David OReilly, “4004,” 2021
An OOPArt artwork that twists the time of the information age
View 4004 in the K21 gallery here →
David OReilly’s 4004 is not just art, it’s an OOPArt.
Out-of-place artifacts are the anomalous data points in the timeline that undermine pat historical narratives. The Antikythera machine, the sophisticated two-thousand-year-old Greek astrological computer of interlocking bronze gears found at the bottom of the Mediterranean; an electrical battery dating to ancient Baghdad; an incandescent light bulb inscribed on the wall of a Dynastic Egyptian tomb; an early-twentieth-century pickaxe ensconced in a Paleozoic rock formation: such examples suck the wind out of just-so theories of the past and even the very notion of linear time itself. They are visitors from a bigger universe that pry open willing minds.
Such archaeological black swans are too often quarantined as outliers or ignored altogether. They’re too hot to be tamed, institutionalized. What could be the new centers of Copernican Revolutions in the story of us are instead hidden away in our collective Jungian shadow. Rather than liberate, they haunt us.
Art as OOPArt is an invitation to exorcism. Decoding one approach. 4004 inspires a cascade of meaningful interpretations in its filmic associations alone.
David OReilly’s black swan is a transparent monolith. Unlike Stanley Kubrick’s, it reveals its innards: a single microchip, the Intel 4004 system-on-a-chip, the world’s first CPU. Floating vertically off-center at the position of a human heart in a glistening resin block, it resembles a 16-legged, gold-and-white ceramic insect carrying the genetic code of Homo digitus. Like the mythical mosquito preserved in tree sap that birthed Jurassic Park, OReilly’s objet trouvé seems to be more for the use of future discoverers than those contemporaneous with it.
As with the Paleolithic materia magica of our distant ancestors — those similarly small ceramic figurines that powered long-forgotten, consciousness-altering ritual machines — it stitches together distant times that share the same space. Such time-traveling fragments allow us to rejoin suspended dreams, recover lost cosmogonies. They do so by triggering synchronicities.
That OReilly’s monolith, the somewhat unpredictable product of an analog process of physically refining it down to remove cracks and other glitches, arrived at nearly the same aspect ratio as Kubrick’s is not insignificant. Inspired by the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke massaged its dimensions to arrive at a sequence of prime numbers for his related novel. Between the precision of text and the imprecision of film, a mythology of the meaning of the monolith has emerged, likening it to the film screen itself or even the black mirror of the smartphone. Like ancient pyramids, some objects — archetypal ones — just seem to inspire thick living narratives. The point is not to crack the code but to keep telling tales, acquiring more perspectives, generating an ever growing kaleidoscope of meaning. While the monolith of 2001 was eventually flung off looking for a new place to land, OReilly’s 4004 sits patiently on Earth waiting for new gardeners to arrive. It’s a seed bank for the story of us to be told by and infect alien historians here and then: panspermia outside-in.
OReilly was put here to do such work. He was called, literally. In the interview below he reveals how a faint signal coursing through the ether — a radio broadcast — set him on his path already in his early teens. Since then, he’s been on a mission.
Despite his many successes — initiating popular aesthetic regimes, upending assumptions about computer game design, carrying the torch for independent computer graphic arts, and even writing for South Park — he’s eschewed the cushy corporate life and the riches it showers on those who give in. He’s followed his gut, risking (and arriving near) ruin at many turns, always eeking out an escape into new creative territory. He put the first 3D character on the web, likely created the first-ever crypto art already in 2013, and has now used his first physical artwork to create the first NFT with bonus material.
While the physical monolith currently remains with the artist, its digital shadow has been multiplied through the prism of KSPEC, Kanon’s on-chain protocol for rich NFTs. OReilly used it to attach a selection of stills, behind-the-scenes footage, and additional videos to 4004. The artwork itself comprises twinned looping videos of the monolith making a full rotation, each exactly 4004 frames long, in landscape and portrait orientation. The owner — the K21 Collection, for now — and anyone savvy enough to inspect the chain is given access to the full toolkit, a treasure trove for future (alien?) curators and conservators to tell and preserve its story and the story it tells about us as a people at this inflection point in time.
That it took OReilly years to even find the chip in the first place — and an unused original at that — adds one more synchromystical dimension to this work: first created in 1971, the CPU turned fifty in 2021. Of course an OOPArt artwork that twists the time of the information age would demand rhyming numbers. Check out OReilly’s own text on 4004, “Where it began,” at davidoreilly.com/4004, see the full archive of additional videos and photos here, and read on for our interview.
Did you ever have a 9-to-5 or have you always been a free radical?
I have had different 9-to-5s, but spent a lot of time making sure I didn’t have to. In part, because I had an early taste of doing my own work. My career started at fourteen, when I began working at an animation studio, Cartoon Saloon, in my hometown of Kilkenny, Ireland. They had just opened and I had to be useful to stick around. They had no experience with 3D, so I taught myself an early version of Blender and that was it. There was no going back.
How did you land a gig at fourteen?
My mom and I heard an ad on the radio for Young Irish Film Makers, YIFM, so I called them and she drove me up. I told them I liked drawing and they said an animation studio had just opened upstairs by a team that had just finished college. I was there at the very very beginning. They weren’t very organized, and I offered to do anything to help. For the first couple of years I did fairly menial tasks: punching animation paper, doing line tests, coloring. I learned everything about the classic animation pipeline. I don’t think I was particularly artistic, but because we were quite poor and I was so vulnerable, I think that whatever I found I would have clung to for dear life. It happened to be animation.
Did you ever study animation formally?
I began a four-year college course on animation but left after a year. It was too focused on 2D animation. I knew that 3D was coming and wanted to get moving. So I left after the first year and moved to London. I got a job at Studio AKA, a prestigious commercial house, and also began working with Shynola, a music video collective. I was ten years younger than anyone around me and I was working really hard and doing what I loved. After a while I missed doing my own work, so I quit. I did my first music video for the electronic musician Venetian Snares for free, which got me representation. Then I pitched on forty different music videos and lost every single one. The whole thing was a disaster.
Is that how you pivoted into doing film?
I found a lifeline in Fabrica, a research center at Benetton in Italy. I won a scholarship there. At some point I became friends with the security guard, who gave me access to Luciano Benetton’s private cinema, so I watched stacks of films there every day. Around 2006 I moved to Berlin and started pursuing independent CG. The first film was RGB XYZ, then I spent a year doing one which was a disaster and was never released. Then, Please Say Something, my short film about a cat and a mouse, blew up. It won the Golden Bear at Berlin, which was a huge deal at the time. This film was credited with popularizing the style of flat, low-polygon, lo-fi CG. I went to dozens of festivals around the world with my films — later with The External World. Throughout that time it was extremely rare to find others doing computer graphics as an artistic practice. This was all self-funded.
I’m getting the sense that there’s been a lot of dramatic, make-or-break, gotta roll that hard 6, ballsy moments in your life.
Well, there were a lot of extremes where I had very few choices. A lot of it was totally miserable and extremely lonely.
What inspired you to constantly bet on yourself against the odds?
When I was exposed to certain independent animators from the twentieth century as a teenager, my brain exploded with joy. Not only with the work itself, but with the feat of creativity conducted by an individual. Independent animation is the truest, purest form of auteurship in cinema. I was blown away by Oskar Fischinger and Norman McLaren. They are extraordinary figures who explored the moving image and animation in a beautifully poetic and personal way, and I wanted to follow their path.
Your game Mountain is a game without an objective. It’s an anti-game. It should have been a complete flop, but it was a huge success. How did you convince anyone to publish it? What was your initial pitch?
It was an unpitchable idea. At the time, the idea of a nature simulation game didn’t exist. When I announced it, people even put out parodies; one was called Rock Simulator — they thought it was a troll to have a game with no goals. Since there is comedy in much of my work, people thought Mountain was a joke, but it just came from a different place than my other work. I produced it independently, self-funding it with the last money I had from working on Her. It was Greg Rice from Double Fine, a San Francisco game studio, who gave me promotion advice. He brought it up at the company to have their official help publishing, but some C-suite guy told them it was unmarketable, it was silly, and we shouldn’t do it. Tim Schafer overruled him. It went out with their help and ended up selling over a million copies.
Why did you have such conviction that you would risk ruin to make it happen?
Certain ideas will excite you to crazy degrees. I can’t explain it, but I remember exactly how it felt. I’d been broke so many times, and you never forget it, like with a painful injury. The times around the release of Mountain and Everything were unbelievably close to the bone. I just had faith. I thought this could be something special and this is what I was put here to make.
Given your past, it’s remarkable how people give you shit for doing NFTs.
People don’t know where I come from. I spent more than a decade releasing work for free, which was popular but lost money every time. I always avoided doing this for money. Even when I was broke, I turned down dozens of commercial offers and watched others make money imitating my work for those same clients. I understand why some are resentful of NFTs: it’s public, while grants and commercial jobs happen in private. I am not into the public-sales aspect, but I would rather survive doing my own work than be told what to do.
How did you end up in the writer’s room of South Park?
I had worked for years with the third writer in that room, Vernon Chatman, who is the smartest guy I know. We had done a few projects together. Getting to work in that room was the honor of a lifetime. Matt Stone and Trey Parker were my heroes. It was crazy to watch them hunting for jokes, to witness Trey piece together a story in real time.
Comedy seems to be a casualty of contemporary culture — the nexus of virtue signaling, woke identitarianism, cancel culture, and so on.
The last decade seems to have made so many comedians into celebrities. People supposed to be playing the role of instigator, critiquing culture from the outside and deflating self importance, have become inside of it. I think Twitter has played a role, intentionally or not. Once comedians get a hold of a verified badge it’s something to hold on to. Possibly without even noticing, they start feeling the need to take themselves seriously and deliver moral statements. At the same time, it has become such a liability to be a funny person, a famous person, even a named person in the public eye. You stick your head out at your own peril. Most well-adjusted people understand there’s nothing virtuous about this attitude of “you ought not to do or say that,” but anti-wokeness can be just as lame as wokeness. We lack the language to properly navigate it. Nobody wants to defend taboo.
You gave a talk in 2018 describing “art” as that which exceeds language. If this is a bad moment for comedy, maybe it’s a good time for art, for experimenting in new ways. 4004 required you to make your first physical artwork. What was the catalyst?
K21 was for me an opportunity to try something new. My main territory is the formal exploration of digital 3D, and I have always been fascinated with its origin, with the actual hardware that enables it. For instance, I have spoken about the nineteenth-century Jacquard loom, which created a work of pre-pixel art using punch cards and thread, moving left to right, top to bottom, just as an image is rendered on a computer. In this work I focused on the GPU — the hardware that directly links crypto and computer graphics. I find it fascinating that crypto miners and 3d artists actually compete for these chips. So I went down the rabbit hole and it led me to the 4004.
It’s the original CPU. Were you already well versed in the 4004 before you arrived at it?
I hadn’t heard of it, which surprised me because this is something that should be as well known as the light bulb. Then I saw a picture of it. There was something so unbelievably innocent about it, something so benign. It’s a delicate little white ceramic thing. You can interpret it as the source of all evil, of our warped social fabric and cultural landscape, but also all the medical advances that have kept us alive. All of the surveillance, but also all the engineering. This is what Kubrick did so well with HAL in 2001, creating a feeling of terror and awe when you encounter such an extremely protean and impenetrable object.
Hence encasing it in a transparent monolith?
I wanted to make a sculpture that expressed this simultaneous innocence and terror in the form of an alien artifact, something that could be exhibited alongside the Venus of Willendorf. It’s a significant cultural artifact that humans created, and it changed reality irrevocably afterward. It’s a departure from CG but also deeply integrated into my work and overall conception of art, which is about drawing attention to things that are being ignored by isolating and amplifying them. And that’s the simplest version of what’s going on in this piece: it’s an isolation and amplification of something that we ought to pay attention to.