Wendy Levy is the Executive Director of the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture. She is also a Senior Consultant with the Sundance Institute, the Founder of New Arts Axis and was previously the Director of the MacArthur Foundation-funded Producers Institute for New Media Technologies at BAVC. During her long parallel career in restaurants, Wendy waited on the Dalai Lama and Bruce Springsteen. “When I got the call that my short film had gotten into Sundance, I was waiting on Robert Redford at Chez Panisse.”
We spoke to her from her home in Oakland, California.
What were the things that obsessed you at ages 5, 15 and 30?
At 5 I was obsessed with Go-Go boots and fringe leather jumpers.It was pretty much the only thing I wanted to wear to school, Go-Go boots and fringe leather jumpers. At 15, my interests started to shift, and I became obsessed with girls and activism at the same time. I was a kid in Brooklyn and I was going door to door collecting money for the United Farm Workers. It was years before I could vote and I was collecting signatures for George McGovern for President. So it was that combination of discovering I was gay and discovering I was a closet hippie activist, and figuring out how to be that. I was a bit of a late bloomer, so when I was 30, I finally figured out I needed to be filmmaker, so I went to film school. I had just learned about something called my "Saturn Return.” I was like, “This is it, this is my Saturn Return, whatever the fuck that is. This is it.”
But really I knew I just wanted to be an artist. We used to have these things called employment agencies, that you went to to help you find a job before there was the internet. You went in and you told them who you were and how fast you could type, and they helped you find a job. My first visit to the employment agency was when I was 17. They said, “What kind of job do you want? I said, I don’t care what kind of job it is, it just has to have the word "creative” in it.” Who does that? By the time I became a creative director many years later, I guess I finally had the job I always wanted.
And are any of these ideas still present in the work that you do today?
Every single one. If you look in my closet now, I have way too many pairs of patent leather Go-Go boots. Frankly I don’t have enough fringe leather jumpers. I didn’t manage to keep them, but I’m still obsessed. And I’m lucky enough to have a community of women, and a commitment to social justice that is embedded in everything my life is about. So in many ways it has all has fallen together – I can now finally make sense of myself.
What’s been the most personally satisfying moment you’ve ever been able to create for an audience?
Charlotte Lagarde and Lisa Denker had made this gorgeous documentary called, “Heart of the Sea.” It is about Rell Sunn, a very famous surfer from Hawaii who had died of breast cancer.. I said, “We have to do something in the real world!” I had 5 documentaries that I had programmed at the Castro Theatre, which fits 1400 people. So we got these native hula dancers, who chanted and danced as people were taking their seats and the lights were going down. They welcomed and called in the spirits before and after this movie. I was a sobbing heap on the floor at my own festival. I think it opened people up in a way that they had maybe never been before, before a movie in a traditional theatre setting. In Hawaii, they showed that film on the beach to thousands of people. Because I couldn’t bring everyone to the beach, I tried to bring a little bit of native Hawaiian culture into the theatre. For me it worked, and I can only hope that it was remembered by everyone else in that audience.
How do you stay creatively fit?
I mostly follow smart people around the internet – the people who are really telling some great stories and breaking the creative news – not chasing after what they’re saying, but being there with them as they’re saying it. I try to stay involved in those conversations where the ideas are sparking on the fly – not getting at them after the fact.
I also schedule time with myself to think deeply about new ideas. I don’t book up my day with outward facing meetings. I know each day I need a little bit of time just to think. And I embrace writing as a practice. It keeps me in a consistent and persistent creative space. Since so much of my creative practice has been mentoring other artists, I have to make sure I stay fit myself. So I just do it.
I have a little bit of that in me. I also have a motor mouth.
What do you do when you get stuck?
When I get stuck in work or in life the main thing I do is walk. I walk till my feet are bloody and hurt. I just walk with my dog as far as we can go until we collapse. And there’s always a moment there. I just create a vision quest moment for myself. It’s my walkabout. I get out there and make the discoveries that need to happen. I was married for 21 years. My marriage fell apart which was one of the darkest moments of my recent past. I got through it walking. Just being out there in the world figuring out my new place in it. So that’s what I do. The other thing I also often do is clean the house – which is a version of walking, really. I’m slightly obsessive about needing clarity in my space. So, I put on a pot of chicken soup, I clean the house – and it all seems like it will be right with the world. But walking is what triggers those creative discoveries that I need to make.
When is a computer a really useless tool?
It’s useless when I am out to dinner with friends and just eating and talking. And having sex. I’m not into computerised things. I love my computer so I don’t find it a useless tool most of the time, except as when it becomes a barrier between me and other people At the movies, I don’t want my computer, except that I know the computer might have been used to make the movie. So it’s not a useless tool. So when do I not need my computer? Restaurants. Hikes. Sex.
What type of technologies do you think will matter to us in 10 years’ time?
I have no real idea. I think mobile is going to be persistent. I think everything on the body is going to get even more deeply embedded. And I think anything that protects the earth, hopefully is also going to be very big. It’s like the way we were thinking of paperless offices a number of years ago – I think of us being unencumbered by keyboards and mice and devices, that we are in a seamless kind of computational universe that facilitates deeper 1 on 1 connections. Hopefully that’s where we’re going. I still think the cell phone as an extension of our bodies, 10 years from now will still be there. But it will look different.
I’m getting to the point where nothing would surprise me anymore. This notion of the smart house that you can talk to – like The Jetson’s, it’s hard to know if that will happen. But considering we’re staring in the face of the grave climate change impacts, it could set us backwards more than we know – depending on what hits and when and where. Everything is progressing and so there’s a natural arc of things. But my personal arc – and this may be because I’m getting older and I’m in a very different age demographic than I was before – but I totally believe in the future and I’m very optimistic.
We were talking about the Oculus Rift earlier and how there’s great potential there to connect people, but that it’s not quite a communal experience yet.
Virtual reality feels like a kind of ego driven technology. It’s like, “Look at this cool thing. Wear this thing on your head and you’ll be put into this amazing world we created for you. The problems with basic anthropology are bubbling up and we’re not thinking deeply enough about the cultural implications of that technology. I mean it’s good, its cool, let’s work it out. But to me, AR is just a little more interesting and fluent and full of potential. But that’s just me.
Something to remember about me, is that I’m also physically risk averse. Whereas I’m very intellectually and emotionally risk-open. I don’t like sports on wheels and I don’t like roller coasters. So all of the Oculus stuff that makes you physically ill, like, "it’ll be like you’re flying,” I do not want that feeling. I am not jumping out of a plane. I’m walking on the ground. For others that may be too slow and too mundane, but for me, I like my feet on the ground.
When have you worked with a technology and realised that it just doesn’t cut the mustard?
I guess VR is really the thing for me that doesn’t cut the mustard – yet. I think the work that Nonny de la Pena, Chris Milk and others are doing is – in many ways, phenomenal. With Chris’s interactive piece The Wilderness Downtown, being on the street where you grew up gave you feeling of being fully present in the work. It was a profound experience for me. But VR to date, not yet, but maybe it’s only because it’s too early in the lifespan of the technology. The artists who are working in VR have had the courage to launch these experiences that are experiments in form and content, but if cutting the mustard means immersing/transforming the viewer – for me, its still a journey. Some artists are devoted to it, so I think a few years down the road, mustard could be cut with VR. Its a wait-and-see.
There are also so many apps that get developed that make you wonder why. They have such a short shelf life, such limited impact and limited joy factor. And often they’re only there to sell a product. I wonder about all the resources that get used to make stuff like that, and in the end those are the things that don’t really cut the mustard for me. It feels like a waste of human creativity. And they’re not generating abundance or happiness or anything like that. You have to wait a long time between the ones that are exciting, dynamic and useful. But I guess that’s part of the process. I’m becoming more and more underwhelmed with technology. In some ways that’s a good thing, because it’s becoming more ubiquitous. I have threatened to go back to making ceramics in the basement if this is where things are going. I like thinking about getting more entrenched in analogue.
What’s a technology trend that you’ve observed that looks like trouble?
It’s funny because to me, VR doesn’t look like trouble – maybe because it’s such a singular experience. I mean the more connected we all might become, the more troublesome it could be. Glass was the most troublesome thing of recent big launches, because of the surveillance factor. The notion that you could be secretly filmed in plain sight. The one thing it had going for it that kept it from being too much trouble is that you could tell who was wearing Glass, and you would stay away from them and not participate the act of being surveilled. I think those technologies that are most troubling are the ones that are easily co-opted by perpetrators of crimes agains humanity. Every time we develop a new technology, people have to realise the tools developed to connect us can also be tools for capture, torture, and other very bad things. I can’t really think of anything that looked like trouble to me more than Glass did. That said I think I can see the future of something like Glass in collective medicine. I love the idea of a surgeon doing a new procedure through Glass, getting all this information that she might need to heal this body. And you can be connected to the world and to other surgeons. And you can be co-present with another doctor at the moment of the cutting. All of that is really powerful. But anything that reeks of intervention in personal space is trouble. Where the person being watched has no agency. That’s trouble to me. Big trouble.
It was really interesting in Australia observing what was going on with Glass over there, particularly near Silicon Valley where you are. I read a few articles about fights breaking out in bars because someone was wearing it. That it actually became a very divisive thing. That there were the Glass-wearers and the non-Glass-wearers.
Right, absolutely there was. They tried really hard to embed it in fashion, getting all these fashion designers to design around it. It’s such a privileged position to release technology that is completely not for the majority of the world. That, the economic inequality that we’re dealing with in the world right now.Technology is such an indicator of how things are falling apart and who has access and who doesn’t. For example, the fake internet that Facebook and others want to create in the developing world. It’s like, “Give poor people access to the real internet, not some fake environment where you think you’re online but you’re really on Facebook.” That’s not technology for good, that’s technology for profit. Where the poorest people in the world are only your customers and you don’t care about their freedom of expression.
I mean my big thing is earrings, right? So give me a pair of earrings that has a little thing in it that augments what’s around me. I love the idea that any kind of technology can enable you to experience art wherever you are.
And it doesn’t feel like we’re that far away. Companies who make that kind of technology often care about innovation and the economic realities – making money. Thinking about technology for art, for good, for humanity – it just doesn’t get made with the same fluency or impulse. Because the economic model isn’t there. That’s why my crew does what we do.
We’ve been working on the Oakland Fence Project, a large scale augmented reality photography exhibit in Oakland. You’ll walk along this large chain link fence lined with 6 foot tall photographs by Oakland photographers about the issues and people and and everything that’s going on in Oakland. You can hold up your phone to any particular image, and the app will trigger a one-minute story, the subject will start speaking right to you. After you hear the story, you’ll be able to purchase the photograph from the artist or volunteer with the organisation and or make a donation. We’re creating this responsive community frame around the pictures as a proof of concept that art can facilitate change in these really powerful ways. Tribeca New Media Fund was generous enough to give me a grant for the project then set up all these industry meetings. I met Lisa Steiman, who is one of the leads at the Google Creative Lab in New York and she’s said, “Come, talk to my team about the stuff you’re doing.” I’m like, “How many ways can I say yes to that? The next day I was there. It was just one of those magical moments. So I talked about the Fence project and the other work that we’ve been doing through the NAMAC Innovation Studio. I was just so great to have all these developers around the table asking questions. They have a power to make stuff happen. And I’m not anti-Google, I think Google’s great. They have a lot of people who work there who care deeply about what’s going on in the world. Anytime I get the opportunity to spread the word of technology + artmaking + activism – I jump at it.
When do you say no?
I say no when I’m offered shellfish or okra. Shellfish because I’m allergic, okra because I hate it. I say no to work for profit companies, for whom people are only customers. Now I run a not-for-profit, so it’s not so much of an issue. But I spent the last 3 years consulting and every now and then a for-profit project would emerge. They’d say "Oh Wendy, we heard about your work, we’d like to work with you.” Then I would look at what they were about, and really they just wanted me to put my creative juices towards selling a product. That’s it. And there’s no double bottom line. That’s when I say, “No.” I could make a lot of money there, but I really need to know I can feel happy about the work when I wake up in the morning. So shellfish, okra and just plain selling shit – it’s not my thing.
Now that we’re here, what’s the most disappointing thing about living in the future?
I’m not disappointed about living in the future. Maybe the absence of the bodies of my elders is what’s disappointing. I really, really enjoy relating to people older than me because it enables me to stay in my middle age, in the magic of this time. You’ll find when you hit it. I’m in my 50’s. There was a really, really extraordinary sense of personal power that came over me when I turned 50. I thought 40 was going to be where I found it.
But as I get older – and yes, people are living longer – but my elders just aren’t here anymore. I have no grandparents. I’m grateful my mom is still around. The only thing right now that’s disappointing is the knowledge that there’ll be fewer and fewer bodies of the elders. They will be inside me, so that’s comforting.
I should also say that there is the huge disappointment that is the havoc that we have wrecked on this planet. That we know now is irreversible. The kids that I know now, unlike the kids I knew 25 years ago – the kids growing up now have a palpable fear of whether they will have an earth to inhabit as they get older. They’re growing up in climate change and it’s overwhelming. I still hesitate to be disappointed about something that has yet happened. I was born under a bit of a lucky star, so my persistent optimism is going to keep me going. Hopefully that’s the reality we’ll be able to create.