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Golan Levin and Collaborators

Essays and Statements

Some Thoughts Regarding John Maeda On the Occasion of Ars Electronica 2006

This text introduces the documentation of John Maeda's Nature series of digital artworks in the Catalogue of the 2006 Ars Electronica Festival, Simplicity: The Art of Complexity.
Golan Levin, 10 July 2006.

Before I began my studies with John Maeda at MIT, about nine years ago, I pestered a mutual acquaintance to tell me more about the man who would become my graduate advisor and mentor. His enigmatic reply was that Maeda was a hybrid of the last living Samurai and the last living exponent of the Bauhaus. Certainly, the influence of the Bauhaus tradition on Maeda's thinking seemed plausible enough, given his careful attention to the formal properties of design materials (in his case, software), his principled yet intuitive consideration of aesthetics and utility, and his profound commitment to education. The connection between Maeda's work and Samurai ethics, if indeed there was one, took me much longer to perceive. It seemed incongruous that there could be a kinship between the quiet artistic practice of my charming and pacifist advisor, and the ruthless warrior philosophy I knew (only) from the movies of Akira Kurosawa and Hiroshi Inagaki. The connection became clear to me much later when I happened to read Hagakure, the Edo-era behavior code of the Samurai class, which stressed a particular combination of honor, courage, loyalty, and moral character as necessary precursors to the perfection of an artistic practice. Although the Hagakure was compiled nearly three centuries ago, and Maeda had not read it (I asked him once), the book nevertheless predicted, in rather uncanny detail, the precise character of discipline I learned from him. It also seemed to foreshadow and explain Maeda's abiding preoccupation with the topic of Simplicity. A representative passage from the Hagakure illustrates both ideas:

How should a person respond when he is asked, "As a human being, what is essential in terms of purpose and discipline?" First, let us say, "It is to attain a mind that is pure and lacking complications." When one has a pure and uncomplicated mind, his expression will be lively. When one is attending to matters, there will then be just one thing that comes forth from his heart. That will be, in terms of one's master, loyalty; in terms of one's parents, filial duty; in martial affairs, bravery; and apart from that, something that can be used by all the world.[2]

The Hagakure describes an interrelationship between simplicity and discipline which, I believe, Maeda comprehends with a singular intuition. As we know from this year's conference, Maeda has since 2004 applied himself to the ambitious project of identifying the "Laws of Simplicity." Does it seem surprising that something as elusive as simplicity might obey law-like principles, or that it should take years to discover them? In nature — which Maeda has been observing a great deal recently — simplicity and discipline are both manifest in a core law of energy minimization, in which maximal efficiency is achieved with the least material and effort[3]. Inasmuch as structure in nature is a strategy for design[4], Maeda posits analogous principles for the creation of artifacts and experiences — encouraging artists and designers, as for example in his Eleventh Law of Simplicity, to subtract the obvious, while adding the meaningful[5]. If the laws of simplicity can indeed be divined, it will surely take great discipline to apply them well.

In addition to its discussion of discipline and simplicity, the Hagakure also devotes considerable space to discussing the logic and appropriate circumstances for ritual suicide. According to the Samurai code, this path should be chosen in preference to a dishonorable death at the hands of an enemy. As extreme as this might sound, this concern is no less true for Maeda, whose declared enemies are stagnation and complacency. Indeed, twice in the time that I have known him, Maeda has — in his own words — deliberately "killed himself" to avert the possibility of self-repetition. The first time was the publication of his exhaustive career retrospective (at age 35), "Maeda@Media", which he made "with the intention of terminating a line of thinking that I once had"; the second time was when he closed down his still-thriving research team, the Aesthetics and Computation Group, despite its successful and indisputably productive eight-year run. Both of these occasions have demanded almost Madonna-like skills in professional re-invention. In his most recent reincarnations, Maeda has shifted his focus to new aesthetic and pedagogic questions, through projects such as his Simplicity industrial consortium, his ongoing study of business administration, and his new research group at MIT, the Physical Language Workshop.

In light of Maeda's determination to reinvent himself, it might seem that his new Nature series of digital works, on display this year at the Ars Electronica Festival, represent an unexpected return to his previous interests in dynamic computational form, which he began investigating in the early 1990s. I think Maeda provides an answer to this puzzle in one of his recent blog entries, which he wrote after observing one of his own mentors, the great designer Wolfgang Weingart:

I was visiting Weingart in Maine to give a lecture for his then regular summer course. I marveled at Weingart's ability to give the exact same introductory lecture each year. I thought to myself, "Doesn't he get bored?" Saying the same thing over and over has no value in my mind. Yet it was on maybe the third visit that I realized that although Weingart was saying the exact same thing, he was saying it simpler each time he said it[6].

Maeda's new "motion paintings" (a formulation which he has earned the right to borrow from Oskar Fischinger) return for their inspiration to the artist's greatest and oldest master, Nature. These works restate themes which Maeda has studied before — but, like Weingart's lecture, with greater simplicity. Similar to the work of the Abstract Expressionists, these works "assert flux and indefiniteness of identity as qualities that can be found in the world," shaping energy, in the words of Thomas McEvilley, to model the real[7]. Maeda's magic is to present a glimpse of reality wherein the fundamentally brittle and impersonal logic of computation seems to bend, not merely naturally, but inevitably to accommodate the breeze of a highly idiosyncratic intuition. In so doing, his works embody traits that transcend any particular philosophy — Bauhaus, Samurai, or otherwise: humility, candor, grace, and a sense of humor.