A Conversation with Michael Joaquin Grey

by Thomas Asmuth

The work of Michael Joaquin Grey revolves around the complexities of bio-chemistry, network structure, and information systems. Grey holds degrees in both Genetics and Art from UC Berkeley and MFA in Sculpture from Yale; the objects and media he creates span a wide variety of forms including sculpture, painting, film, Super Computers, language, and algorithm.

His creative research considers the similar ways in which these information bearing systems can evolve or organize and the emergent cultural meaning that can arise from the evolution. He investigates both scientific and aesthetic epistemologies to discern limitations in the processes and tools these fields and to push the boundaries of science and art praxis. Grey told me, "I don't use logic as the first principle, I use my intuition and allude to observation. In hindsight I see if there is an intelligence to my intuition which can be reviewed with scientific methods and if necessary replicated and verified."

  The Zoob, Michael Joaquin Grey

Despite a thriving gallery career, in 1996 he founded the company Primordial, LLC to market and distribute his biological and network inspired building system, ZOOB. Grey hoped to foster the capacity to model the complex, networked nature of life in young minds by providing a system that compensated for the inadequacies he perceived in traditional building block systems. Pedagogy and first principles are a very important facet of his work at all levels. Grey has fascinating observations about the crucial role that first principles set during early education influenced the work of the Bauhaus and late Modernism.



Michael happened to be in town so we sat down at an anonymous museum of modern art cafe for coffee and a discussion of his work.

Thomas Asmuth: We (CADRE) just met with Eric Paulos a week ago. He talked about his research themes but he also talked about the group's responsibilities to Intel. You had mentioned that at the time of your heavy research in the Zoob project that it was more advantageous to do research as an artist and entrepreneur. Does this still hold true? I see research institutions such as the Urban Atmospheres lab at UCB as an opportunity. There is a certain amount of freedom but there is still the necessity of having to report up-the-chain to the corporation.

Michael Joaquin Grey: Well I am always reminded that Paul Allen's think tank, Interval Research Corporation closed down.  A lot of people who were early new media practitioners were attracted to go there, it was the same time ITP @ NYU was flourishing in New York and a lot of those people went to Interval. It was touted as "thinking 100 years into the future".  Three years later they were ten years behind the actual marketplace because the internet boom happened and they had incredible IP limitations. I had friends who were there. A lot of MIT people, Berkeley people, etc; got in there and they thought they were going to have this incredible futuristic rarified experience but they were closed in terms of communication. Going in there everyone had to sign all these heavy non-disclosures.

Think tanks, incubators, and institutions in general where people from the topdown decide how to control the development and how the IP is going to be distributed are rarely productive in my opinion. It turned me off to all the wasted potential. I also saw so many academic situations always lingering quite far behind in terms of their ability to adjust or adapt. They are just inherently risk adverse.

In that case (Interval Research), they really stifled the potential growth of a gifted community--it is a great case for open source--many of that group's best work is still locked up. I saw less dramatic problems at other institutions, but overall I believe artists and scientists don't necessarily need institutional support for most of their work with new technology and the lower costs for equipment.  Artists need to somehow become more confident about their work as primary researchers and take a bigger role in making a significant contribution to the primary cultural record. The culture is out of balance--too top down heavy.  Artist and researchers need to be allowed permission
to fail, make mistakes, play, learn, grow-organizations don't like mistakes.

TA: What happened to the early art/science movement in the 1970's? It seems to have fizzled. Maybe more than once? There was the E.A.T. project with Rauschenberg and Kluver...

MJG: The same problem was repeated around the year 2000, curators (top down) tried to do shows on New Media and the digital--wanting to make their mark on this 'new' territory--the 010101 show and the BitStreams exhibitions are an example. I think they were not very rigorous in terms of the bottom up work and the art history behind them. The art world was very much able to dismiss the work and maybe pick a couple artists who visually reinforced more pedantic formal historical art--propping up a new life for neo-painting . I think that I encountered a similar event when I made ZOOB; talking to the people in companies that have history in the toy world you find this concept they call 'toyesque' which means, almost like in the art world, something has got -"IT!". If this is a toy that has 'IT', you don't have to explain it to somebody, you look at it and you know it's fun and you understand it is going to be there, it is going to last. It is something that has a type of undeniable quality. As an artist, when I was first in art school, people would have these PixelVision cameras, and they loved them--the low res. quality was what artists loved. But to the toy world it was marginal and because it was disappointing to the general public's expectations of what a camera should do, it was considered  complete commercial and technical failure.  Even if the technology problems were easily solved within a couple years no one was going to take the risk of trying it again.

TA:  I remember those, I loved those.

MJG: I knew the guys who invented it and they would say, "oh, it's such a failure." And I would ask "how can this be a failure?" Every artist I knew at the time wanted to do low-res films but, to them it wasn't good enough to get the consumer market to buy in.  They couldn't reinvent another small camera like that and put it on the market because it had already been exercised through the system. And no one would invest in it because it pointed to that failure. They weren't interested in experimenting; they just wanted a successful product.  The art world isn't very different with it's memory and I think that is why the art/science movement has suffered.

TA: Maybe it is my prejudice or that I am very new to this world but, for me there is still a lot of excitement about these art/science hybrids. They have a lot of potential to form a more inclusive understanding of the world. It seems (to me) that the really important work is still wrapped around these corporate-artist-engineering-academic institution collaborative or hybrid models and it seems that there is a recent increase in the awareness of the public about these collaborations.  Considering all these issues, do you think art/science hybrid work has the longevity? The rigor?

MJG: Well, I have a certain bias I try to overcome, which is that I started making my artwork in the early 80's. This was the height of the critical consumer discourse and about post-structuralist theory, feminism, post-modernism, identity politics, etc. And for me because my background was also in the sciences, I was never fully convinced that there was no new territory. I also learned that the avant garde was non-existent, and that generations of artist had no membrane between themselves and the market. Artists are dying to have their work in movies, commercials and validated by the corporation. I believe the corporation/engineering/art thing was already fully co-opted by the time I was an 'adult' artist. Walt Disney was collaborating with Werner von Braun and Dali before we were born...

One thing I found that was key to my education was that I went  to UC Davis for a brief time.  It was a little less than a semester before Robert Arneson wrote on a piece of my work "Get Out".

TA (laughing): ...that is so great!

MJG: Arneson was pretty much able to make every student cry through the classic artist emotional breakdown/rebuild psycho/drama pedagogy, I had a different way of working so he was threatened. I had a certain amount of distance from being fresh out of working in science. I was able to distance myself and I don't mean I was cold about my approach. I wasn't overly determined about what art and the individual could be, I was very open to what art could be and how it could be generated. It became crystal clear to me that in the art pedagogy process going on in art schools not much had been examined for quite some time; the pedagogy of the first principles issues had not been very rigorous. Art was existing on really only two orders of magnitude, the individual physical body and the architectural space.

I grew up in LA in the 60's and I would go every weekend to the California Museum of Science and Industry and the La Brea Tarpits and do computer punch cards at USC. I was just a nerd-kid. One of the great visual conceptual memories for me was the Mathematica exhibit by Charles and Ray Eames.  It was one of the best information design exhibitions of all time. It was done elegantly; it had a bell curve description made with balls falling from the ceiling failing every ten minutes and a race car that was running on a Mobius strip so you could see that it had just one surface and they had the Charles and Ray Eames film "Powers of Ten". To me it was a just fabulous interactive creative learning and play experience.  In the film: you go from a picnic to the far reaches of the macroscopic universe and back into the body and then to the depth of the microscopic in less than 10 minutes... I thought why isn't art extending its language and reach into these areas too?

TA: Your film "Past Proprioception" appropriates the film. When I was watching a clip from your website, I suddenly recalled how much the the "Powers of Ten" film touched me.

MJG: I think it had a lot of influence on a certain generation and it unfortunately wasn't widely distributed. It has been ripped off a zillion times by commercial directors or in films to introduce the zoom in or zoom out to a huge degree of magnitude. I think they touched on something universal. It was just a really great work of art. It took me 20 years to say I am just going to use that piece because it says it so perfectly. I am going to enter into it and transform it.

I started showing in 1990, I got out of school in 1990. I had a lot of unexpected attention immediately. I was the first of a generation coming out of school and showing in galleries. I was still a young artist, I wasn't the kind of artist looking for that attention ironically-- that quick art-star hit. So part of me was sort of virgin nymphomaniac and I had a deep conflict because I felt my work was still in the research stage. Formally and aesthetically it hit a chord with the connoisseurship at the time. It was kind of a transition period out of a post-modern Jeff Koons top down consumer discourse. I was going back to a personal bottom-up narrative. However that wasn't what people saw in the work at first observation. They saw another recapitulation of Minimalism, Process, or Arte Povera; the first read was 'this is beautiful looking work'.  For me I was going in this horizontal direction and the work was being read vertically.

At the same time I was working on projects that used other orders of magnitude and computation to investigate problems with over determined complex and natural systems. I got a position/place at the ITP/Courant Institute of Math Sciences at NYU and I started using their super computers. I had started developing neural networks and genetic algorithms around 1989. This software was able to have autonomous behavior and learning; it was capable of being fed something that was approximately a random number generator and it would cope with an environment thus developing and creating form and learning behavior in a multidimensional space. That form could take on meaning inevitably and this eventually leads to some social consequences. What I am saying that at the N-th billion iteration it takes on something else, it is more than a formal iteration with potential responsibilities.  Everything over time, no matter how formal or cloistered will take on consequences and responsibility.

I took four realms that were important to me : information space, the microscopic, the macrocosmic, and the body, as areas that could be explored with extended orders of magnitude starting from the formal act of observing the ontogeny of information. So, I was making this work that was really about the development and behavior of information as it takes on other complexities and social meaning.  I was coming up across some very classic problems of investigation again: the ontology and politics of information. First you are experiencing phenomena that is observing it, then your describe it, then you are explaining it, and then you are exploiting it. That is the parsimony of Western culture. I was realizing that so much of my generation was about explaining and exploiting, which is very much the science of verifiable and reproducible media. If you can put it in the magazine, explain it, put it in the sound bite, if it is a meme, it exists on the other side of observation and description. It has
become the dominant communication and creative methodology.  Still I felt like I wanted to get back into the lost practice of the art of observation and description (the increasingly recessive methodology).

Yes, I realized that this is a lonely place to be, in terms of the art world (smiles). Some of the first things I did were taking things like muscle proteins (large macro molecules) and putting them in a test tube and watching them go through an artificial contraction and self assembly. I saw the whole life cycle in the process and phenomenon. I also realized that information behavior, the self-organizing behavior aspect of information is also very important and parallel.  Looking at this, I realized the history of people observing systems for the first time have repeated the sins of trying to explain what they see and think. I considered the principle works of people like Leeuwhoek, Kepler, Galileo, and Linnaeus and I tried to look at some of their primary descriptions. Nearly all had to take this leap of description and anthropomorphication in taking on the problem. In the hubris of engaging in this act there is always a trade off with the spirit of that action.  I was very interested in engaging in the decay of information and description.

I would show the work as art and it was popular as a form of connoisseurship because of the context people saw it in 'a top gallery', but I realized that I wasn't having a dialogue with those supporting my work; there was a big communication gap and much of it was because of what I call spatial illiteracy, I realized I had very specific pedagogic intentions at the time. For me, having studied genetics, I saw the language of the other primary structure of a large molecule (DNA) and how it ends up folding up into a three dimension form as an essential
model for complexity and communication. How complex 3d forms interact with each other create quaternary interaction/communication and have an incredible intelligence and a dynamic preservation, translation, repetition of information and form. There is such deep meaning that comes out of this biological information space but there was nothing to show someone tangibly other than explain linguistically this syntax--so I started making this modeling system. It took on some of these issues of complexity, body empathy and geometry of living system, information systems, micro and macro cosmic behavior. As I was doing that, people kept coming up to me and asking me "when are you going to make art again?"

This was my research and art. There was such a gap in perceived practice: "what you are doing is business, you're making toys, when are you going to make art again?" I realized I was doing something that wasn't part of the gallery world;  I wasn't reinforcing the commodification that I had already engaged in. It was simple but it took me a long time to realize that if i wasn't selling and showing my work in the art world it wasn't art.  It didn't  matter how interesting the work I was doing was in relation to art history.  At the time I wasn't concerned in how to communicate my journey back to the art world-- I did not share  the bread crumbs to lead back to my art practice.

What I began to see was why it was so hard for our culture to see art and technology together. Why there is this schism. Most of it is I think is because of the specialization and parsimony of different markets and communities.

The other thing that I thought was left out of my art education was the history and structure of the pedagogy in art school. We were very influenced by the Bauhaus. Go back to the Museum of Modern Art, let's look at Alfred Barr, the first director who put together the description of who begat who in art history-the foundation for the canon of American Modern culture. When you look back at the precursors you see references to Japanese prints and African art etc... However it doesn't take into account a major influence--Kindergarten.  The Bauhaus which is the primary model of art education in this country (the studio/atelier model) was an absolute rip-off of Kindergarten. Kindergarten started in Germany in the mid 1800's. The first Kindergarteners were Bauhaus students and professors. Later some of these people also taught kindergarten for a living.  When you look at the work of Paul Klee, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Frank Lloyd Wright, Joseph Albers, Mies Van der Rohe and you look at 'gifts and occupations' which was the Kindergarten play set made by Milton Bradley, the original kindergarten play exercises were almost untransformed in the mature art works of Klee, Kandinsky, Mondrian etc... Why is this important influence left out of our high culture pedigree? Why has the influence of play and learning become so insignificant to our art history?

I saw that the limits of our cultural awareness come from early pedagogy. If you are playing with Legos and bricks and those are the paradigms of early civilization and building cities, you don't easily realize that your building is connected and may be damaging the water table of your neighbor's building. It is not that you are bad person, you just don't understand that the schema of play and interrelation includes networked complexity. You deal with beams and girders and skyscrapers and the paradigm of the industrial revolution. You are not thinking about the way most women and men perceive the world. Dynamics and complexity are more difficult to model and understand considering our limitations of linguistic syntax.

Every paradigm of making has its own limitations and they are more system defined than user defined, there are limits to who can use them. As medicine and science grew they became much more system defined because of the differentiation of education and industrial capital practice they became more and more exclusive. For myself art was the last place that potentially you could take that chance to undifferentiate and continue the individual practice. With only 2 types of modeling up to the end of the 20th century: Stereotonic building with stacking and Tectonic building which is framing, there was nothing that could show you haptically the complexity of living and dynamic systems. I felt it was important to develop something to help people learn the language of complexity and dynamics systems.  A system based on how the body works (from the anatomic to the molecular), how informations space works, how microcosmic and macrocosmic space behave. I developed the Citroid system and ZOOB play system as a pedagogic trojan horse to introduce learning and play for both the bottom up and top down learning processes.  I felt without the pedagogic foundation for my work, I would always be stuck in the hermetic high culture limits of explanation, exploitation and connoisseurship.


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