Water Works, NPR and Imagination

I recently achieved one of my life goals. I was on NPR!

The article, “Artists In Residence Give High-Tech Projects A Human Touch” discusses my Water Works* project as well as artwork by Laura Devendorf, and more generally, the artist-in-residence program at Autodesk.


“Water Works” 3D-printed Sewer Map in 3D printer at Autodesk

The production quality and caliber of the reporting is high. It’s NPR, after all. But, what makes this piece important is that it talks about the value of artists, because they are the ones who infuse imagination into culture. The reporter, Laura Sydell, did a fantastic job of condensing this thought into a 6 minute radio program.

Arts funding has been cut out of many government programs, at least in the United States. And education curriculum increasing is teaching engineering and technology over the humanities. But, without the fine arts and teaching actual creativity (and not just startup strategies), how can we, as a society, be truly creative?

Well, that’s what this article suggests. And specifically, that corporations such as Autodesk, will benefit from having artists in their facilities.

Perhaps one problem is that “imagination” is not quantifiable. We have the ability to measure so much: financial impact, number of clicks, test scores and more, but creativity and imagination, not so much. These are — at least to date — aspects of our culture that we cannot track on our phones or run web analytics on.

So, embracing imagination means embracing uncertainty, which is an existential problem that technology will have to cope with along the way.



At the end of the article, the reporter talks about Xerox Parc of the 1970s, which had a thriving artist-in-residence program. Early computer technology was filled with imagination, which is why this time was ripe with technology and excitement.

This is close to my heart. My father, Gary Kildall, was a key computer scientist back in the 1970s. His passions when he was in school was mathematics and art. By the time that I was a kid, he was no longer drawing or working in the wood shop. But, instead was designing computer architectures which defined the personal computer. He passed away in 1994, but I often wish he could see the kind of work I’m doing with art + technology now.


Gary Kildall oN TELEVISION, examining COMPUTER HARDWARE, circa 1981

* Water Works was part of Creative Code Fellowship in 2014 with support from Gray Area, Stamen Design and Autodesk.

EEG Dinner Party @ SXSW

I’m experimenting with a new model for sustainable art practice: leveraging the intellectual property from my technology-infused artworks into lucrative contracts. And why not? Artists are creative engines and deserve to be compensated.

Teaching is how many of my ilk get their income and every professor I’ve talked to about the university-academia track constantly moans about the silo-like environment, the petty politics, the drudgery of the adjunct lifestyle and the low pay. They are overworked and burdened by administration. No thanks.

The other option is full-time work. Recently (2012-13), I was on full-time staff at the Exploratorium as a New Media Exhibit Developer. I love the people, the DIY shop environment and the mission of the organization. It was here that I fully re-engaged with my software coding practice and learned some of the basics about data-visualization. But, ultimately a full-time job meant that I wasn’t making my own artwork. My creative spirit was dying. I couldn’t let this happen, so when my fixed-term job came up, I decided not to try to pursue full-time employment. I now work with the Explo on selected part-time projects.

This year, I started an LLC and in January, I had landed my first contract job, which was to do the software coding, technical design and visitor interaction for a project called “EEG Dinner Party”, which was part of a larger installation for General Electric, which they called the “GE BBQ Research Center” to be presented at SXSW in Austin.

The folks I directly worked with were Sheet Metal Alchemist (Lara and Sean who run the company, below) — they are fantastic company who build custom-fabrication solutions. They helped General Electric produce this interactive experience for SXSW, which featured a giant BBQ smoker with sensors and the EEG Dinner Party, which was the portion I was working on.


My “intellectual property” was my artwork, After Thought (2009), which I made while an artist-in-residence at Eyebeam Art + Technology Center in New York. This is a portable personality testing kit using EEG brainwaves and flashcards, where I generate a personal video that expresses your “true” personality. I dressed in a lab coat and directed viewers in a short, 5-10 minute experiment with technology and EEG testing.

afterthought_main-1024x683When the folks at Sheet Metal Alchemist (SMA) contacted me about doing the EEG work, I was confident that I could transform the ideas behind this project — an interactive experience into one that would work for SXSW and General Electric.

From the get-go, I knew this wasn’t my art project and I didn’t have my usual the creative control. For one, General Electric that had a very specific message: “Your Brain on BBQ” and the entire SXSW site was designed as a research lab, of sorts. It was a promotional and branding engine for GE, who provided free meat and beer for the event.

The work that SMA did was just a portion, albeit the attractor (the smoker) and the high-tech demo (EEG) of what was going on, but GE also had videos, displays in vitrines, speakers, DJs and a mix-your-own-BBQ sauce stations. New Creatures were the ones that put the entire event together (check out the video at the end of this post).

The irony: I don’t even eat meat.


I treaded the delicate balance doing of doing client work combined with my own artistic/tech designs. While I don’t work for GE, nor is their message mine, we’re all in it for a temporary goal: to produce a successful event. The end-result was an odd compromise of social-messaging, technology and visitor experience, which ended up being a very successful installation at the event.

The concept was the we conduct a series of “dinner parties” (it was actually during the day) where two tables of four people each would sit down and eat a 5-minute “meal”. We would track their brainwaves in real-time and generate a graph showing a composite index of what they were experiencing.

All of the event staff costumed ourselves in lab coats. Here I am with the two monitor display, wearing the EEG headset, which we chose: the Muse Headset, which after doing a lot of research, beat the pants off the competitors, Neurosky and Emotiv for its comfort and developer’s API.


The technical setup took awhile to figure out, but I finally settled upon this system, which was very stable. Each of the eight headsets was paired to a cheap Android tablet. The tablet then streamed the EEG data to two separate Processing applications, one for each table via Open Sound Control (OSC).eegdinnerparty-18The tablet software that I wrote was based on some of the Android sample code from Muse and would show useful bits of information like the battery life and connection status for the 4 headset sensors. Also check out the “Touching Forehead” value. This simple on/off was invaluable and would let us know if the headset was actually on someone’s head. This way, I could run tables of just 1 person or all 4 people at a time.


Each headset was assigned to a separate graph color and icon. My software then graphed the real-time composite brainwave index over the course of 5 minutes. The EEG signals are alpha, beta, delta, gamma and theta waves. But, showing all of these would be way too much information, so I produced a composite value of all 5 of these, weighting certain waves such as beta and theta waves (stress and meditation) more than others such as alpha (sleep).


We ran the installation for 3 days. We soon has an efficient setup for registration and social media. You would make a reservation ahead of time and a greeter would fill in the spots on for empty tables.


The next lab technician would have everyone digitally sign consent forms and ask for their personal information such as your name and Twitter handle.


We soon had a reasonably-sized line.


My job was to make sure the technology worked flawlessly. I would clean headsets, check the tablets, do any troubleshooting, as necessary. Fortunately, the installation went off very smoothly. We had just one headset stop working one the 2nd day and on the 3rd day, a drunk guest knocked one of the tablets off the table, shattering it. Of course, we had backups.

After fit all the guests with the headsets and make sure the connections worked, I’d pass the them off to Sean, who talked about EEG signals and answered questions about what the installation was all about. After about 5 minutes, we had people sitting at tables.


Then, they got served. Food, that is.


Here is a piece of sausage from the smoker, some coleslaw and a bit of banana cream pudding.

As folks ate, they watched their brainwaves graph in real-time.


Each headset was marked with the corresponding color on the graph. One dot was for Table A and two for Table B.eegdinnerparty-3The guests got a kick out of it, that’s for sure.
eegdinnerparty-7And while they consumed food, the photographer shot closeups of people eating.
eegdinnerparty-14If you chose to be at the EEG Dinner Party, you certainly had to have no fear of the media.
eegdinnerparty-16Then, the social media team would do a hand-tracing of the graph and send out an animated image via Twitter, like these.

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Of course, they ended up getting retweeted.

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And we had some celebrities! Here is Questlove.
questloveMy concluding thoughts on artwork-as-IP: it’s solid paid work. My billable rate is at least 3 times higher than any non-profit work that I do, which translates to a more sustainable art practice. My coding skills got sharper — this was my first Android application. I didn’t feel like I had to dial in the fine creativity and was more of a tech lead on the project. So, overall a success and I’m hoping I can do some future paid gigs with my technology-based artwork.


*As promised, here is the Hot Wheels Double Dare project, produced by New Creatures.

Panned by 7×7!

“a massive orgy of sugar cubes”…When my artwork gets denigrated like this, I almost always laugh.

My skin isn’t extra-thick, but after the Wikipedia Art project, where I got called a “troll” by Jimmy Wales (in the days before ‘trolling’ was common parlance), I always find humor in the insult.

Press, 7x7




In this case it, is my Data Crystals project, which has been called “data popcorn” by my friends. Orgiastic sugar cubes? I’l take it.

Press, 7x7 (2)

Producing Art via 3D printing

Let’s not get too excited until the reviews come out, but it’s always nice to receive some advance press coverageScreen Shot 2015-03-30 at 10.04.17 PM.

For this upcoming show, which is at the Peninsula Art Museum in Burlingame, I will be presenting my Data Crystals artwork. These have been written about extensively in the press, but not yet shown in an exhibition. That’s how it works sometimes.


Exhibition Details:

What: “3D Printing: The Radical Shift”
When: April 26 through June 28
Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays
Opening reception: 1-2 p.m. (members only), 2 p.m. – 4 p.m. (general public) April 26
Where: Peninsula Museum of Art, 1777 California Drive, Burlingame

Artist Talk @ Plug-in

Tonight, Victoria Scott and I gave a solid talk at Plug-In Gallery in Winnipeg, with support from Erika Lincoln and the Winnipeg Arts Council.

Here, I am with an old friend, Ken Gregory, artist, hardware hacker and kinetic sculpture of many decades. It was great to see him again after nearly 5 years.

I co-presented with Victoria, who showed some of her own work as well as some of our collaborative work. We also introduced our ReFILL workshop, which starts tomorrow (!).

Ken’s artwork is much better than his photography skills. Here, I am partially cut-off. Hey this happens, sometimes. I’ll publish it anyhow.

Otherwise, the talk went great. We got a “Winnipeg reception”, which meant that folks seemed very interested — no cell phone distractions — but at the same time, hardly any questions, either. The feedback was that folks were “reserved”. Ah, welcome to Canada where people are, well…perhaps more genuine.


I <3 Classroom Artist Talks

Here’s my dirty secret. If you pay me a small stipend, I will come to your class and talk about my artwork. It’s one of my favorite things to do.

Last week, it was Jenny Odell’s class at the San Francisco Art Institute: Probing Social Networks. Her work is smart and I’ve been a fan, so perhaps it’s the case of the mutual admiration society. The two of us finally met in person at an opening at Recology San Francisco, where I was once an artist-in-residence (2011) and where she will soon spend some time digging through trash.


My “playlist” covered more of the internet-art projects with some discussion of imaginary objects and virtual data:

No Matter (2008)
Second Front (2006-)
Wikipedia Art (2009)
Tweets in Space (2012)
Playing Duchamp (2009)
Data Crystals (2014)
Water Works (2014)
EquityBot (2014)

The classroon talks are relatively easy to do. Very little prep is required since I’ve spoken about all these project oodles of times. I do these talks mostly, because I remember so many of the artists that came through my MFA grad program and each and every one of them helped me develop my art practice. I want to return the favor.

With a high-level class like this, you always get some good questions. The one project that the students seemed most engaged by was EquityBot, which was both surprising — since it’s a stock-investment algorithm and inspiring since it’s my latest project.


Water Works, Google Translated

My Water Works data-visualization was just featured in MetaTrend Journal (“Big Datification”, Volume 63, March 2015). It’s a subscription model, so you can’t read the article, plus it’s in Korean, which means I definitely can’t read it.

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I did get some partial text emailed to me from the organization and run it through Google translate, which gave me this paragraph:

Water Works project is implemented as a map to visualize 3D printing coming drainage and sewer systems of San Francisco . This is a project of visual artist Scott Kjeldahl data . San Francisco 170 water tanks visualize dozen water tank location (San Francisco Cisterns), 3 million , and visualize data points sewers activity (Sewer Works) and was made ??up of 67 of the most efficient virtual hydrant (Imaginary Drinking Hydrants) Map . Pipes, hydrants , circulation and the supply of urban waterways flow through the location and construction of a sewage treatment plant can see at a glance.

I like it! Once again Google Translate impresses with the odd results and the mangling of phrases.

ReFILL Workshop in Winnipeg

On March 27th & 28th (2015), Victoria Scott and I will be conducting a workshop in Winnipeg around the “libricide” in Canada’s DFO libraries. The full article on their closures is here.

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Here’s the description
On March 27th & 28th, 2015, San Francisco-based artists Victoria Scott and Scott Kildall will be leading 2-day, hands-on workshop to physically re-imagine and re-materialize some of the lost titles of the Freshwater Institute Library. We will discuss, imagine, draw, map and construct while listening to soothing water sounds and watching water-related videos. We will also discuss methodologies of data visualization and create a map which tracks the migration of these materials from publicly-funded resource into private hands and landfill.

Our project blog will always tell more!

Death and Language

This Thursday at 6pm at Root Division, I will be part of evening of conversation and performance.

The short talk I’ll be giving will be called Death and Language.

In 1972, my father, Gary Kildall, wrote the first high-level computer language for Intel’s microprocessors. This language, called PL/M was instrumental in the development of the personal computer and is now extinct. At around the same time, the last fluent speaker of the Tillamook language also died, thus extinguishing this natural language. What survives of the Tilamook language are audio recordings taken from 1965-1972. With digital preservation techniques as the backdrop, I will entertain questions regarding death of both natural and machine languages.


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Pier 9 Artist Profile

The good folks at Pier 9, Autodesk just released this video-profile of me and my Water Works project. I’m especially happy with Charlie Nordstrom’s excellent videography work and even got the chance help with the editing of the video itself.

Yes, in a previous life I used to do editing for video documentaries with now defunct, Sleeping Giant Video and the IndyMedia Center.

But now, I’m more interested in algorithms, data and sculpture.