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Contents © 2020 Golan Levin and Collaborators

Golan Levin and Collaborators

Interviews and Dialogues

Interview by Alessandro Ludovico for Neural.IT

Golan Levin, November 2006.

'Messa di Voce' was an animated abstract visualization of voice and singing, dynamic and very reflecting its discontinuous emission of sounds. Voice is mostly used as an activator of events in installation art, and rarely considered a proper medium outside of music circles. The visualization of sound, instead is a big issue in the last decade. How do you relate to all that in your work?

Sound visualization has become a persistent theme in software art, ever since computers became fast enough to produce images and sounds in real-time — about a decade ago, as you mentioned. It seems there are at least two or three new exhibitions every year whose curators purport to have re-discovered the abstract 20th-century kinetics of Thomas Wilfred, Oskar Fischinger, Norman McLaren, and so on — the recent exhibitions at the Centre Pompidou ["Sons et Lumieres"] and the Los Angeles MOCA ["Visual Music"] are good examples. There are many more venues and festivals in which psychedelic VJs are paired with techno DJs, projecting sound-responsive computer graphics and so forth. A few of the better conferences, such as the SonicActs festival in Amsterdam, are able to create a dialogue between the artwork from the two eras -- it's good entertainment, at the very least.

Although my work sometimes appears in these contexts, I think this is something of an misunderstanding of its true subject. The focus of my work is not the relationship of sound to image, but rather the relationship of responses to actions. The actions I'm interested in come from a participant's expressive use of their body. And the responses happen to employ sound and image, because these are very effective (and nowadays, computationally expedient) channels for providing feedback to the participant. The human voice fits into this scheme very well because it is such a rich signalling mechanism, and because we are so well-adapted to listening to it. Even so, the “Messa di Voce” software, which I developed in collaboration with Zach Lieberman, was designed around real limitations with respect to the voice. In a few years it will be much easier for a computer to understand what someone is saying, and not just how they are saying it. That will be a good time to explore this idea again.

Your 'Alphabet Synthesis Machine' is a sign generator that produces entire alphabets (and then digital typefaces) starting from the user defined seeds. It symbolizes, I think, the ability of software to generate signs and then possible new meanings, and at the same time its overwhelming capacity for output production. What's your vision, instead, of software potentials?

Much “generative art” has been concerned with the production of abstract forms – and to be more precise: it has been concerned with the design of machines for the production of infinite varieties of entire families of abstract forms. Such a generative machine calls into question the semantic differentiability of the units it produces; these forms become, in a sense, all equally meaningful, and through the dilution caused by yet additional generations, all equally meaningless. I thought it would be interesting to apply this frustration to the Alphabet, and to writing in general, since (unlike purely abstract forms) the medium of writing is a very particular graphic phenomenon within which we are habituated to look for decodable meanings and messages. I intended the Alphabet Synthesis Machine to create forms that look meaningful, but in fact are not. It is endlessly puzzling and fascinating to me that people (still!) use it every day to produce hundreds of meaningless typefaces.

The 'Yellowtail' applet is one of your most famous works. Giving (autonomous) life to a simple user drawing, it almost endless fascinates one, establishing the feeling of a 'live' creature. Why in your opinion we are always looking for life in our digital objects?

Instilling lifelike qualities in artworks has been a preoccupation of artists since before Lascaux and Pygmalion. I can only speculate that life is such a fascinating subject because the alternatives – death and non-existence – are so grim. Although the computer adds kinesis and responsive behaviors to the artist’s palette, the goal of creating living artworks has not changed much in thousands of years; only the means. The next revolution will be biotechnological, and artists may eventually succeed at producing more than just simulations. (Eduardo Kac might say that we already have.) I wonder then if it will cease to be considered art (= “artifice”), since it is actually alive.

'Axis', showing mostly unknown economical connections between the states after a couple of clicks, proves the power of visualization and mapping of original data. Do you think this is an underestimated political tool, or just another software visualization potential?

“Axis” was intended as an obscure geometric joke about George Bush’s asinine invention, the “Axis of Evil”. The curator Christiane Paul, who had commissioned the project for a group compilation on the Whitney Artport, asked each of the artists involved to create an applet that would “connect three points.” At first I experimented with purely abstract interactions, in a manner similar to the applets eventually made by Scott Snibbe and Martin Wattenberg. But then I remembered a satiric article which claimed that a political “Axis” was required to have three countries. I decided to allow the user to invent or discover their own political axis – which would be an imaginary triangle connecting any three countries, according to the properties those countries had in common. My wife and I collected a huge database from many sources, documenting all sorts of weird properties that a country might have. Some of the properties were very unusual; for example, we got information from www.food-insects.com about which countries include insects in their national cuisine. And so the applet allowed the user to select three countries to see what they have in common. So, for example, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana form the “Axis of Landlocked, Anglophone, Elephant-Keeping, Bug-Eating Countries”.

The implementation of Axis has some significant flaws: too many countries have nothing in common, or only share something really obvious and boring (like exporting vodka, which almost every country does). Perhaps someday I’ll have some time to expand the database. For now, I just offer the project as a speculative, fun and hopefully stimulating rumination on geometry and visualization.

'The Secret Lives of Numbers' is a monument to the sympathy with abstraction, and to the rational presence of numbers in our life. Its universal understanding transverses the use of integers as an universal reference, beyond any language. But in your opinion numbers are still archetypes of abstraction?

The “Secret Lives of Numbers” shows the “popularity” of every number from 1 to a million, a dataset which I collected from the Internet at various intervals starting in 1997. For this project, I measured “popularity” by polling a search engine to find the number of web pages that contained a given integer. It seems like a dry question, but it nonetheless produces fascinating results: the ways in which we use numbers actually reflects endlessly irrational aspects of our culture, history and biology. To give just a couple of examples: the number 4646 is much more popular than 4645, because it contains a rhyme – this makes it easier to remember, which makes it a preferred telephone number for taxi companies, and so forth. Likewise the number 911 is more popular than 910, probably for very obvious reasons nowadays. I think that our cultural and psychological relationships to numbers are so strongly charged, precisely because they represent the ultimate in abstraction – we can project any association onto them, because they are ostensibly so neutral.

The gesture is also one of your centers of interest (as seen in many works, from 'Dakadaka' to 'Manual Input Sessions'). Hands and fingers are so important for digital communication (they are still the primary input tool) and at the same time they are the most misrepresented body part in interfaces. Please tell me more about your interest in gestures.

I believe that gestures encode something unique about our identities and, if you will, our spirits. Every person has a unique way of moving through the world, and when we see these spatio-temporal patterns reflected back to us, we become able to observe and recognize new aspects of ourselves. This reflection of our gestural signatures has been refined and amplified in various art forms, like calligraphy, dance, and instrumental performance, but it is also equally present in more quotidian expressions like our handwriting, gait, body posture, and facial expressions. Unfortunately, for more than two decades, the computer interface has been oblivious to these expressive dimensions, and it is a major reason why computing often feels cold and impersonal. One of my research interests has been to develop interactive artworks that are aware of our subtle gestural expressions, and are able to respond accordingly. Dakadaka was a collaboration with Casey Reas in which we explored the percussive nature of keyboard interaction; Manual Input Sessions was a collaboration with Zach Lieberman in which we explored the potential of hand gestures to create both animation and sound patterns. My current projects (which won’t be ready for another year or so) respond to the gestural expressions of the eyes and face.

In 'Yearbook Pictures' and 'Floccular portraits', you deal with the human face representation, generating always different versions of the same interpreted face. In a very different domain, the face is also the core element used in identification software applied to CCTV footage. Do you think that the electronic representation of our somatic traits still correspond to our aesthetical identity?

I would say that people have definitely developed a new form of non-corporeal, purely information-based identity that has become added to our "somatic" identities. This digital identity has been treated as the subject of some very interesting net art such as (for example) "TraceNoizer" by the LAN group, "Net Worth" by Osman Khan, and "Life Sharing" by the Italian 01 collective, all of which offer portraits (or anti-portraits) of people based on this new kind of identity.

Like these artists, I’m also interested in portraiture derived from our information identities, but my approach has been more oriented toward “group portraits”. I think this can be seen in projects like my "Secret Lives of Numbers" (2002) and "Dumpster" (2006), which present views into the thoughts and identities of millions of people, extracted from literally billions of web documents. It’s difficult to reconcile the notion of a portrait, however, with our expectations that even a portrait of our “information identity” should somehow employ or depict a human face. On one occasion I have actually combined these ideas and used the human face as a front-end for information visualization – this was my Carnivore client, "JJ" (2002), which used an expressive face avatar to visualize the emotional content of intercepted Internet traffic.

In the case of my "Yearbook" and "Floccular" portraits, I must confess that these are really just playful graphic experiments. These images are investigations into the peripheral territories of visual perception; they take advantage of our brains' enormous capacity to interpret faces wherever we look. These pieces thus become "interactive" – to a very small degree, anyway – because they demand such a heightened degree of active perception. I grant myself the liberty to make purely formal studies like these – it is both relaxing and challenging, and allows me to explore other aspects of my curiosity.