Artist / programmer / educator Zach Lieberman is driven by a simple mission: to surprise people.
It’s the one constant that pulls together a body of work full of radical jumps from idea to idea, medium to medium, and even across entire disciplines in ways that might otherwise look completely random to an outside observer. Among other projects, he’s designed interactive artworks, created video and audio installations, launched a school for computation art, co-founded an open source creative coding toolkit, invented a system to help a graffiti artist with ALS paint with his eyes, and collaborated with magicians on illusions enhanced by augmented reality. (Although for simplicity’s sake he sometimes just refers to himself as an animator. “Sometimes I’m going through customs or something,” he says, “and they’re like, ‘What do you do for a living?’ and it’s like, ‘I don’t want to have a conversation about media art right now.’”)
Lieberman’s been figuring out interesting–and, yes, surprising–ways of mixing art and computers since the late Nineties, when he graduated college with a fine arts degree and, at a loss for what to do with it, got a job making websites. “I kind of fell into this world,” he laughs. It was still the Web 1.0 days, but he saw promise in the early tools of web animation. When he went back to school to pursue advanced degrees he added coding and design to his art studies.
Since then Lieberman’s career has evolved as the Internet and personal computing have evolved. So it only makes sense that his work would do well on social media. The short clips he posts of works in progress generated by his openFrameworks toolkit are soothingly psychedelic and abstract, and able to inspire a frantic scroller to pause for a second to soak in their vibes.
But his most successful social media work is in creating AR filters. Lieberman’s been exploring augmented reality for years, and Instagram filters have given him a huge platform to show off his skills. His take on the form is both very smart, in that his filters do types of things that you didn’t expect a filter to be able to do, and extremely goofy, in that they show off their technical prowess in ways that are bound to make you crack up–like one that “drags” your eyes off of your face onto dangly, tentacle-like stalks.
“Most interactive work doesn’t really exist unless somebody is using it,” he explains. “That feedback loop is actually the artwork, that you are creating these situations for experimentation and play. That feedback loop is the thing that really fascinates me.”
For Lieberman, the fun part comes from seeing users come up with unexpected ways of using the tools he gives them. “You put stuff out there, and you don’t know what people are going to do with it. People are infinitely more creative than you are. It’s like that with most art, that the value of it is in what other people see.”
In 2017, he collaborated with Taiwanese artist Molmol Kuo on an app called Weird Type that lets you play with 3D letters in AR. He and Kuo imagined it as a storytelling tool, he says, “And then we put it out and people were making games with it or using it in ways where the type wasn’t even type anymore. Somebody figured out you could take the letter ‘O’ and drag it to make a tunnel and run through it. All of these things we didn’t know the software could do.”
The unexpected moments of delight that his AR pieces produce certainly fit in with Lieberman’s aim of keeping people constantly, happily surprised, but his obvious satisfaction in seeing users invent their own ways of interacting with them underlines the other big theme that runs through his work: community. “One thing I always tell students is that community is one of the most important things to learn how to do,” he says. “In addition to learning how to make your own work, you should learn how to build and grow communities. Because that’s what leads to success, and gives you a platform for giving back.”