Seb Chan is Chief Experience Officer at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. Before that he led the digital renewal and transformation of the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York from 2011 to 2015 and drove the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney’s pioneering work in open access, mass collaboration and digital experience during the 2000s. He has also worked as a museum consultant with institutions across North America, Europe and Asia; and was a member of the Australian Government’s Gov2.0 taskforce. His work has won awards from American Alliance of Museums, One Club, D&AD, Fast Company, Core77. He also leads a parallel life in digital art and electronic music.
He’s a bit of a legend in museum circles and experience design. We’re also lucky to work in the same building as him.
What were you obsessed with at ages 5, 15 and 30?
When I was 5, I was really into Lego in a massive way. It was the 70’s, and the Space Lego stuff had just come out. Which was really cool. We had the blue blocks and the little moon lander. The landscapes came later on. Those were really awesome. It was such an interesting time. And I was also obsessed with things like The Spy’s Guidebook (Usborne) which was a fantastic book for telling you how to be a spy, deciphering codes and all that stuff. It was really fun. I was a huge reader and I was always going down lots of wormholes with great fiction and pulpy stuff Choose Your Own Adventure books, Fighting Fantasy books came later in the 80’s – all those things by Steve Jackson on the edge of book and game. By the time I was in my early teens I was playing Dungeons and Dragons – as everybody was around that time.
We also got a Commodore 64 in 1984. Then over the next bunch of years, I learnt how to code and started to pull music and sprites out of games, and crack the copy protection. It was a big scene. One of the things that I got was this cartridge – Trilogic’s Expert Cartridge – which I left with the curators at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney actually – from the UK that would let you freeze a game while it was running, and let you pull it apart and extract all the bits out of it. So with these tools the C64 suddenly a ‘the box you could use to look at how someone had made a thing, and start to extract all the bits from it’. It was really cool. I used to wake up on Sunday mornings and get up early and play the 64 for about 4 hours instead of watching cartoons.
By the time I was 15 though, I became obsessed with music. I grew up in inner city Sydney, and going to a school that was very conventional, conservative – but in a heavily liberal arts-focussed way. I was into all these bands that none of my friends were into.
But also through the C64, I was doing some game swaps. I would take a box of discs to people’s houses. I remember around that time, a couple of years before I was 15, I was around at a C64 hacker’s place. He was older than me, and he was playing New Order’s, “Power Corruption and Lies” which had just been released. I was thinking, ‘wow, this sounded really different’ at least to what I was used to. Then after that I become really obsessed with – New Order and Depeche Mode and all that. It led me into the acid house thing, and the music of the Hordern Parties that were happening around the same time.
There was also Triple J when it was just available in Sydney – before it went national. It was all really intense music exploration. Music, dating, “school being school”. But I also became really interested in art and politics. When I was 15, I was going out with a girl who lived at the bottom end of Newtown. Which is actually where I ended up buying a house 15 years later – so I’ve really seen that area change. There was a great political bookshop there called the Black Rose. Later on, after I’d finished school, that became a really pivotal place for me to take in music and politics – sort of observing people and culture and music just at the moment that the anarcho-punks were getting turned on by sampling and drum machines.
By the time I was 30 though, I’d started working in a museum. I’d abandoned a PhD on the cultural geography of music. I had also been DJing as half of Sub Bass Snarl and doing community radio for 12 years by then. I was heavily involved in the Sydney music scene, and had just started at the Powerhouse doing museum stuff. I guess that’s where it all started to come together, where the ideas around the way the music that I was into, helped me to create these spaces. There was this American pop philosopher, Hakim Bey who wrote about the idea of the ‘temporary autonomous zone’ in the early 90’s which became a mantra in the fringe rave scene. The idea of the ‘temporary autonomous zone’ was this minimal space that got set up for a night where the rules dissipated. It was like in old times, where you’d go to the carnival and you’d put on your mask and it would you permission to change identity whilst in that moment. That to me was really fascinating. I was really interested in how music could shape that. I carried this idea from my mid-teens of being into music that a lot of other people didn’t necessarily like. I became obsessed with using public media – radio initially, and then a weekly club night – Frigid – that I started with some friends of mine. My DJing as well was all about exposing people to music that they didn’t necessarily like – or didn’t know they might like. Putting on parties and creating events came later in the 90’s but it was always about creating physical spaces where people could enjoy ‘music they didn’t know they liked’.
Then by the time I came into museums, there was a nice synergy. Most of the stuff that museums do, most people don’t know about. People don’t know they like this stuff, because they’ve never been exposed to it. So for me museums were almost like DJing in clubs or the events that I would play at or the radio show that I would make. It became sort of DJing with physical objects or DJing with stuff.
I guess a thread in all of my stuff is that I’m interested in the context that people look at the past or parts of our culture. That’s the thing that shapes how they feel about it. I think when museums talk about an object or a thing that they’re trying to show, it’s the context that’s the most important consideration. I was DJing up in Sydney a couple of weeks ago in a club and I could drop a track in the middle of the night unexpectedly, that would not work anywhere else, except for that moment. And it’s because of the context, and your ability to read the moment to play the right thing. I think museums don’t take account of the way people experience things, and the opportunities that that affords, enough.
After that, I became interested in all sorts of other things, from immersive theatre to VR and other things. And the biggest thing about growing up with the web that is that it is about connecting outwards, beyond your geographical borders. I think the international nature of the web, the internet – often gets lost. I think we’ve become quite hermetic in how we use the web. I’ve had similar interesting experiences in other parts of the world now, where you experience a completely different view of the web, that you just don’t see if you only use the English speaking web, or you have a very myopic lens on the English speaking web.
What’s your approach to an editing process? How do you decide what makes an idea good, better or best?
I guess you learn over time that most of the stuff you make is kinda shit and terrible. A lot of stuff that I made early in my career was kinda not great, but taught me something about the next phase of it. Not immediately, but leapfrog 5 years later and you’re like, “Oh yeah, – this is because of something I did like 5 years ago, and I’ve learnt from that.” I don’t like the idea of iterative linear work because it implies that you make an error, and then you learn immediately from that failure. I think it often skips a couple of years. One of the interesting things about DJing is that you’re always experimenting with an almost infinite pool of things. You combine things in new ways. It’s very much about trying the same element in a different configuration with the sense that you’re continuously building a configuration and that it’s moving through time. One of the beautiful things about DJing is that you can’t stop the music playing. It’s a bit like a Lego kit that continuously morphs. You start off with the thing you’re trying to build, maybe from the instructions. Then you keep remixing it. Some of what you make will be terrible. But you incrementally grow that. I guess my editing process ends up being very much like that. When I’m writing stuff I often use a plain text editor and just keep going with a continuous flow. Then I go back and move everything around. I’ve been really pleased that the interfaces for text editing have gotten more minimalist. Because it helps my process, which is less fiddling and then bringing it together.
I’ve been managing creative teams for a long time now, a decade plus. I’ve been really trying to coach other people to feel comfortable about getting just enough out there and public – and understanding that what is being made is inherently malleable. I think it’s very difficult for some people. People find it very hard to push ‘go’ on things, and that’s part of the editing process. You have to get it out there in front of other people. If you hold it back too long, it just withers and dies. I think within museums, that’s very difficult. Because working in museums is a bit like working on a stage production, where you don’t want to reveal what happens behind the scenes. But nowadays you have to.
It’s really about filtering the good and the bad ideas, talking about them with people and trying to poke at them over a period of time. Sometimes you have to make something tangible first. When my team at Cooper Hewitt was building the Pen Project, Aaron Cope, a good friend of mine, worked with me on it. He and I really were were all stuck in a jam for a long time. Aaron was like, “OK. I’m just going to make one. Give me time. I’m going to make a thing. It’s not going to be the pen, but just a thing. Because we can’t talk about this thing and get anyone else excited about it, until we have a thing that sucks.” And I was like, “Totally.” So once he did that it kickstarted it all. It was a good reminder that you need to kick the tires of something to figure it out – but you’ve got to actually make the tires first.
We feel very similar to that at Sandpit.
It’s so hard sometimes, don’t you think? People find it really difficult within an organisation or bureaucracy – that museums arguably are, or inevitably are. The permission to spend budget on something that you know you’re going to throw away. It’s often there if you ask for it, but people feel afraid to ask for the money because they’re thinking that it’s waste. It’s not waste. It’s essential.
I guess that’s what makes us lucky to be running a small organisation.
Yeah, you don’t have to convince a manager all the way up the chain who’s going to answer “no”. Fortunately I’m near the top of that chain now.. Through my career it has been increasingly about trying to get people excited about a thing that doesn’t exist.
What are the major differences between working in Australia and working internationally?
I think internationally, you get a better sense of what Australia’s good at. That’s been my experience. Australians often don’t see how good their own stuff is because they don’t have a lot of people to bounce them off. I would say that Australians (and this is a good thing) are modest about what they do. Particularly compared to when I was in New York. People would talk to you constantly about the things they are making so seriously. But Australian’s don’t. I think that’s a nice thing. New Zealanders, even more so. I think New Zealand and Australia are totally making great stuff, but we’re just not good at telling other people about it. Overseas, and particularly the US there is more confidence around the ‘possibility’ of doing something. Part of that comes from population size. Part of that comes from access to capital – real or imagined. It’s that sense that if it might be possible, it’s worth a go. I think in Australia, we often edit our ideas before they’ve got to a point where they should be edited.
I’d say that other parts of the world, in Europe and in Asia as well, that there’s more attention to the rest of the world. I think one of the things Australia could definitely learn, is to see the *world* as their market – if they’re making product, that their audiences are not just the people locally. Particularly with the stuff that I do. Really the opportunity is to make work at a global scale. That doesn’t mean abandoning the local, but it means not curtailing it to the local. What you might have as a really great idea, may not work locally. Which doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. You’ve just got to find a way to get it out. I think the internet is amazing for that. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there is no reason why the thing that you have made shouldn’t work well in China, even if it doesn’t work well in Chinatown, Melbourne.
A couple of years ago whenever my kids got stuck making things in Minecraft, they would go to YouTube first. Now when they get stuck with a maths assignment or whatever, they go to YouTube. And there’s always someone there explaining it better. And it’s often one of their peers. Someone the same age explaining it. It’s hard to imagine what we had before that. If you think about us growing up, we never had that. I think the global nature of the world is incredibly exciting. I think a completely locally focussed view of everything often misses the point of. There’s all sorts of terrible things about global capitalism, but that’s different from globalism.
What’s the most personally satisfying moment you’ve ever been able to create for an audience?
I would say there would be at least 2 answers to that question.
One would be me and a whole bunch of friends – we were putting on this fundraiser for a community radio station and we’d done this series of amazing parties called Freaky Loops. It was a fundraising series with big 6 room, massive parties, raising bucketloads of money for public radio. A lot of them ended at about 6 in the morning, and everybody just had an amazing time. They all featured this great, locally produced, weird music with about 5000 people there.
And of course finally launching The Pen at Cooper Hewitt. There’s a bunch of other stuff, but I think it’s those moments were most satisfying because you could see both a mass scale and an individual impact. That you see a whole number of people have been transformed by something you’ve helped create. And it only works because they have come along with it, and bought into it. I love the individual nature of that. That somebody went to one of the Freaky Loops parties, then 5 years later recalls that party as the moment that they got into this particular sort of music – or even started making their own.
All the stuff that I do with my teams is about having an impact that changes other people’s view of what’s possible in the world. It’s not just simply inviting visitors into an exhibition or playing them a certain piece of music at a party, it’s finding a way to use what’s available to get them to rethink what they are capable of doing.
How do you stay creatively fit?
There are a number of things. I keep track of what I do. I’ve been keeping track of every piece of music I listen to every day for the last 11 years. I try to see patterns in what I’ve done. I’m always looking for new things. I spend a large amount of money on music and media. I was reading this thing, probably about 15 years ago and made me really annoyed. It was this thing that said basically you stop listening to any new music when you turn 30. And I was like, “No way. I’m not going to be that person.” Being a DJ, you can’t do that. The article was based on some research some musicologists have done and said that once you hit 30, you start to listen to the music of your teens. In my case, because I’m a dad, I should get into “dad rock”. What you listen to as a teenager becomes what you pass onto your kids, right? So in my case, you make sure your kids listen to New Order and The Cure and The Smiths. And you’d get really excited when your daughter willingly chooses to put on a Cure song, instead of a Taylor Swift song. But that’s NOT enough – that just reinforces a generational feedback loop. Instead, as a parent you want to instill a curiosity for music far beyond what you were into as a teenager.
For me, it’s always about trying to find new pathways through things. I lean a lot on networks of recommenders, and I try to make those as broad as possible. Because I’ve always been essentially into music, that’s a really helpful way. Music is the sort of thing that triggers memory but can also be very ambient. You can listen to a lot of things through your day. And it’s not difficult to move out of your comfort zone. I’m always really interested in films and videogames but those are time commitments. I think one of the nice things about music is that it has that beautiful ability to be something that you can dip in and out of throughout a day. I think I listen to on average 50 to 60 songs or tracks a day. Every day. Over 11 years there have been peaks and troughs where my listening habits have gone up and down of course. But it’s always a largish amount of stuff. And most of that is new. I could probably give you the figures, but in 11 years the most listened to song has only probably been played about 100 times. I don’t listen obsessively to 1 thing. It’s the same with video games. I try and go across historical and contemporary video games, and then try to mine those for other vectors. I’m really obsessed with long form writing on the web, and how that’s come back – a sort of resurgence of blogging, but not blogging as it used to be.
Having kids now, I’m interested in cultivating a similar curiosity around the world. I think all the parenting advice that you ever get can be distilled into one thing. You have to model the behaviour you want your kids to do. So if you’re curious about everything, and excited about trying new things, your kids are going to be. If you don’t try different foods all the time, your kids are going to be fussy eaters. If you don’t listen to different music all the time, they are going to have fairly boring taste in music. I guess I have strong biological drive to replicate curiosity and a value system, an actually interesting one that requires a lot of negotiation.
How do you track it?
I’ve been using LastFM and using the scrobble function for 11 years. I’ve been very rigorous about making sure I actually use only a very small number of devices to manage my music. I remember when my father died, there were particular songs I listened to a lot. So I can just step back and I remember if I want to. I guess I think about the world in terms of sound, just because that’s how the world works for me. Software and code are about organising systems. Music is an organising system as well. Composition, notation, improvisation. All these things are about organising stuff. Music for me is a big memory trigger, as well as a space to reset moods. We don’t listen to music enough in physical space. I think museums are terrible at using sound design, to change how people feel in a space. But I think there’s amazing stuff that theatre and film doe with it. That’s another thing that’s kinda cool.
I scrobble everything. That’s a good one too, because it sends you off on these great tangents… Okay, so of all time – the most listened to song is 220 times over 11 years. And then it goes 196 times, 150 times, 111 times, 107 times. So by the time we hit number 6, it’s under 100 times – over 11 years.
11 thousand artists, or 10,959 artists. 195,000 songs over 11 years.
There’s some sort of crazy discipline in that.
This year I’ve played 14,000 songs. Last year is 16,000. The year before, 18,000. So it’s been coming down a bit. I’ve not been travelling as much maybe? It’s a bit harder to listen at work. When you work you switch from making things, to being in meetings then back to making things. You get less headphone time. Which is kind of annoying. It kinda sucks. The thing I don’t like about moving up the organisational tree, is that you have less headphone time.
When have you worked with a piece of technology and realised that it didn’t cut the mustard?
All the time. Every day there are things just suck. I mean everything is partially broken. I guess that’s part of the drive amongst all of us is – to make better things and improve the design of things, because we see the pain points that we and others are having with all the things we interact with each day. I would say though that overall, people’s design literacy has grown immensely. People are very aware now of bad design. Because we interact so much with our stuff. Every tool sucks in some way.
Actually, for me in the last couple of years, the thing that sucks the most has been batteries. Be it the batteries in your laptop, batteries in your phone, batteries in The Pen we did at Cooper Hewitt. Most of the design challenges at the end of the day ended up being battery life. Compromises because of batteries. I’ve actually just put a deposit down on a house with a Tesla battery and solar power. So the solar power feeds the Tesla battery. So I’m very interested in batteries all of a sudden. I think they’re going to be the next big thing. They have to be. Because it’s all messed up now. There hasn’t been a radical leap in batteries for such a long time. It’s a technology that has been the same for many, many years. I think the change that is occurring now is a huge revolution. The switch from oil to other forms of power will rely on storage of power and batteries will change the economy. It’s great – challenging what free economies are based on. There will be a lot of global challenges as a result of that.
What’s a technological trend that you’ve observed that looks like trouble?
I don’t really see technology trends in terms of trouble. The troubles come down to monetization and the influence that capitalism holds. I find the venture capitalist system and the way people invest in production of film, television and media through start-ups incredibly problematic. I think that there’s a separation of the creation of actual human value from the economics of funding. That is a huge problem. I think the growing inequality in all societies is a huge threat to many, many things. Being in America with the sense that you can raise money to make a thing that doesn’t actually have to be paid for by it’s users leads you down all sorts of very problematic paths. We see that all across the tech world now. The ability for companies to use venture capital to basically be under profitable, and undercut everybody else, until there’s no one left centralises wealth and power in the hands of an extremely minute number of people. And bad decisions get made. That’s usually problematic. How we get out of that, I don’t know. I think that’s something that I want people to be aware of – the economics of stuff. Be that in a museum, on TV, films, video games – how these things get funded matters. Because it affects what gets made, and people’s investment in them.
There was an interesting article that a Greek film producer, who made an independently distributed, independently made, self financed film in the UK. He published his entire financial accounts for the film he made. It was a traditionally non-independent film, a family comedy. Not like a big budget studio made film. Low budget, I guess a bit similar to ‘The Castle’. He made this film then and he published the accounts for it. It was fascinating. He was said that he was going to make the million pounds he invested in it back over 10 years. But he wouldn’t make it at all from people watching it in cinemas. He would get a lot of money back from the government, through tax rebates for making a film. Which underwrote a huge amount of it. So the public purse funded it. Most of the income comes from television sales, and the regionalization of those television sales. All the effort he went into was working with cinema chains to get the film screened in the way he wanted it screened in communities with large Greek populations. He did a lot of work with Greek media and working in communities to get people to come to the cinema to see it. But even if he’d maxed out those cinemas, he still wouldn’t have made his money back. So the whole economics of the system is very separate from the thing itself. Is that necessarily a bad thing? Maybe not. But it is not something that people are aware of. When people think about someone making a film, they think that you make your money probably from people buying tickets at cinemas. Then they get upset when they can’t stream it on their favourite streaming video service in their country of choice. But the reason they can’t do that is because they don’t make the money from the cinemas at all. They have to make the money from this territorialisation. Which goes against all the promise that a globalised world had. On one hand we’ve had neoliberalism pushing a ‘user pays’ philosophy across government and services. But in fact, it’s not user pays in most things. It’s just not. It’s a fascinating piece.
What do you do when you get stuck?
When I get stuck I go for a walk and listen to music. Basically it’s that simple. There’s something about music that triggers other things for me. And talking to other people. I think that’s the other piece of the pie. Sometimes you get stuck for weeks or months, and it’s terrible. It’s only through constantly coming back to things and talking about them and then reframing them that you can push through. Getting other people’s opinions. Also, trying to get to a point where you’ve actually made a thing. You have to have something, even if it’s a napkin sketch. The idea has to transfer from a thought into some physical manifestation. Doing The Pen Project at Cooper Hewitt really made me hyper aware of the importance of physicality in things, coming as someone who’s been making a lot of stuff with screens for a long time, and also a lot of stuff with sound.
We recently spoke to Tea Uglow from Google who said the same thing. Tea’s a big walker.
Yeah, you’ve got to get out and – I don’t know, do stuff. Move around.
When is a computer a really useless tool?
I would say it’s a relatively useless tool for emotion. I think that we’re getting better at using machines to convey and create emotion but they’re a relatively blunt instrument. I think we put a lot of faith in the quantification that inevitably comes with computers. It’s what computers do very well. But I would also say that a lot has changed. I think the mobile has really changed our personal relationship with the computer. When I think about a computer, I think about a thing that is in my pocket. I grew up in that period where the computer was a thing that was sitting on a desk you went to. Then along came 2007 and the iPhone. Which was really the first big shift to a computer being mobile. The iPhone really changed everything. Suddenly you were always online, and the idea that your computer was just there as a tool almost disappeared.
I think that’s left such a radical shift, that we’re starting to see other ways of conveying and expressing emotion through machines now. Which we didn’t have back then. But I would definitely say they’re still a bit crap at that. It irritates me that computers have become almost a blocker for emotions.
Like we’re hiding behind them?
Yeah, we hide behind them. We hide behind our screens. It’s just that the screens are smaller now.
I was studying and researching sub cultures in the 90’s as part of my PHD (which didn’t get finished). The sense now that you can switch some cultural allegiances through your device is amazing. That identity play is now so liberating. When I was a teenager you were either a Goth or a raver or a metal head – whatever. It was really hard to change. And you had to go to the record store, wearing the right clothes or else you couldn’t get the right records. Whatever it was. “Don’t speak to this person”, because they were from the wrong tribe or whatever. You can flip tribes now. It’s kind of amazing. I think the resurgence of identity politics and intersectionality is all possible now, because we can switch over so easily. It gives people the ability to test things out. For teenagers now it’s fantastic because you can try things. You’re not committed to them. You’re not making body modifications which are hard to reverse. You can play with yourself. You can play with your own presentation of self in a much more radical way now. With less consequence and more effect. To a lot of older people it’s incredibly confronting. But I think for younger people it’s incredibly liberating. I think my kids are going have much more fluid notions of everything. All the identity stuff that we grew up with is much more fluid now. And it’s become normalised that it’s fluid. And that’s just all round good. It gets rid of a lot of the messed up-ness.
I started doing community radio when I was in year 12. I switched over stations from Radio Skid Row, to 2SER, a much, much bigger station in 1995. At 2SER I did a radio show from ’95 to 2008, every week with my good friend Luke, who makes music with me now. Our radio show was this electronic show – somewhat experimental, somewhat not. And they put us on just before the hip hop show. It was great. What was really interesting was that the crew that tuned into our show in 1995 were very separate from the crew that was tuning into what was really one of the first major Australian Hip Hop shows in the Sydney Hip Hop Scene. It grew that Sydney Hip Hop scene. It was a show called ‘The Mothership Connection’. Miguel DeSouza had started that off a couple of years earlier and eventually passed it onto Mark Pollard, who ended up starting Stealth Magazine, and a whole bunch of other things. It was a very seminal moment in Australia – the birth of Australian Hip Hop at a bigger scale. Yet we would have listeners that would tune in for the last bit of our show, before the hip hop show. Listeners from my show and Luke’s show would flow into the Hip Hop show. Over the ’95 to ’98 period, there was a huge crossover of scenes. And it was hard core hip hop kids being exposed to music that they just would otherwise perhaps not have heard. The folks who tuned into our show were being tuned in to some really interesting music that they would not have listened to otherwise. It just completely recontextualised things. It was at the moment when trip hop was breaking through and drum and bass too. It just opened everybody’s mind. This is pre-Napster as well. You had to actually go to a record shop and buy the thing. When you went to go and buy that hip hop record, you had to be cool enough to be served to buy the hip hop record. Or even know what it was called. You had to go and ask somebody. There was no Wikipedia to go look it up. No Shazam. But now that’s all changed – the idea that you can dip into lots of things. You see this in a lot of the interesting new music that I hear. People are in their teens now making and releasing music themselves on Bandcamp and through other channels like Soundcloud. The influences that even the most mainstream bands have are way, way, way more diverse than you would have expected even 5 or 10 years ago.
I always think of music as being the canary in the mine. The changes you see in music flow through the rest of society, across everything else about 10 years later. It’s that same sort of identify play and magpie-ing lots of different things. The loss of preciousness about authenticity. Authenticity changes. And it’s not about authenticity to a style. It’s authenticity to yourself.
I think that’s really, really liberating socially. It’s liberating politically but incredibly threatening to those with more authoritarian world views – but that’s all good to me.