ART OR DESIGN? AN INTERVIEW WITH MARK WU AND STEFAN WOELWER
"Kids are so much more literate in the language of Playstation than teachers. The one advantage the teacher has is the overview. You have to step back and teach the concepts, the theories, and the context of digital media in the world of media generally. If you teach the overview and hopefully get them to understand the context of video games and everything else, you could also use video games to point to the pleasures of reading a book. You could help kids see that they can learn to enjoy reading a book in the same way that they enjoy playing video games."
Richard Marshall interviews Mark Wu and Stefan Woelwer
COPYRIGHT © 2002, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS
SW: I am from Germany and have been living
in London for 5 years now. After a degree in communication design I studied
at the Centre for Electronic Arts to do an MA in Design for Interactive
Media where I met Mark. We had been freelancing for a few months for various
companies when we met Rob and set up our own company called "Kibook".
I am interested in digital media because it allows communication of all
sorts of things in an interactive way.
Frankly speaking I was surprised and a bit amused when I saw the description
of our talk in the ICA brochure. It is very difficult for me to define
myself as graphic artist or to distinguish between art and design. Do
we create art or design? I think we should talk about making statements
rather than creating art and communicating these statements rather than
doing design. We create visuals and we create interactions in our daily
work. We do so to communicate our client's message. People here and there
call that commercial work. From time to time we make a statement as we
did with the project "esfore-entropy".
It was about Interactivity. And we do so in a team, as it wouldn't be
I quite like my job, to take someone's idea or statement, to communicate
it, to translate it, to make things clearer. For me it's all about communication.
I was born and brought up in this country and my parents are from Hong
Kong. I did a first degree in Graphic Design and an MA in Interactive
Media Design. The reason for the MA is that having done my first degree
in graphic design, I found just doing the visual stuff wasn't enough.
I wanted to do work where there would be more interactivity with the people
who would actually see the work.
The MA was a good opportunity to let me do that. It wasn't just about
learning the technical skills but was a lot more about theory, about the
background to what goes on in people's minds, perceptions, when they go
through the experience of interacting with digital media. It was quite
free in that they didn't say you had to do something in this particular
commercial setting, say, but it was more like asking - what do you think
the media could do, how could you use it in specific issues? It was up
to us to choose those issues and interpret what you could say about them.
So what I'm interested in is less what people just see but rather what
people see and do; how they interact and play. It's not just a case of
looking at something and imagining or perceiving what they see in front
of them. Rather, I'm more interested in things that are more accessible.
That kind of works with what Stefan does as well. Its not that certain
works are made complex but rather understanding that there can be multi-levels
in everything we do. Some people may look at our work and think its fun
to play with. That's what I'm interested in. When we can, that's the kind
of work we want to do. Of course, when you're mixing your own ideas with
commercial work, the commercial work has to have other limitations on
it that your own work doesn't.
SW: In new media "Interaction" is usually
defined as the process between user and computer (often confused with
multiple choice) and the process in the users mind. But even more important
is the process, the interaction between the members of a production team.
If they are able to interact with each other, this process will be transferred
into interaction between the medium and the user. That is, of course,
not easy. You have to share ideas and you have to follow ideas. But it
is also great once you are in that process. Mark and I developed this
principle in our project "esfore-entropy" where we de-constructed each
other's designs. That helps to understand your team partner but more importantly
it gives a better result. We also collaborated with Visieu Lac, a nuclear
physicist who often brought us back to the real world as designers have
the tendency to extend their "creativity" to an unreal degree.
MW: I find it interesting that we do mix
with a wide range of different people when we're working. The nature of
multimedia projects means that you can't always have one person doing
everything all the time, because they won't have a wide enough skill base.
So we find that you get a lot of people from different backgrounds working
together as well as people from the same background. I think its quite
unusual to find me and Stefan, both being designers, working together
closely on some projects because it seems the nature of design or art
makes people want to work on their own to develop their "own" ideas. Or
maybe some designers are like that. Not all. With Stefan and I, in the
media we use, we both approach the media with a different way of thinking
which seems to work together.
SW: Because we are discussing the way and
not the aim as we mostly agree on that.
MW: Yes, maybe. Maybe it's just that we concentrate
on different aspects of the project when we're working together. I'm quite
interested in how one thing goes from one place to the next or when a
sequence is started off what happens next. People talk about the video
game generation and I guess my background (and age) means I've played
more video games than Stefan did growing up.
SW: I am a few months older...
MW: Only months?!? It's good if people can
work together because so many designers seem to want to work alone with
their ideas. It's easier.
Designers can be difficult. They can have problems to work on someone
else's idea. They often think that they have to have the idea. But that's
what you should be able to do. To follow someone else's idea and develop
3AM: It's about being
able to work in teams, listen, put across ideas but not so aggressively
no one hears you.
3AM: So is commerce
as bad a place to be now as it seemed to be for the artist?
Not for us. Commerce as a place allows us to meet people like Kazuko
MW: ...she is a performance artist and has
a band called "Frank
Chickens". A kind of punk kitsch pop band, which I remember from the
eighties. She does a lot of theatre work at the moment and plays around
with lots of visuals and props. We're in talks to work with her because
she's looking to work with multimedia and might want to work with our
SW: It will be an interesting collaboration.
Our digital stuff and her performance skills.
MW: She seems to have a lot of experience
in performance. She creates a whole load of bizarre stuff. In what we've
been discussing with her so far it's very much a collaboration we're talking
about. We each have our specialism and they will be in the work. They
will be brought together. Its success will be if the whole thing hangs
SW: So to think a bit more about the question
- where are the so-called artists now? They might be in new media. The
other day I was told by a professor for aesthetics that there is no art
in digital media because the possibility of permanent reproduction and
change will not allow us to finish a piece of artwork. In his world a
statement in digital media doesn't exist. However, these permanent reproductions
and copies of digital work make it difficult for us to find the quality
work. Simply because of the mass of stuff. It is also easy these days
to copy other people's work. "Copy your neighbour" is ok as long as it
helps you to understand him and to develop his idea further. But not for
a simple copy by just stealing the design.
MW: There are so many people talking about
what is art and what is just design - I define them as a way of thinking.
So for me, design is following a brief that someone else sets whereas
artists express what they have inside of them. They set their own brief.
SW: I disagree. Kazuko might just say to
us "Do something nice" and without giving a proper brief. She just might
want something done. So in that case you're not following a brief but
we're still designers as we communicate her 'statement'.
MW: But then again, we're not defining ourselves
as artists in that case. We are designers.
SW: So who are we?
MW: It's about the way of thinking the work
has. Designers would do the required research so they know where to get
their references - then they design with relevance to the brief. They may
take their "cookbook" of design techniques and produce work with these
techniques specifically for the client brief. The artist in them can define
the way it looks further.
SW: A lot of so-called artists do commercial
stuff. They ask themselves - what can I sell? They find a gallery that
likes their stuff. Then they do things in the style that works for that
3AM: What Matthew
Collings talks about and what he wants in art is what he calls 'soulfulness',
you know, an expression of real, deep whatevers. You seem to be suggesting
that you too would like to be able to do that sort of thing, and that
is what the artist is really about.
MW: It depends on the context. If you offer
me alot of money to lock me in a room for ten years and all I can do is
what you tell me to do I couldn't do that. But if I have my nine to five
job where I generally do as I'm told, but I could spend time outside that
time doing the self expressive stuff then I think there's a balance that
I can be happy with. I think the urge to do the self-expressive stuff
is there, and as long as you can do it, fulfil it whilst doing the commercial
stuff as well then its ok.
SW: You should be locked in a room but without
any money! Anyway I quite like it sometimes to do work I've been told
to do. I don't have to think, just to produce, which is a kind of meditation,
MW: Yes. It is quite tough if you have complete
creative freedom all the time. Our situation is quite good with our company
as we can make decisions for ourselves about the kind of work we're to
do. We can balance between commercial and personal work and we can put
quite a bit of our ideas into the client work as well.
3AM: Are there places
you look to for inspiration?
SW: Well, in other people's brains on a course
like our MA. As well as going to the London
Aquarium which is fantastic. Or Kazuko's work, theatre, for example,
is also very interesting. Music, Garden Centres, Video games.
MW: I like video games that are fast where
you have to have quick reflexes. Maybe that's to do with the popular video
games I grew up with. I can't just sit there passively and watch something.
I get restless. "Metal Gear Solid". I think that was a real video game
breakthrough in the way it merges narrative with the game-play. The narrative
is the game itself. Games like that are the ultimate multimedia because
they draw you in totally. I like games that go beyond what you see and
what you interact with; games that have their concepts and backgrounds
developed. "Rez" is a new one that sounds great (literally). Haven't played
it properly yet. But in that one, the further you go into the game, the more your
character evolves and you influence the music by the way you play, which
is the interesting thing for me.
3AM: Just like the
art/design distinction is giving us trouble, are we getting pleasures
form multi-media that are novelistic now? That we can begin to understand
the pleasures of a video game in the same way as maybe we understand the
pleasures of a good book or a good film? And that the distinction between
these things is also going to start to break down and become less important
than they seem to be to some people?
MW: Yes, I would agree with that. Film and
books and watching TV - they have their own appeal. If you're feeling
lazy you can watch TV and flick channels - you know what the effort required
is. But if you want to interact a bit more that's where you can get involved
in games. And that's the power of interactivity. The reader is drawn further
and further in. The development of narratives in interactive media can
be quite powerful simply because the story-line is not just to give a
context but the user can actually become part of the context and affect
SW: It will be interesting if that will be
the case in the future. There were laser discs from the end of the sixties
where the user could choose the story. For me Alex
Mayhew's masterpiece "Ceremony of Innocence" is brilliant, fantastic,
but a lot of people didn't like it at all. They said that if they wanted
to read a book they don't want to sit in front of a machine to interact
with everything. Anyway, the idea of having narratives in games has been
around for a long time.
3AM: Is the technology
getting better so we can actually fulfil the promises now in a way we
couldn't years ago? And more people are used to digital stuff now?
SW: Technology will have an impact of course.
MW: Digital literacy will have an impact
too. The technology is still getting better - we don't yet know how far
it can go. The quality of the best stuff that's produced is going to get
better and the better it gets, the more accessible it gets. So more people
are going to be exposed to more accessible work and there are going to
be more Playstations and so on. More digital work, more awareness, more
literacy. The flip side of the impact will be that there'll be a lot more
rubbish produced too, like on the NET at the moment. Getting back to the
laser disc, I don't think the technology was good enough. I remember seeing
one where you choose something, there's a slight pause, or you change
discs, and then you can move on. To me, that destroys the experience.
If it had been seamless then it would have worked.
SW: Yes. Technology will develop. But more
important might be to educate the user - something that is completely new
will not be easy to them. So their skills must be developed too i.e. they
need to learn the language of video games. Alongside the pleasures of
a good book too.
MW: Kids are so much more literate in the
language of Playstation than teachers. The one advantage the teacher has
is the overview. You have to step back and teach the concepts, the theories,
and the context of digital media in the world of media generally. If you
teach the overview and hopefully get them to understand the context of
video games and everything else, you could also use video games to point
to the pleasures of reading a book. You could help kids see that they
can learn to enjoy reading a book in the same way that they enjoy playing
SW: Kids still like grandfather reading a
story to them. Story telling tapes are back and we also like to read SMS
and we like listening to our neighbour's mobile phone conversation. But
you would also like to interact sometimes to stop him. There are no golden
rules. You just need a good teacher. It is interesting for us to produce
educational material. That is always a challenge.
MW: To me, if it's to do with learning then
it's to do with preparing foundations. If you want people to communicate
there's a foundation to be learnt. It's an understanding. Then they can
develop from there and do their own ideas, communicate what they want
to say. If you want to create a piece of work you have to understand the
context which the piece of work is in. Which might sound obvious. For
example, with Playstation, kids know the language involved, they've learned
the context and how it's evolved. They don't need to read the instruction
manual. Whereas adults who haven't the understanding of the context, they
have to read the manual. There's a level of knowing and understanding
the context of everything, and working with people to help them understand
what is going on.
I'm interested in trying to communicate something quickly. And that involves
using the language that people can understand. Visual languages that communicate
SW: Its about aesthetics isn't it? It's about
communicating and asking whether the same message has been received as
delivered. What I like to do is to leave the work open to the user. I
find that quite interesting. We get them to play with their imagination.
Get people to play with it, to change it for themselves.
MW: On the project we mentioned before, "Esfore-Entropy",
we decided not to do anything commercial, but to do something where people
could interact on many levels - and also use their imagination. There
were certain aspects that we wanted to use. 3D space, for example. We
wanted to use something with depth.
SW: That's when we went to the Aquarium,
this fantastic 3D space.
MW: Yes, you could stand there for hours.
We were interested in physics as a visual tool. There were influences
from artists as well. I quite like Rodin's
sculptures. You were looking at various artists as well weren't you?
SW: Again, it's all about imagination. If
you want to show a fish show its movement not its look. Use metaphors
to create design.
MW: The two of us were just passing our style
around to each other so it looks like just one person was doing it. Actually,
I think he's caused me some permanent mental trauma by destroying some
work of mine! But basically, it was a very free project - there was no
starting point or end point - we wanted the freedom to explore.
SW: That openness was the tricky thing. You
usually need a brief. But we left it open and the result was a nice piece
MW: Even though we kept it open we did have
a deadline. As it approached, it did become an issue about how we might
present our ideas. We ended up creating an interface for all the various
experiments. We had animations and combination pieces where we'd bolted
several ideas together and created an interface that allowed you to view
all these different ideas. In the end we used a little bit of text - not
too much - so that users who viewed the project could understand it. We
ended up creating a sequence of tools, which could be a vision of how
multimedia could show certain things such as movement, or how different
kinds of information could be navigated.
SW: It has been put together as a kind of
interactive movie where you could use tools to go from one level to the
next level. It was never finished; it always changed. We got so many different
comments about it - some nasty and some were awards as well.
MW: We had a guy who sells art wanting to
sell what we had. He wanted to know if we could frame some of the visual
ideas and put it on a wall. There are plasma screens which are like picture
frames and he wanted to know if we could use something like that. And
there were other people who were design-based who were really interested
in how it could be used for certain types of interfaces. I think because
there were different parts to it various people picked up on the aspects
they understood. Artists saw the art. Designers the design and so on.
Because there was a maths and physics influence, we had maths people recognising
these parts. And some picked up on the whole.
SW: We showed the project in San Francisco
and one guy, a mathematician, understood that there had to be maths involved.
It was really brilliant. He directly understood it. It was a proper virtual
space we had created. A proper virtual world. That is, by the way, a big
discussion in itself. What is a virtual space? Do we always talk about
the same one? How to define it? Mathematicians can define such a virtual
space. There is also a virtual space defined by religious philosophical
aspects. But how to define the virtual world done by designers? Visieu
as a mathematician and a nuclear physicist was often very helpful as he
made it clear to us that we designers talked complete rubbish. But sometimes
he came up with ideas but he didn't know what to do with them. And we
would. And we'd say 'that's great, let's integrate it.' Because as a team,
we had the ability to do that.
3AM: What are the
differences between you?
MW: It's not just skill bases but it's also
background too. I always like to point out that out of the three of us
I'm the youngest!
SW: I would like to point out that I am the
MW: The most experienced?!? It does help
having these differences. You haven't met Rob (Kibook's Technical Director)
but when people have met the three of us together at the same time they
comment on how different we are. This seems an unusual thing. Its not
just nationalities - Rob is English - and you don't always find people
as different as we are that can work together as we do. It's good.
SW: Of course with ups and downs from time
to time as part of the process. But it's always constructive.
MW: Yes, so when we have other people working
with us we like to keep an eye on that, we're careful who we choose to
work with. It's about team dynamics.
But again, what are we? Visieu, he has a PhD in Nuclear Physics but he
is also doing digital media. So does that make him an artist?
3AM: So in terms of
digital media you might be saying you can't just produce art using one
person because there are too many aspects. You need teams.
MW: There is often too much to it for just
one person perhaps, though it is also not unusual for one person to create
a project with their visual design and technical skills. You then get
back to thinking about the artist and the designer. Maybe the artist doesn't
want some of the responsibilities of the designer to get work to communicate,
so in that sense its safer to be the artist than the designer.
SW: The challenge is to avoid clichés and
conflicts with the subject. Some people are so involved in the subject
- say their politics - so that they are not able to find this very important
distance to their work. Students in my seminars are often too involved
in the subject of their project. They want change the world but not their
design. They also think they are artists and have to express themselves
rather than communicating the subject. You have to step out from time
to time to watch yourself.
MW: Yes, the designer in the artist helps
to control the self-indulgence in themselves.
SW: Ha, designers and artists again which
we still haven't defined yet...
MW: I studied how to draw out the layouts
before putting things on to the screen. Whereas with computers these days
everything can be done so quickly, students can do it straight onto the
screen. I don't like that method of learning because it is so quick you
bypass a thought process. You miss out on a lot of thinking that you have
to do. If you plan out screen layouts on paper beforehand for your website
it encourages you to think about the website as a whole not as a single
screen. If it's a commercial project and we have to do something really
quickly then there often isn't time. But I like to when it's possible.
I do sketches when I can. I used to spend a long time at college researching.
But in the commercial world, a client wants it done fast and within a
tight budget. They can't afford to give us the time. We need to slow down
and allow ourselves the thinking time. Do it on paper.
SW: We recently had a discussion with a director from another multimedia company who said that everyone in his company must be able to draw. I would say that everyone should be able to express his ideas in whatever form or shape to communicate.