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To.be: A Tool to 'Collage the Internet' Leads to Insane Digital Mashups

Rob Walker

If you’re the sort of person who revels in Web weirdness, but longs to do more with your online finds than reblog them on Tumblr or post them on Pinterest boards, then perhaps To.be is for you.

The site is billed as a “studio space where you can collage the internet.” It’s a relatively easy tool for combining your favorite Web objects — images, GIFs, video, audio — into one gloriously insane digital mashup.

It started on the Web, but a new iPhone/iPad app version just came out. 

Examples? Check out this video — a trailer of To.be creations that range from tastefully spare to full-on mind-melting:

To.be ringleader Nick Dangerfield (whose past tech/arts experiments include the wearable MP3 device Playbutton) tells me that To.be started out about a year ago as a “hideaway” where digital creators could build virtual collages, and maybe share them with a few close friends or collaborators.

But gradually he and his small team concluded they might have hit on something bigger, and more social: a way to communicate with “a new visual language online — more personal, imperfect, one that does not hide the human hand behind it.”

Thus a more public-facing version of To.be debuted a few months ago. Dangerfield is the first to concede that there’s still tweaking to be done, but a steady stream of tech artists and totally random creators have glommed onto the tool to whip up a dizzying assortment of riffs on the digital-collage idea. Users fill a “field” with content they can rearrange and in some cases transform, and share the results in a way that other To.be users can remix even further.

Some of these may strike many viewers as somewhere between vertigo-inducing and flat-out hideous. Imagine a vintage Myspace page compacted into a single riot of moving parts. (And made even trippier by the ability to zoom in or out.) But some creations are more restrained, and in any case there’s definitely something new about the results.

“The stylistic range is unbelievable,” Dangerfield says. “We see great pictorial works with intricate use of stencil, and from there we go to insane and very dense transparent gif collages.” 

Here are a few favorites he points to. (Note that in some cases I’m just using screenshots, because the actual piece includes sounds and would make this post a potential seizure-inducer)

— New York artist Maggie Lee is “working on compiling beautiful, personal family memories,” to be compiled into a film version planned for this spring.

To.be: A Tool to 'Collage the Internet' Leads to Insane Digital Mashups

Click here to launch animation and sound.

Terrell Davis is “a 16-year-old kid from New Jersey” who has emerged as “a master of composition and color:”

image

Click here to launch (insanely dense) animation.

And somewhere in between those extremes, John Zobele’s work is “highly creative and very humorous:”

image

Click here to launch animation and sound.

Given the profoundly multi-media nature of these works, it’s surprising that to To.be’s monetization strategy to date involves, of all things. T-shirts. Users can offer for sale both T’s and “art prints” of whatever they make in To.be.

Dangerfield agrees that this seems at odds with such screen-centric works. But apart from being a way to generate some cash (split 50/50 with creators), it stemmed from the realization that the huge digital “field” required to make the collages work also happened to translate well to quality printing.

Recently, the band Yacht used to To.be in conjunction with the release of its single “Plastic Soul,” supplying fans with a starting-point artwork to make their own designs.

image

Click here to launch animation.

(With a GIF-heavy piece, Dangerfield adds, “it becomes a bit of a game to click ‘Save Design’ over and over, till you snap what you want — a random creator of designs, never two the same.”)

Among the changes To.be needs, Dangerfield continues, is some kind of search function. It’s coming soon, he promises. The site’s tech specs also make it less than mobile friendly, and while building collages can be drag-and-drop simple on a desktop, more densely populated creations can overwhelm a browser or computer at less-than-optimal connection rates. Finally, while he believes the collages here are transformative enough to avoid intellectual property problems, he’s keeping an eye on that scenario.

Those aren’t trivial issues. And yet, the response has convinced Dangerfield that there’s enough demand that it’s worth going all out to resolve them: To.be may not be for everybody, but he’s focused on those who have embraced the young platform: “We can’t let them down!”

Write to me at rwalkeryn@yahoo.com or find me on Twitter, @notrobwalker. The RSS feed for my columns and posts is right here.