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Contents © 2020 Golan Levin and Collaborators

Golan Levin and Collaborators

Essays and Statements

Statement For Communication Arts Magazine

Interaction Design Competition issue
Golan Levin, May 2000.

About the Audiovisual Environment Suite

The expressive and evocative capacities of abstract form are important complements to those afforded by other visual media such as text and information graphics. My recent work has focused on the design of environments which allow people to create and play with abstract image and sound in ways which are direct, engaging, gestural and communicative. The interactive works pictured here are screensnaps captured in real-time from a set of "visual instruments" — my own hypotheses about what might be the analogy of musical instruments in the visual domain. Some of these software pieces make sound, others don't; what they all share is that they make possible the real-time performance and creation of animated form and color.

The vision of a performance medium which unifies sound and image has a history several centuries long. Many Twentieth-century pioneers, such as Wassily Kandinsky, Thomas Wilfred, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and the abstract filmmaker Oskar Fischinger, designed noteworthy audiovisual art-machines. I hope to bring to this history a provocative new set of questions and answers about the power, beauty, sophistication and personality that it is possible for an audiovisual instrument to have. My goals for these pieces were to create a meta-artwork whose interface was supple and easy to learn, but which also yielded interesting, inexhaustibly variable, and personally expressive performances in both the visual and aural domains. In my struggle to produce several examples of such works, I brought two things to bear on the problem space of audiovisual instruments: new technologies, such as computational simulation and signal processing, and a new aesthetic, which views the artworks as collaborations between user and software designer. The Visual Instruments work is important as it represents a vision for creative activity on the computer, in which uniquely ephemeral dynamic media blossom from the expressive gestural "voice" of an individual human user.

Some Personal Background

I have always been very interested in combining art and technology. When I was a teenager I did a lot of painting and music. Then, before I came to the Aesthetics and Computation Group (ACG) at MIT, I worked at Interval Research Corporation in California doing interface design. It was enjoyable work, but I wanted to explore my own ideas outside of a commercial context. I considered some art and design schools, but I found that their approach to the use of technology wasn't rigorous. On the other hand, I found most schools in computer science to be boring, impersonal, and focused on tiny ideas. I was very fortunate to be accepted into Professor John Maeda's ACG group, because he is unusually committed to allowing us to explore our own ideas and expressive endeavors, in a technically rigorous way. That is why I sometimes call the ACG a "studio art program in computer science" — it is a small design school after all, but the medium in which we express ourselves happens to be interactive, dynamic, and (relatively) unexplored. The goal is art, but the medium is software.

For a long time, at first, I tried to avoid learning how to program computers. Computer Science was so poorly taught when I was an undergraduate that I really lost interest. The professors would spend an entire week teaching about how to deal with "floating-point roundoff accumulation errors," and I couldn't have cared less. Years later, of course, I encountered that very issue while doing my own work. But that was finally the right time to learn about it. Eventually, I had to learn how to program out of total necessity. I had many ideas for software, and I kept trying to convince software engineers to help me build them. Sometimes they'd help for a little while and then leave me stranded with something that I couldn't finish by myself. I got so frustrated trying to cajole and bribe the engineers into helping me! They generally had very little incentive other than charity or pity, and I felt pretty stupid. So finally I just bought the programming books and dug in. That was three years ago.

Nowadays my work is all developed in the C programming language. Sometimes I make little sketches first, in Java. That's useful because usually my final versions need specially-configured computers, so at least people can get a small taste of what the work is like, in the Java applets on my web page. Regardless of one's favorite computer language choice, I do think it's extremely important that a computer artist be able to program in some way. Programming puts you in touch with what software is really made of. That's the computer medium, not Photoshop files or raytraced animations, in my opinion. Most art schools today teach classes in "digital art," which to them means "how to use Adobe Photoshop." Such classes claim to explore the possibilities of a new medium, but really they are only exploring what somebody else (like Adobe) thinks are the possibilities. I think individual artists need to say what the possibilities are, not some big companies.