Interview with Abigail Stiers and Alexander Gross: On technology, algorithms, DIY and inventing things

October 16, 2010

In May this year I had an opportunity to partake at the first regional Wearable Technology workshop at Digital Media Lab in Ljubljana (Slovenia), organized my MoTA – Museum of Transitory Art. The workshop was led by MFA intermedia students from the University of Maine (USA), Abigail Stiers and Alexander Gross.

Since, Abby and Alex were for last three months lecturers at the CIANT – International Centre for Art and New Technologies in Prague (Czech), it was really nice to talk about their own work, the perception of technology and DIY scenes in USA and Europe, and the generation gap between new media art and fine art. Oh, we talked a little bit about Arduino, too.


Photo: Abigail Stiers, taken from CIANT (c)

Abby, you are interested in the topic of relation to the human body and what is possible with all these devices? When did you start to play with new media?

AS: Yeah, I’m actually interested in the connection between the body and thinking… So, that sort of affects my work in a couple of different ways. I’m interested in how thought processes are affected by physical processes. Then also experimenting to shifting awareness, and a lot of times it has to do with changing awareness of the body. I think that my work has a sort of a narrative trying to guide the viewer to figure out what’s all about. I said before that I’m interested in exploring ideas about though.

Alex, you’re dealing a lot with science and mathematics, but you’re interested in nature, too…

AG: Yes! I’m really interested in sort of exploring; sort of what is possible with nature and looking at sort of natural systems as systems. Sometimes, especially in the past, often viewers sort of categorize natural phenomena like hard to explain. I think they are still like math, like complex systems and fractal geometry, but they can be viewed as natural phenomena.

Basically, I’m interested in generative and software based art, and I’m thinking about how to use all  these sorts of generative strategies, previously invented by other people. I’m using all these sorts of algorithms. But all people that use these algorithms, their work looks the same to me, and I didn’t see the way how to differentiate from them.


Photo: Alexander Gross, taken from CIANT (c)

I’m fond to programming, because algorithms can create this sort of beautiful patterns. But I started asking myself why? And I ended up trying to make an anti-software art to try to break the system and this evolving led into field which is not only software based. I’m trying to do something where I don’t have use the software per se, but to use ideas from software, something like sculpture and installation.

I want to use ideas like science, programming, math, technology, but exploring like the secret side of them, and to try to make people interested in these things with the active and curios mind, as opposed to what people see – their way to see radically, cynically and passively all these new technologies. I want to do stuff that activate the mind and encourage the mind to try to learn more about the piece, science and things behind the piece.

By understanding those systems and by understanding different things of synthetic systems, like computer based system using the knowledge from computer science, you can like manipulate natural systems to do unnatural types of things.


Abigail Stiers: Who is Making Art, 2008

What do you think how this perception of electronic media has changed? Considering DIY scene, considering that now ‘amateurs’ can work with electronics, not just from experiences of your workshops, but simply as a general image on what is happening and actually changed in last few years? Technology is also evoluting very fast, you have these web trends where everything is changing in practically few months…

AS: Yeah! Wow! I don’t know. It’s an interesting question, because it’s something that I’m not sure how would effect sort of the broader population of people, because often happens when I’m teaching college students, I feel like it’s a struggle for them to understand that they are capable of inventing things. I feel like they still have this sense that, you know, they are consumers of the technology.

When they will get a job, they will be like working for some big corporation or something. I think it’s really hard for them to grasp the idea that they can have an idea and that they can actually realize that idea. Although, you know, there are all these examples of that, so I think…

There are so many examples at universities, and I’m showing it to the students all the time, but at the same time while interacting with people somehow I’ve noticed that they didn’t get the impression they can actually do it. I guess, that’s just like only one aspect of it.


Alexander Gross: Augmented Reality: Power to the Forest (2008)

AG: You know, I had these experiences within seminars…I think there is a sort of growing problem, because technology is inventing so fast, so in a way society responded to it in the ability for people to be sort of consumers, because all that technology has also increased. I think that really encouraging would be to foster them to explore and to move this sort of strangeness of new things. Now when we are almost at the point of development when things are growing really faster, and people see all this very new things, but seem like they don’t see drastic changes.

Seem like they are used to it in a sense ‘oh, these new crazy things are all around!’ and they just realize that someone would develop at some point a user interface for them.  Well, at the other hand, that’s valuable for people looking for a job.


Abigail Stiers: Skin Response and Loupehole, both 2009

One of the things I also like to explore with like working things, sort of finding ways with new technologies, that it doesn’t have to be the newest technology, but any sort of technology that people are very familiar with, and sort of relegated them to certain place. Like if you use some tool for making things, to force those types of things to do something once again, and it confuses people or seems magical or doesn’t seem like.

Because it’s different of that sort of area that people are used to it, but taking any new technology and then being able to use that to create that sort of wonder. I think that’s important for the inventions in technology as opposed to irrelevant things.

AS: Recently we were at one lecture, and we were talking about wearable technology. And the lecturer said that ‘when we were back in the sixties we were a part of the technology and that they were doing all these things, and now video students are just making videos and so.’

Then a couple of people, myself included, said: No, but what about all these DIY stuff, low tech and high tech, physical computing and like all these things. And the lecturer was like: Well, that’s you in it, so you think it’s big, but it’s nothing. And I said: No, no… I really don’t. Because I don think it’s big, but I’m not sure how would affect people who are in it.


Alexander Gross: Diverse Nature, 2009

Do you think that this gap between the ‘art world’ and the world of programmers & computing peeps is getting smaller? It’s not a gap anymore, right? Or I’m only dreaming…

AS: Um… I’m a scientist; I think you should say something about it (laughs).

AG: I think it’s still there. It depends to who you’re talking to. There is certainly a large portion of like the ‘art world’ still having a problem with computers… like…

AS: 99% are like this: What are they doing with these computers? (laughs)

AG: I think there is always been, probably still there, about 5 % in the middle where people are interested in both, and at different times they’ve been interested in whatever had been the current technology. But I think that formed the beginning when people had access to programs, since then people wanted to do creative things with them, even if they weren’t been artists per se. Like the first people who had invented the big giant computers.

They were bored and they wanted to play with them, so they created graphical and audio parts, none purposed for outputs, just for playing with the technology. I think that for further artists and computer technology people who like to play, there is a dialogue there.


Abigail Stiers: Souvenirs From Dreams (2008) and Mirrors (2007)

AS: I think there’s definitely more artists who are programming now, and I think that sort of all these different platforms, like Arduino and things like that, have definitely contributed to it.  But I think that most computer scientists and electrical engineers that you talk to have no idea of what is going on.

AG: Yeah, and there are these situations, artists coming and saying: You know, I want to make an Arduino art! It’s there, and it’s available, it’s not a commercial product. But it’s like these video people, previously there were no kit to break equipment or something. Now it’s possible.

AS: I mean, there are lots of examples of people doing this kind of stuff, sort of in between. There are a lot of examples of people working with sensors and things like that. I think it was harder for artists to do it, or they would have to collaborate with different people – engineers.

AG: I think that Arduino and DIY scene are different then all other things that led into it.

AS: It’s really hard to say, you can only speak for yourself. The university we went to, we only used analogue equipment, it was more like a video programme. So, we were using all these video processors and stuff like that, we were patching things together. And I remember thinking about what if I can get something like a shapeable monitor and just patched it into this video equipment. That would be amazing. Or what if I would apply to some big grant…

Immediately when I got my college degree I started to apply to some crazy big grants in order to get funded for my projects, because that’s the only way I can do this. But to me there is no other way to do it, cause you need all this money and fancy equipment, and then much, much later on it was available so easily, So, I don’t think that was because it was available, that I want to do it. I think there are a lot of people who are also in similar situation. It’s definitely possible that there are a lot of people that need something to do (laughs).


Arduino logo

When you use this reference like ‘Arduino art’, do you by chance think that it has to have a purpose (laughs)?

AS: Nooo (laughs). I don’t think that any art has to have a purpose… I think that art is being affected a lot by sort of value system of new media, which is, you know, that things have a purpose. I don’t think that that should be necessarily that art and new media in need have the same value system at all.

It’s hard too when you make something and someone is sort of expecting to be interactive in a way that new media is interactive, were everything is sort of clear and has its purpose. Interactive art is here to just change the way people think about something. You know, I think it’s not here to be clear or to accomplish something. It’s there to shift awareness or explore certain thing. I think the real problem is that people have a sort of expectation, they see something and it’s like: OK, what are you about? I don’t get it!

AG: It’s hard to tell, but I think people should be considering like what it is about, what the art is saying or representing, or communicating? It could be about, whatever type it is, shifting awareness that you can think about or why you are making it?


Arduino Duemilanove, photo taken from wiki

I’m asking this because when there is an average discussion on technology, people are not so positive. And what I find appealing in wearable technology is that most inventors and people designing prototypes are thinking about the consequences… hacking scene is much older then wearables scene…

AS: Yeah, I think that these things are infected by the media. I’m not saying that art like that is not interesting, but I’m saying that I don’t think that art must have that kind of message. I really enjoy art that I need to spend a lot of time thinking about it. Sometimes when there is this expectation that it should tell you in a way what’s all about.

It seems a lot of electronic and digital art is like that, and it’s hard to make art that is not like that. It can be clear, it can be placed into words. I’m into it a lot lately, because I know if I make something I won’t be able to represent in another way, then there isn’t another way. Because you can’t apply to a festival or something, cause you need to understand things you are working on or experiencing. So, that’s the reason why I think art has a very obvious reason.

AG: Something I would consider about when making my own thing with the purpose that it has to be… Things should have a purpose. I would like to do stuff that would get people back to reconsider things they might easily put into some category, as a goal of creating a piece.


Abigail Stiers: Maps, 2007

You both teach in Prague at CIANT – International Centre for Art and New Technologies, and now after this experience in running a workshop on wearable technology in Slovenia, do you see difference in a way people perceive things in USA and Eastern Europe?

AS: Yeah… People already know much more here. Because there are more non profit and art organizations who teach workshops and things like that. There are more festivals, collaborating projects, sort of more going on in electronic art in general. So, there is more general awareness of it. When we teach on our workshops Arduino, people already know what it is and still they come. I think that outside of universities there is a lot less going in the US, just because of the funding system. I think that would be the difference.

AG: You know, we spent a lot of time within the university system with students. A lot of people know or are aware of some sort of things. In gear, with the people that we met at arts organizations, seems like everybody’s grandma knows a lot about it. Just we’ve been travelling in these circles…

AS: Yeah, it’s even hard to generalize of what is like, because in the US, too… we don’t live in the city. So, if you live in the city like San Francisco or something (laughs), larger enough, you know. Yeah, the possibility to do things like these is bigger in Europe.

AG: We live in a very rural area that happens because the university is there (University of Maine).


Alexander Gross: Fireflies (Flash Implementation), 2008

Yeah, Europe has the cultural policy, cultural sector, non-profit sector, creative industries and so… Whilst in America there are foundations and sponsorships which are the basis of the framework… The structure of state funding is different, too… But on the other hand, America is much more opened to people who are interested in switching to different professions. If you wanna study literature and then interactive design, you are free to do that in USA… in South Eastern Europe, for instance, they would laugh at you. In Eastern block we still have this sheepish system where you don’t have so many choices and freedom… When you graduate something you should be doing this for the rest of your life, till retirement… when you drop dead, literary speaking…

AS: You definitely get a sense that there are a lot of people interested in with similar mentality. I mean, in the US I still feel like the community of people who are involved into it, and it’s still kind of small.

AG: Definitely. It’s small; there are lots of young people focused on universities, because if there is any funding, public funding that could be an opportunity for them. There are some organizations and they have funding, but they also have some other way of funding themselves…

AS: And there are also some differences between cities and rural places… I saw a lot workshops and places where people sell their hand made stuff… and I was so excited about it when I saw it in Brussels, for example… But rural places don’t have it…. and, it’s just that there are a lot of people in the States… (laughs)

What about the working possibilities?

AG: Yeah, most of people after they graduate want to be like commercial gallery style artist, or to get into the university systems, or the very small, few art organizations that are there sometimes take some administrative jobs, organizations that provide them like enough time to do their own work…

AS: Or take some other job that provides you enough time to deal with your own work.

AG: That never works! (whispering)

And what about your own work?

AS: I have a bunch projects that are ongoing, that I wanna work more on. I’m terrible excited to finish my education and start like a bunch of crazy projects as a sort of defending processes of my previous work, to make sort of continuity. I want to make stuff that changes my own perception of things and really does.

Maybe it can change the audience’s perception, but I don’t know. I just don’t want do it like: OK, I’m now using body sensor and I can visualize on screen certain things. It’s not so intellectual, not at all. Sometimes talking about ideas can sound really awful, and that’s the reason I want to realize some projects, to put them into practice.

I want to break ideas in a way by doing it, letting it into practice. Some of it might be in the field of wearable technology, I’m not sure yet. Tiny ideas, things that are coming out everyday by drawing or writing down little things, and stuff like that. Just doing it and not explaining too much.

Abby and Alex, thanks a lot!

Interview with Abigail Stiers and Alexander Gross, part 1: On Arduino, algorithms, DIY and inventing things
Dusan Dovc
October 17, 2010 @ 4:31 pm

“I don’t think that any art has to have a purpose.” I like this.
Sometimes the play is the purpose…

October 17, 2010 @ 4:39 pm

dusan!!! TNX a lot for letting me know about this workshop in
Ljubljana and for the hospitality… i mean, without you i wouldn’t
know about it in the first place… and so so cute apartment you
have… glad you like it… yeah, they were both very nice workshop
leaders… and i really like their concept… although, abby was
slightly concerned that she might be too pessimistic in her
answers… but there’s anything pessimistic here… 🙂

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