The art of Dan Zen: future somethings from digital nothings

I recently attended the “Function Keys: Conference of New Technology & Digital Culture” conference here in Hamilton, Ontario. Lots of great lectures over the four days, and I was not going to miss this unique opportunity in this town to see as much as I could and help encourage it to happen again (you can see my live tweet stream here). This was right after Art Toronto for me, so I have a lot of catching up to do with posts from both events – and both have affected my areas of research and practice.

Back to Dan … sometimes nobody knows you are famous. This is true for the art world but “double true” for the digital world. We are talking about an industry that has severe short term memory – for example, a browser can change drastically how we view the web, but we quickly forget what it used to be like. Do you pine for a website that does not exist anymore? Do you wax nostalgic for the apps of the first iphone? Do you look at your computer mouse and think about the hero who forged this plastic hammer from the fires of creation? No, you don’t.

But some of us do. Like me. So, Dan Zen has been around for awhile as a pioneer of the future of human interaction with technology. An affable and friendly person, Dan chatted with us a bit before and after his lecture and I learned he originally put up web art as a interactive website using Macromedia Shockwave in 1995. 199 freaking 5! I started working with Amiga computers in 1995, but only got my first (and non-interactive) web art stuff up in 1997. I did manage to be one of the first people ever to work with the first computer based video editing environment (the “Video Toaster”) and even taught one of the first net art classes for artists in 2002/3. Zen, however, meanwhile, was making robots that draw, video loopbacks, programming custom gesture interactions and collecting awards for his multi media classes since 2001. Dan Zen is the real thing and has literally been “first on base” on many fronts, and unless you are into the art history of the digital avant-garde you’ve probably never heard of him. His influence and influences very significantly are involved in the history of computer gaming. Digital legacies are built on sand. But, like many genuises, his place in this history is assured at this point but at the present many might simply see him as a goofy guy in the room who is misusing an ipad by hanging it around his neck.

So be it.

Speaking of that thing hanging around his neck, that’s another simple adjustment that speaks volumes to the value of original thinking that shirks the illusion of choice that most people conform to when thinking about their relationship to their personal technology. Dan added a string to his ipad … and developed a wearable app for personal expression called “Hangy“. He re-adjusts the technology around him in ways that push the envelope, then uses the technology to enhance the story of being human. It’s that simple but easy to dismiss in this slick, packaged and inwardly consumer age we live in because people see a dude with a screen hanging on his chest and stripped pants. Like many of his fans, friends and students, we see the past, present and future of digital mediated reality in front of us … with a friendly smile.

Below are some snapshots of Dan Zen and his Hangy app in action. I will try this app as well. I am literally afraid of going through his stuff too closely because I could get lost for years in it’s awesomeness, it’s mad computer scientist experiments.

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