Art Hack: Crowdsourcing Digital Art From The City

What can the creative class of a city come up with over a weekend of work? At San Francisco’s Art Hack, the projects ranged from the frivolous–prank phone calls–to the helpful, like visualizing the city’s earthquakes.

Stick a bunch of artists, web designers, developers, and hackers in a room, and what do you get? A visual and acoustic representation of Bay Area earthquake data, a sound collage of randomly dialed phone numbers, and on-the-fly digital art created from MP3 files.

The aforementioned projects are the winners and honorable mentions from Art Hack SF, a weekend-long hackathon put on by the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts (GAFFTA) and The Creators Project, an art and technology network led by Intel and Vice. Art Hack asked San Francisco residents (the hackathon was open to anyone who signed up) to use some of the newest tools on the Internet–HTML5 and WebGL–to generate the most creative projects they could imagine.

The results are impressive, and not just for a two-day hackathon. My favorite project, Partyline, might be “a little bit illegal,” admits Jake Levitas, research director at GAFFTA. The creators scraped about 20,000 phone numbers from Craigslist and wrote scripts that allow them to enter a command, dial 40 random people, and put everyone on a conference call together. “They’re all hearing the collection of this cacophony of lines,” says Levitas. The sequencer, pictured at the top, allows users to pick up and put down virtual telephones, which raise and lower the voices of the different participants. It all comes together to create a strange song made up of confused people and answering machines.

One of the hackathon winners, soundQuake, lets users visualize Bay Area earthquake data from 1973 to the present. That’s over 900 earthquakes. Every time an earthquake occurs over the selected time range, a 3-D rectangle rises up from the epicenter and a banjo chord plays. Users can also set the speed–for example, one year per second. In a sense, the app makes a scary phenomenon that people generally don’t want think about into something a little more accessible.

The other winner, Audio Shader Krew, brings together audio spectrum data with a shader editor to create beautiful original pieces of art every time a user drags an MP3 into the browser.

“We’ve done a lot of hackathons around city issues and we’ve done a lot of exhibitions of this kind of work, but we hadn’t really merged the two together until now,” says Levitas. GAFFTA’s Summer of Smart hackathons, which we also covered, yielded civic-minded projects that have continued long after the hackathons ended. PublicArtSpaces, a matchmaking site for artists and underused spaces, is being funded by multiple grants. San Francisco’s public transportation agency is working with the creators of Smart Muni, an iPad-based trouble ticket system for the Muni transportation system.

“A lot of our focus is on sustainability of the projects after the weekends,” says Levitas. To that end, the winners of Art Hack SF will display their projects at the Creators Project San Francisco, a free upcoming digital art and music event. No word on what will happen to the projects after that, but rest assured that GAFFTA’s method of bringing together diverse groups of city denizens will continue to generate ideas that benefit both locals and the larger digital community.

by Ariel Schwartz