discussion of non-conventional street art and other forms of public work. Works that are created with a degree of anonymity are now, through the landscape of mass media instantly attributed to an individual or if the individual is not directly known, speculated upon. This identification of authorship can be the work of the audience or the artist, it often varies, however the end result is the same. We hold the meaning of the pieces in terms of the nature of the character of the artist and their previous works. Perhaps this process is inevitable, but it does have the ability to color our opinion on what is perceived as valid and what is not. If a stencil can be attributed to an artist with a reputation like Banksy, it instantaneously holds more credit in someone’s mind. This credit is not necessarily irrelevant, however it is somewhat ironic given that an artist like Banksy initially created work in an undistinguished nameless process that was as essential to his ends as the completed pieces themselves.

These ideas, taken in terms of my own art have left me uncertain of my motivations. I have always created art as a way of personal reflection, both literally and mentally. But now, I am beginning to wonder how much of my motivation has been completely rooted in the desire to promote my individual quality over the motivation to produce actual work.  I think that some level of introspection is always necessary when producing art. The question is, when, if ever does that introspection transform itself into something independent of the creator. Can the work and the artist ever be fully separated or is that impossible considering the nature of our society?