Touch and Go
The Brooklyn artist Patrick Smith began creating strange, subtle online games ten years ago. Now redesigned for the iPad, his immersive worlds are pushing the limits of what a tablet is capable of.
A still from Feed the Head
No longer the shiny novelty it was at its 2010 launch, Apple’s iPad has begun to settle in among the other high-tech furniture. But if the device has lost some of its dazzle, it may be because so few apps take full advantage of the platform’s possibilities. The most impressive apps on my iPad are by Patrick Smith, a 36-year-old Brooklyn-based artist who produces work under the rubric Vectorpark. First published on his website, Vectorpark.com, as Flash productions between 2001 and 2009, Smith’s creations have been so far ahead of the technical and cultural curve that, rebuilt for iOS, they immediately stand among the best examples of what a touch-enabled tablet can—and should—do.
Smith’s work speaks in a playful, mysterious visual language that has emerged from his explorations in painting, sculpture, and drawing to yield a new kind of interactive art. As a high school student in the early 1990s, Smith made drawings and collages influenced by artists such as Francis Bacon and Joseph Cornell. At Washington University, his paintings proceeded from actual still lifes to imagined still lifes of toylike images. For his thesis, he leapt from painting to sculpture. Building the fanciful three- dimensional objects he had already been painting seems, in retrospect, like a logical step, but Smith also wanted to avoid the historical baggage of painting. “I get kind of overburdened working in a medium where there’s a history to it and expectations,” Smith says. “So I wanted to break and get directly to this language.”
During a postcollegiate internship at an information-graphics firm, Smith learned how to construct and modify vector-based images in Adobe Illustrator—a first step toward his later Flash experiments. Inspired by artists like Chris Ware and Jim Woodring, Smith also drew narrative comics, and in 2000 he cofounded The Ganzfeld, initially a mixed-format McSweeney’s-esque print journal, with two former classmates.
Experimenting with Flash, Smith began to design an elaborate website for the magazine. “At some point while making it,” he says, “it was clear to me that I didn’t want it to be for The Ganzfeld. It needed to be its own thing.” The result was Vectorpark, Smith’s first interactive project (since retitled Park, and now part of the larger website). A mysterious nighttime landscape spied through a telescope, Park is less a game than an immersive environment. For an artist desperate to avoid historical baggage, the budding medium was irresistible. “It was even newer than comics,” Smith says. “Nobody knew what the hell I was doing. I liked that.”
Stills from Park
Smith’s was not the first Flash-based confection to hit the internet, but even some gamers were confused. Comments from 2002 on a tech website’s message board ranged from appreciation to consternation: “What a very strange game, I don’t think you can ‘Win,’ ” read one. This was very much the point. Richard McGuire, an artist who has since collaborated with Smith, remembers the impression Park made. “I loved the fact that you’re not told anything,” McGuire says. “It really is respect for the viewer, because [Smith] assumes you’ll figure things out. It seems to be connected more to an art experience than a game experience, because it’s experiential and not goal-oriented.”
Smith followed Park with the more traditionally gamelike Levers, which challenges users to balance a cascade of plummeting objects: a snowman, a birdhouse, a recalcitrant squid. Each new object has to be placed on a lattice of wildly pivoting scales, which are vexed by an anarchic trio of birds who unbalance the arrangement and contribute a lifelike organic quality. “I remember it was a big step for me,” Smith says. “Going from Park to Levers is me learning how to program something. The animation is largely driven by physics.”
Levers brought Smith some online fame among the technocenti on websites like Metafilter. “Suddenly, a hundred thousand times more people were seeing it than had seen anything I’d ever done before,” he says. “And I think that kind of spooked me.” The artist who had pursued digital media to avoid expectations was now faced with the expectations generated by his own success. He could imagine the possibilities of an entirely interactive world, but, instead, he turned away from the computer and began painting again. Smith produced a number of canvases depicting undulating graphic landscapes populated by geometrically rendered, biomorphic forms.
One of Smith’s paintings, and a still from Feed the Head
“And then, finally, I was still painting, and I started getting this idea for a head you could interact with.” The result, 2007’s Feed the Head, is more comical than Smith’s other projects, and it draws on his love of animation, particularly of Chuck Jones’s metafictional classic “Duck Amuck.” “You’re manipulating this thing, and it’s not really enjoying it,” Smith says of the titular head. “It’s stoically tolerating it because it has no choice.” The animation is particularly subtle, as when the user removes the head’s nose in a minute tug-of-war.
In 2009 Smith released Windosill, his most elaborate work to date. Windosill begins in a darkened space that responds mysteriously to clicks and swipes. Graham Linehan, creator of the tech-oriented British sitcom The IT Crowd, recalls his first contact with Windosill: “It was while I was ‘working’ that I discovered the opening Windosill level, with the five or six odd, unconnected objects in the darkness. I may have actually gasped when I clicked the lightbulb.” It reveals a Cornell-like toy box, the first of Windosill’s many surprises.
Stills and drawings from Windosill
Drawing on imagery from Smith’s paintings, Windosill prompts the user to navigate a small, toylike vehicle through a series of interactive spaces. Tonally, the piece echoes the contemplative world of Park. Each space abounds with interactions: trees that seem decorative can be made to shed their leaves; when touched, a cloud drips rain. “I love everything about it—the way objects ‘feel’ when you pick them up, the tiny puffs of smoke from the train,” Linehan says. He hired Smith to design Windosill-based menu screens for a DVD of The IT Crowd, as part of a series of game-themed interfaces.
But Linehan’s praise raises the question of whether Vectorpark belongs in the history of games at all. Although Smith’s work is usually structured loosely around a series of puzzles, the games are not difficult, and neither competition nor point accumulation is at stake. The principal reward for engagement is, ultimately, a rich and surprising aesthetic experience. There is no easy description for work like this. Jesse Fuchs, a teacher at the NYU Game Center, identifies Windosill as “something in that gray area that uses game elements to structure interactivity.” McGuire, the artist, likens Smith’s productions to “sculptural toys.” Chris Ware sees him as “working with touch, weight, sound, metaphor, and symbolic relationships in a way that can’t be referred to as anything other than poetry.”
Vectorpark’s sculptural qualities are emphasized by their reconfiguration as touch-enabled iPhone and iPad apps. Detecting a new platform—and a new marketplace—for his work, Smith painstakingly rebuilt his major projects from scratch in Objective C, the native language of iOS, between 2009 and 2011. The process was both technical and conceptual. “I do think about the mouse in a Flash game as being kind of your extension of a finger,” says Smith. “Even with the similarities, I had to rethink a lot.” Smith’s world of generous interaction becomes more immersive in a tactile interface. “The physicality was already there,” McGuire says. “It’s even more impressive now that you actually have to touch and interact with it, and everything seems to have more weight and more reality.” Smith acknowledges as much: “I actually think this is the way to play it now.”
Smith’s work falls between categories because it is grounded in an artistic, rather than commercial, practice. “I’m trying to create something that has the nuance, the sensitivity of a brushstroke or a drawn line,” he says. That nuance is engineered into the interactivity of each Vectorpark element, the organicism of Smith’s vector-based shapes, and the convincing naturalism of his otherwise surreal animation. Now, through a touchscreen, users are able to bring their own nuanced gestures into Smith’s world—and experience the pleasure that comes when Vectorpark responds in kind. Smith describes Vectorpark as “a remote place. Anybody getting there is journeying there.” With his work remade for portable devices, we can now take Patrick Smith’s remote place with us, and journey there at will.
Bill Kartalopoulos, a contributing editor for Print, is a Brooklyn-based critic, educator, and curator who has taught classes about comics and illustration at Parsons the New School for Design. He is a co-organizer of the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival and SPX: The Small Press Expo.
You might also be interested in The Designer’s Web Handbook, now on sale at MyDesignShop.com.