loud paper interviews Amy Franceschini


AF: So, what do you want to know?

LP: How do you come up with the forms and structures of your programs?

AF: I spend a lot of time making things. I have all this stuff inside and the computer is the easiest way to get them out. It is a tool I’ve been using for the last few years, so it is an easy way to sketch. For about five hours a day I just make stuff and don’t really think about it. I just make, make, make.

It is my own fantasy world. I make little 3-D characters and I make the little scenes that they are in. It just makes me happy. I replay them and watch them a hundred times.

I have this library of artwork that has evolved, so when I have a specific idea, for instance, Sascha and a group of two other programmers (Justin Baske and Josh On, my business partner), we’ve been working on a piece called Communiculture.

LP: I saw that on your site. Tell me more about it.

AF: It’s complicated to talk about. I do all this commercial work, which totally feeds into the experimental work. Companies come to Future Farmers with new media, so we are learning about the newest media and having to design for it. When I first started on web sites it was a whole new kind of design, really. Now we are working on cell phones, and that is another new kind of design. There are three shades of gray and it’s a twelve-by-twelve pixel. Make something in that twelve-by-twelve pixel.

To me, that’s really exciting. To narrow your whole world down to a twelve-by-twelve pixel and three colors is pretty intense.

When we started doing stuff for Palm Pilots and Gameboy games my artwork was becoming more like that: game looking and pixelly. So I had this library of artwork... Sascha was in my studio. He always checks his stats on his web site, every ten minutes he’s looking to see who came. Who’s visiting and where they came from. One day he said "Seven thousand people came from Future Farmers to my web site today." I wasn’t really super-excited. I was like "That’s great." And he said, "Don’t you understand? Imagine if seven thousand people were standing in front of you and they were all looking at you. Can you see how exciting that would be? It’s like I’m a rock star. Do you realize how many people go to Future Farmers, if I got seven thousand hits from there?"

Well I didn’t buy the URL. A friend bought it for me, so I didn’t have access to the stats. But Sascha was insistent that I find them out. We finally got them and we looked and there were sixty thousand people coming.

I’m not so interested in the numbers, but I am interested in who those people are who are coming and what we can give back to them. I don’t want sixty thousand people coming to Future Farmers just to see pretty design. I want to give them a resource. Give them some sort of information.

I wanted to build this forest that when you log on it’s just a forest but you can claim a plot on a tree. When you roll over the plots you see who’s there. If the tree is full you can look for another one. The forest grows.

It started with just the Future Farmers, but as more people log on another tree pops up. This landscape grows and becomes navigable. You can go through it and it will grow infinitely.

When you claim a plot you go and create an avatar of yourself. At the time companies were coming to us and were like "Can you do an online community? We want to have an avatar where people have blue eyes, black eyes, red hair, a jacket." All these physical attributes. I thought can’t we have something else that represents people besides these physical attributes? An aura or a personality?

I was working with Justin Baske, who was the artist in residence at the time, and we were eating dinner and I was like "Can’t we do an animation where people can choose the representation which suits themselves?" He said, "I can write a set of behaviors and people can choose from them."

So at first we started out where you can choose your symbol, which is an aura. And you can choose the color of those symbols. You could choose from a library. One of them was spacey. One of them was all-surrounding, which made you seem like a grounded person. We evolved the program you could draw your aura and it would follow what you drew. So if you wanted to be super mad, your aura would reflect that.

Once you assigned your aura to your avatar they are all the same. We decided not to have any physical attributes.

So you would save yourself. And then you have two options. You can change your avatar aura or you can go to a plot. When you first log on you get an empty plot. There’s some artwork you can choose from and you can design your plot.

Each of these graphics can represent you bank of resources; there’s a house and there is water and light and stuff. So what we want to have people do is to upload resources that they want to make public. Like anything: reading list, fonts, programs, whatever they want and they can assign it to different graphics. When other people log on you can go visit anyone’s plot and you can basically retrieve their resources.

LP: I’m interested in this piece in that you are using natural metaphors within the digital format. How do you feel about that?

AF: In my artwork that’s what I deal with- the endangerment of the environment. Being involved in this Internet industry made me sad in a lot of ways. Especially in the Bay Area, watching this huge economic boom and no one was conscious of anything except for making money and spending it, and making more money and growing. And it’s like, wait a minute. Are we taking any time to stop and think about what is this growth doing? It is basically doing something to us. And I think that the Internet, especially our Web site, is reaching so many people that I really wanted to somehow make that evident.

That’s always been one of my goals is to use these natural metaphors, and I think for me all the answers are in nature. I really look to nature as a system, or systems in nature, to pull from and create online in a lot of things I do.

LP: What about this relationship between the slickness and culture? The slickness of the digital imagery?

AF: I have a contradiction with it myself, in that I hate the slickness of it and sometimes I find myself loving it. I think that comes from fears in my personal work. I like doing stuff digitally because you do have so much control and can perfectly render things and can get things extruded to be perfectly like you made them in a 3D program. There’s something that fascinates me about that. But then it also really freaks me out, because as humans we have a lot of control, and that scares me because it’s almost a farce. It’s like, oh we have all this control, and I don’t have to worry about anything because we can control everything.

When I first started doing print design, I really fought the digital slickness. I’d leave rips in scans and I’d burn the edges of the paper and I’d make things look old, as if they were from an old Berkeley kind of thrift store and had mold stains on it and stuff. I tried to incorporate that in my work. And then I got really obsessed with the thing being clean and tight and controlled in a way. I don’t know. It’s a contradiction within myself. I fight it all the time. Sometimes I look at this stuff and I go "Ugh!" I hate it. It’s so controlled and clean! I just want things to be crazy!

When I collaborated on Holding Patterns, I rendered it all in 3D and then I gave it to the sculptor, fabricator and industrial designer.It had to be defined and finished to give to them so that they could build it. But in the process of testing it, it looked really different. It was all wires. They had this energy, and I was like, "That’s what I like." It was more chaotic and more natural and kind of eerie.

And then we put this fancy bird in there and put it in the gallery and it looked all pretty and I got really mad at it. And little kids would come and go, "Oh it’s great!" They’d lay on the floor and be so happy and that’s really great. I love that part of it, but I also was frustrated, because the thing I was trying to address was that these birds are dying and that the economic impact is affecting them, and the data that was making these birds fly was driven from transportation stats.

LP: It wasn’t live data that you were using?

AF: No, none of it was live. Everyday we updated it to a Web site. Because the only stats we could get that were even close to live were from the Bay Bridge, and they wouldn’t give it to us until the end of the day. Because they didn’t have a way to give it to us, that’s what they said. So all of it was daily stats that were then put to a web site and then run through a program to interpret the data, because we designed how we wanted the data to affect these pieces.

LP: So what would happen?

AF: What would happen is, as the traffic would peak during the morning hours, these bulbs went up to the ceiling and collapsed and got dark, and the birds stopped flying. And as the traffic would start to lull during the afternoons and the late evenings, the pods would come down to the ground and expand and the birds would start flying and the light would come back on. And on the floor were these moving blankets but I kind of made them into these islands, so they kind of represented the wetlands. So they were like coming down to roost on their endangered wetlands.

But I don’t know... the slickness thing. I’m not sure where I fall in there. I love it and I hate it. >>

LP: I’m interested in this piece in how you reach out into the urban environment and sort of bring it into... It’s like taking the street and bringing it into your work. Do you have more ideas for doing that?

AF: I never really thought about it like bringing the street in. I’m interested in that opening and closing of what goes on in the streets during the day and what goes on at night. It’s just a different world. In the environment too. But specific to your question, I visited Hong Kong last January. I had jet lag so I got up at five in the morning and I went over to the Caloun island to Mong Koc. This really intense area with all these meat markets and markets and it was totally empty, and I just started videotaping when I saw this guy pushing this cart that was all wrapped up, and it was just really beautiful how it had straps all over it. All his stuff was on this cart. And then another one came out and then another one came out. I just got really dazed and I videotaped for two hours this scene. All these carts were coming out of somewhere and they were unfolding them and building them up into markets. Some of them were toys, some of them were clothes, some of them were pillows or whatever.

But then at the end of each block, on either side, they’d pull out their cart and unfold it and set up a table. They’d put on a headphone (and it would be like an infomercial, all day long, about these products. They’d show you how to shrink-wrap your calculators.

One of them was a grape peeler, and it was this woman telling you how to peel grapes. So I videotaped it. This idea of almost these mobile infomercials was kind of interesting to me and I wanted to show this somehow.

LP: It also sounds like a Communiculture.

AF: Yeah! It’s true. I never thought of that. I really want to make one of these things. I’m really into these backpacks. My ultimate dream is to put on a backpack, walk and never have to have a home. To just go. That’s my little psychological out.

I started making these backpacks and thinking what would be the most minimal thing I could carry on my back that I could survive on. So in those backpacks is a CD-ROM of all these images and all my files that I couldn’t live without. They’re sown in.

The backpack has all this stuff that folds out into an infomercial. It might be this huge, unwieldy backpack, or maybe it’s all strapped down. Or it’ll be a cart that has multiple uses and modularities.

LP: A wearable cart... Since loud paper deals with architecture, do you see your work expanding more into a more built environment? You’re touching on it with these ideas of carts and backpacks.

AF: My next dream of what I want to do is more architectural stuff. Especially with these carts, I’m really into these modular worlds that keep unfolding and folding and changing, and you can never figure out what there original form is or how it’s supposed to be. That’s something that I like.

I render a lot of stuff in 3D programs before I build them, so I can show them to fabricators or whatever. Once I rendered this little space. It was a slice of bread, but it was actually a living quarter. I rendered it in a 3D program and I tried to build a model of it. In a 3D program you don’t need nails, you don’t need glue, you can just stick a wall on and then stick this wall on and it sits there. So I got all the materials I thought I needed to make this thing, and I started to cut them out and make the shapes I had made in the 3D model, and I kind of held them together and I let them go and watched them fall on the ground. And that became really interesting to me, like this disruption of the concept of things being held together by engineering. Engineering that goes into architecture just baffles me. I could never build something like a huge building because it’s just too insane to even think about how it would really work.

LP: What about this idea of play within your work? Are the games there because you work with clients that require games, or is that something that you bring to it?

AF: I think the game thing started with working with Sascha. I liked making animations a lot and as I said before, it’s my escape, my fantasy world. It’s kind of weird to me, the little characters, because it’s almost like you’re playing God for a minute. You move the eye this much and you’re like Oh! It’s perfect! It’s somehow this fantasy world and I love being in it. It’s these little people and it’s their little personalities. And Sascha... and most of the programmers I work with have all these game ideas, but they have no graphics, and nothing to put them together with. And they show me these pixels moving around and it’s really scrappy.

So when I met Sascha he got so excited by these graphics and I got so excited by the game. Because then it givesit another dimension. It’s like, okay I’ve made the animations and put personalities in these people, but now what happens when other people get to move them. And I think we both got really excited by that.

When I was a kid I played Ms. PacMan. I was a super-avid Ms. PacMan fan. But I kind of vowed not to play video games or PlayStation because I know I’ll get addicted. I really love playing games, but I don’t want to because I know I could get lost in that world. So it became really fun to make games. It wasn’t that we proposed it to clients so much, but clients would come and ask us to make a game. It just evolved that way.

My online work is another contradiction. It is really playful. And it’s something that personally makes me happy even if I’m designing a serious section of Future Farmers about our client work or our work, I always want there to be an out for people while they’re there to interact with some little character or for a character to be doing something kind of weird and maybe all of a sudden it’ll turn it’s head around and look at the viewer. Or some other activity for the person to do that is more fantastical than just pure information. And I think that’s how I am. I’m really easily distracted. I take it all in, but if something beautiful is around I’m going to look at that. And that’s how it is in the world, you know? It’s like even a crack in the floor could take your attention away. And I think online as a designer you have to facilitate those cracks.

LP: Your way of facilitating cracks is almost like making grit in the machine.

AF: Yeah. Dirt. I love dirt. Making it tactile, or humanoid. Yeah. And I thought that was kind of nice: to keep the awkwardness in the technology.

But yeah, I like surprises. We just like to hide things. So there are places on Future Farmers where people may never ever see the stuff, but if you accidentally hit an A-key a window will pop up and it’ll say something or there’ll be an animation. Or if you accidentally triple-click on something other things pop up. They’re really personal. I feel like no one’s ever going to find them, but if they do it’s going to be great.

LP: What about the game being sort of an endless game? It’s all about wandering and about endless discovery, rather than winning.

AF: A lot of the programmers I work with, they want it to be structured on all these levels: you get here then get here and then you win. So it’s this competitive thing where you get points and you have a list of who’s gotten the score. And I’ve always liked games to be more of a story. Where you maybe you don’t necessarily get points, but you may get a part of an idea. Then the next level’s another part of an idea. It is a sort of point system, but you’re getting pieces of a puzzle, rather than pieces of a pie. And Sascha and I just really got into the idea of there never being an end. And there’s never a way to win.