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What if the movement of far-away fish could create art in the room in front of you? What if the local rise and fall of pollution could control the flutters of a flock of mechanical butterflies?
Artist Julie Freeman hasn’t just wondered these things. She’s created intricate works of art to find out. Julie’s art uses computers to explore the natural world beyond what just our eyes can see. And she can’t imagine ever wanting to stop. Julie has always seen the world a little differently. Sometimes that difference was more subtle. Julie didn’t so much play with her toys as dismantle and study them. She even kept a collection of decomposing food in jars in her room, pressing her nose to the glass to observe the tiniest details of each mold. That is, until her mother found out. Apparently mashed potatoes yield an exquisite mushroom-cloud shaped growth with tendrils.
At other times, her different perspective was more literal. At the age of ten, a family trip and an unreadable billboard led to the discovery that Julie was extremely nearsighted. Her close-up inspection of the world suddenly made more sense. But getting glasses didn’t make Julie’s unique approach disappear. She was used to having “a very small bubble,” one that sparked a constant interest in how one kind of action affected another. She had started to view the surrounding world as a series of systems. And systems – even the family toaster – needed to be broken down and studied.
Though her curiosity was insatiable, it didn’t thrive in a school setting. Julie was kicked out at age 16 for being what she described as “a little bit disruptive by that point.”
She ended up at the open house for a vocational college and selected the graphic design program – because the teacher seemed like the nicest person there. Julie admits that she looks back on that decision-making process as questionable, but she is thankful for where it led her. Specifically, it led her to a computer graphics lab. She was wowed by the special effects from a late-1980s equivalent of an Instagram filter – and was hooked.
Her studies took her from the computer lab to a company that produced CD-ROMs to get some work experience. The company was in London, and Julie found herself “kind of dazzled by everything that was going on.” Just as she was starting to learn about data storage and archival, her boss resigned. Julie was no longer just pressing CD-ROMs; she was learning about 3-D animation and how to manage a team.
With a few months of management and a lot of “youthful arrogance” under her belt, Julie and a small team of peers decided to start their own company. Julie was barely in her twenties and ended up as CFO of a creative technology company in London.
The internet was still new, and people would come to their office to use the cutting-edge dial-up connection. “We had no idea what we were doing,” Julie remembers, “but we thought we were really good at it.” Optimism and forward momentum landed them some major contracts, including with the BBC.
Then the momentum stopped. Julie’s father passed away unexpectedly. The work she was doing in the commercial world suddenly didn’t appeal anymore. Julie stopped and tried to decide what she actually wanted for herself. She wanted to create things for people to experience rather than products to sell. She wanted to go back to school. And she wanted to connect, in some way, with her late father.
Julie’s father had spent his life on the water, fishing both for his job and for pleasure. And looking at the water Julie realized she could use the technology she had learned so much about to track fish. Then, using that data as her material, she could create an artistic experience. She found a way to connect it all together.
With a grant and a new vision, she created her first major work as part of her master’s program. She studied. She collaborated with scientists. She created instruments and the code to support them. After years of work and planning, she turned the switch and the data flowed from the fish to her display. And the room stopped as everyone, even Julie, took in the result. Julie had found what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.
Julie has gone on to create many installations and even completed a Ph.D. at the crossroads of data and art. She uses technology to bring the change and pulse of the natural world into otherwise stagnant, man-made systems. She builds a digital nature. Unlike data visualizations to convey a single scientific message, her artworks present an experience that invites audiences to pose questions for themselves.
Over the years the work has always been demanding, and Julie acknowledges that finding funding or collaborators has ups and downs. Is it hard? Yes. Is it unpredictable? Often. But is it the way she can fully live her love of technology, art, and the natural world? Yes. As Julie says, “I can’t imagine any other way to be.”