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20 Q&As: Aaron Koblin

In Dazed's new 20th-anniversary issue, the creative technical whizz discusses art, digital innovation and computer games

Charged with heading up the intriguingly titled Data Arts Team, part of Google’s in-house Creative Lab, Aaron Koblin has the sort of envy-inspiringly nebulous job description you might expect from someone of his multitudinous talents. His mission? Make cool stuff that amplifies Google’s cultural reach and relevance.

Artist, innovator, technologist, programmer, rule-breaker, Koblin’s work straddles so many disciplines it’s the aesthetic equivalent of doing the splits. Coming from a creative background that fused fine art with emerging digital technologies and open source software, Koblin’s portfolio is incredibly varied. From a sculptural hanging installation at the San José International Airport, which changes tone and transparency according to real-time global weather patterns, to crowd-sourced digital illustration projects, the consistent thread is a disregard for the notion that technology is cold and sterile.

Among his more widely known works are a series of interactive video collaborations with director Chris Milk, notably for Arcade Fire’s “The Wilderness Downtown”, the fan-generated Johnny Cash Project promo, and more recently Rome’s 3 Dreams of Black collaboration between Danger Mouse, Daniele Luppi and Norah Jones. He also threw caution to the wind to render Radiohead’s Thom Yorke using laser-mapping for their interactive “House of Cards” video.

Dazed & Confused: How did you originally get into digital art?
Aaron Koblin:
I’ve had access to a computer almost my entire life. My stepmother worked at Disney, so I got to play around on Photoshop in her office before anyone knew what it was. My dad started a company that made touch screen information centres long before the whole iPad thing. As a kid, I was always into art at the same time as computers, and eventually I realised I was making more interesting stuff with my keyboard than with my hands. I really enjoyed modifying computer games more than playing them so that got me into programming.

D&C: Are you completely self-taught then?
Aaron Koblin: No. I studied at UC Santa Cruz before going on to do a grad program at UCLA. Santa Cruz was like an awesome hippie summer camp. I got to take a vacation from reality and hang out on beaches and in forests. I started out on a computer science course but I switched to a fine arts track, and began looking at how to integrate computers and electronics into the process of making art. I pretty much made my own major up – I was one of two people who graduated in Electronic Art back in 2004.

D&C: Who were the big influences on your art when you were at UCLA?
Aaron Koblin: Well, I was lucky to be able to study under the guidance of Casey Reas. He was the guy who came up with Processing along with Ben Fry. Processing is a programming tool that lets you focus on the creative aspect of design projects rather than the building the code that enables you to execute that design. It simplifies everything for people who aren’t experienced low-level programmers. Processing was a big shift in how computers could aid design because it meant you could change your mind about what you wanted to achieve without having to go back to the start and recode from scratch. Processing really opened up the whole world to me.

D&C: Do you think tools like Processing undermine the core skills the next generation of digital artists will need in order to keep moving forward?
Aaron Koblin: 
At some point there is a crossover where you’re so abstracted from the process the computer is undertaking to achieve the shiny effect on the surface, that all you’re getting is an off-the-shelf canned product. I think Processing and the whole open source movement that makes code accessible to the public is much truer to the culture of hacking and tinkering that got us to where we are now. Sticking a disc into your PlayStation 3 is a very different process to the one that got me excited about computers – that drive to rip something apart and understand its workings. The Xbox Kinect is really exciting though, because of the creative potential of what can be achieved when you hack it. You still get expansion packs and mod packs for computer games, but the whole thing is much more locked than when we were using floppy discs to boot from.

D&C:What do you think is your strongest technical skill then?
Aaron Koblin: 
The truth is I’m not actually an expert programmer! I really don’t consider myself to be an expert at anything. For me, it’s more about having a well-rounded and broad horizon. I think that’s where a lot of the more interesting things come from – mashing up completely disparate aspects of life to create something new and original.

D&C: Where does your fascination with playing with data come from?
Aaron Koblin: 
I grew up with the idea of the cyborg and the robot, but at the same time I felt this intense disconnection between the things I was engaged with and inspired by in terms of fun and play. It seemed like paintings and drawings were so static. I thought it was more intriguing to think about how a work of art could become this dynamic thing that could change and respond in a way more reminiscent of cybernetic culture.

D&C: Was there a particular project that inspired you in that area?
Aaron Koblin:
At UCLA I came into contact with Mark Hansen’s work – he was involved in the Design Media Arts program and led the statistics course. He’s an interesting influence in terms of using data in a way that’s very elegant and carries an emotional resonance. There’s a project of his called Listening Post that takes realtime IRC chat conversations and uses algorithms to filter the content and put it on hundreds of LED screens in a dark room. Beautiful. He’s adapted the concept for an installation that’s currently running in the lobby of the New York Times.

D&C: Who would you say your creative peers are?
Aaron Koblin: 
I’d like to think of Robert Hodgin (known online as Flight404) as a peer, though his work is very different from mine. His projects are beautiful – many probably know him from the default visualiser in iTunes, though he’s done a number of music videos and interactive applications that are simply stunning. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Ricardo Cabello (known online as Mr.doob) who is also infinitely more skilled than I am at software development, but also has a great sense of aesthetic and design. Many of my favourite artist/hacker/designer friends I’ve had the pleasure of working with – I’ve even been able to hire a handful of them at Google to start the Data Arts Team. Oh, also Evan Roth and Aaron Meyers fusing software with cultural thinking and fun explorations.

D&C: How important are events like TED and OFFF in terms of making the convergence of technology and art accessible?
Aaron Koblin: Honestly, I think events like TED and OFFF are quickly becoming crucial homes for culture. Commerce has defined clear places in our lives for feature films, music and digestible commodity culture. The internet does a great job of enabling connections, freeing information and empowering creators, but these events and hubs really expose a broader audience to a wide range of experimentation and thinking. I think they’re a strong motivator for some, and more importantly they add legitimacy to activities that are atypical and, I believe, hugely important.

D&C: What do you think have been the most interesting digital innovations?
Aaron Koblin: There’s been an interesting conversion of high-performance computing innovations – mainly to do with speed and data storage – that enable collaboration and analysis in real time in a way that hasn’t been possible up to now. I think we’re going to see more of that – people working together from different locations to build stuff in new ways. I’m working on two art projects which are both based on collaborative creation. The internet burst and there was a crazy free-for-all, but now it feels like we’re getting towards a sweet spot where the model is a collective led by one person who’s orchestrating or guiding a project in a non-authoritarian way. It’s more flexible.

STEPHEN WHELAN is creative director of the fashion content studio WHITE LODGE. He also writes for DAZED & CONFUSED and SHOTS


Dazed & Confused's October issue, 'Come Together: 20th Anniversary Special', is out now. Click HERE to check out the other, already published, Q&As celebrating the issue