The Shape of Indoor Space: An Interview with GIPHY Artist Peter Burr

by Paddy Johnson on April 7, 2017 Interview

Since visiting Peter Burr’s “Pattern Language” last September, flashes of imagery from his installation will occasionally come back to me. There’s a sticky quality to the work, so memories appear in the same way they might for a character in a sci-fi movie—suddenly and without warning.

Burr’s art conjures the future—projection screens picturing high density structures that resemble malls populated by people who move in slow motion; text by Porpentine that describes opinionless cultures; undulating black and white patterns designed to mesmerize the viewer. Unlike movies, though, which tend to center around heros and villains, there’s no morality attached to this environment. It’s not good, or bad. It just is.

Now, thanks to a commission by GIPHY, a section of that installation has been further developed for the online environment. “The Shape of Indoor Space” is a browser-sized 12 GIF maze depicting a near-infinite interior made for humans. While the grid structure of the building doesn’t move—the floors stay put—pretty much everything else does. Backgrounds made up of blinking lines, pulsating squiggles, and flowing wave forms create a complex patchwork of patterns. Figures congregate in groups and walking alone navigate the building—some even sprint through it. There are no children.

I spend far more time looking at this maze than I do most other art. Part of it has to do with the virtuosity of Burr’s craft. When Burr talks about the technical specs of his work, it’s with the precision of a painter who grinds their own pigments and stretches their own canvas. His hard-edged animations don’t look native to any one software, but evoke a retrofuturist sense of “computer art” that predates Photoshop or 3D rendering.

But mostly, it’s the meditative aspect of “The Shape of Indoor Space” that keeps viewers engaged for long stretches at a time. For an environment in which nearly every element is in constant motion, that’s a bit strange—like a puzzle without solution.  

It’s this quality that compels me to reach out to Burr to discuss the commission with him. We touch on everything from crispy pixels to Arcosanti and building utopias.  

Detail from "The Shape of Indoor Space".

Detail from “The Shape of Indoor Space”.

Tell me about The Shape of Indoor Space. What are its origins?

I’d describe the GIPHY project as a generous version of what I did with Electric Objects back in 2014. I reached out to Electric Objects when my project was in development—I was interested in turning my work into an object without compromising the formal continuity. Their hardware seemed like one way to do that. I was their first artist in residence and was given $500 to develop an artwork for their screen. Ultimately, though, this body of  work is beholden to the crispy pixels found in the GIF compression format, so I wasn’t able to fully develop the art until this commission came along.

What is a crispy pixel?

The short version is that a crispy pixel describes an aesthetic that privileges a visual delineation of each pixel. The screen of any computer is a matrix—a grid. When you are using a modern day Apple and you go into system preferences they don’t give you screen sizes by pixels any more—they give you a simple choice between small, medium and large now and that’s part of a cultural trend that privileges “invisible” resolution. (ie, The fact that Apple calls its screen “retina display”, a metaphor of our own optical mechanisms with a system of cones and rods we can’t detect ourselves.) My work pushes against that because it reads as low res. If you look at the history of GIF technology, it was developed with the understanding that the file would be small – friendly to a 56k modem. The strategy it employs to shrink the file size acknowledges the screen matrix as a consequence of its limited color pallette. While more contemporary display technology allows for much finer resolutions and higher framerates, I’m attracted to the speed and coarseness of this older format in its ability to simplify very complex pictorial spaces to point towards a more legible emotional focalpoint. There’s some real power to yoke from the infinite fill patterns found in old computer graphics applications like MacPaint. As the Artist Ben Russell once said about my work with this technology, “you find yourself learning not what looking feels like (as Bridget Riley painted) but what feeling looks like”.

Popular video compression techniques today tend to use a different strategy – one that employs heavy reliance on blurring and smearing between bits of information.The reason my work looks so different, is because a GIF is never going to smear between bits to interpret a black and white pixel as grey because I’m telling it not to create grey.

GIPHY saw this and I think it motivated them to work with me. They are interested in the way I am working with my formal purity and I was commissioned to make these GIF loops.

Detail from ""

Detail from “The Shape of Indoor Space”

Ideally how do they get viewed?

Well, GIPHY’s main website lays out a grid of images, so that’s how they get seen on their site. I thought about how I wanted my GIFs to be seen in that environment, and I thought ideally the layout would resemble an infinite scroll so the GIFs look like a small section of an infinite plan of an infinite living space. It can function like a desktop background or, as GIPHY is thinking about it, a wallpaper.

One way I think about it, is that these GIFs give you a window into a larger picture plane—a little like Nicolas Sassoon’s “The Studio Visit” – a sprawling portrait of an artist’s studio that extends beyond the confines of a computer display. In a way, this work functions as a proposal to get people thinking outside the presets of technology (like the common 1920×1080 display formats of most consumer-grade monitors, for example) into new display shapes with different technical impingements.

How so?

The ideal display settings for my work don’t exist yet. THE SHAPE OF INDOOR SPACE, for example, doesn’t work as a background because it’s not practical – it is too busy to be a functional wallpaper since your desktop icons would get lost in the background noise. It talks too much. It’s not meant to be in a browser either, as I made this space to be looked at slowly and passively. Because most of the internet is used as a space for active ‘information-gathering’ it becomes a strange context for meditative contemplation. I know GIPHY just released a big set of stickers that are fun to use when texting. This work isn’t going to do well that way either.

When GIPHY proposed this commission, they reached out a week before Pattern Language opened. I had generated a ton of material from that show. The installation and subsequent film illustrates the philosophy of an imagined community living in a sprawling labyrinth., When GIPHY reached out it seemed a perfect avenue to explore the formal architectural aspect of Pattern Language. The commission allowed me to focus on this one section for three weeks. So it gave me the ability to get make the GIFs super dense.


Detail from “The Shape of Indoor Space”.

When you add visual layers to GIFs like yours how do you know they are done?

It’s never going to be done. It’s a modern day labyrinth. Last month I went to Arcosanti, an urban laboratory in the middle of the Arizona desert – the only living arcology that Paolo Soleri ever started to build. The place exists primarily to demonstrate the principles laid out in Paulo Soleri’s “Arcology: In the Image of Man”. An Arcology, as Soleri defines it, should be a super dense, lean, self-supporting architectural structure built in the image of a living organism. The book is beautiful and describes the human body as simply as an organism that self regulates. Of course, thinking about that concept in its totality—it’s untenable. But I do like how he thinks of the current trend towards urban sprawl and suburban expansion as a body spread out into a veneer of guts, gooey and inefficient.

Anyway, when I visited, Arcosanti was by definition flawed in the trappings of any utopic ideal. Construction has slowed down and only 4 percent complete. But it occurred to me that maybe this is a really important metaphor. If you have this thing that’s hanging out around 4 percent of its total completion, it will always be charged with the potential of its flowering. In a way, this GIF project embodies the same charge towards building an infinite labyrinth.

How does this relate to the game you and Porpentine are working on or does it? I know that’s still in the works.

Haha! Well, we are going to finish the game. And people do live at Arcosanti. The difference between a home and a video game, though is that we’re not being quite as ambitious in scope. There are different stakes and that makes the game easier to bring to fruition in its idealized form. It’s something I can just do with a small team and release on a screen with a finite set of variables. Building a utopia to inhabit off screen is just so much more feral.

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