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Golan Levin and Collaborators

Interviews and Dialogues

Interview by Paolo Crespi for La Repubblica delle Donne

Golan Levin, September 2006.

You are a son of MIT, a university probably unique in the world. Which were your "guru" when you were still a student? And which one influenced you most?

Well, as you probably know, I studied with John Maeda, who was tremendously influential for me at a key time in my artistic development. John gave me the confidence to really not be afraid of making anything on a computer. He didn't teach me any computer science or programming at all, actually; he just created situations where the only option was for me to solve the technical problems myself. I've had other important mentors too: Michael Naimark, a California-based artist who I knew from Interval Research; Marc Davis, a former Media Lab advisor of mine, from when I was an undergraduate, who is now a Vice President for Video Media at Yahoo. For the last decade, I've been in awe of Japanese artist, Toshio Iwai. Now, he is a real guru.

How do you combine art and engineering in your research and in your artifacts and performances?

Every piece I create presents a new medium -- each piece involves the invention of a new medium of communication. Of course I don't pretend that these media will have the same cultural impact as the television or telephone or instant messaging. They will be small blips. But they present alternative concepts about how people can communicate together. I believe very much in McLuhan's statement that the "Medium is the Message"; each of my projects is a medium which in some way, by its very existence, poses a critical response or challenge to our concepts about communication. In order to create these media, of course, a lot of technical engineering is necessary. In order to invent something, you have to find answers to unsolved problems. So most of my artistic activity consists in trying to invent solutions to technical problems that haven't even been considered yet, or properly solved by real engineers.

What about your last creations? Is there something new or special you can signal?

I'm quite pleased with a performance I did last year in collaboration with the experimental sound-poet Jaap Blonk. This was a version of Kurt Schwitters' half-hour abstract sound poem, the Ursonate, which Jaap has completely memorized. I developed software which presents live, real-time, "intelligent subtitles" of the poem. It's an effect we see every day on television, but never in real life. In February of this year I finished an online information visualization, called the Dumpster, which depicted romantic breakups obtained from the blogs of millions of teenagers. The data itself was a little overwhelming in comparison to the method I developed of presenting it. It was almost more interesting just to read the entries. I learned a lot from that. In the next year, I'll be working with eye-tracking algorithms. These are systems that can tell where a person is looking. It's an area full of unsolved problems, some of them very difficult. I hope I can actually get something to work.

What did you do in your recent transfer in Japan and Austria (Ars Electronica)?

Zachary Lieberman and I have been showing a variety of projects together in Japan and Austria over the last year. I think one of the most exciting things to come out of these tours was a new performance, a meta-performance really, which we do with the Media Art historian Erkki Huhtamo. It consists of a number of short, 10-minute performances interleaved with lectures on defunct technologies by Erkki. What it all has in common is a focus on the use of hands in interactive media. I've never seen anyone else do this kind of mixed lecture/performance format. We will be performing it on Saturday 2 September at Ars Electronica, but we invented it on-the-fly onstage in Japan last December.

Which is the message you want to launch at "Meet the Media Guru" in Milan?

I'm not certain yet. I'm a little bored of telling people that it's not so hard to program computers. And with the incredible success of the Processing initiative, by Casey Reas and Ben Fry, which has encouraged tens of thousands of people how to learn artistic programming, I don't think I need to make this point anymore; they got it! What I'm observing now in the various media art festivals and blogs is a lot of work that subscribes to design patterns that are almost clichés at this point, but the new artists don't even seem to be aware of these molds they are fitting in to! I think this is why Jim Campbell made that incredible "Formula for Computer Art". I really wish more people knew about that.