In his Art Blocks installation, Zach Lieberman of the Brooklyn-based collective YesYesNo takes cues from Houston to imagine an interactive installation that allows everyone to experience a sense of whimsical play. The work, titled mas que la cara (more than the face), can be found in the historic Sakowitz building on the corner of Dallas and Main streets.
Using facial recognition software coded by Zach and his team, a camera captures live images of passersby and juxtaposes digitized shapes of masks in the moment. Movements and gestures activate motions on screen, delivering an experience that’s quirky, interesting and entertaining.
Diversity, seen in the faces of many Downtown Houston residents and professionals, is represented in the masks. The setting, window displays in a former iconic department store, posit on what it’s like to peer into another world.
How did Zach arrive at such an aesthetic? We spoke to the new media artist to learn more about his journey.
Q: How did you arrive at practicing creativity through technology? Is that something you studied in school or did you pick it up on your own?
Zach Lieberman: I studied fine arts at Hunter College in New York — painting and printmaking mostly. I spent all my time in the print studio learning about woodcuts, etching, typography and screen printing. Back then I was a very traditional fine arts student. Although now, I mostly work creatively using technology, new media and computer programming.
Q: How did you transition from traditional fine arts to using technology as means for experiential engagement?
Zach: It was 1999 and I had to find a job. Everyone was talking about Y2K and computers. My exposure to computers included an email account and searching for materials in the library. But this world was new to me — to everyone. There was an energy about it that was contagious.
A lot of my friends were finding jobs in web development — a brand new field. I had no experience and didn’t know what I was doing. I talked my way into a job I wasn’t qualified for. It worked! So I learned on the job.
Q: Lots of trial and error?
Zach: I had books that taught me Photoshop, Illustrator and programming. If I had an assignment in the morning, I would figure out how to do it over lunch and deliver something in the afternoon.
When the web 1.0 economy crashed, we found ourselves with a lot of free time. That’s when I discovered animation. I was fascinated by how people could write code and see animation on a screen. You could give animation different emotional characteristics, qualities and feelings. For me that was magic. The moment I saw that, I was hooked.
Q: It was about experimentation?
Zach: Yes — and sharing. The programming community was so generous with what they were researching. As they discovered techniques, tools and approaches, they were sharing them with others. It was this form of collaborative art making, one that’s very driven by community, that resonated with me.
Q: Is that how you arrived at your Brooklyn-based collective YesYesNo?
Zach: From graduate school to YesYesNo is jumping about 10 years. There’s almost a decade of fine art and media art practice and teaching. Working as a individual artist I did festivals, giving talks and doing workshops. YesYesNo really comes out of creating a structure with a group of people.
There are three of us. Two people typically say yes to an idea, one person says no. We like this idea of being mostly positive but a little bit critical.
Q: In mas que la cara (more than the face), you incite a sense of play. You encourage people not only to interact, but also to have fun in the process. Why is that important to you?
Zach: I think play taps into a deeper sense of what it means to express oneself. I think you can tap into a deeper form of communication. You’re expressing yourself non-verbally. You’re using your body, gestures and movement. Play is like studying non-verbal language. Play taps into other modes of communication and expression.
Although play comes natural for children, adults often forget what it’s like to act playfully. To see someone regain that feeling is quite satisfying.
Q: Your Art Blocks installation is akin to augmented reality, the mask becoming the medium through which engagement is achieved. What is it about masks that fascinate you?
Zach: It began with thinking about how we can invite people to interact. With Houston being such a diverse city, I wanted to start with the face. And that immediately led me to thinking about masks. Specifically, what it’s like to use your face as an input device, but then to manipulate it in some way.
Masks are an amazing and strange art form that have been with us forever. Masks appear in early drawings of mankind and used in rituals and ceremonies in practically every culture for many purposes.
Q: So what is the purpose of a mask, in your opinion?
Zach: I think masks help us understand better who we are. With masks, we are sort of hiding ourselves but we’re still seeing the world. You’re present but in another form — that’s fascinating. That’s about trying to understand the world in a new way. You’re inviting transformation.
Masks are about the unexplored.
Q: A beautiful analogy for Houston, perhaps?
Zach: Perhaps so!