Design Notes · · 18 min read

How Machines Help Us See Ourselves: Harvey Moon, New Media Artist

On getting to know your tools and the art only technology can create.

How Machines Help Us See Ourselves: Harvey Moon, New Media Artist

In this episode, Liam speaks with new media artist Harvey Moon in his San Francisco studio. The duo discuss how Moon’s work reveals unseen properties of the world around us, the process of creating one’s own creative tools, and the kind of art that’s only made possible through collaboration with machines.

Liam Spradlin: Harvey, welcome to Design Notes.

Harvey Moon: Good to be here.

Liam: So, to start off with, I’m going to ask what brought you to your current work. And also, how do you think the journey there influences the kind of things that you make?

Harvey: I think the journey started in the dark room. My father was a photographer. And when I was growing up, he built a dark room for my sister and I in the basement. And I use to spend hours and hours in there. And I feel like there was a lot of freedom and constraints in that tool, in that process, and I really fell in love with it. All of the techniques that you could experiment with and all of the different types of cameras and really the history of photography really excited me.

And as it started to evolve and digital became a lot more prevalent, the process and the art evolved with it. And so, the way I thought about photography in the dark room was very different than how I started thinking about photography digitally and how I started working with photographs using a computer and not a dark room.

And so, there was some organic growth. And as different things started fading in and out of my interests, it would combine in different interesting ways and kind of produce a new trajectory. And so, I don’t think I ever really had an intention of the work I would make today. It all sort of happened piece by piece just following different passions and putting them together. Um, but I think photography is really the, the beginning and the core of where, you know, a, a lot of my love for technology, and tool making and that process of making a final product really started.

Liam: So, you describe your work as being centered on the ways that technology can mediate how we perceive the world. And I want to start by getting in to what you mean by that.

Harvey: Yeah. I mean, it’s a big one. So, I think if you trace back a lot of the pivotal inventions that we’ve relied on, they’ve really extended or changed our understanding of the world. We can go back to photography and think about Muybridge and how he would use photography as a way of seeing things that we could never have seen otherwise. And now we kind of take that for granted. We know in our mind what a slow motion video looks like or what a horse looks like as it’s running.

But we couldn’t have known that unless those techniques had been invented. And through that, we were able to see beyond our own potential. You know, I, I was really driven to photography for that reason that you could perceive time in a different way. You could freeze time. You could use it in a sequence in creating animation and changed your duration of your experience of time.

You know, Henri Cartier-Bresson would talk about the decisive moment. There was always this one special second that you could only capture with a photograph. A photograph now is so drastically different than the way we can perceive the world, but we’re so accustomed to this that we have a, a really understanding of what a freeze frame is.

Liam: So, as you mentioned, there’s the idea that technology has historically been about extending our capabilities or unlocking new potential for us as humans. And I’m interested in how we can remain aware of those influences.

Harvey: I think it’s really important to recognize that everything we do has some impact on us. It’s kind of a collaboration where you collaborate with the tool or the machine, and then the tool sort of teaches you what it’s capable of. And we all have this relationship with a camera, or with a pencil, or a, a paintbrush, or if you’re a writer, a typewriter. We have … We learn how to use it. We learn how to type. We learn how to change your f-stop. We understand, you know, what pressure to give on your, on your paintbrush. We learn those things over time, and we learn what a tool can do and can’t do with those abilities.

And we kind of get this relationship. You have a favorite camera and you know just intuitively how it works, and it becomes a part of you. Your eye can just see through the lens. And at a certain point when you’re good at typing, your thoughts can just extend into the page.

So, I think we have this constant relationship to our tools that we kind of ignore and forget about, but all of those tools end up influencing how we use them. There’s only way to use a pencil, and you can’t go sideways. And you only have a certain number of letters to work with in language. And I think these sort of tools have constraints built into them that we should recognize when we are using them.

You know, a typewriter or the keyboard we see today was made to be slower because of how typewriters would jam if you type too quickly. And so, nowadays, we’re maybe limited by how our history of this invention has dictated our use of it. Whereas, we know there’s other faster ways of inputting text, but we’re kind of at the mercy of these technologies that have become so pervasive.

And I think it’s a really difficult question, because it’s really impossible to see how people will respond once they become accustom to it. And that’s why some things like cameras, which have been around for so long, have morphed into this tool that we’re really comfortable with. It fits your hand. It didn’t use to. It had to be done over years and years of experiment, and practice and trying. There’s no way that the original photographers could have imagined that a camera would be in everyone’s pocket.

So, it’s impossible to know what effect these technologies will have ten or 20 years down the future. But it’s important to recognize what impact we currently are having with these, at least to think about ten or 20 years down how it will impact everyone. And I think it’s hard to be aware of the momentum that can happen when something becomes so ubiquitous and the good or bad side effects of how those sort of technologies will start mediating the world. Probably an important topic for Google to consider. You know?

Liam: Absolutely (laughs).

Harvey: Like, these sort of tools are extremely powerful, and decisions that are made today will definitely have a lot of consequences, good and bad, ten years down the line. And it’s impossible to know, like, how the world will respond and reflect on these technologies.

Liam: You talked about the evolution of the camera and how it went from this, like, very manual large thing into something that fits quite naturally into your hand and seems like a natural extension of your expressive capabilities in some ways. I think we think about taking a picture as capturing something accurate when in fact it’s like a representation of something accurate. I guess I’m wondering how you think about, uh, the way that our relationship and understanding of the thing that we’re creating with the tool has changed because of how we’ve changed the tool, if that make sense.

Harvey: Oh, what is the feedback loop.

Liam: Yeah. Since cameras have become so easy to use, maybe we’ve lost sight of the fact that you can create something with a camera that is unique and cannot be captured in another way.

Harvey: Well, I think there is a couple points there. I definitely notice a different value to images. Before when I would work in the dark room and you were shooting 35 shots to a roll, you had some sense of value with each shot, you know, actual monetary value because this shot would cost money for film, and processing, and, uh, chemicals. And so, you knew that each picture you took was limited, and ephemeral, and, you know, it was on something physical. And that, in a sense, gave it a different weight of value. There was only negative that could exist.

Once we went digital, it really shifted our perception of these images and, and this sort of media into something that was a lot more readily available. So, I think, uh, you know, when we’ve shifted to a digital realm, we’ve taken accessibility and ubiquity over the individual, the physical, the tangible.

Liam: What do you think the implications are of that?

Harvey: Well, I think there’s, there’s a couple things. I think it’s a natural growth. I think there’s always going to be a time that we become accustom to our technologies, our tools, and then we can grow from that. And it extends our understanding of the world, and then we push you even farther.

It’s similar to, uh, photography. Telescopes have been a really great way of, of us to extend our vision beyond what we were capable of. And so, once we get an understanding of what’s possible and what’s up there in the sky, then our understanding, we reach this level of, “Okay, well, there’s a universe we’re in. You know, there’s a black hole in the center.” And now we’re able to photograph black holes. So, I think there’s some really interesting growth that we just have where we will become accustom to it, and then we just yearn more and we’re always growing and evolving with these tools. As I said before, like, digital technology has made us value these images less, but it’s made it a lot more accessible.

Liam: Yeah. Totally.

Harvey: But, yeah. I mean, I think who am I to say what is, like, a good outcome or a bad outcome based on these technologies. I think it’s inevitable that we’re going to grow and incorporate these tools into our lives and then add more and extend our ability even further. And I think we’re never going to be satisfied with our current level of understanding our reality. We’re always going to push our abilities and our senses farther into the universe.

Liam: (laughs) Speaking of the universe, (laughs) it strikes me that your work also deals a lot with our relationship to more fundamental aspects of existence like time and space. In particular, the slow scan project seems to be concerned with how we experience time and place and also using technology to, again, expose to a way of looking at these fundamental mechanics in a way that we couldn’t before. So, first for listeners, I’d like to get a description of what slow scan is.

Harvey: It’s a software-based video work that continuously grabs from security cameras around the world. It takes 12 hours of historical imagery and it collapse it into a single frame. So, what you see in the photograph is a bunch of interspersed slices, each one a different moment that consecutively creates one photograph. And in that image, you’ll see both sunrise and sunsets simultaneously.

And in the live version, which I have a couple on the wall you can see, it will continuously update throughout the day. And so, you’ll never have the same image twice. And that image is constantly flipping through hours of the day. So, I think with our understanding of time, we can only really perceive it in one way. We can only perceive time linearly. And there’s no other way that we know how without the help of tools to experience time or flash back in time. And we can never go in the future.

I was thinking about new ways that we could use tools to extend our ability of sensing time and existing by putting time together and making new layers of time that shows how things can change and adjust in a way that we couldn’t perceive before. There’s another piece that, that’s kind of similar to that. I had … I don’t know if you’re familiar with The Drawing Machine Project. Did you see some of that?

Liam: Oh, yeah.

Harvey: So, these are all robot created drawings. And so, one of the more recent drawing machines I had was a robot installed in Antwerp. And it was in a six month installation in a museum where the robot would be hanging on the wall and drawing one line per day. And each line was about five meters long, and it was sensing the amount of light that came into the space. And so, over the course of six months, you would see the seasons adjust the length of the day represented by this line. You couldn’t see the pen moving. If you walked up to it, it was moving so slow that for any of us to look at it, it would look like it wasn’t moving at all.

But I don’t think the piece was for that experience. It was for you to come back a few weeks, a few months later and to see that progress and to recognize that we could not make a work like this. This work could only be built in a six month continuous drawing 24/7. And that level of existence of time is way beyond our understanding or our perception but in a very simple poetic way.

Liam: There’s something in there about, like, in contrast to using technology to augment our own skills. In some cases we allow technology to take on its own skill by itself.

Harvey: Yeah, so I think, you know, people have asked me this a lot with my work, especially with The Drawing Machine Project is, am I trying to put artists, you know, out of business. Am I trying to build tools and machines that make art obsolete? And I think I mean to do quite the opposite. I intend to show what we’re capable of in relation to what a machine might be capable of and how we might approach the same issue in a completely different way.

And through seeing those differences, we can start to recognize and appreciate the sort of things that we’re really good at. Uh, and I think we can continuously see that. I think with … especially with a lot of this AI machine learning algorithms we’re seeing today, there’s always some uncanny valley of what it’s able to do and what we’re able to understand. And it further accentuates our differences and what our abilities are in relation.

So, I think there’s a lot of fear these days about, you know, like is our technology taking over our skills and abilities and what we’re good at. And I think there’s always going to be room for us to show our strengths and to recognize what a machine isn’t correct for, isn’t good for, or what are some things that technology can teach us about ourselves or how we interact with it. I think there’s more lessons to be learned than existential dread to be gained out of the technologies that we have in our world.

Liam: Sure. Perhaps by creating a robot that creates art, we might discover something new that we can do. And there’s also, like, a question about who did create the art. You know?

Harvey: Yeah. I’ve really liked that question. I don’t want to answer that question.

Liam: (laughs)

Harvey: I’d rather that question be open. And, and I’ll say that the way I think about it is like a collaboration. So, you know, when I build a, a machine that draws, there’s a lot of trial and error and changing to my code and my algorithms. And I feel like the intention and the idea is never … it’s never something that I completely know. I, I always have to leave something up to the machine. And there’s always some play that I’ve built in so that something unexpected will trigger another insight or another interesting element.

So, I’m never trying to build something that’s perfect. You know, if I was thinking about that, I’d be building printers. I’m, I’m building a drawing machine in, in the way that I want it to be drawing and producing something as it, as it builds. So, for me, I always see this as, like, a partnership where I kind of embed my idea. I’m the architect of what should happen. But once it’s released and once I start it, I’m hands off and I let the machine run its course and fulfill the algorithm as best it chooses. Sometimes that takes months to complete a drawing. Sometimes it’s just a few weeks. And it’s sometimes hard for me to know how long it’ll take. But I really like that sort of anticipation that it’s not all me controlling everything that’s going on.

And I, I like to kind of relate it to the work of Sol LeWitt who use to make these wall drawings. And the wall drawings were a really interesting conceptual project where he would write the instructions for what the artwork would be and he would send them to the museum, and it was up to the museums installers to interpret those instructions and create the work. And he would create a detachment between the idea and what the work ended up being.

And I feel that relationship is really prominent in software generated art where the idea becomes the machine that makes the art, in his own words, where the idea is the code and, and the algorithm that starts it. And the work that comes out is, is kind of the epitaph of that process.

Liam: So, do you believe that the code and the machine are art themselves?

Harvey: Absolutely. The way I, I like to think about it is the machine is enacting a performance. So, in a gallery or in a museum, you can come in, watch it create the work and perform its action. And so, in that case, it’s a sculpture. It’s performing the work. And then the drawing is really just an artifact. It’s a representation of what happened.

Um, so there’s layers to it. There’s the process. I want to be more transparent, and I want to reveal what created that piece. And I think one of the really important things about it being a drawing is that you’re embedding a space and time into the piece. So, whereas a digital piece can exist indefinitely and infinitely, a drawing can only exist in one place at one time. And it took time to create. And I like to make sure that each piece is embedding a little sense of its own place and time of where it was created. That might mean incorporating data sets of what’s happening around, whether it’s light, or radio frequency waves, or some sort of external input that informs the drawing and embeds that sort of sight specific time and space into the piece. So, each drawing ends up being completely unique and based off of where and when it was made.

Liam: We’re recording here in your studio, and behind you on the wall is a drawing that you pointed to earlier that’s composed of a lot of lines and curves. And I want to get a little bit better idea of how that was made and what it’s made out of.

Harvey: Sure. So, that project is called Sinew, and it was series of drawings that was made using a software defined radio. So, a software defined radio is a fancy car radio that you connect your computer. And instead of hearing audio, it listens to the digital signals transmitted through the airwaves. And you’re able to tune it not just to the radio frequencies but also to GPS, or wifi, or Bluetooth, or GSM or all sorts of different radio waves that permeate through our world.

And they’re completely invisible. And all of these technologies and all of these frequencies that we rely on are flowing through us and through our world constantly. And the project was an aim to visualize those invisible muscle structures or the invisible sinew that kind of makes up our world. And the project grabs this data set wherever it is and in real time converts it into a line drawing.

Harvey: We’re actually taking that data and interpreting it into an abstract representation of that data. So, you’re not going to be able to look at it and say, “Okay, that’s a wifi and that’s a radio.” But it is informing the line work and how these lines are put together. And so, what you see is this very unique formation of the current spectrum in that area. And here in San Francisco, there’s a lot of activity. So, everywhere I do this piece, you get a very different result. And I think there’s something really interesting about the time and place of those invisible frequencies embedded into this project into this final drawing.

Liam: We talked about how when you approach a tool, like a paintbrush or a typewriter or something like that, that over time through your experience with that tool, you learn certain things about its behavior, and capabilities, and how you can use it to create things. And I’m interested, again, we’re sitting in your studio and there’s all sorts of things around like moving and blinking. And it strikes me that you work with a number of different tools. And I’m interested in what you’ve learned from these unique tools that you choose to work with.

Harvey: Well, that’s a big one. I think it becomes a bigger question, because more and more things are being invented every day that I have to keep an eye on-

Liam: (laughs)

Harvey: … (laughs) and keep note of. I think I’ve always considered the tool as a means to produce an idea or to fulfill a project. And so, it’s always been conceptually based initially. And then I’ll try and find or invent a tool that fills that need. So, I try to be a little more proactive about what best fits what I need to convey. And that starts an entire process of creating, and learning, and generating this tool and working with it. And it might take years before I get to where I feel like the idea has come to fruition.

And, you know, part of me really likes the slow process. But it’s really picking and choosing different pieces that eventually grow and become something. I’m never thinking about the tool first and saying like, “Okay, well what does this do? How does this change how I interact with it?” It’s more so like, “Okay, I’m going to make something new and see what happens when I play with this,” or, “I’m going to see what comes out because I made this change.”

Case in point, there’s an electronic drum set that I built behind you. I used to play drums for a number of years, and once you switch to an electric drum set it’s really a different instrument. Same thing with photography. The way in which you use it ends up really changing, and you don’t know until you start playing with it. And it’s not something that you come into expecting. You, you sit down and you, you start playing and you feel this totally different emotion about it, and you play differently.

So, I think it’s always kind of an unexpected. You have to be open to being playful. And, and especially if you’re making your own tools, you have to be open to failing with them. And, you know, I, I think there’s a lot of freedom when you’re making your own tools or software or hardware that you can kind of shape it based on your experiences with it. Um, if you can’t tell, I’m, I’m kind of a stickler for DIY. Like, I prefer to have that control. If I use someone else’s something, there’s always a little bit that I would wish I could change. And there’s always something that through using it, I feel like I could do a little differently. So, I end up sort of making my own tools for everything,-

Liam: Yeah.

Harvey: … everything that I do.

Liam: So, it sounds like you almost approach the interaction with the tool from the opposite perspective where you might say, like, if you were envisioning what we would call a painting, you might think, “I need something to deposit paint on a surface.”

Harvey: Yeah. And I think it’s much more, like, starting from a conceptual standpoint of, like, “Okay, I want to think about this, this process of painting as, you know, what does it take to make a gesture on a piece of paper?” And I’ve done experiments with, with painting machines. And I think it starts with like, “Okay, well what are the sort of physical influences that we put into a brush and how we hold it that I might want to see about emulating?”, or like, “What sorts of things can we, can we do really well that I might want to try with a machine and watch it fail or learn from that?”

Um, the painting machine was not a, a great painter, but it really kind of taught me a lot of, like, what it takes to be gentle with a brush or what it takes to understand the physicality of it. And you can see that sort of inhumanness in the paintings. It doesn’t have that sort of gentle touch that we do.

Liam: So, understanding that as humans we will never be satisfied, uh, by the amount of technology we have and the impact that we have made on our own skills and the world around us. As we move into a future where we have this constantly expanding set of technological capabilities, how do you see the concepts behind your work evolving?

Harvey: It’s important that we’re more conscious of how these tools influence us, because they’re only becoming more ubiquitous. The rate in which these technologies are becoming, you know, coming into our lives is only accelerating. And I don’t think people are spending enough time considering their effects or how much it’s changing our world and how rapidly. I think that formulation in my work is only going to become stronger. The value of being introspective about our technology is only going to be stronger.

I feel like, uh, I’m very excited about taking this approach with my work. And it’s really exciting that what I’ve been passionate about is only accelerating and continuing. And may-maybe a little daunting as well to keep up with the changes that are happening, but I think the statement and the intention behind my work is only becoming more powerful.

Liam: Do you think that our experience of the world is already being informed by the influences that these new technologies like AI and machine learning have?

Harvey: Absolutely (laughs). I mean, it’s naïve to think that we live outside of them. I think it’s … You know, I understand that maybe for some people they feel like it’s not influencing them-

Liam: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Harvey: … or it’s not impacting their daily life, but what’s happening behind the scenes that we don’t acknowledge is so huge. And without having that understanding or without having the intellectual curiosity of understanding or, or doing your research, it’s really impossible to see behind, you know, the curtain of, you know, what a, what a cloud really is. What is it that your data does when you pick up your phone.

I think it’s vitally important that people start understanding this a bit more, because we are so reliant on these tools that we’re really forgetting how important they are to our lives. And I, I think that’s a big part of what I want to do with my work is, like, recognize there, there’s a lot of invisible infrastructure that we rely on, we, we exist on. So, I think it’s vitally important that we are paying attention to the systems that dictate our world. And at least personally for me as an artist, I find it to be, I find it to be a social responsibility to make work about the systems that dictate the world we live in.

Liam: All right. Well, thank you again for joining me, Harvey.

Harvey: All right. Thanks for having me.

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