Arvind Palep of 1stAveMachine speaks on science fiction, fusion of the natural and synthetic, the freedom of the digital, collective consciousness, and more.
images clockwise from top left: Adidas Modular Man, New Species, Ted, and 1stAveMachine Propaganda.
suckerPUNCH: Could you start by telling us a little bit of your background?
arvind PALEP: I grew up in Panama City, Florida, close to the ocean, which is an obvious inspiration for a lot of my work. I went to college in Baltimore at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where I started by studying drawing and painting. MICA is a very traditional art school with a lot of classically trained teachers. At the time, their digital art program was just taking off. I discovered the computer kind of late, and hadn’t really been trained for it. At some point around my junior year I got really into it and ended up getting my first job as a digital artist in New York. I was working for film director Darren Aronofsky when I met my business partner Serge [Patzak].
sP: Was it with Amoeba Proteus?
aP: Yeah, at Amoeba Proteus. We worked on a pilot animation together for a film that actually never got made, but it was a cool experience. Little did I know, I had met my future business partner. I left to work for Blue Sky afterwards, but then was fired from Blue Sky in a matter of five months. It kind of worked, though, because it motivated me into this direction.
sP: Were you on the computer at that point, during those two jobs? Or where was your focus?
aP: I was hired by Blue Sky [Studios] as a lighter for the movie Robots. They were using software called Studio and it was all code based, compared to 3ds Max and other consumer-based software where you can actually see what you’re creating. I was honestly just a bad employee and it wasn’t creative enough for me. Once I got canned, I called Serge and that was when we started 1stAve [Machine]. We created a launch a video as a way to bring our name into the industry. The original idea for that video (1stAveMachine Propaganda), where the robot is walking around the city and so on, was just about orienting a future vision of people and how they would interact with their custom robots designed like perfect companions. We needed to shoot casual New Yorkers just going about their business. So the video launched and so did 1stAveMachine. We actually started on 1st Avenue out of my apartment, just like everyone has to start from somewhere. Once you get your first office, then it’s real. You get a plant for the office and . . .
sP: And the rest is history.
aP: Pretty much.
sP: I’d be curious, with Propaganda there was an interesting blend of real footage and CGI. Even through the simple blurring of the camera or the shakiness of the footage, there seemed to be this real stitching of reality and animation. I know when I first saw that video, I wondered whether or not some of the robots had been prototyped or whether they were all CGI.
aP: If you look at the film now, there are so many problems. I wasn’t really a “tech” guy and there were still things I was figuring out about the software, but I had picked up a lot of techniques while I was working at other studios. But I wasn’t like some of the guys we have downstairs in the studio—they know this stuff inside and out. In my early work there were all kinds of flickering and artifacts, and all kinds of problems that I see now and think, “I would never have rendered it out like that today”—now we’d shoot it in HD, and have the lighting look perfect. I do think that a slightly lower quality helped to create that raw sense of realism. It was funny to hear responses after launching the video—we’d literally have people call our office, and be like, “I want to buy one of those robots! Do you guys sell robots? Are those real?” We thought, “How does this guy not know they’re fake?”
sP: There was this near-future, kind of science fiction take to the video. It wasn’t that the whole city had gone to the future, but instead only certain elements. The clothing was like the clothing we were familiar with and the city was like the city we understood, but then there was this other, foreign element.
aP: I think that’s like a lot of the themes I like to explore. I love anything to do with science fiction. That’s the genre I like to play with, because you can make up your own rules and constraints, some based on science, some based on fiction. I like to envision technology and where it’s going, and in thinking about biotechnology. I think a lot of the work for Alias (Sixes Last, music video for Alias of Anticon Records) was sparked by that type of idea, by that fusion between the natural world and synthetic, life imitates art and art imitates life. For example, having biological and technological elements take on a new evolution together. A bunch of eyeballs attached to everything and blinking is not necessarily the only way to think about that fusion, but it was an early attempt at expressing that idea. I think the reason why the eyes were there was because they were a symbol of the fact that as soon as something has an eye, it seems aware. That awareness kind of gives an eerie factor to it. Again, that piece also had bizarre repercussions. I think what was more entertaining about making these videos was seeing what kinds of impressions they would make. Again it was a lot of, “Is it real? Is it not real?” This video was released in 2004, so I think it was strange for a lot of people to see something like this in viral media. Serge and I read blog after blog about people’s interpretations of what this was. People say some crazy things.
sP: I’d be curious if there were any themes in your work, prior to your using the computer, similar to the robotanical work of Sixes Last, where there’s a kind of fusion of technology and the flesh of the plant, or at what point those themes or the notion of the robot came up for you.
aP: Actually, I started making a lot of drawings first, and then they kind of took on another life. A lot of my drawings are based on fungal elements, and a lot of my doodles and sketches are like that. It’s a lot of the subconscious art that gets made, not what I would necessarily set out to draw if someone asked me. If I want to draw something or plan something—say for a film project—I would think it out a little more. But if I’m on the phone and I’m just drawing circles and things like that, that’s the kind of stuff that happens. And I think Sixes Last was one of those times where I thought, “Well, let’s just try making one of these things in 3-D, see what happens, and then start building from there.” And that’s how this kind of work took on a life of its own.
sP: I’d also be curious if the use of aggregation—that is, the sense of the multitude and scaling—was something that came out of your drawings or if it was something that emerged as you started working digitally.
aP: Digital is the ultimate freedom for an artist, because once you do one thing in the computer you can obviously discover millions of other things. If you’re someone who likes to experiment, I think it’s the perfect tool. All it takes is a couple of afternoons of having no life, playing in 3-D programs.
sP: Do you usually start the design process with an intent and then follow that through to completion or resolution, or is it something that evolves more organically?
aP: Our process is so different every time. The film projects just come from ideas I’ve had and stories that are in my head. A lot of the digital artwork comes from just playing. For example, I’m working on this animation called Landscapes, which isn’t finished yet, about massive landscapes—like canyons, rocks, and things like that—and superimposing alien elements onto them. It’s that reoccurring theme of the merger of the natural world and the synthetic, but I think it just gave me this eerie feeling, flying through these landscapes and seeing a formation that doesn’t look like it’s from this world.
sP: Another project that became interesting for architects was the Adidas piece (Adidas Modular Man, 2006). I think, from our perspective, we as architects were facing a moment when, after a decade of speculative work dealing with these large single-surfaces, people were finally trying to build them and facing the problem of panelization and how you break these monolithic surfaces down into smaller pieces. That commercial was really interesting, because not only was it using similar single-surface aesthetics in the robotic soccer players, but it was also breaking those surfaces down into very stylized seams and panels. It wasn’t just taking the mesh you would get from the software, but instead designing a level of detail in almost ornamental seams and breaks.
aP: We did that with 180 Amsterdam right around the 2006 World Cup. The process came about pretty naturally and they were happy with everything we did. It’s just funny how ideas move in waves. After Modular Man, there were a ton of commercials with things breaking apart and coming back together again, car commercials especially. Maybe it became a trend, or maybe it’s collective consciousness. I mean, we’re all watching the same things, seeing the same material, so to a certain extent we’re all going to have similar ideas about what to do and what to think.
sP: I wonder, in the same vein, if you have any pop culture touchstones in terms of science fiction or robots, or anything you feel may subconsciously influence your work or approach to design.
aP: I don’t know. For example, if there’s a particular movie or something out there that I really like, I think a lot of it is just compartmentalized in my brain. There are other things I like that are absolutely organic, more textural, and rustier, and that sort of world has nothing to do with the slick CG and the “perfect” feel. My drawings don’t look anything like how things come out in the computer. And my handwriting changes from day to day, my drawings change depending on what pen I use, how I feel, or where I’m going. That’s one thing I noticed about myself in art school, opposed to a lot of the guys that I went to school with who drew in a certain way. They grew up and all had specific styles, looks, or feels to their work, and it was going to look a certain way no matter what they did. I felt like I didn’t have a style like that. I’m really affected by where I am, my environment, and it changes how I draw and what I make. But I don’t think any artist can deny they were affected or influenced by something along the way. As long as our eyes are open were going to be affected.
sP: You are the filter. Along the lines of that discussion of slick versus rust, I’d be interested in your later work—the insects for the Ted project (Ted, music video for Clark of Warp Records, 2007) and the hummingbird for the Samsung project (A Whole New Species is Born, 2009), for example—that seemed to have a little bit more earthiness, roughness, or grit to them, whether through the use of lighting in A Whole New Species or the insects’ hair in Ted.
aP: Yeah, yeah. One day I just had this idea . . . I think I just saw this weird, bizarre insect that was shot close-up and I couldn’t tell what part of it was the head or the ass. There’s something very mechanical about insects, too—they seem like they’re engineered and built, somehow. Mammals are furry, have muscles and hair, but insects are just like little robots. You can tell so much of mechanical design was based off of the engineering and design of insects. That was the idea behind Ted, to see how I could create more stuff or . . .
sP: Soup them up?
aP: Soup them up. . . . Hmm . . . I was trying, I guess, to accentuate what was there while at the same time trying to seamlessly integrate new parts into the preexisting structures, and then make a beautiful image with it. That’s one of those times where if someone asks you to explain that idea and why you did it, you don’t really have a complete, logical answer for any of it. I just wanted to do it. I guess that goes for a lot of my work. It’s about zero narrative and just stream of consciousness.
sP: I’d also be curious if you have an interest in any of the developments in mainstream culture, like 3-D gaming or gestural video games like the Kinect.
aP: I think what’s really cool, and it’s just starting to be implemented, is augmented reality (AR). I could see it becoming very influential; it’s going to change a lot of what we do. I can imagine there might be, especially with our processing of how detailed AR could be within the real world, a weird kind of distinction between what is there and what isn’t. You’ll take off the glasses and go, “What! Where did everything go!?” It’s something to think about, and I think AR is probably going to be a new platform for art. It might even be kind of sad to see an augmented reality and know a lot of the stuff doesn’t actually exist in your physical environment.
sP: Do you still do a lot of independent projects?
aP: I’ve been shifting to working on some film projects and ideas. A lot of my drawings at the moment are about that.
I’m actually interested in posing a question to you guys: What is it about the work that you guys find interesting? Because there seems to be a level of interest in our work within the architectural world that I find surprising. And it’s always interesting to know why you get the kind of response you get.
sP: I think, on one level, there’s a sort of geeky fascination with your expertise in the tools, because we use similar tools and have similar affinities for lighting and coloring.
aP: But you guys—architecture, that is—have some amazing stuff too. I mean, you’re right, it’s all tools. And if you want to make something look real today, it’s a button-click.
sP: I think it was also an affinity for certain forms and the exuberance in your work through its really great colors and epic scale. The constraints are looser than what we typically deal with. In architecture there’s usually this tendency to be too serious, that everything should be black and white, so seeing candy-colored robots going around the city, for example, was exciting in its atmosphere and attitude. It was playful. Saturn and Modular Man were big for us because of their somewhat sci-fi ideas of the body and how it interacts with things like seams or armor, these designed components and extensions.
aP: That’s interesting.
sP: It’s something we’re focusing on more in our own work, looking at these more interesting, progressive forms and how they can actually be architectural—for example, how you address a window opening or structure within those nontraditional forms. In some ways it speaks to the Sixes Last video that creates this kind of exaggerated plant that has moved to the next step or the next evolution of the species, but is still understandable as a plant and still has certain qualities of a plant. I think architects were trapped a couple of years ago in taking from Hollywood, and the architectural result was often something that looked like a waterfall but couldn’t be built, or which wasn’t understandable as architecture if it could be. Your films seem to somehow modulate between the two worlds. I think when Propaganda and Sixes Last came out, it was at a moment when architects’ work finally wasn’t trying to look completely like a video game or trying to look completely real, a moment when there was kind of this next step.
aP: I think it’s funny. What we want to do is try to make stuff. We don’t necessarily want to care what people think. I think that’s the big issue, presenting something out in the world. It could be bold or brave, it could fail, and it could be kind of stupid. It doesn’t have to be perfect every time, but as long as someone finds something interesting in it or there’s something successful in it, that’s what is most important, because that’s what pushes the discipline forward. Because 90 percent of the time an idea is never complete, and maybe you’ll think of the great ideas after you finish a project, which happens all the time.
sP: Or through the process.
aP: Yeah, exactly. Then you’re like, “Goddammit, that would have been so much cooler if we did it this way.” But I think we’ve always had that kind of attitude, where we just put stuff out, see what people think, not care.
sP: Did you make much contact with the students or other architects when you were at SCI-Arc, specifically? What did you think? Did you get to see much of the work or get any feedback?
aP: They gave me a tour of the place. It just looks like one giant military hangar or something, but it’s really cool. A lot of people showed up, and I met some really interesting people and students. I think it’s flattering when someone wants to assign a deeper intellectual meaning to your work. I think everybody wants to see, or has the need to see or feel there’s more depth to a piece or to how we work. But, honestly, I think a lot of things can just be just subconscious. You make work because it sparks an idea. It grows on its own, it happens organically. I think that literalization is the thing I struggled with a little bit at SCI-Arc—everyone wants to think I have, and to know about, a greater artistic vision.
sP: Maybe that’s another reason we were all drawn to those videos. It was at a time when we were in academia, where everyone was hammering against us, asking why we were doing these crazy forms and pushing this exuberant attitude.
aP: No reason.
sP: There was no reason. All we were told was, “The culture doesn’t want it. You’re all nuts. What are you doing?” So we would see things like your video work, and for us they were a success because they were finished pieces and they were out there creating the same sensations we were striving for. And no one had to answer for it. That’s part of suckerPUNCH’s attitude, to go out there, make cool shit, and stop worrying so much.
aP: And sometimes the reason comes afterwards.
sP: Right. And that’s fine.
aP: The reason is in there somewhere. You don’t know why.
sP: Or it starts as one thing and becomes something else. It’s the desire to create a new sensation. So I wonder too, since you talked about collective intelligence or a collective shift in thinking, is there anywhere in video or in commercial advertising work you want to see a shift happen.
aP: You know, I’m excited about where we’re going to go next with all of this new technology. I’m a little bit scared about the death of video or films, or things like that, because if everything becomes so interactive, will people even have the patience to just watch something anymore, to just sit back? But, honestly, I don’t think that is going to be a problem. I think if something is powerful and tells a good enough story, you’re going to sit down and watch it. And I think the culture of making stuff is becoming more and more accessible; computers are going to change everything. I read this article, I think in Wired, about the “make,” about tools that prototype and such. That’s really going to be the next revolution, where people can just make something. I like the idea of the “make” culture coming forward, where things can be easier, where a kid in high school has an idea, hits send, and it gets made.
sP: Well, we’ll leave with a question we ask of everyone on our site and in our interviews. Who or what, if any, are influences on your work? They could be artists, nature, or anything you’ve seen as you’ve developed your work.
aP: You know, I actually discovered this artist later in my development who has a surprising similarity to some of the forms that I was making, but she’s been doing it since the ’70s—her name is Lee Bontecou. She did these really amazing sculptural pieces that had similar kinds of forms and feeling. I also think there are some Star Wars references in her work, but I could be wrong. I think we would have been best friends.