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Golan Levin and Collaborators

Interviews and Dialogues

Interview by Christos Carras for Bios

Golan Levin, July 2006.

Which are the stimuli (exposure to other artists or even facts of your life) that led you to performing as a form of showcasing your art projects? Also how did your interest in cross-media arts grow?

There's a performative aspect to almost all of my projects. But all that really means is that — when I am successful — it is not only engaging to experience one of my interactive projects directly, but also indirectly by observing someone experience the project.

My interest in performance as an outlet for exhibiting my work grew out of my experiences in the "demo or die" culture of the MIT Media Laboratory. At the lab, I was frequently called upon to demonstrate my software several times every day to visiting guests. I discovered that the visitors enjoyed watching me demonstrate the software as much as they enjoyed using it themselves. The possibility that this work could be performed for a much larger public became a reality when I received an invitation from Gerfried Stocker to perform my Audiovisual Environment Suite at the 2000 Ars Electronica festival. This event placed incredible new demands on both me (as an engineer and dramaturg) and on the stability and robustness of the software. It also showed me a way in which performance with electronic media could be full of risk and contingency.

I go back and forth between performance and installation as creative outlets. Some of my projects, like Messa di Voce and The Manual Input Sessions (both with Zach Lieberman) started as performances, which were then modified and simplified somewhat into installations so that the public could enjoy them directly. But another recent project, Scrapple, went the other direction. It was initially developed as an installation, but I transformed it into a performance when I realized that the system was more expressive than I had predicted.

You have often stated performing as your preferable way of exposing your art. Can you specify the pleasure you get from showcasing your work without technical safety in front of a real audience?

I think performance is absolutely the most challenging way of presenting interactive work, because of the risks involved. There are few things more terrifying than a bored, impatient or angry theater audience, and few things more gratifying than a cheering one. And there's a wonderful feeling of conquering something difficult when the computer lasts through a half-hour performance without crashing. But I wouldn't say that I prefer it. Performance is exhausting, often for all the wrong reasons, and it has the significant disadvantage that the audience can't experience the projects for themselves. Actually, I love combining installation and performance together (where the audience can explore the projects after watching demonstrations by "expert" performers), but situations which can accommodate that are rare.

Which criteria do you use in order to distinguish good from bad or even plainly impressive from substantial computer art?

Computer art may have its own particular set of materials, vocabulary, and conceptual concerns, but I can't answer this question. There are too many factors that determine artistic quality, and I don't think that "computer art" should have different criteria of success than art in general. I could list some of the new media projects I admire most, such as Myron Krueger's Videoplace, Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen's Listening Post, or Christian Moeller's Cheese. But I think it would be very difficult to reckon what these projects have in common. Honest research questions, maybe.

Although the range of your methods and media is very wide, there seems to be a common denominator in all of your performing projects: not to alienate the audience and to help people understand how interactivity works. Does this actually play a definitive role in the selection and conceptualization of your projects and also deter you from materializing some of your ideas?

This is indeed true; I try to make my works self-revealing and easy to understand, which to me stems from what I consider to be the ethics of good interface design; and I am also quite interested in making enjoyable experiences that take the design goals of play and exploration quite seriously. These factors don't constrain the conceptualization of my work; rather, they form part of its core intellectual and artistic fabric. On the other hand, unfortunately, I have found that some contemporary art curators don't see the artistic depth in interactive works which are simple and playful. To them, these things seem like crowd-pleasing toys. You can't satisfy everyone.

In which degree do you believe that you have tamed technology towards expressing yourself and ideas? What is your wildest dream regarding an art project that you cannot materialize due to technological restraints. In how many years do you foresee that you will be able to materialize it?

I'm bored of technology being the motivating factor or constraining factor which allows or prevents me from making a piece of art. I want to decouple my creative practice from what is or is not yet possible with today's computers. I'd much rather have strong ideas which have no particular dependence on the existence of some technology. This doesn't mean I'm not concerned with craft, or that I don't have a technical wishlist in order to implement my work as well as I would like. I'm just trying to avoid making art which is inspired by or obsessed with the technical affordances of computers. It's ugly, tiresome and ages quickly.

On the other hand, how would you imagine an art project of yours if you lived in an era where computers and software did not exist?

I have occasionally wondered this myself in an idle moment. Perhaps I might have been an animator in the 1920s, or a kinetic artist in the 1950s. These fields require a related set of challenges such as I now enjoy, demanding a combination of aesthetic and technical sensitivities for example. It's impossible to say of course. The real question is, what sorts of artistic ideas would I have been dealing with in a different era? It depends on the era.

Although there is a joyful/playful in almost all of your performing/art projects, you have not been involved in the established and electronic/video-games industry. Is this some sort of coincidence or a conscious, personal choice?

There are different sorts of play. My own work is much more concerned with the kind of play that comes from creative expression. In simple terms, my projects are more like musical instruments than games. The implicit rules are different; there's no "winning" and so forth. So I have very little connection to game work, even though I think it's a very significant force in art and culture today. It has not been difficult to avoid the game industry.

I have friends, like Auriea Harvey from Entropy8Zuper!, who make their own games as a form of artistic practice. I have other friends, like Brody Condon, who modify and abuse existing commercial games in order to produce new artworks. I think the work of these artists is really interesting. As for the commercial game industry, I respect the design effort put into the games, and the products are certainly artful, but that kind of cultural product is completely devoid of the critical conversation that I find interesting, or that (in my opinion) one might call art.

It seems that sound is one of your major concerns. On the other hand you have stated (in a conversation with Paul D. Miller) that music's at a dead end right now. How do you foresee the future of music?

In that conversation with DJ Spooky I was referring to so-called "experimental" musics. I think this very self-conscious categorical term has been neutralized by commercialization, and that the formerly heterogenous languages of "experimental" musics have largely converged into an idiom which sounds like little more than extremely loud white noise. Probably that's because white noise is, and will always remain, challenging to listen to. It is dependably outré. But in all other respects, my comment was a fool thing to say. Music never stands still, and people will never stop craving fresh sounds.

I think the future of music will be quite varied, both in terms of the music itself and also its mode of delivery. I decline to make any predictions. When I was a teenager I was pretty good at predicting what the "next big sound" would be, but I've stopped caring and I'm too disconnected from popular culture now. I don't think it would surprise anyone if I said that hybridization of ethnic musical idioms will accelerate, or that ringtones and other under-10-second music formats will become even more significant in daily life. I'd like to see us return to a culture in which everyday people make music together everyday, but this might require that we retrogress to an almost paleolithic form of social fabric. Maybe that will happen with global warming anyway.

I think you are visiting Greece for the first time. Are you coming with any pre-conceptions regarding the Greek audience or the Greek art scene?

Not much, or maybe only a little. As a hot Mediterranean country, I imagine that the Greek music audience is probably pretty boisterous, in a way similar to the audiences I've experienced in Spain and Italy — cheering loudly if they like something, and the opposite if they don't! I think that attitude makes sense, but as odd as it might seem, this isn't always the case. I have a very hard time reading Japanese audiences, for example. Their range of responses is much narrower — from clapping politely if they don't like something, to clapping politely but louder if they do. As for the Greek art scene, I'm ready for anything. Because the Internet has shrunk the world so much, it's no longer a safe bet to assume that only New York, Paris, London, and Berlin have any sort of monopoly on interesting new art.

In your opinion, which are the differences between the European and the American audiences in the way they perceive new-media arts? How do institutions approach your work at the two sides of the Atlantic ocean?

Both Europe and America have "kunsthalle"-type venues which are largely disinterested in technology-based arts. The reasons for this are complex and I'm still trying to understand them. A major trans-Atlantic difference is that Europe additionally has a number of very significant venues dedicated to the new-media arts, such as Ars Electronica, ZKM, V2, C3 and Kiasma, whereas America has almost none. To some extent, these venues are as responsible for perpetuating the ghettoization of new-media arts, as they are for sustaining these experimental new forms of practice in the first place.

In a 2005 interview for a Greek magazine you had said something about a project which would look great in the City of Sparta. Could you possibly elaborate on that?

I've heard that Sparta has a huge rock cliff within view of the main city square. I have a project which would radically magnify the activities of people in the public square, by using this cliff as a projection surface. Basically, the small movements of the people below would be blown up by factors of hundreds or thousands. The transformation in scale effected by such a projection would be fascinating and beautiful. I'd love to meet someone in Greece interested in producing such a project.