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Golan Levin and Collaborators

Interviews and Dialogues

Interview by Dayna Crozier for Res Magazine

Golan Levin, June 2006.

As an artist working with technology and sensorial, human experience, do you feel a responsibility to teach people about themselves through your work?

I do think so. I think of the work I do, on the one hand, as being extremely apolitical — from one perspective it's really just about circles and squares and formal use of interactive response and feedback loops, and so it seems like a really formal inquiry. But actually, I think there's a more subtle political aspect to the work, which involves encouraging people to think about computer systems as something that can be liberating for them, to discover themselves in a new way.

Do you feel that your priorities lay more with eliciting that experience, or with formal, technological inquiry? Or is it completely inseparable for you?

For me they're inseparable, but I'm very fond of a quote from Myron Krueger from the mid-'70s where he said, "Response is the medium." What I've taken away from that is that I don't care how it looks, and I don't care how it sounds; I care how it responds. And that is a project which is about liberating people to experience that kind of response and to allow them to explore themselves within the character of that response.

Much of your work tends to revolve around communication. How does that drive your work?

Communication is a subject of mine, and I'm particularly interested in how we can communicate without words. The thing that interests me about communication is that it is a kind of response; it's not just a one-way communication but rather a dialog between a person and other people, or in which a person is put into a dialog with themselves. And I do think that a lot of art has really prioritized verbal response and verbal dialog, and I'm just really curious to explore modes of communication that go outside and around that.

That communication seems to come through on a synesthetic level in your projects.

I don't actually think of my work as synesthetic per se. I don't believe I'm trying to investigate the mappings between sound and image and so forth. But rather, I just use these modalities that we have very rich abilities to perceive. We have ears, we have eyes, we have very developed ways of understanding what we see and what we hear, so I have to be using those and I'm trying to address them simultaneously in a very rich way. I often get lumped in with work that is more about possible mappings between image and sound and that's not actually what I'm studying.

It seems like the traditional art establishment still has a hard time fully understanding the place of new practices in technological and interactive art. What's your experience of that?

Electronic art is definitely a ghetto in terms of the way that the traditional art world has responded to it. I'm not necessarily a fan of the interactive or new media work that has caught on with the traditional art world; I think that they don't exactly know where to look to find good work yet. I think that there is a parallel universe of new media artists, some of whom really wish they could cross over and others of whom don't even really want to try because they don't have any faith in the other system. I straddle the two systems a little bit. But by and large, yeah, museums have no idea of what to do with computer-based work, especially interactive work. And yet, everyone deals with video art now like it's no big deal. I expect that 20 years from now it'll be a very different situation. The situation is also really different abroad. Galleries or museums in other countries outside the Unites States are much more open to new media in general. I'm continually perplexed, but I think that either the museum directors in the states are themselves technophobic, or they ascribe more technophobia to the American public than there really is.

What you do serves, intentionally or not, to alleviate some of that technophobia.

I think so. But I also think that, likewise, there are problems in the bulk of new media-based art that are frequently pointed out by the other side which are quite valid. There's a whole bunch of technology-obsessed work — you know, boys who are obsessed with their toys, to make a generalization — or work which seems motivated by the availability of some whizzy new technology, and little else. Or what I like to call "a design in search of a problem", where let's say I've developed some system or technique and want more than anything for it to be useful, and so I make up some bullshit to explain why I made it, but really it's just because it uses high tech or conforms to some theoretical justification and I want to be identified with that. There's a ton of that work and I think that the dialog is not very developed in the States yet about what's good and what's bad, so it's hard for people to know and they may not have seen examples. Things might change with the new ZeroOne festival in San Jose, that's a new American biennial of electronic art.

Do you mostly create your own programs or do you work largely with a combination of preexisting programs?

I write my own software, absolutely. This is sort of another subtle political dimension of my work. I like to both demonstrate to others through the work — but also to encourage, through my teaching practice, people to realize — that they can actually take back the computer from the large software companies that control the tools that most artists use. And I try to encourage people to realize that, actually, software is not that hard to make and it's possible to learn how to make your own software. Of course, like everyone else, I use all the standard desktop tools like Microsoft Word and Adobe Photoshop to edit images or text. But the pieces I've made are custom software that I've written. I should add that for larger projects, I collaborate with people like myself, in which we're splitting the work but we're all writing software together.

Messa di Voce seems like it has so many different responsive capabilities.

Yes, it responds to many different aspects of the voice, the body. That's a piece where my collaborator Zachary Lieberman and I came up with a few core ideas or interactive metaphors — like, the idea of a voice-sensitive environment, the idea of a voice-sensitive costume, or the idea of voice-created paint. And that each of these is a different paradigm that would sort of facilitate a different mode of interaction — one in which you paint with your voice, one in which you wear a costume that responds to your voice, one in which the world moves and responds to your voice.

Do you have a particular fascination with the voice?

Not a particular fascination, but, you know, the thing is, after working on my Master's work in 2000, which was the Audiovisual Environment Suite — this is basically desktop software that used the mouse, and the mouse is a very, very limited bandwidth interface. The richness of human expression can't really squeak its way through the mouse all that well. And so the voice presents itself as a high-bandwidth means of giving information to a computer. There are so many dimensions to it, even if you're just singing a single note, there are so many things that the voice can do. The more rich the form of input, the more rich is the possible form of response. And that's why the voice formed the core of a lot of our recent projects. On the other hand, nowadays we're working with hand gestures, we're working with facial gestures and eye gestures. There are a lot of things besides the voice that we're interested in, it's just that the voice is a good one.

In the future, what sort of questions do you want to see new media art ask, or what sort of things would you like to see happen?

Well, there are a lot of domains and a lot of disciplines involved. One area of my work is this question of information visualization, and information visualization is increasingly becoming a topic of interest among artists. I think it's important for the artists to ask what sort of information is worth visualizing and why. The mere fact that one can visualize something is not necessarily the reason to visualize it. As far as new media art goes, I still want to see more people writing their own software. It's something that people should take charge of. We're not going to be liberated by the computer until we can actually speak its language and direct it to do things that we want it to do, regardless of what we can do with commercially available software.

Performance is a large part of your work. Do you feel more connected to the work when it's being performed as opposed to just being put out there?

Performance is interesting. I do work that's online, I do work that's installation-based, I do work that's performance-based, and I do work that's print-based. Print is the safest thing you could make. If you go to Photoshop and you make a nice design, you print it out, you hang it on a wall and that's that. It works, it'll work for 500 years. Online work — you put it up, and if it's broken you can just keep fixing it forever. Installation work, you put it out in the gallery, and if it crashes, you just say, 'Hey, come back in five minutes, I'm going to reboot it.' But performance, it has to work the first time. An audience pays money to be entertained. And it's a very demanding situation. A blue screen of death in front of the wrong audience can be the end of your career. And so, I actually sort of thrive on the thrill of that, thrive on the risk of not actually knowing with a hundred percent confidence that it's going to work. It has certain tradeoffs. In some ways I prefer installation because people can experience it themselves. But with performance, you can address the same ideas in a rich way because the performer knows the system, and the audience understands what it means to watch a performance. I still want to see more technology-based performance where there's really something at stake. And that's one thing I try to do in my pieces. I never know how a performance is going to turn out; it's all made live, and as a result everything's contingent on the moment, the performers and their relationship to the instrument. I see a lot of laptop performance stuff still where there's very little risk because it's all been sequenced beforehand, and for all you know, the laptop performer could be playing solitaire or checking email. So I like performance work where there's this notion that everything is live, just as it's always been in a way. And that things could fuck up. The performer could mess up. The technology could mess up. To guarantee perfection in live performance is boring! I think we've maybe sacrificed that sense of risk, and I'd like to see it come back.