Zach Lieberman

Episode 10 — Making Worlds With Words

A conversation with artist Zach Lieberman.

references

Zach Lieberman

School for Poetic Computation

Open Frameworks

MIT Media Lab


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Zach Lieberman is one of the leading creative coders and digital artists in the world. And what I love about the way Zach works is that he is equally dedicated to thoughtful and open pedagogy as he is to creating poetic digital works. This wide-ranging conversation, covering everything from OpenFrameworks and Arduino to graffiti art, and even launching an alternative art school in an age of high tuitions, reveals the motivations in his continuing fascination with the human, machine dialogue that results in the creation of new worlds.


For those listeners who may not know, DOS was an operating system that was fully text-based and was marketed as being an accessible for home users to access programs and software and also opened the door to people like Zach to start to create by typing in words and then seeing them magically transform into activities on the screen. He begins by recounting one of those early experiences. Zach begins by describing one of those early, magical moments.



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transcript (auto-generated, may have inconsistencies or errors.)


Roddy: Hello, this is Informer, the show that reveals the latest ideas from artists, thinkers, and technologists. Informer invites you behind the screen to me, that people sketching, hacking and imagining the next versions of our world. I'm Roddy Schrock your host. And in each episode, I spotlight creative minds grappling with a changing world through art technology, or often both. And I hope you'll subscribe to this podcast@informerpodcast.com, where you can also find show notes, links, and more information on all of the artists and projects that we discuss.


Zach Lieberman is one of the leading creative coders and digital artists in the world. And what I love about the way that Zach works is that he's equally dedicated to thoughtful and open pedagogy as he is to creating poetic digital works. Today's wide ranging conversation reveals the motivations in his co-founding of the school for poetic computation, as well as his continuing fascination with the human machine dialogue, that results in the creation of new worlds for those listeners who may not know DOS was an operating system that was fully text-based and was marketed as being an accessible tool for home users to access programs and software. And it also opened the door to people like Zach to start to create by typing in words, and then seeing them magically transform into activities on the screen. He begins by recounting one of those early experiences.


Zach: You know, my dad would get these games, these Infocom games, which were all text-based adventure games, you know, so we were on the dusk computer and it was like, you know, pick up a rock and turn left and, you know, and all of these sorts of things. And it was, it was so it was really magical to see like a whole world created out of language to see, you know, and we were like frantically making drawings and trying to figure it out these puzzles and so on. And, and, and I still feel that kind of energy today, like to me that that was, that was probably like the most surprising thing, you know, when we would like put in a floppy disc and like suddenly be like, kind of transported into a world. And I still feel that kind of, that same sort of joy today when I, you know, write code and press play and something kind of really unexpected and strange happening.


Roddy: And it's that, it's that sense of it moving from language into creation that you're pointing to?


Zach: Yeah, I think so. Or maybe just this idea that it's just interesting to have conversations with machines. Like we had a lies you know, this kind of psychiatrist program on the dusk computer, you know, and it's like, and as a kid, you're just like, you try to reverse engineer it. You're trying to figure it out. You're trying to, you know, you could say things and Eliza would repeat them in certain ways. So you sort of hacking that and playing with that. And it's, it's kind of, I guess it may be a conversation with a system that I find some interesting, this kind of yeah. It conversation, you know, even those InfoComm games where you're typing, like pick up the rock and it's like, I don't know what to do with the rock, you know? And it's, it's that, it's that, that dialogue that I think is really fascinating. Is there


Roddy: A correlation between Sol Lewitt in particular and some of those ideas,


Zach: I didn't really understand Solow its work till much later on, like when I was a kid, I was just was like, what is this crazy sculpture like, is this beautiful sculpture where you kind of walk around it and it looks just so different from every angle, you know? And it was only later that I, you know, kind of understood the, the real, like, sort of direct tradition of like, you know, Sol Lewitt and instruction based drawings to the kind of world of creative coding, you know, that I could, I could make those leaps when I was much older. And it was really, for me, I think going to MassMoCa where there's just an insane collection of, you know, it's, it's like floors of Sol Lewitt murals that you can have that you can really kind of have a kind of just an intense experience to walk through and see a kind of whole trajectory of, of all of this work. So that was much later on in life.


Roddy: Do you find that that kind of dialogue that you're describing and the kind of conversation was that one of the things that prompted you to, to co-found the school for poetic computation?


Zach: Yeah, I mean, so I guess I could explain a bit of my trajectory is that I, you know, although I had this sort of early experience with computers, I, I, wasn't sort of deep in the world of technology until around the year 2000 when I had to get a job and everybody was doing web design and talking about Y2K and the world's going to end. Yup. And then I went to at, and then I went to design school, you know, or I went to Parsons for for graduate school. And then I was teaching there for many years around 2013, some friends, and I got really disillusioned with universities. And at that same time, you could see things like the Cooper union, which had been free. It had been this, you know, kind of amazing university that was completely free tuition free for a hundred years.


Zach: And the board had squandered the endowment and they were having to charge tuition and people were protesting. And you could see all of this kind of just anxiety about what is what's going on in higher education. Where's the money going to, you know, you could see universities building all these kinds of giant campuses and cause sort of questionable places around the world. And we were just thinking of kind of, what can we do that is low cost, which is simple, which is sort of get maybe closer to the sort of school that we wanted to be. And I think, you know, to circle back to your question, the focus on language was, was something that we were thinking about, you know, it's the school for poetic computation. So we were thinking about poetry. We're thinking about language. We were thinking about kind of just this, the idea of yeah. The lyrical act. And that was a source of inspiration for, for starting the school. For sure.


Roddy: Could you share maybe a little bit about what that resulted in, in terms of the school and the kinds of classes that were taught and, and sort of, you know, cause it's, it's a very unique organization,


Zach: The kind of design of the school, our three pillars code electronics in theory. So these are the sort of three disciplines in a way. And the goal is to make art, to make poetry, but these are the things that we study. So in terms of electronics, that's really low level learning about circuits and kind of from starting from, you know, how can we use electricity to make logic and really learning about the kind of intricacies and the basics where you might, in other programs, you might start with an Arduino, you might start start sort of higher level. This is really, really low level, but there's something so beautiful about even just learning how memory works, like how can we store information and remember things and you could see it in the, you could, you could see students really kind of excited about this low level tinkering and theory. The classes are really about reading and writing around art and trying to create a space for critical discourse. And the code classes are about kind of using software. Like what are the basics and the elements of creative, creative coding that, you know, you could use to make something interesting with, with software.


Roddy: Yeah. And I mean, one of the things I think that is so singular about that approach is it, it, at least from the outside, it always struck me that it was really everyone involved in the organization was very much committed to the idea that there was a way of kind of reuniting computation with the lyrical, as you were saying. And I wonder, did you see that as kind of a gap that, that you were particularly trying to address or was there a kind of schism between those worlds that you felt was being inadequately sort of addressed?


Zach: Yeah, I mean, I felt there was a gap. I mean, I thought there were sort of many gaps. One gap was, you know, is there just from a kind of, you know, you want to study this, this stuff, you know, your, your choices, where to go to to these like very expensive master's programs, you know, two year master's programs. Well, what if you just want it to kind of get a sense for what stuff feels like? What if you wanted to just kind of explore it and understand, you know, how it might relate to something that you do or, you know, you that's kind of connect these things that you're learning to who you are. So for us that was, that was a gap. And then I think a lot of these sort of media art programs were were developed at a certain time, you know, and that they, they started at a certain time and, you know, it just felt like it was a right moment to kind of start things completely new and imagine a curriculum that would be more hands-on and more organic and may maybe less kind of like chasing the latest trend, you know, but really focused on kind of first principles and, you know, very low level stuff.


Zach: And, and that was, that was, you know,


Roddy: Intention to my perspective. It seems as though there's still a need for that kind of approach and, you know and that's just such a it's kind of beautiful way of thinking about what, you know, computation can be. And, you know, I, I have, you know, memories of learning how to code and binary in grad school and, and finding it to be incredibly poetic. And, and but that, that notion of it was completely missing from the curriculum. And it was just so squarely at the center centered around like functionality rather than any sort of, you know, under conceptual understanding or, and so I, I wonder like as times have changed, do you see the school for poetic computation as having changed from, from when it was started and, and what its trajectory is going forward? Because I believe you no longer as actively involved in the organization if I understand correctly.


Zach: So SFPC has been around for seven years and I think the last two years have marked a, like a real profound kind of change in trajectory and transition and leadership. We, you know, we were always run, we're an artist run school, you know, and we've always been run in a very threadbare and kind of like, yeah, we we've, we've been learning as we go along. And we really were hit with a series of challenges when COVID emerged. And it was clear. We would have to move online. We had a whole spring semester planned that we had to cancel and refund and this put a lot of pressure, you know, if you're, we were living sort of tuition to tuition, you know, we charge a very low amount, you know, relative to private you know, master's programs,


Roddy: That's an understatement. Yeah, that's a radical understatement, but


Zach: It is cheap. It was cheap. It is Keith. And and it was very challenging and moving online, you know, courses online. And, and then also thinking about at that moment as an institution, how do we respond to George fluid being murdered and the black lives matter protest in the summer? It just exposed a lot of problems really quickly. Like in a way it was very, it was wildly successful. Like our move to online, we pivoted to online classes, we had, you know, many sections running. It was kind of just this insane operation just to make sure that the school survived, but also it exposed a lot of issues between kind of administration and staff and, you know, it, you know, students and staff and students and administrators, I mean, it just, it, it, it was a very tough time and it was, it was a really tough time for a lot of institutions to figure out kind of who are we in this moment, if we're virtual, if we're online and the kind of, you know, you have, it's just these simple things like you, if you have a meeting in person so different than having a zoom meeting, and it became really difficult.


Zach: And I personally realized that I should I started a professorship at MIT think of, you know probably three or four years ago. And I think when I started there, it would have been a really ideal moment to step down. And we always, I think we always had this idea that we would transition out of leadership and new people would step up. And, and so this moment provided that was really like a transition where there's a new set of leadership, a group of the staff that they ha they sort of call themselves the stewards of SFPC they've taken over and I've really enjoyed working with them. So I still teach at SFPC and I still am involved. And it's been really exciting to see the kind of care and thought that they're putting into the institution. I think everybody who has been a part of it really wants to see it succeed.


Zach: You know, maybe we have differences in approach and so on, but I'm just so thankful that that we have had this chance to transition. And even for example, I teach a course called recreating the past, and I've taught it every, I've done it for years now, and this is this semester. I'm teaching it with three new teachers and we've been revamping the curriculum and thinking about how can we, you know, modify it in interesting ways. And it's it, to me, it just feels like this kind of moment where new people are stepping up, there's new teachers, new administration. And that, to me, that that's really exciting teaching


Roddy: Seems to be such an important part of your practice. And you strike me as someone who takes the idea of practice extraordinarily seriously. I understand that you often teach via recreating artworks from the past. And could you share a little bit about that kind of approach and, and, and how that feeds into your pedagogical


Zach: Practice? Sure. So I teach this class called recreating the past, and in a way it's inspired by a project by Matthew Atler called the Recode project. And I, and I love this project. I just, it really excited me when I saw it. And, and the general premise behind this as Matthew Kepler took scans from a journal. I can't, it's the name of the journal. I have to look it up. It's from the seventies, it's like computer graphics and art or something like that. And it's this journal that was scanned and I think rhizome put them online and, and he took images from this journal. And the cool thing is you're seeing the, kind of the origins of a lot of ideas in computer art, you know, as you sort of peruse this journal and he took the individual images and invited people to recreate them.


Zach: And I just thought this was such a lovely idea of kind of having a conversation with artwork from the past. And it reminded, so I studied fine art, and it reminded me of these kind of exercises. You know, the professors would send us to the met and have us, you know, sketch a painting and sit in front of a artwork and draw it and, and have this kind of dialogue with it. And there's something really, I think, really profound to sort of sit in another artist's mind for a bit and to try to, you know, bring them, you know, either bring them into the re you know, bringing them into our room or even go to their room and try to sit with them. So what we do in the class, the way the class is structured is every week we bring in a different artist that we give a lecture about.


Zach: And we talk about kind of, you know, sometimes I have personal stories like I've worked with this artist, or I, you know, how I came to see their work, or, and collectively we researched the artist and we try to find all sorts of firsthand secondhand information interviews, you know, writings, all of the, kind of the, the elements, just to understand the context in which they were working. And then the homework assignment is very, very simple, which is recreate, take a work and almost reverse engineer it and recreate it using modern tools. So a lot of these works. So for example, Vera Molnar this Hungarian artist who's based in Paris. I know she's been doing pen plotter drawings since the seventies that are so beautiful. They are about kind of randomness and chaos and order. And the students have to take one of her works and, and recreate it using processing or openFrameworks that touch designer or some sort of modern tool.


Zach: And it's a little bit like that kind of childhood game where you're saying, you know, let's spot the differences. You know, you're looking at two images that they're close, but they're not exactly the same. And the conversations that come out of that I think are really important because they are about seeing the small details talking about, okay, you know, maybe what sort of noise was Vermont are using, you know, versus the noise that you're using here, or does this feel kind of more continuous or less continuous or, you know, more random or less random. And it's the focus on these tiny details that I think is the key to craft that actually thinking about being able to articulate and acknowledge these small themes, these small details is the key to, to craft and competitional art. So for me, it's a class that I love and, you know, there are weeks where I get to talk about people like Muriel Cooper or Vera Molnar where it's, I'm just so happy.


Zach: I'm just so thankful that I can introduce students to these artists and designers, and then to see how they, you know, always during the course of the semester, the different artists that they relate to. And then my favorite part of the class is bring your own artists where the students, you know, take the, that idea of the class, and then they connect it to artists that they care about and they love, and I, in a little bit kind of inspired by the the introduction. There's a book by David Romford called new program for graphic design. And in the introduction, he says, you know, I want you to read this book, but then I want you to rip it up and write your own book. And I really liked that idea. And I think that's kind of the feeling for the class is like, we'll introduce these artists, but almost, we're just excited for you to rip up this class and create your own class, you know, and create your own approach to recreating work.


Roddy: I think that's such a interesting segue into thinking about how you define your practice as an artist. And I'm sure I'm not the first person that's commented on the kind of journey that you take us all on in terms of the daily posts that you make around the work that you're exploring and the work that you're doing. And what's exciting. You, it's a very inviting practice. It's like, you, you, you re it's like you get energy also from people engaging through the work that you're putting online and just this constant iterative growth, a change in Zig and zag. And, and I just wonder, you know, could you talk a little bit about that kind of practice and, and you know, what what's motivating it and, and sort of what, what you're getting from it as well. Yeah,


Zach: Yeah. I'm happy to talk about it. So actually, I mean, it's, it is a real kind of departure from how I typically have worked in the past, which would be, you know, almost sort of working in secret, you kind of develop a project. Maybe you sort of have a big launch of it at a festival or something like that, but you kind of, you sort of work quietly throughout the year, and then you have these sort of moments where you launch a work, which is not, you know, I probably a lot of artists work that way or like a band might kind of like work on an album and then have a long, you know, you have a sort of phases of like, sort of working privately and then being public with your work. And I had that experience and that's kind of how I was operating as an artist for many years.


Zach: And what happened was I was on my way to turning 40. I was thinking about kind of midlife crisis, not midlife crisis, but like midlife issues. And, and I had this in also this insane moment where I had been I mean, this is, it sounds so stupid, but I had never, I didn't have a Facebook account. I didn't have an Instagram account. I was kind of, you know, I was very active on Twitter, but I had two, my father passed away and I had to join Facebook in order to just part participate, you know, because all of the, the, his friends were on Facebook and writing this really beautiful comments and just to engage and to feel kind of connected and, and so on. So I, you know, I, after like how many years I created a Facebook account create an Instagram account. And, and when I started posting, I, I just, there was something really kind of liberating, you know, it, it was, I think January 1st, 2016, and I just posted, you know, sort of new year sketch, you know something with light and reflection.


Zach: And I just started kind of like just the nice thing about code is that you can just change something that you can, you can take the same piece of code and just modify it and modify it. And I, you know, I started with this single sketch and I just started posting like every day. And at that time, my stepdaughter was, was six. And I, she had trouble sleeping alone, you know, where I would, she wanted me to come and sort of hang out in the room and like read a book or talk. And then she was just like, Hey, just stay in the room. And so I would bring my laptop, I would code a sketch and in the morning I would show it to her. And, you know, at the beginning she, she loved everything. And then she got very tough on me and she said, you have to change.


Zach: He started, she started art directing me and, and it just started this journey of yeah. Making and posting things. And, and really to me, I see it as a kind of diary as a form of, you know, having a public diary where I explore, I kind of share this act of creation. And for me, the, the idea is to try to get the friction to publishing as, as low as possible. Because as an artist, there are all of these things that are telling you, like, it's not good enough. You know, this sucks people won't like it you're, you know, you're a fraud, like there's a million voices in your head that are kind of preventing you from pressing publish. And you can just kind of get into a rhythm of like, I want to publish every day. Then the, the friction has really limited, you know, the stakes are really low, right?


Zach: You can make thing which makes things, which suck, which, you know, are not good and that's fine because you're doing it on this kind of daily basis. And, and I started to learn a lot that way. And, and I would learn in these ways that were really interesting, where there would be things that I liked and people didn't like, or things that I didn't like and people liked. And I started to see how my ideas were in and out of harmony with the world, and I could decide, okay, this is something I want to fight for. And I want to kind of push further. And I think a lot of creativity is about exploring the known and the unknown and being able to navigate between, you know, some place that, you know, really well, some comfortable territory, but to see it with new eyes versus going in a completely new direction.


Zach: And for me, it's been this really long and kind of meandering journey and, and I've just enjoyed it so much. So it's oftentimes I'll write, like responding to a tweet. I'll write these comments as well. Like almost meta commentary where it's, maybe I'm designing some software and before I had it running in real time. And so that led to a certain kind of, you know, choices. And then suddenly I say, okay, maybe I'm just focused on the images. Maybe I'm just making images here and things can take longer. And then suddenly this whole new world of possibilities emerge. And so I like, yeah, kind of being open as, as open as I can be about the things that I'm learning along the way.


Roddy: Do you sort of choose what commentary to respond to or how do you digest the kind of feedback that you're getting in real time, because sometimes I've observed it's not necessarily positive or, you know, and, and, and it's, it's, there is a real kind of, you know, bravery of just putting yourself out there in that kind of regular way. And how, how do you manage that?


Zach: Yeah. I mean, I think that for me, one of the important decisions that I made early on, which is that is that this is a diary entry, you know? And so I wouldn't, if I was reading your diary, I wouldn't, I wouldn't give you feedback and say like, you know, you should change this. Or I kind of, I want to work openly, but I don't, I try to protect myself because people can be, I think people, when they get excited about a work that oftentimes give feedback, you know, and, and sometimes the feedback is like, you should try this, or you should do that. And I, I don't pay a lot of attention to those comments. I mean, I'm thankful, but I, in general, I always have this reply, which sounds sort of silly, but I say like, DJ does not take requests, which is like, I imagine like I'm in a DJ booth and I'm trying to just figure stuff out and work stuff out.


Zach: And it's like, it's pretty annoying if somebody is like, you know, you should play Bjork or whatever. So I I'm trying to yeah, in general, I don't take a lot of, kind of like feed, you know, that sort of feedback. I mean, to me, the most exciting thing is when somebody says, this reminds me of this other artist, or this reminds me of this phenomenon, or what I see is like, I see butterflies, or I see, you know, I see some slime mold or I see something in your work because that's the biggest challenge as an artist, which is how can you, how can you see with somebody else's eyes? Right. I think that is like the super, if you imagine, like what a super power that an artist could have is to actually just be, just have somebody else's eyeballs to be in somebody else's head. And so when, when somebody tells you what they see in your work, like that's priceless, like that's a really profound, that's great feedback. And, but I try to, you know, not just, just all of the choices that I make when I'm sketching and thinking about my creative practice, I want them to come from within. I want them, I want to train my own intuition. I wanna, you know, I want it to be my own voice in my head. And so I try to just not pay a lot of attention to other voices.


Roddy: There's such a through line to what you're describing in terms of the kind of open in an inviting way that you're putting your work out into the world. Now that, to me resonates very much in some of the earlier projects you did such as openFrameworks or I writer, which are very widely known and highly celebrated pieces from, I guess, about a decade or longer, if I'm not mistaken again now at this point. And it, could you maybe first start by talking a little bit about what openFrameworks is?


Zach: Sure. So open frameworks is a cross-platform C plus plus toolkit for artists that's been around for over a decade. And it was really created, well, let me back up. So when I got into creative coding, I learned flash and action script and went to Parsons and learn Java and learned some different languages. And it was really when I graduated, I was invited to work with what if one of my professors invited me to work with him on some projects that was Golan Levin. He was a former student at the media lab under John Mayada. And he was teaching at Parsons at the time. Now he's at Carnegie Mellon, and Colin gave me this giant C plus plus book this summer, you're going to learn C plus plus. And we were using code that had been developed at MIT, but it was not open source. So we were using, you know, we were creating projects and, and making work.


Zach: And, you know, this is early days, like 2002, 2003, 2004. We were making, you know, projects using these non source tools, even things like [inaudible], which was par part of which was created at I-beam that was developed and prototyped and kind of early, early days that, I mean, and I was teaching at the time at Parsons and I have this weird problem where I was doing all of this kind of closed source artwork. And I want it to come into the classroom and show students what I was making and just all of these ideas around computer vision and image processing, and audio visual expression that we were experimenting with in our professional practice, in artistic practice, I wanted to bring into the classroom. And so open frameworks was designed primarily at the beginning as a kind of way of making an open source framework for that you could use as an artist that you could make projects with, but then you could take code and bring it into the classroom.


Zach: And I remember, you know, this was early days, like 2005, 2006, 2007. And I was bringing it into the department at Parsons. They were like, no, nobody wants to learn C plus plus like it doesn't, you know, this is art school. And then I had students like Chris Sugrue and Theo Watson and Evan Roth that were just making crazy work with this stuff that it was actually like this tool was allowing people to do computer vision based work and ask really interesting questions about pixels and cameras and movement. And, and I was just really astounded with the work that, that I was seeing. And that is a good transition to talk about. I writer because I write a really comes out of that, that cohort. So Theo, Theo, Watson, Chris Sugrue, Evan Roth, they were students of mine at Parsons and Evan. So Theo and I work on openFrameworks and Evan was a member of the graffiti research lab with James Powderly real like, you know, amazing, amazing times for IBM.


Zach: And they, the, the eye writer project really sort of came around because the grief graffiti research lab were at a festival and they met a a group called the, or like a couple called the Abilene based in LA. They were at the same festival and the airplanes, they knew about this graffiti writer named temps that they had, you know, maybe been involved in some fundraisers for and tempt as an old school graffiti writer, who's paralyzed who has ALS Lou Gehrig's disease. And so they invited graffiti research lab and GRL invited Theo, Chris and I. So the five of us went out to LA and we just, we didn't really know what to expect, but we went to meet temps. We got to know him and his family and his caregivers. And we were really surprised. And when we started to research the world of eye tracking, you know, just how expensive the devices were.


Zach: And Tim had a device called the Toby. This was like an eye tracking device, and it was thousands of dollars. And, you know, we're were just, you know, kind of young punks thinking, like, what could we do? And we tried to design and we designed a low cost eye tracking system. So I said, you know, can we take the things that we know how to do, which is, you know, work with infrared light and different types of camera tracking techniques and computer vision. And can we learn about all of the aspects of eye tracking and build, you know, hardware and software for for tents to, to explore this. And so we focused on eye tracking systems, but we also designed software specifically for tempt. And so this was such a, you know, usually when you think of software, you think of designing something that's going to be used by, you know, hundreds of people or thousands or millions of people.


Zach: And this was designing software specifically for one individual thinking about his style and his love of letter forms. And it was so beautiful. You know, the project was difficult, had many difficulties and, you know, tough moments, but the moment, you know, I will never forget, you know, some of these moments where we just you know, we built this drawing system for 10 and we connected it to the internet. So when he made a drawing, we, we streamed that drawing over, over the internet. And then there was another team that was out on the street, projecting his drawings live. And then we stream that back into the hospital and then people who are out on the street would write comments and I would read the comments to tempt and tempt would like respond. And, you know, it was so incredible. It's just an incredible for me, it was one of these projects is like the right people at the right time. Yeah.


Roddy: At a really Vanguard moment in terms of technology that was emerging and it's kind of relationships to society at large. And I mean, it positions you really well to maybe see how things have changed since that time in a, in a very direct way that not so many people get to see, do you have any sort of, you know, wide ranging kind of just, you know, observations on, on how that kind of approach has shifted over the years. And, and, you know, now I guess nearly 20 years later, you know, what are some of the biggest changes you've observed?


Zach: I mean, I think one thing is, as everything becomes kind of cheaper and smaller, more interesting things happen. So I think a lot about kind of, for example, graffiti research lab, that being at that where projectors were small enough and cheap enough to kind of take on a bicycle, you know, and then that allowed for a completely new form of expression, you know, projects like laser tag, where you're drawing on a building with a laser and projecting at the same time, that was kind of that project. You couldn't have done that five years earlier, right? You couldn't, it was that moment of like, okay, this, the laptops are fast enough and cheap enough. And the projector is cheap enough. And to me, that's, those are interesting moments to see sort of how things become, you know, faster and cheaper. And that allows, allows for a new form of expression or things like a 3d camera.


Zach: You know, when the connect came out, you know, it was so different. If you did projects with 3d sensing before the connect, you were spending thousands of dollars on a device, and then suddenly here's a $100 device, which is you know, it allows for a new form of expression. To me, that's, that's exciting, right? Seeing how things change or seeing how, for example, right now there's kind of this crazy push in augmented reality where a lot of these ideas where you need it to be an academia, you need a really expensive hardware, you know, and now they are meeting consumer culture and there's exciting, strange things that are happening there. So you kind of, you see this kind of natural progression of smaller, cheaper, more embodied, or more like hitting consumer culture. And that's as an artist, that's interesting and that's exciting, but also a bit frightening, you know, how kind of, how quickly things change.


Zach: And and there are just these waves, right? Where everybody gets excited about something for, you know, a few years and, and being, you know, I would say like, I've been in the game a long time and you see like, okay, there's like a big wave. And like, everybody's talking about machine learning, everybody's talking about, you know, big data or whatever it is. And there's a ton of money, a ton of energy around something. And, and you can see that there are these like giant forces that are pushing, pushing the industry, but also pushing the creative industry in some direction. Right. And that's oftentimes I find those things really challenging and challenging to navigate. Because as an artist, you, you want to explore these technologies, right? You want to have figure out what they are, what the essence, you know, and it's hard when there's a lot of hype when there's a lot of money that makes it really difficult.


Zach: And there are these big forces that are pushing things, you know, whether it's kind of big monopolies that have, they have a narrative that they want to tell, you know? And so it's, it's like, how can you, I think about it almost like big gusts of wind and can you, as like the artists are like in these small sailboats and can you like take the wind and like go in the direction that you want to, or like the wind really overpowering. And that's, that's the thing I worry. And I often times, I think it's really challenging because you can get into these kinds of feedback loops where, you know, maybe like AR is the big thing and you make some AR projects and you're getting more press and attention for the work that you're making. And it's almost kind of self-reinforcing and you become to me, I don't want to be a demo maker. Right. I don't want to, I don't want to make technology demos or make art where, which is technology first, you know? Yeah. And, and that's a huge challenge. Huge, huge challenge.


Roddy: How do you get through that?


Zach: Yeah. I mean, I don't know, whatever I talk about this with students. I say that's a little bit like art and technology is like a dance and you need to think about who's leading and who's following, right. If you're a partner dancing, you have, I always want art to be in the lead. Right. I always want it to be, you know, a poem and not a demo. And that is the, that's the challenge I feel to me, it's sometimes, you know, it might be that you can set up constraints. So for example, like I have done a lot of work with augmented reality and there was this big kind of hype moment, you know, apple released air kid and Google released air Corps. There was this moment of like, okay, AR markerless AR is now on the phone. And I saw all of these the whole summer.


Zach: I saw all of these terrible demos, like 3d objects, you know, placed, placed in space. And, and I, the question that we were asking in the studio, it's like, what if we don't add any elements? What if we just use the camera or we just use the microphone or the screen or the speaker? And we say, what does it mean to have a camera in space? Right. We can take photographs and have them stay in the air. What does it mean to have a microphone in space? You know, we can record audio and in 3d, and we, we started to ask these questions that were just more kind of fundamental. And I think that is the maybe one way to approach it, which is to say, how can you understand what the essence of this thing is without kind of getting lost in the hype or the moment, you know? And it's a challenge. Like it's a really hard challenge.


Roddy: Yeah. You know, it's just so refreshing to speak to someone working in this field who is as committed to going back to first principles.


Zach: Yeah.


Roddy: As we're running out of time, what are you working on now? And what's what sort of next


Zach: I'm actually doing a lot of the same things that I usually do, which is, you know, my daily sketches, my printing teaching, like all of this kind of practices kind of, it's always the same in a way. I am, what's exciting this year is I have a group at MIT. So I'm a professor in the media lab now. And for me, that's really important because, you know, I, when I was coming up as an artist, you know, I was looking at the work that the and computation group were doing. I was learning about Muriel Cooper and visual language workshop. And it, just, to me, that tradition is really important. So I feel really thankful to be at the lab. And this year is the first year that I have been accepting students. So I have two students who are joined my group this year, and I'm sort of slowly growing a group at the media lab.


Zach: And they have been, you know, they're really patient with me. You know, I live in New York. I commute, I come to Boston every two weeks and I work with students and it has been really it, to me, it feels like a kind of new, new moment for the media lab. You know, we've had COVID, we had all of this kind of crazy, you know, I don't know if you followed, but all the stuff with Epstein. And I mean, it was crazy. It was really like, like so hard that, and then COVID, and just, it just was really, really tough to figure out kind of what is this place and what do we want it to be? And it just feels like we're on like a completely nuts, great rectory. So I'm very excited to be there.


Roddy: Do you sell your work? Yeah,


Zach: So I sell artwork you know, I sell prints and then I sell NFTs and I also do commissions. So for example, you know, I also work like, you know, I have done a lot of album covers this year and things like that, where it's other preexisting work or I get commissioned to make work.


Roddy: Is that something that, that the public can, can


Zach: Access? Yeah. I mean, a lot of times I just get approached into, by individuals and, you know, happy to have any kind of conversation. And then, you know, I have an active print shop it's for me, I hate study printmaking. And it's one of the, you know, one of the most exciting things that I studied as an undergrad was, you know, etching and woodcuts lithography. And there was something so incredible about you do all this work and in the end, you're holding an image. Like you do all of this stuff, like you ink a plate and you put paper underwater and you do all, there's all of these steps and all of these processes. And then in the end, you wind up with this image in your hands. And I'm doing a lot of printing in my studio now where it's, you know, it's inkjet printing and it just, it, to me, it's magic. It's just so crazy. Like you're holding you, you, the printer does some work and then you have this thing in your hands and it's just so different, so different than looking at a computer screen. So now I have a print shop and I love printing. And then the NFT thing is, you know, I'm involved in that and selling work that way in,


Roddy: I really enjoyed today's conversation and I hope that you'll follow Zack on Instagram or other social media where you can find his daily exercises. And until next time, thanks for joining me at informer. And I hope that you'll join us again.




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