Golan Levin and Collaborators

Flong Blog + News

New-Media Artists are the Unpaid R&D of Ad Agencies

23 October 2012 / event, lecture, reflection

This was a presentation I delivered at FITC’s ETA Conference in Toronto, 19 October 2012

From the program notes: “A surprising number of today’s most widely-used information technologies had their beginnings as provocative prototypes conceived and developed by new-media artists. In fact, new-media innovations are increasingly originated and shared by individual artists and tiny artist-collectives — independent artists and creative technologists who, more often than not, contribute to (and work with the help of) tightly-knit open-source communities for commons-based peer production. Unfortunately, a series of high-profile public disagreements has damaged corporate reputations, while simultaneously leaving new-media artist-developers feeling like the “unpaid R&D division of the advertising industry”. The needs and goals of these individuals and groups are sometimes at odds with those of the advertising industry, but are sometimes surprisingly complementary, too. This talk builds the case for recognizing the productive influence of new-media arts on advertising and technology, and presents some best practices and mutually beneficial strategies for collaborating and negotiating with hacker collectives, open-source communities, and independent new-media artists.”


“Radically Local” Presentation at the World Economic Forum

26 September 2012 / event, lecture, pedagogy

Two weeks ago, at the World Economic Forum’s “Annual Meeting of the New Champions” event in Tianjin, China, I delivered a brief presentation as part of a session on “Computing and Technology: A Springboard for the Human Mind” (yes.. that’s me in a suit). My presentation was structured according to a variant of the popular (if somewhat tyrannical) Ignite or Pecha-Kucha formats — in this case, 15 slides, 20 seconds per slide — and was entitled, “Radically Local: Personal Fabrication and Future Economies.”

Then, earlier this evening, I came across Anab Jain‘s fantastic presentation from the Global Design Forum, “Design for the New Normal“, which she posted on her blog. By coincidence, Anab’s presentation mentioned a few of the same projects as I did in my lecture — such as the world’s first 3D printed gun, and my Free Universal Construction Kit. Clearly, we had been following similar news, and extrapolating similar conclusions from these trends. Inspired by Anab’s example, and in the spirit of this coming weekend’s World Maker Faire, I decided to likewise share my WEF presentation.

Below are the images and narration texts from my presentation. Please note that the language is extremely terse, as each paragraph has been written to fit within 20 seconds. This time limit necessarily makes it difficult to give appropriate acknowledgements while speaking, so where possible I have put credits in the images themselves and in links.

If you work in the Maker community, my presentation below will probably not surprise you. Indeed, Bre Pettis and Neil Gershenfeld have been passionately articulating and advocating the ideas expressed below for much longer than I. My function at the WEF was primarily to bring these ideas to an unfamiliar audience.

Radically Local: Personal Fabrication and Future Economies
World Economic Forum: Annual Meeting of the New Champions
Golan Levin, 12 September 2012, Tianjin, China

Good afternoon.
I’d like to talk about a revolution taking place, called “Commons-Based Peer Production”.
It’s a revolution in how things are made, by whom, and in what quantities.
In some ways, the future looks a lot like the past.
These blacksmiths are making a local solution to a local problem.
And we’re going to be seeing a lot more of that.

Life was simple when all you needed was a new horseshoe.
But suppose your hospital’s incubator needs a new valve, and you live on a remote island?
The answer is “personal fabrication”.
We’re looking at a future in which you’ll download and create whatever you need,
right at your own desk. Manufacturing and shipping are about to change completely.

This revolution arises from the collision of 3D printers, with the Internet.
3D printers can create any plastic object from a 3D model – they “turn ideas into objects”.
Professional machines can cost nearly a quarter-million dollars.
So about six years ago, hackers and activists joined up to design one they could afford.
They designed RepRap, an open-source 3D printer that anyone can build for around $500.
A RepRap can even print another RepRap!

John is your “new blacksmith”. He can make practically anything.
He downloads 3D models from a free web site;
If he doesn’t find what he wants, he designs it himself – and shares it back.
He’s an early-adopter in something called the Maker movement:
a community dedicated to helping people create, rather than just consume.

Makers are using 3D printers to create – and share – all sorts of things.
Across the top row: a working wrench; a padlock; a flute; and a steam engine.
At the bottom, are some new things people have designed, just for themselves:
A bag holder; a model of an animal skull; or a size adapter for batteries.
The “killer app” for 3D printers? is “things for a market of one“.

And here’s such a one. 3D printing has enormous potential to help people.
3-year old Emma has extremely weak muscles from arthrogryposis.
With her custom “magic arms”, she’s finally able to pick things up.
If she outgrows them, or if something breaks,
Her mom could just print out a new piece.

The important thing is not just 3D printers,
but the open-source culture and gift economy surrounding them.
The Metropolitan Museum in New York “gets” the educational potential of this.
They invited museum visitors to come and scan their sculptures.
People made 3D models with regular cameras – and, – free software.
The museum has given free access to these models online.

Ah yes, — we have access.
Networked fabrication has some scary implications,
for otherwise restricted goods
For example, a hacker recently showed the use of a 3D printer
to make working, plastic copies of standard handcuff keys.
Likewise, someone else used free 3D models, and $30 of plastic,
to print a functional AR-15 rifle.

But the Maker movement is more than just mischief with 3D printers.
Here, – is a working, open-source DIY mobile phone.
The design is free; it costs 150 dollars to build.
It was designed by a single student, using tools from the commons, as a gift to the commons.

Both design and production are democratized.

The Maker revolution doesn’t just enable individuals, but crowds as well.
For example, here’s a clock created by the Internet.
Dozens of people from around the world made contributions to its design.
People are sharing designs like this, the same way they’re sharing music.
But they’re also improving them as they go,
tuning these solutions to local conditions.

You may be familiar with the concept of the Wallah, a single-purpose street craftsman.
There are wallahs who copy keys, fix shoes – anything you can imagine.
Here’s a knife-wallah, who sharpens knives with his bicycle;
Or a typewriter-wallah, who’ll type any letter you need.
Of course, other kinds of Wallahs have electricity and computers;
Here’s one for MP3’s – he’ll copy any song you want for 10 cents.

Someday soon, there’ll be a 3D-Printing Wallah.
And they’ll probably use something like the machines shown here.
On the left is a machine that does 3D printing, milling, and cutting – it fits in a suitcase.
A related machine, whose design is open-source, fits in your palm.
It costs $70 to make.

In these scenarios, plastic is both a problem and an opportunity.
New plastic for 3D printing is expensive – and will probably get more so,
after Peak Oil. Old plastic ends up as pollution in our oceans.
So some Makers are designing low-cost, open-source recycling machines,
that turn old plastic into feedstock for 3D printers.

I’d like to conclude with a project of my own, the Free Universal Construction Kit,
Which I made for my son. This is a set of adapters that allows complete interoperability
between 10 popular construction toys, like Lego and Tinkertoys.
The value to children should be obvious.
But of course, no company could ever hope to produce these –
it’s a legal nightmare!

Happily, anyone with a 3D printer can download the files
and produce a copy for themselves. With this project,
I hope to demonstrate this Maker idea of engineering as a civic activity:
In which everyday people use new tools, to create local solutions to local problems,
and creatively overcome the limitations of mass-produced culture.
Thank you.

Thanks to those artists, hackers, entrepreneurs and others who kindly gave permissions for the use of their images, and/or made their images available online with Creative-Commons licenses.

“Smart Art” Presentation at the World Economic Forum

25 September 2012 / event, lecture, pedagogy

Earlier this month, I had the honor of presenting at the “Annual Meeting of the New Champions“, a World Economic Forum conference held in Tianjin, People’s Republic of China. The conference, which was dedicated to the theme of “creating the future economy”, included a panel on “Smart Art” which featured brief presentations by Hasan Elahi, of the University of Maryland; Chinese new-media artist Li Hui; myself; and Walter Scheidel, of Stanford University. After the individual presentations was a panel discussion moderated by Salim Amin, Chairman of A24 Media/Camerapix, Kenya.

This post compiles the narration and images from my presentation on “Smart Art”. To be sure, the projects below are assuredly quite well-known to my networks of friends and peers in the Ars Electronica, Eyeo, and other communities for new-media arts. For the purposes of the World Economic Forum, I felt my duty was to serve as an emissary from the arts, and help the attendees catch up on some recent and current developments in technologized modes of art practice.

Good morning, and thank you.

Today’s panel is titled “Smart Art”.  For many people, “smart” is a shorthand for anything that uses uses computer technology. Perhaps that makes it “smart” to begin with, though this is not always so. There is a lot of very smart art that uses no computers at all. And there is some computer art that is not so smart, either. But today I’ll briefly present some of the ways in which technology is transforming the arts: art that, whether or not it is actually “smart” (in using, say, ‘artificial intelligence’), I nonetheless believe is asking the right — smart — questions.

Technology and Culture have always been in feedback. Culture motivates the growth of new technologies, and new technologies enable new forms of culture. Of course, this has accelerated significantly: there are now many artists who work natively with the fundamental medium of our age — writing software, creating circuitry, and employing the network in new ways. Here are some of these artists, and their projects.

Let’s begin with the decorative arts. These are lamps which are grown by algorithms. Each lamp is absolutely unique: the result of a computer simulation, and then 3D printing. The creators are Jessica Rosencrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg: product designers with backgrounds in mathematics and software engineering. Their products are inspired by science — not attempting to reproduce science, nor produce knowledge per se, but rather to use the discoveries of science, and the tools of engineering, for expressive ends.

This piece, from 2001, is already a classic of new-media art. The artists have built a machine which grabs text from thousands of on-line chat-rooms, in real-time. This text is then presented to the viewer visually, in these green displays, and sung by speech synthesizers. The feeling it produces — of watching all of humanity in conversation — is quite overpowering and I have personally seen viewers moved to tears. Underlying its implementation are some very sophisticated machine-learning algorithms that help cluster texts from people who are talking about related topics.

Here are two more projects which employ huge crowds of people in complementary ways. On the right, Aaron Koblin paid info-laborers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service two cents each to draw a sheep facing to the left. He collected 10,000 drawings this way. The project is as much about the visualization of a diverse collection, as it is about labor in the digital era.

On the left, in a project by Kevan Davis, is a typeface created by thousands of people, who are aware that they are all collaborating together, but have highly restricted means for doing so. The rules are simple: each visitor is asked: “should the orange pixel be black or white, in order to make the letter A?” The resulting letter, and alphabet, is negotiated by thousands of people. It is a visualization of the hive mind, made possible by the network.

This project uses a computer, but, unlike the previous projects, it is completely off the network. It is a completely solar-powered 3D printer, which uses free energy from the sun to melt free material — sand — into any kind of glass object. A completely functional prototype, it is proposed as an artwork, or a speculative design, because of the way that it provokes consideration about the (or a) deep future.

By contrast, this project is very much about the present: the era of Wikileaks. It is an “information grenade”, which makes the process of leaking information from closed meetings as easy as pulling a pin. This is a very much working prototype, designed to provoke. I read from the artists’ own text: “Equipped with a tiny computer, microphone and powerful wireless antenna, the Transparency Grenade captures network traffic and audio at the site, and securely and anonymously streams it to a dedicated server where it is mined for information. Email fragments, HTML pages, images and voice extracted from this data are then presented on an online, public map, shown at the location of the detonation.”

Did you happen to see the headline today? “FBI’s New Facial Recognition Program Leaves No Place to Hide”. Well, the FBI has announced a plan to spend $1 billion to build a new type of facial recognition database that will allow the agency to identify suspects and people of interest using security footage from public cameras.

This interactive project is a small but highly disruptive sketch. 
It uses highly accurate face-tracking algorithms to substitute someone else’s face for your own, in real-time video. Pretending to be a celebrity like Michael Jackson or Brad Pitt — puppeteering their face — is a certainly hugely enjoyable interaction. But consider what this project suggests for the future of video-teleconferencing. You may no longer be certain with whom you are speaking. Indeed, Kyle & Arturo have used the same code to build a working implementation of the “Scramble Suit“, a videoconference corrupter described decades ago by science fiction author Philip Dick — precisely to combat something like the FBI’s database.

Algorithms for understanding human appearance and behavior play an increasing role in both entertainment, and in the systems which track our behavior. And so now, a project of my own: “Double-Taker”.

This project is a large-scale interactive robot, a playful “eye in the sky”, which lives on top of a building, and which responds interactively to people who come and go through the front entrance. Through the use of real-time character animation, and computer vision algorithms, the robot attempts to convey that it is continually surprised to see you. It does a double-take. It checks you out, looks you up and down. And it tries to mirror your own actions. It is a kind of whimsical, poetic surveillance system — half Big Brother, half Sesame Street.

OK: So, today I’ve talked about “smart art” that makes use of

  • Algorithmic Intelligence;
  • Crowd Intelligence;
  • Ecological Intelligence;
  • Covert Intelligence;
  • and lastly, in my own work, a kind of “Artificial” Intelligence.

I look forward to our upcoming discussion about Smart Art, and the ways in which artists are using technology, to develop poetic explorations and critical interventions, in our increasingly mediated lives.

*Note: The image actually shows two different projects by Kyle. It’s a long story, but my ability to find and assemble good images was hampered by the Great Firewall.

25 Technologies

4 April 2012 / pedagogy


Materials for a lecture about stuff that art students should know about!







Via the Internet:

  • Blurb: blurb.com
    “All the tools you need to make your own photo book, whether you’re making a personalized wedding album, cookbook, baby book, travel photo book, or fundraising book.”
  • Lulu: http://www.lulu.com/publish/
    “Tools and services to make publishing simple and the most options to sell your books.”
  • CreateSpace: https://www.createspace.com/
    “Our free online publishing tools and community can help you complete and sell your DVD or CD.
    Distribute on Amazon.com, your own website, and other retailers without setup fees or inventory.”

In real space:

  • The Espresso Book Machine (EBM) is a print on demand machine that prints, collates, covers, and binds a single book in a few minutes. The EBM is small enough to fit in a retail book store or small library room, and as such it is targeted at retail and library markets. The EBM can potentially allow readers to obtain any book title, even books that are out of print. The machine takes as input a PDF file and prints, binds, and trims the reader’s selection as a paperback book. The direct-to-consumer model of the EBM eliminates shipping, warehousing, returns and pulping of unsold books, and allows simultaneous global availability[3] of millions of new and backlist titles. [map]




The following sites provide print-on-demand services. You don’t have to maintain an inventory, and your products can be customized (within ranges you set — e.g. shirt size, color) for your customers.




Laser cutting is a technology that uses a laser to cut flat materials, and is typically used for industrial manufacturing applications, but is also starting to be used by schools, small businesses, artists and hobbyists. Low-cost machines (under $5,000-50,000) can cut acrylic, cardboard, thin plywood, among other materials; industrial machines can cut sheet steel.

Laser cutters radically transform the economy of cutting things. With a laser cutter:

  • It’s as easy to cut a complex curve as it is to cut a straight line.
  • It’s possible to produce a large number of identical multiples.
  • Holes can be precisely placed, for assembly with bolts and screws.
  • Extreme precision makes it possible to construct 3D objects from interlocking forms.
  • Solid forms can also be built up from thin layers of material.
  • Etching and scoring are also possible.

[Google images of laser cut designs]



These are a wide range of devices that take a 3D model (from your favorite CAD system) and print out a physical object.

  • There are devices which can print objects from plastic, ceramic, or metal. They usually work by building up thin layers of material.
  • 3D printers can print hollow objects; interlocking objects (like chains); objects with trapped parts inside (like a rattle).
  • Sometimes they have a second material for support (for overhangs, T shapes, etc.).
  • Printed objects can then be used directly, or to create molds…

Industrial and commercial 3D printers can cost $20,000 or more. However, leaders in the open-hardware movement have begun to develop low-cost versions, generally under $2000:

The Makerbot folks have also created a sharing site called Thingiverse, where thousands of people have placed their 3D models for free downloading. (The models can be used with any 3D printer.)



As with the print-on-demand companies described above, these companies will fabricate your 2D or 3D models out of a wide range of materials and finishes. They provide both lasercutting and 3D printing; just upload your file; your part arrives in a couple of days.




There are many others; two systems to keep an eye on are:

Additionally, there are hundreds of components which extend the functionality of these boards:

The creators and distributors have done a lot of work to make this easy to learn. For example:

Arduino also comes in a wide range of physical formats, including the sewable Lilypad Arduino — ideal for building your own soft, interactive garments. There are many components in the Lilypad family.



Crowd funding (sometimes called crowd financing, or crowdsourced capital) describes the collective cooperation, attention and trust by people who network and pool their money together to support efforts initiated by other people or organizations. Crowdfunding occurs for any variety of purposes, from disaster relief to citizen journalism to artists seeking support from fans, to political campaigns.




Work at home, in your underwear. Or, harness thousands of people to help you with your project.

  • Mechanical Turk: https://www.mturk.com/mturk/welcome
    “Artificial Artificial Intelligence”: Complete simple tasks like transcriptions, categorizations, and spell-checks to earn small amounts of money.
  • Check out Aaron Koblin’s Sheep Market for an idea about how Turk can work for you.

There are many others:



Tools for Sharing and Storing…
You can make your workflow much more efficient with better tools to manage your data. You’ll also never lose your data again.

Tools for Other Activities:

Staying informed informed with Twitter: http://Twitter.com/
Most of you have Facebook accounts, which embeds the “social graph” — the network of people you know (or used to know) in real life. Twitter, on the other hand, embeds the “interest graph” — the network of people interested in what you’re making, and the network of people and organizations that are doing things you find interesting. So here’s another argument for why you might find Twitter to be a good tool for keeping informed about the latest arts opportunities — and developing a (global) audience of people interested in your work, even though they may not know you personally. In the words of Naval Ravikant and Adam Rifkin, Twitter is:

  • Built on one-way following rather than two-way friending
  • Organized around shared interests, not personal relationships
  • Public by default, not private by default
  • Aspirational: not who you were in the past or even who you are, but who you want to be



Places to make things:

Sites where people share instructions for doing and making things:

Real-world places to take workshops in new skills:

Stay informed:



  • Processing, openFrameworks, PureData
  • Github
  • IFTT
  • T-slot aluminum extruded aluminum 80/20
  • Google Sketchup, in-browser CAD
  • WordPress, indexhibit

Using the Kinect in Processing

15 February 2012 / code, pedagogy, reference

Interested in using the Kinect depth sensor in Processing? Here are some options.

If you end up requiring higher-quality performance, then I recommend using ofxKinect and ofxOpenNI in openFrameworks:

Of course, other options exist for other arts-engineering environments, such as Cinder, MaxMSP, PureData, etc.