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Golan Levin and Collaborators

Interviews and Dialogues

Interview by Joanna Heatwole for Afterimage

Golan Levin, March 2007.

College digital arts programs are sometimes criticized for “teaching to software” in the same sense that U.S. schoolteachers are said to feel pressured to “teach to the test.” At one east-coast university, students can actually take a minor called “Maya” a degree course named after the 3D animation software program.

Everything you learn in one of these software-oriented courses will soon be obsolete. On the other hand, you can make the argument that Photoshop has become a way of thinking that has permeated our culture and that this pattern is likely to persist for decades in some aspects. The answer is probably somewhere in-between. I’m just skeptical of the intellectual substance that is being communicated in a course entirely devoted to learning a program that was made by a specific company that effectively has a monopoly on commercial software—I find that totally repugnant.

(John) Maeda has been particularly articulate about this question for fifteen years. One quote of his that I particularly like is, “If you’re using someone else’s software, you’re living in someone else’s dream.” I think that is a very poetic way of saying that we can have our own and live our own dreams by making software do what we want rather than what someone else allows us to do.

I teach my students how to make their own code. For instance, I have them make a paint program that does idiosyncratic things that Photoshop can’t. This is a huge awakening for them. The blinders are taken off—the whole time they thought that Photoshop was the only thing that existed for image manipulation.

How does one maintain and communicate a human-oriented perspective within this kind of machine-mediated work, particularly in teaching?

It's doubly hard to make work on the computer that is moving or arouses the passions or has a connection to something beyond the computer itself. There are a variety of strategies—I can’t tell you the formula of course because that would be a formula for good art. It certainly seems to be a risk with work done on the computer, because one gets caught up in all of the tricks and techniques that are available.

The Human Computer Interaction Institute at CMU is one example of a very successful collaboration between academic departments. How do you utilize interdisciplinary collaboration within your own courses?

In the art school we have two tracks: media studios and concept studios. The media studios are skills-oriented courses in all of the basic media. Whereas [in the concept studios] students represent various disciplines and can use whatever medium they want—one might be working with sculpture while another could be working with video. We basically make the class “medium agnostic.” They may have to create a map or a diagram or a time-series. If they use the computer, great and if they don’t, fine—the course is much more about the ideas. You know, its interesting that with all of the great things that computers are capable of, the art doesn’t actually get better. The lesson is that to make something of quality still takes the same amount of time—real time and real passion, a good idea and careful craft. In fact, making good art takes as long as it ever has.