Thinking Images: Paul Kaiser and Marc Downie in conversation with Johannes Birringer
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Thinking Images
Paul Kaiser and Marc Downie in conversation with Johannes Birringer

Paul Kaiser and Marc Downie are two of the most prominent artists currently working in the field of digital creation. Together with Shelley Eshkar, they formed a collaborative team in 2001, operating under the name the OpenEnded Group. Though the three largely work together, they sometimes work in pairs, create solo artworks, and pursue collaborative projects with others, including key collaborators from a range of arts and science fields (architects, composers, electrical engineers, programmers).

Paul Kaiser's background is in experimental filmmaking; throughout the 1980s he taught students with severe learning disabilities, with whom he collaborated on making multimedia depictions of their own minds. From this work, he derived the key ideas—mental space and drawing as performance—which became points of departure for the digital artworks he has been making since the mid-90s, including his path-breaking motion-captured performance collaborations with Merce Cunningham (BIPED), Bill T. Jones (Ghostcatching), and Trisha Brown (how long does the subject linger on the edge of the volume . . . ). Visionary of Theater was created as a multimedia documentary on the early theatre work of Robert Wilson, further elaborating "drawing as performance" and offering a video primer of movement on the stage. More recently, a series of public art works and installations (Pedestrian , Trace) shifted attention to everyday movements of pedestrians and of children by projecting trompe-l'oeil figures and miniature urban landscapes directly onto city sidewalks. Recovered Light was a massive "virtual X-ray" projection created for York Minster, UK, while Enlightenment and Breath, commissioned by Lincoln Center for the Mostly Mozart Festivals (2006, 2007). Enlightenment is considered to be the highest-resolution live digital artworks ever created. They investigate, visualize, and reconstruct the deeper musical structures of Mozart by means of artificial intelligence and real-time graphics.

Marc Downie brings a scientific background to the OpenEnded Group, with an MSci in physics from the University of Cambridge and a PhD from MIT's Media Lab based on artificial intelligence research. His complex algorithmic systems are inspired by natural systems and a critique of prevalent digital tools and techniques. His interactive installations, compositions, and projections have advanced the fields [End Page 17] of interactive music, machine learning, and computer graphics. At the MIT Media Lab, he collaborated extensively with engineers on the development of projects such as (void *), presented at SIGGRAPH in 2000, AlphaWolf (ars electronica, 2002), Dobie (SIGGRAPH 2002), and Jeux Deux (2006). His solo works include the series Musical Creatures (2000–3), which has been exhibited internationally.

This conversation was conducted via Internet in the spring of 2007.

BIRRINGER: Paul, you participated in the 2006 Monaco Dance Forum where you and your collaborators recreated how long does the subject linger on the edge of the volume . . . (2005) with Trisha Brown's dance company. At the festival, you also showed 22, a collaboration with Bill T. Jones that had emerged from the same artistic research begun several years earlier. I take it, from having seen some of your previous work, that you think of yourself as an image maker. Do you see how long does the subject linger on the edge of the volume . . . and 22 as live performance works that present a new kind of image art?

KAISER: Yes, we had the strong sense of opening a new door, especially with how long . . . In that particular piece, we were able to push the door open pretty wide. So how is this a new kind of image? Well, to begin with, the art work doesn't consist of a skein of pre-made pictures that are triggered "interactively" in the course of the performance. No, it works very differently from that. It has its own autonomy, thanks to the artificial intelligence that Marc Downie has endowed it with. Its imagery comes as it pictures things to itself, trying to make sense of what it sees onstage in real-time as the dance unfolds. Of course, it doesn't proceed from a completely blank slate any more than a newborn baby does. Instead it draws upon a series of structures and intentions that we've given to...