An Interview with Andrew Demirijian
Often with New Media the technology overwhelms the artwork. Not so in the work of Andrew Demirijian. His work gracefully incorporates technology and organic elements into his artwork while providing modern commentary on the state of the world. His work is clever and simple and of course relies heavily on Max. Demirijian also teaches Max and I was intrigued with his approach towards collaboration.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up outside of Springfield, Massachusetts. I think the thing that really turned me on creatively was that I was really into making comic books, my own comic books, when I was a kid. But also I was really into playing jazz. I played saxophone when I was young.
I had a great teacher who was studying with David Baker and Jamey Aebersold. I used to play those Jamey Aebersold albums all the time, with Sonny Rollins or Charlie Parker or Miles Davis. I always wished they had Ornette Coleman collaboration, but that didn’t happen.
So those were some of my early artistic influences and, at the same time, I was really interested in punk rock as I got older, so I was always going between, whenever I felt like, “Oh, I can’t play these Charlie Parker riffs fast enough,” I would switch over and play like the Ramones or the Sex Pistols or the Clash, that had that kind of energy.
But in a way I think they’re kind of related. The kind of jazz that I liked was the ferocious jazz of the ‘60s, fire music kind of stuff. I think the appeal of the punk stuff was a really visceral kind of thing.
So I played in a punk band for a long time, and we were on the Warped tour and got signed to a couple of record labels. The name of the band was Stickmen. We were based in Boston, and then we recorded out in the Bay Area in like ’96, ’97.
Where did you record?
The record label we got signed to, and this is a unfortunate name in today’s world, they were called 911 Entertainment. Yeah, bad idea now but, of course, back then it didn’t have those connotations. So they had a recording studio as part of their office in Fremont [East Bay]. But their main office was in San Francisco.
The person that was a key figure there was this guy who I knew from producing the Clash, his name was Sandy Perelman, he was the A&R guy. You must know him, right?
He’s such a character.
He is such a character, but he’s also really nice and genuine. He really liked our band and he was the person that got us signed to the second record label. And he told us, “You guys are the best live band I’ve seen since the Clash.”
So that was really fun. We got to play on the Warped tour, and we were touring all the time, and just loving the energy and the mosh pits, all that stuff.
Then when that label went bankrupt, I realized that I had just been doing music for so long, in that style that I felt like I didn’t know if I really wanted to go back into that whole thing again. I just wanted to make albums every year, and wanted to spread out and do different things.
I was starting to do projects, using Pro Tools and doing these kind of sound designs with computer reading — just crazy, experimental stuff.
So I started to get more into sound art. And then, after the band kind of ended, I got really into video art. I felt like maybe I wasn’t really a great songwriter, but I felt really good about video editing. It felt really natural, and I felt like I kind of found my voice more, in that, working with audio and video.
So I went into that direction in a really heavy way. Then I went back to school and got my MFA at Hunter College, in their Integrated Media Arts program in New York City.
Scenes From Last Week: Lexington Avenue (New York), June 2011
Where’d you do undergrad?
I studied at a place called Clark University, which is in lovely Worcester, Massachusetts. Which was interesting and fun. There was a great film teacher there who blew my mind. His name is Phil Rosen, and he heads up the Ph.D. department at Brown now. But he was really the person who got me film-crazy. That was a big influence running parallel.
I used to work at Avid Technology in the mid-‘90s. So it was always this kind of video editing running parallel with audio. Being in a band, working at Avid, kind of thing. And then eventually I couldn’t stay working at Avid when we were touring a lot, so I had to leave.
I got really interested in audio that makes visuals, and visuals that make audio; the talking, back and forth, one shaping the other in some way.
And that’s really how I ended up getting deeper, discovering Max and getting into that world. I was at the Experimental Television Center in 2007, and was introduced to it there.
Where’s the Experimental Television Center. I see you did an artist in residency there. Is it like a nonprofit?
Yeah. It’s this great nonprofit. It was like the Holy Grail if you were into analog video and audio synthesizers from the ‘70s and ‘80s — stuff like that. It was just this wild playground in this awesome, giant loft. You could go on these benders for a week of not sleeping, and as you were coming up with something cool just hit the Record button.
It was a great place that inspired a lot of people. I hear it just recently closed down, which is really a shame.
But it was at that time I was trying to reconnect between music and video. I was playing video like a musical instrument along with jazz musicians, and I was getting frustrated by some of the rather out-of-the-box programs that they had for doing that stuff, like Module 8. And there was another one called Grid.
I had performed at Jazz, in the Lincoln Center one day, and the next day I did something at Monkey Town. It was after those two events, that I realized I was just not satisfied with the quality of what I was doing. I wanted something that was more powerful or that worked the way my brain was working, and that’s when I turned to Max and started to get really into it.
How was your experience learning Max? Did you lock yourself up in a room for a week, or did you do it slowly over a period of time? How was learning curve for you?
There was definitely a learning curve for me. Maybe I learn a little bit slower than other people, but it took me a while, maybe about a year or so, until I really felt decent with it. I was really fortunate to take classes at Harvestworks, whenever there was a topic that came up that I was really interested in. That was a terrific experience.
One of the things that really helped me a lot at the time is that I was able to get a small grant from the university where I teach, to get a production certificate from Harvestworks. That basically means that you work with a tutor, who helps you achieve the project idea you’re trying to develop.
I was lucky enough to work with this great artist named Zachary Seldess, who is just an amazing person and a great artist, sound and visual person. He really helped me advance my work in a vast way.
Later, I would work with Adam Rokhsar who is also terrific. So the combination of, like you said, locking yourself in a room for a year, and just really digging in to every tutorial and every kind of thing you can find.
Then, when I would kind of hit a wall, I could speak to one of the guys that I was working with, and work it through, which was a huge help.
I really loved your Color Field piece.
Thanks, if I could only churn out those all the time…
Color Field: Asbury Park (New Jersey), May 2009
Is Max running that project?
Yeah, well, not directly. If it was going to be up for more than like a day, I would have done it in a Max situation. But it was in this deserted field in the middle of Asbury Park, so we really couldn’t bring four computers out into the middle of that, safely.
But the entire piece was created in Jitter. And that’s a really good example of the audio affecting the video and the video affecting the audio.
So for this festival that they were having they were asking me, “Do you want to do something in our movie theater?” And I responded, “That’s cool, but I really like this abandoned lot. What’s the deal with this?” The thing that drew me to that location is that I’d done a documentary on deforestation in Armenia back in 2002 and it looked, to me, like just like deforestation in the middle of the city, on the beach.
I was teaching a class called Out of the Box at the time, which we were planning to do some kind of video installation, so I opened it up to any of my students to participate. They said, “Sure, do something in the lot, that’s cool.” So collectively, we were all scrounging around Craigslist looking for TVs that no one wanted. We were pulling together all of our resources. So for their final project they got to make something for these 40 television sets in the middle of this field.
I decided, “Well, I’m going to make something, too, for fun.” That was the Color Field piece that you see on my web site. At that time, television was converting to hi def, so I felt like there was interesting correspondence between this land that no one wanted and these unwanted television sets, and trying to see if can you make something—can you bring these things to life in a way that is unexpected, or breathe in new life to these unwanted, discarded elements. It turned out it was the site of a condominium that never got made, and because it’s close to the beach they had all these piling stumps.
If Max isn’t driving it, how did you do it?
I was using Max in the creation of it. For example, one of those television sets had a camera pointing back at its own image. Using the swells of brightness that would happen from its video feedback to map the sounds. So the swells in the audio are generated from the swells of the brightness.
I would then map that, the image of the piece looking at itself, onto a 3-D model that would swell in accordance to its own image from that brightness as well. So it was almost like a cell or organism that was responding to it self. There’s a lot of reflection or self-reflection that grows and changes over time. This is something that infuses a lot of my work.
The other piece uses the NTSC color bars and knocks out certain colors, moves it around the screen and reads the center scan line across to create its tone. And the third chunk of it is just turning a television set off and on, but using Max to control the rate of that.
That one, to me the third one has, gets the really organic thing going that you just can’t do in Final Cut.
I was really interested in the piece with the fish tank, too.
I ended up getting to be friends with Zachary Seldess, so we talked about maybe working on a piece together. And that’s an example of a collaboration that we worked on together, that is these two salt-water fish in a fish tank, and the thing that we kind of set up a system where the higher they in the tank on the y axis, that controlled their pitch, and on the horizontal, the x axis, it controlled their modulation rate.
So there’s just a video camera on them?
Yes. It was a video camera that was on them — though, these days I would have probably used a Kinect system, which wasn’t around yet. The camera was both motion tracking and color tracking them, to feed an 8-channel sound system. So wherever they went in the space within their tank, it was mapped to a corresponding space in the gallery. So if they were up in the upper left corner, you’d hear them in the upper-left corner and then zoom down to the lower-right corner, kind of thing.
If they moved quickly there was a kind of audio effect that would happen with the sudden movements. So basically they were making the composition of their daily life.
We liked that inversion of your typical perceptions. Your ears were inside the tank and your eyes were outside of the tank.
The piece uses daily life as a springboard for the creative stuff. I feel like a lot of my work is this mix of nonfiction, computer programming, musical compositions, and conceptual art. That inter-play between those areas of documentary film or documentation of the every day, coupled with these other elements.
Do you have a favorite Max object, or do you find that changes from project to project?
I would say the trigger object. I’m really into the order of things, which is so important, and that is really great object for that.
And another one that I really like is the mxj net.maxhole. It’s more of oddball…
What it does is it allows you to network lots of different computers and have them speak to each other over any kind of local area network. So it’s a way to synchronize multiple computers where they can all do different things, but they’re all synched up and talking to each other. So it’s a really handy object that allows you to let multiple things interact in a very simple way.
The example patches provided below show how we synchronized a video playing on 16 computers. The students used a data set of “cut scenes” from their favorite video games and created a conversation between the characters from different videos using the sixteen computers in our class room. This was created in my Responsive Media class at Monmouth University.
So you teach Max at your school, Monmouth University?
I do. I’m fortunate enough to teach a class called Responsive Media, where we’re concentrating on the interface as an important element to our creativity, in this “century of the interface” that everyone likes to talk about.
We have an Interactive Media minor that I’m the director of at Monmouth. It’s a class that kind of compliments building web sites and using Flash, and to me it’s also important to let people think about motion tracking or tracking amplitude or color tracking, or working with the Kinect or the Wii, or turntables. Experimenting with ways that you can interact with media, and perform media in different ways.
So we get into lots of fun, different projects there that will often be site-specific. Things like the Color Field piece we talked about. We’ve got a great one coming up for the spring, but it’s top secret for right now.
How do you teach Max? There seems to be a lot of different approaches.
That’s a tricky question. It changes all the time. It’s about a more thoughtful response, that’s the thing that I’m really interested in lately. With so much information online and available to people anywhere, what is special about the encounter of us spending time together in the same room? How can I make that really valuable to students?
So what I’m interested in is trying to come up with new models for teaching. What I’m working on right now is thinking about these collaborative media projects as ways to learn in a more fun way, that’s more fun for me and more fun for them.
We’ll come up with ideas together, we work toward that goal, and we work toward a project like Color Field that we talked about earlier, as a collaborative piece together.
Another example is I had a group of students that did a quartet of Playstation 3 game controllers, and they made a composition based on people that started their YouTube videos with the word “my.”
So it was “my cell phone,” “my Zippo lighter.” So they just went from A to Z with all these different finds, like with “my tuba”, they would perform “my tuba” as like a kind of jazz band in a way. And then they designated the different elements of the game controller to control things like the edit in and out points, and experiment with the open GL scale settings and things like that. So it was this visual composition, audio composition based on harvesting data from YouTube.
But it basically comes down to a project where we collectively work together toward a goal.
Actually, I’m thinking about writing a paper about it, so I’ve been trying to think more carefully about what it is that I’m doing and what could be better.
I’m planning a questionnaire with the people at Eyebeam to find out what they liked about this approach, and that kind of thing. I think it would be interesting if I could use it in a conference where teachers get to share stories about what works in collaborative processes for teaching media production or interactivity in our current moment. I think that’s an interesting idea for discussion for teachers now.
Do you notice a difference in how students approach their projects once they are exposed the Max paradigm?
I do. Once a student starts to gain some experience with Max, I start to see them becoming obsessed with exploring new creative possibilities. It provides a different way of thinking outside of the timeline in applications like Final Cut Pro or Avid.
You also do your workshops, like the one at Eyebeam next week. What’s the approach on this one?
There are two things that are tough to come by if you are a media artist interested in creating immersive environments for architectural space: a large space that you can frequently access to develop your ideas and the necessary equipment to activate the space, such as multiple projectors, computers, lots of speakers, voltage controlled dimmers, monitors, etc. The workshop at Eyebeam was intended to address these issues while looking at how Max can be an expressive tool in this environment.
Do you approach that differently than your students that you have for an entire semester?
Oh, that’s a good question. I can be more frank with my language and stuff. That’s one thing.
It’s really a treat at the Eyebeam workshop, because the people who are there, really want to be there. I think sometimes with the undergraduates, they can get overwhelmed taking so many classes, they don’t realize how insanely lucky they are to be doing their work, developing their voice on a full-time basis, and what a luxury that is.
Sometimes you get like four or five committed students, but the people that are taking the workshop at Eyebeam are more mature, and are there because they really want to learn and we’re all kind of pulling together. It’s a really good group that I’m working with there, and everyone’s contributing in lots of great ways.
The thing that I’m really interested in at Eyebeam is the way that we can all share different ideas and different knowledge about little pockets or areas of interest. One of the things that happens, weirdly in our society, is once you graduate from college or your MFA program, you’re narrowed down with the amount of friends and things that you have, and it’s this kind of closed-in thing.
I’m more interested in thinking about what can you do as a collective that’s really fun and working toward a goal and learning along the way. And then hoping that the folks in the collective would continue to maybe pair off, work on projects together, to continue and expand their interests.
How do you have time for your own projects?
Residencies are really helpful to me to shut out the outside world and really focus on my own stuff. I’m working on a new piece that that I was doing at the MacDowell Colony — which is the oldest artist’s colony in the US — that I’m really psyched about.
It’s an audiovisual installation that created several compositions for an 8-channel sound cube using field recordings from the Grand Canyon. The field recordings ranged from twelve elevations that span two billion years of geological history and the compositions juxtapose two scales of tracking the temporal: the minutes and hours during the three weeks of recording and the deep archeological time from basin to rim. The piece re-categorizes the field recordings based on time, type and location and then creates dense rhythms and washes of ambient sound panning across the cube space.
I got the inspiration from looking at postcards of the Grand Canyon. I was thinking about how you see the same type of image over and over again. But there’s so much that’s missed in that image. I mean, in the attempt to capture the vastness of this giant terrain visually, what is missed? What are all the things that are left out? Like, what is the sound of the sculpted rock? What are the sonic granular details of that space really like?
So, I used these recorders, these autonomous recorders from the Cornell ornithology lab that can just record for weeks on end.
The kind they go and plant in the forest? Waiting for Bigfoot or something?
[Laughs] Yeah, it’s those kind of things that they plant in the Amazon and whatnot. They let them go for a month. So I got a bunch of those and I did a residency at the Grand Canyon in South Rim, and I set up these field recorders in 12 different elevations all over the Grand Canyon.
There’ll be a visual component, as well, but I’ve been focusing on the sound first. I was really interested in making these rhythmic juxtapositions between these elevations as a starting point for composition. It’s really beautiful. I think it will be interesting to lots of different groups of people for different reasons.
I’m thinking about using a really tiny monitor in the center of the room, a tiny, tiny monitor with a giant sound system. Like an inversion of the way that it’s usually presented; as a giant, vast image, with absolutely no sound attached to it. So I’m playing with that juxtaposition.