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Johnny Woods Creates Art That Dives into the Uncanny Valley

The artist, animator, and curator has directed videos for Big Boi and Hooray for Earth and had his work shown on Adult Swim. His surreal output is helping to usher in a style that is both very real and totally synthetic at the same time.

by Matthew Caron
Jan 6 2015, 12:00pm

Artist and curator Johnny Woods and his video art label Undervolt are helping usher in an exciting new style of animated video that is both hyperrealistic and unnatural. Johnny has directed animated music videos for artists like Hooray for Earth and Big Boi that explore the uncanny valley—that weird and uncomfortable aesthetic when something looks almost, but not exactly human.

I first met Johnny three years ago at Neon Marshmallow Fest in Brooklyn, where he was performing one of the most colorful and dynamic VJ sets I had ever seen on an LZX video synthesizer alongside fellow Philadelphian and musician Joe Lentini. The two are still working together today as evidenced by recent broadcasts of their mind boggling OOLYMPACS short on Adult Swim's Off the Air.

Since that 2011 show, I've watched as Johnny has moved from VJing to 3D animation. Today, he creates art that isn't possible through traditional video or animation. Additionally, Johnny curates the video art label Undervolt with fellow multimedia artist Yoshihide Sodeoka. Over the past two years, the Undervolt collective have released a clutch of "albums" by some of the most exciting video artists and independent animators and hosted screenings of their work all over the world. This month the label is headed to the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City to screen a series of "mixtapes" as part of the First Look 2015 festival, which focuses on new approaches to filmmaking and exhibition.

I sat down with Johnny to talk about what's in store for these screenings and the state of video art and independent animation heading into 2015.

VICE: What drew you to 3D animation?
Johnny Woods: I really love how creepy and disconcerting CGI can be. The uncanny valley is where I want to go, I want to go into the uncanny valley because it's weird and it's awesome and there's a lot of emotions to explore in there. Everyone in CGI is trying to leap over it, or else stay safely on the fun side of it, but I've just been trying to find out what's in the valley.

How did you get started as an animator?
It was a really slow thing for me. I was VJing and making abstract videos for six or seven years before I started shooting videos. Once I started shooting videos, I got really into that. The whole reason I started animating about three years ago is that I moved to LA and I didn't know anybody and no longer had my network of free spaces to shoot and people who would just show up because they thought it was fun. I found myself without those sort of resources and was like, oh shit, I could make a whole thing in my computer, by myself! When I realized I could do that and how much fun it was, it was over for me. I haven't picked up a video camera since then. I've had zero interest in it.

This idea of freeing yourself from the tyranny of the video camera seems to be in the air right now. Undervolt could be described as a video art label for artists who aren't interested in working with cameras.
I don't think this was intentional, but part of it is that making camera-based videos or films is expensive and complicated. You need a lot of people and money and resources. If you're doing more experimental work, those things are harder to come by. There's something amazing about recordings of human beings doing human things. But if your interest is more sensual and sensational then there are certainly better ways to go about that than picking up a camera.

It seems like many of the artists on Undervolt have experience with VJing and collaboration with musicians.
Yeah. I do think that's important. We've been approached by artists with work that is very good, visually. But it doesn't have strong audio components, or the relationship between the visual and whatever is happening with the audio is weak. One concept that we bring up a lot is taken from the notion of Expanded Cinema, the great Gene Youngblood book, which is that the work we put out has all the ingredients of cinema, without the conventional narrative structure, without the conventional storytelling and characters. All the ingredients are still there including sound, which is 50 percent of it.

You've worked with a wide array of musicians, including Chrome Canyon, Hooray for Earth, and Big Boi of Outkast. What is it like for you to collaborate with other artists?
I think collaboration is hard. Maybe this is my failing as a human being, but I've always found that it's very difficult to truly collaborate with someone. It works really well when both sides are like "I did my thing, your turn." One of the challenges of making music videos can be that the musician has a very specific image they want to present to the world. I can't do those because it always ends up being crappy, it's not actually collaboration. It works well when someone says "Here's my music, what do you want to do with it?"

The Big Boi thing was hands down the easiest collaboration I've ever had in my entire life. There were zero notes from the label or from anyone involved in the project. I just sent them the videos and that was it. It's cool to get that level of trust from an artist who is that successful. It's rare though, and that's one of the problems with so-called collaborations between musicians and video people. It's usually tilted in the musician's favor. A lot of our Undervolt artists will do music video work where there's always that kind of compromise, so it's cool to be able to have the video come first and then find a musician who wants to do something for it. The video is the brand and the driving force behind it.

It's great to see Undervolt's work being exhibited in a venue like Museum of the Moving Image, away from the internet, which is where most experimental work in video and animation lives these days.
I was interviewed for another screening and the quote they pulled was me saying "The internet makes everything terrible." And I was like, Did I say that? It was horrifyingly out of context. I guess the best part of the internet is that you meet people who you'd never come across otherwise. That part is pretty cool, but I wish the communities could figure out how to accomplish more. It's like when you go on Tinder or OkCupid, the goal is to get off of that community and into the real world as soon as possible. I think it's interesting that the Museum of the Moving Image is embracing this stuff. It's great that an institution of their size and stature is embracing this work that doesn't easily fit into mainstream ideas of what moving images are.

The Undervolt & Co. mixtape screenings are happening January 10, 17, and 18 at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City, with Johnny Woods and Peter Burr in attendance. Check it out.

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