Interactivity of “The Johnny Cash Project”

Concomitant with the expeditious development of Internet technology is the diversity of art forms that include web-based art. With this trend, the advent of new art paradigms, ranging from hypertext-based web art, online art game to data visualization has been continued by many creators. Particularly, data nowadays has become a creative epicenter of art and design with bourgeoning data related industries and their cultural affect. I am also personally interested in data-driven projects to the extent that I have created data visualization projects as individual works. In this essay, I will delve more closely into the field of creation with “The Jonny cash project” that delivers both informative and aesthetic features as an artwork. This project directed by Chris Milk and Aron Koblin.


“The Johnny Cash Project” is a global collective art project that allows participants to draw a single frame of a music video for Johnny Cash’s song, “Ain’t No Grave”. And, the fan-made images weave together with other images to create an ever-changing work of art. According to the creators’ description, the project was inspired by the song’s central lyric, “ain’t no grave gonna hold my body down,” and represents Cash’s continued existence, even after his death, through his music and fans.[1] With this concept, the more people take part in the project, by adding their drawings to the music video, the more the project grows and evolves. Therefore, more and more people have opportunities not only to create their own unique portraits of Johnny, but to watch a bunch of fan-made music videos, meditating his talent, passion, spirit, and reputation of music history in the website.


On a closer look about two representative menus, including “Contribute” and “ Explore”, Johnny Cash’s fans are always behind the projects as crucial creators and active manipulators. They are constantly involved in the procedure of evolving and growing the website, making a tribute to Cash, and leading all of interactive narrative and structure in the project. Because of their activities, I believe that their intervention becomes a driving force that the project can present as an artwork. Interestingly, Chris Milk who is a director of the project says, “I don’t know if the web will ever resolve and become the defined art form that cinema has become,” he adds. “Maybe the web is so ever-changing and growing that the art form will also be ever-changing and growing.”[2] Based on these features, it is by looking at the interactive structure of the project more deeply that we can have ample understanding of it.

I believe that the most apparent part of the website is the “Contribute” menu because this is the core menu which allows participants to actively take part in this project. For a start, when people enter the category, the system randomly suggests three different frames extracted from the original music video, “Ain’t No Grave”. Thereafter, upon selecting a frame, a set of several drawing tools appears, like brushes, brush size, brush opacity, brush color, fame zoom, undo, redo, and reference frame opacity. By using these tools, participants can delicately illustrate a frame of the music video, manifesting their own interpretation about the selected image.

In this process, we should pay attention to the participants’ freedom of expression, as well as their artistic repercussion for the project. Since the drawing tools provide diverse functions, aside from a color palette restricted to only Black and White, participants totally are encouraged to create any sorts of drawing to the extent that they can doodle on the chosen image. Because of this fact, participates can thoroughly intervene in the creation of the music video, which in turn successfully supports my belief that the meaning of art pieces can be completed when they are found and interpreted by audience.

After completing the drawing, the participants finalize the drawing process, filling out information, like style, name, country, state, and city to ensure that the frame drawing is categorized and credited. Through this activity, they might be able to feel an authorship about their creations since drawings can be identified by their personal data. In fact, their contribution of data is a crucial part of the project because sub categories of “Explore” menu are constantly renewed by ever-changing participants’ information. Therefore, having an authorship means that participants not only become responsible creators, but also are engaged more closely in the artwork, facilitating their intervention for the project.

Unlike the “Contribute” menu that provides active interactive experiences to participants, the “Explore” menu presents the various versions of music video to users. Thus, it allows people to appreciate inspiring music video made by Cash’s fans. Regarding this, the main interactions are as follows. While exploring this category, users can choose and watch different modes of movies that are categorized by the system based on the Meta data of the movies and the user input information that is written before users finalize their drawings. For this reason, they take the lead at watching movies according to their preference.

Furthermore, they can pause at any moment to learn about each frame the participants of behind it by clicking timeline, which reveals all the frames ever-changing on the site. In this moment, participants also make rates of the frame, reading the artist related information, like location, style, name, and so on. Besides these main interactive functions, they can share the frame to Social Network System, as well as draw the same frame by simply clicking each button.

Together with two main menus, the documentary footage is also important part of the project because this consists of interviews with different artists and participants that were moved by Cash and submitted frames. The documentary shows the emotion that Cash created in his fans, the feeling of despair, hope and life that come through Cash’s baritone voice and life experiences. Hence, visitors can be a bit more inspired by the projects, sympathizing the meaning of the tribute.


To say least, “The Johnny Cash Project” is a good example of aesthetic and poetic data visualization project that consists of well-constructed interactive structure. Because of this, without confusion, people in the four corners of the world can participate in the projects, meditating Johnny Cash’s song, as well as contributed frames of the music video. Thus, I would like to highly recommend this project to people who are seeking aesthetic data-driven project and web art.


1) Chris Milk /

2) Brenna Ehrlich /

Hyemi Song, Sr. Designer (Data Vis)@Microsoft, Bohyemian Lab / Former Data Vis. Specialist@MIT Senseable City Lab, UX designer@Naver, MFA@RISD