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


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.

March 2012, Washington, D.C.

The main thing to do here is sign up for my email newsletter. I try to make it feel like a note from a friend, and it’s very easy to unsubscribe. Plus, there are… secrets