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Analog Analysis: To Digital or Not to Digital
Riflemaker Gallery in London
John Maeda is well aware of the limitations of technology.
Hours before a mid-January open lecture at the RISD Auditorium,
his laptop failed. But rather than simply accepting technology’s limitations,
he devised a workaround. The resulting jury-rigged setup – a 10-year-old iMac
to webcam to big screen – was a perfect, if ironic, way to deliver his talk to
students titled, To Digital or Not to
As it turns out, in Maeda’s world, it’s not an either/or,
but back to that later.
Following a brief introduction by Danny Diaz BArch 12 of
the Student Programming Board, Maeda launched into a show-and-tell about his
digital art from past (mid-1980s) to present, concluding with his recent show
at the Riflemaker Gallery in London this past November.
The early days of digital, according to Maeda, were littered
with pitfalls, not least of which was that the idea of interactive art was
brand new at the time. As he started out making projects that engaged
technology and art in new ways, computer scientists told him to stop making
these things because no one needs them, and artists urged him to stop making
the pictures move. Fortunately, mentors such as Muriel Cooper at the MIT Press
and artistic inspirations such as Marcel Duchamp, encouraged him to continue.
Though many of the pieces Maeda showed throughout the course of the evening are nearly 20 years
old, they still seem innovative and relevant, even in 2011. The underlying
technology may be obsolete, but the impulse that inspired them is still there.
From interactive patterns that respond to and mirror the grace of human
gestures, to a typewriter that shoots broccoli with each press of its virtual
keys, Maeda’s early work shows a remarkable ability to capture the natural
world in ways that defy nature. His playful and intelligent ruminations on
human agency still come across as both whimsical and thought provoking.
His recent show in London, John Maeda is the Fortune Cookie, carried on in that vein. Though artwork on sale ranged from a £1 tweet
to a £10,000 handmade “computer”
(with all proceeds going to RISD
scholarships) the focus of the event was on personal connections. Members of the
public were invited to take part in a 10-minute sandpit “consultation,” and
used the opportunity to ask his advice on everything from professional or
academic challenges to relationship woes.
Maeda likened this process to his role at RISD – forging
connections and new relationships between people and ideas. “Each year, I’m
more skeptical about technology,” he said, but urged students to develop a
critical understanding of technology’s capabilities. Only then, he concluded,
can we truly understand its fallacies and limitations, and find new ways to
explore its as yet untapped potential.
Watch a video of John Maeda's talk