Dancing the flip-flop

There’s a particular process that I’m fascinated by, and I tell people about it all the time, but I realized I’d never actually written about it — so here you go.

Let’s start with a definition, and then I’ll show you some examples.

the flip-flop (n.) the process of pushing a work of art or craft from the physical world to the digital world and back again — maybe more than once

That’s pretty abstract. Here’s an example recipe:

  1. Carve a statue out of stone. PHYSICAL
  2. Digitize your statue with a 3D scanner. DIGITAL
  3. Make some edits. Shrink it down. Add wings. STILL DIGITAL
  4. Print the edited sculpture in plastic with a 3D printer. PHYSICAL AGAIN

It’s step three above that is most crucial to the flip-flop, because that’s where it becomes clear you aren’t aiming for fidelity in these transitions from physical to digital and back.

When you do the flip-flop, you achieve effects that aren’t possible when you dwell in only one world, physical or digital. You also achieve effects that are less predictable. Weird things happen on the walls between worlds.

Here’s a real example. It’s a little more complicated, and it demonstrates that the steps don’t all have to be executed by the same person:

  1. Sculpt eight different vases. PHYSICAL
  2. Take photos of those vases. DIGITAL
  3. Find those photos and combine them somehow into a single vase. DIGITAL
  4. Print that new vase in plaster with a 3D printer. PHYSICAL
  5. Take photos of that new vase. DIGITAL
  6. Make an animated GIF! DIGITAL

Voila!

It is probably the fate of most fruits of the flip-flop, indeed most works of art, in the early 21st century to end up as animated GIFs.

Here’s another example with the contributors separated by space and time:

  1. Build a house. PHYSICAL
  2. Take a photo of that house when it’s old and abandoned. DIGITAL
  3. Find that photo and use it to make a small model. PHYSICAL
  4. Take a photo of that model. DIGITAL

I mean, whoa:

Two more!

First, this project from BERG is a nice tight flip-flop. The recipe goes:

  1. Compose a message and flash it through an iPad. DIGITAL
  2. Wave that iPad through the air somewhere. PHYSICAL
  3. Take a long-exposure photo as you do it. DIGITAL

And the results are striking:

Finally, here’s my very favorite example.

It’s not as direct as the recipes above, but it absolutely qualifies as the flip-flop, and it’s exemplary of the possibility waiting here. Think of each step below as a broad cultural activity, not a specific personal action:

  1. Move. PHYSICAL
  2. Record that motion. DIGITAL
  3. Cut it up. Slow it down. Watch the results. STILL DIGITAL
  4. Reenact what you’ve seen. PHYSICAL AGAIN
  5. Record that motion. Post it on YouTube. OMG

Honestly, I don’t think this wave of stuttering slo-mo choreography would be concievable without video. You need to see a human body move this way on a screen before you can imagine moving it that way on the street.

And what’s next? What happens when you give the dancer above a motion capture suit and pipe his moves back into a computer? Nonstop flip-flop.

Here’s some more choreography, spectacular in the truest sense, that we simply would not be watching if a set of images hadn’t bounced back and forth between the physical and digital worlds for a while:

And that, my friends, is how you dance the flip-flop.

UPDATE 1: EVIDENCE FOR PRECEDING BOLD CLAIM

In this KQED segment featuring several aging (and still spectacular) Bay Area hip-hop dancers, a scenester named Chuck Powell says:

If you ever look at like, Twenty Million Miles to Earth, or the 7th Voyage of Sinbad, that animated style that them creatures be doing — that’s what they brought to the table and added to the boogaloo, too.

It’s cued up here. Click for the evidence, stay for the moves:

Okay so, Twenty Million Miles to Earth, 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Both movies featured stop-motion animation by the great Ray Harryhausen with its signature stutter and sharpness. Here’s the cyclops from Sinbad:

Can it be true? It can! Ray Harryhausen was an unwitting contributor, via flip-flop, to one of the four pillars of hip-hop!

UPDATE 2: THE ULTIMATE FLIP-FLOP

The euro notes, on their back sides, feature illustrations of bridges from different architectural eras. None of these bridges exist; the structures are all idealized abstractions. The idea, at the time of the euro’s introduction back in 2002, was to avoid favoring one country over another. So, for example, here’s the ten’s imaginary span:

Ten euro note, back

Idealized. Generic. Nonexistent.

Until now.

In a suburb of Rotterdam, the Dutch artist Robin Stam is… building the euro-note bridges.

Here again is the ten’s span — no longer imaginary!

Ten euro note, back

(The photo is by Klaas Boonstra; I have shamelessly copied it from the Spiegel website in the service of flip-flop scholarship.)

From real built bridges to idealized forms to illustrations on currency, back to real built bridges… I judge it so: Robin Stam has danced, as of this writing, THE ULTIMATE FLIP-FLOP.

March 2012, Washington, D.C. / December 2014, Berkeley


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