Tamiko Thiel

Episode 11 - Technology Is Nature

A conversation with artist Tamiko Thiel.


Tamiko Thiel

Danny Hilis

Zara Houshmand

Gyorgy Kepes


There are so many fascinating stories to be told about the present and future of technology in the arts, especially in this moment of a profound, digital turn. Tamiko Thiel, a truly singular artist, tells a numbers a number of them. As a very early innovator in the field of VR, along with a side career as product designer which includes creating the visual design of the The Connection Machine, the world's first AI computer and now in the permanent collection of MoMA, her work has been and continues to be groundbreaking. It's motivated by a deep curiosity about what it means for humans to make technology and how we might do so in a way that doesn't sacrifice our planet in the process.

Any one component of Tamiko's life and career seems rich enough to launch its own spin-off podcast, with Tamiko right at the center of some unwritten but influential history. Whether it's about her father being the first to patent shipping containers, then shockingly losing the patent, to Steve Jobs in the 80's asking his marketing manager to hire Tamiko after seeing her visual design of the Connection Machine and then being told that it's too late, Tamiko's gone off to Europe to be an artist!

Download Audio

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

Roddy: Hello, this is Informer a show that reveals the latest ideas from artists, thinkers and technologists inform invites you behind the screen to meet the people, sketching, hacking, and imagining 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 at informerpodcast.com where you can also find show notes, links, and more information on all of the artists and projects that we discuss. There are so many fascinating stories to be told about the present and future of technology in the arts, especially in this moment of a profound digital turn. That's why I'm very excited to speak with Tamiko Thiel today. A truly singular artist as a very early innovator in the field of VR, along with a side career as product designer, which includes creating the visual design of the connection machine, the world's first AI computer, and now in the permanent collection of MoMA, her work has been and continues to be groundbreaking. It's motivated by a deep curiosity about what it means for humans to make technology and how we do so in a way that doesn't sacrifice our planet in the process. Any one component of Tamiko's life and career seems rich enough to launch its own spinoff podcast with Tamiko, right at the center of some unwritten, but influential history, whether it's about our father being the first to patent shipping containers and shockingly losing the patent to Steve Jobs in the eighties, asking his marketing manager to hire Tamiko after seeing her visual design of the connection machine. And then being told that it's too late, Tamiko has gone off to Europe to be an artist. Tamiko begins today's episode with a touching story of being the only kid on a giant shipping freighter from California to Japan and having free reign to explore every nook and cranny of its lilting. Enormity. The ship had been traveling for several weeks to avoid a hurricane giving Tomko her first opportunity to live inside a visceral, but hardly virtual reality inside the machine in the most literal way.

Tamiko: Well, when I was two years old, we went from Berkeley, California to Japan and I came back we came back when I was five years old and both, both legs of that journey were on Japanese freighters that wow. Yeah, that took a couple of passengers. And I'm guessing that the memories I have are maybe more from coming back when I was five and not from going when I was two, but but there's one, the the strongest memory seriously is that the, in the mess halls where, where we ate with the officers who are all dressed in white this is a Japanese Frader. So you don't have salt, you have soy sauce. Mm-Hmm , do you know how much of a mess soy sauce makes on white clothing?

Roddy: I can imagine.

Tamiko: So what they did to avoid having soy sauce bottles on the table, that tip when you're in rough seas is I remember they hung them from the ceiling and that's incredible so, so they were hanging above the tables, you know, close enough to the table, so you could pick them up and pour them. But when, when the ship would roll, then they would just like swing in midair, so to speak. So maybe that was my first encounter with a design solution to a problem that, that you wouldn't have thought of if you spent your life on dry in the us. So, so you're out at sea for two or three weeks as, as a kid, the, the whole world becomes this freighter. And, and, and, and because on, on freighters, you have very, very few passengers. We had the run of the ship, the hatches were covered with canvas and dad would take chalk and chalk various games for us on the canvas.

Tamiko: So, so here's an entire world by itself, and it's a completely constructed world. It's a mechanical world, a very mechanical world. It was a steam freighter. So so it was a very different world technic you're in this world of the sounds of afraid of the towns of the turbines. And, and it just occurred to me actually thinking about this now that that love of the smell of machine oil and the smell of a, of a machine shop maybe comes from being exposed to it as a kid through my father's love of freighters and his insistence that we, you know, spend weeks taking freight across the ocean when I was a child.

Roddy: Where is that boundary for you between that type of engineered and designed environment and the kind of art that you make or in, is there a boundary? I,

Tamiko: I think there that's exactly the point that there isn't a boundary and it was probably also a factor growing up that that my, my father, you know, he had gone to MIT as a 30 year old lecture in Naval architecture, which was, you know, ship engineering. It was a pure engineer ING degree. And then his office was next door to Juri Kish who later would start the center for advanced visual studies at MIT, which was as far as I know, the first program for art and technology in the us. And that was his concern then from then on, was this merging of aesthetics and visual perception and design aesthetic with the techno logical with with the processes of construction but also the technological building of the world. So, so I really did grow up with it in a way that I only appreciated much later. And, you know, people talk about digital natives. Well, maybe I wasn't a digital native because the digital technology came a lot later, but I, I, I, I think I can claim to be a techno art native.

Roddy: I think you've always had such a beautiful ability to see the fundamentals of what is required to build a world or to build an environment. And it calls to mind your piece beyond Monza which is a virtual reality piece. I remember experiencing that quite a few years ago, and I found that very powerful. And it just brings me to this question of how you went from those early influences into actually making a career in this field.

Tamiko: It was 1994. And I found myself in San Francisco with where a lot of the people I knew from MIT and, and from thinking machines corporation had moved to in the meantime and and was looking for a job. And, and one friend of a friend said, well since about last year, it's been possible to do virtual reality interactive 3d computer graphics on high end PCs. And before that you would need a hundred thousand plus dollar workstation. So we started this company and we've got this project called Starbright world, and it's working with Steven Spielberg to create what became the first online 3d avatar world for children specifically for, for seriously ill children who were being addressed by the SVI foundation. And so the background that I had as an engineer with real world design et experience, and the background of designing the connection machine was what got me that job as a VR producer and the when I was there, there was also another woman who was became a very close friend, Zara hu Shand, who comes from a theater background multimedia art and poetry writing.

Tamiko: And, and she and I, I were a little bit a little bit different from the other people in, in the company in, in that we had this very, very strong arts background and got involved in these long conversations about what you could do with this virtual reality technology. Mm-Hmm, in addressing artistic issues that were important to us. And both of us are, are mixed half European American, half Asian American mine, Japanese American, hers is Iranian American. And so both of us had a very large interest also in, in culture, in, in the sorts of, of, of situations you get in as a as a non European American or non fully European American in the us. And out of, out of that we started working on on, beyond Manar Zara, went into a a retreat in the Sierra Nevada.

Tamiko: She knew that manzana was right nearby. So she went and visited it. She knew about manzanas history as being the first of over 10 internment camps that was old during world war II to imprison people of Japanese ancestry in the us. So she visited and it's it's been taken back by the desert. All of the barracks were vital sources of wood in an area that doesn't have a lot of wood. So the Barrack were all taken apart right after the war, but there was a trace of a grid of partially teared. Is that an American word part, partly asphalted streets in the middle of the desert. And, and she said, it was really weird because this whole site of Manar this high desert surrounded by snow covered mountains on three sides, looks like desert landscapes in Iran. And then even this grid of roads reminded her of seeing gardens walled gardens in the desert of Iran that had been taken back by the, a desert because gardens.

Tamiko: And then she started showing me, okay, well, gardens in Iran are built on this rectangular grid because the grid speaks of the perfection of, of paradise, but what is paradise when you're imprisoned in paradise and, and cannot cannot leave and are there against your will? So these were all issues that came up in her mind triggered by the Cy of Mansur. And she came back to San Francisco and told me about these weird dissociations she had with this site of, you know, the first internment camp where Japanese Americans were interned. And I said, this is really weird because I remember as a kid at family dinners with my, the Japanese American side of my family, that the adults would talk about how, you know, even when the Japanese Americans were in, in camp, they started planting flowers. And I was going like, well, what was that camp?

Tamiko: And what, why were they planting flowers? And I, I went on the internet and put in something like, you know flower internment camp, and immediately what comes up is Ansel Adams, photograph of one of the gardens in Manar and looking at the garden. I immediately recognized it as a paradise garden, a specific type of Japanese garden, which is a depiction of, of the Western paradise, the pure land. That was the impetus for the whole work very much so. Yeah. I mean, Zara, in some ways said, yes, I was planning on writing a poem, but then Tako insisted on making a virtual reality world out of it. . And, and that was because again, taking a bit of a, a deep view of this, you know, I had grown up with my father's work that was about perceiving spaces and series of spaces, sequential spaces from a first person, experiential perspective, a first person perspective while moving through that space.

Tamiko: And, you know, the, this in the mid nineties was obviously virtual reality for me when my father was coming up with it in the sixties and seventies and eighties, that that word didn't exist for, or him, the concept didn't exist for him. But it's what I've used. Essentially his work on perception of sequential spaces is what I've used for all of my virtual reality works. And there's a lot of it that carries over into my augmented reality works also. So, so I, I, I insisted that we got to do this project as a virtual reality project, because that would allow us to deal with this layering of spaces on the same site, the desert itself, the site itself, we could have gone into the native American section of that, of that site. The nearby town of independence was founded on July 4th when the us army came in and moved the, the, the, the, the Paes out of that area into a reservation.

Tamiko: . So there's a whole story that can be done there. Of course, there's the story of that's covered in the film Chinatown about how the water was drawn out of Owens valley in order to enable the growth of Los Angeles. And then it was the whole story of the internment there, and then the layers that, that Zara was bringing of associations with the desert landscapes of Iran. So here you have this incredible stack of different image of entire worlds that were on the same site. And I felt like this virtual reality technology that, that we were developing right then would be able to express and address these spatial concerns and the, the, the body in space that, that measures that space with the body in ways that no other medium

Roddy: Could that level of sophistication and depth to creation of virtual reality worlds is something that is still feels so important to me. And, and, and honestly is something that I wish more virtual reality practitioners would engage with. As they're developing work, even as the technology itself becomes more sophisticated, just that, that understanding, as you said, of just spatial percept is just something that I think sets your work apart tremendously. What is something that you feel like, you know about technology that you wish everyone did

Tamiko: At some level? I've always felt maybe because of the background that I sketched out, right, right now that, that the world of technology in the world using technology, the world we create with technology is just as much a part of a real life as as any other part. I mean, the human is defined in many ways by being a tool using animal. And we have realized that there are other animals that, that do that, but we do it to a, such a huge extent that we've actually manipulated the entire world and are in the process of destroying it with, with the changes that we've made in it. So, so I think, I think you cannot really separate the human right from the technological, because that's always defined us as being different from, from other animals. And in the scale of, of changes that we consciously and purposefully make in our environment, agriculture is a huge incursion into, into nature.

Tamiko: As we are discovering that you can't, you can't turn the entire earth into a garden or a farm or a plantation without destroying it. And, you know, the, the piece that I just opens in in the Smithsonian together with my project partner slash P is called re wild R and and focuses a lot on, up, up close views of these four insects on the floor, four plants that we chose for the piece, but it's it's using, it's a form of augmented reality. That's using geo geolocation and what that means because the GPS and geolocation signals that your smartphone get are dependent on which four satellites happen to be closest right now it's constantly changing. And that means that, that since all of the insects and plants are positioned by GPS, they're also constantly changing and we set up the system, but once we set the system up and it's running, it's, it's, it's operating on its own, and it's getting the signals from the satellites and, and the plants are moving around, you can't control it.

Tamiko: And the curator was talking about this and, and saying, well, you know, lots of times things are really in your face, you know, and people are, you know, trying to step back. And when they step back, the, the plants move with them can't you essentially, she was saying, can't you control them more, can't you make them, you know, a little bit further. And, and the answer is, yes, we could, we could make them all so static that, that you are in control. You can decide where to go and, and, and what to look at, but that's not the point of the piece. And I realize, you know, in this, this discussion with the curator, this piece is about, we need to release that control that we try and put on nature. We need to, and allow nature to do things that we don't want it to do to, you know, to be, to be messy, to be chaotic, to be Brownly, to, to have all these insects that, you know, are creepy, call these scary, ugly things that eat our plants when we don't want them to eat them. And, and, and, you know, sting us when we don't want to be stung, we to allow that con to release that control and allow nature to be messy, because every time we try and control it, we destroy incredibly large parts of it.

Roddy: Yeah. Yeah. And what you're saying, doesn't not feel resonant with some of the events over the last two years of our engagement with the pandemic and our responses to that globally and so forth. Given the way that the last two years have really brought people to a face to face connection with technology that's even more intense unbelievably than it was just a few years prior to that over the last two years, have you found that there has been a different type of relationship to your work or interest, or have you felt that the way that people come to your work has shifted at all?

Tamiko: Certainly the fact that people couldn't meet in person and the fact that people couldn't for instance, put on VR headsets and they couldn't go into museums. I think for media artists pretty much across the board has really led to an increase in the perception of value of the work that we're doing. Mm-Hmm . And, you know, I think, I think we all equally do value, being able to see, you know, artwork and paint in person and being able to walk around a sculpture or in site in installation, or get up close and see the breaststrokes on a canvas. We all, we all miss that. But the but I think the, you know, the world that was saying, well, this is important. And all that digital stuff on screens is not important. They have had the, it of a change of heart because they've been forced to frankly mm-hmm .

Tamiko: And they were you know, the, the number of galleries and museums that really focused on beefing up their online their online offerings is tremendous because that was the only way that they could stay relevant to their public. It's been ex explicit in terms of of, of, of giving talks and not only I, but a lot of other people and, and, you know, universities or organizations that have reached out to me to give talks have all used a similar phrase. Well, since we can't invite someone who's maybe in the same city to come and visit us, then we thought, well, who in the world would we want to come and talk to us because it's the same if they're living next door to us or half the world away. So, so that's been extremely explicit that that the online experience has, has been has increased in, in value and has caused people to think about what it means means to throw a net what it means to have a public and what it means to to invite people, to participate in their organization.

Tamiko: And I've also heard from a number of places that said, you know we give host talks in person. We have maybe like 40 people maybe on a, on a really good day, a hundred. And then we started holding talks online and we've got like 400 people from all over the world. And, and, and so, so, you know, I think we're very lucky that the technology has was at the point where we were all doing video conferencing. Anyway, you know, when I started working on Starbright world in 1994 one of the special things about that technology we had access to through the project was that Intel said, we will set up T1 lines for you. We will set these huge you know, huge hugely fast internet lines. And we will give you top of the line Intel PCs that can actually do video conferencing, right.

Tamiko: And that was the only situation under which you could do video conferencing at that point, if you had a dedicated T1 line and you had a $5,000 Intel PC top of the line. And so these kids were sitting at hospitals around the us video conference saying with each other, or with Steven Spielberg, who was, you know, the, the godfather of the project. And this is something that we were all doing just as a matter of course, before the lockdowns hit mm-hmm , and it would've been so, so different if the entire world had been in a lockdown and we didn't have this this cheap or free video conferencing technology, and

Roddy: Also your engaging new developments in technology, too. I understand you've been working in the NFT realm. You've been exploring crypto. And could you share a little bit about, I mean, from the perspective of an artist which is something that I would love to hear, you know, more about just in general in these conversations, but, you know, from your perspective as an artist with the kind of experience that you have, what are you seeing in terms of your engagement with this market? And, and have you found unexpected successes or challenges as you've gone into this room?

Tamiko: Yeah, I mean, there's, there's many other artists who are much wider and deeper in, in nifty than I am. And, and a lot of it has been because of the ecological focus of my work, finding out what the what the carbon footprint of, of proof of work cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, but then especially Ethereum, where basically all of the money is, and the technology that that enables nifty. I've, I've really been holding back, but, you know, with a, with a long term perspective of, of working in digital art it's, it's been maybe seven years, maybe 10 years where slowly the acceptance of digital art as real art as worthwhile art has, has been growing. And then and then the the, the, the lockdown has, as we just discussed, pushed that further.

Tamiko: And then the the discovery that in, unfortunately the Ethereum crowd, there's a huge number of, of a huge amount of interest in collecting digital art. That of course has, has really been the, the multiple whammy that has really pushed it ahead. So, you know, I'm, I'm, I'm seeing that young artists who are just coming into the field right now are coming in with the idea, oh, if I wanna do art, I should do, I should do digital art, because that way I can just put whatever I want on online as a nifty for sale. And I can potentially make tens of, or hundreds of thousands of dollars as as, you know, as, as a young artist with who even have a degree yet, and doesn't have, doesn't have, and doesn't need a gallery, et cetera. This is a seat. This is a sea change in the mentality, because, because when I think we discussed this briefly, you know, back in the, back in the eighties, back in the nineties, even in the, in the nineties, if you're get involved in digital art, it's not because you want to get rich quickly.

Tamiko: It's because there's something about that form of art that speaks to you and what you want to do, and you consciously make a choice. Okay. You know, I might never be able to sell my work, but it really intrigues me. And I hope that I can, you know either make money by working on the side, in, in tech or, or get a professorship that, because that was academia was academia was the only place that did support digital art for decades and decades and decades and decades. The only thing, and the really negative part that I see is is all of these discussions where people are saying, well, you know you're talking about, is this good art, but, you know, if it sells for a lot of money, that's the definition of good art for me. so it's like, well, you know, there's always been lots of really bad art that sells for a lot of money's. That was true when people were painting, you know, it's not like it changes just because it's digital. I think it'll take a little bit before, before that sorts itself out. And and of course there's plenty of, there's always been plenty of people who, who say, I don't care if it's good or bad art, it's making me a lot of money and that's all I, I need. And, and, you know, that's that, that's fine. Could

Roddy: You share a little bit of what you see as being the biggest change in your work since you started be in as a media artist yourself?

Tamiko: Yeah. I mean, certainly being able to do a lot more by myself is, is, is a huge change. You know, I, I, I, I worked on, on, on, you know, the, the, the first commercial AI supercomputer, the connection machine that's right. And back in 1989, that was the fastest supercomputer in the entire world. It's the equivalent of an iPhone five , which none of us would ever want to you at this point, because it's just so limited.

Roddy: What are you working on now and, and what's next for you?

Tamiko: Well, by the end of the year, I need to fill out a, a commissioner from the RO pharmaceutical company in, in, in basil together with with the house for, for electronic arts and basil they've commissioned a a number of artists to create AR works for an AR tour with the theme celebrate life. And, and what I ended up doing was saying, oh, well Ralph, as a pharmaceutical company has gotten, its got a start in it in the 19th century with medicinal plants. So with extracts from medicinal plants. So, so so let me start looking at that. And then the the curator from, from Ross said oh wow, there's actually this huge mural in the director's floor of the headquarters that shows medicinal plants. And so we went back and forth and they're, you know, it's things like the coneflower and, and the castor oil plant and, and you know, plants that are really well known and some others that are not so well known.

Tamiko: So, so basically I'm doing an augmented reality experience with these with these plants, but in a sort of celebratory mode, I want to, I want to turn them into sort of a tango Lee inspired animated. I don't know, like the water wheels of that TGLI has in basil and I'm, and I'm just starting that, that part of the project. So I'm not sure what'll happen, but I envision like, you know flowers, like wor whirling off as little helicopters or spouting things. So, so that's really exciting. And then, and then the image behind me, this green image of the oxygen molecules arising out of the Sono bacteria invested waters, the great oxygen event that made it possible for oxygen breathing, life forms like we, we are to to emerge. And that's another piece I'm working on called elemental spaces that will hopefully be finished around may or so where I'm looking at. It's it's, if it, the, the most complex form would be a mixed reality piece where you have four bowls, each bowl is one of the elements fire air, water, soil, and you have a VR headset on, and, and when you take one of these bowls between your hands, then you're releasing the elements.

Roddy: That sounds brilliant and exciting as does so much of your work. And I, I just, I really appreciate the opportunity to, to speak today. It's always a pleasure. And I can't wait to hear all about that work and, and everything else that you're doing.

Tamiko: Thank you. And yeah, it's wonderful getting your questions. And it took me really a little bit for the back than I ever expected. So thank

Roddy: You. My job is done, then One of the reasons I started this podcast, particularly at this moment of a digital turn in the arts is to help create a better record of those who are and have been working in this arena for years. There are rich and vast stories to be told full of surprising twists and turns. And I hope to be able to capture some of those voices and share their insights with you. Thanks for listening.

Back to top