real artists don't go to MIT

Thursday, February 24, 2000
5:00 - 7:00 p.m.

Bartos Theater
MIT Media Lab

20 Ames Street

Maeda will discuss some issues about art at MIT in the context of his personal work as well as the work performed at the Media Lab Aesthetics and Computation Group. Central to the discussion will be an attempt to discover pathways for MIT students to realize their destiny as humanist technologists.


John Maeda is Sony Career Development Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at MIT. He received undergraduate and graduate degrees in Computer Science from MIT and moved to Japan to study Art and Design at Tsukuba University where he received his Doctorate in Design Studies. Most recently, he was awarded the 1999 Art Director's Club Gold Medal for his new media work Tap, Type, Write and the 1999 DaimlerChrysler Design Prize for his body of work from 1990 to the present.


[The text below is an edited summary, not a complete transcript.
An account of Maeda's work appears in the July 1998 issue of the
MIT Technology Review and is available online. A retrospective of
his work titled MAEDA@MEDIA will be published in October, 2000.]

John Maeda: I believe MIT needs to prepare more people who can live at the boundary of technology and the humanities. While specialization is important these days, I think multi-specialization has to be important too. The students I try to find are multi-specialists who can use computer science and visual analysis to create artistic forms. 

I was very timid about this issue for a long time. People would ask me if visual artists should program or if engineers should understand the arts. I would always hedge by saying, "I think it is actually much more complex than that." Then a couple of weeks ago, speaking in Italy where I thought no one was going to understand me, I figured I could be completely truthful.  That is where I finally said, "Yes, it is extremely important." If someone doesn't understand the material, how can he or she create with it? 

The notion that people can create art with computers without knowing their materials completely wrong. This seems obvious.  Yet institutions like MIT have great difficulty accepting the idea that technical or technological competence alone cannot achieve creative mastery of the computer.  I hope that can change somehow, but I believe that my experiences demonstrate how this can be difficult at a school that polarizes the humanities and technology. 

When I was an MIT undergraduate, people would say "take your Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (HASS) classes; they are good for you." It sounded like the equivalent of eating your vegetables.

Yet in HASS classes themselves, I detected a subtle animosity toward students, as if some professors were saying "You're not smart because you can't do history, ha ha." Students who were used to being very cocky suddenly shut up and sort of shrunk. In reality this didn't help the students. 

Arts at MIT have a particular problem. In one brochure, I actually saw them described as "a way the MIT community can take a break from problem sets and computer screens to take advantage of a rich assortment of creative pursuits." So somehow, instead of technology being perceived as a creative pursuit, creative pursuits and technology are not allowed to mix.

There is also an unfortunate distinction made between the humanities and the arts at MIT. I once asked someone in the School of the Humanities and Social Sciences (SHSS) to tell me the difference between the humanities and the arts. He said, "Isn't it obvious?" I said. "No." So he said, "The humanities are not about making anything. They are about talking about something, while art is about making things." I thought it was interesting that this sounded like the distinctions that people make between pure science and engineering. So I saw this parallel division on the two sides of MIT. Of course, I also think it is important to figure out how to fix this too.

So how do you build a healthier environment for people who are a combination of humanist and technologist? 

One thing we can do is take advantage of being at MIT where there is the notion of "drinking from the fire hose." Undergraduates here have this masochistic wish to take certain extremely hard classes, and other students cheer them on. I would like to introduce the new term of "art geek." This intends to say: "Hey, art can be hard too."  It would be great if our program changed so that a course in the humanities became one of the hard courses, so that students would say "Wow, that course is hard, don't mess with it!" Students at MIT thrill for that, and it would be interesting to get that thrill pointed towards humanities tempered with technology. That's what I believe MIT should stand for today.


Edward Turk: I am interested in the degree to which artists in the last fifty years have seen beauty an unimportant value, so I always pay attention to when artists use the term beautiful. I noticed that the only time you used the word was when you referred to one of your student's faces. However, you do talk about your art being good or perfect. Does the notion of beauty enter into your way of thinking about things?

Maeda: Of course I'm sensitive to those issues. However, I believe that digital things are not well constructed right now. People don't know how to do it yet. I'd like to change that, so I don't just make these things. I focus on education and the question of how to get more people to do these types of things. I try to recruit people who can think at a boundary where they can become both artists and designers in their own right. This is quite a challenge. If you look at any art and design school, you will see art technologists with a legion of students that make their things for them. They say, "Make it more like this or more like that." That works fine, but the student is losing something. I believe students should have a chance to explicate their own ideas. If that kind of educative effort happened, it would lead to better constructed things.

Initially, people think that this kind of work is all about the visual aspect, but it is not. We are very concerned about the invisible aspect. How do you think deeper into the machine beyond the visual layer? Our visual attempts at playing with the skin of the computer are always very thin, and it would be useful to see what happens if we think deeper into the imagination of the computer. 

Audience: Are you happy playing with digital environments, or are you making tools for others to use too?

Maeda: I started off like every other MIT person. I made tools, but I found out that tools weren't what I wanted to make. I became more selfish. I realized that a tool is just a tool. I didn't used to be like that though. When X-windows first came out, I made an interface toolkit back when it didn't have one. Then I was in Athena one day, and this guy said, "Hey that's cool. Can I have it?" I said sure and gave him a copy. I never saw him again until two years ago. When I asked him what he was doing, he said he had a job making widgets at Digital Equipment Company. I thought, "Whoa, I got slammed there." Then I told my friend about this, and he said, "If that is all he does all his life, then that is no big deal." I am much less about making things people can use and more about visualizing raw ideas. There are many raw ideas out there, so it's a difficult space. I also try to get other people to do this. Think about how Logo, the children's computer language, permeated all layers of culture. Now consider how many competing standards there were. Not many. This is a great sadness. I'm saying that if you can design, fine. If you can create, that is fine too. But if you can design and create, you can make something that can make a difference. 

Brian Smith: You work in a place that often gives lip service to the arts, but they are really scientists and engineers, so the things that they care about are not necessarily artistic. Given that, I'm wondering how you are perceived in a place like MIT Media Laboratory? 

Maeda: I was fortunate in basically being a Media Lab Ph.D. dropout. I have MIT, but then I have art school as another perspective. It turns out that perspective is not so common, so I do have a hard time. In the end, I don't really care anymore. The reality is that if an institution like MIT can't change to accept multiple view points of view, then that is very unfortunate. 

Henry Jenkins: What role does the study of art play in the kinds of course you see yourself teaching. Do you see a value in studying the history of art along side the type of art you are involved in teaching students to make? 

Maeda: Definitely. It is primarily an issue of getting the students to have a perspective within technology, versus a perspective separate from technology. It is also about having historical data points. Unfortunately, many of them aren't terribly useful, because they allude to a material that is different than the computer. I had a horrible time initially, but now I have a great time. Why? I spent four years teaching these courses, so I have a lot of student work. Some of it is crummy, but some of it is great stuff. Now I have all these data points that I can use as compasses.

Audience: When you design some of the things we've seen, how do you conceive of the role of the audience? Where does your role leave off and their role start, and how do you structure that boundary and that relationship? 

Maeda: Well, unfortunately, it turns out that I don't care so much about the user. I care for the moment that I see. I contrast that with commercial art activities where they really care more about the person seeing the work and their mind set at the time. I think that pollutes the whole system. I'm really just talking to the material, and it talks to me. Sometimes it cooperates, and if it doesn't, that can actually be better. I never really address the issue you are talking about. I stay away from it. 

Audience: I took John's class during his first semester of teaching here, and it was a remarkable experience. The cool thing about that class was that I came from the engineering side, and I was sitting side by side with design students. At first we just starred at each other, but John made us learn to do both types of things whether we wanted to or not. Then a remarkable thing happened three quarters of the way through the semester. You could no longer distinguish between who started out as programmers and who started out as designers. It didn't matter. In that same spirit, a committee just came through to see what the Media Lab is doing academically, and it was evident that the Media Lab does something that no other part of the MIT does. If you want to get into renaissance painting, the Media Lab isn't the place to do it. If you want to know about polymer science, the Media Lab isn't the place to do that either. However, if you are looking for the place where renaissance painting and polymer science overlap, there is no other place to do that. You are not going to find that kind of synthesis anywhere else. 

Maeda: Not true. That is a typical misperception of the world from the Media Lab's perspective. I believe that things are changing, and MIT will lag behind everybody. Art and design schools are going to take over, because they are barrowing technical knowledge at a rapid pace. They realize that they have to integrate both types of knowledge to survive more than places like MIT do right now.

Audience: When you talk about your experiences, you say it like it just happened. You say, "I started this because I was interested in it, and then, oh, I went and did this." Is there a rationale in the direction that you go, or do you jump from one interesting project to another at random.

Maeda: It is not random. Something always opens up and leads me somewhere else, and I don't hold on. I just keep going. I believe the fact that I just exist is useful to people, because they say, "He did that, so why can't I do it?" That's what is most important. That is all that I can do.

Audience: A lot of institutions are organizing digital arts programs right now. Historically, art has been organized by media. There would be a painting program, a sculpture program, and so on. On one hand, digital art is often stuck on as one more type of media at the end of the canon. On the other hand, there have been recent successes on campuses organizing around big causes, so there are things like environmental studies and environmental science that integrate humanities, engineering, science. Tthese approaches often seem to be at odds. Do you have some wise words about mediating that difference?

Maeda: I have only one answer and it is depressing. I think it is just impossible because it is so insular right now. I hope that if I say that, somebody will prove me wrong. People don't want to see it as a new material. They want to assimilate it in the same old way. At the same time, there are now students who come into art and design schools knowing how to program in C or Java, and they don't know where to go, because they can't learn from their teachers. Maybe there will be no school for this in the future. If you email someone who has a great web site, you will usually find that they don't go to school. They say that professors are stupid, so they go buy a book and learn it. That is an attitude that people have now, and it will probably become more prevalent when it comes to the area of digital art. So you might have this whole wild tribe of digital artists. They might need a leader, and perhaps you could be that leader.