John Michael Boling"A computer not connected to the internet is a very different thing."
Was that why you stopped making work for a while?
I stopped making work in part because I was offered a job at Rhizome. I had been blogging for them, and when a full-time position opened up Lauren offered it to me. It sounded like a really good opportunity for me to be part of something I cared a lot about. So I made an intentional decision to spend my time and energy supporting the scene and Rhizome’s mission and not letting my work as an artist get in the way of that.
So you stopped making work?
I mean, I was also really way too in my head and gummed up about my own work and whatever I thought other people expected. That was also at a point where there was a new generation of net artists emerging. They weren’t in our original crew but had maybe known about it or been influenced by it, or were just on the same path as we were. I took it upon myself, for better or for worse to investigate it and throw it up on Rhizome.
How did you stop working there?
I think I realized that I didn’t want to pursue curating as a career. My role became more administrative than I had originally wanted. It was a fantastic experience but I got tired. I mean, working for a non-profit takes a lot of energy. If you aren’t 100% dedicated you should leave and let someone else who is pick up the torch.
Was that around the time you started working on Are.na?
The original idea for Are.na came out of what happened to del.icio.us after it got bought and iterated into god-knows-what. The scene that had grown on del.icio.us had really deflated. Before that, the site had really worked. It delivered the dream of the internet in terms of finding strangers who are into the same things you are and becoming friends with them. There was so much cool stuff done because of it. When it evaporated I felt the need to create a replacement for it, something that was a force of real connection in the same way. Luckily I was able to join up with a group of folks who had similar motivations and we set out to figure out what that tool / place would be.
One of the first things I noticed about Are.na was that it was a social network that wasn't crack.
You mean in terms of dopamine responses?
Yeah, I mean that’s something Are.na has avoided and not always because we wanted to. It’s certainly how it ended up for the better. The way we built it was so it would not really have too much of an opinion or even guidance on how to use it. It was built to be able to have new networks built on top of it. I don’t know of another tool like it on the internet that doesn’t have an agenda.
It’s also an incredibly personal research tool.
We wanted to create a tool that could augment and enhance human knowledge and connection at the individual and small group level. For me, after working on it for 3 years and using it daily it became my prosthetic memory. I still think it’s the coolest site on the internet.
What are some of your favorite channels?
Dena Yago’s got this channel called Language that’s really important to me. Freak Hacks is the funniest thing of all time. I really like the Fictional Channels: Fictional Logos, Fictional Photography, Fictional Drugs etc. Pretty much any channel by Damon Zucconi is a must-see.
You started making work again when you made those two videos in 2013. How did that come about?
Yeah I was winding down my involvement with Are.na and hadn’t been in the studio for five years. I just wanted to see if I could still do it. The Oneohtrix Point Never album ‘R Plus Seven’ just came out, and a bunch of my friends had made videos for it so I was listening to it a lot. At some point the Boring Angel track came on and the idea flashed of emojis shuffling rapidly in sync with the arpeggio on the track. I spent a night testing it out and was super inspired by what I saw. It became an editing challenge to myself, and I spent the next two weeks making like 10,000 cuts on a 32x32 pixel video canvas. It was very self affirming to be able to realize I could still still make something that I found exciting and allowed me to elevate a lot of ideas I had been previously working on with montage.
And that led to the Kermit video?
I essentially started that the day after finishing Boring Angel. I just wanted to see how much of a story I could tell, how much I could max it out, exert emotional pressure on myself and the audience while remaining true to the source material.
They’re both pretty incredible accomplishments as works.
From a personal perspective, I knew I wanted to start making work again and wanted to shoot a couple shotgun blasts in the air, to let people know I was alive. I also realized that I wanted to work on something bigger and more elaborate than music videos.
Which is the tv show you’re working on now?
Yeah. I began resurfacing old scripts and film projects I had been working on over the years. The one that I kept coming back to was called “Best Friends Forever” about a chat-bot that takes over the world by recruiting an army of teenagers. But it was also the most impossible to do.I knew I’d never be able to get a budget to be able to do it myself in any way that I would be happy with.
Was that how it became an anime?
I had been watching a bunch of anime and was amazed by how economical it is. It’s a really beautiful form of animation, what they get away with, what they achieve with so little. I started to wonder why nobody else was really doing this outside the industry.
You’ve been working on it with Blender, right? Could you talk a little about why you chose that program?
I knew I wanted to work in 3D. I had a little experience with Rhino, and had tried to learn Maya but wasn’t really happy with what the rest of the landscape offered. I ended up on Blender’s website and really connected with their mission from an interface perspective, and what they wanted to do with it long term. Coming from thinking about interface for three years while working on Are.na, they were just speaking my language, and it was clear that they had a plan. So I chose Blender.
And it’s worked out?
I haven’t felt bad about it a single day. It’s gotten to the point where it’s like playing an instrument. Once you have habituated the basic workflows and operations you really don’t have to think anymore. You can just play the thing. It’s hands down the most beautiful computer tool I have ever used.
It’s open source right?
Yeah so I don’t have to worry about it getting bought and losing a feature. It also means that a bunch of dedicated weirdo hobbyists can make their own insane add-on tools and upload them for free for everyone to use.
And you’ve been working on this in Georgia?
I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do a project like this in New York so I moved down to Georgia and set up shop at my parents farm for 9 months. After a few months working there by myself I was joined by Jason Coombs and Joe Kubler, who went into intensive Blender training and now work with me on the show fulltime. The space at the farm isn’t insulated, so in January we had to move the operation an hour away to Athens, GA because it got too cold to work at the farm. That’s where we are currently.
What’s the space like that you were working in?
We were working in an old general store on the property. My sister had her letterpress there before I moved in. Before that it had been used by both a lawyer and a doctor as a personal study so there were dozens of bookshelves filled with encyclopedias and anthologies mostly from the first half of the 20th century. There was also my massive library of VHS tapes.
I remember Kevin Bewersdorf did something fairly similar in terms of isolation from the internet.
Well, Kevin is the Avant-Garde. Everyone is always a few years behind him.
Was it hard?
Yeah. Usually when I work I will just google image search for reference images and sort through them on are.na. At the farm, if I wanted to figure out how to represent New York, I would pull out old VHS tapes of like Coming To America, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Short Circuit 2 and pause on relevant images and take a photograph of that. I had to figure out everything with this analog reference library but I was never really stumped. Generally I would find something weirder or cooler anyways.
That must have been hard from a background of constant internet.
It was hard in a pretty interesting way. I mean I had been on the internet almost every day for 20 years, you know? The last six or seven years I had a job where I was sitting behind a computer on the internet. It becomes a phantom limb, an apparatus of the mind. It affected everything from the way my brain works to the way my body is used to moving. I would find myself opening a tab for no reason. A computer not connected to the internet is a very different thing.