Interview of Michael Frumin

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Bring me home, please

0fruminator.jpgAfter the mind-blowing experience that was 22nd Chaos Communication Congress, in Berlin, last December (they are calling for submissions of lectures for this year's edition btw), i've been looking at how the world of artists and hackers could mingle. A combination of such different approaches might not always be easy to achieve but the work of Michael Frumin at Eyebeam demonstrates that when it does, it can take some fun, thought-provoking and unforeseen forms.

After his studies at Stanford University, Michael was a founding member of a team of hackers who were using their quantitative skills to find proprietary, novel real-time sources of qualitative information for hedge fund managers. Since he arrived at Eyebeam --a NYc based organization that fosters cultural dialogue at the intersection of the arts and sciences-- in 2003, Michael has been key to developing a surprising high number of interesting projects FundRace, a website that raised the debate about how the political process works by measuring and showing political donations across the USA; ForwardTrack which promotes on-line activism by tracking and mapping the diffusion of email forwards, political calls-to-action, and online petitions; VGMap (Vectorized Google Maps) that allows designers, developers, and mapping geeks to overlay data on top of Google Maps in a richer way than is possible using their standard system; OGLE, a software package to capture and re-use 3D geometry data from 3D graphics applications; Pizza Party to order pizza with only a few keystrokes; and one of the favourite sources of information for many readers: the reBlog (also an OS project: reBlog.org).

Today is Michael's last day as Eyebeam's R&D Technical Director as he's moving on to new experiences.

In the past, you have been a founding member of a team of hackers doing experimental financial research. How much of the hackers way of thinking/working have you brought to eyebeam?

All of it. Our financial research did not include hacking (cracking, rather) into closed systems, though some of my coworkers might have done that kind of thing in a previous life. What I absorbed from them, and brought with me to Eyebeam, was a certain approach to idea generation and problem solving. Curiosity, independent thinking, constant learning, determined confidence in your own ability to get things done, and rapid testing of ideas through functioning code were the tools of our trade. I'm sure that without them my contribution to the bootstrapping of Eyebeam R&D would not be what it was, and I wouldn't be here doing this interview for your awesome web site.

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OGLE: 3D-printing SecondLife character, and mashup into Google Earth

How did you get involved in an art organisation? After a few years collaborating with artists do you feel like you're one of them?

One of the partners at the hedge fund I worked for is an active contemporary art collector in New York and a supporter of Eyebeam. We were on good terms after I left, and when he heard that Eyebeam was looking to start a research program, he put me in touch with Jonah Peretti. Initially, I joined one of Jonah's weekly Contagious Media Research Groups, where we developed the FundRace project. It was such a smashing hit that he asked me to come to Eyebeam as the prototype R&D Fellow. The rest, as they say, is history.

In truth, most of my work at Eyebeam has not been directly with artists. I much prefer working with other hackers, whose contributions to projects tend to be more on the material side of things, rather than solely conceptual or ephemeral. If the hacker happens to also be an artist, power to them. For example, Cory Arcangel and Alex Galloway (RSG) have both been fixtures at Eyebeam during my tenure. They are accomplished new media artists who in-source most of their technical execution, but have been eager to learn and take suggestions from the hackers at Eyebeam, and offer what help they can to our projects. You know the saying about teaching a man to fish...

How much do you think hackers have in common with artists? And in what ways do one group differ from the other?

It seems to me that artists and hackers share the currency of ideas. However, I'd rather be a hacker than an artist because the former is capable of testing and implementing his ideas in his computer or workshop while the latter is dependent on his critics, gallerist, curators, and collectors for validation.

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VGMap (Vectorized Google Maps)

How is the R&D at Eyebeam working? Are you part of a big team? Does Eyebeam leave you carte blanche or is there a set of rules you have to respect? Particular concepts you're expected to work on?

Very well in fact! The OpenLab, with its first round of R&D Fellows, has been up and running for 10 months now and all indicators are positive so far. Smart people turning out tons of insightful, contagious, well executed, open licensed projects.

Eyebeam does not really have any rigid team structures, in part because of the extremely broad range of expert skills in its staff, fellows, and residents. Most work, particularly in the OpenLab, is the result of inspired individual effort and informal collaborations.

We have a lot of flexibility, but I wouldn't call it a carte blanche. You can't come to the OpenLab and write proprietary software, develop commercial web services, patent your hardware designs, or publish media with restrictive copyrights. Those are a serious set of constraints -- how many artists would work really hard for a year being unable to retain monopoly over their results? But our focus on open licenses and open information has done a great job of helping us select projects which are compelling, useful, and generally quite progressive in nature.

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ForwardTrack

Is Eyebeam one in a many similar organisations in NYc or does it play a particular role that no else so far has fulfilled?

There are more arts institutions in New York City than you can shake a cellphone at, but I don't think that any of them provide the same concentration of funding, technology, expertise, and raw physical space to allow individuals to realize their creative visions. Galleries have tons of room, but expect work ready to be purchased by collectors; Eyebeam is all about developing new ideas, many of which will suck. Graduate schools with creative technology programs will help you out if you've got $100K to spare; Eyebeam pays a (barely) livable stipend to the unfortunate few who are selected for its fellowships. The private sector in New York thrives, but your work better add value or you're out.

When it comes specifically to the OpenLab, I don't know of anywhere else in the world with such a high caliber of staff whose projects are valued primarily by their contribution to the body of open licensed and public domain work.

What did you try to achieve with reBlog? Was the application understood by bloggers? Do they all accept to have their content reBlogged?

When I came to Eyebeam in 2003, its web site was (and mostly still is) totally old school -- no frequent updates, nothing from the wide range of potential contributors, no platform from which the organization could help promote the work it supports. There were, however, a host of blogs and other RSS feeds with lots of great content about Eyebeam and all things art/media/tech-related. The first reBlog installation was an attempt to take advantage of the fact that a non-profit could selectively syndicate relevant content, with minimal effort, to build a consistent online audience. Thanks primarily to this tool, and to the curative touches of the many guest rebloggers who have taken turns at the wheel, we now announce all of our work to an audience of at least 10,000 interested and influential readers.
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One fundamental aspect that separates reBlog from other software that is used to simply steal peoples' content is that it always automatically attributes the original publisher with language and with hyperlinks. Another is that reBlogs do not include all posts from each source feed, only those selected by human editors. I think these distinctions are what makes the concept easily digestible by readers and bloggers alike. They are also the magic touches that create a virtuous cycle which makes everyone happy. We have never been asked to remove a feed from the Eyebeam reBlog, but at least one blogger per week asks to be added.

The fact that it worked so well for Eyebeam, that bloggers appreciate it, and that our reBloggers love doing the actual work is what has inspired use to continue reBlog as an open source project (which, by the way, would be total abandonware if not for the awesome contributions of Stamen Design.)

I have the feeling that works like OGLE or reBlog allow web users to reclaim contents on the internet. Am i wrong? Is there an agenda behind those projects?

You're not wrong, but I would draw the relationship between them a bit differently. First, take a brief look at my core project work at Eyebeam: FundRace, reBlog, ForwardTrack, OGLE -- contagious media out of public record campaign finance data, curated RSS syndication, social network tracking layered on tell-a-friend-driven online activism, and 3D geometry capture from virtual worlds. A post-mortem of these suggests something to the effect of 'breathing new life into old information' as a unifying theme, which I think I can live with.

One might not think there would be a lot of continuity between a financial research group and Eyebeam R&D, but drawing out this theme reveals a stark similarity to my previous job. In our financial 'skunkworks' I spent most of my time writing software to gather, analyze, and visualize data from the internet to augment the firm's investment strategies. For example, we had a bot crawling eBay auctions to calculate the company's revenue trends, and a system which used statistical analysis of SEC filings to help find related businesses among the thousands of publicly traded companies. As with the projects at Eyebeam, I was capturing information already in use to one end, making it usable and interesting for other reasons entirely. There's so much data out there, and so little time!

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FundRace: detail of Money Map

What are you working on now?

OGLE and the Graffiti Research Lab were featured in the Guerilla Studio at SIGGRAPH, so we took over Boston for a week. Aside from that I've been preoccupied with leaving Eyebeam as gracefully and purposefully as possible. This is no easy feat for such an ungraceful guy who's more accustomed to hacking on fun projects than working consistently towards any grand purpose. I've been lending what little wisdom I have to the process of promoting some of the current OpenLab fellows to 'Senior Fellows' and helping them manage the call for new researchers. Leaving Eyebeam, I hope to keep updating and supporting the open source projects I have started here. That probably continues until the internet goes dark or I can convince someone to take them off my hands.

While I don't have specific plans for what's next, I'm hoping to find a way to apply my skills and experience to the general enterprise of Public Transportation. I didn't think it was a field typically filled with software hacking data wranglers, but MIT has a program in Transportation Science which indicates otherwise. There is a lot of research going on around using data from electronic fare collection systems to plan and improve mass transit services. With cellphones, GPS, RFID, etc. coming to the fore, I think it only gets more exciting. Despite peoples' legitimate concerns, there are real civic benefits to the collection of so much information about who we are, where we go, and what we do. This all fits nicely with my theme from the previous question, so maybe it's best to just think of Public Transportation as a much bigger system to hack.

Thanks Michael!

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