Presented at FITC Toronto 2016
See details at www.fitc.ca
Sometimes if you’re lucky, you get asked to do a really big project. If the project is a good stretch or you need to pay the bills, then of course you have to say yes. Hopefully you know how to do it, but if you don’t…then you need to learn the necessary skills — fast. This is the story of taking on giant, expensive projects with hard deadlines and many unrelated skills. How to persuade collaborators to be on your side, motivated to work their asses off and love you anyway.
Entertain the audience with failures and eff-ups (and some success too) while inspiring them to try new things
Anyone looking for a reason to lose their fear of leveling up.
Assumed Audience Knowledge
Interest in art, electronics and how money influences projects
Five Things Audience Members Will Learn
What it feels like to have to learn to code in a short period of time (hint: easier than it sounds)
What it feels like to have to think about data in terms of something beautiful in a short period of time (hint: way, way harder than it sounds)
How to pretend you can do anything
About working with collaborators that will help you grow
Dirty secrets about how much and how little you can get paid to make the fantastic
INTRO Hi- I’m Sophi Kravitz, Thanks for having me here in Toronto! This is my 4th time at FITC, I love this conference so much! I’m an artist, hardware hacker and a sometime engineer. I’m currently into interactive art- the kind of art that plays with you. I’m going to talk about working with people on expensive projects, and some of my experiences in collaborations.
There are a lot of parts to being a good collaborator and having a good project experience. Finding good project partners, managing teams, keeping everyone motivated, learning, and sometimes learning really fast, recognition, and sharing recognition
Money stuff: Finding someone to pay for the project- or stripping it down until it’s affordable to pay for yourself. Finally, the part that I’m currently struggling the most with- is having a clear vision. For me, it’s straightforward as to what the project should look like, but having a clear idea of the concept is difficult for me.
Typically one person on a team will have the vision or concept, and I see this as being a really important part. It’s difficult to share a vision, many artists don’t work this way. It is difficult I think for all of us to give up control of the vision.
A bit about my background, nearly exactly 20 years ago I became a freelance sculptor in New York City. I mostly made a living building museum exhibits and prosthetic body parts for Hollywood movies.
To make a prosthetic body part, our process was first to lifecast an actor, this happened with alginate or silicone. Then molds were made, an incredibly detailed process. For movies, everything had to be perfect.
The basement studio I worked in had actors coming in and out all the time. I made a bleeding neck for this actor called Christopher Walken, it was pretty neat- you know when you bleed from the neck, there are two main arteries with different pressures. We had to create a rig that could provide flow and pump.
MY FIRST START UP At this time, I was a shop assistant, a part of a 2 person team, and we were passionate about making realistic body parts. Together, our bonding experience was to create 300 severed heads for a body part rental service to film.
When people on your team are mean
Another project I worked on was sculpting Harlem GlobeTrotter basketball team sneakers for a restaurant display. The basketball team display was already sculpted, but Studio EIS hired me to fix all the parts of the sneakers that didn’t make it out of a mold making process. We used something called magi-sculpt, which is two part epoxy. You mix it together in 2 equal parts and use it to sculpt detailed things. I spent two weeks alone sculpting shoelaces. Roll out the epoxy, squeeze it through your fingers, press a pattern into the clay, put the clay down onto the sneaker. Repeat. After I’d been making these sneakers for awhile, I realized that some of the epoxy wasn’t setting up- hardening. I’m like whoa, this really really isn’t good- it turns out the epoxy needs a happy temperature of about 20 degrees to work properly and I’m sculpting in a part of the studio that’s freezing. Anyway- we fixed it with a hot air gun, more commonly known as a hairdryer. In this situation- I was new to the studio, a part of a team of about 20 people, things were very competitive and political- many people wanted to sculpt sneakers it seemed. Someone ratted me out, I was reprimanded for sculpting in the wrong temperature and my future projects at that studio were more in the realm of mixing plaster and doing non-detail work.
I got to work on a sculpture called Cat on a Clothesline for a couple of weeks. I got hired by Jeff Koons to do some finishing work on the Cat, very similar to what I’d done with the sneakers. Jeff’s process at that time was to make large sculptures out of plaster, have molds made, and cast the sculptures multiple times in different resins and colors. It was horribly tedious work, laying down plaster and sanding it off. I worked on the cat’s eyes and the sock both. The sock was the worst- you could barely tell where the texture was, and yet, it had to be absolutely perfect. When the project was completed, although I thought my relationship with the studio was nice, I was never asked back to work. For many years I wondered why- I actually had this horrible feeling that I had sculpted one of the eyes crooked. I had also seen the cat leave the building via crane. It was pretty big and heavy, the art handlers struggled to get it out of the room. Recently there was a Jeff Koons retrospective in New York that I went to, and the cat was there. I was so relieved to see that the eyes were perfectly straight.
I built stuff for films and exhibits for about 8 years, for the most part as a shop assistant and team member. It was pretty amazing, and I got to work on pretty much every body part that was severed or mutilated possible. I’ve been all of these parts in an artistic collaboration: designer, tech consultant, team member, project manager and shop slave er....assistant.
WHO Small projects don’t need a ton of support. In fact, having too many people can really weigh you down. One of my cousins has a brand new design website. It’s so new that there are only about 10 pieces of really nice content on there. She got a website editor and a proofreader - so there are 3 people working on 10 pieces of content. She spends a lot of time managing these two people and not so much time writing content. If you can do it by yourself, you should do it yourself. But if you can’t do it by yourself, you need to figure out what kinds of roles you need in the project before you start inviting everyone you love in the world to work on it.
The kinds of roles on a team you may need are technical: do you need someone to design a structure? Maybe you need an electronics person, someone to write software, someone to work with motors. There is a delicate balance between concept artists and technical people which I think is not well recognized. So say you have a big giant vision that won’t let you sleep at night, it’s got a ton of code, and you don’t really know how to write it. But you have this amazing idea...so you want to get someone to collaborate on it with you so that the idea can make its way out into the world. Maybe there are people here who can relate to this process!
ART-A-HACK There’s a fun thing that takes place in New York, actually starting in May. It’s called Art-A-Hack. The idea is to randomly mix people from different disciplines and get something wonderful. Art A Hack says it is about bringing art and technology together, to make something new. It’s in the third year and I highly recommend getting involved if you live in NY. There’s an open call out right now, you can google Art A Hack to find it. I was a part of Art-a-Hack in the first year- I learned a lot about what NOT to do when you’re an artist and a technologist together in a collaboration.
So in 2014, there were 9 teams altogether made up of about 21 people. The 21 people were chosen from an open call- they probably took everyone, I have no idea. But there were many people with great ideas. So about 2 to 3 people on each team. Each team is put together by the organizers, Andy and Ellen. Andy and Ellen choose the teams by what technology we said we wanted to work on. I wanted to work on virtual reality, so I was put together with a talented designer, Martha, and a technologist Takafumi. Both Martha and Takafumi wanted to work also on virtual reality. All of the teams were made up of some combination of artist and technologist- the rules are that we have 3 Saturdays to work on it, all the technology is given to us- so for example we wanted to use a Leap Motion, which is a gestural processing tool- you can wave your hand and have something hopefully meaningful appear on screen.
The software engineer felt disrespected, and quit. It was really too bad, as the project had an interesting direction and could have really been wonderful had the artist been less of a boss, and more open. People who write code are incredibly creative and don’t necessarily want to be told what to do. So the lesson I learned- I am someone who does not write much software- is that you have to understand the workload that you’re talking about. You probably don’t have experience in what your project partners do- which is how it should be. A collaboration is people determining their vision together, not one person bossing the others around.It seems quite obvious to all of us- I think we all try to be respectful, but it’s really the most important thing in any collaboration. With this particular event, as a group, we lost 3 software people for the same reason.
Either you have the idea, and you are recruiting people to work on your project, or you want to work with someone who has an idea, and you are persuading someone to want to work with you. So the first task is to figure out which of these you want to pursue.
The other question, and it’s far more important, is why does a collaborator want to work with you? The biggest indicator of your future success is what you’ve accomplished in the past. And you’re only as good as your last project. If you’ve finished stuff in the past, that’s going to make others want to work with you. In fact, I think this is the biggest indicator of whether or not you will attract people to work with you. Do you have follow-through? Don't expect that you can establish the parameters of something 'awesome' and expect the world to make it happen. When you meet potential teammates, responsive, friendly and articulate.
If you don’t normally finish projects, how can you persuade someone else to want to work on something with you and know it will be successful? If I'm going to contribute to your project, I need to see a clear end game and evidence that you make OK decisions. I’ve worked on many projects that didn’t go anywhere because the leaders didn’t have a clear idea of what to do. If you’ve never finished a project, then now is your chance. Pick up something manageable, and finish it.
If you’re showing your project to people you hope to convince to work on it with you, make a road map- show clearly what the project is. I like the three sentence rule- anything you explain needs to be able to be clear enough to be broken down into 3 sentences. You also need to be able to support that project- even if it’s in an idea form -can you research this idea? Don’t pitch a project as the next big thing and leave out where someone can learn more. Use the right words and spell them correctly so your potential collaborators can google the concepts you’re trying to achieve.
Online, If you have the idea, and you need to find people to work on it, no amount of staying home watching TV is going to solve that problem for you. So that part is somewhat obvious- you need to get moving. There are meetup groups for all kinds of project interests, collaborative platforms- this is the one I work on. Hackaday’s project platform is the #1 place where I share stuff I’m working on and it’s a place where I meet people with you just can’t online.
Meetup is another spot to find your project soulmate.
And here at FITC, you might meet your dream team….I’ve certainly met many collaborators at this conference
Mostly, you just want to make sure your collaborators have a similar work pace to you. It definitely sucks to be a hyper sort who works many-hour days partnered with a team of sloths. It’s also good to be on the same page about deadlines. Of course, things can be reversed...it sucks to be the laidback sloth driven by a bunch of hyper folks just as much. You definitely don’t want to be the kind of person who is serious about deadlines and work on a team that isn’t. This is really important, as when you aren’t getting paid enough to have money be the motivator, something else needs to hold the team accountable. Missing deadlines can kill a project and your career pretty fast.
When a team works well together, it’s because the team has the same mindset and is clear about their goals. At the start of a new project, help your team decide which part of the project they will work on— and be accountable. That way there are clear expectations to give feedback about and you’re coming from a place of reality, not emotion. Tell people what you don't like about them as well as what you like, if anything.
This section is about being in charge at the intersection of money, unicorns and safety. While I’m working on some new stuff this year, this is the last project that I completed in September of last year. Interactive projects have been my passion for the past few years. It just feels really good to make art that people can play with. Interactivity can often lead inspiration to playground equipment design. Swings, slides, merry-go-rounds are all kind of on the normal curve for interactive. Art installations all have the potential to be unsafe. We live in a litigious world, and some people have a habit to sue for every dangerous thing an art project can do to you.
A project I worked on last year was called Loquacious and Lovely. Loquacious and Lovely are unicorns. They were originally born in my favorite co-working spot of all time...Grand Central Station in New York City. Grand Central is a big train station, it’s warm, there’s coffee and I recently discovered if you have an iThing, you can connect to the Apple store for free. It’s rad. So I’m sitting at a table with my friend Adelle and we start talking about an experience where we’d ride physical unicorns in the real world. I’m looking up at this beautiful ceiling at Grand Central and thinking how cool it would be to hang the clouds from it and try to hit them while riding on unicorns. We’re talking about rigging this thing, who we’d get to rig it, how clouds would hang etc.
From this idea, I start thinking again about interactive playground equipment, and eventually come up with the vision making the unicorns into playground spring riders. Conceptually, these unicorns are about welcoming the outsider in. In my giant crazy vision of this project, they have speakers in their bellies and speaker boxes off to the side that you can talk through. There’s a bluetooth connection so you can connect your phone up and play music through them too. This drawing is what I submitted to get money to build them. I had no idea whatsoever how to make these happen or who would want to work on them at all.
KICKASS COLLABORATORS to work with. Say the word unicorns and promise that the team will build arty playground equipment, and there is suddenly a team of 4. One of them is Adelle, my friend Adelle who I’d been rapping with at the train station.I knew the unicorns would be expensive, and probably considered unsafe, so I thought it sounds like we should apply for Burning man funding since everything out there is interactive to the point of risking your life. To those who don’t know what Burning Man is, it’s a large interactive art and music festival in Nevada. Art pieces go through some crazy validation just to stay alive out there.
We get the money, it’s about half of what we need to complete the project. We self fund some of it and do a Kickstarter for the rest. Oliver, the lead, with massive mechanical ability and knowledge, spends a couple of months testing different springs. Ollie and I have a lot of trouble relating calculations to what is really happening. We want the unicorns to be able to move in all directions, like a mechanical bull with no motor. Springs come with only a directional constant, meaning how much load can they support up and down. So in this case, we choose truck springs, figuring that anything that can hold up a semi-trailer will hold up to people. Then we multiply it by three, so the springs can, theoretically support about 3000 pounds.
Working together: The main people on this project in the beginning are me, Ollie and Adelle. Ollie and I are married and we are used to working together for about the last 10 years. This was the second project I’d worked on with Adelle and we had to refine how we work together.
We add two more people, Justin and Max because they work on this other art project called Dome Star. Dome Star has been shown all over the place, it’s a dome with custom light patterns and it’s sound reactive. People love it so much that their Dome Star project travels all over the world, gets used and broken a lot, and needs a complete upgrade. So our unicorns win! We get LED handmedowns and 4 controllers. This is a real community.
Large group of installers. We also find out that interactive means how long it takes to break
How's it going? I hope this message doesn't get too crazy, but here we go...
I thought your project was amazing, but my girlfriend thinks it is pretty much the greatest thing ever invented. I don't think it's possible for anyone to think anything is amazing as she thinks those unicorns are. We spent a solid 20 minutes with them, which is where we briefly met. Since then, I cannot count the amount of times I've heard the phrase, "Just imagine! Imagine having one of those unicorns." There have probably been a good 8-12 situations that have come up that "could only be made better by those unicorns." Then there's been lots of “How could you possibly ever be upset about anything with one of those unicorns? You just get on it and within 10 seconds you'll have forgotten about what you were worried about in the first place.”
MOTIVATION Lead by example. If you want people to work together, whoever you are on the team, do your best to make each and every one of them successful. Connect them. If one person has a problem somebody else can solve, send them that way. Lose your ego- you don’t have to be the one to solve everything. Even if you can solve it yourself - you want people to work together - then they experience each others' qualities and develop mutual respect and trust).
Create a safe environment, encourage feedback cycles, and for god’s sake avoid the blame game at all cost.
As a shop slave and team member, I thought is was just as important to be friendly and supportive as it is when your running the show. teach people to be better than you, it really makes the team super fantastic. Be open, share your skills and knowledge with your team -you never know when you’ll need them to pull you out of the weeds.
And most importantly, BE NICE.
21st Century Crystal Ball
Playing nicely together
(was: 21st century crystal
I’m a person without a huge amount of friends, since I’m shy and
I enjoy staying at home playing videogames and watching movies
rather than going out.
My problem is, I want to start a project, but I’m really not great
with math, and I don’t love programming.
My focus is art and design, besides story and ideas in general.
So, my question is, where do you find people to work with you?
How do you trust someone that much to help you with a project
that has no budget or payment guarantee?