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.

flip flop (n.) 1. the process of push­ing a work of art or craft from the phys­i­cal world to the dig­i­tal world and back, usu­ally more than once; 2. a work of art or craft pro­duced this way

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 leg­endary stu­dio 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.

December 2014, Washington, D.C.