Reading the lovely blog of Cati Vaucelle, i discovered the work of Kate James. Kate is a second year graduate student in the Visual Arts Program at MIT. After having studied dance/kinesthesia and architectural history at Brown University, she did a Master of Architecture at MIT before transferring into the Visual Arts program.
Her design, fashion, performative, video and space projects focus on the body, its habits, movements, and the dynamic sectional relationship to its surrounding structures. They have this wonderful mix of quirkiness and deep relevance to the issues she investigates.
You have a background in both dance/choreography and architecture. How does your knowledge of the body and its dynamics feeds your thoughts and creativity in architecture? How do you make these two seemingly different fields meet?
I started studying dance and architecture at the same time, during my first year as an undergraduate. Maybe because of that, my understanding of architecture has always been rooted in the body. I think of architecture as a built echo of body itself: corporeal issues of public/ private, structural systems, skins, orifice and interface all resound in architecture.
Now, I often site my art practice between the body and its surrounding structures. This dynamic negative space houses habitual life and cultural inscription, and is therefore subject to interrogation through artistic intervention.
I guess by 'complicate' I mean to acknowledge and engage with the complexity of the interfaces already in play. We so easily naturalize our interactions and surroundings, ignoring the layers of choreography imposed on the everyday. By tweaking and reframing the everyday relations between the body and its environment, my work refutes the source and nature of that everyday ritual.
I was very intrigued by the atHABITat costumes. There is one for vacuuming, one for serving food and a third one for putting away the dishes.
The atHABITat costumes are about a contemporary vision of the woman in the home, and a need to multi-task and overlap the upkeep habits of the body and the home. They are costumes worn to augment the household maintenance task, transforming it into an iso-kinetic exercise. Each costume records and accentuates the ergonomics of the activity.
In one, resistance band connects the vacuum wand to the wearer, intensifying the sweeping motion of the vacuuming. The 'putting away dishes' costume attaches a similar resistance band between the dishwasher and the wearer's vinyl gloves. In the 'serving food' costume, bands run through an oven mitt corset piece to accentuate the tension in the serving motion.
Once you have an idea for a project how do you push it forward and bring it to life? Do you test the idea on other people? Ask for feedbacks? Get depressed because it is technologically impossible to prototype it? What is the path that leads from idea to working prototype?
I would say the process goes like this: dream, doodle, make, discuss, research, make more, research more, discuss, display.
In terms of the making, I'm not a pre-planning type. I design and make things in one fluid mess of a step, whether this involves sewing, welding, or performing. The concept and research frame are usually fixed, but the work formally develops in an organic way as it goes along.
My biggest frustration is usually the scope of the projects compared to my personal capabilities. Because my work is very much about self-production, and because of the flow of my design process, I am committed to be involved with the craft and production of my costumes and props. But this production can involve 200 pounds of steel to weld or 60 hours of hand-sewing on a particular project.
The garments you create are very well-designed. But do they function purely as accessories for performances or could you imagine everyday people wearing a modified version of them?
The costumes are an integral part of my performance practice. They are there to suggest that there is a latent potential for self-production in the scene of the everyday, and to transform actions into performances.
As a dancer, I was fascinated with falling. I studied how to fall, and tested gravity all the time.
I also sailed a lot when I was younger. I was terrified of, and in love with, especially strong winds that would tip the boat up on its edge and press hard on the sail.
I thought about this moment of negotiation between the control of the boat and the natural force of the wind. I wanted to give over some control of my body's movements to the wind in the same way, and used clothing design to achieve that. The dresses cause the wearer's body to teeter, spin, and lean, to be engaged with a natural and sporadic force a way that wouldn't be possible otherwise.
Could you tell us about some of your recent projects?
One thing I'm working on in an ongoing way is a series of videos about my (7) vacuum cleaners. One piece involves assessing the manual instruction versus reality of use. Another documents a normal vacuuming session that turns into a full-on wrestling bout with the machine.
I also made some wearable trampolines last year, and performed with them in a piece called 'Six Corners'. There is a dynamic relationship between the body and the material and weight of the skirts. They are meant to discuss movement pattern, issues of personal boundaries, and body extension.
Which artists or designer do you find most inspiring and why?
Artists whose work I look most often at include Rebecca Horn, Martha Rosler, Bruce Nauman, Miranda July, Joan Jonas (who is my thesis advisor, which is an amazing privilege), Nina Yuen.
More and more I find myself looking at dancers/ choreographers who make art, especially Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, Ann Carlson.
I look at screen stars as well, those who use their bodies to tell stories: Lucille Ball, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, the cast of Three's Company.
Any upcoming projects you could share with us?
I'm working on a project right now in conjunction with my thesis (titled 'homebody'). I'm making more home maintenance costumes and associated performances. So far, I've made a video of a phone conversation I had with my mortgage agent while wearing/using a dress constructed of Swiffer rosettes.
As an artist, I certainly engage with fashion. By this I mean that I think closely about how the body is clad, and how clothing can inform the body and vice-versa. Fashion becomes a key interface in the investigation of the body in the environment.
In terms of performance and the impact of costuming, fashion offers a fantastic bank of codified aesthetics, which can be drawn from for conceptual and phenomenal meaning.
Before meeting her, i had always imagined Marisa Olson to be an hyperactive blond girl running around the internet playground. She seemed to have so much fun online... surely that girl was made of pixels. And even now that we've met several times, i'm not totally sure that Marisa is real.
Marisa's work combines performance, video, sound, drawing, and installation to address intersections of pop culture and the cultural history of technology, as they effect the voice, power, and persona.
Marisa lives between California and New York, where she shows one of her (half) serious faces: she is a "Curator at Large" at Rhizome. You can find her on her whatamidoingwithmylife blog, on the Nasty Nets Internet Surfing Club, on her website and 3 years ago she was writing about her preparation to audition for the popular reality TV show, American Idol on yet another blog
How does one become Marisa Olson? What is your background and how did you get involved in technology-based art making, reviewing and curating?
Hmm... That could be hard to answer quickly. I was always a geek. I programmed the heck out of my C64! I was also always obsessed with mediated communication in the form of pop culture (radio and tv) transmissions. Add to this the fact that my dad worked in intelligence, growing up (I grew up in Germany, where he worked until I was 10) and I was surrounded by scary military technologies all the time (isn't the gun one of the most significant inventions ever?) and that all spells a strange fascination with technology. I always wanted to make art, but I'm actually related to one of the most famous French impressionists and I was raised thinking that's what "real art" was. It turns out I wasn't very good at that kind of art. So I stopped worrying about what was and wasn't art and just focused on what I found interesting. I spent most of my undergrad and grad school years in the SF bay area, and lived through the surreal waxing and waning of the dot-com. I wrote for Wired, consulted a few start-ups, and that sort of thing. Meanwhile, the area was overflowing with artists expressing themselves in work that engaged technology. And I really related. After that, the progression was natural and rapid. I threw myself into new media--as an artist and in terms of supporting the field, not entirely distinguishing between my writing, teaching, or curating. The more peculiar thing, for me, has been switching gears from being a musician (I've been a singer and lyricist in a few bands and grew up in choirs) to making work about music (most recently my Oh.Yeah.I.Love.You.Baby. remix album). There's definitely an interest in the DIY there, but I guess this is also why I often organize my projects as "albums" (like my Break-Up Album (Demo) video project) and I tend to think of curating like making a mixtape.
In Abe & Mo Sing the Blogs, an online project for which the Whitney Museum of American Art commissioned an Artport Gatepage, you and Abe Linkoln sing posts from your favorite blogs. What was the impetus for that project? There's been several discussions of trying to turn blogs into an art form or an art project. What is you take on this issue? Could you name us other examples of successful "blogs-turned-art" projects?
Abe and I are both compulsive web surfers and love unusual blogs. We decided to pick our favorite posts from our favorite blogs and sing them, in a sort of concept album mixtape. His and mine are pretty different. They are all really funny. In our official description of the project, we say that blogs, like the blues, have been credited with channeling the "voice of the people" and we wondered if we could identify specific genre conventions on blogs. We were kind of interested in the blog as a stage for "site-specific" performance, which also carried over into our Universal Acid project. We'd both done blog-based projects before, which was how we met, online. We sent each other fan letters about his conversion of net artist Olia Lialina's My Boyfriend Came Back From the War and my American Idol Audition Training Blog. I also loved Screenfull.net, Abe's old blog with Jimpunk.
Our first collaboration was actually a blog called Blog Art, which was a curated blog listing blogs that are art projects. At the moment, I'm really into group blogs that ride the line between art practice and some other sort of internet fan culture. For instance, some friends and I founded an "internet surfing club" called Nasty Nets--in which we sort of simultaneously celebrated and critiqued the internet--and I love other group surf blogs like Supercentral, Spirit Surfers, Double Happiness, and Loshadka.
When you blogged your efforts to audition for "American Idol." How did people around you react to that decision? What did the whole training teach you (i'm not only talking about sun beds and stilettos boot camps of course)?
Well, my family and grad school professors at the time certainly thought I was crazy. I made what was probably the mistake of announcing it by emailing people out of the blue with the subject line "I need your help" and inside I asked for help in picking what song I should sing. Even though I linked to a New York Times article about the blog, a lot of people told me later that they really thought I was seriously delusional about trying to get on the show! They didn't recognize it as a parody, which is kind of awesome. I started the project wanting to critique the show (which I admittedly also loved) and the gender normative stereotypes it pushes. I was concerned about how artists rights to their own work & identity were violated by the producers, in my opinion. But the project took on a life of its own. The lead-up to my audition (in 2004) was the same as the build-up to the presidential election between Bush & Kerry. I started thinking of how the show is predicated on a model of democracy and voting but I kept hearing how my generation (the main demographic for the show) wasn't showing up to polls. They would stand in line for 8 hours to audition, but not 15 minutes to vote. So the project became all about voting. I told readers how to register to vote, brought registration forms to the auditions, and I had readers vote on what I should wear & sing. Ultimately, I collected over 10,000 votes in the course of trying to get young people to think about the many ways in which they could use their "voice."
You are also a curator, both independently and as part of your activities at Rhizome. Your curating often deals with new media art pieces. What are the challenges of curating and exhibiting works of new media art today?
I think that there is presently a very exciting turn happening in new media, with respect to both the art world and the context of "traditional media." It used to be very important to carve out a separate space in which to show, discuss, and teach new media. Nowadays these spaces are sometimes seen as ghettos, but at the time, they were safe havens championing under-recognized forms. Things are more co-mingled now. Not everyone will agree with me about this, but I think it's great that some people no longer even know new media when they see it. I know curators who turn their nose up at that phrase, but they love Cory Arcangel or Paul Pfeiffer. There doesn't seem to be a need to distinguish, any more, whether technology was used in making the work--afterall, everything is a technology, and everyone uses technology to do everything. What is even more interesting is the way in which people are starting to make what I've called "Post-Internet" art in my own work (such as my Monitor Tracings), or what Guthrie Lonergan recently called "Internet Aware Art." I think it's important to address the impacts of the internet on culture at large, and this can be done well on networks but can and should also exist offline. Of course, it's an exciting challenge to explain to someone how this is still internet art... If that really matters...
I feel like this is a great opportunity and a perfect class to teach at an amazing place like ITP, which evolves daily, with the technology. But I think the way to do it is to try to see media change as having a longer-tem trajectory. I have a background in media theory. I studied History of Consciousness at UC Santa Cruz and am PhD Candidate in film studies and new media in the Rhetoric department at UC Berkeley, where my dissertation is on The Art of Protest in Network Culture. So I've read, loved, and taught the classic McLuhan, Benjamin, Kittler, Flusser, Baudrillard, Jameson, etc over and over again. The aim of this class was to consider the cultural and political forces behind the evolution of technology and the broader concept of "change" (which most certainly also incorporates social/ political change). So we read these classic historiographies but tried to read them from the present context as well as the original one. And we read them beside Alex Galloway, Henry Jenkins, Clay Shirky, and other great contemporary writers. I mean, this stuff can never be pinned down long enough to be considered in an isolated temporal context, but it's still important to consider the personal and political forces that compel media change--the desires and impetuses.
In your recent Golden Oldies performance/ video, you seem to give a very hard time to a bunch of electronic devices. What is your own relationship with technology?
Ha, well... It occurs to me now that you could probably say that my relationship to technology is a bit sado-masochistic. I don't mean for that to sound weird or sensational. I think, in the true classical psychoanalytic sense, many people's relationship with technology is very wrapped up in both their libidinal and death drives, as Freud would call them. I guess this video demonstrates that I enjoying abusing technology as much as I enjoy observing its abuse of me. I've always been a fetishist and could never try to hide that. My studio is littered with blinged-out headphones, radios, and cassette tapes. But the tapes I've been calling Time Capsules. I mean, they are moments of time that are disappearing but not really going away, so instead I try to prevent their burial (in a landfill) by taking them out of circulation and painting them gold, much like the symbolic bricks in Fort Knox. InGolden Oldies, I try unsuccessfully to instigate communication between media of various generations--tapes, vhs cassettes, records, cds.... And after drilling, hammering, and chiseling each one, I give up and wipe the garbage to the floor--where is becomes "out of sight, out of mind," as we say in the US. I feel like this is what's happening with all of our tv's, walkmen, air hockey tables, nintendos, etc as we follow our drives to upgrade. They just get pushed into dumpsters and disregarded. And I've been trying to think about my own role in this cycle, because I certainly love my ipod as much as the next gal.
Any upcoming projects you could share with us?
Well, we just released a DVD of Nasty Nets members' work (there are 25 of us, including some of my very favorite net artists), and that was generously funded by Rhizome. It includes videos as well as loads of data files and a type-in website by fellow Nasty Michael Bell-Smith. People can get the DVD online, and if they are in New York, they should definitely attend our premiere screening at the New York Underground Film Festival this Friday, April 4th, called Nasty As U Wanna Be.
Otherwise, as you can see, I'm really obsessed with the future, at the moment, which is kind of funny for someone who tends to say that her work is about the cultural history of technology. I'm just starting to work on a project called "Martha Stewart Assisted Living" and it's a near-future version of Martha's show (guess who I play!) aimed at an aging audience whose lives have been lengthened by new technologies, but who are also suffering side effects, like head goiters from their cell phones or Global Warming-Related Illnesses (GWI's). I'm devising special recipes and craft projects for those 130-year-olds!
Previously: Sousveillance culture, a panel curated and moderated by Marisa Olson.
I usually associate industrial design with a high dose of virile technology, some big yawn ideas and a pretty lame design. I've seen enough Industrial Design graduation shows to say that only part of my lack of enthusiasm is due to my very own and very deep ignorance. However there's one ID show i'm always happy to check out when June comes and graduation shows pop up all over London. It's the MA Industrial Design (MAID) at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. The graduates projects are smart, funny, the design is yes! the design is good and they manage to created a quirky scenography to make the visit even more enchanting.
That's why, dear readers, in my quest to always inform and entertain you, i've asked the Course Director of MAID, Ben Hughes, if he'd have time for an interview. Ben trained as an Industrial Designer in the UK, worked for consultancies in Taiwan and Australia and came back London where he's been heading the course since 2000, writes about and practices design, and consults on industrial design, brand and marketing.
In last year's department catalog, you wrote a collage "manifesto": What can a collage approach offer to the design discipline?
The course has long encouraged the incorporation of collage into the design process. It is such a simple and powerful means of both generating and communicating ideas. It is also available to anyone with a pair of scissors and some glue. I first experimented with collage when I was studying for my own MA, influenced by a classmate from Spain (from where many of the Collage Maestros originate). He introduced me to the work of Joan Brossa and Max Ernst, etc. and I have been fascinated ever since. We have adapted the use of the technique for designers on the course and have run workshops with current maestros such as Graham Rawle and Sean Mackaoui. The article in the magazine is, in fact, taken from a forthcoming book; "The Secret Lives of Objects" by one of my former tutors, Jane Graves. Jane taught at Central for over 30 years and had a huge influence on the subject, particularly for the postgraduate students. This book is a collection of her essays, illustrated by my students using collage.
On a related theme - at last year's Milan Furniture Fair, we mounted an exhibition workshop called Azzeccazilla, at the invitation of Stefano Mirti at NABA (Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti/ New Academy of Fine Arts). This involved each of our first year students scouring the whole of Milan for the most interesting design ideas and images, taking the brochures and leaflets concerned, and then collating them into beautiful spiral-bound A5 notebooks. Which we then sold to people for €5. Collage can be profitable, too!
Our world is increasingly technology-mediated. How does it reflect on your course? Do you feel that students are more and more willing to engage with technologies like mobile phones or rfid system and develop projects that might sometimes look like they emerged from an interaction design department?
Certainly, we aim to adapt to the issues and technologies of the day, as well as the experiences of employers and graduates once they are in work. Industrial Designers need to be able to decode and evaluate these technologies so that they can incorporate them into products and services in a meaningful way. The term 'Industrial Design' relates, for me, to the mode of production, not to a dominance of particular archetypes or production methods. Enhancing a user's experience, or making a product relevant to a particular group of people is core to the discipline. We have a number of projects every year that might sit comfortably with the category of 'Interaction Design,' but I am happier describing these in terms of Industrial Design i.e. how people relate to things.
We have been experimenting for several years with different means of prototyping interactive experiences in order to test them. We continue to incorporate everything from role-play to swift cardboard test-rigs to hacking existing systems, to basic programming. In terms of the latter, we have this year started working with Arduino, which look very promising. This year we also worked with colleagues in Textile Design and the Epigenome Network to explore ideas of Epigenetics using design thinking. I would draw the line at projects dealing with the entirely hypothetical, or 'conceptual,' as we are primarily interested in material culture; the 3 dimensional component of this stuff.
Several projects by last year's graduates reflect on climate change, recycling and other eco-related topics. How present are the green issues in the course? Do you feel that sustainability and eco-consciousness will keep on taking a bigger place in the course? Do you see them as becoming an integral part of the course or will they appear only in separate lectures and workshops?
Projects that deal with these issues in one way or another have been part of the landscape, and rightly part of the responsibility of design education for over thirty years. Improving efficiency, reducing waste, and a focus on real, as opposed to created, needs are central to the skills and motivation of a good designer. That doesn't mean that we disregard market-orientated projects, though. We cannot afford to be shortsighted - it could be argued that industrial design is part of the problem in which we now find ourselves. With any luck, it could also form part of the solution. Every project in the second year is expected to incorporate an ethical dimension, but it is up to the individual concerned to determine the prominence of this. For over 5 years we have had a regular first-year project dealing with ecological issues. Last year we teamed up with Natalie Jeremijenko and her students at NYU to share the findings of these. I am hoping to repeat the experience next year.
What's with that Benjamin socket adapter on the pages of your course catalogue and personal website?
This was given to me by an ex-student. He (and it) is from Colombia, where, as I understand it, if you go into a hardware shop and ask for a 'Benjamin' you will be given one of these. There is no confirmed story as to why this is, but the most popular version has it named after Benjamin Franklin. I have always loved this kind of thing, which is both very clever and somewhat dangerous. I have some adapters from China, which will accept any plug from any country, although I am not sure it conforms to any British Standard. I also have a device that will recharge any mobile battery from any phone without any special adapters (the so-called 'Omnipotence Charger,' which has to be seen to be believed). The picture of me dressed up as a 'Benjamin' is part of an ongoing series that we have on the course, where students dress up as famous designers, or as in this case, designs.
Could you pick up some projects from recent graduates and explain to us why and how they reflect the spirit of the MAID course?
During the second year of the course, students pick their own area of study. A couple examples from this year's show that come to mind are by Harry White and Tom Ballhatchet. Harry had a career prior to moving into Industrial Design as a scientist, working in the field of Genetics. He managed to combine this experience in a series of products that enable a user to better conceptualize certain scientific constructs. One of these is a set of measuring jugs that use unfamiliar units such as "ten billion grains of icing sugar" (not much) to "a tyrannosaurus rex brain" (even less), accompanied by a specially written recipe book, also employing these units. Harry also produced a set of "evo-cut" cutlery which demonstrate the basics of natural variation and gene mutation, and a "one-in-a-million" poster which depicts very clearly what this much-used expression really means.
Tom Ballhatchet, on the other hand, was concerned with issues of waste and re-use. One of the things revealed through his research was the mystery, or opacity surrounding the majority of recycling initiatives. i.e. the reluctance of people to contribute to schemes where the benefits were only faintly evident. His response was to try to localize some of this activity, and therefore lend it some more meaning. Tom managed to demonstrate this through two very different products: the Hamster Shredder, in which the inhabitant participates in the manufacture of its bedding material; and the TV Packaging Stand, which combines both the packaging, and furniture for a flat panel TV.
I would say these two projects are representative the MAID course in three ways: firstly because of their sound application of a number of research techniques; secondly their confident but playful approach to innovation; and thirdly because they each achieved well-resolved final outcomes.
What is the idea behind Claystation? How well does this method of encouraging the audience participation work?
The Claystation project was born just over 5 years ago, when Piers and Rory at Designersblock were kind enough to let an outfit called the Design Transformation Group (of which I am a director) hold an event as part of their London exhibition. The principle motivation was the removal of 'white cube' reverence towards design objects, particularly in exhibitions. The method was to get a quarter of a ton of plasticine delivered to the show and then sell blocks of it to visitors, who then spent time making things and then animating them on a makeshift stage. We filmed the whole lot in stop-motion. It is somewhat painful to watch, although it gets better later on (it lasts over 10 minutes), as we worked out the basics of animation. The soundtrack is provided by a DJ working with samples created from instruments made by my students.
This first exhibition was a big, and unexpected success, and has been adapted to many different formats over the years. We have found the Claystation format to be useful with students in generating quick 3d responses to briefs. There is now an architectural version, a product version, a chair version, a bag version, and most recently an automotive version. This year I worked with companies such as Porter International and NICE car to put on interactive exhibitions in London, Milan and New York. In Scotland, I have worked Alex Milton on the furniture version at the National Museum, and we are planning one with a sustainability theme for the Scottish Parliament next year.
Over the course of their design studies, students are often free to let their creativity run wild. How much is it still possible after they have left the school?
That depends largely on where they target their efforts. I have had ex-students express frustration with jobs. This is not because they think they are too good, but rather that their working lives are eaten up with so much tedium. At college you are encouraged to believe that design can make a difference, and to explore the ethical, and aesthetic alongside the actual business of design. This is right and proper. But it can seem a bit distant when you find yourself in a meeting, or even in a job, where the entire focus seems to be on cutting costs. Many of our students are lucky to get themselves into positions which focus on research, or design management. Many also set up their own businesses.
Sustainable fashion, online service, eating behaviour, etc. The work of your students embrace so many aspects of design. Is there any aspect of life left untouched by industrial design? How broad is the discipline?
If it's an aspect of life that involves people, things and production, then no, not really. Many people appear nervous about defining what they do as 'industrial design' because it seems too broad, or maybe 'old-fashioned.' I don't have a problem with any of this, and consider myself lucky to work in an inclusive discipline that incorporates the widest variety of practice, particularly at postgraduate level. My background is in retail design and consumer electronics, but the course can support much more diversity than this as our team of contributing tutors and mentors are drawn from all specialisms.
Who are the designers, artists or architects who inspire you most?
I am inspired by anyone who is clearly in love with the possibilities of invention; anyone who manages to do something well by doing it differently. Although I didn't really understand what he was doing with his last show in Milan, Marcel Wanders is clearly one of these people. As is Gaetano Pesce. I have always admired Denis Santachiara's work, which is full of invention, irreverence and wit.
Recently, I have really enjoyed Maarten Baas' stuff. He seems to be in the same mould as the others I've mentioned, whilst lacking the pretension of many emerging 'stars.'
Closer to home, I think designers have a huge amount to learn from Tim Hunkin. As far as art is concerned - the things that make most sense to me are the those that reveal something about the nature of objects, mass production and consumption. So Oldenburg, Duchamp, Cornell, Joan Brossa, Chema Madoz are favourites. Also Richard Hamilton- not only did he make his name through collage, has also worked with readymades (famously including a Braun electric toothbrush), but he also worked for part of his career as an industrial designer.
Antony Hall's projects explore the way we interface with technology, and how our interactions with it influence us creatively and socially. Often collaborating with scientists and technologists, Hall is currently focusing his talent on the investigation of biological and physical phenomenon. Some of his recent experiments involve communication with an electric fish, the creation of life through growing crystals electrically on volcanic stone, hunting for Moss bears and training Planarian worms.
He gained fame in the media and media art festivals with his electro-acoustic sound art devices and performances. Together with Simon Blackmore and more recently Steve Symons, Hall is a founding member of the Owl Project, a group which combines woodwork with electronics to create performances, musical instruments (iLog , and Log1k) and other physical computing projects.
Let's start with one of your most popular projects: the iLog. How did you get the idea of making it?
The iLog was created as collaborative project with Simon Blackmore and Steve Symons, we are the Owl Project. We developed the Log1K in 2001 as a performance tool to attempt rival the laptop in electronic music, shortly after this apple started pushing the iPod and we had to make a response, something which related more to the trend for portable, mobile hand held technologies. We wanted our devices to be a synthesis of craft and technology, as well as functional instruments. The Log1ks were getting increasingly heavy, among other things they used nearly 30 AA batteries, short circuits and fires, and blown-out speakers were becoming common place. iLog 01 came out in 2003. After we started collaborating with Steve Symons, we reinvented the electronics inside the iLog and started pushing the whole project to a new level; the M-Log is out later this year.
There's now a series of iLog models. Why do you think people buy the iLog? Mainly as a beautiful and quirky piece of art which they would not use too much fearing that it might be damaged (although you provide technical support.)? Or have you found that people use it extensively as any other kind of musical device? Were you expecting your project to have so much success?
I suppose people want the iLog for its quirkiness, something as an alternative to the mass produced items. We had no idea that it would become so popular - people blogged it like mad at the start and like a Chinese whisper it suddenly became what people wanted it to be; typically some kind of alternative to the ipod - But in reality its something quite different. It is intended to be an instrument for performance.
Our problem is that although there is demand; making them is still very difficult, and time consuming, so our focus is making them better rather than faster. At the moment we are looking at lending these to artists and working in collaboration to develop the iLog further. When we launched them for sale in London at DWB it was a real learning curve. Simple things like which way up it should be held, were completely un-obvious! We had to create extensive instructions regarding use, as well as repair and maintenance. The 24 hour support is most necessary! Its important that its more hands on than your average mass produced plastic device.
The iLog is something people can use, rather than living all its life in the art gallery. The new series, *M-Log, launching this year, looks like an iLog, and is a USB connective interface. So there is scope for programming your own sensor based instrument, which you can use with your own customized patch. The iLog is more of a stand alone sound generator. We are planning an event in Manchester during Futuresonic where other performers (including Leafcutter John) will be using the iLogs & M-Logs. *The M in M-Log stands for 'muio' as in "muio interface", the chip based interface inside which Steve's invention in his words "The muio interface is a modular system for sensing and controlling the Real World".
The wood is quite resilient and very repairable if damaged.
I love The Sound Lathe, a performance which explores the sonic properties of wood. Do you have any video of it?
There is some video here:
It does look like a very physical performance. Did you have to master new skills in order to be able to do these performances? How does each performance go? Are they all different from each other? Does working with wood creates situations and results you wouldn't have expected?
Yes its been really interesting - my self and Simon ended up sleeping in a kind of bivouac deep in the forrest as part or the "R&D" for the project, learning the skills of traditional "green woodwork", (electricity free) with Mike Abbott, master crafts-person. Mike invented a competition for Bodgers (the name for people who use the 'pole Lathe') called 'Log to Leg' (as in chair leg) so this is the new format for our performance - I think the record is 9 mins; transforming a bit of tree stump, into two perfect chair legs! It takes us a couple hours, but then our lathe is connected to copious amounts of sensor interface technologies. Quite a distraction, if like for our last performance at Lovebytes, it rained torrentially for the whole thing. In the documentation you will see a tarpaulin underneath that are 3 laptops and Simon.
I think for all of us it's a welcome change from sitting behind a screen the whole time - these physical processes are a great compliment to programming and electronics; and they still require a similar kind of focus and discipline. It is quite exhausting, you need a lot a focus to keep the beat in time as well as make a good carving, in this way it becomes quite mediative. Sharpening the chisels and preparing the timber are all equally demanding skills to learn.
Can you tell us something about the wooden objects produced during the performances? Which kind of objects are there? And what do you do with them once the performance is over?
We have a box full of various objects; ranging in description from 'chair leg' to 'fire wood', or specialist 'rolling pin'. Occasionally we have a look inside & discuss what we should do with them. We did make a chair with Mike about the only truly useful thing we ever made. The latest idea is to make some kind of flat pack, or player. Watch this space. You can see what we decide to do with them at The Piemonte Share Festival, 11 - 16 March 2008.
You are also interested in bio-digital medicine. That sounds very different from a project like iLog. Can you explain us what it is and how you started to be interested in this field?
Well this is my own personal project, although I have always working with biology or technological experimentation in some way; with ENKi I decide to humanize what I do. This was a decision to move into medicine and treatment technologies. Really its the same things that we work with in the owl project; looking at how technology is consumed and sold. The notion of bio-digital medicine is just one example in hundreds, of how science, or even the suggestion of science is used, and misused to sell ideas. Faceless corporations feed on our anxieties, our basic need to feel contentment or feel complete. I find it interesting that, just as some people turn to religion, others will look to technology or science to provide answers and solutions.
ENKI uses the bioelectric information from an Electric Fish to trigger human Brain-wave Entrainment. It generates sound and light pulses to induce a state of relaxation similar to the way traditional relaxation systems work, but the electric communication signal comes from an electric fish rather than a chip.
Did you test the system on other people? How do they react?
So far we have tested it on about 40 volunteers,most of them members of the public who had no prior knowledge of the project. We did this in the context of the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry; people enjoy the experience generally. I was surprised at the range of people who were up for it!
By this point I had started working with Greg Byatt as a collaborator. He has experience of using this kind of technology and administering similar treatments professionally. Greg has equipment which can monitor your physiological state and a brain-wave visualiser (EEG); we were trying to measure results this way. We only really came to one solid conclusion. We had to do more tests.
Isn't the idea of putting one's "brain-wave entertainment" into the fins of an animal scary? Do you feel that people would trust any other electronic device more than a fish or any other type of animal?
That is a good question. It's an exciting notion this whole idea of "wet-wear" interfacing - but not something that should be taken lightly. I don't like to be on my own if i am doing a test run, and yes I find it very unnerving. I never quite got used to the idea of connecting strangers up to electrodes and the fish. I also worry about the fish. The fish needs to be content and 'happy' for this to work.
In my opinion that most of these commercial devices are made by various humans all of whom have different intentions and issues, namely cost efficiency; and so effectively using quite crude means; cheap microchips. The Black Ghost knife fish is the result of millions of years of evolutionary refinement; but you could still say the same of micro chips.
Is that project completely developed or is it still a work in progress?
It's in progress. I started working with "electrogenic" fish in 2005; ENKI technology was the title I gave it in 2006 when I was in residence at ENSAD in Paris. This was the point I realized I could create a treatment technology that might actually be functional. I had a bit of pressure to actually finish something and so launched the basic concept of ENKI technology. The funny thing was that reflecting on it now - that just marked a new beginning. (It took a year just to convince the director of Pepiniere that it was in fact a real project and not some conjecture in science fiction!). Coming to think of it I have never really finished anything, I am much more excited by the notion of continued experimentation. I don't want to finish discovering. The more I work on ENKI - the more things there are to do and try, it keeps opening up. There are always more questions.
What is there left to achieve? And how much have you learned about cross-species communication?
There is still a lot to achieve. The 'treatment' side is just one layer of the onion. I started the project with the aim of communicating with the fish, generating an electrical signal and transmitting this in the fish in the tank, to the fish. Then I watch the the fish, looking for behavioral 'interactions' with the electrodes - generally if there is an electrical (connective) change to the electrodes, the fish is aware of this and investigates the electrode by swimming near it and around it (motor-probing responses). I also listening for a 'chirp' response. The 'chirp' response is a subtle modulation of the Electric signal, a specific fluctuation in the wave. The 'chirp' is used during like species interaction and communication. This is closer to the idea of language we have.
Experimentally there are factors which make this difficult to measure - The fish learns to associate the vibrations created by me entering the studio & opening the tank with a food reward. So any approach to the tank needs to be made silently, and the fish needs to be 'conditioned' to learn this over a long time. As the project progressed I became more interested in communication as something closer to an idea of commune. For the fish I see the communication signal they make more as a deep expression of self; a projected physical extension of the fish body, rather than 'language' in an anthropological sense. This communication is happening at a more primal level. In terms of the ENKi project I am thinking about this as a biological, or physiological connection between living organisms.
I recently discovered that I might be having a problem with what is known as 'superstitious' behavior in the fish; if I was a scientist in the academic sense, this would be a serous flaw in the project; something to fix, but for me it was a fantastic turn, giving the project a new angle all together. Its now becoming an experiment into animal Psychology, not just electro physiology. I don't want to say too much about this next phase but next year the project will look quite different.
You recently developed the Opto-acoustic modulator and used it for an interactive work at FACT and Liverpool John Moores University for the National Science and Engineering Week. Can you give us more details about this interactive piece? How does it work? What were you trying to achieve with this project?
The commission was to create and interactive art work that used something other than keyborad or mouse. I was determined not to use a video camera either. The the Opto-acoustic modulator basically turns sound-waves into light-waves. It can take 10 audio channels and convert these into "AM" transmissions through 10 Light Emitting Diode arrays. I am fascinated by the notion of 'Amplitude Modulation' sending data using light waves. The idea was to use 'Hyalite' salt crystals, to broadcast sound through their 'ionizing' ambient glow. You interact with the light and can detect the data as sound using wearable sensors. Additionally, using Steve's 'muio' interface again, 8 light sensors detect movement around the crystals using a lens and light sensor (based on the idea a simple biological 'camera eye') these feed into MAX MSP controlling a soundscape.
I read on your statement page that you are currently "working on new experiments relating to the creation of life through growing crystals electrically on volcanic stone, hunting for Moss bears (Tardigrades; Fresh water extremophiles) and training Planarian worms. " Could you already tell us a few words about these experiments?
I have been researching the work of William Cross for quite a while, and finally decided that I needed to recreate his experiments (with a few modifications) It's quite interesting trying to work out what he did - the only way to know is to recreate it. In 1837, he found these creatures "Acari electors" as he called them infesting an experiment, he believed that these things "spontaneously generated" within his experiment, several eminent scientists of the time recreated the experiment with the same results! My experiment is basically a recreation of this experiment, augmented with a little more technology - with the aim of capturing this phenomena of electrochemical abiogenesis. The only problem is the experiment has to run for many months.
I am interested in all sorts fresh water microscopic life; its a great 19h century tradition. With a decent microscope, you can take any roadside moss cluster and explore the interstitial oceans of liquids trapped between damp moss filaments. Here you might be lucky enough to find a Moss Bear ( "Tardigrade" ) an obscure form of extremophile that lives in moss. Believe it or not, it really does look like a bear! This in its self was a reason for laboring days over a microscope just to see if it was real! They don't fit into the zoological classification system, and have been given a phylum of their own. It is believed it is able to survive space travel, and at this moment a small space capsule orbits the earth containing some "Tardinauts" (its hard to compete with that) I simply enjoy looking for them. I like to go looking for moss growing in all kinds of areas, from urban waste lands, to the Peak District. "Tardigrades" are able to survive about 120 years in a dehydrated state; I was sifting through very old moss samples from Manchester Museum to see if I could reanimate 100 year old dehydrated Moss Bears. apparently it is possible. I had a lot more luck looking for the living ones. Unfortunately my one Planarian worm recently went missing in the tank. It is 8mm long, and I dont have the heart to keep it in a petri dish. I am not sure where it is.
Is there any artist or researcher whose work has been particularly inspiring for you?
I don't know where to start! Louis Bec for sure. I am really into what SymbioticA have been doing over the past few years, and what they are doing for the "Bio-art" movement. Otherwise, at the moment I am looking at the work of William Bebe. To be honest - I have been trying to read a lot more science fiction lately, particularly 19th century science fiction, and science writing. Often the science fiction tells you a lot about the popular understanding of science at the time. More importantly, its a good antidote ploughing through contemporary research papers.
Related: El Niuton has a slideshow dedicated to the work of Simon Blackmore.
Photo by Magdalen Green
As i receive so many emails from young people who would like to graduate in media art, interaction design and other "cool stuff you write about on the blog", i thought i should discuss more often with the teachers and researchers who run these courses in Europe, the US and in Asia. I've interviewed several of them before (Tom Igoe from itp in New York, Tony Dunne from RCA, Stephen Wilson from the San Francisco State University, Alejandro Tamayo from the Javiera University, etc.), today the victim of my curiosity is Graham Pullin.
Graham Pullin joined Interactive Media Design at Dundee after nine years as a senior interaction designer and studio head at IDEO where he most notably created together with Crispin Jones the Social Mobiles series. He has been involved in the design of mobile phones, hearing aids, furniture for children with disabilities and remote-controlled submarines. Previous to entering the design industry he gained an MDes from the Royal College of Art, this after a number of years as a medical engineer, having studied engineering at Oxford University.
Dundee is a small city situated on the east coast of Scotland. I must confess that i had never heard of it until one or two years ago when the pieces developed by the students of Interactive Media Design (IMD) at Dundee University and shown at the Museum of Lost Interactions started to make a glorious tour of all the design and gadget blogs.
The BSc in Interactive Media Design brings together Computing modules, Design Studies modules and Interactive Media Design modules, in a range of hand-on projects that prepare students for a career in interaction design.
Your bio on the School of design website says that you are "passionate about work that blurs the boundaries between interaction design and industrial design". Could you explain us what this involves? Any concrete example of this blurring of the boundaries?
Muji's CD Player, designed by Naoto Fukasawa, has always been a favourite. The industrial design is the interaction design, suggesting a ventilation fan and inviting you to pull the cord, in the designer's own words "Without Thought"... which is about so much more than ease of use - there is such a lightness of touch, such delight.
Perhaps I feel more at home at these intersections - or in the gaps between - because of a twenty-five year journey from computer programming, via engineering and industrial design to (back to? I'm not sure) interaction design. I'm a little envious of my Interactive Media Design students for getting transgress these boundaries right from the start.
The Gentleman's Chair (Edinburgh, 1898) by Ryan McLeod, Jamie Shek and Ian Shiels
For them, Forgotten Chairs is an introduction to designing interactions in the round rather than on screen. Recreating historical artefacts allowed them to find objects abandoned in charity shops and recycling yards, rather than build from scratch. Whether their exhibit is credible is a real test of whether they mastered the relationships between the three-dimensional and graphic design languages for their chosen period and the qualities of different media and technologies. The Gentleman's Chair has a coherence and attention to detail that I hope Ian Shiels, Ryan McLeod and Jamie Shek will apply to everything they do next.
Why focus on "lost interactions"?
The theme of lost interactions connects young interaction designers to a heritage that is older and broader than the history of the personal computer. At the same time, it can provoke reflections on the pursuit of technical innovation for its own sake. PESTER by Euan McGhee and John Drummond is a 1970s mobile phone with built-in camera, music player and games.
Designing within a historical period can also help the students to be more conscious of the possible social impact of technology, issues easier to gloss over when looking optimistically into the future. The Case Communicator by Alison Thomson and Shaun McWhinnie promises liberating mobility to the modern businessman, but condemns his 1930s secretary to even longer working hours, tethered to her telephone exchange.
... and do you feel that in general some kinds of interactions get lost over the years? Can an interaction became obsolete and how?
The radio dial is a loss: a magical interaction, a bit like safe-cracking (I'm told), to navigate a frequency band by half-second snatches of sound, occasionally stumbling across surprises. Instead, we now select a station name from a list - but isn't this just because a little display has been added for the text streamed with Digital Audio Broadcasting and then adopted for the interface as well? If we browse images through thumbnails rather than filenames, why shouldn't we continue to browse radio by its content?
Rather than lose this interaction, we could reinterpret it. True, there are inherent time delays in the way a digital radio tunes to a station and buffers sound, but this is a limitation of imagination more than technology - perhaps a secondary tuner might harvest recent content across all stations in the background? Making the technology work harder towards a richer, ultimately even simpler experience excites me more than adding features.
To be honest with you, i'm in a phase when i've seen so much interactive anything that i've started to be tempted to change room when someone invites me to "interact" with their screen/coat/clock/lamp, etc. I mean it is funny for a few minutes then my attention drifts away. Am i the problem in this scenario? Do you think that i need to see a doctor? What are the characteristics that makes an interactive work engaging and challenging beyond those first few minutes?
Can you make a double appointment for both of us? I am just reading The Poetic Museum by Julian Spalding which argues that the profundity and richness of original artefacts are being overlooked in the indiscriminate move to interactive exhibits. And MoLI certainly isn't about where to draw this line...
But what it is, is a first opportunity for our students to jump in and learn that the success of an interaction depends on its realisation as much as its conception. And this is the reason it's difficult to answer your question - you have to experience the experience for yourself to know if it's working.
The Amazing Musical Chair lets its occupant create a complex mix of 1930s instrumental sounds. This might have been a cacophony, but the whole exceeds the sum of the parts because Raymo Holloway and Graham Hancock crafted each loop and went to the trouble of recording musicians playing real instruments. Whereas the Barrow Rocker is just a mechanical music box that plays a note for each rock back and forth and owes its delight to Kirsty Woodend and Rebecca Rumble keeping it this simple.
There is a high focus on documenting the students projects using videos. Is it important to the whole creative process? Or is it just the icing on the cake for the video-hungry web visitors?
On the Forgotten Chairs website, video is used to tell the story of each exhibit and place it in context (there's some nice archive footage) but also to convey the interactivity to those who couldn't make it up to Dundee and experience the chairs for themselves. I think that's something I got wrong on the original MoLI site - most web visitors didn't realise that the models actually worked.
But in general, video is an important and versatile tool for our students - to sketch ideas, even as they are building them, and also to make documentaries and advertisements to disseminate their designs. And some may pursue careers in which video is their primary medium, whether as design ethnographers, researchers or artists.
I had a look at the Degree Show projects from 2006 and was quite intrigued by Andrew Cook - Tactophonics. Could you give us some details about it, how it works, what inspired the project and what in this project embodies the IMD department way of thinking and teaching?
Andrew Cook is also a computer musician (under the name of Samoyed) and his project was inspired by how unengaging performances of computer music can be - how difficult it is to understand what sounds are pre-stored and which are being manipulated or created live. The difficulty in setting up any kind of rapport between the audience and the performer is unrewarding for both.
Tactophonics was about making interaction with computer music more physical by letting a performer choose any object - for their own reasons - and turn it into an instrument. It worked by attaching a series of contact microphones to the object, not using these sounds directly, but shaping other sounds generated in MaxMSP. At his degree show, Andrew exhibited a tree branch that had been wired up: shaking the whole bough, bending the branches, scratching the bark, even snapping off the twigs, each produced different sounds. The relationships between action and sound was at once abstract and intuitive, engaging to play, and also a compelling spectacle for other visitors.
I suppose this embodies our approach to thinking by making and playing. Andrew crafted a beautiful kit of parts and instructions, but this was just the starting point for each musician to create their own instrument and performances. It was about understanding this distinction, but also that design has a role within this creative whole.
By coincidence - well, not really coincidence - Cook is now working with me as a PhD student. We are trying to make synthetized speech more expressive - in particular for some people with impaired speech who use communication aids based on Text-To-Speech technology. Current devices offer little or no control of tone of voice, which can give a false impression that the person using them is also emotionally impaired. We are going to start off by building six speaking chairs.
This research is the real reason I left IDEO and came up to Dundee. My exploration of new interactions with speech started with Social Mobiles, a project that Crispin Jones and I led. The Speaking Mobile asked how much could be communicated with only the words "yes" and "no", if their intonation could be controlled. Once bitten, I decided I had to devote more time to this intriguing and under-explored area.
Have you ever come across projects from interactive art which you found relevant and interesting for an interaction designer?
One of the most relevant and inspiring to my own work was Listening Post by Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen, an installation that sampled text from internet chat sites and played it back as hundreds of synthesised voices. Its aesthetic qualities came from these voices being deliberately monotonic and tuned to a scale. The whole effect was reminiscent of Gregorian Chant, eerie but quite beautiful. In a field dominated by the quest for so-called 'natural' speech, Listening Post is one of the few examples I have come across of synthetic speech being treated as a design medium.
Could you name us one or more interactive media designer(s) whose work you find particularly inspiring?
Oh dear, I think I know how this is going to sound Régine, but please bear with me...
Wofgang von Kempelen, better known for the Mechanical Turk, built the first speech synthesiser in 1791 (here's a sketch I made of it in the Deutsche Museum in München). Obviously, in those days, his Sprachmaschine was a mechanical analogue of the vocal organs and so speech sounds were derived from actions, not written language. But the design is also rather theatrical: the operator placed their hands through holes in a wooden box, so that no-one could see what they were doing, heightening the magic.
I realise this may sound nostalgic, especially following the Museum, but there is nothing nostalgic about the research that I am engaged with. I am quite serious about gaining inspiration from Kempelen and applying it to computerised Text-To-Speech. It's the interaction that counts, not the technology.
The IMD website mentions that "Interactive media is one of the fastest growing sectors in the international economy". I noticed when visiting design student shows that other departments, such as for example product design and industrial design, are getting more and more engaged in interactive projects. What is the specificity of IMD in Dundee?
I suppose I'm more interested in blurring again: interaction design and interactive media are part of so many sectors. In my 9 years at IDEO, leading projects and running a studio, that was increasingly the point: that interaction design had a role within a wide range of businesses and organisations, not just those focused on interactive media or interactive products.
Compared to product design courses, IMD is coming from the opposite direction, if you like. My current role is to introduce this shared territory to students who are already immersed in media and coding and narrative and interaction design - my colleagues Catriona Macaulay, Ali Napier, Shaleph O'Neill and Morna Simpson have backgrounds in design ethnography, sound recording, semiotics and content design.
On the other hand, we are a design course, which distinguishes us from a number of Computer Science or Human Computer Interaction courses that have rebranded themselves 'interaction design' or 'interactive media design'. It is important that our studios are at the heart of an art college, sharing ideas as well as workshops with product design and textiles and illustration and fine art... as well as computing.
Why Dundee? Apart from IMD, what should make us put Dundee on a map?
It's no coincidence that IMD is in Dundee, as it's a collaboration between the School of Computing here and Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design. The School of Computing has always focused on what it calls 'applied computing' rather than computer science and Duncan of Jordanstone has a great reputation in Scotland.
This year we are launching a Master's course in design ethnography, aimed at students and professionals from human factors or design backgrounds. And there is lots of research going on across these traditional discipline boundaries.
IMD has a sister course called IPD, which (a bit confusingly) stands for Innovative Product Design - where IMD is a blend of design and computing, IPD is a blend of design and engineering. IPD too has a strong point of view on "lighter and smarter" interactive products. Course director Polly Duplock has built a team with strong links with the RCA, Goldsmiths and industry, which now includes Jon Rogers, Andy Law and Pete Thomas. Second Year students on our two courses are currently working together on an invited brief for Microsoft's 2008 Design Expo. We're getting them to look at their relationships with their grandparents and consider where simple networked objects might play a role.
Any upcoming project, either personal or school related, that you could share with us?
I have just written a book, 'Designing Braille for the sighted (and other meetings between disability and design)' which is being published by The MIT Press and should be out in the autumn.
Twenty years ago, I spent three years as a medical engineer in a hospital designing products for disabled people. Then I went back to the Royal College and spent the next twelve years in design consultancy, designing all kinds of things for all kinds of people. The starting point is how distant these two cultures still are from each other - but how much each could inspire the other (sorry, it's about boundaries blurring again...)
It starts with seven tensions between conflicting values and priorities. Is it more important for a wheelchair or a hearing aid or a prosthetic hand to be discreet or fashionable? Universal or simple? Sensitive or provocative? Is it more important to solve known problems or to explore new possibilities? Striking the right balance - and a different balance for different disabled people - requires the skills and sensibilities of both design cultures, not either one working alone.
It ends with conversations with some designers I like - including Tomoko Azumi, Vexed, Crispin Jones, Michael Marriott and Graphic Thought Facility. We discuss design briefs related to disability in some way - wheelchairs and wheelchair clothing, prosthetic legs, watches for visually impaired people and Braille. Their first trains of thought are diverse and inspiring.
Despite the subject matter, this is anything but a textbook (there are several of these already!) It's to be an affordable - and I hope beautiful - little book to carry in your pocket and read on a train journey.
...and some dates for your diary:
24 February - 12 May 2008: Social Mobiles exhibited as part of Design and the Elastic Mind, MoMA, New York
16 - 24 May 2008: IMD degree show at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design. This year's IMD graduates were responsible for the first Museum of Lost Interactions
27 - 29 July 2008: Microsoft Design Expo 2008, that will feature the work of Dundee IMD and IPD students
Autumn 2008: The MIT Press due to publish 'Designing Braille for the sighted'
December 2008: the opening of the next gallery of MoLI (sorry, the theme is a secret!)
Meet one of the Godfathers of the Finnish media art mafia...
Through a series of performances, exhibitions and club events, Pixelache brings together young creators from diverse disciplines who playfully and critically experiment with media and technology. The festival also features practical workshops and seminars addressing current issues in the development of digital media.
Pixelache University will focus on education and ask questions such as Does the educational system have room for hackers, circuit benders, environmental activists and VJ artists? What would be a suitable curriculum for nurturing independent grassroot initiatives?
Furthermore, Pixelache has opened its very own educational programme with a curriculum which consists of monthly Pixelache events (presentations, workshops, concerts and parties).
I met Juha for the first time at Belsay Hall, in the North of England. He had commissioned 3 media artists to get some inspiration from the 17th century manor house and inhabit it with their art installations (review here and here again). Then we saw each other again in Colombia where Juha had invited me (hey! lucky me!) to participate to Pixelazo. I had him sit down in a bar for an interview. That was back in June.
Transcript of our Medellin conversation.
How could I define Juha Huuskonen?
When people ask what I do I tend to answer that I am a software engineer (because that is my official education) who is lucky enough to make a living as an artist but in fact I put most of my efforts into organising events and developing organisations.
How was Pixelache born?
The first Pixelache festival in 2002 was put together in an improvised manner, with a tiny budget of a couple of hudred euros. The purpose was to bring local active people together to discuss and present experimental work that fell between the categories - not art, not design, not research, but kind of all of these at the same time. This type of work is of course shown in all kinds of international festivals (today even more than a few years ago) but the other special thing about Pixelache has been that we've focused on showing work by young, emerging creators and taking risks by showing work that is still in the concept or prototyping stage. This is something that we are still trying to stick to, even though the festival has grown quite a bit and involves more established artists as well. Education - all kinds of seminars, workshops and presentations - has also been a very important part of Pixelache from the beginning.
The longer history of Pixelache can be traced back to katastro.fi, a loosely organised media art collective that started in 1998. During its heydays, katastro.fi had around 50 members and worked on rather large scale projects, such as eko.katastro.fi and 2000.katastro.fi. The founders of katastro.fi were involved in demoscene, a subculture that evolved around software piracy and creative experimentation with early home computers (Commodore, Atari, etc). Katastro.fi brought together some of the most successful Finnish demo groups (Komplex, Orange, CNCD, Sonic, Virtual Dreams, etc) which had been active already since late 80s/early 90s. In the demo scene, people would get together in parties (events that nowadays can attract up to thousands of young people) and show the stuff they were working on. The way demoscene functioned as an informally organised, highly social network focused on developing new work and ideas has influenced my own practise a lot.
Where does the name Pixelache come from?
I found the word Pixelache sometime in 2001, in an article that was predicting new words that would be used in the future. The word was supposed to describe an "overdose of digital media." I knew myself how that feels, for me the feeling of overdose comes from seeing too much of the same, how all media and technologies become standardized, closed, stiff and boring systems over time. I googled for the word "pixelache" and got zero results, so it was a word waiting to be grabbed. So, we first had a nice sounding name, the concept of the event evolved afterwards. Pixelache festival actually tries to act as an antidote for 'pixelache', presenting projects that challenge the standardizations.
How did Pixelache end up spreading to other countries?
Our international events started in 2003, when we organised Pixelache festival in New York and Montreal. Both festivals were organised on a shoestring budget, with a lot of effort and enthusiasm from both organisers and artists. We carried most of the necessary gear and artworks as luggage, organised free/very cheap accommodation and traveled on a Greyhound bus between New York and Montreal.
The events in New York and Montreal brought together a quite unusual combination of local organisations that all had a lot of influence in planning the festival program. In addition to international guests, both events featured a lot of local artists, many of whom were later invited to Helsinki. We have maintained this way of working ever since. The model is sort of opposite to ISEA: instead of a separate international jury, the local organisations are in charge of the program, they never have to present projects that they don't consider relevant for the local context. The program decisions are aided by an on-going discussion between various partners within the Pixelache network.
I think the reason why organisations want to work with Pixelache, or start their own Pixelache edition, is that Pixelache takes seriously the work done by emerging authors but does it without trying to be pompous. Another thing that makes Pixelache interesting is that we work at lot with international networks and subcultures, such as VJ scene, hacker and activist communities, etc. The current active nodes in the Pixelache network are Pixelache Helsinki, Mal au Pixel Paris, Pixelvärk Stockholm and Pixelazo Medellin. Pikslaverk is about to start in Reykjavik and we've been actively collaborating with piksel.no in Bergen, RIXC in Riga (Locative Media Workshop), Plektrum in Tallinn, Mediawala festival and Doors of Perception in New Delhi, Interferenze in San Martino Valle Caudina and several other events.
What's the story of the creation of Pixelazo?
Pixelazo started with a random encounter - Vanessa Gocksch from Colombia contacted us in response to our open call for proposals, and eventually came over to Helsinki in spring 2005. Vanessa is running an organisation called Intermundos which works with marginalized communities in Colombia (for example kids from the ghettoes and indigenous Colombian tribes) and facilitates them to get involved in using media and technologies, focusing on free / cheap / DIY tools that are available to them. Vanessa and Intermundos have been a fantastic partner to work with, they are one of the rare organisations in Colombia who have the credibility to work with both grassroot organisations as well as established cultural institutions. It took two years to get to the first Pixelazo event, meanwhile we did some test runs by organising workshops with events like Salon Internacional del Autor Audiovisual in Barranquilla and Bogotrax in Bogota.
Pixelazo has been a great source for inspiration and ideas for future Pixelache events, Colombians are not so overwhelmed with gadgets and technology as we in the Western world are, but they can take the time to develop their own DIY solutions. Colombia is also immensely rich in culture, even though much of it is hiding in the slums or deep in the jungle, not easily reachable by random tourists. In this sense the bad reputation given to Colombia in the international media has actually been a blessing, the fact that there has not been much tourism has preserved a lot of the culture that would have otherwise been commercialized and/or destroyed already a long time ago. But this seems to be rapidly changing, more and more tourists are coming to Colombia and Uribe has made the country a lot safer, but unfortunately in a building-high-walls-around-gated-communities kind of way, copied from the United States.
The future goal of Pixelazo & Pixelache is to bring more ideas and cultural influence from the South to North. For example at the first Pixelazo event we had some guest from the Nasa tribe, the way they see their life is that they are constanly weaving a web of people and knowledge, spreading it around the mountain range where they live in. This is documented in their traditional handcraft, weaved bags that contain information that looks like digital data. When they started using radio, they used radio cicleta, radio bicycles to act as mobile transmission units. This way radio technology can be made transparent, the transmission station is always moving inside within the network of the tribe, it does not become a hidden black box, a top-down authoritative tool like we have adopted it. They have now started using web and internet tools as well, all based on open source, it will be interesting to see how this develops.
What happens if I want to set up a Pixelache in another country? Is there a strict receipt to follow?
I guess step number one would be to get in touch with us, with Pixelache Helsinki or some of the other nodes in the network. Rest of the process has so far been informal, we've built collaborations slowly and by starting with smaller events. Right now there is a kind of pressure to make the process more formal and easier, so that more Pixelache events could be established since quite many people have contacted us about this during the past couple of years. We've been working on a Pixelache manifesto, a sort of 'constitution' for Pixelache events (not in EU style though :), something we can agree on and use a reference to develop the events in future. It's still under work, but it will probably contain at least following statements:
Multidisciplinarity: it's an event that brings together hackers, artists, architects, activists, but also people from the commercial new media / tech world.
We try to bring together, support and try to understand how different sub-cultures can function, it's not just art, it's also hackers, community networks, VJs, etc.
There are also some themes that seem to appear in different ways in various Pixelache events: public space/locative media/borderline between physical and virtual space, do-it-yourself/hacking/missusing technologies, organisational strategies/collaboration/democracy, etc. VJ community and audiovisual performances have had a prominent role in all Pixelache events.
Over the years we have developed working methods that makes it easier to organise this type of events, there are some of the tricks that new Pixelache festival nodes can adopt if they want. This has mostly been about treating the organiser team and the artists as one big team that can help the event to happen, by using e-mail lists, wikis, etc. For example one little innovation, asking the artists to put info about their travels online in a wiki themselves, took away a massive travel agency type of work from the organisers (there are often around 100 international artist/contributors arriving to Pixelache). The other great effort used to be the publication, but we have managed to cut down the work effort by using a simple design template and a wiki to put it together, we also make it in A4 size so that we can print it at a photocopy place on the last minute and later on anyone can download and print it at home as well. All these methods help us to remain an independent, grassroot initiative even though the festival has been growing in scale quite a bit.
When you talk about Pixelazo you usually say *we made" " we were invited", etc. Who is behind that "we"?
'We' is most often the bunch of people involved in organising Pixelache Helsinki, there is a core crew of 5-10 people who have been involved for a longer time, and a larger group of people who get involved occasionally. The larger 'we' includes the international Pixelache network and our local collaborators.
But the question 'who is we?' is actually very important for us, after all these years we are still trying to figure out what it means to be an independent, grassroot organisation. This is something we've been exploring also in previous Pixelache festivals, with the 'Dot Org Boom' theme in 2005 & 2006 and 'Architectures for Participation' seminar in 2007. With the emergence of all the 'Web 2.0' tools and networks, the role of the diy / independent / experimental / alternative media and tech organisations in changing. The revolution of 'citizen media' eventually has happened, via myspace, youtube and facebook... But in quite a different way than 'we' were expecting.
When I interviewed you, we were both in Medellin, a few days after you left the city and flew to Leticia which to me (I've never been) looks a lot like the jungle. Can you gives an overview of the Leticia chapter? How did it go? If you look back at what happened there, do you think it might have any influence on the next Pixelazo?
The purpose of the visit to Leticia (a town in Amazonia, in the border area of Colombia, Brazil and Peru) was to prepare 'Selvatorium', an artist residency and other activities out in the nature, with indigenous tribes involved. Vanessa has been working with the indians for a longer time and has documented some of their practises at Intermundos website... So we don't need to start from zero, but it's still a great challenge to figure out the 'right' way to try to bridge the gap between North and South. I don't think there is an easy solution available, with such a huge gap between the cultures. As I said before, I think we have a lot to learn from South, but we should also try to make a positive contribution to the local life, without imposing our own values and systems on them. Also it's kind of ridiculous to work on projects dealing with nature, and to burn a great amount of kerosene when people fly over the Atlantic to get there. Hopefully someone will donate us a big sailing boat soon....
Next Pixelache appointments:
Mal au Pixel 2008, Paris, 17-25 May 2008