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Golan Levin and Collaborators

Interviews and Dialogues

Interview by Ulrike Reinhard

Golan Levin, 1 January 2007.

What does interactivity mean to you?

This is one of the most challenging questions I've ever been asked. Although I create interactive systems all the time, I haven't given a lot of previous thought to nailing down a good written definition! I'd have to say that my model of interactivity is based on the idea of a dialogue or conversation between a person and an artifact. According to the "contingency view" of conversation, messages in interactive systems are dependent on all previous messages and to the relationships between them. To me this means that there is an intense and long-lasting feedback cycle established between the user and the artifact; it's not just a one-way activity like turning on a lightswitch. How can this definition be applied to the creation of personally moving artwork? I think the way messages are sent, and not just the messages themselves, has to affect the user on aesthetic, intellectual and spiritual levels.

How has or will Web 2.0 change your way or understanding of what interactivity is?

I'm inclined to think that the term "Web 2.0" itself is a mostly commercial buzzword. But I'm nonetheless an enormous fan of the new kinds of tools and services to which the term usually refers — user-driven media like Wikipedia, Flickr, Delicious, YouTube, LastFM, blogging software, and all the rest. These tools have already led to an enormous shift in the way many people communicate and share information, both with their friends and also with the world at large.

One of the more interesting new formats for user-created content services is in networked games. Some early examples of this could be found in custom level-editors for first-person shooter games like Quake, or in the custom arrangements of virtual furniture purchased by the users of graphic chat spaces like Habbo Hotel. But the most developed example I have seen is the new Spore game by Will Wright. This game presents a world or universe entirely and strictly populated by user-created creatures, characters, vehicles, architecture, and even interplanetary societies. The term "Web 2.0" represents a total shift away from traditional content production, but until now this kind of thinking hasn't hit the world of game developers, who traditionally spend many months preparing assets. Wright's a smart guy.

How do sound and image interact?

That's impossible to answer! Many doctoral dissertations still remain to be written on the subject. Because the question about how sound and image interact necessarily refers to how they interact in the human perceptual system. And this is not a simple thing at all. There are all sorts of marvellous cognitive science experiments and bizarre effects which illustrate this, whether in relation to phenomena like pitch, tempo, harmony, color, etcetera. Today's New York Times, for example, reports on the work of Dan Levitin, a cognitive musicologist at McGill University, who has demonstrated that an audience's perception of what they believe is a purely auditory musical tension can be decidedly influenced by the sight of the performer's body language. Two things I have learned for certain, in creating my audiovisual artworks, are that (A) there are no "rules" regarding "correct" mappings between e.g. color and tone; and that (B) coincidences will inevitably be forged in the minds of the observer — the human mind forces its inputs to make sense. In my projects, I try to apply my intuition to the creation of relationships that I hope will be interesting. If the mappings and relationships between sound and image are coincident within 20 milliseconds or so — the timespan which the brain calls "now" — then the signals will assuredly be fused in the minds of the observers, no matter what. My question is not, therefore, whether these mappings are correct, but only if they are interesting enough.

What impact might your ideas have on commercial applications, for example games?

I admire games but I don't have much of a knack for inventing them. Most of my projects involve "creative" applications, closer to musical instruments or paint programs, than systems which people can win. In any case, I've missed so many commercial opportunities that I'm probably not the best person to ask. It's been pointed out on several occasions, for example, that my projects involving speech recognition could be turned into very successful educational applications, so that children could learn to spell words and so forth, or so that hearing-impaired children could learn to speak better. I don't think it's so simple: children's voices are more difficult to model computationally, since their expressive range is so much wider than a typical adult's "office voice." When it finally does become possible to analyze children's voices, it will anyway take a team of engineers with less artistic temperaments than mine to sit down in a concentrated way and make a commercial product that works reliably on a low-end consumer-level computer. I don't enjoy that kind of engineering; I'd much rather give a lot of thought to the artistic uses of technology, and make a really good working prototype of an idea. If other people are influenced, that's great.

What are we going to see at your new exhibit next November at bitforms gallery?

I'm working on several artworks which deal with the concept of the visitor's gaze. I'm interested in the possibility that an image could be created or destroyed by looking at it. So these new projects involve a very advanced technology known as gaze-tracking, which is when a computer can determine exactly where a person is looking. Eye-tracking has been used by the military for some time, for example in missile targeting systems built into the headsets of Air Force pilots. But these systems require a lot of special headgear, which is fine for an airplane pilot but doesn't make any sense in a gallery. I can't say much more at the moment because I'm still researching exactly how I'm going to create my ideas, and they still stand a reasonable chance of failing!

What are some major differences between MIT and CMU?

Well, it's not entirely a fair comparison — MIT is the sixth-wealthiest university in the world, with an endowment worth more than eight billion dollars. In the last year alone, MIT's wealth grew by $1.7 billion, which is more than twice the entire wealth of CMU. So naturally this difference in wealth makes for a lot of practical differences in terms of the schools' facilities, aid to students, and academic offerings. Nonetheless, for a university of its size and modest endowment, CMU does very well in many respects; its Computer Science and Robotics departments, for example, are considered world-class and often rank alongside MIT's.

Having spent seven years as a student at MIT, I have noticed differences between the two schools that matter a great deal to me personally. One significant difference is the schools' attitude with respect to the arts. CMU has an entire College dedicated to undergraduate and graduate study in music, design, fine arts, architecture and drama. By contrast, it is quite difficult to study art at MIT. The environment there is hostile and uncomprehending to the very idea: it is very difficult to explain to people at MIT why you are devoting your time to something so useless as art. As a school with strong traditions in both the arts and sciences, CMU has the potential to make really interesting connections between these fields.

What are you teaching at CMU?

I'm very concerned that artists should be able to think around the limitations of commercial software, and be able to create computational media of their own. My core course which addresses this is called "The Interactive Image", which is based on the same principles that John Maeda set out about ten years ago in his "Fundamentals of Computational Visual Form" curriculum. This is a "studio art course in computer science," where the objective is art and design, but the medium is custom-written software. Artists learn how to program computers, toward aesthetic ends. At the same time, many computer science students also take the class, usually to apply their skills towards getting in touch with their artistic side. I teach with the popular Processing environment, a Java-based toolkit created by former colleagues of mine from John Maeda's program, Casey Reas and Ben Fry.

This coming Spring, I'm really excited that Ben Fry will be a visiting professor at CMU. We're going to teach a class together on the subject of information visualization, which is Ben's particular area of expertise, and an area I've experimented in a few times. My main question for this course concerns how information visualization can become a tool for artists — as a way of asking new questions ans revealing new narratives about our culture, for example — while Ben is coming from a perspective more concerned with issues of usability and design concepts for dynamic graphics. The students enrolled in the class range from first-year art undergraduates, to PhDs in Computer Science, which is a bit of a one-room schoolhouse, but a great mix nonetheless.

What is the motto of your life?

I try to maintain humility, candor, and a sense of humor.

What is the motto of your work?

I follow my curiosity. I make things that I enjoy playing with myself, or that I want to see, because I cannot see them anywhere else. I try to allow the things I make to speak their own language: to let them sound the way they want to sound, to let them appear the way they want to appear.

What was your career aspiration at the age of 6?

My wife makes fun of me for being peculiarly driven, because even before the age of six I knew that I wanted to be exactly what I am now: a person who somehow combines art and science. I had a really significant life-event when I was five, actually, that helped determine this: it was a trip to Boston, where I saw the artworks that were being created at the MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies. Among other things, I saw some of Paul Earls' laser artworks, Michael Naimark's projection installations, and Bill Parker's light sculptures. I also saw some very early computer animations. For a long time, I thought that I would become a computer animator; I almost left college to go work on the first Toy Story movie. But somehow things fell together for me in the field of interactive-media arts when I was at Interval Research in my mid-20's. By a curious coincidence, one of my mentors at Interval was Michael Naimark, whose work had inspired me so much twenty years earlier.