Can Code Be Considered An Art Form?

Blurring the lines between the physical and digital worlds, a design firm paints everything from iPads to museums with interactive code.

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In an admirable exercise of self-discovery, the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side of New York City peeled back layer upon layer of its walls that had built up within its building over more than a century. The walls revealed that part of the museum had previously functioned as a lingerie shop in the 70s, a kosher butcher at the turn of the 20th century, and a German beer hall before that.

To tell the complex story of a building's life in an evolving neighborhood, the museum turned to Potion--a design firm that, among other things, specializes in turning rooms into iPhones, painting physical spaces with interactive code. Through a combination of projectors, computer chips, motion sensors and other technologies, Potion transformed how museum-goers interact with historical artifacts and spaces into a decidedly futuristic experience.

"There's the Arthur C. Clarke quote, 'Sufficiently advanced technology is equivalent to magic,'" said Phillip Tiongson, Potion's founder. "We gave them the tools to tell a story that they knew very deeply and ... now they can tell it in a way that they never could before."

In today's digital world, a new breed of designer has emerged with the artistic sensibilities intrinsic to designers, but also a technical expertise in code that has until recently been looked at as the domain of the left-brain.

"What we are doing is learning how to take something that wasn't designed to be expressive and help make expressive things with it," Tiongson said. "Potion really grew out of (a) desire to create a place where we could make the things that we wanted to make--this intersection between design and technology and art and storytelling."

But it's not enough to bring both tech-savvy and design-savvy people together, Tiongson said.

"We have designer developers and developer designers at the table," he said. "The idea is that the more you understand about what a medium can do, the more you can push the boundaries of what it does do."

That challenge has evolved over time. When Tiongson founded Potion in 2006, touchscreens had only just emerged on the scene. In seven quick years, the technology has faded from novelty to commodity and people's expectations have adjusted accordingly.

For interactive designers, that means keeping up to date with the cutting edge is only half the battle.

"What's really hard is not to throw technology at the problem," Tiongson said. "And unless the story, the intent, is really organic to the technology that you use, sometimes it falls flat."

But increasingly, Tiongson said he believes the seemingly disparate skills of technology and storytelling are merging.

"I think we're at this unique pinnacle, or this unique apex, where technology is becoming recognized as an expressive medium," he said. "We have the skills and we are facile with the technology, so we can start to push the definition of what expression is."
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