Thomas Thwaites and Taeyoon Choi

This conversation took place on January 9th, 2015 in New York City and London between Thomas Thwaites and Taeyoon Choi, both participating in an exhibition at National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea. The hour-long conversation has edited with annotation by Taeyoon Choi for the exhibition publication of Objectology ll: Make.

Teayoon : Hi, Thomas.

Thomas : Oh, hey.

Teayoon : So, nice to meet you. I’m in my studio in Manhattan. I’ll show you around. This is a giant warehouse. There’s the Hudson River out there. I’m in a 9 months residency at Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. 

Thomas : Yes, nice to meet you. I should show you my place. I’m in my flat in London. Probably, down there, you can see my girlfriend. Hello? And at the window, you can see St. Paul’s Cathedral! And Mary Poppins! (laughs) No, you can’t see anything. But maybe see the supermarket and petrol station. That’s where we are.

Teayoon : I think we can get started with the term ‘demystifying’ of everyday objects. For me, it’s important to demystify the consumer electronics from the technical abstraction to the logical thinking behind its designs.

The Toaster Project by Thomas Thwaites

Thomas : I think it’s interesting, applying this sort of demystifying process to computers, because the languages which the programs are written in are becoming more and more abstracted to higher and higher levels. From punch cards, to machine code, all the way up to this this new language coming out of MIT say, which is not really coding anymore[1]. You can almost write a sentence in English or something like thatand it will be interpreted in such a way, all the way down the chain of abstraction until it’s close to what you are doing Teayoon, which is sort of like shuffling electrons around breadboards[2] essentially and which gets at the reality of what is physically happening inside a computer.

And it is what I was doing with the toaster project as well. I was looking at the history of toasters and it’s interesting how this mundane object has its own design history. And the kinds of innovations in toasters, now we have pop-up toasters, but when we go back, it didn’t always pop-up. We can also go all the way back to when the electric plugs on the end of the cords used to screw into the lighting sockets.

Teayoon : If you had a time machine, and let’s assume we do by the practice of research and speculative reevaluation, would you decide a critical moments in history to travel to by its relations to the currents state of things?

Thomas : Well, I guess I’m more interested in this sort of ‘sweep’ as opposed to specific kind of periods. I’m always trying to connect those modern consumer objects right back to the first pre-human to make fire. 

Teayoon : I guess that’s how it’s different from a Discovery Channel documentary. This also brings us to our common interests on humor and wit. The documentaries can become dry and didactic quickly.

Thomas : There are people leaving comments on my talk on youtube[3], criticizing that project about not being pure enough, not being constrained to making everything from scratch. But also, if I had done that, it would have been really dry and also completely impossible.

Teayoon : I think one interesting reference is the historical reenactment. When I research about making computers from scratch, I find people online who make computers as if they were living in 1968[4] as a hobby and engineering challenge. I find inspiration and respect in projects like that, but my interest is rediscovering what other options could have happened. I find beauty in the design and the operation of early Mechanical computers[5]. Also the Analog computers[6] that were in experimental use between the World War I and the World War II are fascinating. Probably the most contemporary version of the computers that inherited mixed signal operation is the modular synthesizers. All these legacy from the past still provide clues to computing that does not just operate solely on the binary digits, but rather for the presence of people and somethings that are not easily quantifiable.

Handmade Computer by Taeyoon Choi

Thomas : You are using this processes of exploration, education and making to do something more than just a process for its own sake. And I think that’s interesting aesthetically because, computers are becoming more and more similar. They just all seem the same.

Teayoon : How do you position yourself in terms of social criticism and activist approach? For example, if I was to be a true activist, I might refuse to use the Apple and Samsung products and build my own laptop and run Linux[7]. I think it’s awesome if one can do it, but also it’s can be rather inconvenient.

Thomas : Yes, you don’t have the time (to do everything).

Teayoon : Yes, my position is to use whatever available to have the message get across. But again, we can be criticized for being complicit to the larger machine (of the Capitalist system).

Thomas : Definitely, (sigh) personally, how (do) I sleep at night? You can’t be the one person completely (out of the system). Because also where do you stop? You’d have to go and live in a cabin in the woods and even then, in order to survive you have to come into town and basically, what would be the point in that? Because for me, it’s much more interesting to reach the people outside of my world. I don’t feel like ‘preaching to the converted’.

Taeyoon: Where do you see yourself like working primarily? Is it somewhere in the mix of mainstream media and the the niche like design research ?

Thomas : Yes, pretty much. I don’t consider myself an artist really. I sort of do and I sort of don’t. I’m doing a project at the moment, about trying to become a goat. And that’s lots of fun and it is going to be more mainstream…

Teayoon : I think gallery can be a politically neutral space. It’s potentiality is inspiring.

Thomas : It’s difficult… I don’t know…the art world is so… basically I don’t know if I’m comfortable with the curating and gallery industries…

Teayoon : Is it because you are trained to be a designer mostly or do you position yourself as such?

Thomas : Oh, yes. I don’t have the background of attending an art school. Before design I did undergraduate studies in life science. After the TED talk, I got loads of calls from TV companies about like ‘Yeah. Will you make an airplane from scratch! Let’s do it.” All this kind of stuffs. It was exciting to be making thing from scratch but the experience was really painful.

Teayoon : Advertising or broadcasting have such a tight timeline and the intensity can be really demanding.

Thomas : It seemed like there was no room for any gray areas or any kind of new conversation.

Teayoon : I think we share the curiosity about the gray zone of (acknowledging) being part of the system but also criticizing it from within and outside.

Let’s get to the last question of the relations to the city and larger picture of the capitalist environment we live in.

Thomas : Of course, there is this idea that the city is the heart of manufacture, but London is not like that. It’s all about breathing stuff in and chucking the waste out. While, there’s this dream of future of local manufacturing and fab labs and stuffs like that.

Teayoon : You mean 3D printing the future? (laugh)

Thomas : Yes, I mean it really does just remain a dream because you walk into any shop in whatever city, everything is shipped in. I suppose, in getting behind these kinds of the products, you are getting behind the city as well.

Teayoon : (For the Toaster project) You were going to the coal mine[8] and odd places that serve no practical function anymore?

Thomas : Yeah, certainly in Britain they are a tourist attraction. Completely wonderful and deserted post industrial landscapes. And, the cities don’t exist without the rest of the world.

Teayoon : Exactly. To me, the cities are very much like the computers. You look at the highway and it’s basically like the data path inside a computer and the buildings are like the memory blocks. I want to spend some time in manufacturing cities like Shenzen[9].

Thomas : Exactly. I was spouting off about London and New York and these types of cities that I’m familiar with, but Seoul, Do you think that would be able to be seen as a computer as well?

Teayoon : Yeah. That is one really incredible computer and possibly also wicked in few other ways, for example, the urban development like redevelopment is a big issue. There are other artist and collectives exhibiting in the show ‘Listen to the city’[10] who been working on the river redevelopments and suburbanization of Korean country side, and Unmake Lab[11] who have been doing a lot of local grassroots activism and mobilizing through craft, combining social issues with hand making.

Thomas : I was thinking actually, because cities are, you can describe them as a computer but they are described as organic, aren’t they? It builds up through centuries in a kind of organic process, in gradual changes. What do you mean the city is like a computer, for me, the computer is rationally designed thing.

Teayoon : That’s a really sharp point. I think the computers are more than logical. For example, the mixed-signal computers are not just logic and there are some programs based on natural algorithm. And the genre of evolutionally computing is investigating if computers will grow and be able to fix itself.[12] But on the other hand, you are right, in general, the city is more a living thing and it’s just indescribable state of things being in the same place at the same time.

Thomas : In terms of this whole gentrification and the controversies, both the computer and the ecosystem are fairy easily disturbed. It’s like a voltage in a wrong place in a computer that can cause harm in the same way of clearing out an organically built up area to build a shiny glass central business district.

I think the best audience for a project about urban regeneration would be the millionaire property developers in his glass sky scraper. In order to affect any real change, somehow it needs to get to those people who don’t like your opinion.

Teayoon : But, have you ever heard of a real millionaire being inspired by an art project and making change of the urban planning? (laughs) What if Donald Trump suddenly finds himself thinking, “oh, the gentrification is gross! Glass buildings are terrible. We shall make it sustainable.” This sounds so good and I wish it was true.

Thomas : (laughs) Maybe another thing is that changing someone’s view of something doesn’t really happen like that. It’s just sort of gradual cultural direction which you can only hope to influence minuscule amount of things.

Teayoon : Yeah. I’m optimistic. The open source and maker culture is actually helping the finance and technology people to realize, “oh, it’s just not about the fastest, bigger and better technology.”

Thomas : I’m optimistic as well. Some days I’m not but today I’m optimistic!