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Tandem Surfing the Third Wave with Jessica Irish, of OnRamp Arts

Since 1997, OnRamp has worked with artists, educational institutions, historians, community members and youth to create digital art projects that investigate the different identities and experiences that make up Central LA.
Having to close their doors in 2002, the working efforts of the organization shifted to a more nomadic structure. In 2003, the co-founders Jessica Irish and Stephen Metts relocated to Boston. OnRamp Arts will close at the end of 2003, donating its remaining assets to Mapping LA.
The interview was conducted in the summer of 2003 by telephone.


RG: Everyone knows how hard non-profits - especially arts and education focused - have been hit during the last few years. How did it affect OnRamp?

JI: We started really, really small with OnRamp in a storage space in Echo Park http://www.echopark.net/ , which is adjacent to downtown LA. It's a big neighborhood, fairly low income. We had a few donated computers and a small grant. At the time of OnRamp's genesis, it made sense to have a lab - there wasn't a lot of access in the neighborhood. Over time, we added a lot more physical capacity and started producing projects. We focused on bringing in different artists to do projects based on a theme, and choosing themes that addressed some locally relevant issue.

Over time we had to rethink how we we're running OnRamp, because with the economic climate, we were not able to staff a physical space any longer. At the end of 2002, we donated our lab facility to our long-time community partner CCAC. We were always project-based, but we're going to have to continue to become more so, now that we don't have a lab. Stephen and I stayed on the Board of Directors this last year to help the organizational transition, and also help advise on the last project, "Crossecting LA," which is a mapping project looking at central Los Angeles, using GIS mapping as a way of empowering communities. The project has since partnered with Mapping LA at Los Angeles Trade Tech, and will continue to evolve there.

RG: So, it sounds like the projects will remain focused on the cultural and geographic locality of central Los Angeles despite your move.

JI: I'm hoping that the people that want to get involved and take it in new directions can build on that in a way that's interesting. It's rather futile to always want to do the same thing, and antithetical to that idea of trying to apply new media in new ways. It's always in flux, communities are always in flux. It's a very transitional neighborhood, and a lot of the projects we've looked at are about that idea of how migration, or that sort of transitional experience, changes the city and how experience changes your view of urban space or storytelling.

There are a lot of interesting collaborative skills that we've developed from OnRamp. Future projects we will work on will be in partnership with other local organizations, in Boston or elsewhere. It makes the project develop in a more organic way, instead of imposing an idea on a particular neighborhood.

RG: One of the things that really becomes important to me, in OnRamp's projects, is the presence of an unresolved tension between the specificity or locality of where you were working/who you were working with and the utopian, yet homogenizing, promise of digital media and telecommunications. This tension seems to always be there, even if it's not always in the foreground.

JI: I'm always thinking about that tension between that utopia and what I think of as dystopia. LA is such a great city to work in, if you're interested in that. It's been interesting to work on projects with people who have had a very different experience. Young kids, immigrant kids, who again, their experience is very different, and even though they might do the same things, they might appraise them differently. One of our best grants from the University of California Institute for Research in the Arts helped bring in various faculty like Norman Klein to come in and be visiting artists. It was about new forms of research, about developing a new kind of dialogue and getting it to happen.

RG: I show OnRamp's projects in undergraduate classes I teach as a way to introduce complexity and dealing with personal experiences - something other than the desire to uncritically reproduce special effects. And I think it usually helps, because the projects are accessible and interesting while also pretty sophisticated. The experiential component to all the projects comes through and, I think, brings people in, which is very useful to me as a teacher.

JI: That's great to hear. That's exactly what we wanted. That it resonates outside of here. We've worked to adapt the methodology of the projects for development in high school classes. Everywhere, arts funding is down, the push is for schools to just go out and buy computers - and what are they going to do with them? We always championed the idea of sifting through the possibilities for what you're able to do with media. Core ideas, like layering. To look at things in layers.

RG: I'm sure it's effecting primary education as much as higher education. The pressure to churn out people who can work for a particular industry parallels the pressure to keep up with upgrades and industry standards, often to the detriment of other aspects of education.

JI: Before you can go in and make something exciting and interactive, you have to have a basic understanding of the language. The technology always comes last., even in the projects we did with OnRamp. With "Turning from the Millennium," we spent maybe three months having participants take pictures and talking about them, then throwing them all away - we didn't keep any of them. Then we finally got an idea of what we really wanted to do. We spent four months walking around and taking more pictures and gathering data. We didn't actually get on the computers until six months after doing all of this and figuring out what we wanted to do, those ideas that we'd bring into the lab.

With the "Tropical America" game, we took four months before turning computers on. Then we spent two to three just figuring out that idea that history interrelates, that some moments connect other moments. Again, this idea of connectedness and interrelation becomes central. Once they started doing all of the research and design, they really liked the storytelling aspect of looking at history. It really brought them in and they were involved in debating how to organize everything. They felt more ownership by the end of it. They also had an image. They loved symbols. They're the ones that made up the game's symbols. I think that's important as a way of making things more relevant for young people in particular, because obviously it's not working now.

All our interactive projects draw on our neighborhood, on our experience. Map your apartment, write a story, a mystery, re-write it. It's an important part, that commitment, taking that time to flush all of that out.

RG: That really comes across in OnRamp's projects. It's hard to imagine getting that level of complexity without that extended period of research and predesign.

When you started OnRamp, did you feel like you had other models to follow or work from? There are only a few well-documented examples I know of where artists critically engaged educational efforts, Tim Rollins with KOS and Ben Caldwell's KAOS for example.

JI: Within community based media arts, it is a pretty small circle, and it didn't take long to figure out who's doing what. I think that it's definitely valuable to look at what other people are doing, and I've definitely learned from those other organizations like Ben and KAOS and Reach LA . Before OnRamp, I was involved for three years with VIDKIDCO at the Long Beach Museum of Art. It was only a two and a half week program, but we worked on one project all day, everyday. And it was amazing what we got to produce. Part of OnRamp was realizing that we didn't have to compress everything like that, we could extend it. But we didn't have a model in mind. At least Stephen and I didn't. It was really kind of an experiment. If you're an artist, you're open with the process and if you're a good artist you're willing to change it up and experiment all the time.