An Interview with Kurt Ralske
Kurt Ralske is a mysterious and interesting artist who makes gorgeous and magical video installations that seem to defy physics. This is a second career for this talented guy who danced with life as a pop star when he was very young.
The key behind Ralske’s work is his custom software, a series of Jitter objects called Auvi. In a generous move, he recently made Auvi available for free for non-commercial use. Ralske is also a popular Max/MSP/Jitter teacher at schools such as School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and School of Visual Arts in New York City.
Die Büchse der Pandora 1929 (2009)
What were some of your first art experiences?
I have a very complicated and unusual background. I’m from New York, originally. My background is actually in music. I had a career as a professional musician, or to be accurate, a professional pop musician.
After that, I did work composing music for films, and record production. It was around that time, I became interested in electronic music, and I discovered Max in 1997. At that time, I was using Max for algorithmic composition.
A few years later, around 2000, I got interested in working with Max for visual arts. Since that time, I’ve worked with Max pretty much exclusively for visual projects.
How did you grow away from the pop music scene?
That’s a complicated question. I was always interested in a wide variety of music, and a wide variety of art. But somehow I turned from this shy teenage guy who wrote songs in his bedroom into somebody with a major record deal, who was doing tours, interviews, videos – the entire stereotypical rock star experience.
But after I completed my third album for Sony/4AD, my record label, I decided that it was just too limiting to try and work in that format. That was in 1993. I decided to just move forward, and not look back.
I am so excited and busy with the things that I’m working on now that I don’t ever think about pop music much, really.
Wow, you had a busy youth. Did you have time for college?
I went to college as a teenager, but didn’t complete my degree, at the time. I studied philosophy at Eugene Lang College in New York City. Subsequently I went back to school and completed my degree in computer science at Hunter College in New York. My grad degree is in Art Criticism from the School of Visual Arts in New York.
How did you get interested in video?
I’d always dabbled in visual arts, but in 1999 I started doing some experiments using Java to create visual images. And then right around that same time, around 2000, an extension to Max became available, called Nato, which is very difficult to explain. It was basically a very odd extension to Max that allowed you to work with video.
I was really excited about the idea of working with both image and sound simultaneously in the same program. Then around 2001 or 2, Jitter became available. I also began programming my own Max external objects for imaging, which is the Auvi software.
Tell me more about the Auvi software. So they’re objects for Jitter?
They’re objects for Jitter, written in C. Originally they were objects for running under the Nato extension to Max. But after Jitter arrived, I ported them over to Jitter. Basically, it started out as my own software that I wanted to extend the possibilities of what you could do with images in Max.
I had some very specific ideas about what I wanted, and it seemed to make sense for me to write the objects myself to get those results. Originally it started out as something for my own use. But as I got more and more into it, I realized that it might be useful to other people.
It was very educational to actually get Auvi to the quality level of commercial-grade software, so that it could be generally useful to many people. I learned quite a lot from that process. Around 2002, I released the Auvi package of objects for Nato, and then subsequently in 2003 for Jitter.
Auvi was available as a commercial product for several years, and then I withdrew it in 2008, basically because I no longer had time to update the software. This year I re-released the software as a free package.
There were really a great many people who enjoyed the software a lot, and did some interesting things with it. I decided I wanted to give something back to the Max community a little bit, so this collection of 85 Jitter objects is now freely available to anyone that wants to play with them.
Faust (Murnau, 1926) Golden Vivisection [excerpt] (2009)
So the Max community has been good to you?
The Max community is really quite generous in sharing its knowledge. And even apart from the community of users, the stuff the C74 Max programmers have done for the past 20 years is really just so wonderfully creative, and I would even say generous. Although Max is a commercial product, I feel that really there’s 20 years of love in there. [Laughs.] 20 years of really wonderful creativity.
Just speaking for myself, having used Max, MSP and Jitter for 13 years now, it’s opened up so many wonderful possibilities, in terms of making art, and subsequently in terms of my career. It’s been so interesting, and exciting, and rewarding.
Your Auvi Objects pack a lot of processing into single objects. What was your design goal for this toolkit?
I think that half-consciously, I wanted each Auvi Object to be like a guitar effect pedal. You plug it in and it instantly does something interesting. There’s an “effect” knob to control the blend of the wet and dry signals. Often there’s a “rate” knob, so the qualities of the effect can automatically vary over time—like the Auvi internal LFOs. Sometimes there’s a “threshold” knob, so the effect kicks in harder at certain levels like Auvi internal alpha control. They sound different if you crank it up and get feedback such as the Auvi internal feedback. And, it’s easy to chain lots of them together to create a big complex mess.
Is there an overriding theme/scheme behind the objects?
I wanted Auvi to be friendly to beginners, to make it easy to get exciting things to happen. You plug an object in, you instantly see something interesting—no need to initialize parameters. The objects are quickly rewarding, and provide more rewards for those who are patient enough to figure out the LFOs, internal alpha and so on.
Auvi strength is its quirky visual effects. You can create complex abstractions with little effort. VJs and other live video performers like this capability. Auvi has been used for installations, theater performances, dance performances, and apparently for live visuals for a Radiohead tour.
I feel that one of the unique strengths of Max is that you can create indeterminate systems: instead of a single piece, you get a tool that can produce many pieces. Instead of getting exactly what you want, you get a bunch of output—which, with luck, might turn out to be even better than what you originally thought you wanted.
For this reason, I put the internal LFOs into the Auvi Objects. Rather than set a parameter to a single fixed value, you set how you want that parameter to change over time. This encourages setting up systems where each parameter has its own behavior, and the sum total effect of these small independent agents can be unexpectedly interesting.
You recently changed the licensing model for the Auvi Objects to be free for non-commercial use. This will obviously increase people’s willingness to try them out. Were there other advantages to making them freely available?
It pleases me to think that the Auvi Objects are being used to help artists realize their goals. There’s been over 1,000 downloads of Auvi in the six weeks since its been re-released. So there’s an altruistic impulse, but also, I feel that if the software is being used, it justifies the two solid years of work I put into writing it. The software is some sort of a documentation of what I did with myself from 2001 to 2003.
Was Max a real challenge to learn or did you take to it more easily because you already had programming chops?
Actually, no. I did my computer science degree after I became involved with Max. One of the reasons that I actually decided to do the computer science degree was that I felt that I just wanted to go further with my work in Max, and I felt that I needed to get really solid chops in programming and understanding what was going on under the hood.
So in the beginning with Max, I was teaching myself, and I do remember some struggles in the early stages. On the flip side of that, for six years now I’ve been teaching Max to beginners, quite often art students who have no background in any sort of programming or scripting or anything. I’m always astonished how, with a good introduction and a little bit of patience, even complete beginners can do very interesting things in just a few hours of messing with Max or Jitter. With a few hours of experimentation, they will wind up in very interesting places.
How would you describe your patching style?
My patches are shamefully messy. Usually they are done to meet a deadline, and the nervous tension is visible in the way the patch is laid out. If there’s enough time, I will then select important interface items and put them into presentation view. It’s the Max equivalent to stuffing the contents of your messy apartment into a closet while your guests are ringing the front doorbell.
Do you have a favorite object?
I’m fond of button; I think it’s the most Max-like of all Max objects.
Really, and why is that?
It’s a beautifully simple and effective way of getting input to the machine, or to receive visual feedback of what the machine is doing. There’s nothing like it in other languages.
A flashing yellow button object is the heartbeat of Max.
I love your video pieces; the video is moving, but never the same, and slowly moving into each other. It’s all so intriguing. Where do you get your creative inspiration?
For the last several years, my research has been about images and motion and stasis. I think the piece that you’re referring to is a video I made in 2006, called Times Square Timeshare. For that piece, I developed this trick for inverting the appearance of motion and rest in the image.
So it’s originally just a very ordinary shot of Times Square in New York City, but in my processed image, everything that was originally in motion is standing still, and everything that was originally at rest is moving. So you see things like buildings and parked cars moving, but you see things that were in motion, like pedestrians or buses as static.
It seems that Max has opened a lot of doors for many people of all walks.
I have a lot of affection for Max, what it’s capable of, and the possibilities that it opens for the artist.
Having taught Max now for six years, mostly to beginners with fine-arts backgrounds, I’m always struck by how student’s projects turn out so completely different from each other. Max can accommodate so many different types of artistic interests, so many different ways of working, so many different mediums. From installation to performance, to still image, to sound work, network projects, software art, to combinations of all of the above.
I really don’t think that there’s any software that’s available that can accommodate such a wide range of interests.
It’s so true that it can cross so many different mediums. Doing all these interviews is just a fascinating process, hearing what everyone’s doing with it.
So, you find that it’s a good educational tool as well?
I really believe it is. I think that even if people take one semester of Max and wind up not using it again, I feel they get a much deeper insight into what’s going on behind the scenes with digital media. It helps them with every sort of digital-media project they do in the future, even if it’s something as simple as understanding why Final Cut isn’t behaving the way you want it to. Students get a nice “look under the hood” from their experience with Max.
I also want to mention that I’ve done work with similar software packages, such as Processing or Open Frameworks; I do think that these software packages have certain strengths, and do seem to be very good at certain specific things. But in general, Max is so much more developed, much more intuitive, and so much more generally capable. It’s so much better for prototyping software, for accomplishing things quickly, and for working on a wide variety of projects. I still feel that Max is on top, that Max is really the superior tool.
What is the first patch that you have your beginning Max students make?
The assignment after the first class meeting is “make a patch that is complex and beautiful, but has no function.” The results are often amazing and bizarre. The point is to allow students to become comfortable with the heuristics of the Max environment. It also demystifies the apparent complexity of Max. If students can feel playful and creative with Max from the start, it reassures them that Max is indeed a good tool for artists.
How do you help students who seem overwhelmed at first?
If students are overwhelmed, it means the teacher is doing something wrong. I don’t allow my students to become overwhelmed. For the first half of a one-semester Max class, students are kept on a short leash. We keep very clear objectives; the focus is on the general principles of how Max is structured. After a certain amount of material is absorbed, the leash comes off, and students are free to run around and explore.
How do you teach students trouble-shooting skills?
From the beginning, students are constantly reminded of certain key principles, for example: “Every Max object is a separate program. It doesn’t know what is going on above or below it,” or “There are only a very small number of possible data types. Exactly which type is going down your patch cord?” or “Each object is very stupid. You need to tell it what to do!” Also, every time new material is introduced, common pratfalls are pointed out. So students develop familiarity with the errors they’re most likely to encounter.
What would make it easier to teach Max?
Some beginning students are intimidated by the help files, they seem to contain too much information—however they’re fine for more experienced users. Students seem to have difficulty finding what they need in the documentation. It’s not easy to search on how to accomplish a specific task. So, a directory of solutions for commonly needed tasks would be a great addition to the documentation.
What are some of the surprising projects that your students have come up with?
My students constantly surprise me. Rebecca Adorno at SVA used Max and
Arduino for a beautiful interactive installation called Instrument for Unsent Letters that uses an old-fashioned manual typewriter to control robotic string instruments and audio playback. Amanda Cassingham at SMFA made an MSP patch to translate room ambience and environmental sound into spontaneously generated texts. Zeljka Blak extended our first assignment—the non-functional patch—into her final project, and made a crazy parody of the conventions of software interface design. And Matthew Gaertner at SMFA spent an entire semester single-mindedly focused on the ritualistic abuse of a single Max object—”Button”! [Laughs.]