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Contents © 2020 Golan Levin and Collaborators

Golan Levin and Collaborators

Interviews and Dialogues

Interview for Victoria & Albert Exhibition by Louise Shannon

This interview was made by Louise Shannon, Curator and Deputy Head of Contemporary Programmes at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, for the exhibition Decode: Digital Design Sensations.

How would you describe your practice and where do you position your work?

My work represents a personal inquiry into abstract communications protocols. In my process, I create new communications systems to explore such protocols, and then employ these systems in artworks which strive to be both demonstrative yet sublime. I am interested in the medium of response, and in the conditions that enable people to experience “flow”, or sustained creative feedback with reactive systems. In this regard I have found inspiration in the engaging interactive artworks of Myron Krueger and Toshio Iwai, and in the research of cognitive psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi. I am drawn to the revelatory potential of information visualization – whether brought to bear on a single participant, the world of data we inhabit, or the formal aspects of mediated communication itself. Here I have drawn from many teachers in the disciplines of conceptual art and information design. And I am fascinated by how abstraction can connect us to a reality beyond language, and the ways in which our gestures and traces, thus abstracted, can reveal the unique signatures of our spirits. My recent projects have explored the gestures of the hand and voice; in my new work, I now turn to the gestures of the eye, with the aim of creating engrossing, uncanny and provocative interactions structured by gaze.

How do you see your work in the context of museums and collections?

It's a terrific honor to have my work included in venerable institutions like the V&A, and of course I'm delighted when institutions and individuals seek to acquire my projects for their collections. But I'm also interested in seeking out or inventing new contexts for my work -- outside of the white box of the gallery or the black box of the theater. For example, I'm currently working in the context of the mobile phone, which allows for a very intimate relationship to software, that huge numbers of people can experience directly.

What questions does the nature of your work pose for museums and established collections?

A significant complication for museums is my works' interactivity. Most museums are in the business of preventing people from touching the artworks -- they have entire security contingents devoted to this. And it's not just the guards who think this way; over at the other end of the museum, I've even heard some curators express the opinion that an artwork can't be "serious" if it incorporates audience participation; the conservative view is that interactive work could only be some kind of toy or game, "for kids". So the structure and demands of my work seem to run counter to the habits and internal cultures of many of today's institutions.

In relation to art collections, my projects often prompt questions about the longevity of computer-based installations -- particularly, I suspect, amongst collectors who are concerned with the resale value of the artworks. While I do my best to make my projects robust, even the best commercial components produced today are not expected to last more than ten or twenty years. There are some things to be hopeful about, such as software emulators, that might help extend the lifespan of computer-based artworks. But if my main concern was for making art that could last "forever", I'd work in stone or bronze, not software.

Do you see your work as a development or evolution of an excising practice or as a new discipline?

It's hard to know what one means by "new", especially in a conversation with a curator from the V&A! At home I have a Phaidon book, 30,000 Years of Art, which devotes about a dozen pages to the last hundred years of artmaking. In comparison to the art represented in such a book: yes, my work is part of a new discipline. On the other hand, computer arts have been around now for more than four decades -- last December, for example, marked the 40th anniversary of Jasia Reichardt's seminal "Cybernetic Serendipity" exhibition at the London ICA. Interactivity in the arts has been around even longer, in the kinetic sculpture works of mid-20th century artists like Lye and Agam. Rule-based and generative art practices extend back through the Conceptual, Fluxus and Dada art movements of the previous century. And some of the strongest roots of my work can be found in early 20th century abstract film and audiovisual experiments of Fischinger, McLaren and Wilfred. I see precursors to my work everywhere.

What do digital technologies allow you to do/investigate that other design tools do not?

I can create behavior.

There is often a complex duality within your work,  it is at times both intriguing and unsettling, surprising and familiar. Do you think this is a reflection of how people view technology?

I'm interested in creating engrossing new forms of human-machine interaction, that promote "creative flow" -- that magic state between boredom and frustration within which all sense of time seems to drop away. But I'm also interested in creating provocative works that hint at "the uncanny" -- the sense that some interaction is hyper-real, or situated in some similar but parallel reality, forcing people to reflect on the situation and question their senses. I guess these are opposite forces, and I'm comfortable with that. I don't know if this is how other people experience technology -- and 'technology' is a pretty general term; I assume you mean 'computing' -- but these are the situations, made possible through computing, that fascinate me.

How has the digital design landscape changed over the last few years?

In the late 1960s, there were roughly 10 people in the world who could call themselves computer artists; their work was compiled in Jasia Reichardt's "Cybernetic Serendipity" exhibition in 1968. By the mid-to-late 1970s, there were about 100 computer artists, many of whom appeared in Ruth Leavitt's "Artist and Computer" survey book of 1975. Ten years later, there were about a thousand, and by the late 1990s, perhaps ten thousand. In the last few years, boosted by the creation of new programming tools made for artists, such as Processing and Flash, this number has grown to several hundreds of thousands. Meanwhile, previous artforms such as film, video, animation, sculpture and even painting have slowly incorporated the computer as an essential tool. It is -- almost -- no longer meaningful to refer to oneself as a computer artist; we are all computer artists now. The artists in this exhibition at the V&A are perhaps in the last generation of people who could call ourselves this, before the term becomes meaningless. Our works are concerned, very specifically, with the social implications of computing technologies (technoculturalism) and the aesthetic potential of generative software (techoformalism). Soon, hopefully, we will all just be 'artists' again.