Fuzzy Wobble is an interaction designer -slash- digital alchemist -slash- your modern day model of a mad genius.
He is known on the internet for projects like GIF Dance Party, which riffs on some of the internet’s most popular looping, dance-related pop culture moments, and creations he terms “useless inventions” — seemingly unprofitable projects that in a world fascinated by experimentation not only become valuable due to their sometimes hidden utility, but also through their ability to surprise and entertain. For one of his projects, a hacked Japanese ‘lucky kitty’ becomes a learning tool for repetition and learning; in another, a plant wired up to a computer sings in harmonious waves, literally showing the energy that flows through all living matter. Nowadays, it’s difficult to encounter digital experiences that affect us in engaging and emotional ways, but somehow, he makes it happen. This is how he has managed to gain attention, and even land a job at one of the most esteemed design firms in the world, IDEO. In a recent interview with the designer, I asked a number of questions to learn more about his motivations for making and how he sees technology as an art form.
If you had to label yourself, what would you say it is you do?
At IDEO they call me an interaction designer or creative coder. I like to think of myself as a digital alchemist.
Where does the story of what you’re doing now begin?
It started with watching Hackers in 1995. My goal was to move to NYC, hack computers, rollerblade everywhere, and date Angelina Jolie… Most of which came true, except Angelina was dating some guy named Bradley Pitts by the time I made it to NYC.
I’d like to understand what your initial draw to technology was having grown up in Cranbrook, B.C., a place that doesn’t have a lot of cultural stimulation and at times seems like the end of the earth.
In the 90’s, Cranbrook was somewhat of a culture ghetto. Nowadays, with modern day internet, things are getting better. I had little relation with technology growing up beyond a dial-up connection – a gateway to an internet that was immature and difficult to navigate. My parents raised me to be a professional NHL ice hockey player. A suitable ambition for someone growing up in Cranbrook, being it was a ‘hockey town’ and known for producing NHLers. I made it to quite a competitive level (NCAA DIV1), but lacked the passion to pursue it, as my interests were clearly elsewhere. When I quit hockey at age 20 I had zero skills. I had a lot of catching up to do. I have my brother (Neil) and the internet to thank for that.
You mention on your site and now here the term “digital alchemy” — what to you is the definition of this?
Oh that’s a tough one. I am still working on it… In short, it can be thought of somewhat like a conventional alchemist. We attempt to exploit a gap of understanding in an effort to mystify the audience. We too, often have no idea what is going on.
I am not sure I will be a digital alchemist forever. My interests are perpetually in flux. I get bored easily. Initially, I was very keen on the technical stuff like coding, mechanics and electronics. Now, making/prototyping has become somewhat trivial. Today, all the value lies in the concept. At some point in time I may try calling myself an artist and make some art. For a while, I was having difficulty understanding if what I was creating was an art. I made this website to help myself and others understand if what we have created is an art.
I looked through your website a bit and was particularly drawn to pieces like the Freq Plant and the Good Luck Learning Mandarin project. I like the term of useless invention you came up with for one of those projects, which masks the hidden utility within the concept; it reminds me of some of Bruno Munari’s early philosophies and his useless machines, which were really about creating art that is dynamic and possesses scientific elements in order to make it so — why do you personally find it important to act on these kinds of creative compulsions, regardless of whether the original intent is for fun or function?
I love working in the domain of ‘useless inventions’. So much opportunity here. Our world is becoming populated with tech-savvy individuals. But rarely do these individuals have creative intentions. They are too busy optimizing their code to run 50 milliseconds faster, or trying to raise funding for their ‘social media start-up’, or inventing daft quantify-everything devices such as cups that tell you what you just poured into them (actually this may arguably be a useless invention, although clearly that was not the intention).
Those of us who are steering our technical skills in a creative direction seem to be killing it in these times. The ‘useless invention’ domain gives you the chance to take ownership of a concept. The concept is usually so bizarre or self serving that it is unlikely anyone will ever think of it, or even try to duplicate it. My friend Randy Sarafan invented the the clap off bra, joydick, and the romance pants (men’s pants where the lights dim and music fades in as your partner unzips them). He owns these, for the rest of time. No one can ever take these away from him. I see value in that. Especially since he probably made each of these projects in less than a day, while a team of the best, hard working engineers in the world take years and billions of dollars to make your smartphone half a millimeter thinner.
An integral aspect of a website/computer program is its audience and how they respond to or interact with a platform. Are you interested in making creative work with technology because you’re curious as to how people will use it and interact with it?
The internet is not a serious place. The internet is a playground. So go play.
How important is the response of an outside user to your work?
I realized last year, with GIF DANCE PARTY, the disproportionate nature of viral content. How one weekend of coding can result in millions of hits. It was extremely rewarding. I received some great responses. Here is one from Stacy:
“I just wanted to say that yesterday was a bad day for me. someone was really mean and greedy and sketchy and stole from me. I was so mad, I MEAN REALLY MAD, I couldn’t sleep ever even if I tried. Around 4 am I discovered the bored button. about 10 clicks on, after reading 200 euphemisms, and examining a blue whale and playing with a strange ball on string I stumbled into your gif dance party. I tell you honestly its the most wonderful thing I have ever seen in all my 38 years on the internet. I was laughing hysterically for almost an hour. It took me 2 hours to wander around through all the dancers. your creation changed my worldview in a moment when I needed it most.”
Many of your projects that stand out to me the most seem to have been created almost exclusively for their entertainment value. What are your thoughts on the power of humor?
Humor is universal. It is the best way to engage with a worldwide audience, especially when there are language barriers. This is why most viral content we see is humorous.
Do you have a favorite website?
Here is my favorite Tumblr (keep scrolling…)
Oh and to.be is without doubt, my second favorite place to hang out on the internet.
What are you most interested in discovering or facilitating with your work?
In an upcoming project I am trying to connect like-minded people in a playful and moderately social environment. Less, ‘omg my photo of my face is trending so hard on Instagram’, and more ‘omg you are such an interesting person’. Beyond sharing pornographic photos, this was, more or less, the intention of the internet, right?
What would you say you primarily use technology for — conversation, creation, wasting time, etc?
Everything except food, sex, partying, sleep, and travel. Although, I do use the internet to plan my travel and partying.
Recent studies have shown that Americans spend an average of 7.4 hours of their approximately 15 hour a day waking life staring at screens. Any thoughts on this? What is your vision of the future?
I have heard them referred to as glowing rectangles at IDEO. Even more recently, black mirrors.
My vision for the future is food that comes in pill form, and pills that come in food form. Not much of a vision, sorry. But I do have a prediction of the future to share. My prediction of the future is that there is little hope for the real world. An immersive simulated lifestyle will emerge as the superlative lifestyle. Hyper social and hyper stimulating. The real world will feel drab and tedious in comparison. Recently a drunk guy at a party in Cambridge yelled out ‘my Tumblr feed is more interesting than all of you people’ and left. I too wondered if my Tumblr feed was more interesting than those people. We will eat and sleep in the real world, but live some kind of dismal lifestyle that allows for maximized connectivity. We already see this with video games today — people participating as little as possible in the real world in an effort to maximize their playtime. Expect this behaviour to be amplified in the future, to the extreme.
What are some analog/IRL things that inspire you and your work?
I frequent a few festivals: Sonar, Shambhala, and Burning Man. I travel as much as possible. I love hackathons, particularly the creative ones. These experiences certainly shaped my personality and possibly some of my work. Admittedly, most of my inspiration comes from the internet. I see this, which inspires me to make this.
What’s an exciting thing about the “now” in terms of technology, innovation, and creation?
I would like to think that the phrase ‘I can’t do that’ will soon become obsolete, and possibly replaced with ‘I will look it up’, quickly follow by a CMD-T keystroke, and an appropriate search query.
There are many elements of popular culture today that have amalgamated to create a definitive “internet aesthetic” — to name a few examples: Everything is Terrible, Tim and Eric, and post-internet art. This aesthetic has been transitional between art and fashion for some time now.
For the last two years I have been studying this aesthetic and still struggling to fully understand it. Truly enigmatic. Without doubt, we will see a huge crossover into fashion. In fact, I just started a cyber-culture storefront (not much there yet).
In what ways do you think technology has surpassed its traditional boundaries to define our generation?