Heidi Kumao's art pieces explore ordinary social interactions in order to reveal what lies beneath them: psychological states, emotions, compulsions, thinking patterns, and dreams. She is currently teaching animation, video, experimental television production, and electronic and conceptual art at the School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. For 2007-08, she has been awarded a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship from the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation.
A few years ago i discovered her set of female kinetic sculptures "Misbehaving: Media Machines Act Out," and classified her work under robotics and kinetics. Then i stumbled upon the performative techno-enhanced series of clothing she had developed and here i was trying to fit her work inside the "wearable" category. A closer look on her portfolio revealed household objects sabotaged to become cinema machines, overtly activist projects and the geekiest wedding cake i had ever seen. The experience taught me that any attempt to classify of her work would be pure folly unless i'd try to trick her into giving me a helping hand:
You first graduated in photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. How did you come to work with kinetic installations, RFID activist projects and quirky wedding cakes? What made you broaden the scope of your artistic practice?
This is a big question, so I'll answer it in sections as a way to answer the larger issue of shifts in artistic practice. How I get from here to there to there to there...
Re: transition from photography to sculpture
The Art Institute had a very interdisciplinary photo department at the time and we were really encouraged to "go outside the box" of photography, to mix photography with other media, to be artists who USE photography rather than pure photographers. In the 80's and 90's, photography was exploding in 100 different directions and open to a variety of approaches. Everything was possible. Everything could be photographic in some way.
When I entered graduate school as a photographer I was already starting to work with sequential imagery. I was driven by a need to animate physical gestures and behaviors as indicators of psychological states. Simultaneously, I was collecting domestic objects and record players and researching pre-cinema devices and the 19th century creation of spectacle, Emile Reynaud's praxinoscope from the 1880's, in particular. My first kinetic works were homemade-looking zoetropes that projected a sequential loop of 12 images: a child being spoon-fed, a woman's legs curtseying, a woman frantically sweeping. Like a memory that can't be repressed, each animated sequence repeated endlessly and mechanically. In this way, each object seemed to be speaking with its images, a visual and mechanical voice replacing text. Much like the girls' legs I made much later, they were an artificial life form, a stand-in for a real person that I could construct and bring life to. These "cinema machines" (as I called them) allowed me to combine all of my interests (photography, performance, sculptural assemblage and the psychology of everyday life), into one art form. I loved working this way and continued to create cinema machines for several years.
While much of my work could be categorized as "kinetic installation," a more accurate descriptor might be "animated tableau." I tend to think of myself as a theater director, staging events for the viewer. A lot of my art practice is about creating a situation for something to unfold over time. This grew organically out of my experience staging photographs. It seems to be a mode of art making to which I am intuitively drawn.
Each tableau intentionally uses recognizable objects that suggest a possible scenario from everyday life. As I craft each piece, I am very conscious of the psychological experience that is created for the viewer. Can the space of each tableau imply both a physical site and a psychological state? How can I make the viewer re-examine seemingly ordinary events such as childhood play, family dynamics, television news or even the wearing of clothes?
RE: RFID Activist projects
I worked on Zapped! a multi-part project about the mass implementation of RFID technology with Preemptive Media in 2005. I met the members of Preemptive Media (Beatriz da Costa , Jamie Schulte, and Brooke Singer at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA where I was a Microsoft Artist-in-Residence Fellowship for 1999-2000. Besides being a great school for robotics, computing, AI, engineering and art, Pittsburgh happened to be an amazing hub for art collectives, tactical media practitioners, and technological art at that time. I was surrounded by tons of brilliant people including folks from Critical Art Ensemble, Institute for Applied Autonomy, and Subrosa, to name a few. Just being in this environment made me rethink my artistic process completely, and motivated me to learn how to incorporate electronics, microprocessors, computing, and digital imagery into my work.
Before we ever did Zapped! a few of us had collaborated on a project (Nomadika) about data-veillance and wireless technologies for the 2001 Sculpture Conference in Pittsburgh. We educated and informed the public about the future of data mining by opening a storefront for our fake marketing firm. Researching data mining and privacy loss in our contemporary era later led Preemptive Media to the project on RFID, which seemed to be (at the time) yet another way in which corporations and the government would invade citizens' privacy. As someone who creates and teaches animation and video, my primary role in the collaboration was to make the educational video from all of the research and information we had unearthed as a result of this project.
After working solo for so long, I relished the opportunity to collaborate with others on a project.
RE: quirky wedding cakes
The 6,000 volt wedding cake was a collaborative project with my husband, Michael Flynn, a high school physics teacher and science exhibit designer. As two mechanically minded people, we decided that our cake had to reflect our interests in machines and the project grew from there. It started with the idea to have two cakes cut to look like interlocking gears and progressed to two motorized cakes on gear-run platforms. Michael made two dolls that represented us in our wedding costumes. These dolls were going to stand on the top of each cake and would basically pass one another every time the cakes turned. Eventually, I thought we needed to incorporate an electric "spark" between the dolls, like the "spark" between us (cheesy, I know). This led to the idea of using a Jacob's Ladder to generate a much larger spark. Michael purchased a neon sign transformer and wired the cakes and dolls with opposing charges. When powered on, the cakes turn, and once a turn, the dolls hands meet and a large flaming spark erupts from their meeting hands. It's pretty funny. And like other collaborative projects I've done, it was loads of fun!. Our "how to" article appeared in Make Magazine.
What made you broaden the scope of your artistic practice?
When I look over the various transitions I have made with respect to media
(from photo to cinema machines to kinetic sculptures to animation to collaborative technological projects), I can map those changes onto personal and cultural moments of change. For many years, I made a life as an artistic nomad. I relocated every year or two for jobs, fellowships or other opportunities. This experience of having to re-contextualize and refocus myself in so many different places shaped my art practice in a deep way. Each time I moved, the new school, city or community raised new issues to consider. For example, (like I said earlier) as a research fellow at Carnegie Mellon, I was exposed to art practices that critically engaged technology rather than simply used technology. I had access to people, tools, and resources such as machine shops for the creation of custom parts, computer programmers, robotics labs, video editing equipment, etc. As a result of being at Carnegie Mellon, my work shifted away from more personal themes towards more political issues and cultural critique.
While I had been using technology for many years, my time at CMU caused me to rethink how I used it and why.
Exposure to such a large computing environment had other long-term effects on my art that didn't show up until much later. Researchers in AI, computing, robotics and gaming exposed me to the possibilities of generative artwork, which was a complete paradigm shift from creating "fine art" objects for the art world. I was excited to think about making a dynamic system or a tool as an artwork rather than a fixed object. However, it took me awhile to decide on a project that would best be served by this approach.
Later, when I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, 9-11 and the proliferation of cable news caused me to analyze the visual and conceptual construction of the news broadcast more critically. CNNplusplus, an interactive and dynamic news broadcast, was born a few years later (in collaboration with Chip Jansen.
The short answer to your question is simply new places, new people and A.D.D. or the tendency to get bored easily...
You seem to navigate effortlessly from one discipline to another but are there particular issues or elements that you keep returning to?
Yes! I find that I return to an exploration of ordinary social interactions and their psychological undercurrents, institutional critique (mainstream media, traditional gender roles, others), and performance (creating theatrical spectacle, behaving/acting social roles, performing for a camera). I view performance as an integral part of everyday experience and define it very broadly: as a means to define our identity and sexuality, as an examination of roles we play as employees or family members, and as a tool for self-expression. Every piece has its origins in everyday life: an argument, a memory of childhood, the frustrations of watching television, the act of being a consumer--
My art making process is grounded in these types of experiences.
Combining these three things together has produced two main types of work that are pretty different (at least to me):
1) Work that emphasizes a visceral experience and tells a more personal story: the "cinema machines," the girls' legs, stop-motion animations, and my latest shadow theater pieces
2) interactive projects that are more overtly political and use technology to critique technology: CNNplusplus, Zapped!, Wired Wear
I find I am drawn to the more personal works because they provide an outlet for me to imply/suggest a critique of institutions of power without being so literal. Almost every piece starts with a personal story of some kind and the creation of a tableau is an opportunity to create a visual poem of images and objects together. By exposing the physical apparatus that drives the bodies into action, I draw a parallel between this machinery and the mechanisms of our unconscious: defense mechanisms, sex drives, thinking patterns, self control, dreams, impulses, instincts.
With the public/interactive projects, the emphasis is more educational and/or ironic. Working collaboratively removes the personal emphasis and creates opportunities to address larger cultural issues and their effects on the general public.
Misbehaving is a series of three female "performers" for intimate installations. What is the performative part of the work?
Misbehaving consists of three pairs of aluminum, mechanized legs fitted with girl's shoes: Protest, Resist and Translator. The legs in Protest stomp loudly and unpredictably while standing on a coffee table. In Resist, a pair of girl's legs squirms on the floor in a way that is both sexualized and challenging in response to viewers' speech. The girl in Translator is trapped on a track between two "adult" chairs with video projectors for heads. As viewers hand crank her from one side to the other, she becomes like a child caught between two feuding parents, or a political mediator, whose body/screen reveals/exposes the real text of the conversation through non-verbal gestures.
With these pieces, I was thinking about the performance of gender, especially for little girls. We learn what is appropriate behavior so early that it becomes naturalized, we don't realize that we perform it. In developing these pieces, I wanted to intentionally create girls that perform "badly", act out, misbehave, or act against type. As machines and girls, these works operate in stark contrast to a culture obsessed with "increasing job performance," high performance cars, and athletic performance. Their acts of defiance are small, yet powerful, signs of agency.
The kinetic girls legs have also some feminist (may i use that word?) undertones. Why is it still important to propose a view on feminism today?
YES, you may (and SHOULD) use the word "feminist." I consider myself a feminist and I think the stigma around the word (created by conservative males) has (unfortunately) had its prescribed effect of preventing people from self-identifying as feminists.
Those legs were born out of my experience at Carnegie Mellon where I was surrounded by really macho robots: machines that can fight fires or repair a nuclear reactor, robots for combat, robots for Mars, etc. At the same time, television programs were priming the mainstream public for what I call "performative robotics," including BattleBots and Robo-wars, as vehicles for violent entertainment. With technological art and computing still so male dominated, and the research funding driven by the Defense Department, I do think it's important to remind ourselves that robotics has a range of applications that are social, psychological, poetic, beautiful, and quirky. Are those feminist, or just alternatives to the mainstream?
I think it's important to maintain a vigilant feminist critique of the world in the same way that it's important to be vigilant about racism and economic justice.
Sometimes people forget that feminism has benefited EVERYONE, not just women. Civil Rights legislation in the US has benefited everyone, not just African-Americans. In the developed world, we have this idea that everything has been "accomplished" when really, it's just a way to keep people complacent and apathetic.
A couple of years ago you developed Zapped! together with the other members of Preemptive Media. The work examines the mass deployment of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and its effects on our everyday activities. At the time the website of the project said that "RFID is not yet a household name or a pervasive technology, but Preemptive Media predicts that everyday encounters with this technology (whether known or not) will soon be commonplace." How much has changed ever since? How much is the public aware of the possible downsides of RFID technology?
In October 2006, the US started issuing passports with RFID chips that include a digital photo and all other information currently printed in passports. These passive tags in passports are only a small beginning of all-around use as they can be embedded into nearly everything you buy, wear, read, or drive. At the time we did the piece, there was a common fear of surveillance--that by carrying items with tags, you could be tracked, your personal data could be compromised, etc. The reality is that the tags need to be scanned at such a close proximity (a few millimeters) that it's difficult for someone to scan your item without your knowledge. Plus, if all the tag has is a reference number (for another database) rather than concrete data, there isn't much to gain by secretly scanning...In general, as with so many of these new technologies (GPS, for example), people choose convenience over privacy. In our current climate, you can't have both. We all love the convenience of having a cell phone, even though they all have GPS chips. You don't hear people complaining about the possibility of being located through triangulation of their cell phone chip. At least not yet. I think that data privacy is the new "civil rights" issue of our time--at least in the US where there aren't many data privacy laws.
I've always been fascinated by the story of the roach release. I saw a brief mention of it a newspaper one day. Can you explain us what it was about and in which context it took place? But also, how did the public react to the idea?
The roach release was but one part of the Zapped! project. The multi-part project included the educational video, a school kit for "arming" yourself against RFID surveillance, the roach release station, and educational workshops. Each of these reached a different segment of the population with the goal of not only informing the public about the technology, but also providing them with means with which they might take action against it.
At the time, WalMart was setting the standards for RFID implementation by requiring its top manufacturers to embed tags into the cases and pallets of merchandise. As the largest retailer in the world, its protocol affects the business practice of nearly everyone in merchandising. WalMart pushed for this change touting its increased inventory efficiency. At this point, we speculated that if a WalMart had RFID readers and a corresponding database, they would all be located in the loading dock/storage area of the store. We discussed different ways to use or subvert the signal of the WalMart RFID reader- for passive tags, it sends a small signal in order to read the information on the tag and puts that information into a database. As we went round and round with ideas for tricking/toying with this Goliath, the idea boiled down to creating a small interruption in/jamming the WalMart RFID database. If WE couldn't gain access to the loading dock and the readers, perhaps we could send a robot, or, as Beatriz da Costa suggested, a rodent or insect in our place. The final solution was to send a cockroach (with an preprogrammed RFID tag glued to its back) into the store's loading dock area. The RFID tag was programmed with a small text message of resistance--and would definitely cause a "hiccup" in a database that was accustomed to standardized product information. In the video, we gave instructions on how to do a "roach release," and in Houston (at Diverseworks), we gave away all the Zapped! roaches. I am not at liberties to say anything about the actual release. The public loved the idea and the roach became the project's mascot.
Any other Wal-Mart action?
Not with that piece.
What was the impetus for the audio-activated DRESS? How do you exhibit it (or any of your other wearable pieces for that matter)? As part of a performance? As a static piece in a gallery? As a garment you can lend to gallery-goers?
The wearables started as an idea for a fun Halloween costume. I was initially inspired by the humor that could result from providing visual feedback, especially on a woman's body. The lights on the dress light up incrementally, starting at the bottom when the sound is softer, and lighting up the entire column when it becomes very loud. When I wear the dress, I become a walking audio-meter which is really an absurd (and poetic?) image. These pieces are custom made to fit my body, and I use them in humorous video performances. The project is less about the objects and more about what I can do with them. So far, I have exhibited them as objects on mannequins with a video that shows them in use. In the end, the final product is really the short videos. There are many more places I can take them...
You seem to be attracted by the idea of "intimacy". Which one of your works expresses the idea better and why?
As an artist, I use machines, projected imagery, and animation because they offer me a visually compelling way to investigate what is unseen: psychological states, emotions, compulsions, neuroses, desires, dreams. I find that I naturally gravitate towards work that examines everyday behavior and personal issues. I've called my work "intimate installation" because of its scale (human sized objects), its content (domestic and interpersonal issues) and its viewer experience (dark or dimly-lit rooms). With a minimum of objects, each tableau recreates a private ritual or occurrence for the viewer. I use the word "intimate" to describe the spaces I create and to draw a distinction between my domestic theaters and other large-scale environments.
"Letter Never Sent" is a good example of this. In this piece, video footage captured under a dissection microscope is projected onto the space of the typewriter page. Sounds of a woman weeping, a doorbell ringing, and someone knocking on the door are juxtaposed with black ink creeping up the page and fading, and turbulent, dirty water which seems to spit out from the base of the typewriter. With this piece, I was trying to describe one woman's difficult experience of writing a letter that is erased or never sent because it is too harsh, too truthful. Rather than use words, I used fluids, like emotions, to wash over the page like a wave. The page is filled and emptied again and again, similar to how one might write and edit oneself in pursuit of the perfect correspondence. Even though the work explores one person's intimate experience, I think we can all relate to written communication, self-censorship and the strong emotions that result.
Yet another video:
You are also teaching at the University of Michigan School of Art and Design. What are your courses about? Can you give us a few examples of your students' projects?
At this University, I am mostly teaching animation, video and various conceptual classes (this fall, an introductory class on TIME!). The most enjoyable courses focus on creating material for "experimental television broadcasts," and rethinking the space of the television as an art gallery for time-based work. I know it seems like an old idea since video art first emerged as an alternative to mainstream television, but here at the University of Michigan, we have a unique collaboration with our local PBS station, WFUM. PLAY is a "collaborative project from the University of Michigan School of Art & Design and Michigan Public Media, transforming the gallery space for time-based media." This project features time-based work (video, animation, documentary, performance, other experimental forms) by faculty and students in the School of Art and Design. Selected pieces air on television as interstitials-in between programs at the top of the hour, say between "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" and "Antique Roadshow," while all submissions are viewable on the web. In my class, "Animation for Broadcast," students get real-world experience producing fun promotional pieces as well as content (under 3 min.) for this gallery space we call a television. You can see some of their promo animations here. They were encouraged to think about the concept behind PLAY Gallery (an online, virtual place for art, television as gallery space) and play (the activity). They were given the PLAY logo and could do just about anything with it.
I think it's a really great moment in history to reconsider what television and broadcast can be, do, say: with the YouTube-ization of the world, everyone's a performer, everyone's a filmmaker. How does that impact what we make and produce?
Any upcoming project you could tell us about?
I'm working on some totally new and different works. "Timed Release" is a series of performative portraits focusing on people who have developed a creative mental space to survive physical confinement. Paper cutouts and small kinetic sculptures contained in bell jars or other containers are brought to life through video projection to create illusionary shadow theater. It's an engaging hybrid of image and object...
I've discovered Fernando Orellana in 2004, the year i realized that there were artists playing with technology out there. All along my tumultuous and whimsical 4-year relationship with new media art, artists have been appearing and disappearing from my BVBMA (Best of the very best media artists) list. I'm slowly moving away from the entertaining, the merely playful, the very geeky, the strictly techy and i'm now looking for something called "an artistic experience". Well, Fernando's installations are quite geeky in a sense and some are even playful but, no matter how you define art, i've always found something extremely meaningful and touching in Fernando's work: a robot dreams, others are unable to make a decision, an elevator appears to be self-aware and a vintage radio relentlessly searches for God. Needless to say, Fernando's work has always amazed me and i can see in my crystal ball that it's going to be that way for the years to come.
The artist has uploaded several videos about his work on you tube. As a starter, here's an ABC news segment on his robotic art piece "Sleep Waking":
When i first met you in Gijon at the opening of the exhibition Emergentes, you told me about the personal story behind 8520 S.W. 27th Pl. v.2 (don't miss the video of the robot assembly), an installation about the pointlessness of our never ending decision making process. Can you share it with the readers?
8520 S.W. 27th Place is the address of the home I grew up in Davie, Florida after my family moved from El Salvador in 1979. It is in a housing development called Rolling Hills. I've linked it in Google maps.
For the most part, my siblings and I assimilated and became part of American culture. Subsequently we grew up in the burgeoning suburban sprawl that has now swallowed southern Florida into an endless ghetto of cookie-cutter dream homes. This is what frames a large portion my childhood memories. Neatly cut lawns. Driveways with two-car garages. Manicured gardens adorned with transplanted trees. Swimming pool parties. Mosquito nets. Packaged people living out their packaged lives. Day in. Day out.
This imagery is what fueled the aesthetic for this 8520 S.W. 27th Place. I wanted to reference the suburban dwelling that millions of other people worldwide grew up in as well. I thought it this would be the appropriate stage for a sculpture that speaks of humanities' decision-making process. It is within the walls of these prefabricated, automated homes that we ceaselessly make decisions about everything; from the type of partners we want, to the garnishing on our pizza delivery, to what color we want our IPods. Endlessly. Back and forth. From the moment we are born till the day we die.
How did you come up with Extruder? Where did you get the idea of making a machine that makes play-doh cars?
I arrived at the idea for Extruder from a couple different places. It branches from a series of drawing machines that I made a couple years back. Extruder started because I wanted to make a machine that could make sculpture. I had been doodling designs for this mechanism for years. I suppose funding issues kept them from materializing until now.
This last summer I made a series of paintings that spoke of war, dismemberment, IEDs, and automobiles. During that process, I came to appreciate the impact that the automobile has made on this world. I read a statistic that still baffles me when I think about it now. There is one car for every 11 people in this world, roughly 590 million passenger cars total. The automobile is involved in everything. From pancakes to penicillin, Play-Doh to parking lots.
I developed Extruder as a response to this machine that we worship. I wanted to celebrate it. Criticize it. Emulate it. Making hundreds of Play-Doh cars. Millions. The ultimate goal of Extruder is to make the total number of automobiles that were made in 1947 (the year Henry Ford died) by the Ford motor company, an estimated 429,674. As you can imagine that is also a whole lot of Play-Doh; about 11 tons. Until May 11th 2008, Extruder will be making Play-Doh cars at the Mandeville Gallery at Union College in Schenectady, NY. When the next venue emerges to exhibit it, the process will continue.
The colors that Play-Doh comes in were also a nice reference to my recent paintings. Vivid primaries and secondaries, suggesting the Technicolor cartoon reality that we in the developed world live in. Entertainment for the masses, delivered in candy-wrapped doses of violence, humor, and erotica.
The Carry On installation features a series of suitcases fitted with robotic arms and micro-cameras which survey their surroundings. Why did you feel the necessity to develop a work that explores surveillance and paranoia? How much impact on the public can artists have when they comment on surveillance technology?
Carry On is a direct reaction to post-September 11th paranoia, both in the USA and abroad. Since the attacks, I have traveled quite a bit. On these trips, I have passed through countless security and surveillance systems, always hunting for the would-be terrorist. Subway cars now display and sometimes speak "Report ANY Suspicious Activity". If you happen to look even slightly of Arab descent, you may think twice about growing a beard or wearing your traditional garb. Leaving your luggage or backpack alone in an airport or a train station, even for a moment, could lead to a cavity search.
Holding a miniature video camera, on one side of each suitcase in Carry On is mounted a two axis robotic arm. The live video feed from this camera is displayed on a LCD screen mounted on the other side of the suitcase. Every couple of minutes, the robots change the position of the cameras, thus changing what is being displayed in the LCD screens. Lacking image analysis of any kind or other sensory capability, these suitcases blindly look about, never understanding what they see.
I'm not sure what impact artists make when they reference surveillance technology. Perhaps it may give a person a moment of peace or clarity. Realizing that, like the artwork in front of them, the whole affair of paranoia and fear based politics is an illusion; clever clockwork designed to create the reality they want us to believe in.
I saw that images of one of your recent project, Phoney. What is the work about?
Phoney is a toy. It is a kind of absurd videophone. There are two terminals to the piece. The terminals are installed in separate parts of a gallery, with no line of site between them. Each terminal is fit with an old-school telephone receiver, a video screen, and a black and white camera attached to the head of a modified mechanical toy. When a person speaks into the telephone receiver of one terminal, their voice makes the mechanical toy on other terminal dance. This causes the video image they are looking at to shake, since the camera on the other side is attached to the mechanical toy. If two people are involved, a bizarre and sometimes funny conversation can commence. To me the piece references the countless methods or proxies that we now communicate through and the ridiculous information that we pass through them.
I read that your work is about "creating systems that seem to be alive". How much life is there really in your artworks? and how would you define such kind of life?
The key part in the quote above is this: "seem to be alive". My machines are not alive. They never will be. I have become much more interested in the simulation of living systems. It is remarkable how easily we anthropomorphize things, especially things that are in motion. The perception of what humans will assume or believe to be alive is where much of my robotic work is headed.
The latest iteration of this investigation is Elevator's Music, a site-specific robotic sculpture that I exhibited in an elevator at the Tang Museum in Saratoga Springs, NY in the winter of 2007. It consisted of four small robots that emerged from the elevators translucent ceiling panels. When people entered the elevator, the robots would sense them and might emerge. Fitted with sonic sensors and having the ability to maneuver in three axes, they were programmed to seek out and respond to near and far objects. If a robot found something near by, it would try and interact with it via randomly determined mechanical gestures and a watery stream of sounds. The robot would also send a message to the other three robots (through a local network), informing them that it had found something of interest. This would cause all robots to look in the direction of the object, causing a kind of musical symphony to commence. If the object was somehow to close, or if nothing was found, they would recoil back into the safety of their ceiling panels.
With this relatively simple set of instructions the elevator robots were able to illicit innumerous reactions from their passengers. Some believed that the robots were watching them or trying to attack them in some way, while others became enamored with them, whistling and talking to them like one would to a pet bird. When one of the robots failed (as all robots eventually do), passengers reported it immediately to museum officials, feeling empathy for the hurt machine. Future robotic sculptures that I design will foster this tendency to assign anthropomorphic qualities to inanimate objects. Through this investigation I hope to arrive at more sophisticated and realistic artificial life simulations.
What can technology developers or scientists learn from digital artists like you? Is there any reason why they should pay more attention to what crazy artists are doing?
I like to think they should pay more attention. In this country there is a general undervaluing of fine art and art education. Art departments all over the nation are the first to suffer from severe budget cuts. The argument that art is not a "mission critical" subject has dominated the establishment for decades. The problem with this of course is that students become completely illiterate to the visual culture all around them. In engineering and science I think this becomes a handicap. The engineer or scientist that can beautifully communicate their findings will undoubtedly fair better on the world stage. Moreover, those engineers or scientists that are willing to experiment with ideas that seem pointless or ridiculous may arrive at discoveries, innovations, and conclusions that otherwise might have eluded them. Perhaps "crazy artists" do have something to teach, other then just being dismissed to be irrelevant or a waste of time.
What is your favorite gadget or bit of technology and why?
It would have to be my laptop. I basically live inside it (or through it?). That aside, I have to say that I am a huge space technology nerd. I read everything and anything about space. Spirit and Opportunity, the two rovers scooting along on mars, or Voyagers one and two, speeding out of the solar system at this very moment are like aphrodisiacs to me. In fact I have a number of art projects that I am just waiting to develop specifically to be put into zero-g environments. Hopefully by the time I am retiring, this will be a possibility! In classic nerd style however, I would first need to over come the crippling and ridiculous sea-sickness I suffer from, sometimes even on sea-side docks.
What are the common factors between your media art installations and your paintings? Or maybe they have nothing to do with one another?
Painting and drawing is something I have always done. It was my doorway into art and in many ways it keeps me balanced. Until recently, the subjects I painted came from the schools of dada or surrealism, seemingly from my subconscious. This all changed in my recent work. Without really knowing why, last summer I started tackling the subjects I was exploring in my electronic sculptures in the paintings. Painting allows me to quickly approach different angles or points of view within a subject, some of which would not be possible in media sculptures due to funding or physical limitations. It is also a way for me to quickly explore new ideas, some of which are now leaving the canvas surface and becoming sculptures.
You are also developing an electronic art program at Union College in Schenectady, NY. Can you tell us what the highlights of the program are?
I was hired three years ago to help start an electronic art program at Union College. Our program is one of the few electronic arts initiatives that is jointly sponsored between the Computer Science and Visual Arts Departments. Drawing from aspects of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and The Ohio State University's Art and Technology programs (both of which I graduated from), we have created a thorough course of study, covering topics in digital imaging, video, 3D modeling, physical computing, experimental computer programming, web-design, interactivity, and animation. We have worked hard to make the program as cross-disciplinary as possible, offering courses that computer science, fine-art, and students from other disciplines can benefit from. In many ways the program was a perfect fit at Union College, since it has a long tradition of combining world-renowned engineering within a equally solid liberal arts education.
Any upcoming project or event you could share with us?
There are a couple projects cooking. The most imminent is a real-time video series titled Plain Text. The series plays on the "infinite monkey theorem" which states that given an infinite amount of monkeys, typewriters, and time, the monkeys will type out any particularly text you choose. If one instructs the monkeys (or monkey simulators), to type the King James Bible one of them eventually will. Interestingly, this also includes all the text that you did not choose or any text that might ever be written.
I apply a version of this theorem to a series of short phrases that over an extended period of time cycle through every possible permutation of themselves. For example the phrase:
"You want _ _ _ _ _ _."
Starting right-to-left, like an odometer only with letters, all the blank spaces in the phrase sequentially cycle through every letter in the alphabet. By this, every word that is six characters long will eventually appear in the phrase above. Differing in theme, amount of blank spaces, and speed, each piece in the series has a different phrase displayed by itself on a large LCD screen.
For the PluggedIn Exhibition happening in Hudson, NY from May 17th - 30th, two of these phrases will be on display in the vestibules of the Mark McDonald store, along with one large phrase projected on the store's second floor windows.
I discovered the work of Bart Hess just a year ago, at the Salone del Mobile 2007. The video of his graduation project A Hunt for Hightech was shown as part of Family of Form, the exhibition that the Design Academy Eindhoven had organized in Milan that year. Just one video on a small screen and several people glued to it, fascinated and sometimes slightly horrified. The images showed mutant skins, breathing shoes, living furs and metallic gloves. My vocabulary is actually even more limited than ever when it comes to describe the futuristic fabrics and textures that the young designer had imagined. As his website won't give much details about him and his work, i decided to write Bart and pester him with my questions:
Hi Bart, i found little info about yourself online. Would you mind telling us who you are, what your background is and what you do right now?
I'm Bart Hess, I graduated a year ago from the Design Academy, Eindhoven in the Man and Identity department. This department looks at finding new materials, forecasting trends in fashion and culture. I have always had a fascination with photography, painting and fashion. Some people would say that I am shy and introvert, but when you see my work it reveals an opposite personality. I think I'm not so good at storytelling with words, but rather expressing myself with stories through images and visuals.
Right now I'm working for myself exploring several fields that straddle textile, fashion and animation, these fall within the commercial and art world.
In the description of A Hunt for Hightech you write that it is "more interesting to imitate an imaginary world"? Why is that?
With a Hunt for Hightech I made a collection of fake fur that touches on elements of fetishism, human instinct and new animal archetypes. With that collection I did not try to mimic real animal kingdoms but create a fantasy world of my own. The way this started was through the process of imagining fantasy animals; animals that could be genetically manipulated, part robot, part organic, how they would move in their environment and what they felt like to touch. I then took my (imagined) gun and 'hunted' them, looking for their extra ordinary, high tech furs. I thought about tactile qualities like reflection, the way the hair grows and three dimensionality and took these characteristics, magnified them, manipulated and exaggerated them.
Can you explain us which kind of materials you have designed for the project A Hunt for Hightech?
I used materials that were not organic or commonly seen in the fashion world, and blended plastics, metallic's, silicon's and technical foils. With these materials I tried to manipulate and re-create the same qualities and tactile feeling my fantasy animal kingdom has.
Which technological discoveries have inspired the whole project in general?
Prosthetic technology, where robot or machine meets with human nerve ending and flesh is definitely an inspiration but not an obvious link when you see the result of my project. Genetic manipulation has a clearer connection where it allows or dictates a new or changing evolution. This combination of nature, technology and evolution inspired me to create my own new animal archetypes. In my "Hunt for Hightech Animal Kingdom", animals can change their prints to distract predators, or grow their hair meters longer to appear bigger.
Your work has been exhibited in many venues and magazines. How does the public react to it?
There seemed to be two reactions from the public, there were people who were not freaked out at all and found it very attractive. These were the people who investigated and were intrigued by the furs and discovered the fabrics were quite soft, even though they were made from needles and sharp metallic's. The other type of people were scared and shocked with the idea of breathing shoes, these were the people who would get hurt touching the furs. One of my intentions was to communicate tactility and spire an emotion between the viewer and the furs, and this happened in both cases.
The models you present in A Hunt for Hightech are futuristic and fascinating. Do you see them more as sculptures or future pieces of clothing?
I really believe these are the fashion furs of the future. Why kill an animal and re-form the fur into a shape? Why not have the animal already shaped to your body, have it living and breathing around you, like the shoes. Whilst the technology is not there yet, in the meantime the animation is used as an inspiration for the fashion industry. At the moment I'm consulting at the Stijlinstituut in Amsterdam making animation and photographic collages to express and create future atmospheres. This gives me the opportunity to re-create ideas that really do have an impact on trends in the future, be it fashion, product or architecture.
You also collaborated with my favourite fashion designer, Walter van Beirendonck. What was your role in the development of his collection? Can you tell us a few words about the collections you participated to?
I started working with Walter van Beirendonck for my internship. For six months I worked on the "Stop Terrorising our World" collection doing computer illustrations for prints. This was where it all started and I have been collaborating with Walter ever since. For the "Sex Clowns" collection, Walter had the idea to create avatars and he asked me to visualize his illustrations into 3d drawings. The Sex clowns collection combines new digital life-form, with an all time classic fascination of Walter, fetishism. Fantasising about new types of Fetishism, he created a group of self-conscious men, proudly presenting their masculinity and body diversity.
In some of your work it seems that the garment or shoe is almost part of the wearer's body. How do you think new technologies could impact the body aesthetically and fashion-wise?
I think a good example of where technology and the body meet, is a project that `I have worked on with Philips Design Probes team, a provocation for an Electronic Tattoo. In this scenario a tattoo traverses across the landscape of the body moving and morphing with touch and gesture. In this case the tattoo becomes a fashion accessory using the body as canvas for moving image, where the technology opens up new forms of communication between two people.
The photographies you make together with Lucy McRae present alternative bodies or body accessories, cosmetic surgery, etc. Where does your inspiration come from?
I work with Lucy McRae in a primitive and limitless way. We work with our instinct and start by using a material on our body, exploring volumes and ways of re-shaping the human silhouette. We work fast, for one day at the end of the week expelling all our creative energy and stress, making a series of photos that capture an atmosphere. We share a fascination with genetic manipulation and beauty expression, but it is not our intention to communicate this. I think unconsciously our work touches upon these themes, we create future human shapes and new body form's. LucyandBart is blindly discovering a low - tech prosthetic way for human enhancement.
Any upcoming project you could share with us?
I have an exhibition coming up in the Summer in Fort Asperen called 'Closer to the Skin'. For this show I'm making large scale furs, approximately two metres square, I have developed a method for making the furs automatically that enables me to create the pieces much faster and bigger. I'm also starting a project now with the Textile Museum in Tilburg where I am designing my own collection of textiles using a 3d knitting machine, laser cutting and a loom. There are several other projects I am working on, but unfortunately I can't mention them yet, they will be on my website when they are finished!
Related: Lucy McRae's talk at NEXT.
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.