Meet the first Microsoft Research Artist in Residence

James George’s art installation, “Instance,” will inhabit the Studio 99 art space in Redmond, right in the heart of Microsoft Research.

James George is an artist who is as at home amongst algorithms and software code as he is in galleries and behind a camera.

For three months, the Idaho native relocated to Redmond from his current home in Brooklyn as the first Microsoft Research Artist in Residence (AiR). And in a way, it was a homecoming for the University of Washington alum, who graduated with a computer science degree.

George is one of those people who straddle that border between art and technology, and have no problem blurring those lines in his work. Starting Dec. 3, his art installation, “Instance,” will inhabit the Studio 99 art space in Redmond, right in the heart of Microsoft Research.

He and his pieces are just one example of how the pool of artists using technology is diversifying and how Microsoft is reaching out and recognizing the need to have an eclectic array of people in their midst. George’s story exemplifies the ongoing potential of the artistic community as it adapts and evolves with technology.

As Microsoft Research’s Rob Knies elaborates, “For George, this project symbolizes a crossover between disciplines. He points to work by Joshua Noble, who collaborated with George to develop an add-on that integrates Kinect Common Bridge with the popular openFrameworks creative coding environment, as an example of how devices are being used for purposes other than their original intent.”

The openFrameworks community revolves around an open source C++ toolkit “designed to work as a general purpose glue, and wraps together several commonly used libraries.” By providing a framework for experimentation, it gives artists using technology a launching pad for creative coding. Just a glance at a gallery of this imaginative set-up shows how a little boost goes a long way.

George came to Microsoft Research through his mentor, Carnegie Mellon’s Golan Levin, an associate professor of art – and a pioneer of a bachelor’s program in computer science and art, along with Peter Lee, managing director of Microsoft Research. Levin runs the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry. George’s work has a lot of research aspects to it – including appropriating 3D scanners for new cinematic forms, as well as exploring interactivity and technology – so it seemed like a natural fit.

“There’s a common misconception that art and science are different,” George says. “Of course, there are differences, but the practice of a researcher is very similar to that of an artist. You define your own meaning, you’re defining your own goals for success in terms of what you’re inventing or creating, you evaluate things as you explore them and you start every day thinking how you’re going to innovate in this area. You create your own problems.”

MSR’s Studio 99 provides not only an outlet for that creative energy, but is also an homage to the intertwining of science and art. (Think Leonardo da Vinci and you can get the idea.)

He studied computer science because of a desire to use computation as a medium.

“I never wanted to be an engineer,” says George, who was always interested in “the expressive capabilities of software,” so much that he’d been making art with computers since he was young, and using programs such as PhotoShop and Bryce 3D by high school. But the idea of writing his own software didn’t come into play until he took an introduction to computer science class – and then, he realized the advantages of creating his own tools and not being beholden to only what was available commercially.

He also sees similarities between the peer review system amongst researchers and artists’ communities, and a “huge overlap in the practice of researchers and artists – especially artists who work with technology and researchers who are inventing technology.”

Finding “very little cultural conflict,” he says, “The tools that we use are one and the same. There’s a strong basis for collaboration at a technical level.”

For him, software is a means not to an end, but to a beginning of a conversation about the role of technology in our lives, in our culture.

“The interesting conversations comes out of the question of why,” George says.

His exhibit, which will be up for about a month, is made up of two projects: “The Wall Queries” and “Grip.” The first one appears as a 30 x 9-ft. mounted vinyl mural that from far away, looks like an organized, intentional collection of colors and shapes. But as you get closer, you start seeing details: photographs of quilts, cityscapes, logos, dice and many more found pictures. These are words turned into more than 10,000 images – search queries returned in visual form. And within that chaos, there’s control, using found material.

“The core concept was to create a drawing that fills an entire wall using a single search,” George says. In this case: squares. “The most surprising thing I learned from this is how deeply culturally connected the object is with the color that is associated with it.” For example, searching for “blue squares” revealed to him how much it was tied to technology culture, from desktop backgrounds to company logos. “I think blue is the color of the future,” he adds, while “Squares imply functional and logical components of our experience.”

While he kept each result’s original color and scale, he did re-arrange the images.

The second project is a video installation designed for the two column video displays in the Studio 99 gallery. Each column face acts as a window into an abstract 3D scene, occupied by images of two dancers who look like they do a lot of yoga. When a viewer approaches the column, the couple responds by breaking their grip on each other and quickly falling out of view. Then they emerge in a different pose and the cycle continues. “Grip” was filmed using a 3D capture system created by the Multimedia, Interaction and Communication group at MSR. George worked closely with researchers Charles Loop and Cha Zhang to adapt their systems towards creating the installation.

For George, who is very interested in the emotional response to emerging technology, the “strong visceral reaction” upon seeing these images is akin to “science fiction becoming reality.”

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Athima Chansanchai
Microsoft News Center Staff