Live Models/Experiments/Utopias

jason johnsonOn March 18th, 2014, Jason Kelly Johnson  returned to the University of Virginia to present current work and visions of the near future .  As a professor at the California Academy of the Arts (CAA)  and a co-founder of Future Cities Lab, Johnson works on the edge of advancing theory and technologies with alternative experimental design. The Lab has brought designers, architects, technologists, digital craftspeople, urban ecologists, and other interdisciplinaries together to create award-winning projects from deep considerations. Robotic fabrication, rapid prototyping, and crowd sourced data inform dynamic cultural productions. In his studio courses at CAA, students use the precise realization  of 3d printers and laser cutters to design their own robotic tools, often considered co-producers alongside their creators. Advanced fabrication methods enable new forms of reactive building systems and responsive surfaces as interface between inhabitants and the greater ecology. His proposals are often fantastical , but carefully represent some of the most profound concerns of a globalized culture, from sea level rise and species extinction to multidisciplinary networking and the rights behind mixed authorship. This hybrid craft between invention and imagination explores the potentials of technological innovation and social media to illustrate and organize increasingly complex networks of programmable matter and energy into our everyday experience. In the recognition of our own spaceship Earth, it is imperative to build an awareness of the invisible and work toward sustainable intersections between our human concepts and a shared changing planet.

Collective Emergent Behavior

Jason’s work has been inspired by harnessing collective emergent behavior like the example of Cinematrix, where a group of individuals in a participating audience follow simple rules to play group pong or control a plane in a 3D world.

The Datagrove is a whispering wall created by Future Cities Lab placed in an orange grove of San Jose, California. It collects Twitter feeds from the local area and organizes them as collective responses on a map. It can sense when somebody draws near to the wall, and whispers back the feeds through speakers. The people may not always be engaged, but they can hear it peripherally and become engaged, then share it with each other, or pull out their phones to start looking up what hot topic wall is talking about. This project brings invisible cultural aspects into a sorted, adaptive archive for the public sphere.

Infinite Surface of Interaction

Jason often bridges the gap between the physical, digital, and invisible world. He envisions a world where there could be an infinite surface of interaction. He incorporates bidirectional feedback in his work to bring objects in reality to objects on the screen and vice versa. He developed the Firefly plugin for Grasshopper toolbar and Primer to program physical models with virtual models and manipulate virtual models with physical models. One human interface device that was also used to control the models on the screen and in physical form was the use of the Kinect to enable the hand to serve as an input device.


The Geoweaver is a small walking 3D printer hexapod that students in Jason’s studio developed. Its six legs traverse slopes, step over obstacles, and account for changing surfaces in order to print regular patterns on irregular landscapes larger scale printing. It is a machine that’s orientation is always balanced and coordinated by a larger network. A tool that can make maps can also read them, and this robot could potentially mine useful materials in the field like salt and algae.

Process Diffusion

In a post-modern arena, a critical way to understand data becomes the necessary tool to navigate vast seas of potential signals. Specialized knowledge is popularly accessible and reconstructed by necessity from encyclopedic networks and new tools allow rapid materialization of past models. Humanity’s archives have never been more extensive or diverse. Increasingly valuable to thinkers of this generation is a willingness to wander and an faculty to focus.

Johnson spoke highly of ‘maker’ networks like Instructables, an archive of open source design process, where the tools and techniques are shared among visitors and regular inventors. He argued that many of the creative tools available to designers were not developed with them in mind; architects ought to be developing their own tools to suit their needs. This sort of networking allows the existence of tool-databases, helping creators design entire manufacturing processes and specialized methods of production.

When designs can be both mass-produced and privately published, like books and blogs, attention will follow the most accountable and attractive platforms and encourage the hybridization of concepts across specializations.  Inventions could be openly mapped like reproducable scientific experiments, explaining materials used, hypothesis to be tested, and documented processes. Johnson adds that his favorite moments are the anomalies within these inclusive systems, the “monsters,” which are valuable additions to a catalogue, despite being outside specific intent. This attention for the ‘deus ex machina’ are often the most elusive measurements to explain and predict in his experiments.

Elements of Design in “Live Models”

  • registration: to record process, agents, and outcomes expected and unexpected
  • threshold: to invite materials and ideas in a transitional state of equilibrium
  • exchange: to enrich consideration with multiple dimensions of perspective
  • amplification: to rescale the effects of our environments to our advantage
  • interaction: to engage its audience and allow response
  • reciprocity: to grow and adjust to its own feedback, learning from mistakes
  • entropy : to embrace a complex unpredictable environment.
  • fluctuation: to exist at multiple scales, in varied locations, and be characterized by its environment.

Visions of Logical Futures From Contemporary Concerns

Jason creates futuristic dystopias and utopias. In some of his projects he shows the effect of human presence destroying earth. He touches upon issues such as global warming, sea level rise, extinction, and the use of robots and creates systems that can be enmeshed in such an environment and serve to thrive.

The Glacarium exemplifies environmental degradation by amplifying the sound and sight of a melting ice core when interacted with by humans.

Hydramax was his way of re-envisioning San Francisco’s urban waterfront post sea-level rise. It would consist of aquatic parks, community gardens, wildlife refuges and aquaponic farms. The building’s sensors and motorized components would harvest rainwater and fog, controlling air flow, solar exposure, and intelligent building systems.
Hydraspan Bridge Colony models a proposal for radical reuse and re-colonization of the west span of the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge. It would have thousands of fog-catching catenary ribbons hanging from the bridge trusses to sustain an inner world of domestic and agricultural activity on floating living units.

The Theater of Lost Species shows accelerated digital evolutions of extinction species in a mobile pinhole theater that reacts to visitors and travels on treads throughout the Bay Area.

theater of lost species_10-18-13_long rendering_low
Maker Spaces: Cross-Disciplinary Work

4In forming collaborative teams, Jason emphasizes the importance of listening, sharing, and visiting other’s spaces to experience each other’s work and process. At an Opengrounds meeting the following morning, Jason met with students and faculty to describe a growing concentration of ‘Maker Spaces’ around the world, and especially within the Bay Area.

For the inventor and entrepreneur working outside well-stocked private laboratories and university facilities, there have been few options for the independent development of new ideas. Future Cities Lab began in 2002 in Charlottesville, VA as a hybrid studio, workshop, and thinktank; since its establishment, Jason has assisted the set up of other places for making.

Key features of these ‘Hackerspaces, Techspaces, Coworks, and Collabs’ are flexible scales of workspace, a diverse group of founders, and essential tools for rapid prototyping and comfortable engagement. The most successful projects used around 30,000 sqft of recycled urban space (unused banks, gyms, libraries, warehouses, houses), were started by interdisciplinary groups across ages and specialized motivations, and featured rapid ways to display workflows. Most also included coffee machines and comfortable chairs.

Originating as underground computer labs, these clubs were popularized in Europe after the turn of the century to combat the widening divide between the public interface of newly adopted technology and those behind the curtain. In 2003, a group known as Chaos Computer Club filed criminal complaints against the German government for secretly allowing the mass surveillance of private citizen communications. It was through a thorough commutative understanding of complex systems that they were able to ‘hack’ the digital systems and find their proof.

There is a potential for these places as community-based alternatives to university education, and many offer classes and workshops addressing new tools and contemporary concerns. Many models exist today, including some that behave like private gyms with membership fees, some that are bank funded to provide sponsorship, and some that are built onto hardware stores to offer easy material access. Others provide offices for temporary startups, storage of resources, and networks of experts to assist your design. While collaboration is entirely integral, the spaces are targeting the individuals who want to work out prototypes quickly, without contractual or corporate involvement.


This led our class and others present at the OpenGrounds discussion to reflect on what it would mean to make a tool for transduction at our university. We considered what we would want to transduce and what kind of live models we could make. Where on the grounds might we gather our fabrication resources toward a university wide maker-space? We discussed how the university could encourage more interdisciplinary collaboration and how our class could serve as a model. This involved reinvisioning use of spaces like group study rooms, libraries, parking garages and even reinhabiting the Rotunda as a laboratory.

Image Sources

Report by Clarisse Abalos and McCutcheon Morecock.