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Brash Brilliance in Motion

Brash Brilliance in Motion

Digital artist and provocateur Joshua Davis urges students to conquer their fears and follow their creative passion.

Joshua Davis commandeers the stage for a high-energy presentation in the RISD Auditorium.

Last week, when a student asked digital artist, programmer and provocateur Joshua Davis how he handles collaborations that just aren’t working, the visiting speaker pulled no punches. “I once had to fire Kanye West,” he responded – and then paused, letting the weight of his words sink in.

Rejecting the premise that some opportunities are too good to pass up, Davis pointed out that artists need to know when to walk away from a nightmare job, even one as superficially rewarding as a commission from the notoriously mercurial West.

Speaking to students at the invitation of RISD Careers, Davis was full of stories amassed during a remarkable career in which he has made his way up from being a once-homeless art school dropout. A self-taught programmer who started making web-based digital art in the mid-1990s – the good old days of Netscape – he was a pioneer in the open source movement. He has created visuals for a genre-spanning coterie of musicians including Deadmau5, Phantogram andNine Inch Nails, and has exhibited and lectured around the world. His art and design work is now included in the permanent collections at the Cooper Hewitt and the Whitney, among others.

If a casual observer were to mistake the event for comedian Louis CK sharing the details of a prolific side career in multimedia art, it would come as no surprise. By turns hilarious, abrasive and inspiringly sincere, Davis commandeered the stage with unfettered energy as he shared 20 years of hard-earned creative wisdom.

“I’m really into hurting people visually,” he warned early in his talk, and though his experiments in rule-based, random motion graphics don't inflict literal wounds, they are by no stretch of the imagination innocuous. After making good on his promise of a six-minute visual assault of fractal bursts and exploding light that he made for experimental electronic musician Squarepusher, he asked the crowd, “Anybody die?” and flashed a trickster’s grin.

Davis’ penchant for creative destruction predates his adoption of code as his primary medium. In his early days as a painter, the current media arts director of the design studio Sub Rosa would place paintings in the freezer (“they get really cold, that’s it”) or bake them (with more interesting results than freezing). Fortunately, he soon discovered computers as a more intriguing tool for making images of intricate color and pattern. As his career progressed, he sought new canvasses, from skateboards to murals and video installations at SXSW and Facebook’s f8 Developer Conference. Among his dream surfaces is the ceiling of a mosque.

Despite the audacity of Davis’ work and stage performance, he spoke from the heart and advised members of the audience to hold on to the “student” ethos for as long as they could. “There is so much freedom in being a student,” he pointed out, urging audience members never to shy away from new ideas or pursuing seemingly terrible ones since they can yield magical results. Don’t be afraid to be afraid, he said, offering his own career and life story as a testimony of the payoff that can come from confronting fear.

Sometimes – as when a ringing cell phone prompted Davis to invoke a rule he has programmed into his appearances – the evening went exactly according to plan. At other times – for instance, when his microphone batteries died the second he uttered the word “fail” – the chance occurrences during his presentation made for apt metaphors for his own brash brilliance.

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