David Knight - 6th Aug 2012

It started memorably with the Johnny Cash Project, and then progressed with The Wilderness Downtown for Arcade Fire and 3 Dreams of Black for the Danger Mouse project Rome. Now Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin's quest to reach new frontiers in interactive, crowd-sourced creativity has taken them outside the realm of the music promo, and into the mainstream art world with This Exquisite Forest.

It is a state-of-the-art adaptation of an old idea originally developed by the Surrealists in the 1920s - the Exquisite Corpse (itself a development of the old parlour game Consequences) whereby a work of art is created by individuals adding words or drawings to a piece where they can only see a minimum of what's preceded it. This Exquisite Forest builds on this idea, adding animation, and transferring it to the web.

Conceptually it's not just one 'corpse', but a forest. Contributors to the project can add to an existing tree by creating a few frames of their own animation (and then review their results). They can also 'seed' their own tree by starting a new animation, unrelated to anything before it. And you can also build and modify a music track to accompany the visuals.

As with their previous projects for Arcade Fire and Rome, Milk and Koblin have worked closely with Google Labs (Koblin's employer) and the new code language of HTML5 and Javascript features which enables users to create animations in real time on the Exquisite Forest website at www.exquisiteforest.com.

And this is the first time that the work of Milk and Aaron Koblin has been supported by a major art institution. This Exquisite Forest was commissioned by Tate Modern in London. Eight Tate-sponsored artists, including Olafur Eliasson, Julian Opie and Raqib Shaw, have already contributed to the project, starting their own trees, that are visualized on the website as saplings - now growing on a daily basis.

These artists, like any others who start their own trees, can leave instructions to the next animator. Each eight-frame contribution to an existing tree adds to the length of the branch - or sets off a new branch. And the site is so user-friendly simply as a viewer, you can easily watch the different 'branches/animations' that are taking shape within each tree. A a great concept has been allied with technical ingenuity and an elegant visual execution. And with the tree-saplings already growing, This Exquisite Forest is already showing distinct signs of bearing fruit. We spoke to Chris Milk about how This Exquisite Forest came into being.


When did you begin working on the project - and where did this idea come from

Chris Milk: We started working on it about a year ago. Aaron Koblin and I had been watching how the Johnny Cash Project was evolving and one of the most fascinating and unexpected parts of it was when people tried to change the narrative direction inside of their single frame. They couldn't, of course, because there was a hard spine to that piece which was the archival footage I had cut into the base narrative. But they would draw Johnny ascending a stairway to heaven, or as Batman, or turn the train into Darth Vader. It was so amazing to see these little flashes of inspiration popping up. So we started thinking: what if we built a collaborative online project where we remove the spine and people could steer the story in any direction they wanted You would get what is essentially a tree with a multitude of branching narrative possibilities.

The visual representation of This Exquisite Forest is very elegant - was that fundamental to the origin of the idea A tree is the natural visual structure that evolves out of a story that can branch in any direction at any point. Although there was early talk of a river idea if I remember correctly, the tree seemed the most elegant and simple solution. The goal was to keep the overall graphic design as minimalistic and stylistically agnostic as possible. Contained within the trees, in every branch of animation, is a never-ending flow of rapidly changing artistic aesthetics. So we wanted to keep the overall site as more of a simple classic frame to all the contributed styles, rather than imposing its own global aesthetic on top of everything else.

What technical innovations have been developed for this project, over and above previous Google Labs collaborations The two biggest components people will probably notice in the front end user interface are the animation tool with generative brushes, and the music creation and modification tool. If you seed a tree you can actually build your own custom music track for it. For people that add to your tree with their own branches, they can modify your music track and steer it in the direction they are taking the story with their animation. So someone might start the story with a positive uplifting music track, but then someone else might come along and have the protagonist drive off a cliff. They could then change the track from a major scale to a minor one, to reflect the change in the story's direction.

What are your hopes for the project It's one big experiment ultimately. I would love though for it to grow into a digital system of storytelling that uses evolution as its reproductive engine, rather than traditional word of mouth. What I mean is, since participants can add to any branch they choose, the hope is that the most compelling branches are the ones that people are inclined to further contribute to. If that happens, a natural selection process of narrative would be occurring as the strongest, most engaging stories are the ones that survive, prosper, and continue their narrative DNA.


David Knight - 6th Aug 2012

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