Artist Profile: Flightphase

Sniff interacting with viewers, debug view

Flightphase occupies a unique space as a design studio that creates artwork for the art world. It would be great if you could talk about Flightphase a little bit conceptually--how do you negotiate the space you occupy? The website says says Flightphase is "creating a unique design and format solution for any challenge"--how do those challenges differ and collide in the world of art and design?

We started Flightphase by presenting our artworks in a design context -- to a design audience and a design market.  As a result, the projects we were engaged for were usually some kind of hybrid of design and art including art commissions, and we're hoping it's going to shift even further in the art direction.  This probably speaks more about the state of the art-design tension and about the artworld’s changing attitude towards design -- what used to be seen as the ‘inferior’ art form has gained new respect, as evidenced by shows such as Talk to Me.  New media practice in general seems to engender the attitude that its necessary focus on formal and functional considerations doesn’t preclude a high concept.  

One way to differentiate between design and art is that design challenges have to do with the ‘how‘ (i.e. how to achieve a given goal), and art challenges with the ‘what‘ (i.e. what is the goal).  If you think of design as a process, all artists are designers and good art is always well-designed.
The projects on which we are hired as a design studio normally call for a lot of formal exploration.  In the art projects, we mostly limit the visual language, because their focus is more conceptual.   We always carry what we learn in one into the other though (for example Paik Times Five has to do mostly with the formal manipulation of pre-existing media and creating an aesthetic out of it).  But while visual language or aesthetics are important, it's a small part of what's involved even in a normal design practice. Karsten Shmidt ( puts it well discussing Jess McMullin’s ‘design maturity continuum’:  styling is at the lowest level, form and function and problem solving come higher, and framing (or how design is shaping cultural ideas) is at the highest level.  We see our practice as moving between, or encompassing, all these levels.

Beyond an ethic of collaboration, how has being a group of artists operating as Flightphase helped facilitate the creation of your work?

Media-based art practice involves a lot of experimentation with techniques and technology, and research into bending the expression of our tools to some specific goal.  The tools and knowledge gained from Flightphase projects -- which often lead us down an exploratory route we wouldn’t have gone down otherwise -- underlie a lot of new ideas. 

Overall, it probably makes our projects less medium-driven and more concept-driven:  not being limited to the set of one own’s skills makes you think less about what you can do, and more about what you want to do.  On the other hand though, you also tend to be seduced by what somebody just peeled back for you in terms of technical possibilities.     

The fact that we have to communicate well with each other makes us articulate our assumptions about what we’re thinking and doing, and that becomes part of the vocabulary of how we think and talk about our work, so a kind of shared knowledge is always a by-product of collaborative projects.

A lot of your work uses new media tech to converse with environmental concerns (Puff, Forth, Wildlife). How does the capacity of the mediums you use to create such immersive environments affect your handling of natural phenomena?

Every medium has its own unique qualities which can be used for articulating some specific formal metaphors.  For example, games and simulations let us represent dynamic systems, procedural metaphors, and create experiences that are malleable and adaptable based on real-time input.  A project like Forth, which is about attempting to keep balanced in a system we’re embedded in, is entirely dependent on its particular form.  The ocean-scape is made in a game engine, which takes real-time weather data input to control the behavior of the ocean and the environment.

Likewise, projection has the idea of disappearance and ephemerality literally built into it, and so in Wildlife, it can easily evoke the idea of being surrounded by absence of animals.  Because it is made out of light, projection has qualities that other more concrete formats can’t have.  It is a nocturnal medium, and I love the fact that darkness makes us rely on what we remember or what we infer -- both of which are in a large part products of our imagination, distorted and inaccurate.  Projecting the imaginary into such half-perceived, half-imagined space makes it seem more believable.   

More conceptually speaking, nature and technology are a pair that has always existed in tension. Humans have made their tools and technology to deal with nature: to understand it, to protect ourselves from it, to conquer it.  Now we’re looking to technology for the solution to the environmental crisis.  So it is natural to use technology to speak of nature too.  In fact we already see nature through the lens of our current technologies.  It’s no accident that in the age of computing we see nature as a dynamic emergent system that unfolded from a set of initial conditions following a set of given rules.  The concept of what nature is changes with our understanding of ‘how things work’, and what’s our own primary framework for making things work.  

Puff is a tool that, like a plow or axe, defines our relationship to nature on a very practical level, marking our current concept of it.   It also talks about the private and the public -- the ethics of personal choices in the light of social pressures -- leveraging technology in a social context.  A tool for self-regulation and self-surveillance, is, like other experiments in openness, at the same time comforting and constraining.

Paik Times Five


Flightphase is 3, and individually we are between 27 -  35.

Brooklyn, NY

How long have you been working creatively with technology? How did you start?

We have all started differently, but all had early interest in art and technology and combining the two.

Describe your experience with the tools you use. How did you start using them? Where did you go to school? What did you study? 
We used to say that we’re trying not to rely on specific tools, but be able to apply the best tool for the job.  But the in-depth knowledge of a tool allows you a lot more intuitive expression than what you can achieve with the tool specialized for the task, but that you don’t have much experience with.  Ability to pick up new tools is a skill we’re trying to hone.  A lot of our recent projects were created using game engine Unity3d and openFrameworks.  These are all used in tandem with more traditional production tools such as 3d applications Cinema 4d and Blender3D, Final Cut and Adobe Creative Suite.  

Between us we have been educated at SAIC, Calarts, and University of Washington’s DXARTS and CS programs, in fine arts, experimental animation, digital media and computer science.  A lot of the tools we know came from what we have learned at school.  Equally a lot came from having to pick up the tools for the kind of projects we had in mind.

What traditional media do you use, if any? Do you think your work with traditional media relates to your work with technology?

We have a background in more traditional media, and while relatively little of it finds its way explicitly to the recent projects, it’s always in the background: we draw on this experience in the concepts and designs of our projects -- if not in the actual crafting of them.
Are you involved in other creative or social activities (i.e. music, writing, activism, community organizing)?

We use a lot of open source tools and participate in the open source community.

What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously? Do you think this work relates to your art practice in a significant way?

For Flightphase the work and the art are especially tightly coupled, and definitely both arms of the practice benefit each other a lot.  
Previously we’ve worked as designers, animators, editors and developers for various kinds of productions.

Who are your key artistic influences?

Internet presents endless influences on any idea you’ve embarked on.  The usual blogs, writings, art, books, films, but also anything and everything in cultural production that appears in our search results can end up being quite influential.

Have you collaborated with anyone in the art community on a project? With whom, and on what?

We collaborate within Flightphase and outside on various projects.

Do you actively study art history?

Every project links to some area of art history, or more broadly cultural production.  So we tend to refresh and educate ourselves about art history periodically and rather randomly.  But since each peek down the shoulders we’re standing on is usually inspiring, we try to do it more regularly.

Do you read art criticism, philosophy, or critical theory? If so, which authors inspire you?

We read a lot of various critical writing.  Also rather randomly and in fragments that follow some meandering train of thought related to current project or research.

Are there any issues around the production of, or the display/exhibition of new media art that you are concerned about?

Work that runs on any particular platform is in danger of disappearing as the platform becomes obsolete.  A lot of new media art is already experienced only through documentation and with the cycles of technologies coming in and out of existence getting shorter, it seems like this will become only more widespread.

The biggest issue however is still that new media tends to be 'ghettoized' in its new media world rather than seen as part of the normal artworld and design landscape.