Image above: Portrait by Andrea Blanch
Andrea Blanch: How do you feel 21st century technologies enable us to do what we couldn’t do before?
Julia Kaganskiy: Well in some respects they just open up new possibilities. The way that we make images with computer processing power, or the way it allows us to do things at a scale or speed that was previously impossible. In other respects it’s just using new tools and new processes to make very similar things of the past. For example, one of the artists that’s working at NEW INC. right now is developing a new photographic process where he has basically created a 360 degree camera rig. He’s using, I think, 250 flashes. He’s essentially trying to capture moments in time where the object in the frame is frozen, but the light source continues moving around it. So you have this object with a dynamically moving light source. You’re seeing a moment in time from a myriad of different perspectives in a way that was previously impossible. He’s just using this as a new technique. He hasn’t figured out what he’s doing with it yet, but it has all kinds of different applications that he’s really excited about. It’s a new way of image making that’s unlocking possi- bilities that were previously unavailable to the naked eye. The software is part of what makes that rig possible. It allows him to automatically control when the cameras go off.
AB: Why wouldn’t he go to Kickstarter and get crowdfunding, and go to you instead?
JK: I’m not saying that he wouldn’t. The Kickstarter revolution, if you will, is one of the things that inspired NEW INC. I was working as a journalist for a while covering a lot of the creators on Kickstarter who were getting funded, and sometimes their projects were runaway successes that exceeded their expectations. They found themselves in this position of really having to figure out the production, the manufacturing, customer service, the order fulfillment, the pricing structure of all of these things that they hadn’t really anticipated. When really they were just; “I just want to do the thing I want to do, and here I’ve created all these rewards and incentives that I have to figure out how to publish 2000 copies and send them out to my Kickstarter backers and figure out all the distribution.” Nobody was really helping them figure that out.
There’s a certain degree of business training that goes into actually executing a successfully fund- ed Kickstarter campaign. There have been many articles written about this, the runaway projects of Kickstarter. How many of those projects actually come to life? Part of the reason that so many of them fail is because the creators don’t have the support or infrastructure to thrive.
I see NEW INC and Kickstarter as being quite complementary. In fact that’s one of the reasons why we reached out to Yancey Strickler, the CEO and founder of Kickstarter to be one of our advisors.
We intend to work really closely with them because I really see what we’re doing as part of the same change in the cultural landscape and creative production. On the one hand people buy plat- forms like Kickstarter to bring their ideas to life through crowd funding, through the support of their peers or strangers. But on the other hand they have to contend with all these new challenges that they haven’t previously anticipated or wouldn’t have had to deal with otherwise.
View of completed NEW INC workspace, designed by SO-IL architects (Florian Idenburg and Jing Liu) in collaboration with Gensler, photo courtesy New Museum, New York @NahoKubota
AB: So NEW INC is kind of like getting experience in business?
JK: We’re getting to this stage of putting together the professional development programming that’s going to be happening at NEW INC. This isn’t business school. It never aspired to be. But, at the same time, what is the level of business training that we’re providing? How are we re- sponding to people’s needs and expectations in that respect? I’ve always said from the beginning that my hope is to provide people with basic tools to apply to their current projects and whatever they go on to do after the fact. We’re going to bring in a lawyer to talk about intellectual property. Are you going to be an expert in intellectual property? No. But you’ll have an understanding about how to have a conversation about it. You’ll be able to negotiate your intellectual property when you’re dealing with a client or patron or whatever the case might be, and knowing what your rights are in that respect.
Hopefully we can provide a crash course to give people points of entry into this business world in a way that is supported by the community of NEW INC. Not just the staff of the museum, but also the individuals who are members of it as well. Many of them are much more accomplished and sophisticated than we initially expected. We thought it was going to be a bunch of 25 year olds, fresh out of grad school looking for the next new thing. We did see a lot of them too, but we also saw a lot of people who are embarking on something new—very different from the career they had in the past. They’re really savvy professionals that have built very successful businesses. They have been top creative directors or art directors at IDEO, Google, Nike or whatever and are now starting their own venture; embarking on a new project that’s much riskier or more experimental, embracing this idea of cultural innovation; trying to invent something or reshape something. They really have a lot to offer one another as well. They’re not coming into this as novices necessarily.
AB: What is your criteria and who makes the ultimate decision?
JK: Essentially we were looking for people that had a very clearly defined vision of what they wanted to achieve. They had an exemplary body of previous work so that we knew that we could place our trust in them, that they would be able to execute their vision. We were also looking for things that are intangible in a way—a certain spirit or character that exemplified a kind of generos- ity, an interest in collaboration, an interest in teaching but also learning.
A couple weeks ago we had our first member orientation event. Over and over the theme of the day was this desire for community, for collaboration, for co-creation. This thread had been snowballing throughout the day and was culminating in the last final presentations. People were referencing each other’s presentations, had some time to form some kind of camaraderie, start conversations and were feeling pretty comfortable. One of the museum trustees who is the chair of our advisory council, Dave Heller, came by in the afternoon for the last few presentations. He came up to me and was taken aback. He said, “You know I’ve seen the little briefs you provided me about who’s going to be a part of this and what they’re doing. I really think that the whole is going to be greater than the sum of its parts, because people are really coming to this with a desire to work together, to learn from one another.”
That was something I think we really wanted to be the core aspect of the culture. This first group will help set the tone. When you’re creating a new project, a new entity, there are certain aspects of it that get crystallized in the first batch and become part of the project’s DNA, that becomes part of its culture and carries over into future years. Even though the cohort of members might be dif- ferent, there’s something about what will happen this year that will come to define the program and the way that we think of the program. It will attract a certain type of people and a certain type of energy. So we were really thoughtful about how we created that collaborative aspect. At least it’s something that I continuously keep thinking about and I’m really quite conscious of. It’s very precious to me.
In terms of who selects members it was myself and Karen Wong, who’s the Deputy Director of the museum, and was one of the originators of NEW INC and this idea of an incubator along with Lisa Phillips. They’ve been co-developing it for two and a half years now. Lauren Cornell, who’s on our advisory council, one of the curators of the museum and previously the executive director of Rhizome. Heather Corcoran who’s the current executive director of Rhizome. Rhizome is one of our anchor tenants, so they’ve been an affiliate of the museum for the past 11 years. They have an expertise in art and technology that is one of the focuses of our program, so I really think of them as a partner in this initiative in a way. And Studio-X, which is our other anchor tenant, which is Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP). It’s kind of an experimental lab dealing with the future of the built environment. Similarly their director David Benjamin, I really think of him as a collaborator in some way. To what extent we will be co-creating programs together, we’re still defining that. But they’ll be doing their own stuff with their own co- hort of postgrad students recently graduated from GSAPP who are embarking on various resource projects. They’re also really excited to work with our group of people to participate in some of the lectures and things that we’ll be putting together to bring them into the space. So I think it’ll be a really exciting mix.
AB: How do you feel technology is bettering society?
JK: I don’t know that I would make the blanket statement that technology is bettering society, be- cause I’m not that naïve to think that’s the case. In fact, one of the reasons I’m excited about having artists be a more present part of the conversation about technology and how it is being developed and spread throughout the market and shaping our society is because artists take a more critical stance. Personally, I feel like we could maybe use a dose more criticism in the conversation. When I look at the works that artists and the more conceptual designers are producing to do with technol- ogy, a lot of it is almost dystopian science fiction. They’re taking the threads of what we’re seeing today to their natural extension into somewhat absurdist and maybe dark interpretation of what it might be. For me that’s some of the most provocative work. I’m also really attracted to work where artists are dealing with issues of privacy and surveillance. That’s the kind of thing that I gravitate towards. I think there are a lot of things that technology enables, and that’s really great. I’m excited about the potential of that. But I also find myself being really overwhelmed by technology, just like everyone else. I’m finding myself turning off more and more. I’m not just a celebrator of tech. It’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand it grants you access to all the world’s information and on the other hand you are inundated with more information than you could possibly consume. How do you even navigate that vast trove? I see both sides of it. I think a lot of people in the program definitely see both sides. Rhizome brings a critical voice to the conversation. I think that is one of the things that will differentiate NEW INC from other tech incubators. In some ways I was thinking of it as almost like an antidote to the silicon valley incubator, which is so solutionist driven - “let’s pour money into this thing so that we can build it up into something we can sell or get as much investment in there as possible so we can get ten extra turns”. I think we are creating something that is inspired by the silicon valley model but interpreting it in a completely different way that feels much more consistent with the values of the creative community and values of the cultural sector.
New Museum and NEW INC, courtesy New Museum, New York, photo @Dean Kaufman.
AB: What about you? If you were to define your role in NEW INC, or if someone were to say, well you’re a journalist etc. How would you feel in this place?
JK: I don’t know how to define myself. I call myself a cultural producer. I don’t know what that means. Well I went to school for journalism. That’s what I intended to do, and I did it. But the land- scape of journalism as it exists today is not for me. I was the global editor for an online channel run by Vice. That was something I did for three and a half years and it was draining.
Throughout that time I had also been doing independent curatorial projects. Doing art production through the creators project and independent stuff, and I’ve always been organizing events. I run a meetup group that’s 4300 people and we have monthly events. I think our last big event was in May and we had some smaller ones over the summer. It’s been really hard to organize the meetups and prepare for the launch of NEW INC. Certainly my priorities have shifted a little bit. I’m sure the #ArtsTech community wouldn’t fault me if I was like, “sorry guys, it’s been a really great five, six years but I’m gonna do this other thing now.” Some of the people that have been around since the beginning look at NEW INC. as #ArtsTech all grown up, and in some ways it is an outgrowth of that body of work.
AB: You say that artists trying to locate the humanity in technology and where it’s taking us in our lives. Do you really see any humanity at all in technology?
JK: Well first of all, all technology is created by humans. It carries the human hand inherently. Even a piece of software, you look at it like ah its just a bunch of code: 1s and 0s. That was written by a person and it carries their values in it in a way. It’s a very human document. I think there are people in the space that I work in that try to draw that out. They try to make technology more expressive, more intuitive, more gestural. We often perceive technology as being very cold and alienating and they try and diffuse that a little bit by making it more playful, by making it more emotionally resonant. In terms of works that have been personally resonant for me, I think Chris Milk does a really good job. He’s a director and artist who works a lot with one of our advisory council members, another artist named Aaron Koblin. Aaron is kind of the data software genius and Chris is more of the storytelling genius and they’ve done a couple of projects together. The one that I really love is the Wilderness Downtown project. You basically put in your home- town address of the home where you grew up and it creates this narrative using Google Maps and Google Street view and this music video that’s interactive and popping up all over your screen. It locates you in a very personal place. I think that’s incredibly human.
AB: What’s your daily ritual? What’s something you do every day?
JK: I really love print. I read magazines every day. That’s my morning ritual. I read New York Magazine, The New Yorker, Wired, Fast Company. I really love magazines. I wanted to be a maga-zine editor. That’s what I wanted to do my whole life.