Skip the Process, Draw the Pixels: A Conversation with Jon-Kyle Mohr
Jon-Kyle Mohr is a designer, programmer, and musician from Los Angeles. His work is methodical, technically rigorous, and at turns provocative or philosophical. In the past year, he has developed a tool to archive Soundcloud music on the distributed web, a bookmarking site, a blogging platform, and an interactive map of thoughts, images, and geospatial data generated from a walk through the Los Angeles Arroyo. Each project embodies an approach to radical transparency that includes open-sourcing code, hosting sites peer-to-peer, and broadcasting live question-and-answer sessions to share context and background.
Seth Thompson: We’ve been talking about the idea of producing a rendering by individually selecting the color of each pixel one by one in Microsoft Paint. This is a provocative idea as a piece of performance art … or at least process art. Why is this idea so compelling and what are the implications for all of the ways we otherwise produce digital images? Why is Microsoft Paint always a piece of software that gets referenced in relation to this kind of idea?
Jon-Kyle Mohr: I think about this from a place of consumption and creation. I grew up looking at images on screens, and have spent much of my adult life doing the same. At a certain point the image breaks down for me and I see it as abstract individual pixels. I find it difficult to design something, or take a photograph – forms of image making – without feeling those individual pixels on a screen. Same with audio. It’s difficult to record and process audio without seeing the audio as an image –
a waveform. This affects my process in a certain way. This has more to do with biology and how the eye processes the environment, and less about a distinction between analog and digital methods or something of another epoch that existed maybe fifty years or five minutes ago. Microsoft Paint is jurassic in position relative to the sequence of consumer electronics and the graphical user interface. It’s a rock.
ST: I think, if I can make a generalization, that when you say you see abstract individual pixels, you’re also talking about a certain facility with signal processing? Like the ability to see a low pass filter on an audio waveform and envision what it will sound like, or the ability to see a photograph and recognize a certain desaturation in the highlights that you can intuit how to recreate with a set of curves or tone mapping. Or is there something else at play?
JKM: It’s less granular than that. Just raw perception. I know I’m looking at a grid of pixels and most of the time my brain couldn’t care less as it just sees an image, but every once in a while an awareness floats to the surface, usually when making something. It’s hard to bridge the gap between the nothingness of initiating a project and knowing its ultimate place on the screen. Why not skip the process and draw in the individual pixels, or just draw the waveform? This is of course a ridiculous idea, but a personal hangup nonetheless, and it overlaps with a semantic tripping point between “process” and “processing.”
ST: [Responding] as someone who makes websites, what is the substrate for a website? The site is not (usually) expressed in terms of pixels. Is there another unit of “raw perception” that comes into play? Is the HTML tag an equivalent? Or to put it differently, if you had to “draw” a website without any process (no wireframes or moodboards) and were forced to just output it to the screen what would that look like?
JKM: That’s sort of what I do. I don’t consider myself a designer, but I do design a lot of things, including websites. When I do, I’m always in the browser working with the native material at hand. In this case, the Document Object Model. There are never wireframes, or project-specific moodboards. So in that sense, my process is very direct from *brain activity* to final form. This is not particularly efficient; there are a lot of redundant motions, but it feels like imposing methodology on individual gesture is artificial. Working like this is closer to hand building, whereas wireframes/moodboards are more like creating a mold and casting the form.
ST: You’ve built a number of tools for others (I’m thinking about Cargo, Enoki, and some of the internal authoring tools you’ve built for institutions). Do you think about designing interfaces that encourage the same directness of intent from impulse to execution? To go back to Microsoft Paint, is there anything to be mined from its primitive simplicity? Or to put it differently, to what extent do you believe that your process (or we could even say nonprocess) is a personal artifact vs. a pedagogical tool.
JKM: In order to create a useful tool conducive to a range of possible forms it is necessary for the design process to center around defining brokenness. Consider the visual flow of a deep neural network and try to design a “user experience” around that. Untraceable chaos. My work on Cargo was never directed by any imposing methodology. It was extremely lucid. This is because I was not creating something for a specific user but creating a flexible authoring environment for a multitude of possible applications that we could never know from the onset. This is a symptom of working in the future. Creating interface for a specific client is a more focused challenge based on the experience that client brings to the table, or the context of that particular institution. I personally find that far more of a challenge than following my nose.
ST: When people talk about image consumption they are quick to jump on the idea of the “feed” as a kind of universal interface (sometimes Pinterest is mentioned, but the reference is usually used as a stand-in for every online image stream). It strikes me that Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr, and of course Are.na are very different kinds of image repositories. How does the interface itself, the technology underlying the interface, and the community around the interface affect the experience of browsing images on any given site?
JKM: It is interesting that all of the platforms you mention share the feed in common, yet have distinctly different patterns of use and communities. There is of course no clear answer, as these are organic and emergent qualities that seem clear in retrospect but are often unknown in the moment. I guess it’s always possible to point to style. Pinterest looks lame, and that makes me uncomfortable, so I’m not going to use it. Are.na looks “lame” in a very specific way (default sans-serif typography, desaturated UI, etc.) that aligns with my sensibilities, so I will use it, and that will connect me with certain other people, and now there is a community. These things don’t just happen – a lot of work goes into it – but I question how much one can know in the moment exactly what something is. At least I don’t.
Willis Kingery: Your point makes me ask a basic question: what would healthy image consumption online even look like? The platforms you mentioned occupy incommensurate worlds in terms of content and organization, but the mode of consumption they offer is largely the same. People lament the “feed” and feel that supposedly better alternatives exist, yet every platform offers essentially the same model for looking at images.
JKM: Right now we wake up in the morning and take a hit of fresh content. Something healthier is less like getting a fix and more like something ambient. “Oh, that’s nice. Goodbye now!” The screen is a difficult interface to work with.
WK: In the life of the image-based platforms mentioned above, each seems to start as a somewhat peripheral community, but as its user base grows, they inevitably reach a kind of saturation point, where eventually the repository goes from being a rich site of discovery to a more mainstream mood-boarding tool. Can image-based platforms scale without propagating a certain sameness of content? In relation to fringe platforms I’m thinking of some comments you made to my classmate, Steven Rodriguez, about the ongoing suburbanization of the internet as a reaction to the centralization of the Valley’s platforms, how people have been seeking online “property” outside of the center of activity, and I wonder if you still see this as a trend?
Has that movement possibly opened pockets of possibility within the “urban core” of the image economy/ecology?
JKM: And just look at how well suburbia played out! Imagine the commute to your Facebook feed every morning. Yeah, I think this is also where metaphor breaks down and it’s important to abandon the analog as its core meaning fades away. The decentralization thing is really simple: you are your data, you do not own your data, you should own your data, you should not have to be constantly aware of this. To your point about community scalability, it is important to be skeptical of the growth chart. Capitalism loves a good growth chart. It’s hard to do things within capitalism without them. Looking towards urbanisation to understand this is useful but should not be taken literally.
ST: In the past year, you’ve broadcast a number of “hangs,” or livestream updates, to a community of programmers, designers, and distributed web enthusiasts who are interested in your work. In one of them, you constructed an Enzo Mari Autoprogettazione table in your backyard. What is the significance of sharing the artifacts of your working process with such an audience? Does Enzo Mari’s notion of sincerity in individual creation have relevance in an era when code, ideas, images, and even websites can be so easily copied, modified, altered, and combined?
JKM: Yeah, these are awkward for me but the feedback is good, so I keep doing them. I see Autoprogettazione as less about the sincerity of an individual and more about a critique of production. Enzo is not saying, “everyone should build their own furniture to truly know it.” He’s saying, “Look, build this table. Now when you look at tables you know when one is shit and why.” Not only this, he uses plain language to communicate the ideas. A similar critique on the production of the internet would be challenging considering the difference in materiality. I have difficulty imagining what this would be if not reductionistic.
ST: It’s been said that prediction is a low form of journalism, but do you have any guesses or aspirational ideas about what images we will be viewing in the future and how we will be making or viewing them?
JKM: Prediction is the ability to know the future, but exists squarely within the past. The work being done with GANs are producing entirely new forms, but the output is a hallucination of those that exist. The future of image making will probably be variations on Deepfakes, content substitution ad infinitum. The audience and the author will continue to become one and the same.
WK: In relation to future modes of viewing and the earlier conversation about pixels and having an atomized view of every image, I wonder how we’ll navigate these shifting image worlds offered by digital platforms. Is there a direct visual parallel to this condition in some of your Are.na channels, [‘Array’, ‘Aesthetics’] and Deep Field, for example? We’ll certainly be engulfed by an ever-expanding constellation of images, but perhaps its ubiquity and banality should be embraced as a generative force. It’s overwhelming, but is there value in becoming adept at searching for anomalies in an infinite field?
JKM: For me, a lot of this comes down to who owns the data? If it all continues to centralize and we’re just using Instagram, there is very little room for speculation about possible form because it will all be dictated by them. They own the land as it were. In this era of data ubiquity you mention there is room for the truly personal “artificial intelligence” or a formalized mode of augmented cognition. We already all do this “offload your brain to the cloud” kind of thing but it’s not articulated as such. Perhaps this will manifest less as decentralization vis-a-vis localization … a continuation of today’s antiglobalist sentiment as it makes its way online. As I type I begin to care less and less about this and more about finding a good snack to eat.