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Contents © 2014 Golan Levin and Collaborators

Golan Levin and Collaborators

Interviews and Dialogues




Tmema Interview by Marco Mancuso for Redazione Digicult

"Tmema, Realta' Ampliata e Gesti Interattivi"
Redazione Digicult Digimag #11, 2/2006.
Interview by Marco Mancuso, January 2006.

(The published version of this interview differs slightly, and may be obtained here.)


They have developed many software and interactive machines, generally connected with gestures and drawings, expanding reality, with the dialogue between technology and human, but also with fun, of the audience at their shows or art exhibitions.

They are Tmema, the artistic duo of Golan Levin and Zach Lieberman, absolutely famous in the new media art world, moving easily between art shows of electonic and modern art and the fake underground scene of the audiovisual contamination festivals. From Messa di Voce to The manual input session, from Drawn or Scrapple and Dialtones, all their projects had a high artistic level, but exploring the most complex paths of the machine-human interactivity, devoted to an high aim of audiovisual emotion and research of the non sense.

For this, and also many ather reasons, Golan Levin and his former student Zach Lieberman are considered as two of the most innovative electronic artists from critics, audience and other artists. Two designer-artists that mix this two roles, creating a brand new figure, but also appreciated for its ability and artistic sensibility into the world of communication and industry. I spoke with them at the last RomaEuropaFestival.


Hi guys, happy to have the chance to speak with you. I had the chance to see your show in Rome a couple of weeks ago; would you like to describe your projects, Scrapple and Drawn?

Golan: Scrapple is a performance in which objects placed on a table are interpreted as sound-producing marks in a musical score. Put another way, the Scrapple software scans a table surface as if it were a kind of music notation, producing music in real-time from any objects lying there. The system uses a variety of playful objects, such as windup children’s toys in order to produce constantly-changing rhythms.

Zach: Drawn is a performance which presents the myth of ink, which is painted on a page, coming to life and interacting with the outside world. It's one part audio-visual performance and one part magic show.


Why, with the Tmema projects, are you interested in audiovisual live performance starting from drawings or live paintings, more than computer graphics or digital animation? What kind of research have you followed in the last 5-10 years?

Zach: I think one important starting point for the Tmema projects is examining the boundary between the real world, with all of imperfections and dirt, and synthesized computer imagery, with its pixel cleanliness. We like the tension created by mixing the two, to create essentially "augmented reality" works. We start with the mark or the hand or the voice and we find playful ways to extend and enhance them, and in doing so, make the implausible plausible.

Golan: Gesture is the common starting point for music, painting and dance. Our core intuition has been that an audiovisual performance ought to be able to use a single gesture to create both image and sound.


How much the concept of "interaction" is important, in order to make a link between performer-people-technology? I'm speaking about your last projects, but also projects like Dialtones for example, or Messa di Voce, or others I'm forgetting now...

Golan: I would say that the concept of "interaction" is absolutely central to our work, since this is the kernel which defines the character of the energy flowing between the instruments we make and the people who use them. I like a certain quote by Myron Krueger, who was one of the first people to make interactive artworks back in the early 1970s, when he said that "response is the medium" — meaning, it's not about the image or the sound per se, but about the way that these factors respond to a person in an interactive setting. Actually I think our Dialtones concert — this was the performance made through the ringing of the audience's own mobile phones — might be an exception to this, though, since the interactivity with the audience was much more subtle, and diffused across several hundred people.

Zach: And an important point about interaction, which is elementary, is this: it has to be fun for us. If the project is fun for us — and we know this because we will find our selves spending hours playing and tooling around — than that spirit will be conveyed to the audience in the performance. For an interaction to be fun, it often has to be expressive and malleable, or just engage you in some unique, peculiar way.


How important is the concept of "real-time" and "simultaneous action of image and sounds"? Why is so much importance and attention given today to real-time actions insted of pre-recorded images and sounds? It's seems we have now understand which are the real possibilities of the machines and we need to "humanize it", to consider again the performer as a prime actor of his performances.

Golan: This may be something of an over-generalization, but I think that the use of pre-recorded materials on the computer is a throwback to an older way of thinking about media, a way of thinking which comes from the era of film, video tape, and vinyl records. There are tons of great movies and songs out there, but when we play them on the computer, we're really just treating the computer like a fancy kind of VCR or CD-player, when it can be so much more than that. The real contrast to this point of view can be seen with computer games, especially very simple ones like Tetris, which are always changing in response to the user's actions. The idea that a person's experience can be constructed in real-time is a very powerful new paradigm for media. There are lots of well-known examples of this now in gaming, but too few which encompass more poetic ideas.

Zach: I actually disagree with Golan about pre-recorded media and its potential, and I think that there are many projects that could take this idea of the computer as a type of VCR and turn it on its head, to great effect. One of the motivations in creating Drawn, was to examine how live video could be manipulated and synthesized in real-time. I think there are radical things that could be done with pre-recorded media as well, it just that often the work places too heavy an emphasis on the act of filtering (as with Photoshop) and operations which are not specific to the material, instead of developing custom solutions for custom content. This is, I think, more a limitation of the tools, and not the content.

Some people are doing great work with pre-recorded media, two of my favorites are Dietmar Offenhuber and Sue Costabile, both of whom offer refreshingly unique responses which take their respective content as a launching point for expressive inquiry.


Why, in your opinion, you are famous in audiovisual performance meetings and at the same time in galleries and museums with your generative art paintings and works? Do you separate your work and your "creativity" in front of different situations, and how do you decide to work together or separately at some projects?

Golan: Our process is very organic and depends on the specific idea and situation. Both of us are artists as well as designers, which means that sometimes we prefer to work on our own ideas, and sometimes we enjoy the challenge of designing interactive projects for interesting clients. Many new-media artworks can only be developed in teams because of their scale and complexity, but it's also fun and important to make projects as individual creators, because it helps us stay in touch with our own curiosities.

Zach: We now also try to aim even higher and lower on the spectrum. Some of the projects and performances we enjoy the most are for small crowds where we are totally unknown, while at other times, we enjoy working on completely over the top, large scale installations with huge budgets. I think as creators, this mixture of extremes is good for keeping flexible, and keeping flexible is the key to staying creative.


Do you think that generative art could be a link (more than other electronic disciplines) with the world of contemporary art today? Something more comprehensive for institutions, something similar to a modern art product and, for this reason, easier to push in the art market? How is your experience with Whitney Artport for example?

Golan: Casey Reas has been exploring this idea very explicitly. He's been researching the swirl of ideas regarding generativity that spread through the art world in the late 1960's, ideas that were shared between the Conceptual/Minimal/Fluxus artists, like Sol LeWitt and On Kawara, and the early computer artists, like Kenneth Knowlton and Manfred Mohr. Many of the early computer artists are just now being 'rediscovered' and accorded recognition in the so-called contemporary art world. Christiane Paul, who curates the Whitney Artport, has been an important champion of their work, and also of the newer generation of artists who are indebted to them. I think it remains to be seen how commercial galleries will accomodate generative art and oher new media, but it's probably inevitable. Steve Sacks, from the Bitforms gallery, is one of the first people to test these waters.


What is an artist for you today? The man using a software to create something beautiful or the man working on code/softwares and machines? There are some differences in your approches?

Zach: Artistic expression for me is research and design into the human experience.

We get asked a lot about software, but I actually think the most important software are the concepts and ideas which underlie the artworks, not the technical tools that were used to make the pieces themselves. I often respond that we need to talk about the word Program with a capital "P" — meaning the overall system of ideas behind projects, not just the instruction sets for a computer to follow.

Golan: There are all kinds of artists and many of the best and most sensible ones don't use computers at all. One of my favorite artists is Bill Dan, who just stacks rocks in a pile.


And, starting from the previous question, how do you consider yourself and your work in front of a what is consider today as "the aesthetic of the machines"? Do you think, in other words, that "the digital could really express itself" like something similar to an artificial intelligence artist?

Golan: Currently I think the loudest voices defining today's media art are the corporate agendas of companies like Adobe and Macromedia. It's challenging to make something personal with such impersonal and brittle materials.

Some artists have begun to search for solutions in the recently forgotten past, like Cory Archangel and Jacob Ciocci, who have rediscovered the beauty in "obsolete" computer technologies. Of those artists working with the latest techniques in generative software algorithms, it seems to me that very few have been able to twist the medium into a significantly personal form,although Karl Sims, Jason Salavon, Casey Reas and Marius Watz are important exceptions who have succeeded at this in different ways. But if you're asking whether an artificially intelligent piece of software could, up on its own, develop a unique artistic viewpoint, well — I think this is still several years away.

Zach: Or may never come at all! In my opinion, it starts and ends with people. People have been using machines to express themselves from day one, and will continue to do so in the future.


And, in conclusion, which could be the next development of art and aesthetic of new media in the next future, in your opinion? Do you think that it could be a real revolution (like that of this years of computer and internet art) starting from the machines directly, like a artificial intelligence scenario?

Zach: I think the best thing that will happen to new media, in the near term, is the addition of new voices and approaches, and what this may bring to the field. As universities and institutions embrace more so the practice, newer voices emerge and add to the overall dialogue. Because there are more voices, discussions and arguments, the overall work improves. As the overall work improves, the work grows more accepted by these institutions. I think this won't happen in the form of revolution, but I do think we are in the midst of this type of transformation period, and I eagerly welcome it with my whole heart.

Golan: You seem really keen on artificial intelligence! I hope that humanity can somehow just get back in touch with our own.