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Collaboration with NY Public Library Labs

MARCH 10, 2014
I was recently invited to participate in a weeklong event in digital storytelling hosted by the Brown Institute for Media Innovation and Columbia University.
“Bit by Bit” paired storytellers (illustrator, journalists, photojournalist, poet/architect, landscape architect, and songwriter) with technologists (artists whose work involves code, data science, and data development) and challenged us to create something new. A mash up of speed dating, maker faire and Improv Theater, the event was a celebration of collaboration and process without it having to result in a deliverable. The teams worked together on Thursday and Friday and on Saturday there was a presentation at Columbia Journalism School in front of a large audience. On the Saturday before there was a student event where I served as a mentor, which I wrote about for the DART newsletter.

I was very flattered when Mark Hansen invited me and the event was so far afield from anything I had done, I had to try it and see where it would go. I was fortuitously paired with the team from the NY Public Library Labs. All six members of the lab signed up together and cleverly composited their faces into one headshot on the event website. When I began my career as an illustrator, I would spend hours at the picture collection housed in the NYPL, gathering reference for projects. It was a gathering place for illustrators, filmmakers, writers, etc. Since the collection has been digitized, I now spend countless hours browsing it under the guise of “research.”

"Leaning in" to the experience of working in the library.

We met briefly on Wednesday in the labs office in the beautiful 42nd street library to get acquainted. We shared work and started brainstorming ideas to find a common ground and something we would all be invested in creating.
Thursday morning the organizers had a breakfast for all the teams to meet. It was an inspiring gathering of people who are all renown in their respective professions. Although this wasn’t a competition, meeting the other participants made everyone want to rise to the challenge. As a friend of mine said, “What constitutes a sailboat race? Two boats on Long Island Sound at the same time.”
So, off we went.
Back at the library we set up shop in a historic reading room. Over the course of a few hours, we settled on the idea of working with my visual world of animals whose shapes would shift based on data sourced from chat. The animals were divided into heads, torsos, legs, arms, tails and wings that were each mapped to respond to different letters, grammar and time stamp of a chat. The backgrounds would change base on the emotion of the chat: rain for angry, sun for happy, etc.

In the afternoon, I returned to work in my studio where I pulled different pieces from my existing archives, animal engravings from the library archives and painted some new characters. We continued to communicate through email and a call where all seven were on the speakerphone at the library and I was at home. Friday morning, I arrived at the library with my paints and brushes to fill in any missing elements on site. It felt like working in a steampunk time machine, sitting in the historic reading room, painting backgrounds with gouache that were scanned to become digital files that the team then mapped to code on their laptops. By the afternoon, I was walking down the hall to rinse my brushes in the restroom sink like it was no big deal. A reporter from the Columbia Journalism Review came in to interview us as we prepared for our presentation. There was another gathering for participants Friday night at the Hudson hotel, which I attended while the NYPL Lab team stayed and coded for a few more hours.
On Friday afternoon while the team was coding, I quickly pulled together some slides using the NYPL digital collection to describe the collaborative process. 1. We begin with the idealistic version of left brain and right brain volleying ideas back and forth.

2. Reality: we go around in circles for a while, everyone headed in a different direction.

3. Synchronicity: we develop our idea and everyone is working on different tasks in unison.

Saturday was show time. We met at Pulitzer Hall in the Columbia Journalism School and put together our presentation. I was mesmerized by all the talks that ranged from ready for market journalistic applications to live performances, one by Joel Gibb from Hidden Cameras singing from data sources created by Jer Thorp, an installation of different surfaces in boxes that landscape architect Diana Balmori walked on to create different sounds recorded by visual artist and game designer Phoenix Perry along with a poetic and heartbreaking discussion between Vito Acconci poet-cum-architect and visual artist cum computer scientist Jonathan Harris on the difficulties they had finding a way to collaborate.
Although I use paper and pixels in my own work, I am very much a front-end user. I consider it a victory every time I login to a website and remember my password. Like watching a flawless dance performance, the movement of code appears effortless until one attempts it on their own. I have come to appreciate the choreography and orchestration that happens on the other side of the screen.
The experience has made me curious and excited about new platforms for storytelling and the possibilities for image making beyond the printed page.The highlight was the actual collaboration with the wonderful team of NYPL Labs. Although it was unnerving at times to let go of total control over what my work would look like in the final product, by doing so we were able to make something together that we couldn’t have done on our own. A heartfelt thank you to NYPL Labs and to Mark Hansen and Michael Krisch of the Brown Institute. I can fully appreciate the level of care and planning that goes into creating an event like this.
Now that I have a glimpse into these other worlds, I want to see more.
I'm getting the band back together. NYPL Labs team from l to r: Paul Beaudoin (Applications Developer), Matt Miller (Applications Developer, Archives), Brian Foo (Applications Developer), David Riordan (Product Manager), me, Ben Vershbow (Founder/Manager), Clarisa Diaz (Parsons MFA student and Fellow), Mauricio Giraldo (Interaction Designer/Developer)

Above is a short video of the app in action wonderfully created by NYPL Labs, the full talk is below.
© 2024 Ellen Weinstein