At first glance, their recent multimedia installation Collide featuring a 20-metre digital video screen and a 54-channel speaker system, is an intriguing artistic statement in its own right: The wall-length screen projects hypnotic abstract shapes in radiant colour combinations, fading rhythmically in and out of the visual space as the speakers hum an entrancing soundscape played on three cellos. Yet beneath its sleek, multi-coloured surface, Collide is actually an intricate give-and-take between its creators, a cast of performers and a truckload of state-of-the-art technology.
Like much of onformative’s work, the abstract visuals that fill the screen in Collide, resembling splashes of watercolour at times, or evoking a ride through a psychedelic carwash at others, are in fact created by using computer code to selectively transform datasets into artistic expressions. With Collide, motion is a key theme and the datasets are derived from 3D video recordings of dancers’ movements, a technique that also features in onformative’s 2012 video Unnamed Soundsculpture.
The dancer’s natural movements are quantified and re-encoded to create a digital visualisation. Similarly, the accompanying soundtrack is a marriage of cutting edge technology and artistic prowess: Cellists immerse themselves in the visualisations by watching them on virtual-reality goggles. At the same time, they play a prepared piece of music, allowing their bows to glide, sometimes sliding beneath the bridge, in response to the colours and shapes, oscillating between sustained tone clusters and ethereal glissando.
I spoke with Julia Laub and Cedric Kiefer beneath the vaulted brick ceilings of their Friedrichshain studio. Walking into their sunny fifth floor space feels as much like entering a tech start-up’s office as it does entering a design studio: Each member of the onformative team is typing silently, concealed behind double monitors. Technology is clearly essential to the studio’s work, yet Julia and Cedric told me they like to think of their work not so much as ‘data-driven’ but more as ‘data-inspired’. This suggests that they are not merely following patterns dictated by a set of statistics, rather they ultimately rely on their instincts as artists when converting information into an art experience. Essentially any phenomenon can be converted into data and then re-encoded to generate an artistic representation. For Julia and Cedric, the creative process involves nurturing a relationship between a world of numerical values and a world of emotional impact, finding beauty and inspiration even in places as unlikely as mobile-phone user statistics. As such, their creative vision takes place at the intersection of technology, art, behaviour studies, engineering and design.
Julia and Cedric are trailblazers in the territory of generative design, a practice that involves feeding data (real-time or pre-recorded) through computer algorithms to fuel the design process, generating, for example, abstract digital art. While still a graphic design student, Julia literally ‘wrote the book’ on the topic: she co-authored Generative Design (2009), today widely viewed as a foundational textbook in this quickly expanding field. The duo connected online when Julia sought Cedric’s input while working on the book. Their initial contact, via Skype, was the start of a creative partnership that has since grown into the onformative studio. Today, with Julia working as managing director and Cedric as creative lead, onformative boasts a portfolio that has captured imaginations around the world and a list of patrons that includes the likes of Nike and Porsche. I spoke with the duo about turning data into art, and about their approach to working together as artists.
So what does it mean for you to be a part of a ‘creative partnership’?
CK: I think our perception of what it means to work together as creative partners has changed over the last six years since we started. The way we collaborate has changed, because we had to find who’s actually comfortable with what role.
JL: Our roles have evolved so that Cedric now focusses on the creative side while I focus on the management or production side. We found that this is a good way for us to distribute tasks. If you have two people always working on the creative side, it gets to a point where two creative minds can easily clash. So, at some point we knew this was a better approach: for one person to handle the creative side and one to handle production.
CK: The way of working that started to make sense to us is that Julia creates an environment that makes it easier for me to come up with creative ideas. At the same time, it’s important for us both to have each other as a sparring partner.
How long did you work together before you found out you needed to divide your roles in this way?
JL: It happened very gradually, over three or four years. It was not just one decision. We didn’t say: ‘Ok, from now on, I’m working on the management side…’ We both came from creative backgrounds and it just developed into this.
Cedric, when you say that Julia creates an environment in which you can be creative, what does that environment look like?
CK: Well, there are definitely things that I am not really good at. That’s where Julia comes in. She structures things, organises things, keeps track of things. If you work as a studio like we do, then it’s not just sitting around creating things all day; that’s maybe thirty percent of the work. The rest is making sure things get done in time, everything stays in budget, teams are managed, clients are managed. Even for the self-initiated [non-commissioned] projects we do, there’s still a lot to manage. It’s not just experimenting and playing around. That’s cool, but if you aren’t able to do the other seventy percent, you slowly come to an end, because a studio like ours could never operate without good management.
Your relationship is strictly professional, but I think those of us who are married, or in relationships, are quite intrigued by people like you who can work so effectively together and succeed as partners over a longer period of time. How do you deal with disagreements?
JL: We’ve always gotten along really well, but, as in every partnership, we have our disagreements from time to time. There’s never been anything that we couldn’t work through. It’s important to discuss things. To talk about things with each other.
CK: Kind of like in a marriage or a relationship, I think it’s good to have a disagreement and a discussion every once in a while just to rearrange things. We’ve had points in the last few years where we’ve had different opinions about where to go as a studio or which projects to take on, and we still don’t agree on everything, but we just keep talking about things.
Follow-up married-people question: do you ever feel like the relationship holds you back?
JL: No, I’ve never felt limited. I feel enhanced. Without Cedric, the studio would not exist for me. I think he feels the same.
CK: Absolutely. I have the feeling Julia might have had times where she felt less important because she wasn’t actively working on the creative aspects, without really seeing how important her work is for myself and the rest of us in the studio. You can really see, when she’s on vacation for two weeks, everything slowly starts to fall apart without her. I don’t have any plans of working anywhere else. This partnership is not something that I can easily replace. I definitely would never start my own studio. If anything, I would join another one, but I don’t have any plans to do that.
JL: I think it’s hard to find somebody who really fits…
CK: …just say the word: ‘soulmate’.
[We all laugh]
JL: … it’s not easy to find someone where our way of working is so compatible.
CK: We have seen a lot of creative duos or trios working in design over the years. Often it doesn’t work out, because they don’t manage to find one route that they can agree on between themselves. If you have two or three people who are all really strong in one area, then there can be a lot of collisions. That’s not easy to overcome sometimes.
You two met while Julia was working on the book «Generative Design». What was that like?
JL: Yes, we started an exchange while I was working on the book. I would send him content and ask for his opinion and then he contributed a bit, changing code and helping me out with creating cool stuff out of the code.
CK: It was something that was all so new to me at that time and I was really interested.
JL: I mean, we were both students at that time, so it was about experimenting and exchanging and chatting the entire night.
How did you find out that you two could work together as full-on creative partners?
JL: We really enjoyed discussing all kinds of topics with each other. We did a lot of Skyping at night. I would just ask him for an opinion and we’d talk for hours.
CK: It’s kind of like how you would tell the story of meeting your wife on an online dating platform, except on a professional level [laughs].
Sometimes people will ask us if we’re also a couple, but we’re not. We’re just working together. But it wasn’t that different, and we actually made the decision quite quickly for me to move to Berlin and then to found the studio.
Fragments of RGB
Your work covers many different styles and artistic disciplines. How do you find out which direction you want to take?
JL: It really depends on the project. Sometimes the client has data they want to visualise and so then we dig into the data and see what’s the story in the data. Sometimes it’s the other way around; we want to make a specific visualisation happen and then we look for which data would fit.
CK: Or it’s about the topic. If you take a topic like ‘communication’, which is a nice topic to build something upon, then that becomes the starting point, not the dataset. Working with data has different meanings for us; it doesn’t have to be sets of numbers; it can be input of any kind. Motion data, for example. Everything can be decoded somehow, made into numbers. If you work digitally, it’s always about encoding or decoding and transforming information from one state to another. That could mean turning numbers into beautiful visuals, but at the same time it could be about tracking motion over time to create a shape, which is also transforming data in some kind of way.
Is your work always data-driven?
JL: It depends on what you see as data. Everything could possibly be data. If you create an interactive piece, then the user’s interaction is also data, for example. In some way, if you break it down, then everything is data-driven, but I wouldn’t call it ‘data-driven’ in the classical sense.
CK: It’s often data-inspired or data-influenced. We’re not really doing ‘data visualisation’ in that sense. It’s often more about using data in an abstract, artistic way. Data could also often be a source of inspiration, but, as Julia said, it’s not really data-driven in the classical sense. We’re not making graphs or infographics or that kind of stuff.
Let’s call it onformative
What does your creative process look like?
CK: If you have to sum it up, it’s about looking at things that inspire us and using them to come up with something new. We’re not limited to a specific topic or a specific medium, so we just take on everything that we like; we get inspiration from social influences or from other artistic disciplines like dance or classical music or…
CK: Yes, nature is a big source of input. But also technology. So anything that’s relevant today could be a starting point or a source of inspiration for us to create something else. If we talk about our self-initiated projects, the outcome is often undefined and open. We just see where it leads us.
These days, Skype is often step one in building relationships of all kinds, whether personal or professional. Yet Julia and Cedric are perhaps the only Skype contact to ever turn their digital correspondence into a work of art. Their Let’s call it onformative project, created in 2011 to commemorate the studio’s first anniversary, is a poster containing stylish graphics that chronicle the pair’s Skype conversations over the years, starting with their first contact in 2008 (08.08.2008, to be precise). It is a perfect tribute to their creative process: A series of bubbles and squiggles, coral red on one side, charcoal grey on the other, sometimes sparse, sometimes densely clustered, map out the growth of a successful creative partnership, as well as what is clearly a close friendship.
Perhaps this is what Julia means when she talks about digging into a dataset to unearth its story. Looking at Let’s call in onformative, we can all envision our own Skype lifetimes, our own inspirational datasets, taking shape in little blips, overlaps and frequencies. Even the evolution of a partnership can be broken down into numbers, which, in turn, can be transformed into an intriguing image. That transformation, though, is the point at which the artists’ inspiration takes over, and this is something that is infinitely more difficult to quantify. As Cedric points out though, the numbers do not drive this process of artistic transportation, they inspire it. The artist’s process remains open-ended and some things, like the choice of a creative partner, are left to serendipity.