Originally published to the Building Softspace Substack.
Author Yiliu Shen-Burke
Published 8 September 2020
Softspace was born in an artist studio.
In 2016, my co-founder Daniel Massey and I were creative coders at the Berlin studio of Olafur Eliasson. If you don't follow contemporary art, you may not have heard of Olafur, but he's hands-down one of the most influential artists working today. For what it's worth, he's got a Netflix documentary.
Olafur is known for many things. One of the things people find most impressive is how prolific he is. He's done so much work, across such a wide range of media. Daniel helped build a spatial browser of Olafur's projects called Your Uncertain Archive. You can fly around in it and see what I mean. (You may also notice certain parallels between this project and Softspace...)
Olafur is able to do all this because he's built a team of great people. Having a team isn't unusual for an artist, but having such a big one is. His studio employs over 100 craftspeople, designers, writers, researchers, technologists, architects, archivists, and other specialists. They work with Olafur to conceive, develop, produce, exhibit, and publicize his artworks.
From 2016–2017, there was also me: the VR research resident. Back then, virtual reality was mostly science fiction. The studio’s tech department had bought an Oculus DK2 to see what, if anything, it might have to do with art. Then they realized that you couldn't just turn it on and go. There were no apps out there! So they hired me to build stuff to show Olafur, in hopes of sparking something.
The job description was pretty open-ended. I set up a schedule of rapid prototyping to put some structure around our work and keep things moving along. Daniel and I committed to putting out a new demo every two weeks, for a year. Each investigated some way the studio could use virtual reality as a medium or tool for art.
We ran cutting-edge experiments, like this one with hand tracking:
It turns out that two weeks is not a lot of time to think up and build a good demo. These cycles were intense.
We kicked off with research. We asked other teams what they were working on. We trawled the internet. We flipped through the archives. This was our raw material. If things went well, a fuzzy concept was already forming by the middle of the first week. We started feeling out a way to piece the raw material into something good. If things went really well, we hit the ground coding on Monday of the second week.
Friday was demo day: Olafur would come by, pop on the headset, and check out what we had made. He would think out loud the whole time, and I would try to write it all down. Other studio members wandered by and took the demo for a spin. At some point, beers appeared, and the cycle was over. 😅
A ton of ideas went into each cycle, and a ton of lessons came out. Keeping track of them all would have been impossible without a digital notebook. In school I had used Evernote, so that's what I started using at the studio too. Everything ended up in there: web clippings, screenshots, copies of emails, code snippets, stray thoughts while riding the subway, concept write-ups, feedback from Olafur, documentation of finished demos.
With each demo, we tried to relate a novel technical possibility to big themes or projects in the studio. Successful demos revealed a compelling, unexpected connection between the tech and the art. But that's easier said than done. Gathering research and executing on an idea were straightforward. The step between—synthesizing the concept—was where the risk and reward lay.
Since all our ideas were already in Evernote, it made sense to try to use it for the entire prototyping cycle. But we found that using it for the synthesis phase was impossible. Here's why:
- You don't know how anything relates to anything else at first, so you need some indeterminacy. But Evernote's UI forces everything into a definite linear order.
- Working memory is limited, so you need a visual aid when juggling dozens of ideas. But neither the software nor hardware let you see many things at once.
- To collaborate well, people need to get into the same headspace. In Evernote, everyone's looking at their own tiny corner of the larger landscape.
A better way was on display all around us.
Studio Olafur Eliasson takes up most of a massive former brewery in the heart of Berlin. It needs all this space because most people in the studio make physical things. Their workflows produce a constant stream of architecture models, watercolor tests, glass samples, 3D printed geometries, book proofs, and more. It's crazy and beautiful. This photo essay by Freunde von Freunden gives you a pretty good idea of what it's like.
Its incredible use of space is one of the open secrets to the studio's success. Workspaces end up covered in physical evidence of each team's creative processes. This lets team members see how their piece fits into the bigger picture. It highlights hard-to-see connections between all the ideas and techniques in a project. The result is great art.
Despite how many people work on them, Olafur's artworks form a coherent body of work. This is only possible because everything unfolds out in the open. By taking a walk through the building, Olafur sees what everyone is thinking about and working on. And because he's shaping every artwork, it goes the other way, too. The studio becomes a view into Olafur's mind.
Okay: we needed a way to bring our ideas out into the open, like we saw happening everywhere else in the studio.
Daniel and I were two of the few studio members working completely with digital media. Our project didn't generate much physical stuff. So I started printing out my Evernote docs. Before meetings, I would tape some to a wall and scatter others on a desk. During the session, we would rearrange them, pass them around, and sketch on them. People got on the same page immediately. We came up with better, clearer ideas. It felt good.
But it was wasteful. Color prints aren't cheap, and it took a lot of time to get everything ready. Our cycles were short and fast, and every meeting needed different content. I felt embarrassed to print something out that would go in a corner of a wall for an hour before being recycled. So I often skipped the printing, and not all our sessions were as productive as they could have been.
There were other pains. You could collect far more digital stuff in one week than would fit on even a large wall. Physical space isn't infinite, so we cleared the walls and desks after each session. This discarded a lot of important meta-information that lives in the layout. Someone had to digitize notes and sketches after each meeting and file them away.
You can probably already see where I'm going with this... but it took a question and a joke from Olafur for me to figure it out.
One demo we made was a photogrammetric scan of a part of the studio. After walking around in it, Olafur asked if it would be possible to recreate the entire studio this way. Could we "open" it to the public? The studio gets a ton of tour requests, and it's impossible to accommodate them all. Was this a solution?
Some time later, Olafur came to the demo right after flying into Berlin from Copenhagen. (He actually lives and works in both cities, and was commuting between the two on a weekly basis.) He seemed more harried than usual. As he jumped into VR, he chuckled, "Next time I should stay in Copenhagen and take all my meetings in my virtual studio."
I mean... why not? By that point Daniel and I had been showing demos to people for over a year. We were always struck by how transporting virtual reality is. It blew everyone's minds back then, and it's still true today. The medium has the magical power to take you to places that don't physically exist. Could we harness this magic for more than entertainment?
Once this train of thought started going in my head, it wouldn't stop. I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about it.
What if we recreated our corner of the studio and held team meetings in there? We could pull content directly from Evernote. Actually, why stop there? It could integrate with any digital service. And why should we limit it to an existing physical space? It could be bigger and better. Sure, studio members could meet in there—but so could people from anywhere in the world!
I soon realized that what got me excited wasn't exactly building a virtual studio for Olafur. After all, he already had his giant brewery. Nope—I was mesmerized by the possibility of giving one to anybody who needed it to do their thing.
After a few months, I couldn't stand not working on this idea anymore. So we threw a farewell party, rented out some desks, and started building Softspace.
That was three years ago. I've learned a lot since then, and our understanding of what we're doing has evolved. Back then, I had the naive idea that we were building a virtual alternative to the physical workspace. Now, I see that we're actually working to expand the boundary of what computers should be.
It's fashionable right now to predict the death of the physical workspace. I don't believe this is true, nor would I want it to be. We need more places of co-creation, co-existence, and serendipity in our lives—not less. If nothing else, I learned this during my time at Olafur's studio. Facsimiles won't cut it.
But the current moment does force us to ask more of our digital tools. Computers have become better at storing and transmitting data than almost anybody needs. But when it's time to make sense of all that information, it often feels like the computer gets in our way. And isn't making sense—making big decisions, forming complex ideas, solving thorny problems—what matters?
Maybe in those moments, a huge empty brewery is just what you need.
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