W+K Amsterdam's Jamie Kim interviews Stewdio's Stewart Smith

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Today we give a warm welcome to our newest CAT Scanner, W+K Amsterdam Interactive Producer Jamie Kim. Jamie has worked on some of the agency's most ambitious digital initiatives, including the global FIFA 10 stats tracking effort FIFA Earth, and the previous campaign for FIFA '09, featured in our Integrated Production Whitepaper. She was also the brains behind Imagining Mozambique, an art-driven fundraising show and site to benefit the orphans of Mozambique. For her first CAT Scan installment, Jamie interviews the fascinating and fun-making creative technologist/programmer Stewart Smith, who the agency had tapped to work on the FIFA10 FIFA Earth effort.

It was about a year ago that I began to look for leaders in data visualization and so-called 'techno-artists' to work on the FIFA10 digital campaign at W+K Amsterdam. Stewart Smith joined our team and helped shape our vision for FIFA Earth, a data visual application for EA Sports.

It was a great pleasure to work with someone like Stewart—a person who has taken his passion and made a profession out of it.

I interviewed Stewart over the weekend during a coffee break from his latest techno-art project at the Center for Art and Media (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, Germany. He talked to me about his beginnings, art and the simplification of technology and also shared some old school goodies for us to enjoy.

When and how did you realize that being an "Artist-Programmer" is what you would do as a profession?
I couldn't have understood this as a child, but looking backwards I think Stewdio is the result of a steady series of experiments, rather than the result of a realization or personal turning point. For example, as a teenager I started a small punk-inspired publication called Tweed, a music and politics zine. From its early DIY cut-and-paste aesthetic up to its embrace of cleaner digital layouts and migration to the Web, my collaborators and I always clung to this notion of Tweed as a "real business." Of course it wasn't; it was a few young guys stealing free photocopies and forcing our printed rants onto friends and strangers at small concert venues. But the process of pretending to be something larger than yourself can be very productive. (In computer science it's akin to "bootstrapping" but I think more people will recognize the phrase "fake it 'till you make it.") Eventually Tweed started scoring real interviews and getting backstage with musicians we admired, discussing the hot political topics of the day.

The Stewdio site
The Stewdio site

A similar sort of success is happening with Stewdio now. Opportunities to work with people I admire have been appearing more frequently. And pulling friends into project collaborations when suitable makes work all the more enjoyable. One of my early models for this in the graphic design world was David Reinfurt's studio, O-R-G in New York. I was incredibly lucky to work for David just after finishing my undergraduate degree and entering the so-called "real world" with infant eyes. At that stage meeting people who actually make a living doing things that are similar to what you want to do is profound.

Out of old habit I still support this running gag of Stewdio being some legitimate firm that employs several designers, but it's not without a wink to the audience so to speak. It's always important to have a sense of humor about your condition.

Terra Natale
Terra Natale

You are currently working on an art project with ZKM in Germany on a touch screen piece, which is part of a larger opera (Amazonas). And before this, you had worked on an exhibition piece called Terre Natale. Your work / interest leans more towards a convergence of technology with art and culture. Where would you like to see yourself in a year with this merger of art and technology?
I've begun working with some rather heavy project content such as political refugee flows, global warming, crime statistics, and so on. In general I've noticed there's a lot of negative energy thrown into the presentation of these themes to an audience. For example, global warming discussions are often crowned by indicting the audience itself; saying "YOU are the reason we're all going to DIE." What an off-putting way to approach the problem. Why not find the positive angle of attack? I recall this book title from the early 90's, "Fifty simple things you can do to save the earth." Same topic, but presented completely differently. I myself don't escape this criticism, but within a year I'd like to be on the more positive track. I want my work to make people feel empowered, not defensive.

When it comes to the technology, I'm interested in simplifying the production and also moving away from the screen / keyboard paradigm. By "simplifying" I mean finding ways to produce pieces that can be easily shared online and emulated by others cheaply if possible. This is economical for myself of course, but also helpful for the art and technology community. I didn't study computers or programming in school so I owe my entire knowledge base to cheap books and free source code for download. I'm not saying I'm against all things proprietary by any means, I just like to give back to the community when possible. Not by coincidence I also feel that teaching is critical to the long-term sustainability of my practice.

Why do you think there is this trend to create a crossroads between art/technology?
I don't see the intersection of art and technology as a passing trend or even something new. For me the most interesting art is that which engages contemporary social structures and tools of production. There's often a gestation period where the larger culture slowly accepts a new tool of production as capable of producing art and I think software has been in this limbo for three or four decades now. (If we look at two centuries of photography we can see the whole arc of this gestation process.)

Instead of seeing the combination of art and technology as "new" we ought to be asking anyone who is painting according to the old Renaissance tradition (if they exist) why they insist on being so retro. It's 2010, not 1510. The tools of production and our daily engagement with the world have evolved. I admit I'm speaking from a privileged first-world perspective here, but the point still stands.

Who do you think is leading the way in "techno-art"?
This is a tricky one to answer succinctly, so without dwelling I'll just list Jodi, Karsten Schmidt (aka "Toxi"), Roel Wouters, Lust, The 389, Jürg Lehni, 386DX, Rafael Rozendaal, ZKM, Andrey Ternovskiy, Golan Levin, David Reinfurt, etc. Or perhaps looking at my Twitter l33t list every few days is more clear?

There is certainly a community of people who have similar interests / passions as you. Who are some of the key people you currently collaborate with?
Working with Diller Scofidio Renfro on Terre Natale was an entire education unto itself. The studio has a colorful history of critically engaging art and technology though their choice of technology is necessarily more physical than computational. I'm currently at ZKM in Germany working on some visual elements for the Amazonas opera and one of the great things about being here is having their new media museum in the same building. DS+R and ZKM are two institutions I'm very fond of; full of wildly talented thinkers. You can't ask for more.

I met Robert Gerard Pietrusko through Diller Scofidio + Renfro during our time on the Terre Natale project. We can both be a little curmudgeonly and so it was to our mutual surprise that we enjoyed working with one another. (And we're talking serious work time—some weeks putting in 80 or more hours stuck in the same room together.) If you still want to grab a drink with someone after that sort of experience that's a sign of a good partnership. Since then we've collaborated whenever possible.

What technologies do you use on a daily basis?
I'm hopelessly attached to my Mac laptop. I'm often in Photoshop or Illustrator. Lately I've been programming data animations in a language called Ruby. I'm also fond of coding JavaScript, OpenGL, and the Processing library (though I'm not a huge fan of Java itself). It seems to surprise a lot of people that I intensely dislike Flash and usually refuse projects that require me to build Flash-based things.

While I'm not in love with Java either I do find Processing (a Java-based programming framework) to be very a useful tool with a healthy community of artist-programmers sharing their latest wares for free with each other. Last autumn I taught a Processing-based data visualization class at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program. It was a blast. I think my students were representative of the creative flair that exists in the larger Processing community. Their curiosity and experiments were inspiring. I hope to teach a similar course in the future, but this time a little closer to my new home city of London.

What is the one thing you couldn't you live without? Why?
Music. This may seem to come out of left field because I'm not a musician and I'm not constantly living in a headphone universe. (And I certainly cannot dance.) But music moves me. Pacing; setting up a formula of repetition only to then break that rigid structure with occasional accidentals... Music is where technology and expression intersect at performance. In my experience music plays a large inspirational role for many designers and I'm no exception.

I love some of your extra-curricular work like Browser Pong. Can you share some more? Where do you find your inspirations?

Browser Pong
Browser Pong
I was falling asleep one night and the idea for Browser Pong just popped into my head. I remember having to force myself to sleep instead of succumbing to the temptation to code it. The next morning I woke up and wrote the prototype. When I'm inspired it feels less like I'm manifesting a project into reality and more like I'm just being used by an idea that wants to be born. But let me de-romanticize this. I'm not saying what I do is somehow special or significant, only that I'm a slave to my inspiration for better or worse. (Often worse!) I don't have a choice in the matter. And so many a quirky side-project have been born.

For Browser Pong's audio I teamed up with New York-based musician and sound artist Dominic Matar. He created all of music and sound effects. We agreed to use HTML5 for playback rather than Flash or older means of embedding sound into a Web page. This meant slightly limiting our audience to people using modern browsers. (Read: Not Internet Explorer.) It limited our audience, yes. But it enabled us to target the "right" audience.

Jed's Other Poem
Jed's Other Poem

My music video for Grandaddy's song Jed's Other Poem is an example of a self-initiated project ushered into legitimacy. I created this video by programming animated lyrics on an original Apple 2 computer from 1979. Filmmaker Jeff Bernier shot the footage and I uploaded it to Stewdio. The video went viral and shortly thereafter I was in contact with the band and their label V2 Records. It was a little tense initially. I had, after all, released their music and lyrics online without permission. But my enthusiasm for their art was evident and I worked out a deal with V2. My video is now the official video for the song.

Here are some other examples.

is an ambient weather widget which applies the current wind conditions to (almost) any Web site.

generates a formal letter of resignation from its library of pointed, yet ambiguous, sentences.

is a histogram typeface designed for use in the Photoshop "Levels" window.

Lastly... I know one shouldn't say such things about their own work, but a few years back I created the greatest Web site to ever exist. And I think you'll agree. It's a one-function Web site called Swim / Fly . Enjoy!
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