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Rose Hiscock is the inaugural Director of the brand spanking new Science Gallery Melbourne which we are really excited about! She is a passionate advocate for science engagement and has held significant roles including CEO Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (Powerhouse Museum) and Executive Director Arts Development Australia Council for the Arts.

We spoke to her at her temporary office at the University of Melbourne before the new Science Gallery building is constructed.

So you pretty much grew up at (the open air museum) Sovereign Hill which your father ran, right? Was that a magical experience?

Yeah! This will say a lot about the kind of person I am – it was magical. I moved there when I was 13. I suspect that for some teenagers the idea of relocating to an 1850’s gold mining township, would have been the most embarrassing thing you could possibly do. Particularly given my whole family were involved in the museum. We all dressed up – we had every costume under the sun. …I thought it was Christmas! I was a daggy, theatrical looking kid and I had every Sovereign Hill outfit you could get, including a little street urchins outfit with a neck chief and waistcoat, and a bonnet and pantaloons. I had everything! And I used to elbow the tourists out of the creek to get the gold. Yeah, I thought it was great!

Has it changed much since then?

It was actually quite a faithful representation back then. They were very careful to hide any kind of technology. They were also very interested in experiences and in creating environments that visitors could immerse themselves in. So whether it was an old fashioned kind of lolly shop or panning for gold in the creek, everything was very detailed. The whole thing was an immersive environment in an analogue way. I actually have a secret desire to create a 1970’s theme park. Where you arrive and at the door you’re given a Torana and you don’t have to wear a seat belt. The dog goes in the back seat and you can drink endlessly.

Back in the 80’s there was a sort of a movement for developing those kinds of immersive theme parks and to the credit of Sovereign Hill, it survived. It’s been extremely strong. I think last year they won a major tourism prize. And they were one of the very first organisations to understand tourists, and particularly Chinese Tourists. They put a staff member in China really early, and they developed a tailored a product for the Chinese market that involved a tour and lunch. They actually thought about it from the perspective of the visitor instead of the curator. They were probably a really early adopter for focussing on an audience perspective.

My family were dreadful with animals, keeping animals. We lived on property near a small town called Buninyong, and our animals used to either attack us or escape. And so the ones that attacked us, like the roosters and the goats – we just gave to Sovereign Hill which was then full of our animals that we couldn’t handle.

It’s probably full of their offspring now.

It is! Rhoda the goat has had plenty of offspring. They always escaped, too. Mum used to ring up my father and say, “Look, the horses are out again.” So dad would send the Sovereign Hill horseman galloping out in their neck chiefs to round up the horses. Then I would be on my BMX behind the men on horseback. That was my favourite thing, when the horses escaped, I was like “Yessss!”

And I actually thought that was normal!

Is Science Gallery the first time you’ve created something from scratch?

I’ve taken a large organisation through very significant reform but this is the first time I’ve created a start-up, I guess. It was just me in an office to start with – and an extraordinary network of people around me.

And now we’re a team of 4. Our first program launches in late July and it’s been extraordinary to watch what a team of 4 can do. We are working along-side people that we all know and love, and know are fantastic operators. Having that flexibility, the ability to be nimble and just asking people to come on board with us. Watching it all snowball is extraordinary and so rewarding really. I think for all of us.

At Sandpit at the moment, we’re doing a whole bunch of outdoor work, which obviously has it’s challenges. You have some great stuff planned for the Blood exhibition that’s happening outdoors. What have the pitfalls been for you working outdoors?

It’s interesting, I was on a tram the other day looking at those massive digital screens down on Latrobe Street thinking about how ubiquitous they are now. But also how impressive they are – they’re extraordinary, those massive screens, even in daylight. But we’re also really used to them. I made myself really look at it, and then go, “Oh my God, that’s fantastic.”

I think the challenge is to deal with environments in a way that we’re not used to, in a way that really interrupts your daily flow – and I don’t think that’s particularly easy. The new frontier, I think is sound. I think we’re pretty respectful about sound as a society. Ambulances and police cars are allowed to make sound – the city is the ambient sound we experience. I’m interested in ways we can interrupt that. But I don’t think we’ve cracked it yet.

What has the process of designing a whole new building for Science Gallery been like?

It’s been great fun, I have to say! And partly it’s been great fun because the University of Melbourne are really great partner. The first thing I did when I came here was to write an architect’s brief which I stipulated must fold into a much bigger project around an innovation precinct. And the university absolutely signed up to it. An important point of that was that this public gallery space had to act as a front door into a bigger innovation agenda – the notion of a gateway between the university and the public realm. And they really got it and thought it was a great idea.

So we have selected the developer – Lend Lease, that’s public. And we’ve selected the architect. And we do have a design that we will release as soon as we have finalised all of our contractual obligations. But it’s really exciting. It’s really great. And I wish I could show you!

You can’t give us a sneak peek for this blog?

No! I can’t! I’d love to. But it might be then be a very short lived career for me at Science Gallery!

But the new innovation precinct includes Science Gallery, the engineering faculty graduate school at the University of Melbourne and a really big makerspace – a big fab lab for start-up companies and a co-working space. We’ll also have the research and development arm of big companies. And then student accommodation. So the idea is that it will be a melting pot for like-minded people where ideas bounce around and grow and turn into bigger things.

Science Gallery will be a very social gallery and a learning space where we’ll have workshops. So we could be teaching design thinking in the gallery space then the ideas could be fabricated next door. The concept, say for an exhibition by students or the public could be conceived in the gallery then could be fabricated next door in the fab lab, then come on display within the gallery itself. So it’s really quite a holistic creative process. So what we need from the building’s design is a space that can enable that.

In terms of the digital infrastructure for the building there’s a real challenge. How do you design a digital system that is going to be future proof and still relevant in 4 years, let alone 20? I’ve left that really open at the moment. We’re engaging a working group really soon to devise framework to put in place. The good thing about that is that a knowledge environment is a good environment to be working on it in. Universities do have good industry links, but they also have students with PHD’s to help devise the framework. It’s a relationship exercise more than it is an infrastructure exercise at this point in time really. I’m just getting the right people to try and start thinking about a process. I wanted to start there, with the human capital – rather than with an end point – because I have no idea what the end point is! Yet.

What’s a technology you’ve used, where you’ve realised that it just didn’t cut the mustard?

Rose holds up a retro, vintage watch.

My alarm goes off at very strange times.

What was that watch, Rose?

It’s a Casio. I think it would be late 70’s or early 80’s. I love it. I’ve been wearing it forever and it hasn’t done too badly.

I have a lot of analogue in my life – I drive a 1974 Peugeot. And I play records. So on the whole, I haven’t been overly let down with technology.

I had a go at a HoloLens last week which I thought was great, partly because you can see the person next to you. I’m not a big fan of VR headsets which enclose you in a little world. I think why bother being in that little world? So I do like HoloLens, although there’s still a little ironing out to do. We’ll be using a HoloLens in our upcoming Blood exhibition.

I use technology in a very practical way. I’m a bicycle commuter, but not a recreational bike rider. And I’m a little bit like that with technology. It’s really functional for me, rather than the thing I live for.

I get frustrated with technology when things don’t work – which is entirely my issue. Like if my phone isn’t syncing with my calendar or some stupid thing like that. But that’s usually entirely my fault – rather than it not being an incredibly sophisticated piece of technology.

I think it’s interesting that you’re talking about vinyl and bicycles. People generally are trying to return to something authentic and real, which technology tends to kill.

That’s why the HoloLens is interesting, because you’re actually in the room.

I was at the footy on the weekend – which I love. There’s something very particular about the football that, if you’ve ever gone that feels live real and alive. Like you’re all in the same place at the same time in a very immediate way. But on top of that some people have a transistor radio in their ear, kind of augmenting the experience with sound. There’s something in that that I really like. The sort of integration of real and virtual. That’s something we need to get to more of – one way or another.

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.

New Order’s “Power Corruption and Lies”

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.

The Black Rose in Enmore

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.


The Cooper Hewitt Pen

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.

Seb at the Powerhouse

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.

Seb’s LastFM Feed

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.

That’s nuts.

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.

The iPhone as it was

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.

Radio Skid Row on SoundCloud

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.

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. 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 mymotivation. 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 Orchestraas 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.

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.

Brian Cain is a freelance Creative Director, currently working for Loud & Clear(and formerly of GMD Studios and Campfire) who has had a hand in creating some of the most inventive storytelling experiences for some of the biggest entertainment properties and brands out there – including HBO’s True Blood and Game of Thrones and feature film Terminator Salvation.

You can see some more of his left-of-field creative work here.

We had a most excellent conversation with Brian from his home in Florida.


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Jennifer Wilson is one of the directors of The Project Factory, a specialist in cross-platform, multi-media strategy and development, with a special interest in creative content and solutions. The Project Factory translates linear narratives and brand messages into interactive and digital messages; online, on mobile, in social media, in virtual worlds and through game play.

Jennifer’s previous roles include head of innovation for ninemsn, investigating new technologies and platforms that consumers are congregating around, and prior to this, was MD of HWW, a content company, one of the first to provide mobile services across all carriers and develop a converged user experience across all platforms.

Jennifer has previous sat  on the Executive of the Australian Interactive and Multimedia Industry Association (AIMIA), chaired the Mobile Industry Group, was an industry representative on the board of the Screen Producers of Australia and currently sits on the Innovation and Productivity Council for NSW. She has more than 20 years experience in interactive media and is a highly regarded public speaker and thought leader.


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Emad Tahtouh is Director of Applied Technology at FINCH where he develops and curates technology solutions in both practical and creative capacities. Two of the most talked about projects Emad has worked on are The Most Powerful Arm for charity Save Our Sons and 37 Degrees.

During his time at FINCH, Emad has judged at Cannes, Spikes and AWARD and has presented at Cannes, Spikes, SXSW and SAWA. His team at FINCH have worked on several technical projects including bringing a robot orchestra to life for Intel’s Intelligent Sounds campaign with recording artist, Flume.

We spoke to Emad from FINCH’s workshop in Sydney.


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Mahyad Tousi is a storyteller who uses a myriad of platforms to communicate. He has worked across documentary and narrative and in his storytelling toolkit has used interactive comic books, graphic novels, video installation and his hallmark cinematography. He founded BoomGen Studios in LA and New York in 2006 to produce commercial entertainment across platforms and has a goal to mine the stories of West and Central Asia.

In 2013 Mahyad presented his TedX talk The Future of History.

We spoke to him from New York.

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Willoh S. Weiland has become something of a legend in Melbourne for her humanist’s approach to art, technology and the cosmos. Heading up Aphids - a collaboration between herself and innumerable Melbourne artists with the same hallmark irreverence -  Weiland has churned out an impressive oeuvre that tackles the social role of art. Her trilogy confronting her lifelong fascination with the cosmos is currently in the form of Forever Now - taking on Voyager’s Golden Record for the 21st century whereas her 2008 work Yelling At Stars saw her standing starkly alone on the Sidney Myer Music Bowl stage delivering a monologue that was transmitted live into interstellar space.

We spoke to her about obsessions, creative roadblocks and what it feels like to live in the future. And drank a lot of coffee.


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