Recently, I sat down with Jason Lewis, founder of the OBX Laboratory for Experimental Media. We discussed how OBX conceptualizes itself and what the lab produces, as well as Lewis’s background in industrial research. I also got a chance to play several of the interactive poetry games that research associates of the lab worked with Lewis to produce.
The OBX lab investigates the materiality of digital media by asking the question, “how is technology being used?” The lab aims to both discover and invent ways of using digital media that fall outside the sphere of their ‘intended’ use, activities that provide new venues for writers, visual artists, and advocates of social causes to create and promote their work.
Lewis spoke about the proliferation of screens in today’s reading world. We experience text by viewing it from behind glass, as if it were part of an exhibit in a museum. Kobos, phones, tablets, laptops, computer monitors, even the display screens on appliances all mediate our experience of reading via software. Experiments conducted at OBX attempt to use (and create from scratch when necessary), such software to produce self-reflexive works that investigate the possibilities that new ways of reading provide.
Specifically, Lewis is interested in how indigenous peoples can benefit from digital media, and wants to encourage the use of such tools, which offer writers, artists, and programmers access to vast networks of audiences, collaborators, and resources. Many of these software tools (such as Twine), are free, open-source, and user-friendly. Lewis pointed out that endeavours such as the Indigenous Futures Initiative are taking advantage of cyberspace’s potential as a kind of ‘open gallery/studio’, where artists both create and exhibit their work.
One of the principle boons of immersing one’s academic as well as artistic process in cyberspace is that, in contrast to publishing a peer-reviewed article, attending a conference, or even exhibiting one’s work in a gallery, as Lewis puts it, “art is easier to access physically, emotionally, and intellectually” than ‘academized’ art, or even art displayed in a gallery, where physical space, attendance fees, and proximity are all limiting factors that come between audience and artwork. Rather than artists using the academy as a refuge, Lewis encourages them to migrate to the web.
In order to perform experiments that fuse visual art, writing, programming, and gaming, OBX utilizes a variety of software tools and, when necessary, develops its own. The lab makes use of VR tech such as the Oculus Rift, and creates narratives in Second Life. The lab develops ways of creating that it then makes available to the indigenous community, via opportunities such as the artist in residency initiative at Concordia.
In terms of Lewis’s experience in the industry, he described to me the ethos he picked up while performing research for technology companies in silicon valley. Lewis and OBX operate according to the mantra that “real artists ship”, a phrase that reminds me of my friend and colleague derek beaulieu often quotes, from Chuck Close, “inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” Over the last five years, OBX has demonstrated that it sees itself as more of a studio than a lab in many ways, a space where ideas are incarnated as things rather than incepted.
In order to facilitate the transition from idea to thing, OBX utilizes several software tools and information hubs, including the Adobe and Microsoft suites, Github, Slack, Dropbox, Blender, Sublime, CODA, Scrivner, and Google Docs. Lewis mentioned to me that OBX “has become completely dependant on Google Docs. If Google Docs were to go down tomorrow, the lab would go down with it.” This notion elucidates a possible drawback of OBX’s reliance on software: relationships with the software environments of large tech companies have become a necessity for the lab to function. What does this mean? Could it undermine some of the lab’s initiatives, or change the nature of the things it produces?
I had the opportunity to experience several of the iPad/iPhone apps that Lewis developed in conjunction with other researchers at the lab. Works such as The World that Surrounds you Wants your Death, derived by Lewis in part as a response to his children’s questions about their heritage, produces texts in response to where the user taps on the screen, words appearing and fading in response to this touch. This work, and The World Was White both incorporate music composed by Canadian electro-acoustic composer Paul Dolden. The game No Choice about the Terminology explores the notion that “though we might have some choice about our terminology, we have no choice about our ontology.” Lines of text scream across the screen on a backdrop of red, slowing and eventually stopping when touched, giving the user/reader the experience of playing Frogger on a ruthless highway of text.
These and other works of art produced by OBX demonstrate the lab’s use of digital media as a tool for decolonization, a means for artists to expand and enhance their practices, and a way to interrogate how we create and experience visual and literary art in the 21st century. The lab acts as a space for interdisciplinary endeavours to flourish. As Lewis put it, much of the software written in OBX still has “untapped potential”, which I posit won’t remain untapped for long.