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Golan Levin and Collaborators

Interviews and Dialogues

Interview by Emma Tilley for ZooWire

Golan Levin, June 2002.

You have created work for a range of very diverse projects and applications, including work for the net, print, and also work for large-scale concert performances ­ how much is your work influenced by its application or format?

Rather than being 'influenced' by its application or format, I would like to say that my work is 'defined' by its application or format. To some extent this falls right out of McLuhan's famous adage that 'the medium is the message'. But without trying to claim something as simple as "form = content", I will say that an important characteristic of so-called "media art" is the extent to which successful new works sidestep the notion that "content" can be somehow be "poured" in — and instead derive their significance by attempting to present new modes of communication itself.

Well, all that is a pretty thick way of saying that my work is generally extremely formalist, or even modernist, in its focus on its own materials. In the interactive space, for example, I'm interested in uncovering what one might call the fundamental units of interactive expression itself. I think many developers of "interactive media" think that their work is "about" some little character or some narrative or some kind of graphic idea. What they often fail to see is that these inner media are really just distractions from the 'real' content of the piece, which is the texture and intimacy of the cybernetic feedback loop established between the user and the machine.

Where would you like to exhibit in future - is there a format you have not yet tried?

Danny Hillis once wrote that when something is transformed in space or time by an order of magnitude, it becomes a wholly new experience, both perceptually and conceptually. I suppose this helps explain why I'm interested in developing projects at extremely small and extremely large scales, even if the content might seem familiar. And there are so many formats that I would love to explore. For example, I someday hope to create an interactive display for one of those enormous jumbotron LED screens that one finds in Times Square and other major metropolitan districts. Artists like Pippilotti Rist and Jenny Holzer have made some terrifically provocative works for these screens; my work is more formalist and less political than theirs, but I still see some fascinating possibilities for crowd-based interactions and data visualizations in public spaces.

I'd also like to work in the arena of very small things. At the moment I'm in the research phases of a new body of work, whose eventual goal is a set of audiovisual performances which are conducted on highly miniaturized robotics perhaps a centimeter across. For this project I'll need to learn a ton of stuff about micro electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) and nanotechnology. It's a little daunting but that's the only way to do it.

Future projects: What are you working on at the moment? What projects are in the pipeline?

Currently, I'm developing a new project called "RE:MARK" at the Ars Electronica Futurelab in Linz, Austria; its central theme is the magical relationship of speech to the ethereal medium which conveys it. The project is an interactive installation in which participants are able to “see” each others’ voices, made visible in the form of animated graphic figurations that appear to emerge from the participants’ mouths. In this installation, users wear special see-through glasses, which superimpose 3D graphics onto the real world; when one of the users speaks, abstract forms appear to emerge from his or her mouth. The shapes and movements of these forms are tightly coupled to the unique qualities of the timbres and phonemes sung or spoken by the user, thus enabling a wide range of audiovisual play. When the installation is complete, I hope to develop it further into a concert event, hopefully in collaboration with some professional abstract vocalist such as Jaap Blonk, Shelley Hirsch, or David Moss. But there's a hell of a lot of work to do before we get to that point.

Of all the reactions you have had to your work, what have been your favourites?

Well, this is more of a humorous anecdote, but I was giving a lecture about my Audiovisual Environment Suite (AVES) one time in Berlin. It was really an extended workshop seminar, and I spent almost four hours covering everything from the history of abstract animation to the specific way that my software systems implmented granular synthesis techniques. Anyway at the end of the seminar there was some time for questions, and this woman who had been patiently listening to me for so long asked, "So, when are you going to talk about wearable technology?" Well, I told her that I no plans to talk about this topic, and I asked her what led her to believe that I would. And she said, "I thought the subject of your talk was the Audiovisual Environment Suit." I felt really bad, and I had to admit that what she had in mind would have been a pretty interesting lecture.

I've had some great reactions to the Telesymphony, a concert we presented whose sounds are wholly produced through the carefully-choreographed ringing of the audience's own mobile phones. During the concert, we perform people's phones by dialing them up with our custom software; at any moment, we might have as many as 60 phones ringing simultaneously. Many people reported how much they enjoyed the way the phones created an orchestrally spatialized surround-sound, which was what we hoped would happen. What surprised us, however, was the extent to which people personally identified with their phones — many people felt uncomfortably singled-out when their phones rang, while other people found themselves to be oddly jealous of those whose phones were ringing more than their own. In one case I know, somebody was able to psychologically experience the event without even attending it: this fellow came up to us after the Austrian concert, and explained that he had registered for the event but was then unable to attend; for the rest of that evening, he said, "my phone kept ringing at regular intervals, but I was continually unnerved to discover nobody on the other end of the line." My favorite reaction to this project, though, was from an older woman who attended our concerts at the Swiss National Exposition. It turns out that she had attended the previous Swiss Expo in 1964, where she witnessed Rolf Liebermann's concert for 156 electric typewriters. She said that the 1964 event had a "combination of whimsy and dignity" which had deeply imprinted itself in her memory, and that our event was the first thing she had seen since that time which recaptured this spirit. I really appreciated this unusual bridge to the past.

Personal: You obviously have a very scientific mind (having completed a masters at MIT) but also a creative one ­ often the two do not go hand in hand. How have you been able to combine them so successfully? How do people react to your work? Do they initially see it as being quite 'scientific'? Or if they see the finished project, are people surprised by the fact that there is often a scientific background? What were you like as a child ­ science or art driven?

I see these three questions as variants on a single topic. While I concede that the combination of art and technology might be considered newsworthy, I have to tell you that I simply don't see how an artistic practice could require anything less. Whether it's paint or pianos, artists continually make use of technology in order to produce their work. The difference in my case — possibly — is that I tend to be quite involved in making my own tools before I use them. To me this produces a more personal result, a more personal process, and a tighter relationship between craft and communication. But this stance is only unique in contrast to our rather peculiarly modern situation in which most artists use mass-produced tools. Think about it: we go to the art supply store and get the same Grumbacher pigments, or the same Photoshop, or the same Fender guitar. It's easy to argue that *how* one uses these tools makes all the difference, but in my mind it's more important to question *whether* and *when* we should use them in the first place. It's been my observation that the use of mass-produced tools creates a palpable and unmistakable homogeneity in art and artmaking, and this is something I'm interested in circumventing.

It wasn't always this way in the past; for centuries, artists ground their own pigments, plucked pig hairs to make their own brushes, and primed their own canvases with glue made from boiled rabbits. Instead of distracting artists from their "true purpose", these crafts actually tightened artists' connections to their materials and process. The revolution in software tools over the past decade, by contrast, has disastrously diminished the intimacy of this practice/practitioner relationship. Our tools, created by anonymous engineers for nobody in particular, are mass-produced, mass-distributed, one-size-fits-all. Why should Adobe and Macromedia get to be the ones to decide how our artistic practice should be structured? Oy. So my approach has been to try to develop my own tools from first principles, even if it means that they look a little grittier or sound a little crunchier than stuff off the shelf. And if this means I have to learn some science or math in order to make what I want to make, so be it.

Do you have a favourite mathematical or scientific theory?

I don't have a special favorite. But I think the early cyberneticians, such as Norbert Weiner and Vannevar Bush, really had some profound insights as to the nature of information-bearing signals.

Much of your work is centred around ideas of communication. If you could communicate with anything at all what would it be and what would you like to say/find out?

This is a very interesting question. I think the inevitable event of human contact with intelligent alien life will have extraordinary consequences for civilization and humankind's self-concept. But I don't expect this to happen in my lifetime, nor do I anticipate that we would be ready for this kind of thing anytime soon. We barely understand the intelligences which are already all around us, such as animal life here on earth, or autistic people, or (for that matter) the 90% of our own minds which we don't even use. Generally speaking, in most communication, there is actually very little information to communicate; it is well-known that the bulk of human conversations consist of multiple reassurances of existence, wrapped around the pre-text of a few small bits of information. "I'm here." "I'm here too." Thus I expect that communication with animals, autistics and aliens will be no different, but for the possibility that we could provide each other with such assurances as we've never had before.

Influences: Who has been the most important influence on your work and your career?

I've been really lucky to have had some terrific mentors. Marc Davis, who is now a professor at UC Berkeley, introduced me to interactive communications systems. Michael Naimark introduced me to the world of interactive art — that is, art whose medium is interactivity itself. But I really owe the greatest debt to Maeda, who gave me a model for artistic integrity at the same time that he allowed me the rare opportunity to practice it. John is unique: he's both the last living Samurai as well as the last living exponent of the Bauhaus. It makes him rigorous, inscrutable, and mysterious, but he's also a profoundly generous teacher. To John, talent itself is worthless: being a good Designer requires being a good Person first. So studying with Maeda was like some kind of ritual purification.

Who do you admire; who or what inspires you? (Could be anyone either living or dead.) Where do you take your inspiration from?

Not to push some kind of 18th-century Romanticism too much, but I get most of my inspiration from nature. So in terms of people, I think the scientist D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, who wrote the monumentally beautiful "On Growth and Form", would have to count as one of my greatest heroes. At the other end of the spectrum, I think the architect Christopher Alexander demonstrated a penetrating understanding of *human* nature in "A Pattern Language", which lays out a more comprehensively humanistic design philosophy than any other text I can think of. Other than these, I'd have to say that the educational writings of the great Bauhaus thinkers — "Pedagogical Sketchbook" by Paul Klee, "Point and Line to Plane" by Kandinsky, "Language of Vision" by Gyorgy Kepes — lay out models for a vibrant artistic practice that manages to be both mystical and methodical. I don't see a lot of thinking like this today — most stances are either one or the other — and so I continually return to these texts as well.