Scott Kildall is a new media artist who has been working at the intersections of art, technology, and education for the past 15 years. He works with datasets related to the natural sciences, questioning how they interact with human civilisations. We are very excited to welcome Scott, who joins us from San Francisco, for our four-week intensive course Data & Society. It will take place 3-28 June, 2019, at our home-base in Berlin. In this interview we talk about data as a medium, water, and being a human in today’s time.
Tell me a bit about what brought you to the work you’re currently doing. Did you always have an interest in working with data?
My dad was a famous computer pioneer and one of the gifts he gave me was the DNA of a math-scientist combined with a distinct curiosity about life. I taught myself to code in my 20s and ran a small software company during the early dot-com years. It was here that I begin to comprehend the structures of hidden data.
In the 90s, I quickly discovered the role of an engineer: solving technical problems and building things for the specifications of others, to be uninspiring. Also, because I have deep concerns about the economic inequality of capitalism, I never felt at ease in a corporate landscape, which is where this kind of work usually takes place.
I left that world and slowly got trained as an artist, embraced new methodologies for thinking, and built my life around creating artwork that repurposes technology in various ways. However, from my early years, that peek into the underbelly of code, the way things are stored, archived and who owns them, has stuck with me ever since.
Data used as a medium, how did this begin for you?
In 2012, I took a full-time job at the the Exploratorium, a world-famous museum of art, science, and curiosity in San Francisco and worked there for about 18 months as a New Media Exhibit Developer. I felt like I needed a break from the art world because I was bottoming out psychologically and this job was an opportunity to work with scientists and create exhibits in a forward-thinking institution.
Much of my work there involved co-developing interactive kiosks that involved data in some way or another, both on the screen and off for the Life Sciences Gallery. It was specifically the physical data visualization work I did that inspired me. For example, I worked on an artwork called Tidal Memory, which was a series of 10-foot high columns of water, 24 in total. I wrote code and developed electronics that scraped tide buoy data and pumped water into each column to match the current tide level. Essentially, it acted as a life-sized tide table, which changed each day.
When I left the Exploratorium at the beginning of 2014, I returned to making artwork and began generally to work with data in some form or another. Beginning with an art residency at Pier 9, Autodesk, I began working with code and digital fabrication, specifically 3D printing. I was amazed because I finally could easily combined the two practices: writing code and building physical objects into various forms.
I left that world and slowly got trained as an artist, embraced a new methodologies for thinking and built my life around creating artwork that repurposes technology in various ways.
New media art is constantly changing in relation to new technologies. As a technologist and artist, do you have a specific practice for consolidating your technical choices and artistic concepts?
For me, technology is like a material. I’m a generalist with tech and am very good at a lot of things: electronics, 3D modeling, code, fabrication, etc. but an expert in none. It’s relatively easy for me to quickly master an emerging technology and because I am self-taught, I pick up tools in a chaotic, unorthodox way. So, the technology itself is less important than how the technology expresses itself in current culture.
For example, this year I’m doing some new work in VR now because the tools are accessible but the field of artistic expression is still wide open. And, more importantly, VR creates a simulated physical space that feels like reality but it’s entirely like an interior psychological space, and so is rich in so many ways.
All my work involves the tension between territory and technology. As new technologies get introduced but before they are co-opted, territory — physical, economic, political and so on — reconfigures itself. It’s at this point that I try to leverage relevant technologies to make new work.
I’m just trying to do my little part, which involves bringing art to a wider audience. This teaches imagination and creative critique, which I believe helps with the political problems in a way that give people hope and helps shape an alternative future.
I see that fluidity is a major theme in your work. Using liquids as a medium in Cybernetic Spirits (2018), in Sonaqua (2017), sonifying water quality and in Water Works (2014) you investigate the water infrastructure of S.F. Is fluidity something you think about in your life and practice?
I’m more excited about water than fluidity. Water is the basis for all life and ecosystems. We tend to forget that waterways are interconnected. It’s an easy (free) material to work with but also so difficult because it leaks everywhere. The political issues are huge: ownership, containment, pollution and more. The aspects of water are so multi-faceted. So, it’s something that I’ve been returning to recently.
The Cybernetic Spirits artwork uses a similar technology with an entirely different conceptual framework. This work separates fluids from the body — using things like blood and breast milk — but also puts fluids like gasoline and kombucha into the same electronic organism, so it’s more about machines and the physical expression of fluids we worship than water issues.
Another major theme in your work, which you mention, is territory and technology. In one of your most recent works, Flagscape (2018), you use United Nations data to construct a virtual world of economic exchanges. There are no geographic borders, rather, a world defined by trade. How else are concepts of territory, boundaries and nations applied in your work?
The overarching theme for my work is around the interplay between territory and technology. Data is one part of this larger conversation. With Flagscape, I’m doing more explicit investigations around borders and national identity and looking at transnational trade in VR. As you fly around different pieces of data related to a particular nation, you hear that country’s national anthem. All of these sounds similar: puffed up grand gestures that utterly fail when you fly in VR free from military parades and border checkpoints.
With territory and technology, the artwork ranges from geographical processes to absurd gestures. For example, Strewn Fields, depicts how meteorite impacts data as etchings into stone. Asteroids don’t care about national boundaries and what this work does is to capture a one-time kinetic event — a rock descending from space and impacting the earth — as a static object that will last for centuries.
Other work such as Moon v Earth (2011, reprised 2018), is not at all a data-related work, but rather depicts a narrative of a moon colony run by billionaires which asserts its independence and then wages a war on Earth. As viewers, we see only fragments of the results (in the form of an analog-augmented reality artwork).
It’s sometimes hard to imagine how we can use and apply data to communicate certain issues and ideas. Do any previous student works which come to mind, which you can share with us?
I teach data-visualization in San Francisco to design students and there, we take a more traditional approach of starting with Tufte and introduce them to marks as symbols for expression of data. These students are completely new to visualization and are looking for careers in design, so it is professional-based with a practical inquiry into effective design techniques as well as talking about eye-tracking, bias and a host of other relevant issues.
My personal passion in bringing data-visualizations into physical space and the the most exciting project I’ve done thus far is working at an American Arts Incubator in Bangkok in 2017. There I taught a month-long workshop and produced an exhibition for 20 Thai students along the theme of river health and physical data sculptures.
Much of the process was around ideating and thinking through forms, doing experiments, and then finally producing the final exhibition. One effective project by the students was called “River Voices”, which was created in collaboration with members of the Ladprao community, who are affected by the health of the Chao Phraya River.
They conducted two interconnected workshops during the project development period. For the first one, they collected data through a t-shirt exchange where community members dipped their shirts into local canal water. They then printed a map with data collected from the t-shirts. For the second workshop, they worked with children from the community to draw their stories of river life and health. Finally, they designed “healthy ingredients” onto a “River Detox” logo, which they printed on new t-shirts and gifted to all community workshop participants.
Can you tell me about Xenoform Labs? How did this come about?
In August 2018, I left my part-time job at Autodesk, where I was running their electronics lab in their Pier 9 maker environment and was trying to figure out next steps. After some soul-searching, I decided to open up my home in San Francisco to artists from other parts of the world to experiment and shape new work, rather than to refine and show it.
I was inspired by the idea of doing something on a smaller scale and have ample space in my house for my own studio and hosting others. To make it simple, it’s an invitation-only art residency program for new media artists — people who work with art + technology with criticality — from outside of the Bay Area.
It provides free housing and a studio space for one month for one artist/couple. The studio includes digital media, virtual reality hardware, media production and light fabrication. I host events for the artists to connect with local thinkers, artists, and curators in the San Francisco Bay Area. The website is: xenoformlabs.com/.
I think there are two things that I’ve learned: first, take care of yourself and second, be open to all new possibilities.
Ok, let’s bring the questions back down to yourself as a human. What are some of the plans you have for the future? Projects, trips, some films you want to see!
There’s always so much to do! I am passionate about mountain biking, so wherever I go, I’ll be looking for that. I hear Teufelsberg in Berlin is a nice spot. For future projects, I’m putting a lot of time into working on audio synthesis with plants sensors, amplifying their electrical activity and creating outdoor concerts and synthesis. I’ll be collaborating on some of this with Michael Ang, an artist and close friend from Berlin in the coming months, and am super-excited to work with him.
This year, I have plans to work in Slovenia, Panama, and Thailand for this project and am particularly excited around engaging with the local people and natural environment.
You’ve traveled quite a bit! Can you share with us some of the things you’ve learned by working with peoples of different cultures, in different settings and with distinct ways of working?
I think there are two things that I’ve learned: first, take care of yourself and second, be open to all new possibilities. The first means that you do things like meditation or centering or having a comfortable pillow or whatever else you need to calm your inner self. I pay a lot of attention to my internal energy and check-in all the time. Then, you can go out and be a superstar with others.
When I mean open to new possibilities, what I’m getting at is that the reality of your experience will be completely different than what others tell you.
When I traveled to Thailand for the AAI project, I was told many things about Thai people, for example that they were always happy and that the culture was extremely patriarchal. Both of these things were not the case.
My Thai students were very close to American students in so many ways. I did discover other aspects that were distinct about my workshop, for example that if someone was stuck, that the others in the group who were faster would stop and help that person out. So, I later translated this into my workshops and teaching styles in more Western countries where this may not be the case since it helps keep the class going and is more rewarding for the group.
What is the change you want to see in the world?
That’s a tough one. There is so much. Right now, we’re in a very troubling set of times, with the rise of anti-immigration fears, climate change, economic inequality and so much more. I’m just trying to do my little part, which involves bringing art to a wider audience. This teaches imagination and creative critique, which I believe helps with the political problems in a way that give people hope and helps shape an alternative future.
For those of us who are interested in data, but are just starting to get our head around it, do you have any further readings, tips or projects to share?
Here are a few resources that are from several different angles:
I like the Data Stories Podcast.
There is a great wiki here on physical data visualizations
The book that I teach in my data-visualization classes is The Functional Art, by Albert Cairo.
For reading about Data and Society, the Bruce Schneier book, Data and Goliath is a must-read.
02 April 2019