Life as a Lego Piece. Google’s Tea Uglow on life, the universe, and technology. - Sandpit

Life as a Lego Piece. Google’s Tea Uglow on life, the universe, and technology.

INTERVIEWS / 27 July 2016 - 17 min read

by Daniel Koerner

The very very wonderful Tea Uglow leads part of Google’s Creative Lab specialising in work with cultural organisations, artists and producers, experimenting with digital technology at the boundaries of traditional cultural practice – across theatre, literature, history, cinema, music, science and the circus.

We were lucky enough to work with Tea and her team at Google’s Creative Lab and Grumpy Sailor in Sydney on our project ‘Ghosts, Toast and the Things Unsaid’.

We spoke to Tea in Sydney about her musings on art, technology, where ideas come from and speculative dystopic science fiction.

What were you obsessed with at ages 5, 15 and 30? 

I have no idea what I was obsessed with at 5. Well, actually I was obsessed with appearance and fitting in. That was the most important thing. (laughs) Which is much more obvious now to me why that was so important. 

I don't really have much on my childhood before I get to about 15. At which point, I was completely obsessed with art, really. Late 19th century European and 20th century American art – a 70 year span. That was everything to me.

Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites – which is so uncool. All the way up to de Kooning and Pollock and Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg – which was so cool. But then I stopped abruptly with Lichtenstein and Warhol, who I never really understood or liked. 

15 wasn't a very concrete kind of age for me. But it's the first age that I had any sense of consciousness of anything. Of being an individual. And those are the kinds of very important, early things that you then go on to reject. But it was mainly art that I was obsessed with. And also getting into trouble, going raving and pretending that we were much older than we were. And learning how to lie to adults, which is a skill I have never lost.

30 was a point of quite significant awareness. Maybe everything in life is a point of awareness.

First of all, I'd just become aware that I didn't recognise faces which was a really significant thing to come to terms with. I had to revisit my whole life to understand what that meant. I'd spent most of my life kind of happily bumbling through it, genuinely not realising that I either did know the person I was talking to, or I didn't know the person that I was talking to.

And then creatively, it was the bit where I began to drop kind of any aspirations to be a traditional artist. I did a design management degree at night school. It was very important because I learnt all these ideas about the economics of business. And the politics of business and law, and contract law and copyright law. And organisational structure and the importance of diversity. And how to manage creative teams, and how to profile personalities. How to build teams out of sets of different things.

It was like being given a Lego kit. I had never really understood that before I was a Lego piece in a Lego box. And that was fine but I was aware that I wanted to move up and away from that.

I'd been involved in the internet across all of that period because we'd started our first dot com back in '99. And then that crashed. And so I moved in and out of tech throughout all that time, but I'd never really liked it. I did my first HTML lesson in '94.

The thing about technology is that I never liked it. I still don't really like it. Actually, I like it as a tool – something that serves the purpose to culture. That is the thing that I like it like about it. How we purpose technology to fulfil cultural outputs, or to move cultural ideas forward.

And a few years later, along came Google. And really the reason I was able to do the stuff with Google was because of all this design management stuff that I had done. Not because I was particularly creative or because I was remotely technical. Basically it was because I knew how to organise shit.

The work you do is often quite intimate and even humanistic. What's that like, working in the context of a large multinational corporation? 

Well it's fine. A lot of people at Google would probably say if things aren't going to scale to a billion users, then you probably shouldn't be working on them. But the problem with that model is that if you start by thinking about something that works for a billion users it has to be so simplistic. Then it becomes impossible to think about new ideas. Because you can't. If it's got to cover every person in every country in the world, how do you think about those things?

What a lot of teams do at Google is to start with a user, and build something for them. Then from that, you extrapolate and you strip away. It's an iterative cycle of development, that leads to interesting places. We create lots of little things that actually just begin conversations about how we should be thinking about things. 

An awful lot of our work at the moment is about the conversation. Because that's what culture does best. It starts conversations. That's what art and theatre does best. They stimulate thinking. Tools very rarely stimulate thinking about ideas. A spade very rarely stimulates thinking about ideas. You have to put it in Hamlet’s hand, and then it becomes a profound sort of icon. 

There are wonderful, delightful, magical new ways in which technology can be involved in all sorts of culture. In the time of Shakespeare, technology was rife throughout stagecraft. Because they were busy inventing stagecraft. Also throughout the history of painting, technology has been ever present – from the Renaissance to the Impressionists. 

Sometimes our experimentations with technology lead onto big things. Sometimes they turn into marketing campaigns. Sometimes they turn into sales tools. Sometimes they turn into recruitment tools. But we really don't start with that in mind. Nothing's scaled to a billion people yet. 

Yet. 

Yet. You can start with an audience of 2, and you never know. That's where you need to be looking to see things at things at a human scale. At a human scale, like 1 person, in order to understand how it might scale to millions or billions of humans.

What does the work you do mean in an Australian context?

Australia to me is kind of perfect. Well it's not perfect. In the past I've made fun of Australia because it's an extremely long way away from the rest of the world. That has its advantages and drawbacks. One of the advantages is that you can, if you care to do challenging work. Work that is genuinely intuitive, genuinely challenging and has a high risk of failure. If you want to do those kind of works, then this is not a bad place to do that. Because you can still find people who are willing to back that, and who have got passion and who have got ideas.

I think the drawback is that often that's not really the motivation for work. The motivation is to be recognised by large numbers of peers and be successful in London or New York. Or wherever it is that you think success resides. The magnetism of those places, means that a lot of talent does get drawn over there. But that's not actually my motivation. I think we're very lucky in being able to work in with very talented people in this environment. 

The other drawback is that people here think they're so far away, they don't try or don't think as hard. I think that people or creators in Australia sometimes underestimate their audiences, and don't think that they will appreciate things. Appreciate the depth and nuance that's possible.

You see it a lot on television. The same thing produced in a different country would actually just be rich in ideas and layers of thought and cleverness. And I wonder why that doesn't happen here. It's certainly not because the creators themselves aren't capable of it. It's certainly not because the audiences aren't capable of appreciating it.

When you do find people here who who create intelligent shows, then those shows almost always seem to be very successful. That's something I still don't quite understand about Australia – that it's set up to do really smart work that could play all over the world, and yet very often it pulls its punches intellectually.

What's been the most personally satisfying moment you've ever been able to create for an audience?

Okay, can I have 3 answers or 1 answer?

As many as you like. 

Okay great. So the work we did on the Google Art Project, I feel has had the biggest impact on the largest amount of people. I just can't help but remember myself as a 15 year old, cutting out paintings from art magazines with scissors – these tiny little things. Now with the Google Art Project you can see paintings in the most extraordinary quality. And the beautiful thing about it, is that it doesn't stop people wanting to go and see those paintings in real life. Because, in fact, it makes you want to see them even more.

To be perfectly honest, in terms of actual experiences, I'd put the Symphony Orchestra as one. The one in Carnegie Hall. Because I think everyone was scared shitless that it was going not work. With an entire 2000 seater audience and orchestra, we were just terrified that it was going to be really, really, really bad. Because we recruited all these people from around the internet. 

Digital can't replace the physical, whatever the information. That's a whole different question – whatever happens when you actually experience something. Digital doesn't make you not want to see a musician play live. In almost every example digital amplifies that desire to physically experience an artwork. So that is kind of cool because that now those artworks can reach millions of kids and millions of adults. It brings a world of art to them. So I’m really still very pleased with just being involved in a small way. 

There was a Romanian tractor driver, and a Korean heart surgeon. And they had been practicing for 3 days. We recruited them all through doing YouTube videos, and just no one believed it – they turned out to be really awesome. Not like world class, but really awesome. Definitely worthy of a Carnegie Hall moment. It was a spectacular moment. That was very cool. 

I feel like our project, The Ghost Project with Sandpit, was the most fulfilling. For me it was the most complete project that we've ever done. We set out to achieve something using technology – the idea of being able to hear the thoughts of an actor as you watch them. And to be able to switch between performers.

That we actually created something that can't be done. The theatre experience was rich and powerful. It wouldn't have been possible without this hidden technology. That to me is perfect. Where the technology basically amplifies and creates in a completely new paradigm for a theatrical experience. That was a really perfect moment for me.

How do you stay creatively fit? 

I walk a lot. I don't really go and see things, if that's what you mean. I'm not terribly culturally inclined. I do some things, but I don't consume a lot of culture. I just walk a lot. And I look at people and what they're doing, and what lives they lead. And I listen to myself and I listen to the things that worry me. Those things are interesting.

Seriously, I probably walk an hour and a half or 2 hours a day. Then I arrive somewhere and I ask one of my lovely team to do something. It's very weird. I don't even know how it works.

When have you worked with a technology and realised that it just didn't cut the mustard?

Oh I had a lovely project, which I really liked about 4 years ago. It was basically Face Swap. It was a Chrome experiment. It was Face Swap before Face Swap. But basically we were using the camera to take your face, and then putting it into a music video, so that you could kind of sing along. We got a long way through this, and then suddenly the team that I was working with phoned me and said, "So we've realised we've only been testing it on Macs, and it doesn't actually work on PC's. But you can download a plugin.” And I thought "Oh no. No, that's not going to work. So you're telling me that 90% of users won't be able to do it?" You'll just sort of throw your phone across the road. It was a really lovely idea. But there you go.

What's a technological trend that you've observed that looks like trouble? 

Trouble? Oh I think the whole trend of technology looks like trouble. I think there is a really a difficult gap between what is interesting technologically and what is necessary for human society. The human problem that is being solved, is that almost always retrospectively added back onto what was an interesting problem to solve from a technological perspective. 

I think that's something that we could do a better job of addressing. It's just a lot less interesting from an engineering perspective to start from a human centred position. It's like we're interested in the technologies, and then we see how they apply to existing patterns and existing kinds of human behaviour.

There was a big spike in productivity when computers first arrived. And then since then there's really fallen off and we don’t know why. Which is it's a really interesting question. It's like does that mean that we're not using the technology in the right way, or does that mean we're not using the humans in the right way?

What do you do when you get stuck?

Oh, I tend to give up when I get stuck. I put things down. And then I pick them up again. When I get stuck, when I get really stuck, I put an idea down, and I totally abandon it. Sometimes without telling the team that are working on it. And then I normally come back to things. I can't quite decide whether this is because I'm lazy, or because I believe that every idea has its time. Or because I'm not really that creative, and I just keep re-purposing things. 

I do find it very interesting the way that you see these echoes of ideas that you had much, much earlier. Or you see echoes of different projects. You see things both in your work and other people's work, and things that have influenced you over and over again. And sometimes they're very strong, and sometimes they're not. If you could construct an entire catalogue of your work on a kind of timeline you would see the same ideas echo through. 

I do think that when I get stuck, I tend to leave things. And then they'll come back in 2 months, 6 months, a year - 10 years. The books thing that we just did is an idea from almost 10 years ago. But we didn't have smartphones, and I didn't have a team. There was no way of doing those things back then.

I love this idea that every idea has its time. 

It's true. The other thing is that ideas need alignment. Not like astrology but like  how there are alignments of partners. Because nothing happens without other people. None of the projects I’ve worked on happen without other people being in the right place at the right time.

We needed you to be in the right place at the right time. We needed Adelaide Fringe to be in the right place at the right time. We needed your marketing team to be in the right place at the right time. We needed various different sponsors. I needed to have the right team of people in place. Grumpy Sailor needed to be moving in the direction that they were at that moment. Lots of things. You can push and shunt and pull people into position a little bit but mainly, people have to kind of be lined up and ready. I'll pivot an entire project around an idea because it means that the whole thing can actually happen.

To that point about getting stuck, quite often, it's as much about the external influences, and the positioning of what you're doing that means it’s stuck. It seems such a criminal thing to do but sometimes you need to turn the whole conceptual framework of what it is that you're doing around, and point it in a slightly different direction. 

Ideas are not precious, they don't deserve to exist. There's too many of them.

I think there was something very serendipitous about the ghost project as well. I'm still shocked that everything kind of fell into place.

Yeah, everything did fall into place. When it does, it does. And that's great. A lot of the time it doesn't. You don't even know that it doesn't. You don't even know that you don't have the right actors there, or you don't even know that someone's about to blow up because of a personal problem – or whatever it is. Luck. Who would have thought it? Lots of luck. 

When do you say no?

I get other people to say no for me. Is that terrible? I really do. I'm so bad at saying no. I can always hire someone to do that because I'm basically just a coward and I want to be liked. 

I think that's a short answer. I'm terrible at saying no. I wish I was better. I have been trying, and I'm trying to learn. And I'm 40 years old, I'm an adult. I know when it's not a good idea. But I still hate the crushing sensation of being told that something can't happen. And knowing that that's not actually true anyway. So I just like to give people other ways to let things exist. But it weighs on me, so sometimes I delegate.

What's the most disappointing thing about living in the future, now that we're here? 

Isn't that funny, we were talking about this the other day. The future is always perfect. We don't project the completely regular irritations of human existence into the future. Things that don't work don’t go into the future.

I keep wanting to write this slightly sci-fi dystopian sort of short story. About 100 years into the future, where everything is still a bit broken – just kind of a bit broken.

There could be a whole genre of dystopic comedies about the things that niggle us today and will continue to niggle us. Think about the things that annoy you at the moment. Like losing WiFi coverage in a lift. You're like, "What? What? You can't put WiFi in the lift??" And you think it's still kind of amazing that we can be walking along on either side of the planet, video conferencing each other but it cuts out when you get in the lift.

The things that annoy you are just the things that we forget were once incredible. That's what's annoying about the future. The things which you just had stopped thinking were magic, and start taking for granted. The second we start taking things for granted (and believe me, I work at Google), that's when you begin to find grievance. 

The second you stop and sit there in the present, and you just think quite how amazing not just technology, but pretty much everything is. Like everything. From supply chains around the world, to the civilised manner which most of us live our lives, for most of our lives. We are very lucky to live in an environment where we are relatively happy and secure and warm, with light and electricity and food, and an economic system - and this extraordinary technology. 

So frankly, if you actually stop and think about it, everything's pretty amazing. But we tend not to behave like that. And I can't work out whether that's what drives us forward, and whether that's what makes us creative and incredible? Or whether that's just what makes us really annoying as a species.

I actually really want to write it. 

All these things! Finding time to do things, that's the main problem. Also, I want to do an expansion on ‘A Curiosity of Doubts’. I've realised I actually kind of want to do it as a whole series of things about those people. I think I'm going to call it, ‘The Joy of Doubt. For Insecure People in an Insecure Time.’ And it's just going to kind of be all about how nothing is real anyway, so you should stop worrying about it.

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