Friday, March 10, 2006

Web Design, 2.0.

Mash-ups, graphically.

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link to original piece.

The Chaos of Joshua Davis

He's a punk, a provocateur, the bad boy of Web design. They call him the Jackson Pollock of the Internet age. He calls them a few choice four-letter words. But everyone from BMW to the Tate Modern wants a piece of him.
By Scott Kirsner

The first music Joshua Davis cranks up every morning, after he has carried a mug of coffee from his kitchen to the backyard barn that serves as his studio, is "Refused Are Fucking Dead," a punk diatribe by a Swedish band called Refused that foretells the group's crash and burn. Davis pounds the edge of his desk in rhythm, getting stoked for the day ahead. "My theme song," he says.

Davis is dressed in black - baseball cap, cords, long-sleeve sweater - accented by red socks and bright orange sneakers. His head is shaved from a recent surgery to remove a cyst. Three skulls are tattooed on the fingers of his left hand, and patches of inked skin peek out from his sleeves and the neck of his sweater. Inside the barn, there are skateboards hanging on the walls, six computers, a Wacom digital sketch tablet, a widescreen TV, several gaming consoles, a vintage Centipede arcade game, and a vast chalkboard showing Davis' upcoming speaking gigs: Mexico City in March, Toronto in April, Barcelona in May. Perched on a windowsill is a winged, Oscar-like statuette he received in 2001 from the prestigious European digital culture center Ars Electronica.

There are two ways to get noticed as an artist. You can stick to a familiar formula, like Thomas Kinkade with his prodigious output of country cottages that look perfect hung above the chenille sofa in a bed-and-breakfast. Or you can have a fresh shtick, something that kicks convention to the curb. Davis' shtick is provocation.

At 34, he's a skateboarding ex-cocaine addict whose body is tattooed almost as thoroughly as Tommy Lee's. He seeks ­confrontation at every turn. Addressing a recent gathering of several hundred architects in Ohio, Davis - who is completely unschooled in their field - boasted that his art- generating software could help them come up with bright ideas whenever they hit creative blocks. "Sure, that pissed some people off," he says. At the TED conference last year in Monterey, California, Davis greeted the technology, entertainment, and design bigwigs in the audience by calling them "special assholes." Then he referred to Jackson Pollock as a "conceptual prick." He asserts that he doesn't go to museums or surf the Net. "What's on the Net? Google, porn, Amazon, and my work," Davis says. "I want to bring something to the Net that's not on the Net."

Davis creates what he calls generative composition machines: applications written with his collaborator Branden Hall, ­using open source code and Flash to automate his sketches. He plugs in multiple options - say, five different drawings of a tree trunk, 10 types of leaves, seven branches, 15 critters that can live in the foliage, and 12 background colors. Then his code morphs the image from pas toral scenescape into any number of moving visuals - a time-lapse sequence of continental drift, a single frame of anime burning in front of a projector lens, or a Japanese landscape painting rendered as spin art.

For Davis, content is everywhere. While walking on the beach in Croatia a few years ago, he picked up a shard of earthen ware that eventually served as the base ingredient for a piece of his art. He drew a version of its pale blue fleur-de-lis pattern on the Wacom tablet and changed it into other shapes and forms onscreen. He's also pulled colors off the cover of his daughter's Snow White DVD and used jellyfish at the Coney Island aquarium to give him ideas on shape and movement.

For all his antics - some of which are, to be sure, an act that barely disguises his nice guy bona fides - Davis pays the bills shilling for the Man. Right now, he's working on BMW's new Z4 coupe. "Yeah, I'll do it - why not?" he says. "I'll fly to ­Germany, sit in a room, and write code for my artwork. Hell, yeah." With projects completed or under way for clients as ­diverse as Barneys New York, Nike, Nokia, Diesel, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Tool, Davis has become the badass artiste mainstream America turns to for edgy branding.

"Having Josh create something new based on the car's design sounded like something that would get people talking," says Oliver Schmid, head of Dorten, the Stuttgart, Germany, ad agency that hired Davis for the BMW project. "We did think about how BMW would react to his persona - there were moments when we thought, this is going too far."

Davis is writing software for BMW that will generate 1,500 prints, each unique, inspired by the Z4's colors and lines. It's a clever twist on an artist's standard process of producing a batch of lithographs of a particular work. In this age of mass customization, Davis is saying, why not make every item an original? And who cares if a machine - not the artist - actually made the changes between prints 213 and 214?

Davis grew up in the suburbs of Denver. After high school, he bummed around the Arapahoe Basin ski area in Colorado, teaching snowboarding. A bus bench he painted for a Denver art festival in 1992 landed him on the front page of the Rocky Mountain News. Three days later, with a few hundred dollars in his pocket, he moved to New York, determined to become an artist. "I slept on a lot of floors," he recalls.

He got into New York's influential Pratt Institute but quit when Netscape 2.0 was released in 1995. "It felt like this defining moment," he says. "There were about three of us at Pratt who got the Net; there was no HTML course at the school."

He landed a succession of jobs at Manhattan design firms. He pushed JavaScript, Shockwave, and Flash beyond what was thought possible, making static Web pages spring to life for clients like Volkswagen and Sean "Diddy" Combs.

But it was Davis' personal sites, like PrayStation, once upon a forest, and the design community site Dreamless, that built his rock star rep. "I'd be working for JPMorgan during the day," he says, "and then I'd go home and do my own stuff for eight hours." Winning a top award from Ars Electronica changed Davis' reputation. He was no longer viewed as just a clever Web designer, but as an artist using code as a medium. "Code is just as artistic as using paint and a brush," he says. "Besides, I don't see the point of painting the same way a bunch of dead pricks did in the 15th century."

While Davis believes his creativity is the code behind his artwork, museums and collectors still place their emphasis on the print. The art crowd may be open to buying something that essentially requires a maintenance contract, but as John Maeda, an interactive pioneer who teaches at the MIT Media Lab, points out, no one wants to act as the maintenance man or service technician ad infinitum.

But selling his prints - which freeze the visual representation of his software at a single moment in time and tend to go for about $500 each - strikes Davis as something of a contradiction. "I'm creating something that's ever-changing, and here I am, eternalizing it. Am I just fucking myself?" He says the work "wants to live in the machine. It almost doesn't want to be on paper. It will crash the machine when you try to print it out. There are just too many layers and vectors."

Of course, Davis isn't the first artist to stand out for rogue techniques. He's routinely compared to Pollock, who lived at the other end of Long Island and came up with a whole new approach to painting. It's tough not to compare the two - ­unhealthy attachment to mind-altering substances, bristling persona, studio barns, unorthodox technique. Davis isn't a fan of Pollock's work, but he admits that he's an artistic descendant.

"Pollock showed that there was beauty in randomness," he says. "There was chance, because the brush he used to drip the paint was above the surface of the canvas. It's a good start. I'm going to take that idea further: The painting is never the same from one second to the next."

Big-name museums, particularly those in Europe, are taking notice of Davis' work, even as they struggle with how to display it. Among the museums and galleries exhibiting Davis are the Tate Modern, the Design Museum, and the Institute for Contemporary Arts (all in London), MoMA affiliate P.S.1 in New York, and Centre Pompidou in Paris. Davis also teaches at Manhattan's School for Visual Arts and gives workshops around the world.

"He shepherded a whole generation of coders who wanted to become more design- oriented, and designers who wanted to become more code-oriented," says humorist and Web artist Ze Frank. "Lots of multimedia artists say they want the experience of engaging with their work to be as immersive as music," says Alice Rawsthorn, director of the Design Museum. "Joshua is one of the few to pull it off."

Sporting blue suede bowling shoes and toting his own ball in a black vinyl bag, Davis strolls into Sheridan Lanes, an alley in suburban Long Island. "Bowling is the only generative sport," he says. Each time his green and yellow ball glides down the lane, it collides with the pins in a new way. It's barely controlled chaos, just like his art. Polishing off a cheeseburger, Davis proceeds to roll three strikes in the final frames of his warm-up game.

During the drive back to his studio, Davis rattles off an ambitious to-do list, gaining momentum as he speaks. He'd like to figure out how to distribute his software through an open source license and put together a plan to bring his art- making machines to the fashion world. Perhaps he'll make and sell a series of shirts and bags, each of which would look slightly different. He's working on an exhibition for later this year at New York's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. And on his next trip to Spain, he's planning to add a new tatoo to his right hand: CHAOS.

Scott Kirsner (skirsner@sbcglobal.net) is working on a book about Hollywood's love-hate relationship with new technologies.

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