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Interactive Artist Scott Snibbe Gives Us The Scoop On Björk's Biophilia Apps

Scott Snibbe is an accomplished interactive artist with more than 20 years of research and development behind him, as well as countless realized artistic projects ranging from interactive installations to mobile apps. Central to his work is the concept of interactivity—highlighting that no one among us exists in a vacuum. Rather, we are all part of an interconnected chain of actions and reactions, that everything in life is part of this transactional exchange of actions and ideas.

This driving principle, along with his successful music apps, may have been what drew Björk to Snibbe and his studio when looking for collaborators on her Biophilia app album. Björk is known to tap the talents of producers and musicians whose contributions she utilizes to forge her music, and in creating the multimedia experience of Biophilia, she enlisted the talents of developers. In Snibbe, she found a collaborator who could help realize her vision for the app component of the album.

Snibbe will be speaking about his work with Björk tonight at The Creators Project event Exploring Biophilia: Apps as the Next Creative Frontier for Music as part of our partnership in presenting Biophilia’s New York City residency.

We caught up with Scott Snibbe to find out about his origins, his inspiration, and what it’s like working with Björk on her most technological project to date.

The Creators Project: First of all, how did you come to be involved with the Biophilia project?
Scott Snibbe I got an email from Björk’s manager saying they were working on this project and they were very, very kind and complimentary. Björk had seen some of my apps and enjoyed them and what her manager said is “We’re looking for somebody to help with an app project, do you know anybody you could recommend?” (laughs) And I said, “Yeah, I think I might know a guy.”

You’d had a few successful apps of your own before this, some of them having to do with music. How did you become interested in exploring the interactivity of music through the app format?
I played the flute when I was a kid and I got a program called Music Construction Set for my Apple II in about 1983 or 1984. I was writing programs before that for my Apple II, just always making programs that combined graphics and music, but when I got that program I really thought “Wow.” So it’s really been my whole life that I’ve been involved with that. In the ’90s I worked at a musical research group at the Interval Research Center and got to work with people like Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson and created a bunch of interactive music prototypes that we thought might be able to sell on game platforms—PlayStations or something like that. So its been a current throughout my whole life, an interest in combining music and visuals into a new kind of interactive form.

Do you know where the desire kind of stems from? To me, it kind of sounds slightly synesthetic in a way.
I don’t think it’s unique to me. It’s an illusion that human beings perceive reality. What we actually have are these five senses and our mind integrates them into some coherent view of reality. So, we are by nature designed to integrate these separate sensory strains into one coherent model of reality that exists only in our mind. We have a sound channel and a visual channel and a smell channel and our brain builds a model that is essentially completely fabricated from these different streams.

So, I think the attraction for me is probably the same for any person—it’s that it is possible to create any form of reality from a combination of visuals, sound and other senses. That’s why we love cinema and opera and so on. Interactivity is even further along the spectrum from cinema towards the way our perception works because we can actually change and affect it rather than just sit back and watch it. I think my interest stems from a phenomenological interest—that’s just the way my brain works.

What was the experience like of collaborating with Björk on this project? Obviously she is kind of a force to be reckoned with. She seems to have a very strong vision and way of interpreting the world. As an artist, how did you integrate your own vision into that?
I was so excited to work with Björk and I vowed to really watch her very closely as we collaborated because she seems to be one of the great collaborators in the world. She is one of the few people whose collaborations turn out better than the sum of their parts. After working with her, I realized that it’s a combination of many things—she acts like a director. She has a very strong, high level vision for the project that she articulated in a long manifesto and in many meetings, playing the songs, explaining what they meant. But quite often she let us go off and interpret what she said in our own way, as long as we were sticking to the big message, the narrative, and the broad strokes she was painting. There was room for us to improvise within that.

So it was a lot like working on a movie—there was a clear area where each person could make their own contribution, but there is an over-arching ultra-powerful vision form Björk at the top. And of course like any project, she makes corrections along the way. Sometimes a whole lot of corrections where she’d say, “Okay, try something different,” but always in a very nice way. Other times she’d just say, “Oh you know, it should be a little greener” (laughs). She was very involved in all the details and had very specific feedback and a very gentle yet effective way of communicating her feedback to us. It was a wonderful experience to be absorbed into her vision and also to get to bring my own creativity and vision to parts of it.

Sounds like a dream collaboration. You’ve done a number of collaborations in the past. Do you feel that you get more out of working with other people, or do you prefer to execute your own artistic vision when given the opportunity?
Well, I’m really always working with other people. I wasn’t really trying to be an artist for my career. My parents were artists and to me it seemed a very solitary activity and also one prone towards ego because everything is really about you, your reputation, your work. I mean, all of us have this problem really in anything we do, but for an artist it’s particularly acute because it’s your name, your show, etc. I was always more drawn by cinema. I studied film and computer science. I got an art degree also, but the only reason I’m involved in the art world is because that’s the only place you can show the kind of work I do, until recently. Really what I was trying to do was create a mass medium of some sort, to be able to distribute interactivity broadly to a mass audience at some low price.

Can you tell me a little bit more about what you hoped to bring to the Biophilia app suite with your contribution?
Well, Bjork had a really clear and beautiful vision, so it was more about just expressing it in the best possible way. My particular angle in the apps that we did is on simulation and open ended types of interaction. I’m not as into the kind of push button kind of interactivity, but more that you are interacting with a simulated model of reality. So, the two apps that we did, “Virus,” where you’re interacting with the simulated microscopic world and, “Thunderbolt,” where you’re manipulating simulated electricity and lightning, both of those are completely open ended. They are different every time. You can explore them as if you can do that thing in reality. That is probably our specific angle on interactivity and you can see other peoples’ personalities and approaches to interactivity came out in the apps.

What do you think are the most important consideration for artists and designers to keep in mind when creating an interactive experience?
There’s a lot of little technical crafty ones, but the biggest one I think is to focus on meaning. Something that I find with many, probably the majority of people working with technology, is that they are looking at some technology and thinking, “What can I do with this?”, and I’ve never worked that way. I’ve always worked top down. I have an idea and ask myself, “How can I express that idea through technology and interactivity?” But if you just have to have one piece of advice, I would probably say: focus on the concept and meaning and doing things for a reason, and a reason that could benefit people at least in some small way. It doesn’t have to be in a direct way, like you’re making micro loans or something like that, but in some way your work has some connection to the human condition. Maybe it sounds like simple advice, but it’s missing from most work that I see, especially with technology.

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