Dancing the flip flop

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

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

flip flop(n.) the process of pushing a work of art or craft from the physical world to the digital world and back, often 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 flip flop-itude, because that’s where it becomes clear you aren’t aiming for fidelity in these transitions from physical to digital and back. When you execute a flip flop, you achieve effects that aren’t possible in physical or digital space alone. You also achieve effects that are less predictable. Weird things happen in the borderlands.

Here’s a real example. It’s a bit 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


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 the now-defunct agency called BERG offers 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 a flip flop, and it demonstrates the amazing possibilities 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

I don’t think this wave of stuttering, slo-mo choreography would be conceivable 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?

Here’s some more choreography that we would not be watching if a set of images hadn’t bounced back and forth between the physical and digital worlds. It's truly spectacular:

That, my friends, is how you dance the flip flop.

Update 1: The Stuttering, Flickering Boogaloo

In this KQED segment featuring several aging (and still amazing) 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 history, 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:

So there you have it: 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 banknotes, 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 currency'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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