Originally published as part of project muster on May 13, 2008
MF: So for someone whose background is in gaming, and it’s in programming, and it’s in physical computing, what’s your sketching process like?
EH: Oh, figuring out what I want to do?
MF: Yeah. How do you come up with the next project?
EH: I don’t know if I have any real set way. Generally I come up with the idea sort of fully conceptualized a lot of times, although I do like the ones that are more fuzzy. I like the idea of developing them while I’m working on it, but that’s kind of far and in-between for me, you know? That’s occasional that I get that.
So usually I come up with the idea pretty fully conceptualized, and then I’ll have that idea, and often, most times, before I can even get around to it I sort of get tired of the idea. So then I’m like, OK, well that’s good, I’m glad I didn’t actually start in on that one.
And when I have time to work on something, whichever ones are still interesting, I’ll work on one. And a lot of times, even before I get finished with it, I get kind of tired of the idea, I have to push my way through it. Sometimes not, though.
I’d say, the Self-portrait one, that was probably fully conceptualized before I started it, but I felt like it had a lot of things around it, you know? It felt like it wasn’t sort of straightforward, necessarily, the concepts I was working with. So I like that one a fair amount. That’s probably more like around my ideal of how I come up with an idea and finish it, something along those lines.
MF: Right. How did you, in your mind, what’s the content of that? Like for that particular piece, what is that piece?
EH: Well, when I originally started out, I had never done really much personal art about myself, and some people had pointed that out in grad school. So I was thinking about that, and I was like, OK, well I’ll do something about myself, but I was also interested in my reticence to do it. You know, it’s like, I don’t really want to do art about myself, so one thing I was sort of interested in when I came up with that is, it’s about me but I’m not really in it.
EH: So I thought that was kind of interesting. I also thought a lot of it has to do with privacy. It’s these people’s images, and I’m sort of going out and looking at them and grabbing them and showing them, and most of them have no idea I’m doing that.
MF: Right, sure.
EH: So I thought that was sort of the privacy issues.
I think there’s, some people had pointed out, like the security issue, like facial recognition
and the security that we’re facing these days, like going through airports, which I’d thought about, and I thought, OK, this is an undercurrent, but it’s not something I’m directly addressing, but, you know, I’m aware it’s in there.
MF: You know that that’s there, at least from my perspective looking at it online, and I’m sure its completely different in person, but it’s much more about sort of this, I feel like, this computer presence on the other side of this monitor trying to figure out who you are.
MF: I think that’s the interesting sort of thing about that piece in particular.
EH: Yeah, I think so too.
MF: It’s not really about a political act, so much more as it is very about the implication that there’s another intelligence sort of working on your image the second that you’re presenting it.
EH: Yeah. Yeah, I agree.
MF: It’s just sort of weird, you know?
EH: And one of the things I was really, I agree, and one of the things I was originally interested in was this idea of vision, how we see things. And my thought was originally like, OK, the computer sees things completely different than us, you know? Our body image is sort of arbitrary.
Turns out, the computer actually, at least to my eye, is actually reasonably close to humans, in the sense that when I look through what it has picked out as me, generally, and maybe I’m just fooling myself because humans see patterns where there are none, but generally they have geeky glasses on, so I just feel like, hey it’s picking up something like that.
And generally the faces seem narrow and long like my own, so I feel like, OK, maybe it doesn’t have its own way of seeing things, maybe it is fairly close to humans.
MF: Sure. Well, and how much of that do you have any control over? Can you get into the settings and what it’s looking for?
EH: I can’t do that. I can make it more or less generous for how far from me it considers a match, and so what I sort of tried to do was something, I loosened it up, definitely, on what it would consider a match for me, and I kind of aimed for, roughly, for having a match a day, more or less. I think it does fewer than that, but I just thought finding matches is more interesting than not finding matches.
MF: Sure, sure.
EH: So that’s how I tuned it.
MF: I mean, that’s interesting, because then it’s not so much, and that’s actually pointing out something I feel like comes up again in lots of the projects that you had on your website, was there’s a point to which you’d almost be inclined to put what you’re doing in the same field or category as this sort of chance element of the randomizer element.
But then there’s an editorial step in your work, I think, that after that process has happened, it’s not so much just about John Cage rolling dice. There’s a thing that happens after you get your result, that you do heavy editorializing in what you’re doing.
MF: Like you select pretty carefully, and it’s more like you curate from your results the things you want to display as the end product.
EH: Well, in a way, I do do that, but I curate ahead of time, you know?
EH: I set the parameters for it, so every image that was a match for me ends up on the site. So, whatever it is now, 200, so they’re all there. Occasionally some disappear because people take it off Flickr, in which case I edit it out, but I don’t do, and I mean, part of it was the idea, this is generative art because the computer is doing the curating, but it’s true, I set up the computer.
And I think that’s really the tricky thing with generative art. I’ve been, actually, thing about this a lot, because I’m writing a chapter on random chance in art. And I think that is, the art in it is, how much control do you give up? If you don’t give up enough control, then it’s bogus. There is nothing there. It’s completely you, you’re the artist, there’s no generative aspect.
If you give up too much control, then it’s just garbage, you know? So that’s the balance.
MF: How do you know when it’s not enough or when it’s too much? Where do you draw that line?
EH: I don’t know. I guess, ideally, I mean my ideal, and I don’t know how often I’ve reached this, I guess I reached it on self-portrait, partly because I don’t really know what’s going on underneath. But for me, if I’m surprised, if it surprises me occasionally, then I feel like OK, clearly I’ve given up some control, because I’m surprised occasionally.
MF: Sure, yeah.
EH: Early, when I did in this with Art 25 cents, I didn’t feel like I was successful, in that I wasn’t really, I mean, I was occasionally surprised when, oh, this looks better than average, but not surprised like, oh, I didn’t expect it to come up with that.
So I think that’s it. What I’d really like to do is be able to create a machine which has creativity, you know? But that’s not going to happen, that’s sort of an impossibility.
MF: Right. We’d have to tweak our definition, at least.
MF: Yeah. Right. OK.
EH: Or if it is possible, it’s not anytime soon that that’s going to happen.
MF: I think, when I was looking through your stuff and trying to think where is he locating the heart of his placement in the work, if there are so many generated elements, what’s the narrative for us in there?
And the conclusion I came to is that you’re somewhat of a surrealist, maybe? Just in terms of the kind of tones and themes that you seem to bring out in a narrative sort of play in what’s going on. I wonder if that’s something that you ever kind of thought of.
EH: No, I haven’t. Surrealism. How so?
MF: Well, I think I arrived at that because it was the closest thing I could figure out, in a sense that there is a certain, what I think of as almost a surreal coyness, or a surrealist coyness, to your relationship between wanting to step in front of the work in certain places, and step behind it in other ones, and in other cases wanting to be outside the room altogether.
MF: But also in cases where there’s a sense of humor at play, where it’s meant to be riding the edge between whether or not it’s, they’re not precious, these things that you’re doing, but they’re funny.
MF: But they’re funny in the way that that’s meant to almost propose a subconscious to the work.
MF: Almost as if you’re trying to present that kind of membrane. That the plane of the mirror sort of physically is that sort of membrane between the real element of the performance of the piece versus the subconscious element or searching and groping and trying to release things into the world. Like the thing about the spam piece with the Styrofoam that was made out of, what was it?
EH: Oh, starch.
MF: Starch. Something really cleverly interesting. You were denuding this block of Styrofoam in a way that was very violently acted upon it by people who were sending it garbage.
MF: There’s something sort of psychosexual in that.
EH: Yeah. Well that’s funny, because actually at one point I was thinking… When I was sort of thinking that I would get through, I knew all the elements I wanted to play with and I wasn’t quite sure how to do it. I mean, that it’s psychosexual is interesting, because at one point I was talking to a friend about doing it who was very interested in… She did feminist art, and I was talking to her about doing a sort of collaboration.
And I was like, well we could do something where… We were kicking around various ideas, but one was like, oh well we could have something where it was like a sex hotline or something like that, and people would call, but it’s not really, and then that will trigger this thing dissolving all that. And eventually what she said was… All the things were caught up with her portrait rather than this sort of problem. And I was like, yeah, that’s true.
MF: Sure, sure. I don’t mean to tell you how it’s reading, but I was trying to figure out, what in it is not procedural? You know what I mean? What is it that’s not generative, because it seems that there’s plenty of stuff that’s sitting pretty comfortably outside the normal rubric of computer-generated or other-generated or randomized elements, and there’s other things that are there. And I think, for me anyway, the things that are there, the narrative pieces, the choosing, the curating, and sort of the drawing together of the pieces.
MF: And I thought that was kind of the interesting thing. Because they’re not pure, sort of Sol Lewitt, sort of let’s run through all the iterations sort of things.
EH: I agree. That’s actually something I think about a lot is the balance of how much of it is computer, how much is it me, and how much is the audience or some stimulus. And just trying to figure out a balance.
MF: And it’s almost like… One would assume that you’re looking at Tim Hawkinson’s work or you’re looking at people who had the same idea. It’s physical computing combined with a sense of humor.
EH: Yeah. Tim Hawkinson. I love his work. It’s funny, because I saw his show. When I was in grad school, we came New York, and it was he was at the Whitney. We went in, and one of the things that was sort of funny is I aware of most of his pieces, but at that time I wasn’t all that good at paying attention to artists’ names. So I didn’t realize it was all the same artist.
So I was first struck by all of this art that I liked and thought was all different people were the same one. But also I sort of realized, I’d been groping around in the dark, and I realized, OK, this guy has sort of felt ahead the way I was interested in.
I think what I really like about his is it’s not novelty art. I feel like the area I work with, the danger is it’s novelty, or cute, or whatever. And I sort of feel like his work has soul to it. There’s something always behind it beyond the obvious interest of, here’s a little mechanism.
MF: Sure, sure, yeah. And it almost seems like, especially considering that artists have the funds that they have to work with, you’re always almost in danger of the more technological it becomes, the more you’re really potentially threatened by just the march of progress. Where someone can actually subsume what you’re doing because a new chip has come out.
MF: That’s one of the things I love about Tim Hawkinson’s stuff. It’s certainly dependent on a certain base level technology, but because he’s, I think, deliberately low tech about it, it’s not about what new thing can artists do with a piece of technology.
EH: Yeah, I agree. And I think that’s the real danger. That’s what I want to try to steer away from is, again, demo art or whatever… There must be some good word for it.
EH: I think with a lot of new media, a lot of computer based art, a lot of it is that… I think right now it’s really obsessed with its own medium. So much of Internet art is about the medium, the Internet. It would be like if every painting was about paint. Some of it, occasionally that’s nice, but you don’t want everything…
MF: I almost sort of feel like, There are things that are happening so quickly now just in the field of UI. There are ideas that, five years ago even, would have been conceived as pretty great conceptual interpieces that are now sort of normal UI elements that somebody at Yahoo labs [sic], have sort of released to the wild. And it’s sort of like, oh, that’s kind of scary.
MF: Like the idea that the graphic designers of the world who are working for a living have caught up to the high concept of what… It just points to the fact that I think that maybe those concepts weren’t quite as outlandish as we thought they were.
Let me ask you this. This is interesting. This New England Journal thing. The conclusion they got to, which I thought was pretty… It’s interesting, but I don’t know how I felt about what they concluded about Self Portrait. They talk about…
“His search program finds resemblances to him in men, women, people of different ages and races. There’s something wonderful and funny, and then forlorn about maybe desperate in this Internet quest for kinship. Often art about Internet ends up being about the web as a lonely, alien place. And Ham’s piece has some of that, but it also speaks to how the web, where we come together in all our random unedited democracy, creates community.”
I was wondering. I thought that was an interesting conclusion to draw that somehow, the piece was about how the web creates community. And I was wondering whether or not you had a take on that conclusion or not.
EH: I was really interested in that, too, because that was the first time I had really read someone writing about my work. Those thoughts, I don’t know if those thoughts were really in my head when I was writing it, I mean when I was creating the piece. But I liked… What I wanted that piece was for it to be open ended enough that it had some levels to it. So I liked that he came to that conclusion even if that’s not necessarily what I was thinking about.
MF: What were you thinking about?
EH: Maybe community. After the fact of reading that, I’m like, oh that’s interesting. Maybe it is about the artificiality of web based communities. But I was mainly thinking about it as a wacky way of doing generative art in that it’s… And I think I wrote this in a few places, is to me, photography is about the selection process in a way.
Its editorial aspect is a large part of the art. So then, I’m taking myself out of that part of it and giving that over to the computer in this automated way of doing photo selection. So that was interesting to me, the generative part. But I was also getting a little tired of generative art. I was feeling like… And I may even still be that.
I’m not sure how long I’m going to keep doing generative art. I think it’s limited in some ways. And I felt this was interesting in that I felt that this stepped outside of the problems of generative art. Which I think is there’s a tendency in people who do that to get overly focused on the formal aspect.
MF: Sure, yeah.
EH: It’s like, oh can I make a computer make something that looks like art?
MF: Well, of course. As long as you can set up a system that allows a computer to do things that qualify in your system, then yeah, you’re going to get what you tell it to give you.
EH: What it becomes focused on, but beyond that, is it becomes focused on the prettiness or… You know what I mean?
EH: And it’s like very little generative art is all that conceptual. I think a lot of it seems like it’s very modern in the artists’ intention, I guess. I kind of like this in that I thought, OK, there’s a generative element, but it feels more contemporary in its intention in that it’s appropriating and…
MF: Well not only that, but you give the computer a reason to be generating stuff.
EH: Yeah, that’s true.
MF: You know what I mean? It’s got a very strong narrative searching. So it’s not just creating images, but it’s got a reason to say whether or not it’s done it right.
EH: Yeah, exactly. You can evaluate its results.
EH: Sort of, I mean one thing I did originally when I did that website is I didn’t have my photo on at all, because I thought, oh it will be interesting… What you’re going to have to do is deduce what it looked like by looking at all these other…
MF: Right. It would be great to see a composite of the work, you know?
EH: Yeah. And that bothered some people, so then I was like, OK, I’ll put my photo on but just a ghost of it, on a splash screen I put a ghost of my image so you could have an idea of it.
Yeah, I guess mainly what I was thinking about was the typical, for me, generative stuff. I thought, interesting to do some stuff with the procreation.
You know, I think the actual start of that, in fact I know it was, was a friend of mine told me that Flickr had an API, a way that you could hook in your program. I think the real start of it was, oh, what can I do with Flickr? And I don’t know how the facial recognition occurred to me, I can’t remember.
MF: There are certainly things now in the critical mass of things that are happening in Flickr, sort of astounding.
MF: Now we’re at a point where, really, Web 2.-whatever is going to be about self-sorting and dealing with the ridiculous amounts of data that are out there, especially with Flickr.
You could almost… what was the thing called? You’ve probably seen it, it’s this demo piece that they did. I don’t know that it’s a working thing yet, but it was a Silverlight piece that Microsoft put together.
And it’s this thing that, what it does is, and the movie they had made a big splash when they first had this big launch presentation, and this was like, four or five months ago, and what they did is they take every, so let’s say for example, Flickr shot of Notre Dame, and they make a supercomposite based on all the Flickr photos in the universe of Notre Dame.
So then what you get is this giant Notre Dame that’s zoomable, because you can click and zoom in and it sort of [sound effect] like this ultrahigh-resolution composite piece that’s built out of, and it’s in three dimensions, and they’re all based on a different Flickr photo. It pulls everything from Flickr.
MF: So the notion that you could, in theory, pretty soon, go to Times Square and pull out every Times Square photograph snapshot to create a purely digital aggregate first-person narrative about Times Square, in three dimensions that could be zoomable in to whatever closeness you want to, or zoom out.
It’s like this twisted sort of thing that you’d think was a fantasy.
EH: Yeah, yeah.
MF: But they called it, like, diving in, and so this enormous movie, this teeny snapshot of Notre Dame, where all of a sudden it’s like, [sound effect] and you’re like, holy crap! You know?
MF: And the fact that somehow it knows how to do this and stitch these things together, it’s sort of this mind-twisting capability as we think, “Already, we can do this?” What happens when Google Earth is now a representation based on first-hand photographs? It’s kind of very weird and unusual.
Then you start to think, OK. In what sense is it out of the reach of a single artist or a small collective of artists to be able to pull off things like this? Is it just a matter of resources, or are there things that individuals can do, like are we artificially limiting our scope of what we feel like we can pull off as artists because of the things that we feel we have at hand?
EH: I think there are things as an individual artist you just can’t do. I mean, having worked on massively multiplayer games, not Everquest but things like that, yeah. No individual can do that. That’s just impossible for one person to do. Or, if you could, it’d be falling apart constantly. It would be a sandcastle.
EH: But on the other hand, if you’re a trained programmer, there’s a whole lot you can do.
MF: Sure, sure. But it locates, in a certain sense, the artistic realm versus the purely engineering realm of it.
MF: And it almost forces us to shift in the same way that I think photography forced painting to shift in a certain direction, or induced it to shift in a different direction. You start to wonder in what case, there’s almost, nowadays, there’s like a constant sort of interplay between the purely editorial/artistic and the purely engineering where they’re sort of dancing a little bit.
MF: And I sort of wonder, we’re about to see very bizarre evolutions in what’s artistically possible, as it keeps to the side and in front of what’s possible in engineering sort of sense. You know?
Well, that’s sort of a topic, someone who, one thing to do is collegiate art education and something I’ve been talking with some of my colleagues is, you know, if we’re going to be doing, if we had master students in new media or whatever it’d be called, I think most of us, my colleagues and I don’t like the term new media, but whatever that’d be, do they need to know how to program or not?
And my feeling is, they do. I feel like you need to know the tools. But then the other point of view, which may be correct, is you don’t, you just need to know you can get someone else to do that.
But programs are really expensive. I mean, they may be right, because it’s like, you don’t need to know how to paint. You can come up with the concept and have someone else paint your paintings, but ultimately I think that’s really limiting.
MF: But even the concept of programming is so broad.
MF: There’s, you know, pick an environment and go in a direction, sort of thing.
EH: Well, that’s another argument I heard about it, is ultimately programming language will go away and there’ll be very approachable tools. I don’t believe that.
MF: It doesn’t seem like that’s what’s happening.
EH: Well, I mean it does.
MF: People are working on that, but you know.
EH: Well, it does, but then, the bar keeps raising, you know?
MF: Yeah, sure.
EH: It’s like, OK, now there’s drag and drop things I’m sure you can do today which years ago had to be programming, but then, those aren’t interesting anymore.
My feeling is the stuff that maintains interest, I mean, there’s stuff you can do with drag and drop that I’m sure is great art, and I’m sure there is, and maybe it’s even better because, again, maybe you’re getting away from the novelty aspect.
MF: Sure, sure.
EH: I don’t know, I program, so I think it’s important.
MF: And what do you program in?
EH: I use, god, nowadays, especially with the Internet stuff, I use a lot of stuff, Flash, C++, a little PHP, Perl, SQL. You know, there are whole bundles of stuff.
MF: So then the basic sort of, the web technology stuff?
MF: Nothing too outlandish, nothing too esoteric, you know?
EH: No, no. I mean, I should learn Processing, because that’s what all the artists are using nowadays. So I don’t actually have that one.
Nowadays, I guess if I had to say what kind of programmer I am, I guess nowadays I’m a Flash programmer. C++ is what I’ve been doing for years, but it’s not very visual.
MF: But still, it seems, again, like most of this stuff, people who are doing sort of what they call new media are just, again, total misnomer, it’s been around forever, but the idea that it’s about information, it’s not just about pictures. It’s not about whether art’s on a TV screen or projected on a wall, it’s about the information.
That’s why I think Perl and PHP come into it so often, well, it’s about driving data and how you’re collecting it and how you’re processing it. Those are all scripting tools.
It’s not just about whether or not you want to hook up a DVD player to a thing to another thing to a robot arm.
Only a few, I think, more questions. One thing that I’m just curious, I ask everybody about, is how you think either moving to or living in New York, especially from Portland, how is that impacting either your general take on art, or your specific studio practice, besides the fact that here’s [points to kitchen table] your studio. You know what I mean? Which affects everyone in ways that has not yet been documented, you know what I mean?
EH: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I mean, I keep developing my ideas and wanting to, my ideas are definitely advanced. Like the idea of, I’m more nervous about novelty art. I’m more, I think I’m trying to stretch farther and get higher, but I don’t know. It’s hard to say where I would’ve been if I stayed in Portland, you know?
MF: Of course, of course. But also, you’re sort of, you’ve gone from being in school fulltime to working fulltime, which I’d imagine affects some sort of shift.
EH: Yeah. Well, it’s funny, actually coming here, because I’d worked fulltime in Portland for a year. So coming here, I don’t know, actually I think it probably evened out in my amount of time, because I worked there, but it’s also in many ways easier to live in Portland than it is in New York. So it kind of evened out I guess.
I don’t know. I don’t know. I think I’m still figuring out what New York has done. It’s certainly made me, I always sort of resented New Yorkers who kind of poo-pooed people, artists who lived elsewhere.
MF: Now you’re one of them.
EH: I don’t poo-poo them, but I think if they know what’s good for them, they’d come here.
MF: Right. Yeah.