An Interview With Evan Roth

2012_lecture_roth_largeMy interview with Evan Roth as a part of my duties as co-editor of Dimensions 26. Conducted before his evening lecture, “Art & Hacking“.  Enjoy.


JH:         You recently won the Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt Design Award in the category of interaction design. Do you consider architecture a form of interaction design? Are these professional definitions outdated? Either way, what elements or practices could each field benefit from borrowing from the other?

EVAN:  Great question. I would definitely say “yes”. First of all, I think architecture is inherently interactive. It reminds me of a question I was getting a lot, for which I still don’t have a good answer. It’s an even broader one which is: “what is design?” I self identify as an artist and in winning a national “design” award, I think I may have been one of the only artists ever to be in that camp. I also think the category is relatively new. So what is “interactivity?” You could argue that a painting is interactive. It just depends on what level of interaction people are talking about. I never got comfortable answering the question of what is art or design. I think those questions get to be very loaded very quickly depending on who you’re speaking with. So while I understand them, some mornings I wake up and feel I’m a designer, and others I feel I’m an artist. I definitely think of myself as an artist for practical reasons. I forget who had that description of what makes someone an artist, but I think it was that if you have a studio, you’re an artist. If you pay the rent by making art, maybe you’re an artist. But I think the part about architecture being interactive is a no-brainer. But they already give the architects a whole category. It’s ok to keep interactivity separate.

JH:          So what lead you to pursue an MFA instead of an M.Arch,? If I recall correctly, you went to Maryland for undergraduate architecture and then worked in architecture for a little bit after that?

EVAN:  I’ve never done anything as hard as undergraduate architecture. I’ve never had as many sleepless nights as that period. Everything seemed easy after that. I did a 4 year program in architecture at Maryland and then worked for 2 years in Washington DC at a fairly progressive place that mostly focused on interiors. But they did some cool work and I was into it. I was totally absorbed in architecture. When I would travel it was all I looked at. Then I ended up moving to LA, because at the time there was a lot going on in LA with Morphosis and Gehry’s office and Eric Owen Moss – all these cool firms that were really hip at the time. So I decided I was gonna go out there and intern for them. I was super young. I had my portfolio printed out and ended up getting a job with a guy who was the project architect on Bilbao. He was the architect that lived there during the whole time it was being built and then struck out to start his own practice. It was just he and I basically, working for a year. But the whole time I was coming home at night and experimenting with Flash. It has just been released and it was the first time visual programming had a really friendly interface. So there were a lot of people doing Flash experimentation, which was really inspiring. So I was coming home and doing that in my off hours and then it that started to creep into all the architecture proposals – especially when my boss realized that I knew how to do that shit. He was like “Oh man! We can pitch this to clients and get interactive installations.” And that was pretty early in that scene. People were doing way more advanced stuff than I was doing, but it was still really new, especially to clients and outsiders, and so I got to do some of that. We had some big clients – the California Academy of Science was one . We did a couple of interactive installations there. I was finding ways to sneak in the stuff I was staying up late to do into the work, and then at some point, the realization came that I should be doing that. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the architecture, but it was that I’d fallen in love with this other thing that was different. They’re connected for sure, but it was – it is – a different scene. And that was the decision to go to Parsons. It wasn’t a decision to go to Parsons as much as a decision to get an MFA to focus on code and art, basically.

JH:          Was it easy to give up that mantle of “architect”?

EVAN:  Yes and it actually was almost scary to me because I was so into architecture, living and breathing it, totally geeking out on it. It was a little bit scary to me that I could find another lover and so quickly forget that one because it’s not really part of my nature to be that way. It’s not that I don’t think about architecture or that I’m no longer inspired by it. But it’s just a little bit scary that you can be so far into something that you think is all consuming and then you take a little bit of a right turn. All that faded really quickly for me. I don’t look at architecture the same way I used to. Maybe in another 5 or 10 years from now, I’ll be the same way with code. Maybe I’ll just be so bored of it, I’ll be making rap albums or something.

JH: Do you have an MC name?


EVAN:  No comment, no comment! (laughing). There may be several in the background – none of which I’d be happy to have written down!

JH:          Awesome. So, the projects and installations we saw this weekend at D-lectricity, drew some people into parts of the city they don’t normally visit. What do you consider the limitations of those sort of interventions and are they a sustainable practice for rejuvenating parts of the city?

EVAN:  I think the limitations of those kinds of festivals are that for a certain public space work, setting it up on a pedestal removes a lot of potential power and influence. A lot of the Graffiti Research Lab work I don’t do any more, especially at festivals. It’s the same as street art. If you just come across a graffiti piece or a piece of street art that is really good, it can have this effect because it’s reaching you in a moment where you’re not expecting to have a creative experience. And when I started doing projections, that’s how it all was. I was just going out in New York, borrowing equipment from the university and renting cars, and driving around and doing it. And it was really powerful to people because they weren’t going out to a festival. They were just trying to get to the bar and they came across this thing and that’s a really cool moment to hit people with a political message or interactive street piece or whatever it is. But I think when you start telling people on Facebook to show up on this street corner at 9pm…what I was interested in doesn’t work that way. And especially as a lot of projection mapping pieces are getting really popular and people are expecting these light shows – and I don’t make light shows. I don’t do it very well. It’s not what I set out to do with a lot of pieces of the Graffiti Analysis. The first one I was doing as a projection piece is boring as hell. If you’re gonna show up at a street corner at 9pm and expect to be entertained for an hour you’re gonna be really disappointed. If you’re just walking through Brooklyn and you happen to see this piece, you’ll remember that night, at least for the next week or so. And so I think the downfall of some of these festivals is that I think people are experiencing a subpar version of a certain kind of projection work. It’s not as if all public space projection pieces are aiming to be that though. And I think D-lectricity was focused in a smart way. Working with them was actually cool for me too because everybody else really wants “Laser Tag” and a lot of the more interactive, really punchy, entertaining pieces that I’ve done in the past. And when I explained this to them, even though the audience would have loved it, they were cool and willing to work with me to do a piece that I think fit that venue better. But it’s a tough sell. Part of what I do now is when I get an invitation from festivals, I try to explain to them some of these things and tell them that if we just went and did it renegade style it would be awesome. But if we just sit there and do it, all night long, it’s just gonna turn into kids drawing penises on the wall. No one’s gonna be happy and it was cool for them to hear that and they let me do a piece that I know is less interactive. I know it’s less of a crowd pleaser, but I think they got a better piece out of it.

I:          That leads me to my next question. Your installation for Dlectricity was the digital projection counting down until the catalogue of J-Dilla’s work is public domain. Can you speak a bit on intellectual property and if there are any instances in which open source solutions can be harmful?

EVAN:  Hmm. I’m sure the answer to that is yes. The open source community is going through a big debate internally with the Makerbot. I don’t know if you’ve been following that, but there’s a really interesting conversation going on surrounding just that. What happens when, especially when you’re developing something with that community that then all of a sudden gets locked down? It will be interesting, I think part of the answer to that question will be whatever happens with Makerbot. There are some people that are of the opinion that the community supporting that open source hardware movement were the reason that they were selling units. So it’s a big gamble for them to turn their backs on that community of developers. But they did it. I think that their answer to that question would be yes, that it can be harmful, because I think the reason they made the decision is that they started to see competitive models being released to the market based on their research. Which is really not “they” as an individual company, but “they” as this community that was competing with those models financially and they had all this backing. It’s one of these hard questions to answer though because you never know the answer until you go all the way through it. It’s still a very new phenomenon, especially for companies that are making money. The open hardware movement is relatively young. I think for artists such as myself, I deal with it to some degree to in the sense that, I give away everything digitally that I possibly can. Mostly because I can. I wouldn’t feel comfortable living in a world if that wasn’t the case. I feel digital content is like water flowing down a mountain, You can put a dam up if you want, but the water definitely wants to go downhill. But I make a living with the art – I try to pay rent through art and it’s an old institution that doesn’t know what to do with open source either. The arts rewards the opposite of openness. The arts reward limited editions, unique editions. It rewards very specific things that are devalued when they are shared and so it’s a hard question to answer ‘cause I’m sure I’ve lost financially on a lot of things by opening them up.   “Laser Tag” is a big example of that. If I was just trying to make money, I could have made a lot more money by doing different things with Laser Tag, by making it proprietary and using it with advertising. But at the same time, I wouldn’t have been able to work with the people I was working with, both in the graffiti and hacker communities. And so for me, it’s just a decision of determining which one’s more valuable.

JH:          So when you’re working on a new project, is there a moment in the process where you pause and reflect on the potential application of that work towards spectacles of gentrification, or how it could get co-opted by an advertising company? Is there sort of an “Oh Shit” moment where you ask yourself if you release this into the wild or not?

EVAN:  I don’t go through that as much anymore. But when I first started working on Graffiti Research Lab with James Powderly, we went through this together, and there were “Oh Shit!” moments left and right. It was because part of our mission statement was that we were trying to make tools that were leveling the playing field between the visual culture of advertising and the visual culture of city inhabitants. The first project was immediately used in MTV campaigns, Coke campaigns, everywhere. And then there was that whole debacle that happened in Boston. Do you remember the “Aqua Teen Hunger Force Movie”?

JH:          Yeah. What happened?

EVAN:  There was a whole shit storm where they took “Throwies” and turned it into a marketing campaign for this pretty crappy movie, but everybody in Boston thought they were bombs and the whole city shut down and the FBI was calling us. It was a really crazy story, but it was at a time when that viral phenomenon was new to me. In making this work I thought had a political message through the way we were releasing it and then seeing it being co-opted was really, a hard pill to swallow. It hurt the first time, it hurt the second time, it hurt the third time and then slowly, the reason it doesn’t bother me quite as much anymore is because I’ve become more comfortable with the fact that even when these pieces get co-opted, especially the advertising industry, they lose so much of the punch because it’s their second time around and we’ve already released something that they’re usually just copying. There’s not a lot of innovation happening. The second thing is that, whether as artists or ordinary people, people who make things because they want to make them with no ulterior motives – that honesty plays really well on the internet. I think most people online have gotten really honed radars for finding honest content because they’re saturated with so much bullshit, especially growing up through TV culture. It’s that you’re taught to sit through all these advertisements and this consumer message. Now we have trained ourselves to notice those Reese’s Pieces as product placement. I get that now. You’ve tricked us once, but it’s not gonna happen anymore. So I think the reason I don’t worry about it quite as much anymore is because I see it failing when they rip off these pieces. I see it reflected in the view counts. From when we released “Laser Tag”, there are now videos on Youtube with several millions or at least a couple million, if not one anyway. You see the corporate rip-offs getting two or three hundred, and I think that’s happening because nobody wants to sit down and seek out content that’s selling them stuff or lying to them. You don’t want to watch bullshit in your free time. Even though Lucky Strike Cigarettes did a Laser Tag campaign in Vienna – which was a horrible, horrible mistreatment of a technology that had a political slant towards activism and against advertising, I see it failing for them in so many cases that it’s easier to sleep at night.

JH:          That reminds me of the Laser Tag projection on the Verizon Building in Lower Manhattan with “NSA” inscribed in green. What are some potential institutions, technologies or practices you would to see other young designers take on today?

EVAN:  Hmm. (pause) The kinds of things technologies I’m interested in are typically ones that have an empowering aspect to them, and are typically ones that are easy to reproduce – and cheap. These are the ones I really pursue. And so for me, even though aesthetically and in terms of interactivity a lot of the projection mapping is getting really, really good, that work is falling flat right now because it requires so much infrastructure so that in one sense to me it’s less interesting – because it can only happen when there’s a huge budget involved – and usually with those, a lot of the content seems to get stripped out. But also, some of those pieces that are getting very highly technically refined are failing in the content category for me, and so I’d to see less fancy multitouch displays, less really well crafted projection mapping pieces and more, dirty, gritty technologies that are really harsh misuses of technology. These are the ones where things start to get interesting,. It’s a field that’s always going to be experimenting on the cutting edge of things and a lot of times those experiments tend to go into the back of someone’s mind with an idea that this might turn into a company or a product or something. And those are interesting. But what’s more interesting is ten years after those products come out and we stop caring about them so much, and can start mistreating them. These iPhones are so pretty right now. I have one too, but we don’t want to touch them. There are no screws in there that we can really take out and start messing with. We can’t even control the software we put on them and so the technologies I like to see people playing with are these ones that are accessible. The other thing too, and I’ll talk about this tonight a little bit, is that there’s a part that comes along with this idea of hacking that I think is a function of art. This idea that a “hack” can take something and completely turn it into something else, those examples and that relationship with technology is something that I think can be inspiring to people outside of the tech itself – and this is why street art is such an interesting art form because it does that for people. You give people that moment where for a second they’re able to look at their surroundings in a new way, and I think this hacking approach towards technology has that in a way that some of the more refined ones don’t.

JH:          What makes you most optimistic about the future of design?

EVAN:  The internet. I think the internet is the ultimate in terms of technology that’s empowering a group of people that typically didn’t have a big voice in society. And this isn’t new, this isn’t anything coming from me, this is just the shit we’re all in right now. But to me, everything pales in comparison to how much of a say we have in culture right now. All of a sudden we have a pretty big voice and so far that isn’t changing. There’s been legislation that’s been threatening it, and long term I’m actually pessimistic that we’ll have this much freedom, but while we have it, I feel we should be playing hard with it. We’re lucky that it’s as uncontrolled as it is right now. I’m worried that 20 to 50 years from now, it won’t be that way, so that’s why for me, I don’t understand, how if you’re an artist making something now, I don’t understand how you can’t be addressing the web in some way. This is just such a big part of culture and society now, and for me what’s interesting about making things, even if it’s not art that’s meant to natively live online, is how work can be documented online and filter that to new audiences. To me, this is the whole game.

JH:          Besides SOPA and PIPA, what do you see as other forms of infringement upon the free speech and open culture of the internet?

EVAN:  Facebook. (laughs) The ones that won’t be thrust upon us, we’ll walk into with open arms. I’m 34. I feel lucky to have been on the trailing edge of the people that grew up with a really nice, raw internet. I think now the problem is that as young people, their relationship with the web is going to be more as a “user” than as an “admin”. People are growing up and they’re used to getting a Facebook account, and a YouTube account, and a Twitter account, but they’re not used to having their own server. And the sad thing is that in owning and running your own server, you have a lot of power in that case to do whatever you want. It’s not about what were the small color changes you can make in your Facebook profile, or that you can change a Twitter background to an animated GIF. It isn’t that cool. It’s having this realization when you run your own server, you can do whatever the fuck you want to a certain point. And especially depending on in what country your actual server is located, you can really do anything you want. And this isn’t the fault of any generation, but just that people are growing up with fancier toys. These iPods and iPhones and these computers aren’t really quite computers. Johnathan Zittrain refers to them as appliances because we don’t have the right to run code on it. We can download apps and that’s about it and it’s going to be a different future for young people that grow up with that. So I think probably it’s not SOPA and PIPA as much as it is the products getting so nice that no one learns how to write HTML anymore.

JH:          Yeah, it is the subtle difference between “choosing” and “deciding”.

EVAN:  Yeah. It’s the old “open-source convenience versus freedom” argument. There’s always this continuum between convenience and freedom with technology and the convenience is getting sexy as hell. I have an iPhone in my pocket too. They’re made really, really well, and I’m conflicted on a lot of these issues. But as things get sexier and the glass doesn’t break as much, people just… look at Apple stock. The Apple stock graph is why I get nervous about our relationship with technology. Everyone’s buying it up and it’s just getting better and better and better, but we lose control with every iteration of iOS that comes out. We lose control with every iteration of iTunes that comes out and they’re selling it to us in such a way that we all love it so much that we’re gonna forget that we don’t have to have DRM in all of our music. A piece I’m gonna show tonight is joking about this inability to change even our ringtones. I’ve been working on this piece called “Marimba” which is the default iPhone ring tone. And if you play that in public, you realize everyone turns around and looks to see if it is their phone. We all have the exact same ringtone. We don’t even have enough control over our own technology to change a ringtone anymore without buying from the iStore. We’re just losing all these freedoms and I think that’s gonna be the bigger problem. If regulation fails to ruin the internet, it’ll be that.

JH:          Ironic given the Ridley Scott advertisement for the 1984 Super Bowl commercial, no?

EVAN:  Right.

JH:          So is that what keeps you going at 3 in the morning? Or do you still have those sleepless nights?

EVAN:  No, I still do. Anybody who’s making a living as an artist I think is doing it because of their passion. There are easier ways to make a buck. So you’re not doing it because you have to and I think there’s some truth to that for me. I felt this with architecture too – that there’s just something about making. It feels like alchemy. You have these moments where even if it’s not gold and you could never sell it, and it’s just this little whimsical piece that exists for free on the streets or on the internet, I get that feeling when I make something. That’s what keeps me making things.

JH:          Can you talk about last spring at Eastern Michigan University as the McCandless Scholar there? As a design educator, what is the most important lesson you impart to your students, and how has teaching changed your creative process or practice?

EVAN:  I think the main thing that I wanna get out of,the class that I tend to teach since I stopped teaching full-time, when these opportunities come up to do condensed master classes, the one I keep coming back to is this urban hacking workshop which embodies my practice and combines hacking and applying these hacker philosophies to other parts of making – in this case, making street art. But the thing that I hope people come away with has nothing to do with what they had made at the end of the semester, but rather a new way to see their surroundings. I’ve gone through this process with skateboarding. I’ve gone through with architecture. I’ve gone through it with street art. When you start to get really passionate about something, it effects the way you walk around the city. I remember when I first started getting into street art, I was the worst person to travel with becasue the whole time I was like “oh what’s down that alley? What’s on that street?” I think it’s exciting though, when you have those moments and you realize that just by changing the way you think about something slightly, the street that you walk down a hundred times all of a sudden is totally different and totally new and I think that‘s what I’ve been thinking about as the inspiring function of art that art can aspire to reach. And so I think that more than any project that comes out of those classes I teach, when I’m introducing people to both the worlds of hacking and the worlds of street art, I’ve had the students have that reaction “Oh wow. I don’t…I look at the streets really differently now” If that can happen, I think that’s a good reason to justify running a class.

JH:          I think that’s pretty much it. Evan, thank you very much.


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