There's an Art to Getting Brilliant People to Surprise Themselves - Kevin Slavin of The Shed | Transcription

Transcription for the video titled "There's an Art to Getting Brilliant People to Surprise Themselves - Kevin Slavin of The Shed".


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Intro (00:00)

I had a, there were a couple of questions from the internet, but I figured we could just start with kind of what we were talking before about education in general. - Sure. - So as you're a dad now, and you're thinking about education having now, you know, been at Cooper Union, now on the Board of Cooper Union, been at the Media Lab, and now kind of the shed interacts with that, you know, education and art in the kind of cultural way, and that needs value. - How do you think about higher education for your kids in 20 years?

Discussion On Value Of Education And Virtual Reality

value of higher education (00:29)

- Yeah, so yeah, we have 16 years before my daughter is released from the American high school system into, you know, who knows what, really. And I think that there are, we talked about this a little bit earlier, but it's basically 15 universities a year that go bankrupt in the United States. There's a lot of reasons for that, but one of them is that maybe it's just simply the model as they have constructed it and are sort of buttressing it to keep it exactly as it has been, maybe that's no more appropriate for education than it is for many other things in our lives, you know. It's arguably easier to change the sensibility of a city than of a university because cities people leave and universities, the people who really determine the core sensibility of it are tenured, which there are very good reasons for tenure and it arose under McCarthyism to protect free thought, essentially, which is great. But if you look at the downstream effects of protecting free thought such that then only the people who got caught in that particular net are preserved, and the question is what are the downstream effects for everybody else within that? And how do you search for that? The bottom line is that I think, academic institutions, the bottom line is that I think academic institutions and cultural institutions have this thing in common, which is that what they provide you with is a sense of continuity between you and some larger set of people and ideas. If you didn't have cultural institutions and you didn't have schools in the contemporary United States, there's not that many things that are accessible to most people. There's a lot of abandoned churches. We don't work in factories or offices the way we used to, so there's not the same sense of community there. So I think the role of these institutions, whether it's the shed or Cooper Union or MIT or whatever, I think what they provide is some, the thing that they do is they force you to acknowledge that you are not an individual, that you exist in some broader context, that hopefully you're helping to shape. And hopefully is a positive context. I mean, it's not dissimilar to what I see. We were talking about this before, but I think that that batch structure, even though they're so close together, it's like three months apart between the winner and the summer batch. But still, you're like, I'm winner 17, you're summer 17, we're in the same alumni cohort, and that's awesome. But I'm still summer 17, I'm tight with people in that way. I was thinking about it just yesterday, because I was thinking, wow, I have two friends who've never even met each other, who just got MacArthur grants, and I have another friend who just released beautiful, beautiful work, like Frank Lance, who just did the paperclip game that is so popular right now, right? - Oh, really? - Oh, that's awesome. - Yeah. - Yeah. And some amazing work from Usman Hock, and I was just thinking, what, it's not that I'm in all of their work at all, it's their work, but all of their work is in me. Like through my friendships and relationships with them, that's what makes me who I am. I have no illusions of that the ideas that I have or the capabilities that I have, or the knowledge that I have comes from me and part of it. It comes from being connected and embedded with an amazing group of people. - Mm, like-- - Like, is that through Cooper Union? - It's through everything. - It's through everything. I've had a really, really peripatetic journey in my life, and so it's possible that I've crossed through more industries and disciplines and so on than on average. - We don't normally talk about this, but I actually think folks would be interested in you giving a little bit of the back. Like connect the dots in the five minute version. - The usually in meetings that I'm in, it's like I had a meeting yesterday with the Cisco Hyperlocation crew, and we're talking about how to do indoor positioning systems, and I was talking about signal attenuation, through steel versus concrete and this and that. And at a certain point, the guy from Cisco said, you know, a lot about this. What did you study?

What did you study? (06:16)

And this is always a punchline, this is sculpture. I studied sculpture. And that's actually the only thing that I ever went to school for was sculpture. - Wow. - And everything else are things that I have been sufficiently interested in, motivated by and/or capable of attracting and engaging with people who are brilliant in other disciplines. So, you know, I'm working on a project. This is the last project that I have with MIT that I can't exactly, I can't talk about what it is, but it's, I'll just say it's a very large-scale artwork that's using CRISPR. And, you know, I know fuck all about how to get that done. I now know just a little bit, but what I do know is I know how to work with people who are really good at their craft, and I know how to connect them, and I know how to draw out their belt, and I know how to do it. And I know how to draw out their best work, I think. I would say that. I would say that I'm good at drawing out the best work out of people. - Is that an innate quality, or is that something you've cultivated? - I don't know. I think I think at a certain point I became aware that that's one of the only things that I'm good at. And so now I, now it's very deliberate. But I think it comes from, from really valuing what other people do. You know, like I worked for years with Frank Lance when we had a company called AreaCode, where we, I mean, I can say like we legitimately pioneered some of the earliest examples and actual products, et cetera, in location-based games. Like, you know, when nobody knew what that meant. You know, when you still had to pull, you know, sell site signals off of towers, right? When we had to negotiate with carriers for location data, right? You know, we were doing all that. But the thing is, is that Frank was basically my favorite game designer. - Wow. - And I think it comes from really valuing that. And like, it's, you know, it's not trying to, there's a difference between managing people and actually drawing things out. You know, and I think learning how to, learning how to, learning what brilliant people, there's an art to getting brilliant people to surprise themselves. - Absolutely. - And that is, that's what I try to do. That's what I have tried to do in most all of my endeavors. - And is that, because I mean, I've worked on a handful of projects with people I think are absolutely brilliant and amazing. More often than not, it's because I'm like, hey, I have this particular skill set. You have this particular skill set. I think you're amazing. And, you know, part of like the sales process or the meeting is like, I'm just kind of fawning over you. It's like, yeah, yeah, yeah. This is super cool. And I can't do it. - Yeah.

Adding value (09:42)

- What did you provide in that relationship? Because I think certain people who, who feel like they can spot talented people, also feel a little inadequate and a little like an imposter. And they don't know how to add value. - Yeah. Well, that's a good question. I think there's a couple things that I bring to it. One is, one is I usually bring the beginning of an idea. - Okay. - Or often I bring the beginning of an idea. So, you know, for example, this project I can't describe is, you know, I had an idea that I couldn't even begin to articulate. And I brought that to a pretty hardcore computational biologist that I know. And she turned it into a much richer idea. And then, but it was also beyond her ability to do it. But then, you know, it's like, but then it kind of snowballs, right? Then it's me and her. And we go and find the floral geneticist who can really pull it off. - Yeah. - And then, so that's part of it is you kind of snowball. Like you kind of like you find the person who can add that much to it. And then the person who can add that much. And then, so each time you meet somebody, you're bigger and it's richer. And I think the other thing that I've been good at is that I can, I'm very good, I think, at demonstrating the value of whatever it is we're doing to somebody who has some money to pay for it. - Yeah. - Just bottom line. And that, you know, I think people who are really, really good at whatever they do are often not in a good position to be able to do that because it requires a level, a certain level of detachment from what you care about to be able to look at it from somebody else's point of view and to be able to tell a story about it that isn't the story that you tell yourself necessarily. It's a true story. It's just not the story that you tell yourself. And, you know, in my travels, among other things, I spent eight years in advertising. And I learned a lot about how to tell a story. And I learned a lot about how ideas can provide value, basically. - So now, do you fundraise for area code? - No, we just, Frank and I just bootstrapped. We just totally did that. It was just two dudes in a room with some savings. - Okay. - And, you know, we were anomalous. We were, you know, I think, I must have been, I guess I was like 35. Frank was probably maybe 38 or so, right? - Yeah. - Like, you know, so like totally anomalous, but it meant that we had some savings. You know, we had the savings that-- - Little put away. - Mid 30s people might have. So we were able to, to kind of like deal with it. - Well, 'cause the question I was wondering is, if you had raised on the entrepreneurial side, much, you know, VC standard, versus, you know, raising an MIT, or are you involved at the Shednow fund raising? - I am.

Stories for Fundraising (12:59)

- Okay. So how does a story differ when you're trying to, you know, pitch a different product? - People might argue with this, and I don't even know if I believe what I'm saying, but I think probably I would say that the essential story that you have to tell when you're fundraising is a story of scale, right? Like, because the premise of fund raising is that the money is gonna scale, and that means something else has to scale to produce that scale, right? And so that's just the bottom line, right? Is that you're telling a story of growth, and the best, the reason that area code grew, and we grew to roughly 40 people by the time it was acquired in 2011. The reason it was able to grow is that that just we weren't trying to. It just was not, it wasn't a priority. We were just trying to do the best work we could do, and we would just grow as we had to. And if we'd had to think about growth from the very beginning, men, we would never have done anything we did. We would have bet it all on this idea that we had in 2004 that we went and talked to the Nintendo Corporation, and we had this idea for Pokemon. We probably would have bet it all on that, and what a mistake that would have been. - Right, of course. - So what ended up being the big success of area code? - Area code, so in terms of the things that we did, there were a lot of little successes. And area code was this very unusual beast, and I don't think there's been many like it before, after which is that normally, if you wanna make money in games, if you even wanna make a living in games, you say, I'm gonna build a shop that's optimized for AAA console development, which has nothing to do with the shop that you would build if you were doing iOS development, because the level of engineering and expertise, et cetera, is so intense for existing cloud wars. If you think back to when we started 2004, everything was just fucked up. Like it was like the very end of like flash-based casual games, right? Like those were sort of tailing off, and the console industry was, sort of didn't know what it was doing, it couldn't quite figure out what the next big move was, and mobile just didn't exist yet in the United States. And so it meant that what we would, we weren't a game development shop, we were a game design shop, and that is insane, because what we would do is we would pick up technologies or ideas that would fall off the back of different trucks, and we would hold it up and we'd say, what does this mean for play, like, okay, so, you know, what is, so sell site sector location, like that means, you know that you're within like three blocks of this tower, like what kind of a game would you build for that, which is totally different when in 2006, maybe I think we got in the States our first phones that had a GPS chip in them, it was only one, it was a boost mobile, it was just a terrible handset, and we had to, you know, we were like getting J2ME, it was, oh god, it was so difficult, and so awful, it was so difficult just to get the handsets, because the idea that like, you know, we needed like 20, you know, for testing, the idea that there would be 20 handsets in Lower Manhattan, you know, that people would buy the GPS chips, like we had to, we would have to wait a week for new shipments, it was like, it was just so, we would just, every new thing that happened, we'd be like, what could you do with that, what could you do with that, what could you do with that, and the reason that that's insane from a business perspective is that the efficiencies in that are exactly zero, right? It's like, it's like, it's like, basically you work really, really hard to solve all of these problems, technology problems, design pattern problems, all the problems of making essentially the first game where you're running through the streets, tracking your location, and then, and then we're like, now let's do a game about synchronous watching with TV, and, you know, start again, we just throw it all out, right, because there was no business to build on there, so we were like, okay, what's the next thing, what's the next thing, what's the next thing, so the success of area code, in retrospect, is that we just, we would just arrive, everything that arrived, we met it, and towards the end of it, the things that arrived started to scale, and the two things that arrived five years into our project, like after five years of really kind of just like, wow, is it this, is it this, is it this, five years in, iOS arrived, and we were like, oh, we'll make an iOS game, and then Facebook games start to happen, just really, just started to happen, and we built one that was insanely successful by early Facebook standards,

Scaling Unknown Realms (18:15)

like, like we're basically everybody that we knew on Facebook was playing this game, it's called Parking Wars, it was a game about parking your car, right, but it was brilliant, like it came out of Frank's head, it was, it was, it's actually one of the, it's actually one of the most beautiful games that we made there, and one of the most successful, but the, so the sort of accidental success of area code is that the, because we met everything when it was new, when two new things had unimaginable scale, unprecedented scale that was, that they were, that they were unlocking, we became experts at launching into those unknown spaces, and so that was, that was at that moment in 2011, that was very valuable to a lot of different companies who hadn't been trying to get into those new spaces because their game development shops, what they're trying to do is just optimize for what they know. - Yeah, are you tapped into the gaming space right now? - Not, not, certainly not in, as an industry. - Okay. - Well, I'm just curious what your, what your thoughts on, basically the new technologies, right? Yeah, people seem to be bullish about VR. - Yeah. - What do you think? - I think that there will be some great games in VR. I haven't seen one yet. I think that, broadly speaking, everything that I'm seeing in VR games is basically done by people who made console games and where they're essential mode is thinking in console games. If you think about how long it took cinema to stop just putting people on a stage and filming it, to realize that you could cut, you know?

No such thing as a single Virtual Reality provider. (20:34)

- Right, like, I mean, it took a long time, right? And then when they did the first cut, people were like, "Wait a minute, I don't even understand, "like, what the fuck?" I was looking at a train and now I'm looking at a person. - Can you put some text in between there? - And that moment hasn't happened yet, which is fine. It's very early, but that person or that company, I don't think has emerged yet. And I don't instinctively, and from my experience, I don't think that that person is gonna come from one of the big AAA studios because they're gonna have to be thinking in a different way. You know, there's no, I don't think, I don't think there's anything to be gained in looking at VR as a wrap around console, right? - Oh, yeah, I mean, you just think about how quickly the technology outpaces the education, right? So, you know, I went to NYU and I was like in the English program, so you're doing all this creative writing, not at any point was there a course offered on how to write for binge TV. - Right, right, right, right, right, right, exactly. - And I don't even know if any film school has something like that right now. And so how do you write a narrative for VR? - Right. Yeah, I mean, well, also, you know, games aren't narrative vehicles in general, right? I mean, there's a whole very nerdy set of ideas around games and narratology, which we're not gonna get into. But, but what, if I think about it, actually having had a minute to reflect on it, I can't remember the name of it, but somebody did a game where you, this was just, it was just some independent developer. It was a game where it's for multiple players and one person is trying to defuse a bomb and they're looking at that in VR and they're trying to do that in VR.

VR Games That Should Be Made. (22:47)

And everybody else has the plans and they're trying to communicate to the person who is trapped in a helmet, basically, right? And so the game-- - Keep talking and nobody explodes. - That's one of them. - No, that's a different one, actually. That's a new one. - Okay. - But yeah, that's actually, I think, a modern instantiation of something that was about three years ago. - Okay. - And it was very, it was very rough, but it was like, right, like maybe what the materiality of the medium of VR should include the fact that you're wearing a fucking helmet, right? Like, and you're in a room with other people, right? Like maybe that's not something to write off. Like maybe that is one of the essential aspects to play with, right? The fact that you can see things that other people can't see and they can see things that you can't see, right? Like maybe, you know, one of the research assistants at the Media Lab is Greg Bornstein, who's now a proper game developer, right? And he did some early experiments around, he did a game called case in Mali, that was like the very first, it was like very early Oculus. And it was like one person with an Oculus, one person with a mobile phone out in the world, and they have an audio signal between them, but the person in the Rift can get some access to some information about the streets and vice versa, and they're basically trying to negotiate the fact that they are separated, you know? Which is a, you know, it's partly, it's not partly, it is an explicit reference to William Gibson's early, neuromancer in which case in Mali, you know, have in which Gibson was very interested in this idea that when you were in cyberspace, you weren't somewhere else, right? And a lot of things would be happening there and that there would be some interplay between them, they're not the same thing, and the fact that they are so different is maybe part of what makes it so interesting, you know? And so I think there's, I mean, that's just one example of like the ways to think about VR and play in a way that's not porting conventional modes of interaction. - Yeah, exactly, because then, you know, you spend all this time thinking about games, thinking about new technology, thinking about the future, and then an acquisition happens. And then you somehow end up at the Media Lab, right? - Yeah, yeah. - And so how did that, what transpired to make that transition happen? - Yeah. - And then how did being at the Media Lab affect how you think about building products? - Yeah, yeah, that's a good question. So I mean, the answer to how the transition to the Media Lab happened is super dull, which is that they asked me to apply, and I applied and then they asked me to come and I came. I wasn't looking for it, but also I knew some of the people who were there.

You cant train For Unstructured work. (26:16)

I was close with Niri Oxman, who runs the Material Ecology Group. And so that was sort of informed my sense of what the Media Lab might be, and they had a sense of me in part through the relationships that I had. And but it was an interesting, you know, it was really interesting because then I arrived and, you know, they're very happy that some, you know, there's a new faculty member, it was very different, you know, there's this, you know, I was there for four years and one of the most interesting things about hiring new faculty at the Media Lab is like, the primary criterion is that they're a misfit, right? And it's like we're looking for misfits who are thinking about how to ensure the heritability of CRISPR engineering, right? Like because that's not a discipline, that's a person, right? And that's actually what the Media Lab is looking to hire. They're looking to hire disciplines that don't exist yet, that are hiding inside the minds of a person, you know? And so the problem is how do you, like, what is the call where you get like, how do you even establish? Like what, like, what, what anti-discipline are you, like, where does it go? And so, and so like the best way to describe the way the searches go, it's when I finally, I didn't understand how I got there until we went to get other people, which is that you're basically, you, you know, you kind of map out the spaces of where all those 30 people are and then you just look for somebody who is equidistant from all of them. - Oh, wow. - For hell, okay. - Right, like, like, you know, it's like if they're too close to this one, we have one of those, right? - Yeah. - You know? And so, and so I think for the Media Lab, they were really looking to try to figure out games and play. And that's what I had been doing with area code for seven years. But it's also true that when I got there, they were like, everybody was like, I got there, I got there in 2013 and everybody was like, we are so excited for you to make, keep making location-based games, you know, and urban, whatever. And I was like, but that's not research. That's just, that's just gonna be an industry. Like that, like, it was, like, I didn't know that that's what we were doing in 2004, but it was research 10 years ago, right? And like, the fact that it's new to you doesn't mean that it's new, right? Like, and if I was interested in scaling that again, I wouldn't try to do that there. And so for me, I came to the Media Lab to figure out, you know, they brought me there because I was, you know, somehow orthogonal to, you know, like, you know, the 30 different planes that are represented there.

How Would You Express Those Ideas (29:29)

But I went there to figure out what was similarly orthogonal to everything I already knew and did.

in Terms of Biology? (29:46)

So I did some, some game work and brought in, brought in some pretty brilliant games, folks. And we got some interesting work done on games. But I would say within two years, you know, I had become just totally interested in microbiology. And that's what the next two years really looked like. - Okay. - Was really sort of revisiting the ideas that were underneath area code for me. But not how would you express those ideas in terms of play, but how would you express those ideas in terms of biology? And I can't really say what, you know, it's not, there's no straight path. I could construct a clever story.

If I Get Into Like The Hard Core (30:53)

- Right, yeah. - But it was instinct. And the instinct was for the idea that cities are not as simple as hardware and a bunch of users. That's just not, that's not what they are. And when we started area code, the, what was underneath it was, we're gonna build software for cities. Right? That's how we talked about it in 2004. I think now that's a powerfully banal idea, right? Like, like it's like a meaningfully banal thing to assert. But in 2004, we were like, what is software for cities? Like, what would it mean to change your sense of the city? Like, and we were reading, we weren't reading. We had well read all the work from the situationists in the 50s and 60s. You know, people, artists, primarily philosophers who were looking for strategies to, to get you to reimagine the cities that you were in. You know, we didn't go into it to do Facebook games or anything. - Parting wars, yeah. - I mean, we found something very interesting in that. But when we started, it was because cities felt like something like that's at the time in 2004. It was like, well, that's something that technology is gonna affect in 10 different ways. It's gonna affect logistics, it's gonna affect traffic, it's gonna affect policing, how will it affect play, right? And so when I got to the Media Lab, what I was sort of, I was sort of digging underneath the work that we had done and trying to figure out what was important to me about it. Like, if I were to reboot all these things and they didn't generate location-based games, what would they generate? And it turned out that they generated some investigations into the notion of cities as biological superorganisms. That like, to understand that, if you step all the way back and you just look, it's like, you look at termites, they make mountains that look like this and you look at ants and they make colonies that look like this.

Of What I Really Care About With The Idea Of Cities (33:12)

And you look at humans and they make these weird superstructures like this and, you know, why? You know, like, what is it about our, you know, essential trajectory that produces these things? Across, you know, many different cultures, across long, long swaths of history, like, like, what is it? And there's super interesting work by Jeffrey West at the Santa Fe Institute, really studying cities as a complexity problem and really, really beautiful work about how they scale and so on. But through a series of very weird tangents, which is what the Media Lab is good at, what I became interested in was, I had a hobbyist's interest for a long time in the gut biome, which is now weirdly popular, right? It's like, now everybody talks about the gut biome. But I was, you know, like, I talked about poop long before, poop was like a, like, an emoji, right? Like, and the role of your gut in terms of, I'm not so interested in it in terms of like, your health and well-being, although I do care and I have a two year old. So now I think about it a lot. I think about poop a lot again. But what I'm interested in is just how it reshapes your notion of the world to know that, you know, you are a collective organism, right? You know, that, you know, there's all kinds of ways to represent this and there's always, you know, it depends how you measure things. But one way or another, the majority of the DNA doesn't, it's not you, it's not from your parents, you know, and much of it, we literally don't even have a name for it, right? Like, like, where, you know, there are species that live inside us without them, we're dead. Without us, they'd have to find somewhere else to go. And that should change what we think of when we think of an individual. And I'd been thinking about that a lot and this is all a very roundabout way, the only way I know, it's a roundabout way to get to the question of if I have a gut biome that's distinct from your gut biome, does New York City have a gut biome that's different than the gut biome of Tokyo or Lagos or, you know, wherever? And if those gut biomes are different, why are they different? And what does it do and what does it mean? And in that the gut biome that we have, you know, comes through the exchange of material, living material with the environment, you know, what does it mean to live in one city or another? You know, you are effectively in exchange with that city.

Living In Cities: Art And Institutions

What does it mean to live in one city or another? (36:36)

This is why you get sick when you travel, right? You know, it's like, it's why you eat the food that, you know, in some city that you've never been to, you eat the food that everybody else there can eat with no problem and it causes problems. It's because you are literally carrying your country, your city of origin with you and it's incompatible, lightly incompatible, with the city that you're in, right? - And so seemingly this project could have expanded, you know, like you are the hub maybe in the media lab or your cohort of people and like, well, I'm just gonna go everywhere in the world now and I'm gonna do tangible scientific research, but instead you're like, I'm gonna go back to New York where I'm from and I'm gonna work in a cultural institute. - I did, yeah, yeah. You know, I think it's exactly the point like we, for that project, which was around like the, you know, figuring out a discipline that is now a couple years later called Urban Medellinomics, you know, I amassed this amazing group of collaborators and some of them were like very, very hardcore biologists, like really, you know, the top in their field and some of them were like amazing artists, like Chris Wopkin and we weren't trying to write a paper, you know, like we were trying to effectively publish a poem, you know, like the, what I was trying to communicate wasn't data, it was an idea. And that is a very, and that's basically, that's what culture does, right?

Art versus Information (38:14)

Like, you know, basically it transmits ideas and rather than information, right? And, you know, in that distinction, it's not like they're in opposition, but culture is distinct from information. And the Media Lab is really, really good at information. And I had to figure out the right environment for me in terms of how to be expressive in terms of culture. - Okay. - And the, at the Media Lab, the way they would always, we would always draw this diagram, you know, this sort of forequodrant of, you know, there's artists and there's designers and there's scientists and there's engineers. And I don't know if it was ever explicitly stated, but roughly if you brought less than three of those to the table as an individual, you weren't, you're not that interesting to the Media Lab, right? Like, I'm overstating it. Maybe even misstating it. But that model of artists, designers, scientists and engineers, and it took me a while to understand that my, what I was doing for myself and for the Media Lab was basically representing the artist and design piece of that, half of that, and bringing artists, art and design, I wasn't the only one, but I was bringing art and design to a scientific and engineering environment. It's not the Massachusetts Institute of Culture.

Is New York City greatest for Art? (39:41)

It's, you know, it's like, fundamentally, right? It's technology. But to bring art and design into that, you know, with the deliberate goal of finding, finding how to blur those boundaries or eliminate those boundaries, I understand my role here at the Shed, and I say it explicitly, is basically bringing the science and engineering back. You know, this is essentially an art. It's a cultural environment. It's not really design, it's art, but figuring out how science and engineering play a meaningful role and have meaningful forms of expression within culture. It's basically the inverse of what my job was at the Media Lab. It's nice to be home in New York. - Of course. - And also, the opportunity, this is the first cultural center, the Shed. The Shed is the first cultural center to be at scale, to be built in New York City since Lincoln Center. Okay? - Wow, which is one? - Sixties. - Okay. - I guess. - It's embarrassing, I don't know, but-- - Roughly. - Yeah, like, it's at least 50 years ago. - Okay. - And, so the opportunity to literally be part of that process of building the institution is too good to pass up. I'm really, I mean, I'm good at the beginnings of stuff, right? Like, you know, and this is the beginning. - Yeah. - The building is still under construction. So, so part of it is that it's the opportunity to just, to just, it's a new cultural institution for New York City, you'd be crazy to pass that up. But also, part of it was the opportunity to work with Alex Poots, the Artistic Director, who prior to this had been the Artistic Director of the Armory, and had done a bunch of shows there that on paper are obviously bad ideas. And then you would go, and they were just, they were unbelievable shows, you know? - And does that mean curator, effectively? - Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, he's a, yeah, in, we have for performance, you would call it, they call it programming, which means something different here. - Oh, okay.

Shed at Hudson Yards (42:30)

- I just wanna know what the actual job is. - We have producers and programmers, but they don't do what you think they do. - Yeah, yeah. - I didn't even realize that he was sort of like the secret brain behind some of my favorite things. You know, I, you know, it was years ago, it was actually four years ago, just recently, a show that was the filmmaker, Adam Curtis, versus massive attack, playing live. And obviously terrible, terrible idea. And it was, it was so beautiful. It was so extraordinary, and it was, it was legitimately risky. And I think it is, it's just so rare that, I mean, these days, it's just so rare that anybody takes an authentic risk of any kind. But I think it's maybe even especially true in culture. You know, I think, you know, especially, you know, like large scale cultural institutions are weirdly risk averse to my mind these days. And so the opportunity to work with Alex and the opportunity to work at the very beginning of this thing, the building is designed by Dillerskafidio and Renfro, Liz Diller, and also the Rockwell group. Liz Diller is an old friend and one of my heroes. She's the architect who did the High Line and all the other things, right? And the shed is right on the High Line. And, you know, they, she came up with the idea of a building that moves, you know, and it's one thing to come up with that idea and kind of like sketch it and whatever. And like, you know, like, they're actually, you know, like we're building it, like we moved it about a month ago for the first time and nobody, nobody got killed. 8 million pounds moved at about 12 miles an hour and nobody died. - It's amazing. - Yeah. - It kind of looks like like a concept car that actually made it to production. - Yeah, it's cool. - Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. That's well said. I knew and also I took a tour recently with some pretty hardcore folks from NASA, some Voyager engineers. - Oh, cool. - And we were sitting up top looking at the motors that moved the building and one of them said like, "You know, this is ambitious." And it's like, if you're the systems integrator on the Voyager. - Yeah. - And you're looking at a building and you call it ambitious, that's an ambitious building. So it's an ambitious building.

Unusual (45:09)

And it is Tabula Rasa. - Yeah. - And it also has this very weird quality. I didn't realize how strange it was until I started working here about four months ago, which is that it's an exhibition space of five stories, three enormous galleries, sort of like white box galleries, really large. And then a very large performance space. And then two small theaters. And Alex, when I first came in, said, "You have to understand, this is very unusual. "It's basically never done that you have a combination, "large scale performance space and exhibition space." And I sort of didn't take it seriously 'cause it just sounded, but if you think about it, yeah, you haven't been in a place like that. Like you're not gonna go see opera at MoMA. You're not gonna go see an exhibition at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Those things, they're never gonna happen. They couldn't happen even if they wanted them to happen because they are built around doing the thing that they do. So it took me a while to realize that it's, that it really is unusual. Then I had to understand why you would even want that. And there's a couple different answers, but the most valuable answer I think is, it's what allows us to, you don't start with a format, you start with an artist or you start with an idea. And then you figure out, like, what does that become? And that will produce new forms. And I'm down for that. Like I think that is so necessary, so important, and so fucking difficult. Because that's the third part of it is that there's also a reason that MoMA has built performance spaces with exhibition spaces.

Current Institutions (46:56)

There's a reason no one made it moving buildings. Well, putting aside the fact that the building moves, it's also like the best way to make it real, like how few efficiencies you get in having an exhibition space with the performance spaces. Think about what it's like to get a ticket to go see the, you know, Rauschenberg show at the MoMA. And trying to get a ticket to go see Hamilton. Okay, now think about one institution that has to accommodate both of those. And what is the ticketing software look like? Like just always look like just that. Like, and that's like this big, you know? And like, so there's a reason the analogy I always give is like, you know, helicopters float in the air and planes float in the air, but nobody is like, wow, it'd be a better plane if it also had huge rotors on the top or, you know, it's like, no, they're different. They're different for a reason. They operate differently for a reason. But our bet is that it's worth the struggle of making, it's not just that the building moves, not just that the building is weird. It's that the notion of the institution is weird. It's like, it's weirder than anybody knows. - Can you put the risks you want to take intangible terms? - Yeah, yeah. I wish I could tell you about the risks that we're going to take in the programming, which I really can't do. - It's two years out now, right? - It's a year and a half. - Year and a half. - There's gonna be a show that is gonna be extraordinary. - We might have to do round two. - Yeah, I mean, yeah. It's a show where I can't imagine how it's actually, it's like if you're setting something up and you really cannot imagine what it is actually going to be at the end, that's exciting. And like that's risky. And this is, it's very beautiful risky work with an artist that I can't reveal yet. But we're planting a flag with the first show that says this is the 21st century. And it's not neutral. It might not be pretty, but it's gonna be important and loud and rich. So there's a lot of risks in the programming.

Integration Of Technology With Art And Signals

Artists Observations (49:49)

Some of it is riskier than others. But part of my role is, there's a couple different parts of it. One of them that's very important to me is to start commissioning scientists to do work in the museum. And like even the idea of commissioning a scientist is stupid and probably destined to failure. But maybe not. But figuring out how, so I'm working with a scientist, I also can't reveal, but one of my favorite living scientists to bring something to life in 2019, that what we're aiming for in that is that this is a scientist who sees the world differently than you and I do because of their work. And everything that they've done up until now is trying to describe that world in academic papers. And instead we're going to bring it to life. And that feels pretty risky to me. But then putting curatorial stuff aside, one of the things that we're gonna do is eliminate any form of paper tickets. Basically your ticket's gonna be your phone. - Oh, cool. - And by 2019 that's 98% of the United States will have smartphones. Even Obama phones or smartphones, you won't be able to buy a non-smartphone in 2019. And so that's gonna be your ticket. And it allows, so there's a bunch of things that happen with that.

Your Phone Is Your Ticket (51:36)

And they're basically in most ways, just plain better than waiting on a long line. And there's a window and like, you've been to Times Square, you see people with umbrellas in the snow waiting for it. And it's just like, you know what? It's 2019 and we say, fuck that. And we have no legacy infrastructure. We have no incentives to do any of that. So it's your phone. But now here's what's interesting. If all those people aren't online to buy their tickets or to pick up their tickets, where are they? And so now we have to think about that. And that's a problem that no institution has ever had before, right? Like, you know, is if you don't have everybody who is waiting to see the show standing in the line, what are they doing? And we have some thoughts about it. You know, I only noticed it when I was looking at the flow numbers.

We need broadband (52:37)

And I was like, whoa, 200 people an hour. What are we going to do with 200 people who are waiting? Like, we have it. So we're going to be doing some things that it doesn't feel like a big idea to just have your ticket on your phone. But it turns out you're changing the entire experience of guests and it actually changes how we program the spaces. And so like you tweak that and all of these sort of prioris that you have for cultural institutions, go out the window with it. So that's one of the big risky initiatives. And then the other that I can talk about is when I first got here four months ago, the architects reviewed with me a bulkhead on the northeast corner with cables that were going to come out and a broadcast truck would come up. It has a satellite dish on the top and PBS or CNN or whatever. They would be able to live televised the events that we do in the shed. Like they do sometimes with the Met or whatever. And I just, you know, I looked around, I was like, guys, the likelihood that in 2019, that truck is going to show up is basically zero, right? It's like it's not absolute zero, but it's very low that those trucks are going to show up to broadcast a live signal from cables off of a satellite to television sets that people are sitting at who can't wait to see this. I just mean, while everyone could watch it from their phone on their ticket device now. - Right, right. And so we killed it. One of the reasons is because we, the architecture team had the insight to put in an unprecedented amount of bandwidth for a cultural institution. It's the first time I've ever been part of any kind of architectural something where you look at and you're like, yeah, that'll probably work for the next 50 years. Like that's probably enough. You know, where I actually can't figure out how to max it out. Like, you know, I guess we could mine Bitcoin. I don't even know. Like, I don't even know what we can do with it all. But what we can do with that bandwidth is basically do digital broadcasts. And that, the idea of doing live digital broadcasts, not incidentally, but like as the core ethos of what we do at the shed, where this thing that we're gonna do in the first weekend, it's gonna be enormous. But I don't know, maybe in total over one week, we'll be able, you know, 20,000 people will pass through those doors, right? And it just doesn't sit, right?

Synchronizing signals (55:47)

You know, it just doesn't, like that just doesn't, it just doesn't work for me. And then you have, you know, whatever it is now, three or four billion addressable broadband connections out there in the world, that we should, you know, we should be thinking about it less of a building and more like a beacon, you know, like this thing that emits a live synchronizing signal to everybody around the world. I don't wanna put it up on YouTube. I don't wanna put it up on, you know, so it's not about the archive of it, it's about that at seven o'clock on Thursday, this thing is gonna happen, you know, and I'm sorry if that's seven a.m. in Tokyo, and you know, like whatever, like wake up early, because we're gonna have to make it worth your while, right? You know, like we do for the World Cup, right? Like, you know, like I want, you know, because what is valuable isn't just the performance and the event, what's valuable is that synchronizing signal. - Yeah. - And that, to come back to the very beginning of our conversation, that I think is the most important thing that cultural institutions can do now is to basically provide synchronizing signals, is basically to say like, you know, right now, like we're gonna gather together and we're all gonna be on the same fucking page. We're like, for the next two hours, we're on the same page. Like for the next two hours, our attention is on this thing, but I'm here with you. - Right. - And to be able to provide that feeling of being with people at the same time, with the same attention, it's very, very powerful. I think it's generally unexploded in technology in general, and it's definitely underexploited in culture. - Yeah. - You know, if you look at what technologies do and have done is they basically delaminate whatever it is that we like from its mode of transmission or expression, whatever. And if we didn't love that so much, it wouldn't have worked. - Right. - But it turns out we don't wanna buy albums and we don't wanna, you know, like we want the stuff. - Yeah. - Okay, it's true, we do. But also we wanna feel what it's like to be connected in a kind of limbic way, like in a synchronized way. And so we're, you know, that's the premise of theater. It's like one of the core ideas of theater, but the idea that we will be producing very, very high-end live cultural events for the internet constantly feels like, well, yeah, that's probably what you would do in the 21st century, but I don't know 'cause nobody's ever done. - No one's doing, who knows, right? So we could talk about this infinitely, about the tension and like the separation of mind and body in our work. - Yep. - But, you know, we've been going for like almost an hour now. And so I just kind of wanted to wrap up with one question about you in particular. You've done so many interesting and seemingly different, but connected things. Ten years from now, what are you working toward to make Kevin better? - I hope ten years from now, I'm actually still here at the shed. And that, you know, there were some things I liked okay about advertising when I worked in advertising for eight years. There were a bunch of things I hated about. But there was one thing that I really loved and I was so afraid to leave advertising because I loved this thing so much. And this thing was, I had no idea what I was gonna do tomorrow, right? Like, you know, you'd be working on like some breakfast cereal account. This is like a real thing that happened. You know, it's like you're working on breakfast cereal and you're like there until eight o'clock at night 'cause advertising is hard. And then you come in the next day and they're like, no, you know what? Actually, you're on the F-22 fighter bomber account. And it was like, wow, like now I have to learn everything about fighter bombers and how people in Congress buy them. You know? And I thought when I left advertising, I was gonna give up on living a life in which every day I've gotta figure out something new that we've never figured out before. And somehow that, I think the projects and positions and even types of companies that have been part of making, they all have that in common. And I think like I sort of don't care what I'm doing in 10 years as long as I get to, you know, exercise that muscle. I think at a certain point I had to abandon the notion that I would ever have legitimate domain expertise in almost anything, really. But if I could figure out how to work effectively and with real capabilities between everything as everything is arriving all at once, that turns out to be valuable in the world. Which was surprising to me as an adult. It turns out to be valuable in the world. And also it's like, you know, I feel like as long as you're doing something for the first time, you're still young, right?

Review Of The Original Interview

The original interview (01:01:39)

And so like, in 10 years I just wanna feel young, right? So that's my long-- - I think we should just close it right there. - All right, thanks man. - Thanks man.

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