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Contents © 2020 Golan Levin and Collaborators

Golan Levin and Collaborators

Interviews and Dialogues

Interview by Jon Cates for Discourse Enabled / CriticalArtWare.net

Published online at at www.criticalartware.net
Golan Levin, May-October 2003.

Your work has a strong historical basis and sensitivity which crosses computational and filmic histories. Did you research early ocular music and experimental animation while coding the Audiovisual Environment Suite or had you been aware of these cinema histories prior to building the Audiovisual Environment Suite?

I was introduced to the history of abstract animation & ocular music when I was working at Interval Research in the mid-90's. The ideas seemed to be in the air at the time - I encountered these materials from multiple directions simultaneouly, including film theorist James Tobias (now at UC Riverside) and from SF-based artist Scott Snibbe, with whom I collaborated for a time. I would say that was around '95-'96; I started building the Audiovisual stuff in late 1998.

Have the histories and developments of live experimental video, electronic visualization events and the performance of video image processing also played a role in conceiving of and realizing your own work?

If you're referring to what is generally called 'VJ'ing, I'd have to say that it has not been a particular influence, and in fact, it's provided me with a wealth of negative examples. It's never good to generalize, but grossly speaking, I've often found the VJ'ing stuff to be aesthetically uncritical, and rather too concerned with the same, tired, 'psychedelic' surface manipulations that seem to persist as a trope in the medium. Another aspect of the VJing scene is that everyone uses the same tools Nato and Jitter and so it all tends to look alike to me. Finally, I think there's an inherent conflict between using pre-stored video materials, and creating a 'live' performance event, that only a few practitioners seem to have surmounted. And on a personal note, it seems that most VJ's aren't performing sound and image simultaneously, but rather conceive of their work as accompaniment for a music DJ; this leads to a lot of rather arbitrary juxtapositions, I feel, which is exactly the opposite of what my work is about.

That said, I think there are a lot of people doing live experimental video that have really done interesting and important work. Kurt Hentschlager from the Austrian group Granular Synthesis would be at the top of my list. Some of the folks using VinylVideo have found a nice way to enhance the manipulability of stored materials. Sue Costabile is doing terrific work in performing live imagery; her stuff is extremely organic, and her use of video processing is powerful but completely transparent. When I want 'psychedelic' stuff, though, I return to the masters of 1960's light shows, like Michael Scroggins.

And of course, there is a huge tradition of live experimental video which has nothing to do with 'surface' manipulations at all, but is altogether more closely related to conceptual and performance art; I'm thinking of the E.A.T., Fluxus, Paik, Gary Hill, and Bill Viola video art/performances. Oddly enough, I think certain aspects of my work are now heading in a direction related to this.

This is very interesting and related to what I was asking in terms of recent histories. Whereas some of the influences you list existed as and/or became increasingly sculptural and installation oriented in their stagings other contemporary practitioners such as Ralph Hocking, Woody and Steina Vasulka, Dan Sandin, Phil Morton and others consider or positioned artists' tool and system design as a major aspect of their work. Could you describe the role that your instrument design plays within your practice? To what extent is the development of the toolset and/or system in and of itself the artwork?

I've tried to have my cake and eat it too. On the one hand, I regard my interactive software systems as meta-artworks, completed in collaboration with a user, whose chief subject is the cybernetic feedback loop that they establish. On the other hand, I also enjoy using my systems as instruments towards specific ends, such as a performances. Usually, however, these performances are intended to illustrate, if not outright demonstrate, the interactive qualities of the system in some hopefully poetic way.

The importance of Marshall McLuhan (who you have previously listed as an influence) Norbert Wiener and Buckminster Fuller, which can be heard in this discussion, was also deeply felt by those who were involved in the early video art moment. You have stated that the "malleability and plasticity" of feedback systems in your applications, performances, instruments and installations allow for unique opportunities for computational art and communication. You have also explored various networks as feedback systems in works such as Dialtones and by releasing downloadable versions of your applications online. How do feedback systems, networks and active participants converge in your work? How do you feel that authoring and distributing stand-alones differs from initially developing the applications, setting up installations and performing with your own systems? Do you receive much feedback from people who have downloaded and utilize your applications?

Of course everything one does exists in a feedback system of some sort. And in general I find the feedback principle to be an important place to begin understanding any situation one might find oneself in. But in my own work I haven't yet explicitly connected the feeback loop of publishing with the feedback loops that I implement in my interactive works. Which is to say, I've derived a tremendous amount of value from publishing my works on the net, but this hasn't yet become an act of art-in-itself in the same way, as, for example, Ed Burton implemented the Soda Zoo.

Listening to Ed speak about the Soda Zoo [a feature of the Soda Constructor wherein users can save their creations to the Soda server], it's clear that the greatest surprise to him was the extent to which people adopted, and adapted, the Constructor to their own expressive needs. Ed receives about 300 new constructions per day, and they reveal a deep slice through people's loves, anxieties, and contemporary political issues. The short-term feedback loop of iteratively authoring a Soda construction, served as the hook wherein people could engage in a longer-term feedback loop of saving these constructions in an ongoing social dialogue. Because people could steal pieces from other people's constructions, a whole culture of borrowing and riffing and commenting has evolved among the several thousand participants in the Soda Zoo.

The nearest thing I've done to this was my Alphabet Synthesis Machine (http://alphabet.tmema.org), where people could evolve abstract nonsense alphabets, and save them to the server as TrueType fonts. More than eight thousand people have done this, and to tell you the truth, I'm not exactly sure who's doing it or why. But my system didn't make it possible for people to base new alphabets off of the ones made by previous people. So unfortunately the large-scale feedback loop ended there there's no way to adapt or comment on a previous alphabet, and thus no "Great Conversation" and so most people who use the system appear to be one-time users who are just game for an experiment. There are a few hard-core devotees, of course, but not nearly as many as Soda has. I learned a lot from Ed's presentation, and the idea of creating something like his Zoo is now rattling around in the back of my mind. But, for the present time, much of my work has focused on the small-term feedback loop of interaction and audiovisual response.

A fascinating riposte to this is Typophile's "Smaller Picture", by Kevan Davis. Kevan trades off some of the pleasures of moment-to-moment interactivity for the benefits of creating a feedback loop on a monumental scale a single typeface collectively authored by ten of thousands of people. It's amazing how much stability and equilibrium his system has, despite the occasional efforts of a few individuals to rupture the perfection. This piece is brilliant, I really envy it.

After thinking about your installations at ARS I began to consider how the scale of some of your pieces requires forms of institutional support that you have sought and secured for the production of these works. Can you address these pressures and necessities as an artist? How do the issues of scale effect your preparation/planning/conceptualization stages?

Dealing with scale is a tremendously important issue in the production of electronic art. Although there are still tons of interesting small ideas to make (consider futureme.org), many projects in electronic arts can only be accomplished with a lot of equipment and the involvement of numerous people with different skills. In this sense, producing media art projects can be a lot like film production. And of course this can cost a lot of money, which in and of itself is awful.

My generally optimistic belief is that, if you have a good idea, it's not too hard to raise the necessary money in order to make it. The problem is the amount of distracting effort that this requires. In the case of my last three projects, each of which took a year, I spent about 10 months raising money, and then only had two months left to build it before our promised deadline!

The support for my larger projects has come from a combination of private foundations and corporate sponsors. Raising funds from the private foundations is straightforward these organizations usually have application deadlines with clearly-delineated requirements. Obviously it still helps if one's idea is provocative in some way, and if one's application is well-written. Raising support from corporate sponsors is much more complex, it seems to me, because often one needs to have a personal connection inside the company, and have a good "pitch" about how supporting your project will overlap with the company's business interests. We had to do this for the Telesymphony, in which we needed all sorts of unusual support from the Austrian and Swiss mobile service providers. Mostly this took a lot of persistence and a great deal of luck.

I started making larger projects as a kind of personal challenge to myself. I had been making small web-based applets for some time, small pieces of self-contained software that ran in a browser and didn't require any server-side stuff or databases. Then one day I saw Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's piece, "Vectorial Elevation", and I suddenly realized that I had been working under a constraint that I was not even aware of: that all of my pieces had to be of a scale that i could complete them, by myself, in my bedroom. I wondered what it would be like if I removed this constraint, as an experiment. That's how I conceived the Telesymphony I thought to myself, what's something interesting to make, that I have absolutely no idea how to do? One of the first things I became aware of was that, in addition to knowing nothing about computer telephony, I also had no idea how to raise money. They certainly didn't teach that in grad school. Luckily I found out about the Foundation Center, a clearing-house for grants of all types. They made me aware of all sorts of foundations that ultimately ended up supporting the project.

Some people accused the Telesymphony of being "too corporate". Probably any piece of electronic art can seem this way if there is an evidently large budget, and a bunch of company logos on the web site. I feel pragmatic about it: those companies gave us support that allowed us to make the project, so showing their logo is the least I could do to thank them. I think the cocnert is way too equivocal and complex a statement about mobile phones to be interpreted as an advertisement for any of our sponsors.

One of the most difficult issues in dealing with large-scale electronic artworks is the assignment of credit. In this respect, it's a lot like film again, especially because the director or a couple of actors often end up being the only names associated with the project, even though there may have been hundreds of contributors. In the case of media art, it's even more complex because the roles of contributors are not as well-codified as they are in Hollywood productions. Personally, I have no problem sharing credit with a large number of people I admire the model of the scientific research paper, which may have twenty authors listed in some mutually-agreed-upon order. The greatest problems I've had have been in relation, oddly enough, to the festivals that support and present the works. These festivals hate a long list of author names, and continually shorten the list for their own convenience. Well, it's not convenient at all for me and my collaborators! Unattributed credit is a serious issue in the media arts, and causes of enormous amounts of bad will, especially since so many people work for so little money. Printing an extra name costs nothing, as far as I am concerned. It shouldn't even be a question.

In terms of the distribution of your "smaller" scale works, you are currently represented by bitforms gallery, and sell your some of your artwares as limited editions rather than acting as your own distributor [and/or] releasing these applications as downloadables or open source projects, toolsets or systems. can you describe this decision making process or the ways in which you feel drawn to gallery-oriented practices? how do these relationships [connect/relate] to the issues created by working with festivals, funding agencies or corporations?

If you're asking me to compare and contrast the different outlets I use for my work (various festivals, museums, the Internet, the Bitforms gallery in New York), I'm not certain I can offer anything less-than-obvious that would add to people's understandings of these different venues. I mean, they're each good for different and fairly well-understood purposes.

I put a lot of effort into creating and designing interactive media performances, such as Scribble (2000), Dialtones (2001), and Messa di Voce (2003), and online works such as Alphabet Synthesis Machine (2001) or Secret Lives of Numbers (2002). It's pretty clear that these don't fit into a gallery setting, and Steve Sacks [the director of Bitforms gallery] appreciates this. On the other hand, there remain many uptapped ways in which people could yet come to experience and appreciate interactive artworks and installations in their homes, for example, or in the lobbies of their workplaces. Bitforms has been instrumental in finding a path for my work to enter these spaces, and so that's been great.

Most of my relationships with museums and festivals center around a specific project or take place within a clearly-defined period of time. Usually this can be measured in evenings (the length of a performance) or weeks (the duration of an exhibition). It's great, therefore, to have a longer-term and open-ended relationship with Bitforms gallery on the order of months or years. Steve is constantly working to represent my work to a wide range of people, including the collectors and curators who might not be able to schlep out to Linz in order to catch my latest installation. So I'm quite happy to have the opportunity to work with a gallery, though of course I recognize that it's not for everyone, and I have to keep other paths open.

Your last couple of questions have suggested the undercurrent, it seems to me, that I have become some kind of prostitute to large-scale orgs and commercial forces. Hopefully my work, regarded on its own, doesn't taste this way ! that would be a great disappointment. But I can't deny that in order to accomplish larger-scale works in new media or even, for that matter, to make my monthly rent in New York City it's necessary to "participate in the economy" in some form, e.g. apply for grants, take commercial jobs, sell artwork. I wasn't lucky enough to be born into wealth, or to marry into it, so that's my lot.

The Bitforms Gallery is a rather visible part of my support structure. But in fact I have received far more support from a much less visible organization: my fiscal sponsor, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. It turns out that many granting foundations are not permitted to give money directly to individual artists. These foundations require, instead, that a not-for-profit 501(C)-3 organization, called a "fiscal sponsor", apply for monies on behalf on the artist. It's good for everyone: the granting foundation can hand off the responsibility of managing the artist, the artist gets another imprimateur backing up their grant application, and the fiscal sponsor takes a small cut, usually 5-10%, of the winnings. There are thousands of non-profit organizations that will act as fiscal sponsors for artist's grant applications, and they're much less "selective" (ick) than the Chelsea galleries. My advice to young artists is not to worry about finding "representation" in a gallery a fiscal sponsor like LMCC can, in some ways, do far more.