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Art, Politics, and Interdisciplinary Collaboration: A Conversation with Jeff Lieberman

Academic journal article Afterimage

Art, Politics, and Interdisciplinary Collaboration: A Conversation with Jeff Lieberman

Article excerpt

Jeff Lieberman is an American interdisciplinary artist based in Boston with four degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): two Bachelor of Science degrees (in physics and mathematics), and two Master's degrees (in mechanical engineering and media arts and sciences, with a special interest in robotics:. For a brief stint (2008-09), he was the host of the Discovery Channel's Time Warp, which offered slow-motion footage of events that could never be seen with the naked eye. often revealing surprising aspects of reality. Artistically, Lieberman is best known for his kinetic sculptures and mechanical installations--some of which have been funded by the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. He is also an acoustic/electronic musician and professional photographer with a personal interest in spirituality and meditation as vehicles to alleviate suffering. Lieberman has a history of collaborating with others across the inventive spectrum, and he is a notable public speaker and educator. This conversation took place via email November 1-10, 2016.

JACQUELYN DAVIS: You have several science degrees focusing on complementary skill sets. It's apparent that your educational background influences your practice. How has your practice unfolded in relation to your educational pursuits? Were you an artist before you began your education at MIT, or did you begin to identify as an artist later--and if so, when?

JEFF LIEBERMAN: If you are a poet and you grow up in China, then you're going to use the Chinese language for your poetry. Throughout my life, I've learned physics, math, mechanical engineering, and robotics, and studied consciousness and perception. Naturally, those have become the language I use in my work; the "paint" I use is circuitry, knowledge about the human visual system, and math. As 1 learned more in any discipline, it was added to the background of imagination. But these things all started before I can remember, and I agree with Picasso that we are born artists.

JD: Tell me about your first passions in primary and secondary school. How do these initial curiosities connect to the adult that you have grown up to be?

JL: The first passion that I remember is Lego. Legos still feel revolutionary in the sense of using a finite number of pieces to construct an infinite number of expressive possibilities--but they have to work mechanically, too. So implicitly, you're engineering, learning about structures before you even know what learning is.

The second passion I remember is math. I was that kid who would come home at age nine and try to figure out a trick to adding up 1 + 2 + 3... + 100. There is a formula that makes it easy to do the calculation, and 1 loved thinking about problems like that and figuring them out--the hunt was a pleasure. It's a nice parlor trick, too, because I can get the answer (5,050) almost instantly in my head. The fact that there were ways to distill patterns from an infinitely complex world was fascinating to me.

JD: Some of your first projects, such as The Drip Project [273-o73A] (2001) and Dani Eyes (2002), focused on sensory investigations and the interplay between light and sound; then later, your interest in robotics (as in Cyberflora from 2002) and kinetic sculptures (as in Moore Pattern from 2007) surfaced. How do your first projects and preliminary sketches while at MIT speak to your more complex projects such as Absolut Quartet (2009) and Sky Wave (2016) that followed?

JL: Many of my early projects were just feeling into the space--into different basic questions. Drip and Dani Eyes were basic musings into capturing audio and diffracting light; Moore Pattern was kinetic, but with only six moving parts. In some sense, it feels like just learning the language--as in music, learning about scales. But here, "scales" are different forms of inquiry--into sensory experience--so as to gain a deeper intuition into those physical aspects. …

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