Q&A with Lori Hepner

This month, Lori Hepner’s project for the 1stfans Twitter Art Feed has prompted a great response from 1stfans with interesting and thought-provoking @replies, but there also seems to be a curiosity about how she goes from a response on twitter to a digital portrait. I think now is a good time to reveal these portraits for the public to see as well as dive in a little deeper with Lori about the project and specifically about her artistic process. Her answers to my questions appear below:

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Artist Lori Hepner shows off Status Symbols during HackPittsburgh.  Photo by Matt Mets via Flickr.  All rights reserved.

How do you choose which @replies to work with?

I have been attempting to photograph each of the @replies that I have received for the project, which so far has been manageable due to the number of responses that I’ve had for each one.  I like the idea of making art from whatever the response happens to be and not having curatorial oversight on the responses.  The replies have ranged from very thought-out answers that have taken some reflection time, such as the post from @jenniferwyng, “@1stfans I’m constantly between cultures east & west. Too asian for the west, too westernized for the east. That gives me an edge over both.” To some very quick responses such as, “@1stfans rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr” from @ranjit and, “@1stfans a little tired, wanting to hibernate, all “talked out” ,” from @_randomthoughts.  If I’d receive a response from every @1stfans follower, I would have to start making choices of the @replies to photograph, just due to time constraints.  If that would happen, I would most likely go back to the ones that I did not get to after the month was over.

What happens next? Could you take a photo of the custom hardware that you use?

The actual photographing uses a custom LED array and a device, called an Arduino that is an open-source microcontroller that is programmed using the Arduino programming language (based on Wiring) in the Arduino development environment (based on Processing).  Since I am a photographer by training, I had some help developing the LED array and initial Arduino program by Matt Stultz, who is president of HackPittsburgh, a community based non-profit group of inventors, engineers, scientists, programmers, artists, and crafters interested in creative projects.  It was at one of the classes that HackPittsburgh was holding that the initial idea for this work popped into my head and the development started to get rolling.

So to start, each tweet goes into a piece of custom software that gets turned into code for the Arduino and lights up the array of 8 RGB, LED lights into a pattern specific to that tweet.  The pattern is coded so that each letter, digit, or symbol in the tweet gets turned into an 8 digit sequence of ones and zeros that turn on or off one of the LEDs in the array: one is on; zero is off.  This sequence references ASCII binary code, which is what computers use to read keystrokes.  It’s one of the things that I’ve been referencing in my work for the past 7 years, so you might call it a bit of an obsession.

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After the program is uploaded onto the Arduino microcontroller, the process goes lo-fi, as my Arduino is currently stuck to a record player with some electrical tape, which is what makes the array spin and gives the photographs the circular look.  During the winter months, I will be creating a sculptural device that wirelessly transmits tweets to the LEDs and spins via a wall-mounted motor and is gallery appropriate.  Right now, though, the lo-fi version suits my photographic needs, as it allows me to photograph the spinning, blinking LEDs as multi-second exposures on film.

Why do you feel that actually developing the photos (as opposed to creating them digitally) is important?

Conceptually, my work has always dealt with mixing the analog and digital worlds in some way. In my past series, Code Words, the analog was a physical degradation process that was photographed digitally to make the imagery, which was then placed into layouts of binary code translations. Since Status Symbols is much more direct in the use of the digital in concept and process, I wanted to add in a level of analog, which is where the film comes into play.  A fact equally important is that I can’t get the colors that I want using a digital camera; the build-up of light turns into white much faster while photographing digitally than it does using the color negative film.  The film allows all of the rotations of the LEDs to be captured and I can use the scanning process to pull out the colors, which have built up on the negative like watercolor washes on paper.

These really are portraits in the sense that they are a representation of a person’s statement about themselves. And yet because they are created using a very methodical and mechanical process, what people end up getting in return is something that they might have trouble relating to. What do you think about that?

In coming up with the project, I was initially inspired to create abstract portraits because of the fact that these small status updates that are posted on Twitter can only really be a small window into an individual.  I’ve been fascinated by how many people that I “know” only through following on Twitter.  The online persona becomes who they are to me.  Last week, in fact, I met a woman who I follow and have had conversations with on Twitter for the first time in real life while waiting for an art event to start.  The additional knowledge that came with hearing the inflections in a voice and seeing a face that wasn’t pixels made the overall picture a bit more complete than before I had met her.

Lori is uploading the resulting portraits of 1stfans to Flickr along with their accompanying tweets.

The portraits end up working for me in a similar manner; they add a bit more information about a person, but in this case, the information is an aesthetic experience that isn’t linked to their physical likeness.  I hope that the portraits create some moments of reflection for those viewing them about how virtual identity is being created through many disjointed updates over time.  As the project goes along, I will be tweaking the code to create different aesthetic experiences for the each of the questions that I’ve asked.  There will be some visual surprises ahead, so stay tuned for the rest of the month!