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Balloons, Books and Beer: The Emergent Art of Willy Chyr

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Back in February, we showcased some of science-artist Willy Chyr‘s stunning Neuroplastic Dreams. When I met Chyr here in Toronto those few months back, I wasn’t expecting the forthright clarity and modesty in his character that I encountered. Chyr is intelligent and fun. I’m pleased to share this interview with this vibrant talent.
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Alright I’m going to go straight for the flashiest, most visceral work you’ve done: how did you start creating gigantic bio and molecular forms from party balloons?

Back when I was still in school, I became involved with the student circus group.I was primarily a juggler, but while I was there I learned how to twist balloons. So as a part-time job, I would perform at birthday parties and festivals around the city.

At the same time, I was getting my degree in physics and working in a number of research laboratories. The summer right before my senior year, I interned as a computer engineer at a nuclear physics lab in Italy. I really enjoyed the experience, and coming back to Chicago, I wanted to find a way to combine the scientific work I was doing with all the creative activities I was involved with.

After seeing an architect talk about how he uses glass to manipulate light, I wanted to try to do something similar. I didn’t know how to work with glass,but realized I was pretty good at working with balloons, so I just chose that as my medium. I then got the idea to create a series of sculptures modeled after bioluminescent creatures, with LEDs embedded inside the balloon structures.

And that’s how it all got started.

Inside, I Hear © Willy Chyr

Ondine © Willy Chyr

How long did some of those take to install? Is it human breath inside the balloons or did you use helium?

When I first started, the sculptures would take around 3 days to install with about 6 people working on them. Part of that was because I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time, and was still figuring things out. Now, I can usually build it by myself, or with one or two assistants, over the course of 2 days.

I’ve never used helium before, and I actually use an air pump to inflate the balloons. They’re pretty difficult to inflate by mouth (even the company that makes the balloons recommends against that).

I do sometimes plan out the installation, and if I do so, I will construct a 3D model on the computer and render out different perspectives.  However, in my latest work, I’ve been exploring a more generative process of creation. Instead of having a design I’m working towards, I just have a set of rules that guides the construction of the sculpture.

Neuroplastic Dreams © Willy Chyr

One of your balloon-forms has even appeared on a Beck’s beer bottle: tell us about that.

For the first time this year, Beck’s is introducing a series of limited edition Art Bottles in the U.S. running from May through July. I was selected as one of six artists to create a label. The other artists featured are: M.I.A, Geoff McFetridge, Freegums,  Aerosyn-Lex, and Bert Rodriguez.

What’s very exciting about this project is that the bottle is something that lasts, and it’s something that people can keep and collect. My work is very temporary in nature. Once I take down a sculpture, it’s gone forever.

Also, with my sculptural pieces, what you see is what you get. Once I’ve finished building a sculpture, I don’t have much control over how it’s experienced. In designing the label, however, I knew that the image was the final product. I was able to take advantage of the fact that I could manipulate the colors digitally to create something that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.

Your creations range in a variety of media. What’s your educational background?

I studied physics and economics at the University of Chicago. I took a lot of math classes while I was there and spent most of my time in the library. I also worked part-time in a few research labs as a programmer.

An example of Chyr's digital fractal art. © Willy Chyr.

How accurate do you feel science-art needs to be to the actual science? Is it okay to deviate from factual representation for the sake of artistic licence?

I think it depends largely on the context, especially since science-art encompasses such a wide variety of work. If it’s an illustration that’s supposed to visualize a concept or an object for scientific purposes, it’s very important that the work be as accurate as possible.

However, if the work isn’t shown in a rigorous scientific context, and the purpose of it is to evoke an emotional response, then I don’t think it needs to restrict itself to factual representation. The scientific elements can just be the starting point of the work.

I think for a lot of artists working at the intersection of art and science, their work seeks to convey a certain beauty that they see in nature. Science allows us to
appreciate and understand what’s happening in the world around us. But while equations and diagrams can give us explicit explanations, there are emotions and ideas that only a painting or a sculpture can convey.

Sometimes stepping away from those factual boundaries can allow the work to better capture what you’re trying to express.

Fractal © Willy Chyr

Lately, you’ve been exploring both 3D models of fractals and you have started a crowd-sourced novel on your site The Collabowriters. I see these all as explorations of the same type of phenomena as the balloons: emergent forms from small building blocks. What drives this impulse?

Yes, I’ve been exploring a variety of different mediums this past year, and what unites all the projects together is the idea of emergence. Every piece is developed using a very similar process. Instead of starting out with a design of the completed work, I establish a set of initial conditions and a series of rules,which are then carried out repeatedly.

For example, in the past I would sketch out a design for a sculpture and then try to build exactly that. Now, I’ll follow a certain procedure, such as if one balloon branches off, I will follow that to create a new branch. Then every fifth branch, I will create a different shape and change colors. I have no idea what the sculpture looks like until it’s complete.

What’s exciting about this process is that is exists independently of the medium, and so it can manifest itself in a variety of ways, from sculptures to websites.

The Collabowriters has a simple process in which users write submissions and vote, and when this is repeated multiple times, a story begins to emerge.

This process is actually very similar to what we see in nature. Tree, mountains,and the flocking of birds all follow this generative method of creation. There’s no overarching direction, just small entities interacting with one another on a local level. When all the components are applied together, over and over again, we begin to see new and unexpected behaviors. To me, the art I create is therefore not the objects themselves, but the process behind their creation – the logic and rules of engagement that guide their development.

Fractal © Willy Chyr

How is The Collabowriters project going?

The Collabowriters project is going really well. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a crowdsourced novel which can be written by anyone and everyone together.

The novel is written one sentence at a time, and for each sentence, anyone can enter a submission (up to 140 characters). Users thenvote on each submission, giving it a score of either +1 or -1. The submission with the highest score then becomes the sentence in the novel, or at least until another submission surpasses its score. Once one of the submissions receives a score of 5, we progress to the next sentence.

So far, the story that’s emerging is surprisingly coherent. It’s seems to be set in a post-apocalyptic world, and the character is a widower named Zachary who’s about to get involved with some shady people.

Black and White © Willy Chyr

What does the future hold?

I will definitely continue to try to merge art and science in my work, and also to keep exploring ideas around emergence. It’s a very rich subject, and there are a lot of places you can go with it, so I think that will keep me busy for quite some time.

For The Collabowriters, once there’s enough text, I’d love to release a print publication of the novel. Most importantly, I want to keep exploring new mediums and technologies, and to collaborate with other artists. Recently, I’ve beenworking with dancers, creating everything from sculptures to films, and that has been an incredibly rewarding experience.

I also have an idea for a video game, but we’ll see if I have time to work on that this year.

I hope you have the time!  Thank you Willy for sharing your work with Symbiartic. It’s been a pleasure.

Links:

Further reading:

Glendon Mellow About the Author: Glendon Mellow is a fine artist, illustrator and tattoo designer working in oil and digital media based in Toronto, Canada. He tweets @FlyingTrilobite. You can see Glendon's work-in-progress at The Flying Trilobite blog and portfolio at www.glendonmellow.com. Follow on Twitter @symbiartic.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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