Meet Traffic Signal-Bot
A look at the process of a work-in-progress.
In the name of making things a bit simpler for myself, I thought that this week, rather than digging super deep into my psyche and sharing something complex and long-winded, I'd just show you an exciting project I'm in the middle of.1
To (in long-standing Simon Peng tradition) start with a quick aside, I thought I'd be transparent and say that my motivation to share this project while I'm in the middle of it is part of a bigger push I'm trying to make to reject perfectionism and be way more open about process, incomplete work, unfinished ideas and how messy everything can be until (if you're lucky) suddenly it isn't.
This is part of what I've been calling in my head "demystifying the process" – an effort that I think basically all creative people should be taking in our current creative age to share all the messy ins-and-outs of how their work works and how spontaneous and magical it isn't.
This is a bigger idea I'll definitely write more about later, but file this post (and this whole newsletter, really) under that thematic umbrella.
Okay, on with the show.
Here's something I'm in the middle of.
In January the city of Hamilton (where I live) put out a call for artists to submit proposals for their public art initiative where they cover traffic signal cabinets (those big utility boxes at intersections) with art in an effor to both "culture-up" the city and – more practically – discourage grafitti (the logic there being that people are less likely to tag a thing that's already covered in pretty art compared to a blank canvas of bare grey metal).
I don't really care about the graffiti part – most of the tags around Hamilton aren't my favourite pieces of art but I'd be a hyppocrite if I said it was a "menace" or "crime" as someone who has had occasion in the past to slap some stickers of robots onto public infrastructure. I also think that a lot of the coolest public art in Hamilton rolls by us on trains from across the continent so disparaging graffiti artists isn't really my interest here.
I do, however, like governements investing in art and I also like having chances to make money with my art! So I submitted a proposal and (in great show of municipal speed and efficiency) heard back a few months later that my proposal had been chosen! ✨🎉
And THAT is what I'm in the middle of working on right now.
Here’s what I submitted:
I'll go into more detail about my submission below, but for now here's what the sketch I submitted looked like:
and just for fun, here's the little time-lapse replay of me trying to to figure it out as I sketched:
The process of finishing starts with the process of starting 😵💫
So at this stage of the process I have a rough sketch of what my proposed traffic box wrap would be, and I have spent some time figuring out how I actually want to excecute it.
I'm leaning into more of a reference-based process recently where I try to really build a conceptual foundation for my work and use that to inform some super broad research for inspiration. I think it's part of my reaction to the emergence of algorithmically generated images (or "AI ART" as most of us are calling it). I find that as people can just generate images and text out of thin air, I feel like I want to really understand where my creative ideas and output actually come from and how to access that.
How do you control your inspiration? How do you reliably have an epiphany?
I also want to understand the meaning of my ideas more explicitly and rely less on some illusive artistic "moment" flowing through me. I want to be able to show all my work, right down to how I connected ideas together and what inspired each little detail. I don't want this so I can prove anything about plagiarism or inspiration, nor do I want to disprove anything about generated images (at least, that's not what this process is about).
This is about building a more transparent process that anyone can poke their head into and be a part of. A demystified process, so to speak. 😉
So, anyways, I'm mostly through that early research phase now and I'm getting started on actually making the finished art for the project.
The old process that created this new process 🔁
I'm not great at this more conceptually driven and transparent practice, if I'm going to be honest.
It's kind of new to me.
For so long, I tried to be really intuitive and immediate with my work. I found myself really stumped if I tried to "come up with an idea" so I would just start drawing and see where things would go. I would usually land on an idea that "felt" good, and often it was an early idea. This isn't to say all my work was completely aimless, but at a certain point I would hit the "from nothing to something" phase of a job or a project and just pray something would come out of my sketching and roughs.
After a while (like, 24-28 years or so) the gaps in this process started to become very aparent. This process would often lead to a lot of repetition of ideas and subsequently boredom with my work (you build muscle memory that leads to very similar ideas falling out of your hand when you draw without a goal). More critically, though, where I used to find comfort in drawing relatively meaningless things (I would tell myself things like “I just like making goofy stuff” that “doesn’t mean anything”), eventually the lack of depth in my work started to make me feel shallow as an artist.
I now find a lot of fulfillment from diving into the meaning I want my work to have and using that as a jumping off point for the reference I use. For this kind of process, I don't use reference of trees because I want to draw a tree (that kind of one-to-one reference is still crucial for learning and accuracy, of course, and I will still do that). Instead, I'll do broad research on feelings, themes, and ideas I'm thinking about. I rarely know where to start with the research, and it could never be truly comprehensive, but it always leads me somewhere interesting where I can draw unexpected visual connections that can then lead to more specific research and finally actual art.
Like I said, though, this is still a new process for me and I forget to use it. This project started with more of the aimless, intuitive sketching that didn't feel very complete.
Eventually, I found clarifying my conceptual intentions to be a stronger way to land on a final idea and sketch. The sketches on the left and right in the image above are pretty similar visually and in content, but the left-hand one felt aimless to me, whereas the right-hand one had way more invisible meaning I could feel after my thinking and research, which made me more confident in the idea.
Traffic Signal-Bot & My Proposal
Rather than rewrite the idea I arrived at, I thought I'd just share my proposal I submitted to the city. Some of the language isn't super natural to me because I'm writing to the specifics of the submission request, but I ended up feeling pretty happy with the finished proposal and how I articulated the themes behind the idea.
Traffic Signal-Bot Concept Statement
When was the last time you appreciated a stop sign, thanked a water fountain or told the bus shelter it did a great job?
Traffic Signal-Bot is a project that represents a different approach to decorating a piece of public infastructure. Rather than trying to cover up the utility of the traffic signal cabinet and use it like a canvas, Traffic Signal-Bot seeks to elevate the utility of the box and personify it as a helpful character and member of our community – with a face and a personality!
Living in an interconnected community like Hamilton means we interact with a lot of technology and infastructure in our day-to-day lives. Most of the time it goes unnoticed (unless there's something wrong with it), and in a way many of us take all this engineering and technology for granted. This project is meant to get us all to start to consider the technology and public infastructure around us a bit more.
By using bright, frienldy colours, realistic texture and simulating practical, utilitarian components, the functional side of the traffic box is elevated rather than being covered up. With sensitivity towards avoiding any official warning symbols or traffic signal imagery, the Traffic Signal-Bot can do their job and be viewed and appreciated as a helpful member of our community, rather than just a utilitarian eyesore that should be hidden.
The more we rely on technology in our cities, the more important it is that we acknowledge and appreciate its presence in our lives. We can look after it actively and ask how it could be improved, rather than just balking at the cost or getting annoyed if something breaks. Technology like this – and the people who make it all work – make our lives safer and more effient. Isn't that worth a smile and wave of thanks?
Meet Traffic Signal-Bot! And maybe give them a wave of thanks next time they help you cross the street safely!
Some thoughts on the submission process 🤔
Something I really appreciated about this application process compared to other public (and private) calls for art is that they explicitly say that submissions can be sketches, which minimizes the amount of up-front, speculatvie labor artists need to do without knowing if they'll be selected (and consequently, compensated for their work).
Like all calls for art, though, the submission requirements and language were far from perfect. If the goal of saying "image or sketch" is really to minimize unpaid labour, I would love to see more explicit language explaining that here.
These kinds of open submissions are a great way for younger, less experienced professional artists to get some paid work and (speaking from experience) there's a strong motivation at that stage of your career to put in a bunch of hard, unpaid work up-front on proposals when you're keen to get a job so you can stand out, impress, and try to get picked.
Public art projects are a great opportunity to try to lead and set standards for the state of the creative labour market. The city can model an ideal job and working environment for artists by being an ideal client. In this case, something that said more explicitly that they want a "rough, sample sketch or mockup" that "minimizes the artist's work on the proposal" would go a long way towards clarifying that artists shouldn't spend too much time and effort on this stage. Even saying outright that the finish level of the sketch won't contribute to selection process would be nice.
Another small aside 🌿
This touches on something that really bothers me about governement, law, contracts and generally moving through beurocratic and legal processes as a warm, fleshy human being (as opposed to a robot, of course 🤖).
I find all the cold, impersonal language to be so off-putting, and the specific tone and details that are focused on to be very antagonistic. The fact that this kind of submission request isn't energizing, exciting or empowering in its language feels like a systemic flaw of how we handle artistic projects. I don't love the need to feel defensive and like I need to scrutinize every word of something that, at its core, is meant to be an exciting project. I'd love to see more natural language throughout all proposals and contracts – not just public art. Everywhere.
I'm not an idiot, though, and understand why this is what comes out. I just think putting “legal due-dilligence” and “liability management” before human connection with everything we do is yet another symptom of how off-the-rails and impersonal our capitalist society has become (and how poorly capitalism meshes with creativity and art).
One example of fixing this is how refreshing I find naturally written privacy policies compared to the deliberately unparsable, biblical-length tomes we're used to clicking past and agreeing to when we set up our computers, phones and email accounts.
Taking time to explain what the thing you're writing means in human language feels like a much more compassionate, caring and loving way to "do business."
Back to this project 🔙
All things considered, I think this was a pretty solid process, request, compensation and contract compared to past city of Hamilton public art requests I've seen.
To start, I think the $700 payment for work is pretty fair considering how open the direction was and the usage requested. This wasn’t another "ugh" compensation like a lot of these jobs tend to have (I'm talking "great exposure" or "$50 gift card" type payments).
I also know my amazing partner and fellow cool art person, Phoebe Taylor (of the wonderful newsletter creator's dispatch, of course) had a pretty different contract for her traffic box wrap for Hamilton from a few years ago and even requested an ammendment to it at the time. The evolution since then shows me that artists advocating for clearer and fairer language, processes and compensation around public art seems to really help change policy and the status-quo for the better down the line.
I think we should all scrutinize these contracts and push back on anything that seems unfair or "off" because, a lot of the time, the people running the programs don't even know exactly what's in the contract and ultimately do have artist’s best interests in mind – we just need to push them a bit toward fairer processes. We usually know more about what we need than they do, right?
What's next for Traffic Signal-Bot?
I still need to finish the actual art for this project.
Something this new commitment to a process has helped me with is deciding what media to use to complete projects. This one is leading me to some fun ideas using 3D rendering and textures, I think. I'll share what happened with that when I wrap this up!
For now, I think that's it!
Thanks for reading! I hope you have an amazing day!
Lots of love,
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P.S. Links & Thinks 🖇️🧠
A little bit ago I watched this great deep dive into Clip Art from Linus Boman and it is stuck in my head. I thought I understood the legacy of Clip Art, but I definitely didn't have the full picture.
In the spirit of discussing my process of research and inspiration, here's one of my favourite blogs for finding amazing, unique, cute, colourful and exciting things to look at. They never fail to get me excited about making something.
And here’s another wonderful story from a Webworm guest author – this time Jackson Wood tells a less infuriating, more entertaining story. But if you work on marketing, social media, websites or IT, it's going to both make you laugh and get kind of nervous and want to check some things…
After writing this and re-reading it, I can’t say I accomplished “making things simpler for myself” at all. And trying to be less “long-winded” was a goal I pretty much knew I’d fail at when I set it. Brevity and simplicity are not my strong-suits. 🤷