Artist Profile: Christopher Baker

Christopher Baker,  Murmur Study, Installation View, Audi Open Space Pavilion, Frankfurt, 2011
photo: KMS Team 

In Hello World! or: How I learned to stop listening and love the noise, you compiled 5,000 online diaries and showed them on one enormous wall. Along with their accompanying audio, they all play at once; you can occasionally hear one voice above the others as the sound rises and falls. How many of the individual clips did you watch? How were they selected? Are you familiar with the people in any way (via previous knowledge, web stalking, etc.)? Do any of them know that they're in this artwork?

My original motivation was to create an experience that addressed the contrast between our greatest hopes for new communication technologies and what they actually deliver. After spending time with an earlier iteration (which was essentially 5000 randomly selected videos), I decided that I really wanted to capture the optimism and excitement of new users as they spoke directly with their audience. To that end, I generated a set of search keywords that included phrases like "my first video blog" or "my first vlog" (among others), then downloaded about 30,000 of the resulting videos. In the end I decided to choose videos that had little to no post-production (i.e. graphics, titles, edits, etc), featured a typical webcam head and shoulders shot, and were recorded in a personal or private space, like a bedroom, home, car or bathroom. Since I downloaded about 1500 hours of video, I wasn't able to watch each video from start to finish. I scanned each video and evaluated them for their visual quality and background scene as much as their spoken content. Since the videos were found via a public search, I had no connection with any of the people in the videos. In many cases I was the second or third person to view the video based on the view counts I saw. I do not know if any of them know they are appear in the piece — I often wonder if they would appreciate that fact or be disturbed. They did, after all, broadcast themselves on a wildly popular public video sharing site.

Some of the running themes in your work touch on a difference in the way individuals present themselves, both as a change from the past, and as a shift between private and public. Your interest in networked lifestyles is very clear with Hello World!, My Map, and other pieces. Can you expand on the way you consider networks? What do these networks and their interconnectivities, as you put it, mean to you?

While it’s clear that social networks aren’t new, the ease with which we can now present our accumulated (or curated) social networks to the world as a part of our public identity is new. And it doesn’t just shape our external identity. I believe when we look at our social networks we see ourselves in new ways. When you look at your social network, I believe you can learn a lot about yourself, your values, how your relationships change over time etc. Being able to concretely see that in a list form (no matter how factual it actually is) rather than constructing it from an imperfect memory affects one’s self-image. Likewise, seeing the disparities between the ‘self’ you project online and the ‘self’ that you see in the mirror every morning affects one’s identity.  

Individual and cultural responses to managing a great deal of information seem central to your work. Do you think there's an ideal way to respond to the accretion of data? Does its speed and existence affect everyone?

Honestly, I don’t think there is an ideal way to deal with the accumulation of personal data. Until recently the human tendency to forget the details of history (both societal and personal) and fill in the gaps with all manner of myth has gotten us pretty far. But the power promised by a technologically perfected memory is so enticing. Judging by all of the news stories I’ve read about people’s online pasts coming back to haunt them, it’s clear that we haven’t yet learned how to craft constructive myths from our seemingly objective, concrete digital histories. Perhaps we’ll have to invent myth generation algorithms both individually and corporately. The provocative Web 2.0 Suicide Machine project understands the problem, but its algorithmic solution requires extreme digital violence. Perhaps it is ultimately just a matter of careful deletion, but clearly there is a rich territory to be explored there.

Your work is often site-specific, and you've mentioned that architecture and place are important considerations for your pieces. Would you speak about how the physical environment pairs with your more sociological and technological (and less readily material) concerns?  

Art that engages the digital world usually tends toward disembodied experiences for the viewer. I believe that finding the intersections between architecture, space, place and digital data result in richer, more sensual experiences. I think we tend to underutilize our non-visual senses so placing people in situations where all of their senses are active can free people to have new experiences. Twitter reports that there are, on average, 200 million tweets per day. YouTube reports that 60 hours of video is uploaded every minute which means that 86,400 hours of new video show up on YouTube each day. That’s almost 10 years of video uploaded every day. It is easy to gloss over such incomprehensible numbers, but for me at least, experiencing even a fraction of those numbers on a physical level (be it a pile of printed Tweets or a giant wall of videos), helps me process our digital reality more thoughtfully. Ultimately, all digital data has a physical grounding. Digital data does actually require energy, space and resources. While we might like to believe that our “sufficiently advanced technologies” are akin to magic, it’s important to avoid becoming completely spellbound. I think contextualizing digital data in architectural settings helps us do that.




Chicago, IL, USA

How long have you been working creatively with technology? How did you start?

I started working with technology in a creative way around 2004 or 2005. I was studying engineering at the time and took an introductory computer music course. At some point in the course I was introduced to Max/MSP/Jitter and my use of code for creative ends (rather than for purely computer-scientific and data-processing ends) took off. I began working with dancers using video and rudimentary computer vision. Shortly thereafter, I began working with other artists — primarily as a technical consultant — on more physical pieces involving sensors, actuators and interactive video.

Describe your experience with the tools you use. How did you start using them?

My experience with creative coding tools has continued to evolve ever since my first experiences with Max/MSP/Jitter. My engineering background equipped me with the skills to write my own code in lower level languages (like c/c++, java) and as my projects have become more sophisticated, I've moved in that direction: first, spending quite a few years producing work with Processing and more recently, producing new works with openFrameworks. My work has also increasingly incorporated hardware components, largely backed by Arduinos and embedded linux systems of various flavors. One point to note: as I have made the transition from engineering to art, I have often struggled with striking the balance between the idea of the "best-practices" idea in science and engineering and the much more free-form "just make it work" idea that one often has to take on when the artistic concept and intuitive expressiveness is more important than reproducibility and standardization. For me, this is where I (along with thousands of other artists) really benefit from the FLOSS (free/libre and open source software) community. Projects like Processing, Arduino, and openFrameworks really strike an incredible balance between the ability for artists to remain agile and expressive with their ideas, while the core underlying toolkits are subjected to the best-practices-style scrutiny of computer science. For me, being involved in the FLOSS creative coding community as both a creative coder and a developer satisfies both my desire for artistic expression and my desire to help produce elegant peer-reviewed creative coding tools that everyone can utilize. Finally, my choice of creative tools is often determined by the communities that develop around the tools. They are a great source of inspiration and friendship and represent a highly compelling brand of humanism that energizes my practice.

Where did you go to school? What did you study?

I studied Biomedical Engineering at Saint Louis University and focused on digital signal processing, particularly image and video processing. I then went to the University of Minnesota (UMN) to study Biomedical Engineering. My Masters Thesis work focussed on the real-time control, processing and feedback systems needed for brain-computer interfaces. I then joined the Art Department at the UMN and completed my MFA. Hello World! was my thesis piece.

What traditional media do you use, if any? Do you think your work with traditional media relates to your work with technology?

While most of my work has code at its core, some of my recent works taken a more physical form (in contrast to a lot of my earlier projected and screen-based work). While it is a stretch to to call thermal paper or cell phones a traditional medium, their physicality is really their greatest strength. Despite a growing familiarity with all things digital, physical objects still resonate with a viewer’s body in a sensual way that projected light and virtual experiences usually doesn’t. For me, the physical (which I consider somewhat traditional) creates an important bridge between my ideas and the viewer. It takes a lot more work to get the same result with purely digital or virtual bridges.

Are you involved in other creative or social activities (i.e. music, writing, activism, community organizing)?

Besides teaching, I spend a lot of time keeping up with the state of creative coding tools and when possible contribute code and ideas to efforts like openFrameworks. I believe that the open source and DIY communities, by their nature, represent both a significant social provocation and important philosophical position. The inherently social aspect of the open source community is its power and brings me great satisfaction.

What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously? Do you think this work relates to your art practice in a significant way?

I recently joined the Art and Technology Studies faculty of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Previously, I was a visiting artist at Minneapolis College of Art and Design and a resident artist at the Kitchen Budapest. In a previous life, I was a researcher in the Brain Modelling Lab at the University of Minnesota and worked at several Biomedical startups.

As an instructor, I am inspired daily by my students. Their work often helps me hone my own creative ideas and gives me a lot of opportunities to refine my ability to approach ideas and projects critically. While my past life as a Biomedical Engineer definitely yielded a body of technical knowledge and intuition that I draw from daily, I haven’t made any works that directly incorporate the concepts or data I engaged with as an engineer. Without question, my work is a response to the larger relationship between society and its technologies. I believe that my time working in the field of Biomedical Engineering ultimately led me to both appreciate and become deeply skeptical of the technological optimism and determinism which is in many ways a pillar of contemporary scientific practice.

Who are your key artistic influences?

While my art historical influences are growing as I have more exposure to the field, I’d say that my key influences came as I was contemplating a possible transition from engineering into art back in 2004. Zach Lieberman and Golan Levin are important, particularly because seeing their work on Messa di Voce with Jaap Blonk and Joan La Barbara for the first time resulted in an epiphanic moment that helped me understand how I too might be able to work at the intersection of art and technology. Other contemporary artists such as Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin have remained influential as I have searched for ways to find poetry in data.  

It may not be directly visible in my work, but I take a lot of inspiration from turn-of-the-century artists and poets like Guillaume Apollinaire and Kurt Schwitters who started systematically hacking language — one of our oldest technologies. Apollinaire’s Calligrams added dimension to his printed poetry and Schwitters’ Ursonate mutated the phonemic DNA of language itself.

Have you collaborated with anyone in the art community on a project?  With whom, and on what?

I have done quite a few collaborations with others to develop the tools and technologies to enable their projects and vice versa. I have worked with Minneapolis Art on Wheels for several years contributing to and producing many of the tools they use for their public projections and performances. I worked extensively with researchers and other artists at the Kitchen Budapest to produce the technology behind several pieces such as Murmur Study and Human Phantom Vibration Syndrome. Increasingly, I both benefit from and contribute to the creative tools used by the larger creative hardware and software communities.

Do you actively study art history?

I received a good foundation in graduate school, so much of my historical research and reading really happens in more specialized fields, rather than from the canon of art history. For instance, lately I have been doing a lot of reading on the history of language with an eye toward the ways that the languages were encoded in written forms and how those written forms were personalized, hacked and modified to suit evolving cultural needs. In cases like these, there are certainly overlaps with the history of art, but it isn’t directly addressing what I would consider to be art history.

Do you read art criticism, philosophy, or critical theory? If so, which authors inspire you?

Like my study of art history, my reading in these areas of research tend to be subject and project-based. I’ve taken a lot of recent inspiration from Sherry Turkle for her thoughtful research-driven approach to how relationships are affected digital technologies. I’ve also really enjoyed the work of Paul Dourish and Malcolm McCullough, particularly their focus on the importance of embodiment in interaction design.

Are there any issues around the production of, or the display/exhibition of new media art that you are concerned about?

Curators and arts advocates like Steve Dietz have been saying it for years, but I too hope for a time when “new media art” will be both appreciated and critiqued based on its conceptual merits and the ways that it speaks to the human condition, rather than its cost or technological wow-factor. It is difficult though, because I would argue that most new media artists find themselves in the very awkward position of being simultaneously wowed by new technology and dedicated to critiquing our cultural obsession with the same. Would it be beneficial or even possible to achieve a more critical distance, while still keeping up with all of the changes? I’m still working on my answer to that.