Art4d | If technology is human
Interview by Kritika Baubusya
Alex Dodge’s generative series brings together a relationship among art and design, as well as machine and mankind.
art4d: You come from a family of artists. Your brother is also an artist isn’t he? What were the visual art influences that you had when you were growing up?
Alex Dodge: That’s right. Tomory, my older brother, he’s an incredible painter. He was and continues to be a huge inspiration. Though we ended up going in very different directions, I’ve always envied his ability to keep innovating within a more or less discreet medium, while I keep looking for new ones. My mother is an artist as well and really she gave us an incredible environment growing up to experiment and learn by making things. We were always making our own toys. I was actually speaking with her the other day about that and she quoted the physicist Richard Feynman as saying: “if I can’t build it, I don’t understand it” – I think that’s really true. I actually studied painting in college as well, but early on there came a point when painting began to seem more and more impossible, what at the time seemed like a daunting void of infinite material possibility. I could no longer find a way to enter into it. So I began using different systems as a way of limiting those choices or possibilities. I grew up with computers from a young age building them, taking them apart – so maybe that’s why I turned to them as a solution; as a way of constraining my paintings. I think constraints are so important for creativity, the illusion of infinite choice can overwhelm us sometimes.
art4d: What are you working on at the moment?
AD: I have a few things I am working on right now. Generative recently partnered with Keita Takahashi who made the Playstation games ‘Katamari Damacy’ and ‘Noby Noby Boy’. We are working together on a project called ‘Souponuts’, which I am really excited about. I wish I could tell you more about it, but I will only say that it is not a game.
I’ve also been working with Ezster Oszvald, an artist and designer at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, on textilebased display systems, basically fabric with embedded circuits that can be programmed to change the fabric’s colour, display patterns, or even information.
art4d: How traditional were you in visual art before working on Generative?
AD: I’ve worked with a lot of different materials and processes: painting, sculpture, photography, video, whatever makes sense at the moment, but I’ve focused on printmaking a lot. Lately I’ve been working on new screenprint editions. There is an incredible print shop in Brooklyn that I’ve been working with, they can print anything. Printmak-ing is wonderful because you can use so many different materials and techniques, and still produce many copies, allowing a lot more people to enjoy it and at a more reasonable cost.
art4d: Would you consider yourself a designer now?
AD: It’s something I think about a lot. I’m actually writing a paper about how we interpret these designations: ‘artist’, ‘designer’, ‘engineer’, ‘scientist’ and how they are sustainable. There are times when ‘artist’ is a really comfortable place to reside, but then there are moments when that role can feel very limiting. What I mean is, while I feel that I’ve been very fortunate with my experience in the art world, it can at times also feel like a kind of sandbox. Artists are granted huge freedoms within it, but after a time you start to realise the limits of that sandbox, or how rarified or exclu-sive it can be – a lot of people feel like they don’t have access to the art world and that’s unfortu-nate. I think design offers a nice road in and out of that space, so maybe ideally: artist / designer / researcher? But that’s a mouthful isn’t it?
art4d: Is technology becoming a new tradition in the art world in America?
AD: That’s a huge question with a huge answer probably, but I think there are more and more people incorporating what could be called ‘new media’ or various forms of technology into their work. On one hand it’s nothing new for artists to incorporate the latest technology into their work, as soon as the film camera or video camera became accessible there were artists making films and videos. I think that if things are different now it’s because of frequency and diversity, that things are changing so quickly and in so many different ways that ‘forms’, as we have come to know them, don’t have a chance to emerge. Perhaps the artist has never before had so many tools at his or her disposal. But it can be problematic; with such a diversity of expression in an aging ecosystem incapable of sustaining it.
art4d: What prompted you to diversify from one project to another?
AD: I think that the diversity appears along a certain axis, but really most of the things that have come out of Generative including our current projects are fairly aligned. We approached a lot of the concepts by questioning the obvious, like: ‘What is an interface?’ It’s a refreshing way to look at things. We take so much for granted.
art4d: Generative began as a lab for conceptual projects in 2009. How did this come about?
AD: Not long after meeting Akira we began talking about how it might be really fun to work on a project together, but we weren’t really sure what. One night we were hanging out at his office in the physics department at NYU. We were toying around with ‘augmented reality’ applications. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) had broken down again and Akira had started to feel like he wanted to do something outside physics. I had been moonlighting as a gallery director in addition to my studio art but was also feeling antsy. Akira had found a grant programme started by the Obama administration called SBIR (small business innovation research) that awards grant money to small businesses doing innovative research. That’s why we started Generative originally, to try to get government money to do something cool. We started out wanting to work on innovative data visualisation tools. The name Generative was actually something that Yohei and I had come up with a year earlier, but had gone quiet after he started with CCP games in Reykjavik.
Anyway, things looked like they were about to start but when BCG (Boston Consulting Group) offered Akira a job in Tokyo he had to take it, so Generative, as soon as it came to be, became a disparate operation with me in Brooklyn, Akira in Tokyo, and Yohei on and off planes to Iceland. We talked about ideas from afar, and eventually I decided “what the hell.. let’s start making stuff”. Now we are all back in New York, which makes things a lot easier.
art4d: How did you meet Akira Shibata and Yohei Ishii? They seem to have come from an entirely different field from your background.
AD: Let’s see… I met Yohei Ishii years ago when I first moved to New York after college. He was working at Square Enix in Tokyo and Seattle but moved back to New York. We had a lot of the same ideas regarding technology and user experience. Yohei came out of the game world and I was strictly from the gallery side at the time but technology or mobile tech more specifically was something we came together on.
I met Akira Shibata a few years ago at a party. It was a very lively birthday for a mutual friend of ours in Brooklyn. We both took cover in a corner to avoid a shower of cheap champagne and began talking. Believe it or not prior to going to art school I had my mind set on particle physics, but felt that I lacked the maths skills to pursue it. When I realised that Akira was a particle physicist and researcher involved with the LHC in Geneva, searching for the Higgs boson, I had so many questions. His reciprocal interest in art and our mutual interest in mobile and data visualisation lead to us talking more and more.
In addition to Yohei and Akira, Generative has grown with a fourth member, Johnny Lu. Johnny has a background in Counter Strike and thinking about things that nobody else does.
art4d: As a partner in this project, how did you define your role in the Generative project?
AD: It’s something that is still happening maybe. It’s clear that Akira and Johnny have the coding skills, though I am getting a little better maybe. Yohei is the business mind. I am the physical and design side I guess. Though, having said that, we try to be aware of what each of us are good at and specialise in without losing the ability to play different roles when needed. Yohei, Akira, and Johnny often have really spot on design criticism and I try to offer my intuition toward business and strategy. My more simplistic grasp of programming can actually be beneficial at times, forcing people to step back and regain perspective after they’ve gone down the rabbit hole. I think our philosophy is not unlike IDEO’s, matching depth with breadth.
art4d: What are the objectives of Generative? Who do you generally and specifically serve? What do you expect to be the outcomes of the research?
AD: We want to make cool stuff and make a living doing it – that’s very blunt but true. Generally we hope to serve as many people as possible, but specifically we want to connect with people that appreciate simplicity in design. We are thinking about selfexploration a lot right now. We’ve been working on a few projects, but are still looking for the right funding. We are selffunded for the time being, but I think that will change this year.
art4d: Do you find the hightech aspect of Generative a challenge?
AD: Yes, but in the best way. As an artist the challenge is there, but often there is no finite sense of resolution. It’s both a luxury and a frustration to say that an artwork is never really finished, merely a single iteration in an ongoing series of some larger concept. Of course the same can be said for design, but with design there is some wonderful stability found in func-tion, either it works or doesn’t, then there’s style which just makes it work better, or worse in some cases. That’s a lot of why I wanted to do more work that could inhabit the design space to begin with, I love art in the ‘hanging on your wall’ sense. It’s a tough puzzle that you’re never quite sure you’ve solved. Then making art that ‘works’ – that’s maybe a tougher puzzle? Maybe it’s easier for some.
art4d: How do you handle a work day? Do you have days when you cannot think of anything to do at all?
AD: I’m a big fan of variable schedules. I know what needs to get done, but it tends to get done in no particular order. That all changes when there’s a deadline of course, but I’ve found that leaving enough time in the day to sketch or do research that’s totally unrelated to what I’m work-ing on is hugely beneficial. There are definitely days when things are less exciting, when I doubt the direction that things are going or when I look at everything and realise that it all needs to be reworked from scratch. I often find the hardest thing is getting stuck looking for solutions to the same old problems rather than finding totally new problems, totally new ways of seeing things.
art4d: I understand that some prototypes are ideas that still need to be refined further, have you continued the refinement process or do you propose that to the general public to create a dialogue?
AD: It’s a nice idea – an open dialogue. We have looked at that a lot – ways of incentivising sourced design. The Japanese company ‘Cuusoo’ is doing that in a really interesting way. A lot of the ideas that we’ve shown as prototypes are things that we are still thinking about, and some are our stylisation of concepts that are just float-ing around, like the ‘Power Step’ shoes, harvesting electricity using PZT is something that a lot of people are trying to do and it’s not easy. It’s something we would love to work on more, but for now we will probably concentrate on other projects. That’s not to say we’re not open to something, if someone came to us and said “hey we might have a way to make this work betterlet’s collaborate”, we’d be psyched.
art4d: What would you do if somebody was to take some of your ideas further and develop them into mass products for their businesses?
AD: It can be frustrating when you see one of your ideas released by someone else, but then again it can also be a huge relief – like: “Thank god I don’t have to make Facebook, that would have taken forever, now I can do something else even more fun,” or similarly, if people are copying you, you must be doing something right – right? It may sound like I’m joking, but I’m really not. Working as an artist helps me to adopt a different outlook maybe, but then I haven’t had someone steal an idea worth millions, maybe I’ll change my mind if that happens, but I hope not. But you know, I often feel like there are so many smart people trying to do the same or similar things these days, or two or more people doing the same thing at the same time, is becoming more and more common too. Akira and I had been thinking about a mobile app that let users help scientists collect field data back in 2009. It turns out that Yasser Ansari was working on Project Noah at the exact same time. I met Yasser this year, he’s doing great things.
art4d: What do you think about the world of intellectual property?
AD: Ahh – it’s a mess! In short, the American patent and copyright system is broken. It was designed for a different era and is painfully due for a major upgrade. The way that patents are abused by trolls and clearing houses essentially extort money from legitimate innovators is really sad. It stifles real creativity, talent, and innova-tion. Patents are there to protect individuals and small startups from larger corporations, but when defending a patent is prohibitively expensive, you may as well not even have one. I wish I could cut one way or the other on the subject but it’s really hard to. Creative commons, open source, open hardware, these are all great things and are probably moving in the right direction. I feel that different property requires different rules – software patents are simply mind boggling to me. The way music has been handled is obviously flawed too, but it seems to be getting better as things migrate to servicebased models. Convenience always wins – whether it’s Pirates, Spotify, Soundcloud, or some combination of them.
art4d: In Generative there seems to be a reflec-tion of the social behaviour of people today. What are those issues? What is your attitude toward those issues?
AD: I hope that’s true. I would say that when technologies become fully adopted or reach some upper limit of penetration, they often have unforeseen effects on people psychologically and physiologically. Google making us forget things we know we can look up, or inboxes causing anxiety, not making eye contact because we are glued to our screens. I think we can design interfaces that are more human, after all, technology is human, and we can get better at it.
art4d: Were you interested in futuristic designs previously?
AD: I remember watching Kubrick’s ‘2001’ for the first time when I was six years old, it’s been a major influence over the years. Good sci-fi is something that I love: Solaris, Alien, all the classics from the 1970’s. Sci-fi that is plausible has psychological depth, and good art direction. Duncan Jones is making good films.
art4d: Did you grow up reading manga or watching all the episodes of Star Wars?
AD: Sadly I didn’t have a good introduction to manga until much later in life. I recently found the series ‘Pluto’ that looks incredible. Star Wars, absolutely.
art4d: Is fashion as an expression a new medium for you? Is it a limiting or endless source of mechanism for your work?
AD: I’ve always loved textiles and the geometry of patterns. Fashion has such diversity, its only limitation is how rapid its turnover rate is.
art4d: Fashion is a kind of second skin. It goes everywhere with the person wearing it and it represents the image and the face of the person. What do you think about this aspect of fashion?
AD: Absolutely, it’s something that is so simple and so effective socially. Social networking has a long way to go in comparison. I was in a club in Beijing a few years ago I was so impressed by the kids there. They were each expressing such unique personalities and with totally generic and brandless apparel. I think China is changing a lot but there are some really cool things happening throughout Asia. I need to get to Bangkok!!
art4d: Through fashion, are you tapping into something that is particularly sensitive about human beings?
AD: I really hope so. I think that the most im-pressive technologies are those that understand the human body, that are true interfaces. I can’t think of many things that do that better than clothing and accessories.
art4d: Would you agree that people are addicted to techno gadgets? Why or why not?
AD: It’s total fetishism, but it’s disposable fetishism which is really weird isn’t it? I mean it’s part of Moore’s law, but it’s also just brilliantly wasteful marketing. You cherish that little touchscreen device, wrap it up in a nice protective case to keep it safe, but are so quick to cast it aside as soon as the next generation shows its face.
As far as mobile devices go, Apple plays this game the best hands down. Their minimal material-aware approach is pretty much a point of derivation simply unmatched – which is sad. I like the anodised aluminium and clean rounded corners. It’s a style that’s seduced so many, and it’s really well done, but it’s only one way. There are so many other possibilities. I’ve always thought that it would be nice if you had a mobile device that you could keep for years, it would age and become more unique, more priceless over time. More than one paradigm would need to change for that to happen I think – but maybe not?
art4d: Why do you think people are obsessed with Steve Jobs and worship him like a deity?
AD: Steve Jobs was a visionary. He was one of those rare people that could understand a broad perspective in culture, see the problems in it that no one else could see and design marketable solutions for them. He didn’t really invent that much. People like Alan Kay either made or predicted in the 1970’s much of what Steve Jobs and Apple would eventually make. It’s just that Steve Jobs understood how to make certain devices culturally relevant. He obsessed over the puzzle. It wasn’t just an iPod to Jobs, I imagine that he saw it as a single piece in a massively intricate and versioned puzzle. I think in that sense he must have really felt like god in his universe – yet ironically it’s really now after his death that he takes on the real character of a deity at Apple. It will most likely be years before Apple will be able to function without asking “What would Steve do?”.
art4d: Have you read ‘1984’ by George Orwell? There is a quote: ‘Oh Ford!’ honouring the mass technological culture. Do you think we are getting more like that today as people?
AD: Ah right, I see what you’re getting at. Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon have each built powerful platforms that are governable to some extent, that is, users abide by their rules or they can’t play. But all these platforms are dependent on THE platform – the internet, which by design cannot be controlled without diminishing its usefulness. Google, Facebook, and the others will each tell you that control and governance is enforced only to maintain the quality of their service. The key is what ‘quality’ means to each company. Google: relevance of search results, Apple: clean, reliable, safe product?
I think you can see the whole thing as trending toward specificity on various levels, one platform more specific than the next, all the way down to the user as a kind of platform. This is the era not of ‘one size fits all’ but of ‘all fits one size’ (your size), where everything conforms to you with all your custom settings and attributes.
art4d: Do you think people are becoming less active towards connecting with each other on a day to day basis through physical contact? Why or why not?
AD: I’ve read a few papers that argue that, at least among the younger generation, people are actually more socially engaged than ever, though with all kinds of new social repercussions. How Facebook can lead to people losing their jobs or even worse – committing suicide. I forget – isn’t it something like 1 in 5 relationships (in the US) start online? So there’s something physical there. ‘MeetUp’ has really been able to build a bridge from online to the physical world and I think it’s definitely because people needed it, there are some things that you just can’t do any other way, but physically – for now anyway.
art4d: Are you addressing your work at Generative towards introverts?
AD: There are maybe a few things that might do well with people who don’t go out much or like to keep to themselves, but I don’t think it’s a target audience.
art4d: What were the audience responses to Generative during the discussions afterwards and in their comments in the visitors’ book?
AD: It was really interesting to see how people reacted. The exhibition took the form of a pop-up store in the gallery that I show my artwork. We transformed the gallery into a showroom. It was incredible to see how many people who never set foot in the gallery before suddenly felt welcomed by a totally different design vocabulary. I wanted to have Generative shown in the gallery because of that. I initially understood all of the prototypes as singular artworks as well as concept design objects. It was a dialogue that wouldn’t have worked anywhere else. The gallery goers could see things through the lens of art, the non-artsy consumers could see things the way they discern any other product – it was a bridge.
art4d: Do you read the visitors’ book? Do you have questionnaires for your visitors? If so, what kind of questions did you put forward through your questionnaires?
AD: Unfortunately we didn’t have a questionnaire, that would have been nice. I always look at the guest book though.
art4d: Were the responses helpful to your future work?
AD: For the most part everything was really positive, really encouraging.
art4d: How do you come up with names for each work? They sound quite abstract?
AD: I really love naming things. I have a lot of fun, but I try not to make things too silly. ‘Sleep Talker’ I thought was nice – a really playfully simple and effective name for the dream communicator. Sometimes a name comes early on and some-times you can never figure out what to call something, but for me it’s the moment when the concept becomes grounded or whole.
art4d: Do the names come before the conception or after?
AD: Usually after, though in some funny cases the name is the conception of the work.
art4d: What motivates you as an artist?
AD: I think it’s the same thing that made me interested in marine biology as a child, or particle physics as a young adult. To know what no one else knows. It’s knowledge, it’s innovation. It’s understanding one’s potential within a system more complex and incredible than we can imagine.