Axolotl: Designing Social Blur

William Hallett

Axolotl is a social installation that generates abstract parametric environments in the Unity 3D game engine using media objects from multiple participants’ social media newsfeeds. Following the open-world gaming model, these 3D newsfeeds are open to one another, allowing free-form movement throughout. Inspired by contemporary scholarship on algorithmic contingency, the project seeks to blur what the social is.


The principal focus of this thesis is the social. The concept of the social has risen in importance not only through the rise of corporatized social media and its rhetorical image of a worldwide social-graph, but also in scholarly criticism. Critical discussions about the post-human, the non-human, transnational flow, and even matter itself, all take up and question what it might mean for a thing to be social at all. Following a methodology that incorporates scholarly research, new media design, and artistic practice, I’ve tried to think about the social from a bit of a different perspective.
The humanities have in many ways split into two meta-methods of critical scholarship: critique following the Marxist theory of historical progress and problematization following Gilles Deleuze’s theories of historical fluidity and chaos. Considering how we might use new media design to create a different image of what it means to be social, I’m interested in computational workflows that problematize social relations through chaos-inspired audiovisual aesthetics but that also retain the coherence and accessibility of a public, or commons, that resists elitism and exclusion.
To this end, anticipating the mass-adoption of immersive media devices such as AR and VR amongst existing social media platforms, I’ve used VR headsets and media objects scraped from participants’ real newsfeeds in order to overlay a different image of the social on top of the existing networked infrastructure. I’ve designed Axolotl to express the data from this network in a chaotic way, taking aesthetic inspiration from contemporary sculpture through artists such as Isamu Noguchi, Arakawa and Gins, and Olafur Eliasson.
Computationally, I’ve loosely adapted an approach engineered by Dr. Sha Xin Wei’s Media Choreography Framework (2000-) towards a workflow that drives the aesthetic modulations of 3D shapes and sounds in Unity 3d with a state-engine written in Max/MSP. The two are coordinated over CNMAT’s open sound protocol (OSC).



Thesis Presentation Video