An Interview with Tamiko Thiel

MFAEDAer Marika Borgeson (’13) sat down with augmented reality artist Tamiko Thiel during her visit to Duke to discuss Thiel’s integration of mechanical engineering and artistic practice, her beginnings in augmented reality, and some of her projects in progress.


M: Can you explain how you made or what caused the switch from mechanical engineering to art, or do you even see it as a switch?

T: Yeah, um, I guess it’s probably more accurate to say I was a product design engineer and the reason I got into that was because I got into the Stanford product design department which was partially the M.E. [mechanical engineering] department and partially the in the art of design department at Stanford because it combined it combined art and technology, so that’s what got me in there in the first place. And then I was working as a product design engineer at Hewlitt Packard, but it wasn’t really so interesting compared to what other friends were doing at Xerox Park or at Apple. A friend was in the group that made the first Macintosh and there was a lot of excitement in that field. And so when I went to MIT initially I wanted to go in a more technical direction and then stumbled upon the visual language workshop and the arc mac (check) departments which became the Media Lab. So when I stumbled upon them I thought “well, this is actually what I really want to do.” So it’s more like I was going back and forth a little bit but it was the aspect of technology together with visual design that actually attracted me. So it’s not like I was a really hardcore mechanical engineer and then veered off to do art.


M: How do you think your background in the science of this technology informs your art practice?

T: It certainly gives me a different mental approach. I think as an engineer you have to be more detailed. You have to be a bit more rigorous in how you go about projects because if you’re a civil engineer the bridge could fall, if you’re a mechanical engineer you know people’s lives aren’t at stake, but the machine could break and if you’re working in commercial areas and the products are going out on the market then they have to work and you can’t do a halfway thing and you can’t pretend that you’re doing technology when you’re working as an engineer and I’ve noticed for instance that some of the artists who are working with technology there’s a, maybe you can call it a side branch of media art, where you sort of pretend to do technology you pretend that you’re building robots that will be roving the moon, you pretend that you’re doing an art work that has certain technical functions but if you get into it turns out it actually doesn’t work technically, it’s actually more sort of a conceptual or thought experiment and when I realized that some of the media artists worked in that way I was shocked because I come from an environment as an engineer but also in the team media lab environment where if you say you do technology then people number 1 believe you and number 2 expect that it actually does work technically. And I know of people who were at MIT and doing this sort of thing who then were denied tenure for exactly that reason because they were saying they were doing technology and they weren’t actually building it. But people expect if you’re engineer that you’re actually building it. So that’s definitely a difference.

That also means that if I don’t think I can do the technology I don’t necessarily start the project. And that’s probably a negative because then I see people who have no technical background who do these amazing technical projects because they come up with this idea and then they search until they find someone who can do the technology for them. So the fact that I expect myself to be able to do the technology probably inhibits my practice in a way that I should get over and learn to get around.


M: How did you become involved in augmented reality (AR)?

T: That was really wonderful and I really owe it to a friend of mine, Mark Skwarek. He sent me an email saying, “Hey – in one week we’re going to do this AR intervention in MoMA, do you want to send me something?” And I said, “Well, I don’t know how the technology works.” And he said, “It doesn’t matter, send me the 3D files and I’ll convert it for you.”

So without any proper background he put a piece of mine in the show that worked rather well and got some great publicity and it was all because he was willing to do this footwork for me and because he really is a very inclusive person, he really likes to include people in things and it was incredibly sweet of him and if he hadn’t done that then I wouldn’t have entered in that way. And we also then, after the intervention, started talking about what we should form a group to do more of these sorts of things and he knew a lot of people who were working in similar areas so again its this really inclusive mind set that he has which is really, really sweet. And I’ve been able to, I hope, pay him back by getting him also some publicity on some of things he’s done. But it was in an incredibly generous spirit and that’s something also I like about the media art work, as opposed to sometimes the art art world, where perhaps because it’s pretty much impossible to make any money off of it people are very generous and friendly and work with each other on things.


M: So for someone who isn’t in the AR or media art world, what’s the simple explanation of augmented reality?

T: I’m not sure if there’s really a simple one because even if it’s described exactly it’s maybe not so comprehensible. Essentially you’re putting virtual artworks, computer graphic images or objects at specific places, usually using the GPS coordinates of that place, and then you can call them up using an app on your smart phone that will show them to you overlaid on the camera view of that location. So, at least how a lot of us work, it’s a very location based art form where you’re creating works that are either site specific or at least meant to be viewed in this exhibit at this place. But I’m not sure how comprehensible that is to people who haven’t seen it.


M: So you have to experience it to understand it fully?

T: I think if you’ve never experienced something it’s very hard to conceive of it. I’ve had a lot of trouble also describing what my interactive 3D installations are, my virtual reality installations. At some point when interactive 3D computer games became more prevalent I could say “It’s like World of Warcraft” or when Second Life became very popular I could say, “It’s like Second Life.” But if they had never seen an interactive 3D computer game and they had never seen Second Life they would still not understand and they would also think it’s a video. So you’re saying “Oh you’re making video.” No I’m not making video. I’m building a virtual 3D world and you can walk around in it. I think it’s very hard to conceptualize a medium that you’ve never seen before. How do describe film to someone who’s never seen film before? How do you describe photography to someone who’s never seen a photograph? They can’t imagine it.


M: Keeping on the subject of AR, are you working on any AR project currently?

T: I will develop one in the next day or so. I want to go to Wall Street where the Occupy Wall Street group has been staging a protest and make a piece for that location but that will be a very quick one. Otherwise I’m a little bit in a lull between things because my push until now this year was Istanbul and trying to make a series of works that related to Istanbul and the biennial. So that’s the first time that I’ve done a series of AR works, sort of a body of AR works, addressing one topic and that was interesting to see how many of the works relate to each other, can I create a cohesive body of works for that one site. That’s the sort of thing I’d like to do in other sites, in other cities, but right now I’m sort of calming down from the Istanbul intervention and then looking around to see what to aim at next.


M: Do you always leave your works up? Once they’ve placed there, they’re always there?

T: Pretty much. It depends if it’s a gallery show and there’s no kind of visual interest in going to that gallery after the show is over then I don’t. But the works in MoMA I’ve left up because the space in the atrium alone is interesting but also they have changing exhibits in the atrium so I can go back and document my works with different backgrounds. So I‘ll leave the ones up in MoMA and ones that are site specific to locations and cities, for instance the Carnation Rain piece in the Largo do Carmo square of Lisbon where the Carnation Revolution started. That one I will also leave eternally because it relates to exactly that spot. And I’ll probably leave that artworks that under the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges on the Brooklyn side that I put up for DUMBO because I really like the way the images work with the river and the bridges. If I think there’s a visual interest that someone would have in going there and seeing the artwork there I’ll leave it.


M: What is your favorite tool or material that you work with? I know material might not necessarily be as applicable to AR…

T: Interesting. It’s a little bit hard to talk of materials although I do notice that I’ve been building in 3D for a long time and there’s also of times when I think well maybe I should sketch this up on paper or something but I find that I use 3D modeling programs as a sketchpad essentially. I’m not quite sure if that’s good or bad, but it does seem to be true and I don’t seem to be able to get out of the habit so I guess I tend to think in terms of 3D. I tend to think spatially and it’s a lot easier in a 3D modeling program to sketch something quickly that has that spatiality and does not have to deal with things like gravity or where do I get the objects because I don’t have them or where do I get the space because I don’t have them. I mean I work almost entirely on computer, and a little bit on paper, but basically nothing that requires space simply because I don’t have a studio, I don’t have a large space where I can accumulate objects and play around with the objects. If I ever got into a living situation where I had that then I might work differently but if I say OK I’m going to have to be working on my laptop, I’m going to be traveling, I’m going to have to be working while I travel then I have to do everything in the computer anyway. That’s just become my lifestyle and my way of working and my toolset.

Photoshop is also important because I work very imagistically so I’m also creating images. So a 3D modeling program and something like Photoshop are essentially my tools.


M: It seems like AR work has to have almost a performative component in order to attract attention to this basically invisible artwork. I’m just curious, as you work on these projects, is there a component that is about making them more visible or making the public more aware of their existence?

T: There has to be and that’s also a problem for me because I’m not really a performative person. I’m actually in a lot of ways very shy and showing up in the middle of a public space in some get-up and trying to attract people’s attention is something that I, at least as an individual, have a real hard time doing. I think if we ended up doing that as a group that would be different because then you have safety in numbers. But it’s something that we’re discussing in the Manifest.AR group about how we can do that and the ideas we’ve come up with so far are kind of cost intensive about having large monitors in a public space. But it is interesting we’re not going so much in the direction of why don’t we all put on iridescent green frogman suits and flop around in public space with swim fins on or something. Apparently none of us are really out there in terms of performance.


M: Even just standing with an iPad and turning in a circle draws attention.

T: That might draw a little more, but the thing is that the most common thing in the world today is seeing someone photographing something with their smart phone and iPad obviously not so much because it’s a little bit more unwieldy, but you know if you stand there staring at your cell phone no one’s going to pay attention to you because everyone else is doing it too. So we have to get a little bit more radical in our public behavior in order to attract attention and it’s something we’re aware of but I think since we don’t really come from that background we’re trying to get over our inhibitions. There’s probably going to be other people who come from that performance background who can be a lot more successful with that because they don’t have the inhibitions that we do.


M: Are you thinking about working on anything not AR related? Or is that where you want to place all your focus?

T: Right now I am focusing on AR but I’m also focusing on looking at making prints of the AR works on specific sites as part of the AR work. Because for me there’s really two aspects of AR one is being on site and being able to look at those augments live as it were but the other is that just as a photographer might be interested in a site but they’re interested in capturing some aspect of the site that might be very fleeting whether it’s the quality of light or whether it had something to do with people or other life forms that are inhabiting that site at that moment and for me the work of AR is very much in that category. Partially because the AR works are a little jittery. It’s a little like bird watching you never know exactly what you’re going to see and where it’s going to be so there’s that element of chance when you go to look at an AR work and the chance is compounded by the fact that there might be other people around, there might be other situations around lighting conditions, whatever, so that you don’t always have the same thing. Because you’re always making the documentation you make the images you make are of the art work over the site and the site can change and the site does change so that that aspect of being like a photographer who’s trying to capture some moment and the moment happens to include the AR art work that I’ve positioned at that site is really interesting to me. And I’ve made some images that I think are just really beautiful and people have started asking me if I would sell them prints of some of these images. So I’ve also, for whatever reason, for the last several years also wanted to do prints of my virtual reality pieces, of my interactive installations, and actually did a series of collages with the Mall pieces actually taking different scenes from different places and times in the art installation and collaging them together to create an image that you would definitely not get if you were using the piece itself. So there’s something in me that wants to have that physical manifestation. It wants to look at creating images using my AR works as an element in the composition so in some sense, yes and no, I’m focusing on my AR work but for me the AR work also includes trying to see what sort of prints I can come up with and I would really like to do exhibitions where I show the prints and then put the AR piece there. The prints can be of that AR work in different cities around the world, different locations maybe in the city, so it’s looking at the site specific aspect but you can’t expect someone to go jetting around the world to see your work on site so if I can do a mixture of photographs of the work in situ and also have the work for people to look at on their smart phones that would be for me a very interesting way of exhibiting the works. A different aspect which preserves the site specificity but also makes it possible for people to view the work even if they can’t get to that city or that place.


M: So when you’re designing a work or coming up with the idea for a work, do you find/choose the space first and then find out the history of the space or come up with something that relates to the space?

T: That certainly can be one way of working. There’s a little bit of back and forth that depends on the situation. But for me certainly the most satisfactory artworks are ones that have some connection to the space, that have some reason for being there. Of course the DUMBO artwork stunt don’t have that but somehow just the visual image works with the bridges so well. One of the works is about art in public space so for me that has a very good component being in a public space but also just the aesthetics of those shades of absence seems to work very well with the bridge.

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