What is Work? High-Tech Art With Heart Trumps ALS

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET

Zach Lieberman found his career as a humanity-boosting computer artist by getting lost.

As a fine arts graduate in the '90s, "I had to get a job," he said, in a phone call from his office at the Parsons School of Design in Manhattan. "At that time everyone I knew was talking about web design."

Unprepared for a normal interview, Lieberman showed up at a web design firm with his fine art portfolio - and an attitude of surety.

He got hired. And took a crash course in design on the job.

"I'd sneak off at lunchtime and hide and read books and come back in the afternoon and be way productive.

"I started writing code. I started to write software. With a few lines of code, you could animate something and bring something to life."

Lieberman's interest in the art of living technology allowed him to transform the loss of his job during the dot-com bust into his current career: making art that connects computers and humans in technically new, yet classical ways.

Two of Lieberman's signature collaborations illustrate his creative Work process - and offer helpful models for those us to wok in creatively meaningful ways in other fields:

In this live installation, Lieberman drew seemingly 'normal' images on a surface. Then, using software technology, he'd move the pieces of his drawings around, wowing the audience - and kids in particular.

"It's kind of a magic trick," he says. "It moves and makes sound and comes to life."

Over time, he realized that allowing audiences to draw and move images added to the project's magic factor - which led to the work's nickname, above.

If you assume that art is apart from life, it's easy to see it as a fripp-tastic perq as opposed to raison d'etre.

If you think like Lieberman and his collaborators - that art is a vital part of life, you can save a life.

Seven years ago, Quan, fell over while walking. Today he lives in a hospital bed, with all but his eyes immobilized by ALS.

Enter, Lieberman and four collaborators from the worlds of technology and art. Their question: Could they help Quan keep working - to reclaim his life?

To answer this question, Lieberman had to revise an assumption: that collaborating with Quan, was going to be "very tough and very heavy."

Quan blew away this image the first time the team met with him.

"Even though there was this person there who was completely incapacitated," Lieberman remembers, "he was somebody so full of life and energy and so excited by the idea of collaborating."

The team's work led to an affordable software and hardware system that links a pair of Clark Kent-style eyeglasses to a camera. Quan can draw laser images onto the sides of buildings - a new artform called Light-tagging. And Lieberman and his team have open-sourced their design- which means they're giving the blueprint away to anyone else who needs, or would like to use it in new ways.

For those of who'd like to apply this kind of 1+1+1+1+...=Awesome Possibility thinking in our own Work, here are Zach Lieberman's tips:

1. Preach A Gospel

Travel takes up a lot of Lieberman's time - and that was starting to wear on him, personally. But when he redefined his work as bringing his passion for performance to people in new places, he fell in love with traveling.

"I had a kind of revelation where my brain shifted," he says.

2. Collaborate

The old-school model of a painter in her garret is lonely, needless - and less productive than teaming up, Lieberman says. Not to mention, less fun.

He urges artists to see their Work as part of a worldwide R&D Lab of creative thought.

Those of us working in R&D can see ourselves as artists of discovery in our chosen field.

3. Share Your Discoveries

Lieberman and his collaborators open-source their software. What part of our Work can we give away?

4. Work With The Glitches

On one tour, Lieberman realized his projection computer was dying. He had two options: Freak out - or collaborate with Death. He chose the latter - and asked the audience to pray for the survival of his machine. A new aspect of his performance was born - along with a stronger - if quirkier - connection between presenter and audience.

5. Accept Daily Gifts of Beauty

One of Lieberman's most cherished moments as an artist happened in Japan, after one of his Open-mouth shows.

"An old woman came up to me and grabbed my hand and said in broken English, 'You're giving the children good dreams,'" he recalls.

Which returns us to the central point of this piece: Art with heart pays off in new worlds-full of ways.