An Interview with Ali Momeni

Long-time Max user, artist, and educator Ali Momeni discusses his current projects including Minneapolis Art on Wheels and the Spark Festival. Ali shares how he got involved with Max and shares his latest work with us.

Ali, could you give us some background about where you are, how you got there and what you are working on?

I’m currently teaching at the University of Minnesota in the Department of Art.

I come from music composition; I studied with David Wessel (i.e. Yoda) and Edmund Camption at CNMAT, UC Berkeley. I was introduced to real-time creative usage of computers through music, at CNMAT, in Berkeley. Over the 4 year course of my doctoral studies at Berkeley, and the 2 years of dissertation research I did in Paris, I came to the conclusion that the world of contemporary music was too stifling, conservative and close-minded for where I saw my practice headed. So, using a number of early musical/sculptural pieces (like Jolastic, or Frelia) I made a transition into the visual arts, and I have been active in the interdisciplinary world of new media art every since.

I was born in Iran and moved to the US at the age of 12. My story is somewhat typical of a 1st generation Middle Eastern immigrant; I had parents that wanted me to Achieve with a capital A. This meant becoming a doctor, if not a lawyer – and if all else fails then an engineer. So I studied a lot of math and science early on, took physics and music as a double major, and was also pre-med (I even took the MCAT’s applied to med school and all that).

That explains your ease of work in both the art and technical environments. Given that you started in music, how difficult was it to move into the world of visuals – how difficult was it to get people to take you seriously as an artist?

Neither was particularly difficult. By the end of my graduate career, I was already making work that wasn’t designed for the stage or the concert hall, but rather for the museum, gallery or other alternative spaces. I also came into the visual arts as a self-declared and proud outsider; when it comes to work with technologies, few disciplines train their pupils as rigorously as musicians. This gave me a strong advantage in the visual art world because I not only had a firm understanding of the wiring of things as well as real-time software development techniques.

I’d also studied and creatively used a fair bit of math and physics, which comes in handy…

You are well-known in the Max community; your aLib is a tremendous bank of objects, abstractions and help patches, and your work on the Maxuino project is helping to engage hardware into the software environment. Of your work with technologies of different types, what excites you the most?

The Maxuino work is exciting; I’m pleased to help electronic musicians gain access to physical computing, within environments they are comfortable with (i.e. Max or Ableton). I’m also very deeply engaged with live video work right now, thanks to my group Minneapolis Art on Wheels. I’ve been fortunate to have some very accomplished and advanced developers as a part of my research team (Chris Baker, Aaron Westre). Our upcoming mawLib library for live-urban-projection will be a significant contribution to the expanding medium of urban projection interventions.

But the project that I’m most excited about is one called The Liminal Surface, collaboration with long time friend and co-maker David Bithell. Liminal Surface is a tabletop musical theater environment that integrates audio, video, analog and digital sensors, and computer based control of physical media (e.g. musical robotics) – all in a rehearsed, staged, theatrical setting.

Another thing I’m very excited about is related to my curatorial efforts, something I’m dedicating more and more time to. Between the MAW Artist in Residence Program and the Spark Festival (which I direct), I’ll be bringing many regional, national and international artists to town. This is always a great pleasure.


Speaking of the Minneapolis Art on Wheels, this project surfaces in almost any conversation where your name comes up. It has obviously struck a chord with both artists and the public, and has a real buzz around it. Can you give us a little more background on its creation and your vision for its future?

When I arrived in Minneapolis in 2007, I wanted to establish a community (research team) and an agenda (research topic) that could bring together a number of my interests: software/hardware development, public engagement, live performance with computers. Anyone whose passed thru Minneapolis knows about the bike scene here. It is uncanny; the community is tight, strong and fearless. Many in this group will bike all the way thru the Minnesota winter, some in fixies the whole year.

Maker Profile – Public Projections on MAKE: television from make magazine on Vimeo.

My past work with Sony CSL [Sony Computer Science Labs] (in collaboration with my old friend and mentor Atau Tanaka) had gotten me interested in how physical and digital mobility can interact with creative practices, I began writing about and seeking funding for a public arts group that would marry the bike culture, with mobile media, with live performance.

I started MAW in the spring of 2008 with a class full of enthusiastic students.

Within months, a number of generous funding schemes came through, allowing me to establish a more formal research structure as well as an engaged (i.e. employed) community of ambassadors, performers and developers. My vision for MAW’s future is to contribute to the body of research that surrounds mobile media and live performance in public spaces (mawLib and onwards), but also to continue and expands MAW’s role as a commissioning body for generating new works for this emerging medium. We are focusing on live participatory performance in public spaces that leverages mobile/real-time digital technologies as well as analog/physical/gestural interfaces.

2008.06.19 Minnehaha Falls from Ali Momeni on Vimeo.

The last time I was in Minneapolis, you gave a short demonstration of the framework that is becoming the Liminal Surface. Could you spend a few minutes introducing us to that? It’s fascinating, and seems to be tapped into the zeitgeist of mechanical+computing art and performance.

Sure… The idea came from a performance that my collaborator David Bithell and I did a few years back.

Table Setting from David Bithell on Vimeo.

This piece introduced the format of a table top, and the notion of small sculptural agents/instruments/actors with which the performers could interact musically, choreographically, and theatrically. Years after, David and I returned to this instrument and decided to expand it significantly. We settled on a design that kept the size and shape of the table the same, but added a large number of inputs (for analog and digital sensors) and outputs (for actuators like motors, servos, solenoids, lights and such).

We essentially made a theatrically presentable large-scale prototyping board. Once a gadget is plugged into the table it’s in instant high-speed two-way communication with real-time software – thus allowing us to theatrically compose for the interactions between us and the objects, as well as among the objects themselves.

The idea is in part inspired by Freud’s notion of the Uncanny (from his 1931 article, The Uncanny). In this article, Freud points to the unique power of inanimate objects that portray animate behavior: a sculpted skull that appears to speak, an isolated fabricated eyeball that blinks or a pair of disembodied legs that move about as if led by a human mind.

The “Introduction” section from that paper lays it out clearly.

You are the Artistic Director of the Spark Festival. How did you get involved in that festival, and what do you expect from this year’s production?

Spark was one of the important reasons why I took the job at the U of M. I was aware of it before coming, spoke to Doug Geers (its previous director) during my interviews, and fully intended to get involve and help in whatever way I could. I co-directed the festival with Doug in 2008 and 2009, and will be directing the 2010 festival (Sep. 28-Oct 2, 2010).

One of my goals with Spark has been to strengthen the cross-media and visual arts components in the festival. I now select many visual artists as musicians among the featured artists, and I hold many of the activities in the Regis Center for Art (U of M’s fantastic art palace). Starting this year, I also changed the season for Spark – it’s no longer in the dead of the Minnesota winter, but in the beautiful fall season. This shift will also allow us to have outdoor events, cover a greater area in the city and get festival attendees around a lot more easily.

But we had reached a certain limit with winter spark, could not reach any further into unexplored venues/territories/audiences. The warmer weather, possibility of outdoor events, use of bicycles, involvement for MAW – this will all help push Spark forward.

In looking over your website, it appears that you keep up a heavy load of teaching, lecturing and travel as well as your directorship, development and curitorial roles. How do you balance all of this work with having a ‘real life’? Or do you have a real life?

I suppose the best way to put it is that my art life is my real life. All who’ve been around me during the busiest of times (Spark or otherwise) can attest that I manage to get in more than my share of fun. I’m not married, haven’t any children, own no pets and no home, and my car is Japanese (so there is very low maintenance) and all of that amounts to plenty-of-time-in-the-day-to-work. I’ve never been one to separate work and play, and it looks like I may have chosen the right field of profession after all.

Ali, it’s been a pleasure talking with you. Any last words of encouragement for the Max enthusiasts out there?

These are really exciting times for Max. After some decades, Max is ever-more-forcefully breaking out of electronic music and becoming an attractive instrument for all manners of creative activity. So all you cats out there that want to make anything talk to anything, get on the bus and come along for the ride…

Ali’s Website

An Interview with Ali Momeni

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