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The Creative Code of SPECULATIVE BIOLOGIES

By Leia Chang, edited by Chris Weir

Shown: “mad song of a little bird” by Elizabeth Leister

As an extension of our first in-person Artist Showcase since the pandemic, Gray Area hosted the virtual spotlight exhibition SPECULATIVE BIOLOGIES, featuring two new interactive media works from our Creative Code Intensive by Elizabeth Leister and Nathan Schager. Installed online and available for the public to experience for free, the pieces included in this selection speak to the capacity for simulation to serve as a mode of speculative discovery.

In this exclusive interview, these two artists spoke about their process, the concepts and execution behind their work, and what drives their artistic practices. Leister is an established media artist and a professor at CSUN who didn’t necessarily have a coding background before the intensive; Schager is programmer at TikTok and Stanford graduate with a creative side that was brought out by the intensive. Each with their unique backgrounds of practice, both artists worked in A-Frame to build 3D Web speculative biological artwork and VR experiences as part of Gray Area’s Creative Code Intensive.

We are excited to have Nathan Schager join as an instructor for the next in-person session of the Creative Code Intensive course starting on Tuesday, September 20th! Click here for information on how to apply, create, and showcase your creative code projects like these.

Elizabeth Leister’s “mad song of a little bird”

Still of “mad song of a little bird” by Elizabeth Leister

Elizabeth Leister is an LA-based digital media artist and professor whose practice includes video installation, drawing performance, and through the Intensive, augmented reality. For SPECULATIVE BIOLOGIES, Leister introduced her work “mad song of a little bird,” a two-part virtual and physical piece.

The virtual component of the work is an imagined 3D landscape suggesting land and sea plant-life, cohabitating in a future nature. Invoked into action by the climate crisis and need for environmental policy change, Leister was inspired to make an experiential piece to immerse her audience in an interactive world. She walked us through her process of creating this piece.

“A lot of artists during the pandemic were trying to build spaces as a way of escaping what was happening in our real spaces.”

And so her virtual garden of “mad song” is filled with abstract life, many of them models created by Leister in TiltBrush during Gray Area’s Creative Code course in early 2022. Amongst these models of life are interactable images that seem to recite lines from Clarice Lispector’s novel Agua Viva (Stream of Life).

Rather than merely presenting facts and data about bird populations and species disappearing, Leister to us she took a more poetic approach.

“It was really challenging working in HTML this way … but I imagine this is just the starting point. I imagine building three different gardens, one about birds, one about butterflies, and one about bees.”

Leister also created a physical simulation of what it might feel like to walk into that virtual space. Using projection mapping, Leister took video capture from that virtual world and projected it into her studio, leveraging her other practices such as performative drawing and experimental play. Created during the recent Roe v. Wade overturn, this portion of the work was both a companion piece to the virtual world of “mad song,” as well as commentary on our relationship with the environmental health of our planet and individuals’ body sovereignty.

“My work is always this push pull. I’m very interested in the digital and technology, but I’m also very interested in performance and the body.”

“I think that there are definitely connections to landscape, the environments, and feminism and women’s experiences, and it’s something that I’ve touched on in many of my projects in many ways … The struggle for autonomy, for respect for the body and the environment.”

“mad song of a little bird” is available online to explore here.

Nathan Schager’s “Abyssal Connections”

“Abyssal Connections” by Nathan Schager

Nathan Schager is an augmented reality, media artist, and programmer exploring unfixed and liminal, the in-betweens of identities and transformation. Based in the Bay Area, his work explores the use of simulation to create spaces for dialogue to occur between otherwise distant points. As a member of the Gray Area Incubator, Schager showcased his piece “Abyssal Connections” as part of SPECULATIVE BIOLOGIES.

“Abyssal Connections” is an interactive aquatic simulation of ethereal, glowing invertebrates. These creatures are individuals, communicating through a procedurally generated language only understood to them, but perceivable to the viewer through their bio-luminescent glowing. Inspired by the simplicity of their own pet snail, Schager focused on how invertebrates might communicate.

“In this current ecological situation, what would these creatures have to say to us?”

Schager started by thinking about language, specifically from the perspective of Wittgenstein’s concept of a language-game. In this approach, words are not assumed to carry any fixed meaning. Instead, the meaning of a word is reliant upon the “game,” or verbal context, in which it is being used. Various generated language-games form the basis of the languages that Schager’s creatures use to communicate.

Nathan Schager immersed in his piece “Abyssal Connections”

For the in-person showcase, this environment was projected into the space, and visitors were invited to interact with its creatures through a mobile UI. They could choose to feed or talk to the invertebrates, and watch the creatures’ reactions.

Schager plans to continue their work on this piece by adding more complexity to the ecosystem simulation, as well as by adding streaming information from real data sources such as ocean temperatures.

“I’m interested in exploring this interaction between humans and these creatures … I like the idea of attaching this digital ecosystem to a real one, even to create a voice for the ocean.”

“Abyssal Connections” is viewable here.

Timelapse of Gray Area’s Summer 2022 Creative Code Showcase

We at the Gray Area are proud to showcase these amazing artists and their work coming out of the Creative Coding Intensive. Want to hear more? Check out the livestream of their spotlight, and apply for the upcoming Creative Code Intensive here!

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Gray Area Foundation

Gray Area is a 501(c)3 nonprofit in San Francisco, CA applying art & technology to create positive social impact. #grayareaorg #creativecode