IDEA 2008: An Interview with Elliott Malkin

Investigating Invisibles

Even if you’re trying to find one, the connections among Elliott Malkin‘s body of work are hard to see. Part family history, part science project, part home-movie, his projects span genres that, initially, seem incidental. Yet many of his web-based projects—whether they investigate “butterfly vision” or install digital graffiti throughout lower Manhattan—are connected in one simple way: they all explore unofficial signals in public space. Taking on the invisible and the imagined, his projects invite viewers to imagine things that operate beyond their perception.

His latest project, Graffiti for Butterflies, is even further afield from his typical subjects as it deals with natural science. By directing Monarch butterflies to urban food sources it “is the equivalent of a fast-food sign on a highway, advertising rest stops (waystations) to monarchs traveling through the area.”

At the upcoming IDEA conference, Malkin will discuss some of his more renowned projects, as well as some material not yet seen online. I recently got some of his time to find out more about it.

Liz Danzico: As an artist, your work investigates the overlap between memory, information, and physical space. How did you begin investigating memory as a key part of your subject matter?

Elliott Malkin: I’m actually not that interested in memory in the abstract. I’m more interested in what’s stored there, namely, the memories. For a time I was obsessed with reconstructing the life of someone I had never met, my great-grandfather Hyman Victor. I enjoyed the process—excavating memories from those who knew him. But I was probably more interested in the traces of him that remained in the physical record, first at his gravestone, then on microfilm inside government archives.

Ultimately, I found much of the information about Hyman on genealogical websites. While the memories continued to disintegrate everywhere else, on the Internet they seemed fairly well preserved (though even these will fade.) I compiled the results of this investigation at Everything I Know About Hyman Victor. I also created a device called Cemetery 2.0 that attempts to address the limitations I saw in the way that information about people is preserved.

LD: What kinds of limitations were you seeing, and how did Cemetery 2.0 intend to remedy them?

EM: Mainly that gravestones tend to provide little information about the life of a person beyond their name, date of birth, and date of death. Almost all other information about the person’s life is decaying in public archives, dispersed in fragments across the Internet, and, sadly, fading away in survivors’ minds. My idea for Cemetery 2.0 was to bundle all surviving information with their actual grave. I did this by establishing a wireless connection to the world’s most comprehensive online genealogical database, where amateur genealogists are constantly uploading and revising records about their forebears.

LD: How has an investigation of your family helped you explore information and memory? Do they mind being the public subject of your art?

EM: I suspect Hyman Victor would have appreciated his great-grandson taking an interest in him. But I take it you’re asking me about my video projects, such as Family Movie, in which I have my parents reconstruct scenes from our trove of Super 8 home movies from the 1970s. They’ve seen themselves on the big screen and on my website, and seem to get a kick out of it. As for my interest in my family, it’s probably an expression of self-absorption. That said, I tend to widen my definition of self to encompass broader categories, such as American Jew. But not all of my work deals so directly with myself or my family. I have a feeling that when I finish Mother’s History of Birds, my autobiographical streak will be satisfied.

LD: Your latest project, Graffiti for Butterflies, seems to deviate from your previous work in that it deals with natural science. How does this project fit within the larger evolution of your work, if at all?

EM: Well, it uses graffiti, which are unofficial signals in public space, something I’ve dealt with numerous times in my previous work. In eRuv I put semacode stickers on various street corners to reconstruct a sacred space that once existed on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In Modern Orthodox I took it a step further, using graffiti to demarcate conceptual boundaries directly onto the surface of the city. In both of these cases, my audience was human. In Graffiti for Butterflies, my audience included butterflies. And there is a further connection to my other work dealing with the invisible or the imagined, in that the ultraviolet aspect of the graffiti operates beyond our perception.

LD: What are the differences between designing for humans versus designing for, well, non-humans? How can you understand your audience when there’s no empathy, or possibility for empathy, between you and them?

EM: It can be argued that I don’t have much empathy with my human audience, but that’s a separate question. When designing for butterflies, I make assumptions about butterfly behavior based on my 7th grade-level understanding of Monarch butterflies. I know that they can see ultraviolet light and that they migrate through massive swathes of North America on their way down to Mexico each winter. So I created Graffiti for Butterflies to instigate some thinking about forms of interspecies communication that are, so to speak, symbiotic: aesthetically stimulating to humans, nutritionally beneficial to butterflies.

LD: What will you be talking about at IDEA?

I’m going to discuss my projects that deal with information and public space. I’ll start with some of the work I alluded to above pertaining to the eruv, a symbolic boundary erected around Jewish neighborhoods as part of the observation of the Sabbath, including eRuv and Modern Orthodox. I’ll also discuss Cemetery 2.0 and Graffiti for Butterflies, with plenty of material not seen on my website.

LD: By day, you work as an information architect for NYTimes.com. How does your work as an artist influence your work as an information architect?

EM: It’s not clear how they might influence one another in any explicit sense. At The Times I work within a set of organizational requirements. In my personal work, I define my own requirements. At The Times I iterate on established design patterns to help produce a consistent, quality user experience (and help invent entirely new patterns when necessary).

In my own work I think I see patterns, though I am able to control or distort these patterns in ways that would be absurd and unproductive in a professional context. And to me this draws an essential distinction between design and art. Design has a functional purpose. Designers have clients and external requirements. Art has any or none of the above. It has distortion for the sake of distortion, if I want it to. Or it can solve real-world problems. It’s up to me.

 

About Elliott Malkin

Elliott Malkin is an artist and information architect whose work explores the intersection of memory, information, and physical space. His work has focused on the eruv, a symbolic boundary erected around Jewish neighborhoods as part of the observation of the Sabbath. This includes eRuv, a virtual reconstruction of an eruv that once existed in lower Manhattan, and Modern Orthodox, a next-generation eruv constructed with lasers and surveillance cameras. Many of Elliott’s other projects concern the use of new media as a proxy for memory. His short film Family Movie is a reconstruction of scenes from his family’s collection of home movies from the 1970’s. He is also the creator of Cemetery 2.0, a device that connects gravestones to the genealogical database of the Mormon Church. His most recent work is Graffiti for Butterflies, a project designed to facilitate interspecies communication between humans and monarch butterflies in urban areas. Elliott is originally from Chicago and currently lives in New York City, where he works as an Information Architect for The New York Times. His work has been featured at Eyebeam, the International Documentary Festival, and The Contemporary Artists’ Center.

 

About IDEA (Information Design Experience Access)

This conference addresses issues of design for an always-on, always-connected world. Where “cyberspace” is a meaningless term because the online and offline worlds cannot be made distinct. Where physical spaces are so complex that detailed wayfinding is necessary to navigate them. Where work processes have become so involved, and so digitized, that we need new processes to manage those processes.

This conference brings together people who are addressing these challenges head on. Speakers from a variety of backgrounds will discuss designing complex information spaces in the physical and virtual worlds.

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