interviewed 8 August 2004 by Lora Oehlberg
Casey Reas is an artist exploring abstract kinetic systems through diverse digital media. Reas is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor in UCLA's Design | Media Arts Department.
|What first drew you to computer graphics?
||I was hooked from a young age. My first experience with computer graphics were playing video games in arcades and on my family's Apple II. Hours were spend playing cracked versions of Track and Field, Space Eggs, Lode Runner, etc. on floppies. These experiences, coupled with some exposure to making graphics with Apple BASIC and LOGO account for my obsession with interactive computer graphics. Despite this early experience, though, I didn't begin programming my own graphics until 1998.
|Do you have any favorite computer graphics mentors?
||I was extremely inspired by the work of John Maeda when I first saw it in 1997. Within a year, I quit my job, learned how to write software, and went to study under him at the MIT Media Lab. His work provided a path to synthesize my training as a visual communication designer with computer science. John's work is not often noticed by the CG community, because it is not pushing boundaries of graphics, but is instead pushing boundaries of interaction, visual space, and design. My own work follows his precedent.
|What was the first time you contributed to SIGGRAPH?
||SIGGRAPH 2000 in New Orleans was my first. With my colleagues in the Aesthetics and Computation Group at the MIT Media Lab, we presented our installation Introspection Machine in the Art Gallery. It is an interactive visual feedback environment consisting of multiple modules, each with a screen display and a flexible, manipulable eye. Each module transforms the video image from its eye into a dynamic display. By redirecting these eyestalks, visitors can explore an unbounded space of continuous light, complex forms, and surprising relationships. The reconfigurable eyes comprise the principal interface by which participants interact with the installation. Light is transfered from computer to computer, making it possible for the video output from one reactive display to be used as the input for another. As visual material from each display is reinterpreted by the others, visual patterns shift and mutate based on the connections, configuration, and movement of the eyes.
| What year/city was your first SIGGRAPH? Which was most intense? Why?
||My experience in New Orleans was my first and definitely the most intense. The artwork exhibited was very technically complex and physically fragile. It was the premiere exhibition for the piece and we were still getting the kinks out of the system. We were working intensely until the opening and then in the evenings to repair the damage the audience imparted each day. The heat of the city in August coupled with the hotel's location in the middle of the French Quarter added to the overload.
|What contributions to SIGGRAPH are you most proud of?
||I'm most proud of Processing, the programming language and environment I co-founded with Ben Fry. We presented it at SIGGRAPH 2003 in the Sketches and Applications and Web Graphics Sessions. It's grown tremendously in the past year and we're presenting the development again this year in the Web Graphics session. I feel this project has the potential to build a bridge between the technical and artistic constituencies of SIGGRAPH. We will be launching the Beta release of the software later this year and I'm excited to see where the project goes.
This year, I'm showing three of my abstract MicroImage prints as part of the Art Gallery. These images are the culmination of two years of software exploration into the phenomenon of emergence. I've written screen-based interactive software and am using this to generate high-resolution prints with intricate detail.
|What's your favorite thing at this year or last year's SIGGRAPH?
||My favorite installation at SIGGRAPH 2003 was Marie Sestor's ACCESS, shown as a part of Emerging Technologies. It combined an excellent concept involving surveillance with a great computer vision system to create an powerful intellectual and visceral experience.
|What near/intermediate developments in CG do you look forward to?
For my personal work I'm looking forward to innovations in display hardware and for Moore's law to fulfill it's prophesy. I'm very thankful that the perfect simulation of materials and physics era of CG is logically coming to an end (or beginning) so that people can turn their efforts to creating more divergent, original, and expressive work. I'm also looking forward to the imminent future programming environments for computer graphics.
|Why abstract kinetic systems?
||I love representational and narrative painting and film, but when I make my own work, abstraction comes naturally. I don't think of abstraction as devoid of representation, but there are different levels of abstraction along the path from pure representation to pure abstraction.
For example, there are the abstractions of landscape found in the work of Diebenkorn and the abstractions of Rothko which make no reference to our physical environment. In my work I create abstractions of the systems of the natural world, rather than the appearance of the natural world. The fact that people see recognizable forms in my work is symptomatic of how our brains work, but is inconsequential in understanding the work. The works Tissue and MicroImage are based on writings of neuroanatomist Valentino Braitenberg. Because this software is derived from natural systems, sometimes natural visual patterns appear in the form and motion.
|Where do you find your 'inspiration' for your work (or, where do you find your ideas)? When you think of an idea, is it a mental image you wish to recreate, or a technological effect for which you find an artistic application?
||I'm interested in biology (particularly physiology), and psychology. I don't actively study the sciences, but observe carefully and occasionally read essays, articles, and books. I've been interested in artificial life, artificial intelligence, the principle of emergence, and robotics for many years. It was this interest which motivated me to learn how to write software and build electronics. The related courses I took at MIT further fed these interests and the core of my work in the past few years is derived from ideas explored in these communities. Instead of consciously designing my work in every detail, I write simple programs to define the interactions between elements. Structure emerges from the discreet movements of each organism as it modifies itself in relation to the environment. The structures generated through this process cannot be anticipated and evolves through continual iterations involving alterations to the programs and exploring the changes through interacting with the software.
|What elements of computer graphics academia do you enjoy? What brings you back to it (in particular, Interaction Design Institute Ivrea and UCLA's design school)?
||Through teaching, I'm working hard to create a greater technical literacy so software and electronics become more prevalent within the arts. The idea is to remove technical barriers so the next generation ofmedia artists can innovate the concept and theory of the work, rather than remaining constrained by needless technical barriers.
|How does the user/audience fit in with your work? How do you balance audience interactivity with artistic control?
||In creating a new work, I often think about these issues:
* Who is in control? Is the system controlling the interaction or is the participant?
* Is there an appropriate relation between action and response? If the system always behaves the same way, it becomes boring. If there is no relation between the stimulus and the response, there is no feeling of engagement.
* Is there a fine level of control? The human body is amazingly dexterous and expressive. Does the interface allow us to use our potential or does it restrict?
* Does the work engage the entire body? Is there total involvement?