stealing eyeballs 05

Interview with Reed Kram

Simon Hadler: You were one of the founding members of the legendary MIT Aesthetics and Computation Group. Could you please shortly explain the aims of the group?

Reed Kram: Each member of the group will have a different answer to your question. Nevertheless, here is mine. The great aim and achievement of the group and Maeda is that we managed to create an environment in which one can take computational design seriously. At present, the digital media field as a whole is primarily concerned with immediate commercial gain. Schools of digital media design are pressed to quickly get their students on the shortest path to monetary reward.
By providing an environment outside of these conditions for a small number of individuals working closely at a high level, the group is able to ask innumerable basic design questions and has the space to work out reasonable answers. My task after leaving the group has been to figure out how to apply both these questions and answers to the world at large.

SH: How do you apply these questions and answers to the world at large?

RK: I am becoming less convinced that a perfect form will change much of anything. Lately I am more concerned with issues of infiltration, subversion, control, and influence in global culture. Certainly this is a direct result of my work with Prada and the architect Rem Koolhaas over the past year and a half. In collaboration with OMA (Koolhaas' firm), I have designed a series of interactive elements/challenges for the new Prada stores in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Prada is a fascinating company. Here is a vast commercial empire run by a tiny group of true artists. It's amazing. They have the potential to do things most of us only dream of. For all of the buzz and huff, how can digital media design reach this level of influence? Unfortunately I can show very little of this work, but the first of the new stores opens soon in soho in New York. Look for it.

SH: But – the shortest path to monetary reward you mentioned before – istn't that still what most students want?

RK: Yes. Yes. Exactly. So why is it not the norm? Why is everyone in such a rush? For some reason I find myself spending a large amount of time normalizing relations between computational design and every other act of creation. Most people are looking for the silver bullet, the magic wand when it comes to digital media. They hold on to the idea that suddenly there will be a way for 'real artists' to use the computer. But when has art ever been made other than through ideas and hard work? The computer is a difficult tool, media, friend, enemy. But so is wood, so is clay, so is paper, so is the piano. In every other field of creation we assume that success comes through talent, concentration, and effort. But with digital media, we expect that a course in photoshop will do the trick; or worse that someday the computer will come up with the ideas for us

SH: you teach students at university. is there still an audience for, let's say, thoughts behind the scene, for science and art?

RK: I hope so. At least the courses I have taught have had a reasonable reception. People ask me to keep teaching and so I do.
In general our expectations for students of new media design are far too low. One of the courses I taught was called 'the Digital/Physical Border'. In this class each of the students made a series of fully functioning interactive rooms of their own design. Each design was executed in a maximum of three days, usually two. They put together the wires, soldering, circuits, lamps, speakers, projectors, and programmed the computer brain of each room themselves (no 'lab assistants'). The process was made comic, ridiculous (remember, these were art students), and as result, very successful.
One of the goals of each of my courses is to get the participants to do something they never thought they could do, both conceptually as well as technologically. This is a great thrill for me. The technological barriers of computational media seen by most are paper tigers. By ignoring these barriers, simply pushing through them, we are able to focus on much more important ideas: meaning, awareness, environment, society, etc.

SH: I have the feeling that even the most artists that work with the internet went in the direction of webdesign. (or look at ars electronica.)

RK: I have some web design that will be coming out soon, maybe late this year. Hopefully it can do something to break the mold. Perhaps not. But one must keep trying. I think it is important to engage the enemy; but the enemy is not commerce in general. All design is commerce in some sense. The enemy is stagnation. Right now web design work seems to be in one of two molds: either strictly commercial meaning strictly functional, design by user study, or strictly uncommercial, design as an expression of the designer's feelings. Either mold has great limitations.

SH: Do aesthetics still matter in the computational age of "form follows function"?

RK: Isn't "form follows function" the edict of the modernist/machine age? Shouldn't we have a new manifesto for a new age? Modernism as a vibrant, creative movement died long ago. A new manifesto for the computational age is evolving now. It is in process. What an exciting time to be working! Somehow we must be able to move away from a literal interpretation of form as a result of functional user studies. Form should challenge, provoke, evoke, emote. We must conjure up dynamic form from modern life, contemporary concerns: spatial, urban, social, cultural, technological, etc. without boundaries. Aesthetics in tune with purpose and concept has always mattered and continues to matter. Aesthetics removed from purpose or concept has never mattered.

SH: Yes, one should think so. But if you look at webdesign-guides, they are all about "form follows function" without questioning this concept a bit. everything else is still considered avantgarde?

RK: Correct. One can certainly ask, is web design actually contemporary design? Does web design propose new ideas? For the most part it does not, outside of the fact that it is on the web, using the latest technology.

SH: Looking at many of your projects, it seems that offline architecture and information architecture are beginning to look more and more like siamese twins. One of your latest projects, Living, shows both concepts in itself. Do you think we already start to really live in information spaces?

RK: We have always lived in information spaces. Every physical space is an information space. The objects and processes that surround us continually give us hints as to the information they contain or broadcast. The recent developments in information technology simply allow us to transform and transmit these same processes with greater freedom, faster, and over larger distances.