TRANSMIT³ Residency: ARS Electronica Interview with Lubi Thomas and Zachary Lieberman (Part 1)

Zachary Lieberman, Cube Resident and Lubi Thomas, QUT Senior Curator – digital media, talk to ARS Electronica about what inspired them about this project.

Lubi, what do you think is special about TRANSMIT³, the joint residency Program of QUT and Ars Electronica? What is your perspective on it?

Lubi Thomas: TRANSMIT³ is a project about possibilities that enables innovation and inspiration in our residents, participant students, research communities and general publics. TRANSMIT³ is about bringing elite practitioners to The Cube and through their projects exploring the capabilities of The Cube as both a hardware/software object and also as a site for public engagement, discovery and inspiration. We hope that The Cube affords our residents an opportunity to extend their knowledge as they tackle the challenges and possibilities that this site offers. And, in turn, the outcomes of resident’s projects help to expand our vision of what is possible with The Cube. It’s all about discovery, knowledge sharing and creative invention expanding our ideas of success at The Cube.

Zach, why did you decide to participate in the TRANSMIT³ residency?

Zachary Lieberman: First of all I was very interested in the residency because it was with Ars Electronica that I have a long history with and experience with and because QUT is for me a really exciting place to be. It seems like a really interesting university and there is a lot of unique research happening there and interesting people. As soon as I got to know Lubi Thomas, who is curating The Cube, and the rest of the team there I really felt like it’s going to be a great space to come and visit.

And what inspired you about this project?

Zachary Lieberman: What inspires me about this project is that it is an opportunity to create an artwork but also connect with different scientists and researchers that are working within the university. So the nature of this project is that it’s going to be a kind of mechanism for having conversations with the people on the university beyond the people in this building around The Cube but actually around the campus and other campuses. For me it’s really exciting to connect people.

Lubi Thomas: I like the way that you are utilizing a project for The Cube, which is in the Science and Engineering building, as a way of actually creating tentacles and some pathways out into what is a massive university community, a lot of whom never come into this space. So you are giving them connections that start to make The Cube relevant to them. I think that that’s an extremely strong idea.

Zachary Lieberman: You know The Cube itself is really large; from photographs it seems quite large, but being here it’s impressively large. It’s a two-story projection and LCD display. For me it’s an enormous surface. And I have to ask the question: what does it mean to have this kind of surface in the environment that you are in? Especially as it is not in an empty building, but actually there are hundreds of students in and around it. The building is quite active and you see students studying and talking and working in this space. What does it mean to have this kind of thing that we are basically living around? For me this makes it really exciting to create something because it’s going to be creating an artwork on a single display in a corner in a back room, but that is a kind of a hub or a centre for the building. Especially as architecturally the building seems to go around The Cube; it flows around it. The final outcome of my work will be something everybody is confronted with and is living around it.

Lubi Thomas: Also there is a really interesting aspect about it which is rare, I think, for a university: it actually turns into this public space as there are lots of families and kids that come here as a destination. I think that is a nice opportunity to create something where you have got these diverse and unknown audiences. Through the project you intend to communicate something about the university that is often not communicated, even to the undergraduate students. It certainly is a challenge to communicate these topics, questions and research outcomes to the greater general public, stating what we do here at the university. Your project is really tackling that.

Zachary Lieberman: It’s going to attempt to at least try to identify one of the key questions that is being asked here at the university: what does this research mean? How do we tell the story of what’s happening here? Universities publish magazines or publish websites and there are ways to tell the story of the work in a very straight forward way, even in a kind of PR or news sense, but my project at The Cube is a very interesting, unique and pure way to tell the story of what’s happening here, to create responses, and to really explore the fundamental questions that researchers are asking. It also shows what an artistic response to these questions looks like.

Maybe the one question we explore is about black holes or mapping the genome or trying to come up with a model of the brain or trying to understand how cells work or understand how atoms work. Those questions are interesting and meaningful and profound.

I think they make great starting points for a conversation, for artistic conversations, and great starting points for people to work visually and to create, through a movement and through interaction, responsive forms that attempt to show these questions, possibly even show answers to these questions.

Lubi Thomas: Above that, describing in another language is really powerful. Therefore the content of the research has to be thought differently and described in a new language – may it be in a non-scientific structure or even visually. Some people can consume ideas easily and make sense of information through reading different kinds of texts but for others it actually is the visual language as well as the visual or an emotive response that gives them the hook into being able to understand what the research is or what the questions is that are driving research projects. The vision of bringing those different spaces and kinds of expression together is something that The Cube is really about. Moreover, The Cube is about bringing individual or independent disciplines together, to create intersections and spaces where things do well that often don’t do well together.


So, what do you think is the biggest challenge for this project?

Zachary Lieberman: The biggest challenge with a project like this is that there are a lot of stakeholders and a lot of people involved. Part of the difficulty is that I’m coming from really far away and I’m here for a short period of time. So there’s a lot of alignment that has to happen between different people and different interests. That’s the challenge. I think that also the distance presents some interesting and hard challenges about communication because New York and Brisbane are about 12, 13 to 14 hours away from each other. That distance tends to make communication go a lot slower. For example, you are writing an email and wait a day to get a response and wait a day and so on. But it also, I think, has kind of an interesting quality to slow down communication.

Maybe you take a little more time for responding as your words are more important in this not so fast communication. Somehow it feels like getting reminded that it used to take weeks to get responses, to write letters and postcards to each other, which made communication more precious and conscious.

So the distance is a big challenge but I think also creates a lot of opportunity. I don’t think it will be difficult to work with the students. I have met with the students and I’m really excited to jam with them. I think that it’s going to be an interesting challenge to have this group of students reaching out to people at the university and navigating and mapping it out. I think that’s going to be an awesome challenge. The actual work, I think, will come easily, if we get good questions and we get good topics I think everything will fall into place. The challenge is to make sure that we identify this and come up with a good map between now and November and then to March or April.

Lubi Thomas: Yes, absolutely.

How do you interact with students, researchers and other key staff? It’s a combination of ways really, isn’t it?

Zachary Lieberman: The most important thing is developing, having face to face relationships. Then we have email, phone calls and skype and so on, but that face to face relationship in the beginning is really crucial. For me that’s extremely important. I even want to spend some hours with students this week to get to know their names, and their background and what their passion is about. I want to know what they are interested in and I want them to get to know me, so that we can go back. And that when I go back and work remotely, that we are able to jam and coordinate and collaborate and I don’t think that can happen without face to face.

Lubi Thomas: I couldn’t agree with you more, I think it absolutely is the base established for everything, isn’t it?

Zachary Lieberman: Yeah, it is. So much about our communication is about email and other electronic ways which are really not very personal. It’s hard to understand tone and feeling. For me that’s a very important part of this project. I don’t think you can do this work without having an initial trip like this to understand everybody’s personalities and get a feeling of who they are and for them to get a feeling for who you are. That’s why I am asking for this when I come here for the first time.

Lubi Thomas: And that has played out crucially this week, we have gone from a lot of apprehension to actually just getting people to hang out with you and they have gone 180 degrees.

Zachary Lieberman: Yeah exactly, that is about really meeting and understanding, understanding where people are coming from. It’s kind of abstract if you say that this artist-in-residence is coming, here’s the URL, here is some Bio – it’s still very abstract.

TRANSMIT³ Residency: ARS Electronica Interview with Lubi Thomas and Zachary Lieberman (Part 2)

Zachary Lieberman, Cube Resident and Lubi Thomas, QUT Senior Curator – digital media, talk to ARS Electronica about what inspired them about this project.

Why did you plan or why are you planning to involve other creative coders, you know, the micro-commission idea?

Zachary Lieberman: For me it’s really important to suggest this idea of art as not an individual but collective doing, and really like art as kind of laboratory. We have a tendency to promote individuals, and even you see this in museums like they would rather put one name up than five names.

Lubi Thomas: Well they do it with science too. They have one – the ‘hero’ scientist – and the other 25 that made it possible get lost.

Zachary Lieberman: Yeah, exactly. There is a tendency to do that and I see projects like this as a way of engaging the community and engaging people who have something to say about one of these questions. For me that’s really interesting and I got very inspired by James George, Jonathan Minard and the folks that work on the Clouds project because they took some of the funding for that project and did these micro-commissions. I did one of the commissions with Shantell Martin and we created part of the Clouds project, there were other artists that also got a small amount of money to make a small part of a much larger kind of tapestry. I think a project like this really invites that. We can have these different scientists, these different research questions and it’s quite easy to say ok that’s something that Abby does really well or Lucas does really well let’s send them this question and see if they have a response and let’s use the budget to get into dialogue with different people from the community. For me that’s really exciting.

Lubi Thomas: And I like the way that it mirrors what the project is doing, so the project is about that thing called The Cube and through this project we are running the tentacles out into the community of researchers of QUT who may or may not have a relationship to The Cube and then the way that you are producing the project is actually doing the same thing. Then you are again running tentacles out into the community who may or may not have heard of The Cube and are making connections to a much broader number of people. So I really like that the conceptual idea of the project is being expressed through the process making of the project. VReef

This could be an early question, but what do you think visitors at The Cube will experience? Do we have a vision of that?

Zachary Lieberman: Yeah, the way that I’m envisioning now is that there will be a kind of pedestal and on that pedestal there will be a knob and maybe a kind of small display which will be the means of interaction with the surface. The surface is quite large and there is a possibility of doing touchscreen interaction. I’m not very sure about that at the moment, but I’m definitely sure we need some sort of physical control, something that’s very gestural and very clear that you are interacting with the system. I’m still trying to imagine this but the idea is that I really want to take this physical gesture and show it the same way that you might change the zoom on a camera or change the setting on a telescope. I think that this physical gesture is changing your sense of scale. This physical gesture is moving you through a world and that world is comprised of different artistic responses. With this you are going to be able to zoom in or zoom out in a way that people are used to it with physical devices.

I want to connect that kind of physical action to the virtual environment to create the same feeling to what people do when they are working with an optical apparatus. I imagine connecting this feeling to the visualization. Therefore, I am thinking about layers and scale to show that movement through scale. For me that’s an interesting challenge and there are a lot of open questions; interesting visual questions about layers, about depth and about showing a kind of navigation through material. I really want that to be rich. It is about watching these artistic responses but also about the general feeling of scale like just being able to kind of zoom and navigate through. You zoom down and you are seeing, things are getting smaller and smaller and smaller, and things are getting bigger, and bigger and bigger. We have to figure out how to show this and how to make this experience interesting.

Lubi Thomas: And it’s interesting that you are trying to – and that’s part of this challenge – to embody the physical interaction into the visual experience which again is another of those layers of concept that give richness to the whole project. For this space it is a special challenge because there is no invigilator to give you instructions and the last thing you want is for someone to have to read what to do before they can do it.

Zachary Lieberman: Another thing I’m really concerned about is that it is such a big surface that we have to be really careful about the speed of movements. I don’t want to create something which makes people nauseas or distracts them. It has to operate visually with some level of concern for the environment.

Lubi Thomas: And it can’t move very fast.

Zachary Lieberman: I’m quite worried about that and I’m really sensitive. Of course I can’t really tell anything yet, my content is not up. But I want to find ways expressing scale change without dramatic zooms and shifts and where you have items moving really quickly. There is a lot of stuff you can do with focus and other more settled ways of expressing scale change. I think seeing that kind of stuff is important, too. I am worried about the nausea because The Cube is huge. And you are possibly going to get nauseas because you are not moving but it’s going to feel like you are moving as it’s not a small screen, but almost like something that you are inside.

Lubi Thomas: You will have total visual immersion as you won’t be able to see outside of The Cube. That definitely creates challenges.

Zachary Lieberman: The next steps on here are to organize and help coordinate the students because their semester is starting now and they have a very limited time frame. They have about ten weeks. From now I have to do a lot of work to make sure that the students are on point and getting the work done. I will have to develop a visual system next and focus on the technical work to make the visual system possible on The Cube. So helping them get that work done, beginning exploration on these visual systems and really kind of trying to imagine who from the community will be good, and even ways of reaching outside of the community are major tasks I have to do now. Those commissions don’t necessarily have to be other generative artists that are working on the ground of generative graphics and information visualization, but also maybe thinking about craft and about other types of artistic responses that could fit within this computational world.

I’m going to come back in November where I have to connect again with the students and test the content. I want to come back with the project in some – it doesn’t have to be complete – rather ready state to be tested and adjusted and tweak. I don’t have a lot of time on the display when I come back, so I have to be very concrete with what I do when I come back. Even feeling comfortable with the overall visual system and having some of the sketches in, I think would be really good and would also provide a kind of documentation for others who might be working on the project to get into the project and to understand it. Zach team
Any other last parting thoughts or comments on your whirlwind week?

Zachary Lieberman: I just feel really honoured to be able to create a project that will be living in this space that will be surrounded by people. I think it’s especially something like this at The Cube; you could see it being used for a lot of kind of illustrative purposes, or for connecting with things that are happening at the University but it’s really quite interesting that it’s being used for art, that it’s being invited to be used in this way and for me that suggests a lot of different possibilities.