Interview with Memo Akten

Lara Sedbon conducts an email interview with Memo Akten for the LISA blog.

LS:  How do you think of your next personal project, once you complete one?

MA: Actually I don’t think of new projects after I finish an old one. Instead new ideas keep accumulating while I’m working on other projects. Whenever I’m sitting on the bus, or train, or lying in bed etc. I’m always thinking about them, rolling the ideas around in my head and developing them, taking notes (lots and lots and lots of notes). At the moment, I have about 14 project ideas which are quite concrete and almost ready to start building (if I could find the time and money) – these range from small demos to large scale installations or performances – and another 50 which are more rough concepts and the ideas still need a bit of developing. So I spend almost every free minute thinking about these, whether I already have another project on or not.

LS: Wow. Do you look at the technology and then conceive something based on where the technology takes you? Or do you think of something you’d like to do, and then use technology to realize the vision?

MA: Generally it’s a bit of both. Often I’ll just think, “I want to be able to do …” or “I want to see …”. Then it’s a case of figuring out how to make that possible. My education is in engineering, which is basically problem solving. So I treat developing projects as a series of problems that need solving. I have a goal I want to reach, I break it down into lots of little steps, and solve them one by one. If you were to ask what is it that inspires the goal, it can be anything.  It can be a conversation with someone, it can be a scene in a movie, or a cartoon, or a line in a book, a song etc. – but it can also be a technology demo. So in that sense sometimes the technology does inspire the idea.

Interacting with "Body Paint"

Interacting with "Body Paint"

LS: Unlike a lot of artists whose goal is to shock and make the public ill at ease, you seem to prefer a soft way of addressing them, they have to “feel at home”. Why? Do you believe they will appreciate more your work?

MA: The answer to this is because I’m quite selfish 🙂
When I’m making things I don’t really think of the public. I’m thinking of myself, and what I would like to see, or what I would like to play with; not what would the public like to see or play with. I’m lucky in that it seems some of the things I like, have a wide appeal.

LS: Tell us how you make your art – how you use the medium of the computer. Do you have a background in computer science?

MA: I don’t have a background in computer science. I have a BSc in Civil Engineering – though I haven’t done a days work as a Civil Engineer. I received a computer as a young kid (BBC Model B when I was around 10) and have been programming since then. Nowadays the majority of my work creation is through computer programming, I write custom software to make the things that I want (visuals or sound or music etc.). I also use traditional 2d/3d/music software like AfterEffects, Cinema4D, Ableton Live etc.

LS: Do you program projects yourself? Do you hire others to work with you?

MA: Usually I do a lot of the programming, but it really varies. Smaller projects (e.g. Body Paint, Reincarnation, Webcam Piano etc.) are personal projects where I’m the only guy – artist and programmer. Other times I work with other designers or animators, sometimes I’m hired by others to help realize their vision (e.g. Science Museum ‘Who am I’), sometimes I’m hired by others to add my vision to theirs (e.g. Depeche mode ‘fragile tension’) and other times I hire others (e.g. Blaze). In all those projects I was still the only guy writing code. Then there are larger projects where I bring in extra coders as well as designers and animators too (e.g. Google Chrome interactive building projections, Samsung interactive building projections). I have a team of friends and regular freelancers I work with to deal with some of the large commercial projects.

Still frame from "Reincarnation" by Memo Akten

Still frame from "Reincarnation" by Memo Akten

LS: Your commercial work is amazing; many software artists can only dream of getting to work on such large-scale projects. How do you find commercial gigs? Do you have an agent? If it’s through your professional network, how did you begin to develop this network?

MA: I don’t have an agent, at least a human one. The Internet seems to be my agent these days. Seriously though, I don’t do any advertising, marketing, PR, business development etc. other than posting what I’m doing online, on my blog, Vimeo, Flickr and Twitter.

LS: Did you have a lucky break at some point along the way, and if so, what was it?

MA: I think I can say it was when I started a blog and opened a Vimeo account. The very first thing I posted on Vimeo was a little experiment in audio-reactive mesh deforming shaders called Amoeba Dance. A few days later I saw it on (a great blog about moving images). I have no idea how/where they discovered my experiment, must be the Vimeo tags. After that I got offered a few interesting jobs, and it’s been building since then.

LS: What are you up to next?

MA: Right now I’m focused on pushing personal projects forward. So I’m writing lots of proposals and getting mockups, visualizations, concept sketches etc. done.

LS: For you, what is the next step in technology?

MA: Since I was quite young I can remember conversations with friends about being frustrated in not being able to realize and produce in the real world, whatever it was we saw or heard in our heads. (This inability came from both financial difficulty – i.e. not being able to afford the hardware / software required for it – and technical difficulty- not being able to use the tools sufficiently well enough to realize what we wanted). We joked about a future where we could just plug a jack directly into our brain, extract whatever is in there, and dump it onto a DVD or CD to play to other people.

The works that I mostly enjoy and like are those which aren’t entirely concept driven but combine concept with craft. So I actually dread the day when the technology we were joking about as kids, becomes a reality. Today there already is working research in that field, basic EEG sensors that can ‘read your mind’ do exist, and even though they are very very very very very far from what I’m talking about, they can detect certain basic thoughts (with a bit of luck). It’s really primitive right now, and I don’t see it happening in the near future, but I think ultimately that’s the future of human-computer interaction.

LS: You seem to want to demonstrate that technology can rhyme with poetry and sensibility, is this a personal goal and why?

MA: There are two components to my answer. Firstly, to me “Technology” doesn’t mean much. Anything that doesn’t grow on trees is technology. Whenever I give talks, I always mention this and use the piano as an example. It is an amazing piece of technology, a great feat of engineering. But when someone plays the Moonlight Sonata on the piano we don’t say “wow they made something so poetic with technology”, we just appreciate the piece. We don’t look at the keys triggering the hammers hitting away at the strings, or the whole keyboard and mechanism shifting when the soft pedal is pressed – because we’ve seen it before, because now it’s *old* technology, it just isn’t impressive anymore. Any technology we are impressed by today, will become commonplace tomorrow.

Secondly, when I think of things that really get me going, what I love the most, I find it is generally music, or films. These are the mediums which make my hair stand on end, give me goose bumps, make me giggle or cry – and that’s where my tagline comes from: “I like to touch people, and make them giggle or cry”. That’s what I like, and so what I choose to do. I don’t set myself a goal of using technology. I’ve had a computer since I was about 10 years old, and that’s when I started programming. Since then every ‘technological’ development I’ve been through or learnt I don’t classify as ‘technological’, I classify as just ‘normal’. Going back to the Moonlight Sonata example above, the tech inside a piano is amazing, but that isn’t what the piece is about. All those technological gadgets are simply tools in helping the composer and performer deliver what they want to deliver.
I am not an inventor or designer, my goal is not to create useful things that people can use, my goal is just to touch people.

LS: If we visualize Body Paint on your website, it says, “Performed by the public”? What is the role of the public? Do you considered them as co-authors of your work?

MA: Maybe a subtle difference – I wouldn’t call it “co-author”, but would instead use the word “collaborator”. Going back to the piano analogy above, interactive installations like Body Paint I consider to be instruments. I designed and created the instrument. That is my work, it is just the instrument. Then I set it loose and the public play with my instrument – what they create with it is entirely their creation. You could argue of course that what is created at the end is a collaboration between I – the instrument designer, and the public – the instrument performer. That is true, however I don’t actually care what they create, I only care what they feel. With a project like Body Paint I’m not focusing on creating a painting application, and allowing people to create the paintings they want to create. Going back to the piano analogy, that would be analogous to focusing on the composition that is formed once you have finished playing the piano. However I’d like to focus on the feeling you get while playing the piano. It doesn’t matter if you’re not playing it very well and you’re making mistakes, what matters is you’re lost in that world, and at that moment every note you play is just perfect.

LS: Who else is out there doing things you admire with technology and art?

MA: There are two aspects to this question. In the field of *art where technology is the focus*, I really dig the work being produced right now by people like Julian Oliver, Cory Arcangel, Fat Lab / GRL, Daito Manabe, Zach Lieberman, Kyle McDonald. If I think less focus on technology, but more as a visual artist (who happens to develop technology) – which is where I see myself more – my inspirations are many: Quayola, Field, Flat-e, Found Collective, 1024 architecture, Anti-VJ, Robert Hodgin, AbstractBirds and also really inspired by the openFrameworks, Cinder, Processing, Quartz Composer, VVVV, hacker / maker communities as well as the demoscene. Within moments of browsing Vimeo & Flickr you’ll come across really amazing works by people all over the world.

Interacting with "Webcam Piano"

Interacting with "Webcam Piano"

LS: When you say you “use the body to perform images and sound”, do you take inspiration on contemporary dance like Pietragalla’s “body theatre”?

MA: A lot of my projects involve the using the body to perform images and sound concept, and I know with 100% certainty where the inspiration for this comes from: it starts with the early Tom and Jerry cartoons (1940’s-60’s). Most people think I’m joking when I say this, but I’m not. I used to spend hours every day as a young child watching the same episodes over and over again on VHS and every moment of those episodes are imprinted in my brain. The synchronization between the animation and the soundtrack is so incredibly tight, for every little muscle twitch there is an amazing accompanying musical phrase with a connection so flawless, that you usually don’t even consciously hear all of the music or instruments or notes; they just blend in and subconsciously complete the scene. The episodes were so rich in over-the-top full-body movements, but most importantly: it wasn’t dance. Up until that point (starting at age 3 or 4, up till about 10 or 11), I had seen traditional dance shows, where music was composed, and then movements were choreographed to the music. In these cases you could somehow feel that the music came first, and the movements were just following the music.
Also the movements were not very normal, they weren’t movements that I might do on a daily basis while going about my routine. In Tom & Jerry, of course there were traditionally scored compositions (famously using compositions by Liszt, Chopin etc.), but a lot of the time the animation came first, and music was composed to follow the movements, and you could feel that.  So Tom & Jerry was my first exposure to what appeared to be body movements creating music.
In those days we used to go to a lot of west-end shows as well (e.g. I have early memories of seeing ‘Cats’ – pardon the pun), and in those shows parts of the music was also composed to follow the choreography – or at least it was a much more iterative process of fine tuning choreography to music and vice-versa, but still I recall that they never reached the tight connection I felt in the T&J cartoons, it was only T&J which made me feel like the movement creating music.
Danny Kaye further enforced this idea. Also recorded on VHS and I watched continuously on loop as a kid, was Danny Kaye’s comedic performance conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in “An evening with Danny Kaye”. As a 6-year-old child I probably wouldn’t have been too interested in watching a conductor conduct an orchestra, but Danny Kaye made it a joy to watch, and I did, many many times. Orchestra conductors are still to this day a huge influence on me, it all started with Danny Kaye, and that further drilled in the concept of body movements creating music.

Final inspiration imprinted in my brain from an early age comes from Disney’s Fantasia (1940) and MGM’s Blue Danube (1939), again on constant loop on VHS as a toddler to pre-teens. Especially if I try to think back to my earliest memories, I can see the demon in the Fantasia adaptation of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain”, conducting shadows, smoke and fire with his hands. When you look at my work now, I’m sure you’ll see the close resemblance – if not aesthetically, definitely conceptually. In fact when I first created “Reincarnation” someone suggested Bill Viola as an obvious influence. Actually it was purely Fantasia’s Night on Bald Mountain. Still when my mind goes blank for whatever reason, I remember and think of scenes from all of the above, what I watched over three decades ago.

LS: If you could do a collaboration with any one individual right now, who would it be and why?

MA: Tough one. I’m really really into physics. One of my most enjoyable projects was “Cosmic Sensation”, working with former CERN physics professor Sijbrand de Jong in visualizing cosmic rays, particles travelling from other galaxies at close to the speed of light. This stuff – quantum physics, cosmology, chaos theory etc. really excites me, and I’m almost desperate to create projects that incites this fascination in other people. I find it mind-boggling that the atoms that make up my body, was created in the heart of a star as a result of nuclear fusion. Or if you shoot particles (e.g. photons, electrons, protons etc) through a pair of narrow slits, you get an interference pattern, as if they can cancel each other out like waves! Or if you shoot a single particle through a pair of narrow slits you still get the interference pattern! (See: the double-slit experiment). There are so many phenomena in science that I find just amazingly exciting and I would love to work with more science labs and institutions to create projects which would hopefully make the science-fearing audience equally excited.
Oh, and also Lady Gaga.

Memo Akten