Interview with Daniel Rozin

Lara Sedbon conducts an email interview with Daniel Rozin for Leaders in Software and Art.

Lara Sedbon: Please tell us about yourself.

Daniel Rozin: I am a digital-interactive artist. All of my art deals with issues of image creation and human perception; specifically I am interested in mirrors and reflection. I use various mediums to create my art, from pure software to electronics to static and kinetic sculpture. I am an Israeli American; I live in New York where I teach at the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at NYU. I teach classes related to art, design and technology (computer programming, physical computing). My art is collected and shown in museums and galleries around the world. In New York I work with bitforms gallery, which is dedicated to showing digital art.

LS: How and why did you come to specialize in software and art?

DR: My background is in industrial design. I came to ITP as a student thinking I would use the tools and skills I would acquire to continue doing design projects and perhaps venture into interaction design. However, once I was introduced to the disciplines of programming and physical computing I felt a huge surge of creativity.  It was like I was waiting all my life for these tools to be available for me, and once they were, I wanted to engage in my own expression and not work for any client or towards a specific product. Some people find it intuitive to draw or paint. I can’t do these things, but for me software, mechanics and electronics are very evocative and inspirational mediums.

LS: You define yourself as an interactive digital artist. What does interactive art mean to you?  If the viewer is not involved in either the creation or the content of the piece, do you still consider your piece to be art, or is it not art until the viewer arrives to interact with it? (I mean this as sort of an “if a tree falls in the forest does it make a noise?” question).

DR: I think that the idea of interactive art is one of shared authorship by the artist and the viewer (participator, visitor, person, any word but “user”…) The artist creates the premise and the parameters of interaction, the artist’s responsibility is to imagine almost all possible interactions and see that those would yield an acceptable result. It is important for the interactive artist to leave a big chunk of the piece open to interactivity so that the viewer can really change the piece and feel ownership over it. This is a pretty difficult task for most artists, because by nature most artists are control freaks that would like to control all aspects of a piece to the last detail, but such a mind set yields art that is not truly interactive. For me, interactive art is the complete opposite of the normal art viewing paradigm. If you look at the usual art viewing scene in a museum, take the Mona Lisa in the Louvre for instance, you would see a large group of people crowding around a very precious object, protected by glass and guards.  From this scene it is not hard to deduct what is the important part of this equation.  It is the painting, not the viewers. In an interactive piece such as my Mirrors or Easel, the piece has no content without the viewer and the piece celebrates the likeness of the viewer.  This suggests that the important part of this equation is the person, not the artifact.

LS: You’ve done an excellent job of making many of your high-tech pieces look sculptural as opposed to technological.  For some of them, viewers might never guess that they are software-powered.  Is it a conscious part of your practice to conceal the geeky stuff?  Whether it is or not, do you think the art establishment reacts better to software-driven pieces when the computer is “not” evident?

DR: I am very lucky that my pieces are not only created with electronics, mechanics, images and digital media, but also deal with these elements as the inspiration and contents for the pieces. As such it is very important for me to direct the viewers to notice some of the underlying technology, but not to overwhelm them with the tech. For instance, in the Wooden Mirror a viewer can easily see that the wooden tiles are tilting towards the light, that the board is divided into a grid like pixels and that there is a camera involved. These are the technological elements that I decided to make visible, however, the intricate wiring, electronics and programing that are needed to make piece work would be very distracting and overwhelming if shown, so I choose to show only the important tech and not the minutia of the specific implementation.

LS: You play a lot with mirrors; why are you so passionate about them? Have you ever studied optometry or ophthalmology? Are you interested in the scientific process, or is it just a mysterious object?

DR: Mirrors are one of man’s earliest technological inventions and they have been loaded with meaning and myth from the beginning. Mirrors have often been thought as objects of evil and many superstitions are linked to them. Sometimes overlooked in the search for important technological developments, I believe that no other invention has had a more profound impact on the way people perceive the world around them, and more importantly the way they perceive themselves. Mirrors have the ability to let us observe ourselves in the same manner we observe others; this is in complete contrast to the way we experience our being internally, which is a highly subjective process. Mirrors have been featured extensively in the arts — mostly in the 17-19th centuries. Before that mirrors were not perfected nor common enough to be incorporated into the collective psyche.  In our era it seems we take them for granted and are no longer curious about them. In spite of its simplicity, a mirror is a extremely complex object.  A mirror has the ability to display for a multitude of viewers a unique reflection; in effect no two people looking into a mirror will ever see the same image even if they are viewing together. This unique behavior of simple optics, is something that even high technology and computers cannot emulate because of its infinite complexity, and yet a polished piece of tin or a charcoal-covered glass can achieve this result easily.

LS: In Easel, the interesting part is that the portrait is a combination of three elements: yourself, your surrounding and the news. Do you consider that news define oneself? Did you integrate this element to say that one has to be active and to react facing the world news?

DR: In Easel I was looking for video sources that would allow the viewer to create a collage describing themselves. I was thinking in terms of three questions – Who, Where and When; The Who question is answered with the camera pointed towards the viewer and allows the incorporation of the viewers likeness into the collage. The Where question is answered by the camera that is pointed out the window and allows incorporating the viewer’s location in the collage. The third video input is live television; this input is meant to answer the When question by incorporating events that have a time signature such as news and live broadcasts.

LS: Do you work alone or with collaborators?  Do you do all your own code? What do you code in/what tools do you use?

DR: In many art forms the idea of craft is very understandable and obvious, when you see a painting you can appreciate how skilled the painter is and know that you probably lack that kind of talent yourself. In technology, and specifically digital technology the craft is not obvious and seldom visible but it is there none the less. I am very proud of the craft that goes into my pieces and I am very proud to do all aspects of my pieces myself.  From concept to design to electronics and programming I do all my work myself. I mentioned earlier how the interactive artist cannot be a control freak, but I guess when it comes to the making of my own pieces I am somewhat of a control freak and want to control all aspects of the piece…  In terms of the computer language I use, I most frequently use C++ for both software and firmware.

LS: You teach at ITP.  How has your teaching influenced your work and your development as an artist?

DR: I would not be able to do what I do without ITP. Understandably the  field of “new media” is always new and the tools and concepts keep changing. It is crucial for me to be surrounded by like-minded people that are constantly exploring the new possibilities in media and technology, and as a teacher I am forced to constantly learn new tools and concepts. ITP is an amazing place and I can recommend it for anyone who is curious about using tools of technology to think about new means of expression and communication.

LS: How do you think the digital/software art scene in New York City in particular, and the United States in general, compares to that of Asia, Europe and South America?  Is NYC a good place to settle for someone wishing to build a career as an interactive artist?

DR: As a New Yorker I of course feel that it is the best place for doing digital art… The fact that the city is known more for art and media than for technology is a very good thing and sets the artist’s priorities correctly. The technology is secondary and is merely a means to an end. I cannot comment on other places, but I certainly feel that despite the difficulties of living and working in New York, it is a very inspiring and supporting place.

LS: Like several of our previous LISA speakers, you’ve shown at bitforms in New York City.  Can you please share the story of how you came to be represented there, and what kind of impact gallery representation has had on your career as an artist?

DR: Yes, In fact I was the first artist to have a solo show at bitforms so the gallery and I really grew up together. In 2001 Steve Sacks started bitforms gallery and came to see me; up to that point I had shown my work only in non-profit venues. When you join a commercial gallery you have to be prepared to sell your art, not just show it. In my case this was a big decision, there is a big difference between building a prototype of a piece that needs to work for 2 weeks in a show and building one for a collector that expects the piece to work for many years unattended. I really had to work hard to make my pieces robust and professional and this took a while, but looking backwards I see how this decision has propelled my art forwards and made me a more confident artist.

LS: The Internet has the power to “disintermediate” business sectors, connecting buyers directly with sellers.  A classic example is that we no longer call a travel agent to buy a plane ticket.  Several businesses have sprung up over the years to sell art online, including Artsy, TurningArt, 20×200, Artsicle, and many others.  What do you think of the capacity of the Internet to take the “middleman” out of art buying and selling?

DR: Yes, it is very tempting to use these tools to distribute art. However the art world is very much a business world, and collectors still want to know that there is some scarceness to the art and it will not be distributed indefinitely, so I think some human involvement needs to remain. Also in terms of presentation, most artists (including myself) want to have some control over the way their art is presented and having it downloaded and shown on any computer and screen is a bit risky. On the other hand I am a very conservative person and often lack the vision to detect trends. I am sure that like all other areas of commerce, the Internet will become the main avenue of distribution for art…

LS: Do you see more careers in the field of software and art in New York as time goes by?  Are most of your students going to use what they learned in your classes as a hobby, or do you think they will be able to parlay that into a career as an artist, academic, or creative professional?

DR: Certainly this field of art and technology will grow. The possibilities are endless and artists will be using technology increasingly. Not all of my students have artistic aspirations, in fact only a handful of students every year want to be artists. Most ITP students come to ITP with some background discipline such as design, architecture, engineering, psychology, story telling, medicine, social activism, politics etc. Most of them will take the skills and connections they have acquired at ITP and try to incorporate those into their area of interest. Looking back on 17 years of my involvement at ITP I can say with certainty that most students will use what they learned in their careers, beyond a hobby. One skill that is very important at ITP is the ability to collaborate, and this is probably the main skill that students will use.  As a result wherever an ITP graduate goes we always see a community developing.

LS: Thank you so much for spending time with us today!