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Golan Levin and Collaborators

Interviews and Dialogues

Tmema Interview by Elena Ravera for Pig Magazine

Golan Levin and Zachary Lieberman, July 2006.

1) When did you decide to be an artistic duo, and not to work by yourselves?

Golan: We started working together in 2002. It's enjoyable to share artmaking with someone, and it's also a practical necessity in order to produce more ambitious projects. It's also very educational. We work together as Tmema, but we also work independently. We like to surprise each other.

Zach: I met Golan when I was a student. After I graduated he invited me to collaborate with him on a project for the Ars Electronica Museum. We realized soon that we had a lot of ideas in common, and we enjoyed very much working together. We are tough and very honest with each other, and we both work very hard, so it's a good partnership. Golan works in the evening, and I prefer mornings, so we often wind up working around the whole clock: Tmema is a 24-hour operation.

2) How do your projects take birth? Which are the ones you are prouder of?

Golan: Some of our projects arise simply because we want to research a given topic or theme. Other times, our projects originate as responses to outside invitations from curators or commercial commissions. We're proud of all of our projects. Though maybe we will not be so eager to work with "augmented reality" glasses again, until the hardware is better.

Zach: Typically, we develop our projects by sketching on pieces of paper, in notebooks, or likely, on napkins or old receipts. Both Golan and I think very well on paper, and usually, when we get together, we draw the whole time. Our workspace is usually filled with piles of paper: notes, diagrams and ideas. I am most proud of the work that stays honest and the work which takes big risks.

3) When did you begin wondering about the relationship between sound and form? How much did Gestalt theory influence your works?

Golan: We are not as concerned with the sound/image relationship as it might appear - we are more interested in the relationship between gesture and response in an interactive context. Gestalt theory is certainly a component of the conceptual background of our work. One of our projects, "Re:MARK", was specifically influenced by the "Takete/Maluma" phonesthesia experiment conducted by Gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Köhler in 1929.

4) With Drawn, you made objects sing. With RE:MARK and Messa Di Voce, you made sound visible. With Scrapple, you made images touchable. I think the next step is to make sound touchable. When will do it?

Zach: Next week.

5) Are you more interested in performing live or in showing your exhibitions?

Zach: It's interesting, because I really see them as serving completely different functions, so I appreciate them both. For example, in an installation, the audience member can be seen as completing a sort of loop with the work, and for many people, especially the non-media-savy audience, this can be a special and even magical experience. We make things which are playful and allow for spontaneous performance, and then create situations and environments where people can play with them. The downside is that is becomes very hard, in a way, to sturcture the users experience. How much time will they spend with the exhibit? How is their experienced shaped? In contrast, in performance, everything is structured. You have someone time, for 10 minutes or 40 minutes or an hour and a half. You can take them on some of sort of journey. There is a lot of energy in performance too; because alot can go wrong, that risk changes the overall energy of the space. On the whole, I think that having the back and forth between installations and performance is important, because you learn so much in both domains.

6) Among the diverse reactions people may have had while interacting with your installations, do you remember one in particular?

Zach: Once, in Madrid, we had really upset the cleaning women in the exhibition space by stealing their supplies without asking. They totally caught us, and they kept giving us evil eyes. Then, once the exhibit was ready, they were ushered in to see the "Messa di Voce" exhibit, and they went crazy, and were laughing and enjoying themselves, singing their heads off. They kept leaving their work, putting the vacuum down in the corner, and sneaking over to try the exhibit. Needless to say that they were butter by the end - all was forgiven. They came back to the exhibit daily, it was a real love story.

7) Why, during your live performances, don't you let other kind of artist interact with your work, as to show the wide potential of it? I mean, for example, to musicians using your sound/visual machine.

Zach: We'll, we have worked in this way -- in Messa di Voce, for example, we collaborated with Joan La Barbara and Jaap Blonk, two wonderful experimental vocalist/composers. There is a joy in working with other people. Drawn was composed and performed with Pardon Kimura, a musician I deeply respect. He didn't speak very much English, and I speak no Japanese, so we just focused on image and sound. We have great fun performing together, and we laughed our heads off the whole tour.

Golan: On the other hand, Zach and I often enjoy performing our own projects. Since we made the software ourselves, we are already the world experts at using it, and we don't have to spend a lot of time training someone else. Your question implies that we are not musicians. Maybe you don't like the sound?

8) What softwares do you use the most?

Zach: Honestly, it sounds stupid, but I use firefox (for the web) and putty (for email) the most. My life, somehow, is basically email and more email. When I am not, I am using Codewarrior for programming and Word, for writing, like right now.

Golan: Zach's onto it. I spend the most time using Putty.

9) About generative art: who do you admire the most in the scenery?

Zach: Hmmm..... I really don't have alot of love for generative artwork, so I'll pass on this question.

Golan: There are many significant practitioners. Frieder Nake, Manfred Mohr and William Latham were early pioneers, in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Among the younger generation, I admire Marius Watz and Casey Reas, who have amazing color sensibilities.

10) What do you think about the fact that some revelant representives of generative art (Casey Reas, for instance) use to print their work and show it in exhibitions? To me, it seems an attempt of take back their art to a more quiet, reassuring and static univers, such as to link them to a sort of artistic dignity yet acceptet from the public and so more "friendly"and, maybe, rewarding. And i don't feel this is really necessary. I'd like to know your opinion about it.

Zach: I hear you. But here's what I appreciate in the move to paper: trying to find ways to appreciate this kind of artwork without it being in the dark. It sounds silly, but one of the largest challenges to media art is the fact that we have to experience it dark spaces with no windows. I can't say this enough: We need windows! We need sunlight! So I heartily applaud efforts towards this end.

Golan: I think print is a venerable form of display with many advantages over real-time graphics. Although it may not be an ideal medium for directly demonstrating processes related to interactivity, print can be more than adequate for communicating concepts and aesthetic experiences related to generativity. Casey's prints have a physical beauty which could not be achieved in any other way, and frankly, they may be the only trace left of today's digital art in 500 years. And as Zach mentioned, we can see them in the daytime.

11) We, human creatures, have free will, fantasy and creativity… the skill to create new things through new connections between concepts or figures yet existing. Now we know also machine can do so. I don't know if i'm really confortable with it. Do analogies between genetic code and informatic code frighten you too?

Zach: To be honest, no, but I don't have any fear about machines replacing humans, nor do I spend a whole lot of time thinking about genetic code or information code. These things feel like rubbing your belly button. I would so much rather be talking about, I dunno, anything - the meanings behind the artworks? The ideas behind what is made? Discourse of media art always has to dwell on whatever fashion is happening in technology, cybernetic, virtual reality, genetic code,. To me, I would as much rather be talking about meaningful relationship between media arts and early cinamea, literature, magic, anything.

12) When a machine creates art, who is the artist? The one that writes the code or the machine that elaborates it, without any purpose?

Zach: I'm sorry, but I wont bite this question: the machine doesn't create art. The artist uses the machine as a tool, like any other tool. For me this is the end of story.

13) I believe art is based on a sort of grammar that rules the different disciplines, any different artistic deed. What is the grammar for codes?

Zach: I don't think I even understand this question.

Golan: The grammar for which codes?

14) What do you do in your real lives?

Zach: The honest truth is that I don't have anything seemingly resembling a real life. This year, however, it's my resolution to take more time off and travel - I haven't taken alot of time off since I left school in 2002. I've taken a trip this summer to Asturias, in the north of Spain (where I'm typing the answers to this interview), and I am planning to spend a month in the winter later this year traveling in Colombia.

Golan: These are our real lives.

15) Has it ever happened, during a live performance of yours, that something did NOT work?

Zach: Yes, it has happened. It's software, which has two peculiar features: (a) it is hard to make, (b) it is buggy. I've crashed once live, and it was a very surreal moment. I did something totally unexpected, and when I coded it (just days before) I never expected that I would do what I did live. I had a moment where I was thinking sooo ultra quickly debugging what had happened, it was intense. Then I just restarted the software and kept moving, and it was absolutely fine. You wipe the dirt off your pants, stand up and keep riding. Alternatively, we have pulled off some amazing feats, for example, like recompiling the code of Messa di Voce moments before the first performance to fix some bugs we just caught. The doors opened ten minutes late but everything went super smoothly.

Golan: I recall once when I had a "Blue Screen of Death" from a flaky laptop during a performance of Scribble at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. It was very excruciating and the French audience was very displeased. These are not experiences we enjoy having. It is important to handle them with some style. We always prepare for this sort of circumstance because it is a practical reality of dealing with computers.

16) My boyfriend uses to say that any respectable new media artist should perform live wearing a black t-shirt, that gives the artist the right "physique du rôle"; he says that you cannot have a live wearing, i don't know, a yellow t-shirt with kittens on it. He says it's a matter of credibility. I noticed that, in spite no one would admit it loud and clear, this is a sad general convinction. It seems that you have to wear in a "geeky but cool way" to be considered a reliable new media artist. :-) During your last live in Barcelona, i found one of you had the "black t-shirt uniform", the other not. Who neglected? And why? :-)

Zach: That was me. I didn't wear black because for the most part, I don't like black. I grew up in the midwest of america, the son of hippies. My father is a professional storyteller - part of his performance outfit he wore when I grew up was a leather vest with woodchips for buttons. I don't think too much about clothes, just try to look nice. For me the work should be the things that lends you credibility or not. What makes your boyfriend such a credible media-artist fashion-expert, anyway??

17) Would you invent an istallation for us, now, without wondering if it's realizable or not?

Golan: Talk is cheap. We prefer to build.

18) Why all the people think you two are so kind and lovely? Would you surprise all and say something really bad and cruel to our readers?

Our bald heads and playful demeanor are the perfect disguise. We sincerely trust your readership to have the intelligence and courage to think of something quite evil for us to say themselves. Anyway, we think open-ended systems are more interesting. Therefore, we would like to provide these blank lines, for the reader to fill in themselves:
Zach: "_________________________________________________"
Golan: "________________________________________________"