Whitehot Magazine

March 2010: Interview with Malcolm Levy, Curator, Code Live, 2010 Olympics

Wang Yuyang, Artificial Moon, 2006


Malcolm Levy discusses curating the 2010 Olympic's CODE Live festival, and the current state of digital art.


Over the past decade, Malcolm Levy has made substantial contributions to experimental film, documentary and new media. Seven-year Creative Director of Vancouver’s New Forms festival, his films and video installation works have been shown in India, Australia, China and Canada. This weath of experience garnered him the role of lead curator for CODE Live, the festival of digital art created for the 2010 Olympics.

The Games are a sustained, intense period of high spirits, high energy and celebration of achievement. In keeping with this, the works in CODE Live are, overall, dazzling and crowd-pleasing, and they can't help but refer to their Olympic sponsorship. This does not deplete them of critical or cultural value. Incorporating internationally recognised pieces such as Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s Paradise Institute and Wang Yuyang’s Artificial Moon, the body of work is strong enough to be approached on its own terms.

In his curatorial statement, Levy emphasises the notion of bridging, here, predominantly between art and science. Many of the pieces use technology as a viable form of artistic criticism. Ken Rinaldo’s Paparazzi Bots (2009), for example, choose and follow specific viewers with the intent of taking their picture as many times as possible. It’s a fun consideration of artificial intelligence but the underlying references to issues of celebrity obsession, privacy and pervasive surveillance offer more philosophical substance. In Montreal studio Artificiel’s piece, Condemned Bulbes (2003) a set of oversized lightbulbs hangs in dark room. Acting according to an algorithmic events generator, they pulse, visually and sonically, glowing and humming at varying intensities. Structurally, it is beautifully minimal, and the rhythmically fluctuating light and sound are an absorbing meditation on the generally undetected fields electricity that are a pervasive by-product of our increasingly digital world. The electronic music component of CODE Live presents another important point of bridging to consider—as sound art becomes more prevalent and electronic music becomes more prevalently experimental, questions of why one form is privileged over another become increasingly relevant. Tanya Tagaq's Inuit throat singing performance with Michael Red's dubstep backing was as innovative and moving as any work represented.

British Columbia has seen arts funding slashed by up to 90% as money has been poured into hosting the Olympics. But even while finances stagnate, technology is racing ahead, becoming ever more deeply imbedded in our lives and bodies. For this reason alone, new media is becoming common media in the art world. CODE Live represents an important opportunity to think about the economic and cultural context in which art has been produced in the very recent past, and will be produced in the very near future, as these may well be distinctly different concepts. In talking with Levy about digital art's role in the art world, and within our rapidly and unpredictably morphing social, cultural and economic landscape as a whole, one idea that stood out predominantly is that an attitude of productive optimism must surely be as valuable as detached cynicism.


Kyra Kordoski: The idea of a bridge implies a connection between two distinct entities. With relation to the notion of transmedia, is there still a meaningful distinction for you between, say, sound art and music, or video art versus experimental film?

Malcolm Levy: One of the main reasons I use the the theory of bridging is because a lot of the works really do bridge and intersect between these different modalities. But you still have different forms. I wouldn't speak against forms I would more speak for the fact that there's such an interaction and intersection between them now. It's important for art to have different forms, and for people to only focus on one thing or another. At the same time, an acceptance or understanding or support of work that's trans-diciplinary in nature is also extremely important, just based on the societal context that we're within. Within art, within culture, we're in a very hybrid time. Look at fashion - people take things from the 30s from the 40s from the 50s, 60s, 70s, all the way through, and incorporate it.

Many people you would call quote-unquote 'visual artists' are essentially media artists or digital artists. A lot of the time when people call themselves 'just an artist', and don't want to be labeled a visual artist or a media artist, this is so they can transcend those boundaries.

KK: How do you see media art navigating the current economic climate? Is it inherently even less commodifiable insofar as it doesn't necessarily consist of unique objects that can be possessed?

ML: The other side to that is the idea of open source, and using your computer - being able to make art that isn't costly to create... But a lot of digital art has successfully entered the market at this point. The Kramlich collection which is traded between the Tate Modern the SF MoMA and the MoMA is almost entirely digital and its way of collecting, its way of preserving is all looked upon like that, and I see that continuing into the future. It's there, and I think that the market realises that, but doesn't necessarily want to accept it yet because of its current value-based system.

KK: You'd get copyright issues, too, I'd imagine, especially with open source and viewer participation. Once my image or voice becomes part of an art piece do I have any rights to what happens to it, especially if it's sold?

ML: And I think that effects which pieces end up being 'marketable', and what pieces end up being festival or institution pieces, or have value to museums. They might not necessarily have value to a collector in the same way. It hits a very interesting slope in terms of that, and I think a lot of it's undefinable at this point.

Artificiel, Condemned Bulbes, 2003

The term 'festival' is interesting when opposed to ‘fair’ or ‘biennale’. How would you differentiate these?

ML: CODE Live is really a series of events and exhibitions. It's not necessarily a festival and it's not necessarily a biennale, though it has more of a festival format. A lot of how the biennales are defined today is really based on what people are now calling the biennale or the triennale 'system' - it's a lot of certain artists that are repped by certain galleries - there's some curatorship, but the curatorship is not always based specifically on a thematic, and even when it is, the thematic is often all over the map or there's a number of countries represented and so it becomes this myriad of ideas... And, of course, the market comes to the biennales. Whereas with the festivals - transmediale, Ars Electronica - it's far more about research, education, discussion and discourse.

KK: Eco Art plays a strong role in CODE.

Eco Art is a paradox. Our environment has been, overall, adversely affected by technology, so the media art practice around it becomes quite interesting because people are trying to relate technology to ecology. The thing to really take out of it is an understanding that commentary can be made on the environment through technology, and this can actually help to focus people's thoughts about what we will ultimately do with technology as a whole. If our Earth is going to survive, the discourse around that survival has to come from every single area. It can't just come from people who don't want to use a computer. It can't just come from people who aren't involved in technology and building factories, because it's all correlated. Works like these, in a lot of ways, make a bigger point than Copenhagen. What was Copenhagen? 40,000 environmentalists flew to Copenhagen. That's a serious amount of environmental detriment.

KK: How do the CODE Nightlife performances fit in to the project as a whole?

ML: Electronic music and a lot of visual artists today are very closely aligned. People don't always talk about it, but it's there. The music that was curated for CODE Live - there was a lot of thought put into each and every night, and the artists that are represented are definitely at the forefront of intertwining performance and electronic music. With artists like Martyn, 2562, Deadbeat, Dega Sound System, and what Michael Red is doing with Tanya Tagaq - these are very interesting movements around dub and it is incredibly important to have that as part of the discourse along with everything else. All of the performances completely bridge electronic media with music. Dancing is another form of art that people don't talk about. When you hear bass, when you hear those sounds, it's no different from sitting in a sound art installation. This is a conversation I have constantly with the Canada Council. If you're using a certain technology and certain projections on a screen, and certain speakers in a certain way, there's no real difference between that happening within the context of 500 people dancing and that happening in the context of 8 people sitting quietly in a gallery, except the movement and how many people are there.

KK: Speaking of Canada Council, can you talk about curating this show in the context of the recent arts funding cuts in BC?

ML: I was asked to do this years ago... and my understanding of the funding cuts is that things are still changing. But I'm an advocate and supporter of funding for the arts. With cultural Olympiad, something like 600 groups are working on different projects and when you see the creativity that they're bringing to the table it's the most positive way of thinking about why funding should be what it has been. It's imperative that it continues.

But regardless of any other funding, it's also important to look at what we are really doing as a people. There's a group working on a project called Peer Giving, for example, that will allow people to put funding towards whatever they deem is important. It's up to us, in the end. The arts is a very grey area and support is needed by people more than anything else. It's people overall that are important - not just us, but those who are not necessarily involved in the arts, who come and enjoy something like CODE Live, take it in and say, “Yes, I do want to support this." The cultural Olympiad allowed a lot of that to happen. The one thing that it's done more than anything else is it's brought a huge number of people around the arts - many of whom haven't been exposed to this kind of experimental work before - and it's given them the opportunity to say, you know what, Vancouver and BC has an incredible art scene and I support that art scene. It's an interesting story, and I don't think it's at all finished.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Vectorial Elevation, 2010

"Using 20 large robotic searchlights around English Bay, the canopy of the Vancouver sky is transformed by the local audience or individuals worldwide who design their own patterns via a website. Their light sculptures are visible from a distance of 15 kilometres and the pattern changes roughly every 12 seconds."


Michael Red (Souns), Cambridge Bay: A Time and a Place, featuring Tanya Tagaq; 2010
Photo credit: Jennifer J Mawby

"A Time and Place is a meditative sound journey of music and soundscapes created exclusively from audio recorded in and around Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. Invited by musical collaborator Tanya Tagaq, an acclaimed Inuit throat singer, Michael Red (Souns) carefully gathered sounds including wind, dogs, birds, rushing water, still water, ice melting and crackling, feet moving through slush, a qillauti (drum) played and tightened, objects being tossed around and banged together at the community dump, the 10 o’clock siren, truck doors slamming, kids laughing and playing and more. Red also recorded Tanya singing and experimenting with other sounds from her mouth, running her fingers through furs and feathers, swishing ulus (knives) together, pulling at the ground, clacking rocks together and slurping freshly melted ice. Over three years, in Vancouver, Red categorized the sounds into a kind of subjective library of sounds, edited them into songs and sound pieces, and completed a continuous cycling mix of the songs and pieces. The mix heard in this installation is intended as a cyclical story that can be picked up anywhere, moving between the quieter moments of ambient field recordings and more dramatic areas like beat-driven songs. This is a sound expression of an experience — a compilation of ideas inspired from, and rooted in, land above the treeline."


James Phillips, Foreign Voices, Common Stories (Ghettoblaster), 2010
Presented by Analogue Nostalgia;
Photo credit: Jennifer J Mawby

"Walls of 1980s analog boom boxes, commonly known as ghetto blasters, create an immediate nostalgia as the viewer enters the installation space. Each tape deck is equipped with motion detectors to react to the presence of visitors. A myriad of stories from around the world revealing why ghetto blasters are significant cultural icons erupt from the boom boxes, using MP3 players as the source, the boom boxes as the amplification and speaker system for the messages. The ubiquitous use of such decks, which were marketed globally, although different in design, produced a sameness in cultures often called globalization, but as one listens to the radios, differences in the stories and experiences begin to register. The recordings are in several different languages as well as English, but there is also a set of recordings in foreign versions of English as a commentary on the fact that Pidgen English will soon be one of the most spoken languages in the world. Being able to tape one’s own music and share it easily and portably was an authentic way to share tastes and cultural differences in a democratic distribution. Cultural loss, cultural gain and the cultural mosaic are the subjects of this installation."


Raquel Kogan, mov_ing, 2007
Curated by Claudio Rivera-Seguel
; Photo credit: Jennifer J Mawby

"mov_ing is an installation that begins with a projected moving video of an old transport truck carrying a load through a great urban environment containing a stove, a mattress and furniture, including a mirror. As the visitors find themselves in a reflective area, they automatically stimulate a sensor that fills the visitor’s space with light. Concurrently, the mirror’s image becomes dominant and the screen is now filled with a newly composed rear view, that of a city slum through which he now travels. The mirror displaces the first journey to align the viewers with their image, positioned in the overcrowded conditions of a poor section of this city. Through a transformative journey, mov_ing speaks to the current reality facing over one billion people on our planet today."


Scenoscome, Akousmaflore, 2007
Co-presentation with the Canadian Film Centre; Photo credit: Jennifer J Mawby

"Akousmaflore is a small garden full of living sonic plants, which react to human gestures and gentle contact. Each plant reacts differently to contact or warmth by producing a specific sound. The plants’ language or song occurs through the touch and the close proximity of the visitor. Each visitor’s invisible, but real, electrical force encourages the plant to react. The plants sing when they are touched or stroked lightly.

Natural plants that, in turn, are connected to discharges of sound, sense the invisible electrical and heat forces produced by human bodies to produce these ongoing floral concerts. Through Akousmaflore’ssubtle use of technologies, the plants’ existence is made known by a scream, a melody or an acoustical vibration."



Malcolm Levy; Photo Credit: Kyra Kordoski; Film Scan


Tanya Tagaq; Photo Credit: Kyra Kordoski; film scan