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Q&A: When Art and Technology Merge

04 July 2016

Melanie Hoff is an artist who is interested in the relationship between art and technology. Some of her previous works involve hacking, web browsers and even insane amounts of electricity. Here, Hoff tells Electronics 360 about her inspiration for her projects and the way current, sometimes mundane, technology and advancements can be transformed into artwork.

1. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your background?

I was raised in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area and have identified as an artist since childhood. I moved to Brooklyn to study photography at Pratt before quickly switching my major to sculpture, where I began to develop a practice of installation, spectacle, natural science applications and metalworking. Currently I am pursuing a masters at ITP, NYU, and over the summer am participating in a small pedagogically experimental program called the School for Poetic Computation. (http://sfpc.io)

Melanie Hoff uses a reverse image search to search for each part of her face for “visually similar images,” as part of a project. (Image via Melanie Hoff) Melanie Hoff uses a reverse image search to search for each part of her face for “visually similar images,” as part of a project. (Image via Melanie Hoff)

2. A few years ago, when you conducted the “15,000 Volts” experiment, you were studying sculpture at Pratt. What inspired your current integration of art and technology?

My previous work was focused on our relationship to technology and science. My work used scientific processes as both tools and subject matter. After graduating from college, I became interested in exploring the structures underlying culture. I’m interested in playing with the powerful and often obscure systems that drive mundane processes of everyday life. I see my current work as being heavily focused on issues such as representation, visibility and the ways in which appearances actively shape our interactions and consciousness.

3. Where do you find the technology inspiration? Do you work with any engineers or anyone with tech experience that can help assist or guide you?

I find inspiration by looking critically at common technological platforms. I ask what are these platforms uniquely capable of expressing that they weren’t designed for. What are the assumptions we make about a given platform that are technologically arbitrary? Where are human biases and poetics unintentionally present in the technology?

Through ITP and SFPC, I’ve had access to an incredible community of thoughtful, inquisitive and extremely skilled mentors and collaborators—Dhruv Mehrotra, Leon Eckert, Lauren McCarthy and Sam Lavigne, just to name a few from a very long list.


4. What are some of the challenges when turning technology into art?

Computer and media technology is having an increasingly profound effect on our world, and artists must pro-actively shape these powerful new tools lest they be left by default to advertisers and the military. The greatest challenge for artists making this kind of work is building a sustainable practice without compromising their political and ethical belief systems. A secondary challenge is remaining truly critical and cultivating skepticism from within all the hype.   


5. There are two projects in particular I’d love for you to tell us about: Doppelcam and Decodelia. What were the driving factors behind those projects, and what do you hope to accomplish by putting them out there?

Doppelcam is a visually similar camera in the form of a website (https://doppel.camera) and iOS app (not yet released) made by Dhruv Mehrotra and me. It looks and behaves like the default iOS camera app; but when you take a picture with it, it returns an image pulled from the internet that is similar to the one you just took in pixel-by-pixel value. We see it as a tool for decontextualizing your surroundings and a window to the uncanny. It is a networked photography recycler and a machine for experiencing digital déjà vu.

I spend a lot of time working in coffee shops, and I'm interested in freely browsing the web without fear of judgment or loss of privacy from those around me. Decodelia is a Chrome extension that uses basic principles of color theory to turn your browser into an indecipherable, intricate pattern only visible with the use of red-tinted glasses.

In comparison to the amount of activity around privacy-related tools and techniques that deal with the information we leak behind our screens, there isn't much attention paid to the physicality of our screen—how when we’re in public spaces our screens and the information on them are essentially public too. Unlike privacy screens, Decodelia works from all directions.

I'm also interested in the people-watching culture of coffee shops and the idea of having to don special gear to enter the virtual world wide web.

6. What have you learned over the course of your art/tech projects?

I have only actively used computer technology in my work for the past 10 months and have developed so much as an artist, thinker and programmer in that time that it's hard to have perspective on everything I've learned. Working with material that is so politically and culturally charged has taught me how to be more critically engaged in my art practice. But more than anything, I'm learning how to cultivate in myself a continuous state of learning.

7. What has been your favorite project so far? Why?

Doppelcam has been my favorite project so far because engaging with it is always surprising.

8. Are you working on anything now that you can tell us about?

Right now I’m working on computational poetics at SFPC and am reading a lot of theory.

9. Any advice for someone who shares the same passion as you, but doesn’t know where to start or what to do?

Try to find a group of people or community who are working on projects you care about and are having conversations you find compelling—a community you don’t always agree with but are often excited to debate with.

10. I read earlier this year that “The merger of the two worlds [art and tech] has taken many different shapes over time. And now, the two spheresart and techare more intertwined than they ever have been. Some of the intersection has to do with exposing art to a wider audience on the internet, but part of it also has to do with experimentation.” What is your take on this idea?


It depends on what we mean when we say technology. Is photography a technology or art? The same question arises with writing. Artists have always used these kinds of techniques for expression. There is a culturally constructed divide between art and technology and without equating the two, I don’t find it helpful to position them in opposition.

To contact the author of this article, email Nicolette.Emmino@ieeeglobalspec.com


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