Interview by Mikhal Weiner
Mischa Abakumova is an alumnus of Parson’s School of Design and Technology, a designer with a twist. On a recent, gray, autumn morning I sat down with her at a local cafe to hear about her relocation to NYC and her wide variety of projects - whether teaching kids creative tech and interactive design at Blink Blink, exploring how tech and dance can interact at Lehman College, or imagining futuristic objects with the Iyapo Repository. She’s also building a musical instrument that will record the pulse of the musician and use that along with other biological information to define a message characterized by pitch, timbre, and duration. With each of her answers, the day grew clearer and more inviting, until we hardly noticed the drizzling sky at all.
Abakumova, 27, was raised in Yaroslavl, about 4 hours from Moscow. “It’s like Boston”, she laughed. “When I was about four I went to Moscow and saw the high-rise buildings. I knew I wanted to live in a city.” Fifteen years later she got her chance - while studying architecture in Russia she came to New York for a summer and never left. A naturally curious person, she finds that NYC’s strong DIY community allows her to experiment with defining space and experience through tech.
“Growing up in a town with a rich historical background definitely had its upsides and drawbacks. A thousand years of history nurtured respect for tradition and understanding the need for cultural preservation in me. However, my relationship with it has been very complicated. I vividly remember the moment when I started analyzing different traditions, folk stories, food recipes, and questioning which were uniquely Russian and which were borrowed and appropriated from other cultures.”
Abakumova dabbles in many fields - environmental design, architecture, graphic design, animation, and web design (to name a few), but the thread that connects her current projects is an insatiable curiosity. Her works draw connections between history, philosophy, and technology.
Her main short term project is a workshop for Lehman College she’s teaching with her design partner, Ayo (Ayodamola Tanimowo) Okunseinde, who she met while studying at Parson’s. The workshop explores ways to incorporate technology, such as motion sensors triggering projectors and other visual effects, as a continuation of human movements. Student dancers are taught to program these sensors, but also take time to discuss the introspective side of utilizing technology in daily life and art.
She encourages student dancers to ask philosophical questions. What if machines take on the human quality of believing in a Creator and start worshiping us? What if they question our authority? When I asked about this, she just said that “[Religion, technology and humanity] is something that’s very interesting to hear [digital natives] work through.” To Abakumova, it’s equally important that students learn that technology can help them “use their limbs like a paintbrush” and ask questions about how this fits into a continuous historical arc of religion and humanity.
“In my hometown, Yaroslavl, most efforts were focused on preservation of history, essentially turning the city into a large scale open air museum. There was little to no room for young creatives to experiment. As an act of defiance, a group of my friends and I organized a festival that brought together different art forms. We claimed and repurposed underdeveloped areas - parks, abandoned parking lots, dilapidated buildings - as hosting platforms. In the work that I do today, I like to explore and reference traditions of different cultures, but always try to find the balance of how this knowledge would translate in the future. This was partially why I got interested in joining Iyapo Repository project.”
The Iyapo Repository is an ongoing archive of futuristic objects created to imagine, and therefore affirm, the futures of people of African descent. “To [Okunseinde], a Nigerian man born in the States and raised in different parts of the world, it was a natural course of action to identify [...] social injustice towards marginalized communities.” The project draws on community participation; the artists conduct workshops where participants of all ages imagine and create possible objects by tracing a logical arc of traditional African materials and cultural objects. “While it started with the African Diaspora, it quickly spread to other disenfranchised communities as well, because social justice isn't confined just to your immediate circle.”
Mikhal: You've worked, and continue to work, in many educational roles, exploring tech with students at Blink Blink and now at Lehman College. Why is this kind of exploratory work important to you? How do you empower students to use technologies on their own?
Mischa: I never thought I’d find myself in the position of teaching and I never sought after it either. When I first started at Blink Blink all I wanted to do was technology powered products that would hopefully make technology more inclusive to all. When I helped host my first few kids’ workshops at Blink Blink, though, my eyes opened to a whole new world of possibilities.
You really need to deeply understand how technology works and what you’re trying to do with it in order to explain it to someone else, especially someone with a limited knowledge of physics. Also, kids - especially 5 and 6 year olds - are naturally creative and not yet influenced by the standardized learning system. They can take a simple piece of technology and put it in a context that you have not considered or ask a question that you do not have an immediate answer to. I should also mention the endless reserve of patience that you need to muster up in order to work with youngsters. Working with kids definitely pushes my creativity forwards and allows me to stay current with new trends, and the fact that my students come from different backgrounds keeps me on my toes. I have to be very flexible and think outside the box about the application of technology in meaningful and relevant ways.
Mikhal: One of your main projects is a spatial, interactive musical instrument that uses biological information tracking to create new levels of communication. What drew you to create this object? How do you think technology can enhance or detract from human communications?
Mischa: Octocom was the original project that sparked my interest in using biological information to enhance communication. At the time, when I was working on the concept, I was very interested in the ways humans converse face to face as opposed to online interactions. When we converse face to face, we rely on things like tone of voice, timbre, intonation, body language, and eye contact. By analyzing all this abundant data, we subconsciously calibrate our body to the same wavelength as the person we are talking to. This happens so that we can react to the same emotions as our conversational partner.
Obviously, there are various degrees of synchronization, but the idea is that we do this to form special bonds. In digital communication, these patterns are removed, causing a lot of misunderstanding and confusion as people often misinterpret and assume. My solution was to use the biological data our bodies generate and apply it to the metaphor of a radio wave. Octocom was using our pulse to alter voice messages. Custom built software was taking measurements of the human pulse when the user was recording a voice message and altering it once the pulse of the recipient was available. The amount of distortion would change based on the discrepancies between the pulse measurements; the further the parameters from each other, the more distorted the message is. So the receiver has to work toward synchronizing her pulse to the pulse of the sender and getting to the same wavelength thus fostering better, deeper communication and connection. More recently, the project has evolved into a spatial musical instrument that uses the same mechanics to generate sounds. It was a very natural transition, many think of music as a binding, expressive element. I’m curious to see what can be done with it and how music can potentially enhance the way we converse.
Mikhal: Who are some of the people in your fields who you find particularly inspirational and why?
Mischa: NYC has such a vibrant community of artists working with technology, which makes it easy to meet people who are doing awesome things. Check out some of people I follow:
Dave and Gabe: a duo of artists who work with technology to create interactive experiences. There are many people working in the experiential area of design, but D&G create playful, engaging and poetic interactions that are accessible to anyone, and not just a few tech gurus. I first saw their art at the big music festival, which so many artists would consider detrimental to the art, because of the way that concert goers interact with installations, treating it like wallpapers for Instagram. Entertainment gets a bad rep for being shallow, but in reality, it might be the hardest industry to be in. Artists showing work in an entertainment space have a responsibility to make technology accessible and engaging to everyone, while still conveying a compelling message.
Zack Lieberman: Zack was a super star of my program at Parsons. His name was the first name students learnt entering the program. Zack was one of the guys behind OpenFrameworks, an uber popular C++ library that is widely used in creative tech community. His work is displayed around the world and in the permanent collection in MoMA. Now I share a workspace with Zack and I have even more respect for his practice. Despite having international success, he works on his craft every day, which takes an enormous amount of self-discipline, something that I have struggled with! Everyday, when I go to his Instagram it's an enormous source of inspiration and wheel to get me going and keep adding to it. He also started a School of Poetic Computation - a hybrid between school, residency and a research group.
Theo Watson. Theo was Zack’s closest collaborator at some point created many acclaimed projects together including OpenFrameworks and Eyewriter. But the project that really stuck with me is Connected Worlds - a massive scale interactive installation that can be seen at the New York Hall of Science. It’s one of the most magnificent and poetic pieces of technology I've seen. It's fairly simple in its implementation, but the impact is undeniable. When going through the installation - one is completely transported into the fairytale making you completely forget that this environment is completely artificial. What drew me to the project was the fact that it wasn't trying to take away or substitute nature, but rather to create an imaginary world that can only exist there. I'm glad I found this project early on in my career as I was struggling to justify the creation of the artifice when I could be encouraging people to interact with the real world. Connected Worlds opened my eyes to how technology can enhance and alter its surroundings.
My conversation with Mischa Abakumova left me full of wonder. After just an hour or so of hearing her unique, poetic way of looking at technology and humanity I was full of questions, excited to learn more. We hugged our goodbyes, and headed down the misty streets of Brooklyn - two simple, complex humans walking off into a city full of invention.