Blurring Boundaries with Jamie Zigelbaum

“When you create things, you embed a certain cultural understanding into them—and a certain value system. And that’s why design has such a power to change the way that people live,” explains New York-based artist Jamie Zigelbaum. His interactive, tech-infused works challenge presumed classifications of analog vs. digital, human vs. machine, alive vs. inanimate.

A lifelong artist, Zigelbaum has a background rooted in neuroscience, film, human-computer interaction, and media arts and sciences. He started incorporating electronics into his work in 2006 while working on his masters at MIT Media Lab. Today, he and his team at Midnight Commercial creative studio work out of the Dark Matter Manufacturing shared workspace in Brooklyn. Eight months ago, they added an Othermill to their workshop and have been using it to make custom PCBs and small mechanical parts, like brackets. He says, “We can do more in-house more quickly. It means less time machining and less wait and cost for PCB prototypes.”

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Team technologist Jon Moeller stresses the value of using the Othermill to create small, one-off parts. He says, “I spend a lot of time on mechanical design as well, despite it not being my main area of focus, and being able to whip up a part quickly and easily is super important.” He adds, “It’s great to be able to test a little part of a PCB design without running boards and waiting a week or two. That said, I personally find it more useful to create little mechanical parts I need, without spending hours on the Bridgeport, or spending hundreds to outsource a simple CNC operation.”

Zigelbaum’s newest debuted piece, Triangular Series, is a site-specific installation consisting of 59 truncated, translucent, tetrahedral forms of various sizes, spaced apart and suspended from the ceiling. Embedded with white LEDs, the forms use sensors to detect and light up in reaction to people in their environment, and can also echo the rhythm of one particular tetrahedron. This “syncopated dialog” between the tetrahedra and the people demonstrates a form of entrainment, where two interacting, oscillating systems synchronize. In effect, Zigelbaum has created “alien, non-human forms that are in dialogue with us,” inviting the viewer to question their experience and preconceived notions. As he writes with longtime collaborator Marcelo Coelho, “We are poised for a future where the analog and digital dichotomy is nothing more than an exercise in perspective taking.”

With a heavy emphasis on tactile relationships with technology, Midnight Commercial’s current projects include a new series of digital, sculptural works; creating interactive holiday window displays for Cartier’s 5th Avenue store; and making editions of Zigelbaum’s Pixel human-touch-activated installation for collectors and galleries.

The Othermill is a natural addition to their workshop, helping them expedite and take more control of the creative build process. As Zigelbaum writes, “Crafting contemporary experience requires the combined efforts of all of us: scientists, designers, philosophers, engineers, artists, etc. If artists don’t learn how to actually implement technologies, such as machine learning or hydraulic fracturing, they will not be able to manipulate and understand them deeply enough to reveal their farthest edge states. Without the artist, our culture cannot metabolize the latent possibilities in the world around us.”