An Interview with Adam Rokhsar


    photo by Rosemary Warren
    photo by Rosemary Warren
    A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of talking with Adam Rokhsar, a multimedia artist, musician, psychologist, and educator. Adam creates animated videos and designs interactive art for artists and corporate clients, including Radiolab, Atlantic Records, and Universal Music Group. His musical project is a blend of science fiction pop, R&B, and dance music, created from home-made software, tape machines, and stories about what it means to be human. He is also the developer of the RokVid Max for Live device.
    We could have easily discussed Adam’s artistic practice for hours, but we instead focused on his other passion, teaching. Adam currently teaches at NYU Steinhardt in the Music Technology program, but has a long history of teaching media arts, including Max, to a wide range of people, from elementary school students to graduate students. Have you ever wondered what it’s like to teach Max to 10-year-olds? It’s not often that we find someone who has worked with this age group, so please read below for some fascinating insights into his process.
    Tell me a bit about your personal background and how you initially started using Max.
    I feel like I've had two careers, the first one being in the realm of mental health services. I used to be a therapist primarily for kids and I worked at various non-profits, like community centers. But I was also a musician and played music with friends in a band. One of the nice things about working as a therapist is that since your boss is also a therapist, you get some free therapy. The conversations I had with my supervisor at my final therapy job helped me get the courage to pursue music as my main career. So I then applied to grad school at NYU in the music technology program at Steinhardt, and that is where I first encountered Max. I entered into the program thinking I was going to learn music production. I wanted to record my band's albums and record albums for other people, but I totally went in a different direction and it was because of Max.
    I had heard of Max before. The bassist in my old band, PJ Brindisi, who now works at Pandora, had been playing with Max and had shown it to me, but I never really had a chance to do anything with it on my own. Then I took a class with Joshua Fried, and later with Dafna Naphtali and Luke DuBois. That was a great set of people to introduce me to it. I totally fell in love with Max and it actually ended up being my entry point out of just making music and into making visual arts and interactive art. It opened up everything for me.
    You said you worked in mental health services before, being a therapist. Is there any connection between that earlier work and your current work with Max?
    Yeah, in a number of ways. One, concretely, is that I think my relationship with Max right now is primarily as a person who's teaching it, and there's no question in my mind that working as a therapist honed the skills that set me up to be a teacher. The type of therapy I was doing gave me a framework that was very relational for understanding everything. A relationship came first in the therapeutic setting, and the relationship itself would have restorative qualities that would let you do the actual therapy work. I feel like with teaching, and teaching Max, I take a very relational approach and I actually think that working as a therapist is what helped me be able to teach Max to kids and a wide range of people.
    I try to approach things as meeting people where they are. That's the phrasing we used as therapists...you meet the client where they were. And that's a kind of radical perspective. As a teacher, when I do that it helps me step into someone else's shoes and, when I'm at my best, try to convey something like Max to a 10-year-old in terms that they can understand and set them up for success. Beyond that, I think working as a therapist has just always been a part of who I am, just being an introspective person or very relational person. That has played itself out in really big and complex ways in my art practice too.
    That's really fascinating to me. I understand meeting people halfway, especially with Max since it’s so varied and you can do wildly different projects with it. You have to start from someone else's perspective.
    Totally. You have to think about what is interesting to them about it. Part of what's tricky about teaching Max is that, like you just said, it can be so many things. What I love about it may not be what other people are drawn to. It's always good for me to remember to try and ground myself in the other person's interest. Saying "Hey, Max is this cool visual programming language where you can do anything" is actually really unhelpful to people because they're like, "What exactly do you mean by anything?" There's nothing to react to.
    I feel strongly that when I teach any software or even just any type of art, it's really important to think of art-making as a collaborative process between you and the medium that you're working in. When I teach my classes, I always talk about how software, like all mediums, have intentions. They have their own interests baked into them. And it helps to learn what a software is good at and what it wants you to do because it sets up constraints that are usually generative. They're creative places to work with. For example, I teach Ableton Live right now which has all these cool warping modes. That's a thing that it wants you to do. It conveys that really quickly. Showing people that is exciting because you can see what the software can uniquely do and then that gives them ideas about how they can collaborate with it.
    It's the same thing with Max. I like showing people how fast you can get audio in, video in, and build a relationship between the two. They may not be interested in that for their art practice, but I feel like it's useful to show the directions the software leans in order to give people ideas, because it's hard to work with just a blank slate.
    Exactly. It's a paralysis of too many options.
    Absolutely. I feel like it's kind of a digital art problem. A challenge of the analog creator, if for instance, you're a painter, is how do you bring something out of nothing. But the digital creator has to say, "How do you reduce everything down to something?" Because there's just too many options.
    Let’s focus on your experience teaching Max to youth. When you taught youth classes, were these short workshops or longer courses?
    It was a combination. I taught the youngest students Max at a place called The Jacob Burns Media Arts Lab which is in Pleasantville, New York. It’s a really fantastic non-profit that I think started as an art house film center in Westchester, but has since grown and has a really substantial set of educational services. I actually taught Max to two of their teachers at Harvestworks in Manhattan. They subsequently got really interested in it, and interested in exploring what it would look like to integrate Max into their curriculum with younger kids. The youngest student I had was probably eight years old, and the oldest was college age. The courses were either one-off workshops or part of a summer program. I also taught semester-length courses there that weren't focused on Max for the whole semester, but had a substantial chunk of Max in them. And I taught one-off weekend workshops to kids at Harvestworks.
    What inspired you to first start teaching Max to youth?
    Well, I love Max and I always end up wanting to teach the things I'm into. I also felt like kids could do it. It's the uniquely visual aspect of how you build things in Max that I thought would click with kids. It seemed more daunting to sit down with 10-year-olds and teach them Python, partially because there’s just so much text language that has to be learned, but also because, and this is another thing I love about Max, as far as programming languages go, Max is a pretty fast ... You can get results very quickly.
    Right. So you have more instant gratification.
    Exactly. Which I think you need, because you need to motivate. A fast pathway to something gratifying, as you put it, is important so then they want to learn more.
    I've always thought of Max as learning a language. There's a lot of jargon that you have to know to get around the software. It's widely believed that kids learn languages faster than adults. Since you've taught all different age groups, do you feel like this applies to Max? Are there elements that you think kids pick up easier than adults?
    That's a good question. I totally agree with the analogy of Max as a language and always say that early on in my classes. There was a period of time where I was teaching Max to 10-year-olds, while concurrently teaching to undergraduates and to faculty at a college...a really fun spread of ages. The thing that the kids were so fast with was brainstorming art projects and art ideas. Once they started to understand what you could do in Max, they were very quick in an almost funny way. I remember one class where after showing Max for a day or so, we started talking about projects that we could work on as a group. I remember saying, "Let's start brainstorming," and one kid raised his hand and said, "The project title is," and he just said the title and described the whole concept. It came fully formed. Compared to how I make art, and how a lot of the other adults make art, there’s so much more hand wringing and baggage about the process. Whereas kids are just like, "No. This is what it is, this is what it does, and let's make it." And it was really fun, actually, because we did make it. His idea was to make the Magic Eight Wall, which is like a Magic Eight Ball, except it’s a video installation where you press a key on the keyboard and it tells you something about your future. We recorded a ton of video content of the kids saying funny future predictive statements and then in Max we built a random video playlist generator with the keyboard as the trigger.
    That's so fun. Were they amazed when it was actually finished and worked?
    Yeah, they loved it! They were also really excited to explain it to their parents, who in almost all cases had less of a frame of reference than they did about how it was made. It was really cool to watch. You could see that they felt proud of it.
    I really agree with what you were saying about how kids are faster at brainstorming ideas. I think younger students have less reference for what something should be in conventional media. If they're making a song, for instance, they have less of a reference of what a song should sound like...The drums come in at this point and the guitar comes in here. There’s all this freedom to make the most bizarre stuff. And then as you get older, you think you need to follow some standards or guidelines.
    I completely agree with that. I think that's well put. I personally like to think of art as a space in which everything is permitted, but it's really easy to build a lot of rules for yourself, even unconsciously, as you go through your practice. Whether it's directly influenced by other people working in your field, or influenced by your own past successes, you get locked in because you're hooked on that validation that comes from it. Kids just don't have those histories to confine them. Then when they encounter something like Max, which is so open, and open the way they are, their imagination becomes very multimodal. It's not super weird for them to start encountering a lot of ideas in Max that are actually novel, and might be harder for older people to initially understand the potential of.
    We did an early project in Max in one of those summer classes where we took simple motion tracking from a camera and had hand or body movements control the speed of a song they liked. I set it up so that there was a scale object that controlled the mapping from motion to speed of playback. They were all taking turns using it and, if they wanted to, they could adjust the scale values to get different results. It was fun to watch how fast they zoned in on that as a way for them to make the interaction more uniquely their own. I think that's a super key part of people feeling like an art tool is actually an effective one. It's not can I use it, but can I use it and imprint something uniquely of myself into it.
    As an example of that outside the Max world, there is a psychologist named Gunther Kress who was a literary theorist. He studied how kids learned to write and found that when kids are learning the alphabet, they go through a period where they're trying to just copy what the letters look like, and they get good at it. Then after that period, you see a drop in how "good" they are at writing the letters. They start to make more mistakes after having already learned it. But then when he dug into it, what he found was that they first learn how it's supposed to be done, and then they start experimenting with their own permutations of the alphabet to find how far they can push it to make it their own, while still making it read like the letter A. That's why the errors go up during that period. They're trying out style, and then it sets and maybe becomes their handwriting.
    I think Max is a really nice tool for that approach because it has fewer constraints baked in. If I open up Ableton Live to make music, there's a timeline and the presumption of one thing following another in a linear fashion. There's a lot of stuff already baked in, but Max just doesn't have a lot of that.
    That's really interesting that you brought that up because I've been thinking a lot about how copying is a great way for beginners to learn. And then once you have that down, you can start deviating.
    100%. And when you're copying, you're never going to copy with the proficiency of whoever originally made it. I always tell my students, "The extent to which you can't copy well is the extent to which this piece is now uniquely yours." Basically, you can get something original out of copying.
    Since you've taught vastly different age groups, do you find that different age groups are drawn to different aspects of Max? Or do your teaching methods change for elementary versus college students?
    Yeah, there's definitely differences, although it is fun to see how there are fewer differences than I anticipated. I could cover the same subject matter across all ages, but there's ways of packaging the subjects differently based on the age group. I'm a big fan of using the teaching technique called scaffolding with younger kids. I build a lot of stuff in Max for them, but don't finish it. I set up a framework so all they have to do is focus on one piece of the code or one task in the coding. I don't do that as much with older students.
    For the younger kids, I really want them to get a win early on in making things. I want them to walk away thinking, "I did it. I feel capable." I don't mind as much with older students if they walk away thinking, "That was a little hard." Because if they're already motivated, they'll just keep coming back and that might even push them further.
    We've talked a lot about the benefits of teaching kids, but what are some challenges that you've encountered?
    There are a lot. Some of them are not specific challenges to Max, but rather challenges of handling a group of 10-year-olds...the attention span is different and there's behavioral stuff that you ideally don't have to handle if you're teaching older cohorts. But then there's also the material aspect of it. The 10-year-olds may not have a computer of their own at home or they may not be able to get Max. The idea of homework at that age with Max doesn't seem feasible. The challenge is, what can you do in a classroom when not everyone is going to be on a computer, and not everyone will have access to a computer later.
    There's all kinds of constraints in an actual school system. My sister is a public school teacher in New York City and I've come in and done some Max interactives with her first graders. I'm not trying to teach them Max. I'm just trying to give them a positive multimedia experience as a way of starting to understand what code is. In that kind of setting, there's no way anyone can be on a computer, nor should they be, they're super young.
    Even if they did have a class at school, it would only be one hour a day. That's very challenging.
    And your point about Max being a language, you just can't learn a language one hour a day. Those language classes are full of homework and you have to get immersed. But then all that does for me is it changes the goal of what a successful workshop is. I don't think that a Max workshop with 10-year-olds needs to end with the kids thinking, "I'm going to get Max, I'm going to work on this all the time." To me, a more realistic kind of success is that they walk away feeling like programming in general is interesting, and makes them feel good, and they have the capacity to do it. They saw how to make new kinds of art, they know that there's a tool called Max that they can reach for later, or maybe they'll forget about it and then when they reach college it'll pop back up, and they'll say, "Oh, wow. I totally remember learning this when I was 10. That's so weird." And then they decide to study it there. I just really want them to feel empowered.
    I think learning Max, or any other programming language, really helps your ability to troubleshoot, which can carry over to so many other aspects of your life. If you've encountered a problem and figured it out, then you have this feeling of empowerment, and the next time a problem like that comes up, you won't give up. So much about Max, at least for me, is constantly troubleshooting.
    Yeah, totally. It's the iterative nature of it. That's something that comes up even in my college classes when people say, "It's not working." You don't want them to then make the leap, "It's not working and I suck at this." That's how programming is. It just doesn't work for a long time and then you feel great when you figure it out.
    Is there anything in Max 8 that has made teaching easier for you?
    Yeah, there is, and I realized that very much serendipitously. Every summer I teach high school students through an NYU program called the Summer Institute of Music Production Technology. It's a two-week intensive program all about music production. I teach on the digital side of it and I always do some Max lessons as part of the curriculum. This past year with Max 8, I realized that the Vizzie modules are so good now because they're all OpenGL and everything is so fast. Video processing has always been tricky in Max because it can do so much, but you have to work off the GPU, otherwise it's just not going to do what people want it to do. OpenGL is much more doable, so I was able to do a really nice hands-on workshop where the high schoolers made visuals that react to their music. They did it all themselves after a really minimal lesson on how Max and Vizzie work. I basically just said, “You plug these things into each other and that's it.” They had a really successful experience in Max and some of them were like, "Whoa, this is cool. How is this working?" Then I was able to say, "Oh, well, actually, these blocks that you're using are pre-made bundles of code. It's like Lego blocks that you're snapping together.” We then customized some by using scale objects and playing with ranges. And they started making stuff. It was so novel for me. I had never approached teaching Max like that before and it felt good.
    I just have two more questions before we end. Do you have any advice for people that want to teach Max to kids?
    Yeah, I guess my main bit of advice is to have realistic expectations based on the age you're working with, and then build a curriculum around what you think would be successful for that age. There's a different win state for kids than there is when teaching Max to undergraduate or graduate students.
    I feel like I've had conversations with people where the assumption has been, if they're not able to open up a fresh Max patch and make something from scratch, then it didn't work. They didn't learn Max. And I don't agree with that at all. I think you have to remember there's a longer lifetime that they have to get into this, and every age has its own strength that you can play to. The real success is do they want to keep coming back to it. Alternatively, the real way to fail is to have them walk away thinking, "I don't know what that was and I never want to touch that again." To turn them off is really the only way this can go poorly. If that means they end up doing less coding themselves, and you're doing a lot of work to set them up to have fun, while understanding to some extent what’s going on, I think that's okay. I think people should embrace that.
    That's really good advice. My last question is, do you have any classes or workshops planned for the future besides your current NYU job?
    There's nothing scheduled, but at the same time, I share a working space with two employees of Cycling '74, Sam and Cassie Tarakajian, and we want to have workshops at that space. Sam actually already had one and I want to do more, but I don't have any scheduled right now. That space is called CuteLab. Everyone who's a member is doing great things with art and tech. I've been personally interested in trying to build a space outside of the traditional academic world for people to come and learn creative coding languages, like Max, for free. It's just so expensive to go to school. It's nice to offer alternative spaces for people who maybe are historically left out, or who don't have access to a place like an NYU undergraduate program. We're missing a whole swath of expression from people who don't get to touch these tools.
    Do you currently teach Max to youth? Or are you interested in starting? If so, please contact us at eduteam@cycling74.com. We’d love to start a conversation with you!