Dialogue with Ben Chang and Silvia Ruzanka

Fall 2010: v.06 n.02: Dynamic Coupling

 Becoming, 2007. Ben Chang and Silvia Ruzanka.

Becoming, 2007. Ben Chang and Silvia Ruzanka.

Becoming is a two-channel computer-driven video installation, in which two computer-animated figures live in a minimally-furnished virtual domestic space. They stand and watch the viewer, yawn, sit on the sofa, talk on their cell phones, each on his or her own LCD screen. Alongside this simulation, another process continually manipulates their geometric mesh data, exchanging the vertex and polygon data between the two figures. Over time this process causes each figure to take on attributes of the other, though distorted by the structure of their digital information. The process has none of the smoothness of a “morphing” effect, instead rupturing the surface of the figures and turning them into fragmented hybrids – two figures each becoming something new from the other’s presence. Becoming is a durational piece – the process is slow and continuous, lasting weeks or months. 
Documentation can be accessed at: www.bcchang.com/art/becoming/

How much time do you spend together? Do you live together or share a studio, or do you just get together to work on projects as they come up?

How much time: most of it! Even when we were living in different cities we spent a ton of time together over Skype. We used to just leave Skype on in the background as we went about our daily activities. We call it “ambient telepresence.” In the past we’ve had separate studio spaces, but now we’re sharing one because baby wants her own room.

When you are working on something do you schedule structured time together in a physical space, or meet online, or is it more organic than that?

Scheduling isn’t really our thing. Important spaces for our creative discussions include our kitchen, long car rides, and walks in the mall. Some of our best ideas come about while we’re just doing mundane chores. When we have a project in the works, we tend to grab whatever time is available.

Do you keep your personal/professional lives separate, or have they become seamless and indistinct? Is this okay?

There are no boundaries. … It’s been that way pretty much since the beginning. It’s hard to imagine it in any other way. It took some work, but we’re getting pretty good at it.

Can you, or do you, turn off your research/studio practice(s)?

Sure! The difficult thing is finding consistent blocks of time to focus on work in the studio.

When and how did you meet each other and under what circumstances?

We met in college. Ben was at Amherst, and Silvia was at Smith, which makes us an archetype of some kind. We were introduced by a mutual friend who thought that it was funny that we are both from Kentucky. We almost met many times before then. We think Silvia saw Ben’s band once, but he was just the drummer so nothing came of that. In an unrelated incident we think Ben once accidentally stole a pair of Silvia’s shoes while she was roller- skating.

At what point did you start making work together?

We were involved in each other’s work at different points for a while, but it’s only been in the last few years that we’ve deliberately focused on making work that’s inherently collaborative.

Was there a growing period, when you had to get a feel for each other’s process/priorities, learn how to communicate – or did you click right away?

In terms of ideas and interests, we clicked right away, but working out a process took longer – it’s a matter of learning each other’s boundaries, strengths and weaknesses, how we work and what stresses us out. Important rules include making sure that everyone’s fed and had enough sleep before making any big decisions.

Do you gravitate towards roles in your practice – based on strengths, or personality, or skills? Or is every project a different kind of adventure?

Each project is different, but we’ll often take specific roles based on the project. Some things we’ve noticed: Ben is usually the one typing and editing; Silvia is usually the one dictating. A lot of our projects develop through one of us having a general sort of idea, and the other one taking it and honing it – those roles flip back and forth. Silvia is in charge of pretty much anything physical and detail-oriented, presentation and installation, and figuring out how to get a piece from prototype to something finished. Ben is good at prototyping and implementation, particularly with programming. Silvia is good at debugging. Ben handles Python and C++; Silvia handles Flash and Pure Data. Ben does writing; Silvia does debugging. Ben does cooking; Silvia does baking.

How do you generate the concepts you work with? Do you draw, write, photograph, or do any sort of regular background practice? Is this a shared thing?

We spend a lot of time talking. Most of our ideas emerge from long, ongoing conversations; at some point the idea crystallizes. Ben draws all the time, and Silvia has an immense bookmarks menu in Firefox.

How do you make choices and negotiate decisions about what direction to take with projects?

We’ve been together for such a long time that we’ve learned to trust each other’s opinions. The difficult decision points usually play out like this:

(A) Ben just wants to get the thing done, and Silvia demands another revision. (Silvia is usually right.)

(B) Silvia is caught in an endless loop of revision, and Ben has to pull her out.  (Ben is usually right.)

Does your collaboration ever involve more people? If no, why not? If yes, then when and how does that work?

Yes, we’ve done a number of different kinds of collaborations. The times it hasn’t worked out as well were when the two of us weren’t as comfortable with our own collaborative process. It works well when everyone trusts each other’s opinions; shared vision is good, but shared sense of humor is better; and it’s crucial that everyone’s neuroses be well aligned.

Will you describe a project that didn’t work out or you didn’t follow through on? Can you describe something that you couldn’t agree on or you didn’t feel like you were both “into?”

There are many projects that we haven’t followed through on, though a lot are just from lack of time and are still on the back burner. Ideas that we’re not both into tend to find a place in our individual work.

What kinds of singular processes or practices, studio or research, do you maintain as individuals that you may or may not bring into the collaboration?

It’s hard to say, because even our individual work has a certain kind of collaborative aspect in that we influence each other anyway. We’ll usually end up helping each other out with things like finishing up a project even if it’s not an official collaboration, and we constantly bounce ideas off each other. The individual parts are more oriented around themes and interests than around different practices.

Do you make your own work in addition to the collaborative work, and what sort of need does this fill?

Yes. We haven’t really thought about it filling a particular need, though – it’s more a question of what we’re each interested in working on at that time.  The collaborative and individual practices feed into each other, too – sometimes a collaborative piece will emerge in response to an individual one, and sometimes one of us will do an individual piece extending something we developed during a collaborative one.

If you maintain an individual practice as well as a collaborative practice, have you run into conflicts of interest, time-management/priority issues, or experienced communication problems due to multiple focuses at any point? How is this resolved?

We’re pretty good at prioritizing, although it often seems as though our life is in a constant state of triage. So basically whatever is due tomorrow, or today, gets first priority.

What are the strengths in working collaboratively and what are the challenges in working collaboratively?

SR: What I enjoy about the collaborative process is just the dialogue that you have. We come up with different things than we’d ever think of individually, and it’s a way of sharing different perspectives. Plus I like the company.

BC: I like working in a way that gets me out of my own head and isn’t isolated. The ideas are richer and it’s more fun.

What sort of theory, cultural circumstances, or life scenarios influence or inform your decision to work collaboratively? Would you say that your collaboration is philosophically driven, or more pragmatic?

On an individual level, our life and work are deeply intertwined, and then, in our relationship, our lives are intertwined, so the work is too.

If you teach, how does collaborative practice inform the way you facilitate student projects and teach studio courses?

SR: I’m a big believer in creating a collaborative environment in the classroom. I like to think of it as an environment of distributed knowledge, whether the projects are formally collaborative or not.

BC: I’m now teaching courses centered on team projects mixing students from art, design, computer science and cognitive science, so I’m thinking about ways to bring my experiences in collaborations into the classroom a lot more.

If you teach, do you co-teach? If you do co-teach, how has that been received by the students, and how has this been received in the academic institutions you have worked with?

So, we don’t “officially” co-teach, but we tend to help each other out with classes a lot. Sometimes that means being a kind of unofficial T.A. for a day; sometimes we come in and do tutorials or crits for each other.

Students generally find us amusing; we like to think of it as generating a nice sense of community. We would love to be able to officially co-teach a class – it would be a hoot and a half. When we do have an opportunity to co-teach or do a joint lecture, we feed off each other’s energy.

Please point to us at a project or projects you would like to describe. Include links or attach files. If relevant, share with us a sense of the collaborative back-and-forth that may have gone into planning and making the work.

A piece we’d like to talk about is “Becoming,” which is a collaborative project and also a piece that is about our relationship. Before we got married, Silvia’s father (who used to be a Catholic priest), gave us this little talk about the meaning of marriage. From that conversation came this idea of relationships as a process of “becoming.” The beautiful part of the relationship is that you’re in a constant state of change, and it’s change informed by the other. After a number of years, we noticed that we’d do things like adopt each other’s mannerisms, which were in fact slightly modified copies from a previous iteration, and so on. It’s a resonant feedback loop. At the time we were making this piece, we were also living apart, so our relationship became one that was maintained virtually. We started thinking about ways of visualizing this process of becoming, and how it could fit with this virtual space we were now inhabiting.

Silvia created avatars of the two of us, which live in a minimal kind of space on two wall-mounted monitors. Ben then wrote a program to manipulate the geometries on the avatars. The program takes data from one avatar and exchanges it with data from the other. For example, bits of the data that make up Ben’s elbow get exchanged with the data that make up Silvia’s elbow. This process continues infinitely, and never resolves into a complete transformation of one into the other – both are constantly changing, always becoming new entities. As the program runs, the avatars’ geometries get deformed and take on completely new identities. It’s as though we wrote a program for reproduction, but instead of combining our DNA, it’s simply scrambling and recombining our entire bodies to form new ones.

Ben Chang and Silvia Ruzanka are an artist couple who are also frequent collaborators. Their individual and collaborative work uses a range of technologies and media, from algorithmic video and virtual reality environments to Kinetoscopes and telegraphs. Ben is interested in fractures in ordered systems, creative play and futile computer games. Silvia is interested in obsolescence, erasure, and the human trace in technologies.  They live near Albany, New York, and work at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where Silvia teaches digital art and Ben is co-director of an interdisciplinary program in games and simulation.