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Golan Levin and Collaborators

Interviews and Dialogues

Interview by Keunhye Lim for Digitall (Seoul)

Golan Levin, December 2002.

What does 'flong', the name of your homepage, mean?

Well, you're right if you noticed that "flong" is not an English word! Nor is it a word in any language that I'm aware of. But from a phonetic point of view, it could be an English word — that is, it subscribes to all of the rules by which one might construct an English word — unlike, say, a jumble of letters like "sqslkjhgu". Some of the main themes of my work are my interests in the formal properties of communications systems, such as speech and languages, and in the possibility of abstracting communications to the point that we are able to perceive and question these governing formal rules. Like grammars and syntax and so forth. So the name "flong" follows the phonetic rules of English word construction, without meaning anything in particular, and in this way is a small token of my interests and artwork.

To what degree do you consider yourself a 'multimedia man'? Are you always equipped with cutting-edge gadgets?

The term "multimedia" is now a bit tainted here in America. Even though it used to mean "involving multiple different media", the meaning of the word changed with its overuse in the 1990's. Nowadays it's almost synonymous with a very specific combination of technologies like CD-ROMs and websites, and alot of people — especially those who lost money in the overhyped CD-ROM and Internet economies! — want nothing to do with "multimedia" anymore. Nevertheless — understanding your question in the classic sense of the word — I do admit that my work does take a variety of different forms. If anything, the fact that my work spans media like performance, print, and installations has caused me some confusion in terms of my self-concept as an artist. I've become more comfortable with this in the last year or so — I guess I'll let the critics figure me out after I'm dead. In the meantime, I prefer to focus on broader themes, like abstract communication, and I'll simply use whatever medium is appropriate for expressing a given idea.

I'm hardly equipped with the latest gadgets at all... I'm pretty poor. I don't own any video equipment at all, for example, and this is becoming a really big problem. On the positive side, my main development PC is almost three years old, and it's only 700 Mhz. This means that whenever I do an exhibit at some museum, and they show my work on the latest brand new computer, my software runs wonderfully fast. That's a rare pleasure. If it were the other way around — if my own PC were too new — then I'm afraid that I would always be complaining about my exhibits.

You define yourself as an artist, composer, designer and engineer. But, in terms that your representative works are thought-provoking and exploring various aspects of human civilization - communication tools and methods like alphabet system and mobile phones, I believe you are basically an artist. If you agree, tell me what is your motivation for artistic projects?

I appreciate that you contextualize my work in terms of its social relevance! But in general the topic of nailing down the precise category for my occupation is just too confusing, even for myself. Of course, I think it's essential to make work which is somehow socially or personally relevant. But for better or worse, I mostly earn my living by doing what I would call "art for hire", or design. I have a lot of friends and acquaintances who argue about the difference between art and design; some of them see the difference as chiefly dealing with differing conventions and histories of visual languages, while others think the difference has to do with the question of who is the client — is the work done for yourself or someone else. For my own part, I believe many things that I make require me to wear both hats at one point or another. Most of the time, I'm writing software, so I probably look a lot like an engineer. I also teach and write, and perform — can't I also be an engineer, teacher, writer and performer? Still, one of my friends once said that you shouldn't call yourself an artist — that this word should be reserved as a compliment that could only be paid to you by someone else. So for this I thank you.

As for the question about my motivation for artistic projects... my answer might seem strange, or even circular. For me, my projects are their own motivation. When someone asks me why I made this-or-that project, I can usually say a few words about why it might be interesting in this-or-that context, or I can tell a short personal story about how I got the idea. But the motivation? I made it because I wanted to!

You were in the 'Aesthetics and Computation Group' at MIT. It is amazing for me, as the name suggests coexistence of 'aesthetics' dealing with human sensibility and 'computation' based on mechanical rationality, which are commonly considered contradictory. Were you trained to be a Renaissance Man under Maeda at MIT? And, what was it like to study there?

Yes, I studied for two years in John Maeda's "Aesthetics and Computation Group" at the MIT Media Lab. I don't find the group's name to be contradictory at all, actually; to me, it points toward an ideal combination of artistic vision, and developed craft. I don't think you can have one without the other: if one accepts the idea that computers are a valid artistic medium, then it follows that one must attend equally to both the content (Aesthetics) they enable and the form (Computation) that they entail. Computation is particularly interesting, not just because of the enormous social impact of computers in the last decade, but because of the way in which this field intersects with so many other aspects of human thought, like biology (how do living creatures organize themselves?), philosophy (what is mind?), literature (what is the language of cinema?), etcetera. It's even surprising how messy and non-humanistic computation can get! Here and there, a few people are increasingly seeing computation as a new kind of liberal art. I'm thinking of Maeda, Brian Kernighan (inventor of C ), Stephen Wolfram (inventor of Mathematica software). But it will probably be a long time before the universities come around.

My years in the ACG were a period of profound growth, and for this I am entirely indebted to Maeda. I'm not sure I could describe in a short space what it was like to study with him. But I will say that I think I might have had an easier time if I had grown up with an Asian education! Even though John was born in America, he came from an exceptionally rigorous and traditional Japanese background. His austerity and sternness were legendary — we used to joke that he was simultaneously the last living Samurai, and also the last living member of the Bauhaus. As an American kid, I was used to having a much more informal relationship to my professors — palling around, having a beer with them, etc. — and so studying with John was something of a culture shock for me at first. I think I finally understood John for the first time when I read "Hagakure" (the Practice Manual for 16th-Century Edo Samurai), shortly before I graduated. I immediately wished I had read it two years earlier; I finally had some insight into the proper respect due to elders, and it might have spared me from making a lot of mistakes. Judging from the way he dealt with my errors, though, I'd have to say that Maeda is as generous a teacher as he is demanding.

I read you sometimes spent more time in fundrasing than in research and production of specific projects. I understand that you also make money from commercial projects as a designer. Then, what is the proportion between profitable and non-profitable projects? Do you sometimes pour your own money made from design work into 'artistic projects'? If yes, why do you think 'artistic-project' is worth spending money on?

The statement about fundraising was truly the case for my Telesymphony project, which was ridiculously expensive and required extensive technical collaboration from a mobile service provider. For this project, we spent about 10 months raising support, and then 2 months doing all of the actual development. But I wouldn't say this is how my life generally works — I would get too depressed! I try to do about equal amounts of both. Fundraising is the least fun aspect of being an artist, but it's a stark reality for all but those few artists who are blessed with family inheritances, wild pop success, or extensive institutional or governmental support. I'm looking for a job nowadays, maybe in a university, where I won't have to do quite as much hustling, at least for basic stuff like making ends meet.

Your questions presume that I have any profit-making projects at all, commercial or otherwise! Since I don't prefer to talk about money, let me simply state that I've had to finance all of my projects, to greater or lesser extents, with my own money, and that I've rung up a rather crippling debt as a result. It's a problem, but that's the cost of making art.

Your projects such as 'dialtones: a telesymphony' seem to require high degree of accuracy in using audio-visual technology. Technology is for convenience, but sometimes it provokes anxiety. Do you feel the same before or during the performances?

There are different kinds of artists, and different kinds of artworks. When I'm concerned with my materials, I try to make a difficult thing look simple. This is a bit like being a magician. When I'm concerned with my concepts, I try to show how an apparently simple thing can actually be rather interesting and complex. This is like being a good teacher. Obviously computer technology can play a role in both of these situations, but so can any other craft.

I found out that kids have more flexibility in dealing with media art works, without any prejudice about existing dichotomy between art and technology. In contrast, many adults including curators nervous about new technology still have fear about those they are not so accustomed. Do you see the different response according to generation or occupation?

While all of our curators and critics are still confused and anxious about the "art/technology dichotomy", our kids are SO OVER IT — it's not an issue to them at all, because they are steeped in electronic culture. The concern to me is that there's not enough effort put into educating our kids with an intelligent and informed critical attitude toward electronic media: what's good, what's interesting, and why? This is exactly where our critics and curators could be helping.

Your works seem to vary enormously in terms of scale, degree of technology and depth of philosophy involved. Not only the huge-scaled performance like AVES and Telesymphony, but also I found the simple and small-scaled works presented on the Internet seems very fun, which is good for relaxation and refreshment. Would you mind if I call those interactive works tools for 'play'? Do you have any specific philosophy about 'play' in line with interactivity and audience participation?

These are generous comments. I admire artists whose work crosses a broad range of scales, and I strive to work this way in my own artistic practice. I think it's necessary, at least for me. Small artworks are a like a laboratory in which I can test out ideas, pursue serendipity, make experiments, keep my mind active, or simply do sketches for the future. At some point, though, I feel it's necessary to put it all at stake. The large pieces have their own life, they're bigger than I am, and I have to submit to them completely. I thrive on this risk. No matter the scale, though, I try and have every piece of mine, no matter how small, reflect some personal design principle in some way.

I think your second question, about 'play', cuts across the essential theme of all of my interactive work. The 'content' of this work consists of nothing more, and nothing less, than the very specific feedback loops that I establish between a system and its users. If these feedback loops are not engaging, then I've failed, and it's pretty obvious; if not, then people variously find my systems 'relaxing', 'playful', or 'refreshing'. 'Tools for play' is a great phrase, especially since it's not the same thing as computer games, which my work really isn't trying to shoot for. The best term I've seen to describe my goal, though, is 'flow', which has been well-described by the Chicago psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi. His book, "Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention", goes a long way towards describing the necessary conditions for such engaging feedback systems.

Tell me about your project you're working on at the moment.

Right now I am working on a new audiovisual performance, involving the real-time visualization of speech and song. It's loosely based on software that my collaborator Zachary Lieberman and I wrote last summer for our installation at Ars Electronica in Austria (Re:MARK). This time, we'll be having professional singers operate the software onstage. We're incredibly lucky to be working with two amazing singers, Joan LaBarbara and Jaap Blonk, who specialize in making funny noises with their mouths. Joan has a five-octave range, and used to sing for John Cage and Philip Glass; Jaap's background comes more from 20th-century Dada poetry, and he's a complete alien behind the microphone. They'll be making new sorts of audiovisual duets. I'd like to find a Hip-Hop beatbox vocalist to join them, but I haven't yet found the right person.

Have you ever been in Asian countries? I Hope Korean fans have an opportunity to experience your wonderful media performance in Seoul in near future.

I was in Japan once, but only for a few days. I haven't yet been to Korea, but I would love to go! I have a few friends who have shown interactive work there — Peter Cho, who is Korean-American, Romy Achituv, and Joshua Davis — who have said wonderful about their experiences in Korea.