Skip to main content

Analog Analysis: To Digital or Not to Digital

Analog Analysis: To Digital or Not to Digital

John Maeda is well aware of the limitations of technology.

Hours before a mid-January open lecture at the RISD Auditorium, his laptop failed. But rather than simply accepting technology’s limitations, he devised a workaround. The resulting jury-rigged setup – a 10-year-old iMac to webcam to big screen – was a perfect, if ironic, way to deliver his talk to students titled,To Digital or Not to Digital.

As it turns out, in Maeda’s world, it’s not an either/or, but back to that later.

Following a brief introduction by Danny Diaz BArch 12 of the Student Programming Board, Maeda launched into a show-and-tell about his digital art from past (mid-1980s) to present, concluding with his recent show at the Riflemaker Gallery in London this past November.

The early days of digital, according to Maeda, were littered with pitfalls, not least of which was that the idea of interactive art was brand new at the time. As he started out making projects that engaged technology and art in new ways, computer scientists told him to stop making these things because no one needs them, and artists urged him to stop making the pictures move. Fortunately, mentors such as Muriel Cooper at the MIT Press and artistic inspirations such as Marcel Duchamp, encouraged him to continue.

Though many of the pieces Maeda showed throughout the course of the evening are nearly 20 years old, they still seem innovative and relevant, even in 2011. The underlying technology may be obsolete, but the impulse that inspired them is still there. From interactive patterns that respond to and mirror the grace of human gestures, to a typewriter that shoots broccoli with each press of its virtual keys, Maeda’s early work shows a remarkable ability to capture the natural world in ways that defy nature. His playful and intelligent ruminations on human agency still come across as both whimsical and thought provoking.

His recent show in London, John Maeda is the Fortune Cookie, carried on in that vein. Though artwork on sale ranged from a £1 tweet to a £10,000 handmade“computer” (with all proceeds going to RISD scholarships) the focus of the event was on personal connections. Members of the public were invited to take part in a 10-minute sandpit “consultation,” and used the opportunity to ask his advice on everything from professional or academic challenges to relationship woes.

Maeda likened this process to his role at RISD – forging connections and new relationships between people and ideas. “Each year, I’m more skeptical about technology,” he said, but urged students to develop a critical understanding of technology’s capabilities. Only then, he concluded, can we truly understand its fallacies and limitations, and find new ways to explore its as yet untapped potential.

Watch a video of John Maeda's talk