Artist Interview: Zach Lieberman
Technology Should Be In Service of Poetry
Zachary Lieberman is an Eyebeam Alum from 2002, 2007 and 2008. He is also a winner of a 2017 Eyebeam Award.
Lieberman is an artist, researcher and hacker with a simple goal: he wants you surprised. In his work, he creates performances and installations that take human gesture as input and amplify them in different ways — making drawings come to life, imagining what the voice might look like if we could see it, transforming people’s silhouettes into music.
He’s been listed as one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People and his projects have won the Golden Nica from Ars Electronica, Interactive Design of the Year from Design Museum London as well as listed in Time Magazine’s Best Inventions of the Year. He creates artwork through writing software and is a co-creator of openFrameworks, an open source C++ toolkit for creative coding and helped co-found the School for Poetic Computation, a school examining the lyrical possibilities of code.
What are some of the projects that you are most proud of?
openFrameworks is an open source c++ toolkit for creative coding I helped create to share work I was doing professionally with collaborators like Golan Levin. We were using a library of code from MIT, called ACU, which wasn’t open source—it was used heavily at the MIT Media lab and was a precursor to processing—and OF was an attempt to make something similar. I remember vividly the first time I bumped into a stranger who was using openFrameworks—it was a lesson that ideas spread, and that the more open you are, the more people you can reach. openFrameworks has taken years to develop and grow. It’s a different timescale, almost like farming, versus projects you might do in weeks or months.
Zach Lieberman’s video art — showcased at the Annual Eyebeam Awards ceremony held on April 6, 2017
The School for Poetic Computation, a school I started with several friends like former Eyebeam resident Taeyoon Choi, came out of a frustration with traditional higher education and a desire for alternative education for more diverse and experimental practices in art and technology. Now in it’s fourth year, it’s been really magical to see this whole community form around things we are passionate about. It’s got a “field of dreams” quality to me. “If you build it they will come.” It was a reminder that the world is hungry for new ideas, new schools, new tools, new approaches.
The eyewriter was a phenomenal project to be involved with. A group of Eyebeam alumni joined forces to work with an artist named Tempt. Tempt’s an old school graffiti artist who is completely paralyzed. We build an open source, open hardware tool that helped allow him to draw graffiti again using his eye movements. It was a reminder that art has the power to heal and that assistive technology can also form part of an artistic practice.
openFrameworks is an open source c++ toolkit for creative coding that Lieberman helped create, together with Golan Levin. www.openframeworks.cc
You write and talk often about the importance of community. How does collaboration figure into your practice? What does community mean to you, both in terms of pedagogy and the field of art and technology?
I came up studying printmaking and it taught me a very important lesson—artmaking is social. The printshop is by nature a social space; people will be pulling prints while someone else is inking a plate, and the kinds of conversations about craft and intention (that I participated and eavesdropped on) were really magical. When I switched to making art with code, I strongly felt that it should work the same way. Too often people think of art as this intensely solo pastime — the long genius toiling away in an attic. I’m a firm believer that art should be more like a laboratory where we work together, share ideas, challenge assumptions and develop new vocabularies to help express our day and age.
Sketching everyday on Instagram keeps Lieberman thinking and creating. Find him at zach.lieberman
What does “technology by artists” mean to you? How do we redefine technology in terms of something more than trends or convenience?
I think it’s easy with technology to get caught up in hype—to get excited about a product or zeitgeist, currently it’s VR and machine learning—and loose sight of the fact that these tools have a long and rich history. We’re working on the periphery of an industry that’s very sci-fi oriented. There’s this idea that “we’re inventing the future”, which runs on hype cycles, and I think it’s important that we challenge that.
Convention centers have no history. When the exhibition or conference is over, someone rolls up the carpets and sweeps the floor and theres just an empty room with a shiny flat concrete surface. That’s fine if you’re selling the “worlds best phone,” year in and year out. The arts on the other hand need history; they need context in order to explore the creative potential of the medium, in order to be in dialogue.
Computation is a beautiful art form—the things it allows you to do, from iteration to sorting to permutation to recursion, are remarkable tools for expression. I try to encourage my students to get a deeper intuition for what these things but ultimately to let the poetry drive them. The technology should be in service to the poetry.
Lieberman at the School for Poetic Computation, which he co-founded in 2013 with Taeyoon Choi, Amit Pitaru, and Jen Lowe in 2013, with Casey Gollan working on administration. www.sfpc.io