Thursday, February 24, 2000
5:00 - 7:00 p.m.
MIT Media Lab
20 Ames Street
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.
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.
below is an edited summary, not a complete transcript.
An account of Maeda's work appears in the July 1998 issue of
MIT Technology Review and is available online.
A retrospective of
his work titled MAEDA@MEDIA
will be published in October, 2000.]
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
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
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.
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.
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?
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
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?
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.
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
Are you happy playing with digital environments, or are you
making tools for others to use too?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.