Zach Lieberman’s career spans a range of mediums, projects, and workplaces, but the throughline is his ability to seamlessly merge technology and creativity in fascinating new ways. In his 99U talk, Zach explains how he forged his unique creative process, and how he’s helping other artists do the same through experimental education and unlikely sources of inspiration.
About Zach Lieberman: Zach Lieberman is an artist, researcher, and educator with a simple goal: he wants you to be surprised. In his work, he creates performances and installations that take human gestures as input and amplify them in different ways: making drawings come to life, imagining what the voice might look like if we could see it, transforming peoples silhouettes into music.
Zach has been named one of Fast Company‘s Most Creative People and his projects have won the Golden Nica from Ars Electronica and Interactive Design of the Year from Design Museum London, and have been listed in TIME‘s Best Inventions of the Year. He creates artwork through writing software and is a co-creator of openFrameworks, an open source C++ toolkit for creative coding.
He helped co-found the School for Poetic Computation, a school examining the lyrical possibilities of code.
So, I’m going to introduce myself now. I used to look like this. So I studied fine art, painting and print making. It’s kind of accidental that I started working with computers and using technology to make art. I do all kinds of projects, like, this is a project I did with Toyota. They have this small car. People think you can’t drive it quickly. So we put colored dots on top of it and hired a stunt driver to drive letters of the alphabet. So we made a font completely out of driving. I do interactive projects.
This is an installation in New Zealand where you come in and you use your body. Then we take your body and we turn it into a monster five stories high. A lot of time, I’m doing extremely random stuff. This is my friend Dito and we are working on projecting on his face. So I’m tracking the movements of his face and then projecting on it in real time.
And we are doing this in a hotel in Belgrade at 2:00 a.m. And I can’t imagine what the staff of the hotel must have thought of us. This is an old project that I worked on called the Manuel Input Sessions. And the idea here is it takes an overhead projector, one of those projectors that your professor would write notes on. And it combines it with a digital projector.
So I want to do another introduction. And that’s to my father, Sid Lieberman. And my father, who passed away about four years ago, there’s something that I find really beautiful and I never talk about this. This is the first time I’ve really talked about this in a talk is that when I was a kid, he took a workshop around storytelling. So he was an English teacher in the local high school and he studied storytelling. And he started from nothing. He started at the local library telling stories and then performing at different synagogues and around the country and he became part of the National Storytelling Circuit.
And for me, it was really amazing to watch this person start something new in the middle of their life, to really learn a new career. And people think, “Oh that must have been amazing to have a father that’s a storyteller.” But actually it was scary because he would go around the country telling stories about me. But I think about my father a lot because what I’m going to talk to you today is about really three things that I’ve done in the kind of middle of my life, the middle of my career, and watching my father change his life, I get a lot of inspiration. So the first thing is the School for Poetic Computation.
So I taught for many years at Parson’s School of Design. And about five years ago, some friends and I got really tired of university life and we decided to start a school called the School for Poetic Computation. And we are really interested in poetry. Most people, when you talk about what we do, you say ‘creative coding’, but we want to celebrate poetry, the act of writing poems. In the tech world, there’s this concept of demo, making like demo or die, but the word demo really easily becomes the word poem.
And poetry is amazing. You always have to go to the back of the book store, right? Nobody’s getting rich writing poems. But it is this great part of the book store where people are using the right words in the right order to describe what it means to be human. So we run this school. We are based in the West Village and we focus on electronics, code, and theory. And we do a lot of cooking and eating and just thinking about how to use computers and technology for making art. And I teach a class there called Recreating the Past. And every day when I teach, I introduce a different artist or designer.
So for example, Muriel Cooper, who was the design director of MIT Press and later helped start the MIT media lab and create the visual language workshop group there. Like, we’ve studied her work and the work of her students. And then the homework assignment for my students is to recreate their projects using modern tools. Vera Molnar, who is a Hungarian artist based in France. Since the ’70s she has been writing code to control a pen plotter to make drawings. And my students have to take one of her drawings and then reverse engineer it and recreate it using modern tools. And we were invited to show our work at a festival called Day for Night in Houston. And we suggested to them that we show both the code and the visual side by side. So most people, when you see art work that is created with code, you don’t see the actual underlying code. You just see the output. Like if you go to a website, you can view source, but you don’t see them side by side. But we wanted to celebrate the text, the actual language that makes the artwork.
We got to the festival. All of our equipment just said Poetic on it, which I love. And we designed this installation where you see both the language and the visual side by side. And when something changes in the text, you see a corresponding change in the visuals. I told my students that they need to bring sunglasses. It was an LED screen. And the AV crew kept turning the brightness down because we were inside. And then when they would leave, I would turn the brightness up because I wanted it to feel like this.
And then, what you’re seeing on these screens are the homework assignments that students made but obviously inspired by artists. So we had a zine where you could learn about who these artists were. So I got so inspired watching my students make these sketches, that I started doing my own version of this. So for that project, my students made about 50 or 60 sketches and I got inspired, so I started doing my own thing which is daily sketching. So that’s number two in terms of things that I’ve done, changing the way I’ve worked in kind of the middle of my career.
So I do this. I post on Instagram kind of daily sketches, small poems that I’m writing code, but really focusing on animation and motion and now I can create emotion through motion. And there is some inspirations. One inspiration for doing the daily sketches is this 10 rules for students. This is popularized by John Cage, but they are written by Sister Corita Kent. These are great rules. They are really amazing. We hang them in the wall at SFPC. But the one rule that I focus on here is rule 7. The only rule is work. If you work, it will lead to something.
Also, I saw this kid on the subway and he had a phone, a camera, and snap spectacles. So, it’s so crazy, this moment. There are so many cameras. And then I have my phone out trying to take a picture of him. So there’s like a million cameras at this moment, but I think as an artist, you need to be like this. Capturing everything you do. And I have this one folder on my hard drive called Every Day. It’s about 300 gigabytes and every screen shot, every video goes in there. I just try to make and make and make and capture.
Another thing that I think about is a.b.i. always be iterating. I think this kid describes this really well. So this kid had to write “I will make better choices” over and over again. And you can see by the end, she’s so smart. She, just a single line for the L. If you have to do something again and again and again, you will make shortcuts. And as an artist, as a designer, the shortcuts will become your style.
So I started doing sketches. I was focused on reflection, thinking about lights, how light would move, simulating lights. And every morning, I would wake up, I would show this to my daughter. She was six at the time. She liked it. She’d be like, “I’m hypnotized. That’s cool.” And then about a month in, she was like, “You have to change.” So she is my art director.
So I started thinking about blobs and blobiforms, how these blobs could move, how they are colored, what they look like. Sometimes there is this amazing thing. You’ll put a sketch out. I made this sketch really quickly and people liked this a lot. And I didn’t really like it that much. And I think there is something really beautiful about the mismatch between your ideas and the world’s acceptance of your ideas. And I don’t think it’s about making things that you’re just trying to give things that people like, but actually understanding how in harmony or out of harmony you are with the world. I made this. My daughter did not like it. Sometimes inspired by different designers.
This is Lance Wyman, the Mexico ’68 Olympics logo. I love this, these kind of curves. So I thought, “How can I code this? How could I make these curves and try to figure it out, kind of, algorithmically.” And then once I have it, I don’t even know what to do with it, but it’s kind of like this what if question. I love blobs obviously, so a lot of blob shapes. Things like this where you have a kind of form that is 3D but it looks 2D or 2D that looks 3D. It’s a little bit ambiguous. Kind of like an optical illusion. It takes some time for your brain to understand what you’re seeing.
I’m oftentimes inspired by what I’m feeling. So after Trump was elected and before the New Years, I felt like we were in this cartoon universe. And how could I express that feeling of being like excited for the new year and really deeply unhappy about the results of the election? Or after Trump was inaugurated, it felt like every weekend, we were protesting. My wife and I were out at JFK, you know, protesting the travel ban or the Women’s March. And I just want to show what it feels like to be in a crowd pushing.
Or on the anniversary of my father’s passing away, I thought, “I don’t want to do a stupid sketch this week. I want to really think about how do I express that feeling?” And I found this motion capture data of a single person walking and for me, that was really an elegant way to describe how I felt alone and how I felt like I was just kind of continuing to walk, you know, in the absence of my father.
Or sometimes I find a sketch. Like I had this video clip of a hand drawing a line and I thought how could I use this in a kind of interesting way? Oftentimes it’s very graphical. Just doing simple things like taking a half circle and connecting it with a straight line and just making a curve and then saying, “How I could I extrude it, revolve it, rotate it, and draw it in a different way to see something new?” I’m always really concerned about typography. I never know what font to use. So sometimes I just try to load all the fonts. Sometimes it’s really random. Like I was on this phone call and I found this dead pixel on my monitor. And I was like, “Oh this dead pixel is driving me crazy.” And the phone call was really boring, so I started, I had a window and I started just moving the window as if the dead pixel was bouncing off the wall of the window. So then I said, “Okay, we usually think of a bouncing ball from the wall’s perspective. But what if we look at the bouncing ball from the ball’s perspective?” And that’s cool with one ball, but let’s try it with a bunch of balls. And then I was like, “Oh, what if I had four balls and things get really weird?” Yeah.
And oftentimes, I’m inspired by different artists that I run into, like Ruth Asawa has this really beautiful sculpture that I saw at the MoMA of these undulating wire forms and I thought about, I wasn’t trying to recreate it but just say like, is there something I could capture? Is there some essence that I could take from that work and bring it to my own work? Or Sophie Taeuber-Arp. These curves. I kid you not, I think about these curves every day. I’m like really totally fascinated with these curves. And I’m thinking about how could I code them? And I can’t get it yet and it’s driving me crazy but I’m constantly like trying to recreate these in some way. And then once I have it, I don’t even know what to do with it. So I just try taking the same thing and saying how can I move it and change it?
Oftentimes, these sketches wind their way into different projects. So this is a recent project I did with the New York Times. And they came to me and said, “You know, we want to convey what your body feels like when you go through opioid addiction.” And for this article, they interviewed hundreds of addicts and recovering addicts about what you feel like and then we took the words that these people told us and we commissioned a dancer to actually dance, to dance these phrases, to dance the kind of qualities that people were talking about. And then we wrote software to analyze her movements and think about how could we visualize it? How could we take her, you know, her movement, her body language and turn it into a visual form? So for this project, as you scroll, this is a web page and each of these chapters has a visual. So this is gateway, when you take the drug. This is tolerance, as your body starts to build tolerance for the drug. This is withdrawal, as you start to feel the kind of symptoms of not taking the drug. This is proper addiction. When you have to take the drug in order to keep going. This is treatment, when you start to take medicine. This is relapse. And the thing is, for this is these visual forms, really, when I was working on this, I really tried to think about the language. Like what are the words that people are telling us and how can we bring it to the kind of quality of movements? And then the crazy thing is, like I usually make animations and then it was this spread in the newspaper. So I ran around Brooklyn trying to buy every copy of the New York Times. And my mom was so proud. My mom was so happy. She was looking at me like, “Oh my son. He’s in the…”
I’ve also been doing a lot of sketches about augmented reality. So in particular, what does it mean if we know where a device is in space? So this is taking photographs and having the photographs stay in the location that you took them. So you take pictures, but it’s almost like the camera that has a 3D position. So we can take a photograph and have it hang in the air where you took it. Or this is taking frames of video and you can have the frames of video kind of float in the air where you took them and then you can walk through them in order to scrub or replay the video.
This is taking photographs and breaking them based on color. So you take a photograph and then there is one perspective where it looks correct, but as you start to move, the image breaks and kind of turns into pieces. This is painting with the pixels that are in front of you. So taking just that kind of line of pixels that you are seeing and then using that to draw with them in the air. This is taking photographs and pushing them so that, again, there is one perspective where they look correct, but as you move, it starts to warp and distort. I think AR is a really interesting medium for ambiguity. For creating things that are not totally understandable, that require your brain to do a little bit of work, to try to figure out what’s real, what’s not real. And I’m really kind of fascinated with that kind of promise of this medium for creating extremely weird stuff.
This is recording audio in space. And when you walk through, you can replay it. This is a test of talking and seeing what happens when we record audio in space. This is a test of talking and seeing what happens when we record audio in space. And then, yeah, a lot of random stuff.
This is my partner, Momo. This is just like what we do in the studio all day is just mess around. We made an app called Weird Types. So this is an app that allows you to draw with typography in the air. And the crazy thing about making stuff and putting it out there is people use it in all kinds of ways you would never expect it. Like somebody figured out you can take the letter O and just draw a tunnel and then move through it or if you do a lot of type, it’s almost like particles that you can kind of paint, make drawings with.
The third thing, so the first thing was the school, the second thing was the daily sketching. The third thing that really changed the way I work in the last, really the middle of my life, is open office hours. So, weekly, I announce on Twitter that I’m having office hours. And I do this regularly, where I make myself available. And I always loved, I had a professor in college and he would, he’s a print-making professor at Hunter College and every Tuesday, he would just open his office and he would take a lemon-poppyseed muffin and he would cut it into pieces. And what I always remember, what really struck me, is that he took us seriously. That he was an older person listening to a younger person, younger people, but he took us and our ideas and our words seriously. And so I try to do this. I make myself available on Skype, on Hangout, in person. And there’s something I find really beautiful about having this moment in time where I’m not thinking about work, I’m not thinking about deadlines, I’m not checking email, but I’m just listening and trying to understand where other people are coming from and seeing how I can help. And listening is really the key.
To kind of summarize or think about all of these three things, I think a lot about my father and my father is a storyteller, but in order to have a storyteller, you also need listeners. You need story listeners. And I think these three things that I’ve done in my life that have kind of changed the way I work are about listening. So the School for Poetic Computation is about listening to a former version of myself. That when I was a student, I would’ve loved to study at a school like this. And I think some of the best projects that you make are kind of a conversation or a dialogue you can have with your former self. So trying to find a way to listen to what you, to yourself from five or 10 years ago.
And the daily sketches is about listening and it’s about listening to your intuition, listening to your gut. And not listening to the voices in your head that are telling you, you know, that you’re not good enough, that your work is not good enough, that this is garbage, but actually listening to your heart and your gut and just putting things out there. And the open office hours is about listening to the world, about trying to make yourself available and listen to the world. We are constantly putting things like this in our hands, in our ears. We are listening to podcasts. We are listening to music, but I think the key to creativity is finding a way to listen to yourself.