Hi, my name is Max Willis.
I am an international artist and interaction designer hoping to join you in Athens. I am currently finishing up my PhD in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) at University of Trento, Italy. Yes this is a technology engineering degree, but my thesis is about agonistic design, a kind of democratic principle of creative conflict that is enacted through game and play. I’ve been lucky to follow my interests in Design Activism, Co-Creation, Games and Play through the PhD, and doing Research through Design, I’ve been learning how to use my creative practices, such as performance and interactive multimedia storytelling to do research. For me urban game design overlaps social innovation and creative inquiry, and it’s curious trying to make sense of game and play in the public sphere from both perspectives. From what I have experienced so far, the school organizers always gather super-interesting groups of people together. That leads to so many new and interesting possibilities and ideas, so I am enthusiastic to join the Athens training school. Especially as the brief suggests we should develop a game together with a small group over a year, that sounds like we could make something meaningful!
Another relevant fact about me, I’m big into wheels: skateboarding, cycling and touring, on the road and in the backcountry. Last winter my partner and I rode our mountain bikes up and around Mt. Etna in Sicily (blizzards, earthquakes and ash clouds) and some years ago I skated a longboard 1400km across the Tibetan Highlands! Recently we have been learning to rollerskate, and imagine this as a great way to investigate the city, once we have learned to confidently slow down and stop =) and fall. learning to fall properly is important.
I’d like to share with you a short (ok not so short) story not about urban play, but about an interactive media artwork, and the unique collaboration that brought it into being.
‘Fragments of Privacy’
Max Willis May, 2019
When I first moved to Italy to begin my PhD studies, I met a woman on a dating site. Her name was Masha Starec, she was Serbian originally, Italian, witha couple of young teenagers and a fascinating story similar to mine, of art and technology and participating in the rise of digital things over our lifetimes. We didn’t really have a dating thing, we texted or called infrequently and gradually discovered a lot in common. We both came from a time before technology, and ended up in tech arts, and lived between the city and the nature. We both like to ride mountain bikes, and all the vegetarian nature organic things. So we took a risk to meet the first time, to make that transition from digital to real, and I travelled down to Venice to meet. Masha showed me around the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia, a prestigious art school where she was teaching computer arts, incidentally in a wing of the school that was previously an insane asylum. We laughed that the practices of media art and psychiatric therapy might actually be linked. Over time, our friendship grew, and I would take my bike on the train a few hours, and stay weekends at her place on the eastern edge of Italy. We would ride meandering paths criss-crossing the border with Slovenia, take long walks with the dog, discuss media art, and began to formulate a collaboration.
Masha had been invited to join a group exhibition in Budapest. She had a basic idea what she wanted to do, but not how, and we worked out the details, and created together a work of media art. The exhibition was headlined ‘Bartok’ and invited a clutch of artists, designers and performers to create works concerning Bella Bartok, an influential Hungarian composer, sometimes referred to as the grandfather of ethnomusicology, as he studied and incorporated elements of traditional folk music into his own music. But why Bartok? And why Masha? It turns out, that Masha’s great grandmother was Bella Bartok’s aunt. When Bartok died, his home furniture was shipped to Masha’s family house in Belgrade, and it was this, cared for and revered furniture, that she grew up playing on as a child. Masha’s plan was to use this furniture in a short video series, interspersed with photo series from the different epochs of her own life. We decided to somehow pack it into an old radio from Bartok’s time, and make it an interactive audio video object that museum visitors could play with by cycling through the different ‘channels’ and bandwidths of Masha’s life.
We made this thing together. Masha shot the video at her family home, and brought an old radio from a second hand store in Belgrade. I programmed an audio, photo and video swapping mechanism in MAXMSP; we stripped out the electronics from the radio, replaced several of the knob sensors, and I fixed a little arduino board to control it (though I have to admit it was Masha who eventually figured out the analog channel numbers for the big radio buttons!). This construction took place over three weekend visits, and what resulted, then to be exhibited in Budapest, pretty much mirrored the original vision. The radio was mounted on a podest with a projector and mac mini exhibition machine, and in its resting state randomly played a radio channel. When visitors to the exhibition approach the radio, changed channels, and turned the big reception dial, a flashing photo slideshow cycled on the wall behind the podest. Certain segments of the bandwidth held the video clips, which depicted grandchildren playing on Bartok’s green leather sitting room couch, grandmother smoking a cigarette in a cloud of smoke in his state chair, the current family dog curled up under the coffee table and other visions of life lived around these remnants of Bartok’s world. Each radio channel shared photos from Masha’s experience, in the times of Yugoslavia, her transition to Italy, in the 90’s developing tech in Milan, the coming and going of family members, and to present the ages of her children. Playing on the radio was a selection of short wave radio transmissions recorded from Belgrade, talk radio, political speech and news, local and popular Balkan music, a soundtrack of people’s everyday.
Masha travelled to Budapest, and installed ‘Fragments of Privacy’ at the Ludwigs Museum, the largest and most prestigious venue either of us had exhibited at. I was sending her code updates over the phone from the train while she was onsite, debugging last minute. The installation, and the exhibit was a success, and although I didn’t get the opportunity to visit, it sounded like all of the works there combined to phrase a really complex and interesting interpretation of Bartok and his work, and our contribution was well received. The exhibition ran from Oct 08, 2016 to Jan 28, 2017, and we texted shortly after, and congratulated eachother, in a hopeful upbeat exchange that would end up to be our last.
Masha Starec died shortly after, though I would not find out until sometime later, when her brother in his grief was reading her old texts, and responded to an old message I’d sent to her. She had been ill. That was then. And throughout the time I knew her, she was on the mend and living an active life. Until her illness returned. She had shared this with me, but not I believe, the true urgency of that fact. I realised then the true import of what we had done together. ‘Fragments of Privacy’ was Masha’s farewell, her interpretation and reflection on a life well lived, leaving. Her passing accented so many moments in my memory of our time together, typing testing soldering, burning out resistors in a plume of smoke, and roaming through her collections of family photos. She described each, the when and where and how and why and told me her story, together to make this thing and share that with a broader public.
‘Fragments of Privacy’ celebrated Masha’s life in a way that she lived hers, and how I live mine: making art, taking risks, searching out collaborations, to make and share new meanings. An ancient radio cabinet, updated with contemporary sensors, recycled copper cable and code; visitors at the controls, navigating a life in pictures and sound; a public watching and listening to the channels of age and youth lounging on Bartok’s sofa, transitioning the real and the digital. And then she was gone. The story is hers, really hers, and the privilege is mine, really mine, to have known Masha and had the chance to engage with a new dear friend, together to weave one, final narrative.
‘Fragments of Privacy’
Max Willis May, 2019