This week on the show my guest is Tommy Martinez, artist, musician, composer, and a technician who has helped countless artists bring their vision to life. Formerly, Tommy was Director of Technology of Pioneer Works where he ran an incredible residency program. In our chat we cover so much ground, discussing what it means to document site-specific sound installations, the broken system of attribution in the arts, the invisible hand of corporate America’s influence on artistic tools, and how Tommy and his collaborator Angeline Meitzler helped Nicole Eisenman make a very elaborate fart joke at the Whitney Biennial – you’ll just have to tune in to find out what that last one is about.
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[00:00:00] Ben: From Small Data Industries, this is Art and Obsolescence.
I'm your host, Ben Fino-Radin, and on this show I sit down with artists, collectors, curators, and conservators, and more people that are shaping the past present and future of art and technology.
This week on the show, our guest somewhat defies definition.
[00:00:22] Tommy: My name is Tommy Martinez and I am a technologist and artist.
[00:00:26] Ben: Tommy is also a musician, and in the past has led residency programs both at Pioneer Works and Harvest Works. I was super excited to have Tommy on the show because I knew that he had had a hand in the technical production of some incredible exhibitions I'd seen over the years and this role of technicians that help other artists bring their vision to life is just so critical. So today we'll be getting a real glimpse into what goes into the production of technologically complex works of art.
We cover so much ground in this chat, including documenting site specific sound installations, attribution in the arts, the invisible hand of corporate America's influence on artistic tools, and using incredibly complex machine learning algorithms to make fart jokes at the Whitney biennial. Yep, if you don't know what that one's about, you'll just have to stay tuned to find out.
Before we get started just a quick reminder that in order to keep having artists on the show and to pay them for their time, I need your help. If you've been enjoying the show and you are in a position to give, you can make a tax deductible gift through our fiscal sponsor, the New York Foundation for the Arts, by going to artandobsolescence.com/donate.
Thank you so much for any help you can provide friends it's deeply appreciated, and also a huge thanks again to all of you that have helped support the show already.
I'm talking to you, Shauna, Chase, Christiane, Neil, Glenn, and the Bates-Gosset family. Your support means so much. And now folks, without further delay, let's dive into my chat with Tommy Martinez.
[00:02:02] Tommy: I was born in Los Angeles, California, while I was interested in music at an early age, my grandfather was a machinist. And so I would often go to his machine shop in Oxnard California, where a lot of this type of metal fabrication work happens. And he was a programmer and he would program these big CNC machines and he would stick chunks of metal inside of these big machines and he would program, you know, the way that the drills, and, gears would turn this metal piece into a tool or a part for a car or a jet airplane for the military. That kind of sparked my interest in making, but also specifically in CAD design programs, which I ended up using you know, in my career as a technologist for artists. So he introduced me to AutoCAD and. I forget what other kind of popular CAD programs that he was using at the time. He introduced me to the concept of, you know, the platonic solids and these basic shapes.
In a lot of these CAD design programs in these 3d Computer Aided Design programs, that's what CAD stands for, in order to construct complex shapes, you build them out of simpler shapes and these are platonic, in, in a sense of Plato's theory and philosophy of the world, you know, he begins, that, you know, everything can be constructed with these kind of very basic primitive shapes. So there are cubes and spheres and pyramids and dodecahedrons and all of these kind of like, slightly more advanced shapes that can be combined to create more complex ones. And then you can, kind of build upon them to create, you know, things like a human body or a car or a jet engine.
What's interesting to me about my experience in the machine shop is. That was an experience I had when I was really young. So I don't know what it's like for most other people, because I'm not, most of their people, I'm, I'm only myself. So from my perspective, I had an idea of how things were made, and I don't think that that's a perspective that everyone has. I think, you know, people see, you know, like a car door or, you know, I remember one specific thing that he had made or he was making was this, part to open a tank, like a tank door, like a military tank, he had some army contract to make these small, dumb little parts.
I think, you know, like as a child, you know, I think maybe also kind of growing up in that area where there are army bases and, you know, there are air shows, which I had gone to, you know, there are these like big, heavily machined things, that are, you know, awful and awe inspiring at the same time. And, you know, I had a very kind of personal connection to how this thing was made. At least one small piece of it. I was seeing how things were engineered and designed but I was also, kind of drawn to the magnificence of the final product. And in many ways it was like seeing that my grandfather was part of like this larger, you know, for lack of a better phrase or word beautiful thing. Cause it's a tank. You know, I was really inspired by that, that he could have a hand in the making of this thing.
And I'd always been interested in music and guitar and began taking classical and jazz guitar lessons. I'd started doing that around middle school and high school, and I thought that I wanted to become a jazz and classical guitarist and I want it to be like Jimmy Hendrix. So I, you know, used to play in rock bands and things like that.
I went to Bard college and I thought, you know, I wanted to study jazz harmony and classical guitar. And I took an electronic music course thinking that, it would teach me how to mix and master audio so I could record my jazz band. And it was, nothing like that at all. The course was taught by Marina Rosenfeld, who is an avant garde turntablist composer. And she is more like an artist than a musician in the sense that we are kind of like most comfortable with.
One of the first assignments that she gave us was to go out into the woods with the field recorder and make a sound piece and that kind of blew my mind because I was thinking of music in a more traditional sense. That kind of got me interested in the world of avant garde music and thereby performance and electronic media work.
So it was that experience, and also an experience I had with professor Bob Bielecki, who was also teaching in the electronic music department at Bard college. Bob Bielecki is a really interesting person is an engineer and sound artist who has done a lot of work for Laurie Anderson, for a La Monte Young, for Alvin Lucier. And he did a lot of these things in the late sixties and seventies, and was very much a part of the experimental music scene where it involved electronics, sound and engineering.
He taught, you know, I think like an intro to electronics course for me, and also a Max class for me. I think maybe we could talk about what Max is later, but it's essentially, it's a programming language that artists use to make sound art, electronic music, and a lot of video work that we see in museums and galleries these days. So he taught those courses, and he not only from a technical perspective was very influential on me and the kind of work that I do and my interests.
He just had a very kind of humble and curious spirit, which he brought to his work and his work with others. So he taught a psychoacoustics course, so we were you know, playing sine tones out of speakers and measuring their wavelength with measuring tape so that we can hear like the difference in air pressure in the room and kind of doing really kind of, um, mindful listening exercises and measuring our ability to hear different frequencies at different decibels and kind of getting a very base level, look at how our bodies deal with hear and feel sound.
So Bob, you know, I think just by showing us all of this really cool stuff that you can do with computers and electronics and resistors and sensors and things like that, he also showed us that you could be a part of, art making and research and creative research.
By virtue of being an engineer and someone who is curious about how things work. That model of how you can have a really fulfilling career and have a lot of fun working with artists I think was, was modeled by him.
I was so lucky to have found those people in that department. You know, a lot of people don't find that at that age. And I was lucky to have found, you know, maybe what my calling is at such an early age.
So after Bard college, I went to a place called Harvest Works. So harvest works was founded, I think, around 1977 and was primarily a place where electronic music composers could rent, very cheaply access to a synthesizer. I forget what kind of synthesizer this was, but over the years, you know, they amassed a collection of different kinds of synths, so Moogs and Arps and Buchlas and all of these outboard, things that people could rent very cheaply.
It wasn't until, you know, I think people started getting synthesizers in their homes that they kind of pivoted and they're always kind of evolving and changing with the times they have to, we all have to, it wasn't until, you know, that became more accessible to people that they, you know, kind of looked more into education and, performance. You know, even at Bard, I was familiar with Harvest Works through their, TELLUS audio cassette tapes, which the director of Harvest Works, Carol Parkinson curated, during the eighties and nineties. The Tellus audio cassette series was, like a kind of marketed as a magazine, and it kind of showcased the works of a lot of downtown experimental music and poetry people. So you would, you know, have pieces by, um, Barbara S and, you know, Sonic Youth and James Tenney, and these folks would all be on the same cassette together.
So I was familiar with them through that work and after college I thought. I wanted to work in the arts and so I got an internship there. So at Harvest Works I had access to a full recording studio and just really like a community of wacko artists that were, you know, doing new media stuff and thinking about interactivity and sensors and things like this. And I was, you know, I was in heaven.
What was so cool about Harvest Works was like, I walked in, I think on my first day or, you know, very early on and there's like this, print out on the wall that's framed, which is of a young Cory Arcangel, sitting at a desk there. And there's like, an inscription, you know, next to it that says like, intern Cory Arcangel like answering the phone at Harvest Works or something like that.
[00:12:45] Ben: Yeah. I forgot about this. Yeah. Corey, back in the day that's kind of like where he started in New York. So this is actually, this is kind of a thing with these small beloved nonprofits, like EAI also has a similar kind of like Lori Zippay, I've heard her joke before that, the best thing you can do for your career as a media artist is go work at EAI because like so many interns have gone on to become really well-renowned artists, you know, that's interesting.
[00:13:12] Tommy: Yeah, like if you're interested in this kind of stuff and you're young, these places are in dire need of help. Right? They're just waiting for people to kind of be interested and show up at their door so that you can help them or archive something in some way.
You know, I transferred tapes at Harvest Works, I backed up hard drives, I organized cables, I never got coffee, you know, I was always doing something, which I thought was really cool. You know, I was maybe an intern officially there for like a year or two before, you know, they started giving me clients, Carol would say, hey, can you meet with, you know, there would be some kind of more emerging artists that, you know, they'd put you in touch with and you'd do a Max lesson with. And then the next day, you know, you'd be working with, maybe Morton Subotnick or you, or you'd be working with Shelley Hirsch, or Okkyung Lee. There was kind of like an ever expanding, access to new ideas, new work.
So I was there for six years and in that span of time, you know, taught a lot of interactive media workshops where we were, you know, building applications that could sense people in the room and, you know, playback video based on movement. At this time, you know, I think like between the 2000 tens and, mid aughts in this decade there was like this huge interest in people making art that responded to live video feeds, right? This is like something that I saw a lot of there and that I think you see a lot of without realizing it in a lot of media art in general. So at this time, you know, I was programming a lot of stuff with live video feeds with multi-channel audio and video, and kind of just acquiring like a mixed bag of programming skills that, you know, I applied to my work with artists now.
[00:15:19] Ben: During your time there were there any artists in particular that were like really, really important relationships for you?
[00:15:25] Tommy: I remember in 2012, maybe, Jacolby Satterwhite was a resident and this was at the time when Jacolby was the residency king, I can say that because he's a friend of mine. He was just, you know, like getting everything. That might've been one of the first residencies that he had gotten.
I'm not sure, that whole time blurred together, but he would get to the studio at like 10:00 PM and stay, he would sleep there. And you would get to Harvest Works and open the studio to the media lab in the morning. And there'd be like his Beyonce playlist going and like just snacks, wrappers everywhere. And I was really taken and like inspired by his incredible work ethic. You know, Jacolby is a technologist who does his own stuff, which you know, is not necessarily something that, separates a great artist, from a bad one, but I think is just really kind of like, unique.
[00:16:42] Ben: Yeah and that's bananas to hear just knowing his work because it's just really, really complicated. Just like technically, those panning shots of these 3d environments, they're just
[00:16:56] Tommy: Oh, oh
[00:16:57] Ben: baroquely complex.
[00:16:59] Tommy: They're overwhelmingly complex. They take forever, you know, just to render a single frame and second, and, it was through him that I kind of realized the scale that you can approach. Before then, I hadn't realized how complex things could actually be, and it, it kind of set a bar for me that I hadn't previously known existed.
I didn't work with Jacoby during this time. I was just kind of like in the studio I was there and we would, we would chat, because he was so hands-on with his own stuff he didn't need another engineer. I think at that time he just needed access to a powerful computer and we had, some you know, Mac tower at the time that was like, kind of good. Another important project for me, was working with Okkyung Lee, who is a cellist improviser and performer, composer. She is someone whose musical work I had just kind of like always revered and, one day Carol said oh, you know, Okkyung is coming to the studio. Can you meet with her? And I just became super nervous. I was like, okay. Yeah. Um.
I knew Okkyung's work and, you know, I was, a musician and composer, but someone who, you know was, very much still developing my sense of self when it came to music. And so, you know, in the presence of like this legend I was really nervous. And, but what I did have was this really special ability to work with sound on a computational level. I think Okkyung was a little skeptical about the residency in general, and how technology could be integrated into her work.
But I was able, and we were able to kind of create something that I think, was really beautiful. We made this motion sensor that she wore while playing the cello, which panned the sounds around the room and I think it set the stage for, you know, for her and I to work together in a more meaningful way later at Pioneer Works and yeah, I think it was just one of the artists and experiences I look back on most fondly when I think of that time.
[00:19:29] Ben: That's interesting it sounds like you almost had to work to establish trust that it was even worth doing in the first place.
[00:19:37] Tommy: Yeah. absolutely. You know, when an artist has a grant to kind of work with you or to work with the nonprofit and develop something the stakes are lower, right? Someone isn't paying you out of pocket to perform or to do something. They're getting funding to explore and experiment with something.
So I think when I was initially met with skepticism, I said something like, look, we don't have to do this. We can just try a couple things out and if you like them great. And if you don't that's okay. And I think at that moment, we were able to just be more open and free with things that we were doing and not hold them as preciously as before.
And that's also just an interesting relationship dynamic that I've seen come up again and again, while working with artists oftentimes the artist is funded by some state funding or kind of just like general support by an institution.
And when you're working with somebody in that regard, I think, the pace can be slower, things can unfold more naturally. Whereas when someone is hitting you up or finding you out of the blue and is funding this project from their own checking account you know, there's a lot more pressure.
You know, it's really nice to have a mix between folks that are like, okay, I need to build this thing for my show in October. It's great to have people like that because, then you can say, okay, yeah, we can do that. And we can, together, make this beautiful thing happen and I know people will see it. It's also conversely really nice to have someone who is like, I'm not sure what I want to do, but I'm really interested in these things and this is why it's important to me.
And, if we can make something beautiful happen, great, and if not, then, you know, what can we learn from this process? And if I can learn something from that process, and I can feel like, you know, we, found something that we didn't know was there before then that can also be a huge success.
So it's not always, you know, in service to like produce some kind of artwork in the end, but the experimentation is in service of, finding out what works and what doesn't for something else that might come along in the future.
I think, just having those experiences, I was able to kind of like, see, okay I think this is fascinating and I'd love to do something like this, but maybe I wouldn't do it like that. Maybe I'd do it like this or this technology simply doesn't work. And that's something that you see a lot of as well. I also yeah I didn't have to deal with kind of like the negative effects, or the embarrassing effects of like some of these things not working. Yeah, so I was able to kind of at this time, amass not just kind of like a lot of technical chops, but also a lot of personal relationships with people working in the arts.
I think at this time I had become familiar with, with Pioneer Works, the nonprofit in, in Red Hook, Brooklyn. And, I started to do freelance work with them, work with some of their artists, teach workshops, and around 2016, 2017, I was invited to, be a just a creative technologist there and kind of be a resource to the artists and residents there as someone who, you know, could 3d print or laser cut, or solder and program and do things like this. They had gotten a grant to start a VR lab, I don't know if you remember, 2017, there was this renewed, like interest and explosion of VR stuff in the world of media art.
So they got a grant to start a VR lab and I was hired to, you know, not only be the creative technologists on staff there, but also work under the director of technology at the time, Dave Sheinkopf, to just generate activity and bring in artists that were working in and around VR. So at that time I started the Virtual Environments Lab, which I kind of thought of, in the spirit of a lot of experiments that were happening at the Banff Centre, in the nineties. So I started that virtual environments lab and one of the first artists that I invited to this space was Kristin Lucas.
I was familiar with this project she was doing around, ecological conservation, augmented reality, and flamingos, and I just thought it was such a funny and beautiful and important project, because it touched on all of these things that, you know, I thought were important. So it was like pushing the envelope of what was possible technically, and also doing something that was, you know, good and restorative for the world.
And that's how I, thought we would model this virtual environments lab and later, you know, the technology department at Pioneer Works was that we wouldn't just, you know, support any work that was, doing stuff in electronic media or, new technology, but that we would support work that was, doing some kind of social good or, trying to solve some challenging social issue through new technology.
So at Pioneer Works, I was able to kind of like craft, who would be in this program. I was able to choose who I could work with, so, if I thought, someone was doing really interesting things, I could reach out to them and bring them to the space to work on something.
Around 2018 or 2017, I'd seen Martine Syms at Bridget Donahue gallery, in Chinatown and I was just kind of like really taken by her sense of aesthetics and, her like photographic skill and ability to compose these things in sculptural form and installation. It was a piece I'd seen of hers at MoMA, which used AR. So I contacted Bridget, I said, Hey, do you think Martine would be interested in doing some kind of residency at Pioneer Works?
She responded and said, yeah, I'll put you in touch. So, uh, we were able to get on the phone and, and Martine said that she was interested in using, AI technology and chat bots, and that was something that, I don't know if I had experimented with so much before. I believe that we had worked a little, with Stephanie Dinkins at this point.
So we had, we had done some work with Stephanie before this. So I looked into IBM Watson and a few of these third party APIs that did chat-bot stuff and machine learning. So in the end we developed this four channel video installation that allowed visitors in the gallery to text message this chat bot and change the video that was in the gallery.
You know, this is something I encounter a lot when I'm making this kind of stuff is like, a dependence or depending on third-party APIs all of the problems that come with this stuff and all of the amazing things you can do with it simultaneously, which makes it hard to resist. Right? So for that piece specifically with Martine, we tried a number of different, APIs that did chat bot things and she ended up going with Dexter. To be able to have people text message a phone number and talk to Teenie, which was kind of like the dark id of Martine Syms. So you can engage the chat bot on like 10 or so different topics like her romantic relationships, her relationships to art, her relationships to music and sex and, partying, and like all of these kind of anxiety, inducing and fun and dark elements of ourselves.
And so based on your chosen topic of discussion, a certain series of videos is played back, which are choreographed on the video screens. So there is a number of APIs that are engaged for this purpose. One such API is Twilio, which, you know, handles text messaging calls and also Dexter, which handles chatbot technology, and typically in chat bot technology, what you have under the hood is a kind of conversation tree, which can be, kind of navigated by keywords or key terms or how the robot of the software interprets the user's input. So by navigating this tree, you're activating different videos that are playing back in the gallery.
The work would change but would also respond to you. It would talk to you, you'd be talking to like a service chatbot, you know, like if you, try to do something with your car insurance, or book a hotel or flight, you get like this automated response, which, admittedly, you know, it was very limited in its ability to conversate with you.
[00:29:18] Tommy: You know, what I think is really interesting about working with these things is that they're so powerful, right? So if I want to build an installation that, reacts to weather data, just say some, kind of basic example or economic data, you know, if there's an API for that, right? So I can make a program that talks to this web service, which I'll use to give me the weather in Oklahoma or whatever. Okay, so now I've got my exhibition and it's, it's awesome, and it's great, and it runs, you know, for three months, what happens in five years when I try to turn this installation back on, not only might I have to deal with starting my subscription with this service back up again, but does the subscription even exist in the same way? Does the company exist? And what might I have to do if it doesn't, does an analog exist or do I have to fake it? Do I have to run on some kind of stored data that I had as a backup? Or did I even think of creating a backup of this data and do I just have to, fake this thing.
[00:30:28] Ben: Have you had to do that on a project before?
[00:30:30] Tommy: Yeah. Yeah. There's been projects that I've worked on that had to respond to live microphone data. So what happens if there's simply no sound in this space and it's kind of a boring, slow day and they want to show, a curator from another museum, you know how this piece works, but it's not working because there's no sound happening.
In cases such as these, you know, typically what you'll do is you'll have some kind of backup data, which you can run with a command. So previously you'd have built little interfaces for the phone or for the computer that the piece is running on to simulate activity.
So this is maybe something that you might have to do if you show this piece, 10 years from now where that weather data let's say doesn't exist anymore, or there is no economy. There is no stock market anymore, because everything is ICOed and and, you know, we're using crypto wallets. So these are things that I dunno are interesting to think about in the terms, in terms of preservation and tech.
Lately um, I've been doing a lot of my own work composing music on the web. So thinking about how a song or a sound piece might unfold with web technologies.
[00:32:48] Ben: Or Apple just decides, as they have in the past, you know, for instance, okay on iOS, Open GL is not a thing anymore. Now it has to be metal, for instance. They, with a wave of their hand, you know, it's like the Thanos snap and like all of the artwork just disintegrates.
[00:33:04] Tommy: Yeah, it reminds me of the Microsoft Kinect. So Kinect is a technology that does motion capture and depth mapping, and people use it a lot for exhibitions where you have to determine where people are in a room. And I think two or three years ago, Microsoft decided, okay, we're not going to support this device anymore.
It's not going to run on a Mac anymore for sure and a lot of artists use Mac and there was like a run on old Kinects you couldn't get them on eBay or Amazon anymore, and a lot of folks were using them for, well, there were whole like classes at NYU built around the use of this sensor.
And, all of a sudden they became not obsolete, they just became like super expensive and rare. There was then just this shift in culture and in art, away from this thing that previously that we had built all these pieces around, towards something different towards something new.
And for a minute it was like, okay, we're not going to make this type of interactive work anymore until we found an alternative in the form of these Intel real sense cameras. So Intel stepped in with something that was comparable.
[00:34:23] Ben: Oh, that's cool. I haven't heard, I haven't even heard of that. So that's kinda like what people use for depth tracking now?
[00:34:28] Tommy: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.
[00:34:30] Ben: A lot has changed for you recently, you've left Pioneer Works after what, four or five years. To pursue your practice full time as an artist and a musician
[00:34:42] Tommy: Yeah. That's that's right.
[00:34:44] Ben: Wow, congratulations.
[00:34:45] Tommy: Thanks.
[00:34:46] Ben: What led to that? I mean, that's a huge change.
[00:34:50] Tommy: Yeah, absolutely. So, I was definitely very fulfilled by my work, collaborating with other artists, developing technology for them. I think that my own interests started to grow and grow and grow and there, there were all these ideas that I wanted to implement for sound things, and music mostly, that became more realistic in terms of my abilities to implement them. And I just simply, I needed more time. So I had to say, goodbye for now to Pioneer Works, and start, this MFA program, at Brooklyn college where, I'm studying with, you know, Marina Rosenfeld again, who kind of initiated my entry into this whole weird world.
Primarily I'm using the computer and algorithms, to kind of generate or effect sound. But classical guitar is something that I've still kept up. Especially during the past couple years now, during COVID is something that I've been doing as like, a therapeutic, but also like, research based practice because I've yeah, I'm just really interested in how, specifically like this Spanish kind of art form in the form of composers like Fernando Sor made their way through colonialism to Mexico and other Latin American musics that we hear today. So that's just kind of like a tangential music and ethnographic kind of strain of research that I'm thinking about lately.
You know, one of the, ideas or interests of mine, is, is blockchain stuff.
[00:36:51] Ben: Really in music?
[00:36:53] Tommy: Yeah, I'm thinking about it in a musical way. You know, it's been really interesting to see this world explode over the past three or four years, and then, just in the past year with NFT stuff and how that has affected, our community and world. I kind of like purposely have steered away from the NFT world, but more philosophically been thinking about blockchain stuff and how that, might be a really amazing tool for people to make stuff on, in the future.
I was thinking a lot about, in thinking about this thing coming up, how that might relate to preservation and thinking about things like IFPs and distributed nodes and, you know, like the simple fact that, you know, when we are preserving, artworks that, we're backing them up on hard drives, but how many hard drives and, you know, what happens if all the hard drives are in the building that burns down? That has just been kind of like one elemental things in the back of my head these days.
[00:37:57] Ben: One thing I did want to touch on is the conservation and documentation of sound installations, it's really only very recently become something that folks in my world of art conservators are talking about and studying, and proposing frameworks and best practices for, but I'm curious as somebody who, your entire career has been spent creating these things both behind the scenes as a technician, but also as an artist yourself, I'm curious if you had thoughts in terms of. You know, like, when conservators are creating this kind of documentation, ultimately what they're thinking about is, okay, if somebody pulls this out of storage in twenty-five years and they've never installed it before and they need to have trust and faith that they're doing it right.
What does that documentation look like to help that person in the future? So I'm curious, if you're thinking about that, what would that look like for you as somebody who really is so close to the metal, so to speak.
[00:38:58] Tommy: I mean, so much sound art that I think is thoughtful and rigorous is, very concerned with the space that it is shown in. So, you know, how cavernous, or how tight is this room that, you know, this work was in or needs to be installed in. So it's easy to like take a picture of a speaker on a wall and put it back in the same location, but you know, what happens if, it's now in this, large room and the acoustic effects of this space drowns out this really important sound.
I think that, just from like a technical level, what I think is really interesting is this idea of convolution and taking impulse responses from rooms where things are installed in so that you can kind of recreate the sonic quality of a specific room. I would take like an impulse response of a room. Typically it's done with a starter pistol. So if someone fires a starter pistol in a church and records it from different angles and is able to, recreate in the stereo field, the way you know, something sounds, you could then, play back any sound. With that impulse, that quick pop with the trailing array of samples, you can use that to kind of cross multiply any number of input samples and get the kind of impression that that sound is happening in that, in that space.
And so in like architectural conservation, this is a practice that is being done. Sound is something that unfolds you know, differently, not just over time, but, from different physical perspectives inside of the room.
So, if you look at someone like Maryanne Amacher's work, she was someone who, you know, would spend weeks or months inside of the gallery or silo that she was to install something in, to find the perfect tuning and ratio of, sine tone generators and playback speakers so that they would create this, you know, physically reinforced, sound field, that one could walk through and hear different aspects of. So this is something that is, you know, impossible to recreate and, you know, maybe it should be, it should be just something that is experienced in this time, in this place, in this moment. There is the New York Public Library and, there's a few folks that are working to archive and preserve and look at Maryanne Amacher's work right now, and it's interesting to kind of see that unfold because her work is specifically so hard to deal with, in terms of recreating. It's so complex in that way.
It also goes back to like, how open is this artist to showing this work, you know, in a new configuration and a new space, you work with one person and they're like, oh yeah, whatever, put it over there. It's fine. Like, you can use those speakers. Sure. You can use that monitor fine. And then you, you know, you'll work with some people and they're like, no, it needs to go here. And you know, not to take anything away from the person that is more specific or less specific. It's just, these are the materials that they're working with. Right?
So I guess, and you know, vastly more about this than I do, but when you are conserving something so much of it has to do with the personal relationship of the person that is conserving this thing or showing that thing or curating that thing. Because only through that personal, relationship, do you know how comfortable they are with showing this work in some new iteration or in an iteration at all?
[00:42:50] Ben: Mm. Yeah. One thing I'm always super interested in hearing from artists is a sense of any habits or rituals or routines that are crucial to your creative process?
[00:43:04] Tommy: I am like very easily distracted and I have to, put my phone in a different room. The phone can't even be on silent. It has to be out of sight and then only can it be out of mind. Otherwise I'm addicted to checking in. And then anything that pops up, it's like second nature to like look glance over and pick it up and like, you know, I'm attached to it. And so oftentimes I realize just inadvertently or by mistake, it's in the living room and hours will go by and I'm like, why am I being so productive right now? How have I gotten so much done? And it's only, you know, noon. And I realize, oh, my phone is in the other room. So that for me is like really important.
[00:43:53] Ben: As somebody who has had such a behind the scenes, front row seat to the creative process, over the course of your career, how have you seen the field change, in terms of art and technology?
[00:44:08] Tommy: I don't know if it's because you know, my own, career as a technologist in the arts is, has grown to a level where I'm able to work with people that don't necessarily work with technology themselves. But I have just seen so much more interest from artists that are, you know, maybe painters or sculptors strictly, you know, working or being curious about working with new technologies, I'll say. So that has been, you know, really, really inspiring, but also really challenging as well. On one aspect it's like, oh, you know, they're approaching new technology from such a weird, cool perspective and they're actually like an image maker and they have a strong kind of visual style, and they're like integrating this technology in this cool new way. On the other hand, their literacy in this stuff is really lacking so they will sometimes tend to have really unrealistic expectations about what something does could do, or how long it lasts, you know.
Sometimes I'll take something for granted, like, oh yeah, you know, you might open this up on a different computer and yeah, you're having problems because you didn't install this, this and that on it. You had me do that And then they're like, well, I just need it to work. And, you know, so there's, there's not a conversation that you have, with some of these folks about, okay, you know, not just how do I turn this thing on, but, how do I care for this thing? And, and how do I transport or transplant this thing on to another machine, which are things that, you know, I'll say like a digital native has at the forefront of their practice.
People often come to me, not just like, as a fabricator but they're viewing me, or my job needs to be a consultant. One of the things that sometimes happens is the artists will come to me with a plan and a set of technologies they want to use to execute a certain idea. And they'll be very specific with how they think this thing is going to work. And I'll often have to say, okay, wait, slow down. What do you want to see at the end of this thing? What experience needs to happen? Let us talk about what technologies we need to make it happen, and the nuts and bolts after we talk about what the concept is, what the final product should be. So once we kind of get there, then we can come up with a system of things that executes that idea and kind of like the simplest most elegant way possible.
Oftentimes, when I'm working on the piece, the thing looks the way it does, because I'm only so good at certain things, right? Like the 3d render, isn't gonna look like a Pixar movie. It's gonna look like one guy did it in his bedroom.
The way that something works or behaves is only going to be as elegant as my ability to translate their ideas with the tools or words that I have to speak with. I want to say of course my hand is in a lot of these works.
Yeah, I don't know. I have a very complicated relationship with how I view attribution in this type of work and is one of the reasons why I felt like I also needed to like step away from this world a little bit. Because I felt like you know, I was being too much of the artist sometimes, or I was feeling upset that, you know, attribution wasn't happening a certain way.
And I never once viewed myself as like the artist or even a collaborator on many of these projects, but the lack of recognition, from like just a crafts persons perspective,
[00:48:27] Ben: Yeah, or at all, I mean it's unreal to me. When you look at any other creative industry, any at all, attribution is, it's almost like standardized.
[00:48:39] Tommy: You know, who did it really well? It was a Urs Fischer in this piece that was choreographed by Madeline Hollander. There was these chairs, which were moving around the space and responding to people in real time and there are all these sensors. There was a huge wall and there was every technical person imaginable, and their roles on the piece, you know, inscribed on, the wall and in the vinyl. And that was, really cool to see. Tony Dove is another artist who I've done a lot of work with, and she also, works in this very cinematic way where there's like, costume people, they're writers, they're musicians, and she's very much the director and producer of these massive things.
And she's really good about that, but again, she is looking at it from a cinematic perspective and that, brings in all of the kind of history of attribution that you have in, in film.
[00:49:41] Ben: You know, the attribution problem it's not just in the art making. It also very much exists in institutional settings. There's so many institutional hierarchies where there's just this facade of authorship where there's so many people behind the scenes that do not get credit for really, really significant intellectual labor.
[00:50:04] Tommy: Also just from like a very kind of pragmatic standpoint I would think that the artists would want to, make you feel a part of the project as much as possible, because they're going to call you back when this thing, or have to call you back when this thing gets shown again, they're going to have to call on you for, you know, like, how does this thing get plugged in?
Oftentimes when I do this kind of stuff, I make a very detailed kind of diagram with how, you know, A gets plugged into B and so on and so forth. But you know, it's daunting for a lot of people and, this whole system was crafted, you know, from my head. So, you're gonna want to keep me, in the picture in some instance,
[00:50:49] Ben: Yeah. Yeah. And I think it's tough too, because you know, the art world is full of different power dynamics, and artists obviously are not in the most powerful position. So they're just doing the best they can to operate within a system they didn't design. There's so many artists I can think of where like, it's not like you go into the show and the list of technicians is on the wall. However, anytime you talk to them, they will readily list all of the amazing people in their studio that helped them.
It's tough because sometimes the way art is presented just really isn't set up in a way that makes it easy for artists to provide attribution.
Is there any particular favorite project or initiative or artwork, that you've worked on over the years that we didn't get to talk about that you'd like to talk about?
[00:51:37] Tommy: Yeah. You know what I wanted to talk about Nicole Eisenman. That project was really sweet. So Angelina Meitzler, who is a programmer I work with on a lot of these things, who is a machine learning and a web programmer. We were contacted by Nicole Eisenman to work on a piece for the Whitney Biennial and this piece, was going to live on a monitor that was outside with her sculptures for that exhibition.
She said, okay. Um, this is going to sound weird, but you know, come to my studio and, and I want to show you something. I want to see if you can do it. Okay. So I would go to her studio and she says, you know, I have kids and, you know, they're always showing me funny videos on YouTube and you know, those videos on YouTube, um, I'm not sure if they're real or they're fake, but, they're like thermal images of people, farting in public. And she was like, it's weird. I know. And I was like, I do know the videos that you're talking about. I had seen them and I think they're so funny.
Of course they're not real they're like doctored in After Effects. They're like thermal videos and then like people composite in fart gas on their butts, while they're like at the ATM or sitting on a park bench or something like that.
So she's like, so what I want to do is I want to put cameras, on this third floor exhibition of these like great American master painters and, you know, like, in front of a Jackson Pollock or whatever and, I want live feeds of the people to be like farting while they're looking at these paintings and I just thought that was so genius. It's like this joke, right? This painting is so serious, but like, you know, we're humans and we fart, you know, and we think we're so, you know, smart or something like this, you know? And this is the art world and it's serious, right? And so, can we do something like that? Is it possible? So I thought for a second, I was like, well maybe, yeah. Initially I thought maybe we can install Kinects or something that tracked the body and then we can deduce where their butts are because we get hip positions and then we can, you know, the hip position is the average between, the middle is the center point. So it's like some simple algebra that we can use to calculate the butt hole. And then, yeah, I can use cinema 4d to make some gas simulations and yeah, I don't see why not.
I don't see why we couldn't do this. The problem that we encountered was that the depth cameras needed to be, um, far enough from the people where it didn't look obvious. They needed to look just like regular, surveillance cameras. So they needed to be far away from the audience. It was too far for the depth cameras. So we ended up having to use regular RGB cameras. So Angelina figured out that we needed to use this machine learning library to do skeletal detection, and through that, we were able to, put all the pieces together to make this thing happen.
So it made it even funnier. I thought, because we had, you know, this like bleeding edge technology to make like the dumbest joke possible. So yeah it happened, it worked, you know, it was, it was at the Whitney and it went to Austin contemporary and then off to this other place.
I think it's also, you know, funny for her to kind of like install this work, like in a side room or off the side, and like, have people kind of question whether this is like a Nicole Eisenman piece, because, she is so known for her sculpture and painting and she's, you know, like the best. Right? So, but you know, like when we're thinking about how this work might live on into the future, this machine learning library, hinges on this version of Python being installed on this Windows 10 computer and for this very delicate ecosystem of software and plugins to be installed. And then as you know, this hard drive can only spin so many times before, like it just rubbed out. And so, these are just different things that I, or someone will have to, think about in five years or 10 years or something like that.
[00:56:09] Ben: I love the perspective that you just gave on that piece, because if you encountered it, you wouldn't know the sheer hoops that you had to jump through technically, to make it. There's, I think a lot of precedent for that kind of gesture in art making, where there's just so much engineering, so much effort and so much, work going into this elaborate machine to do the silliest thing.
[00:56:39] Tommy: Yeah, yeah.
[00:56:41] Ben: Is there anything else that we haven't covered that you were hoping to chat about?
[00:56:45] Tommy: You know, something that I'm encountering when I'm, working, with some of these third-party APIs is deprecation issues. So, you know, I've been using this web audio library to make these sound pieces recently.
I started to kind of learn more about ECMAScript and, kind of realize that the folks, on this committee that are making proposals for, what gets put into the web browser, the committee of these folks are officers from Google, Facebook and Apple and, academic institutions, which are funded by, governments, and things like that.
It made me just think a lot and be sensitive to the fact that, so many of the tools that we're using to make art are dependent on the commercial and capitalist pursuits of these various companies.
So something like the decision to remove Flash, for example, from web browser compatibility may have been an issue that comes across this committee's floor and if there's no kind of economic incentive to continue supporting this thing, then there it goes. So it just made me realize that there's this whole other commercial political machine that goes into the types of tools and decisions that get made that create the tools that we use to make the art, and this is kind of my like exploding head meme kind of take on what I'm doing specifically as a programmer in the arts and maybe ties a little bit to you know, the kind of things to keep in mind as someone who is working in this field.
[00:59:12] Ben: So I was curious if there was any advice that you, you know, as somebody who has played such a pivotal role, supporting artists for so many years, is there any advice that you would give to somebody who, has certain technical skill sets that they think would be useful to artists, and they might be interested in getting involved in helping to make art?
[00:59:37] Tommy: Yeah. I mean, I'd say, you know, the way that I got into this stuff by, I don't know how I feel like the attitude around working for free has really changed in recent years. And I don't know if That's necessarily advice that I would give to a young person, who is struggling to make ends meet, like I was during, this early time. Something that I certainly did a lot of was under estimate how much time something was going to take. You know when I was giving someone a scope of work just simply because I wanted to take the job and get that experience. And I wouldn't have done that any other way, because I don't think I would've gotten the job or gotten that experience if I didn't do that.
But it is like, you you'll do it if you love to do it and you derive pleasure from figuring out some of these things and you're not doing it to be successful or for attribution you know, don't wait for attribution, do it because you liked to do it because you like to figure out that stuff, and because the act of figuring it out or being involved fulfills you in some way.
[01:00:48] Ben: And that's it for this week's show. Thank you again so much, Tommy for your time. And thank you, dear listener for sticking around.
If you enjoyed today's show, please leave a review on Apple Podcasts. It really helps other people discover the show, which in turn will help with my work to pay artists. If you want to keep the conversation going, you can find the show on Twitter and Instagram @artobsolescence. And lastly, a reminder that you can now leave voicemail for the show at 1-833-ART-DATA. That's 1 (833) 278-3282.
Thanks again so much for listening my friends, my name is Ben Fino-Radin, and this has been Art and Obsolescence.