Meejin Yoon: For me, my interest in public space is: is there a way to make design and technology less objectified, but more diffuse, more part of the ephemeral qualities of that environment, as opposed to, let's say, a sculpture that can be identified as public art. I'm interested in creating an atmosphere, through lighting, technology, sound, materiality, et cetera, such that it's an enhancement, without necessarily being able to pick it up and put it somewhere else. I'm interested in site-specificity; but also, a kind of synthetic quality to the environment that mixes art, science, and technology together. It's not three things with plus-signs between them. At some point, you can't say, "This part is art, and this part is technology." That it is so synthetic, or organic, or integral that it's a holistic kind of environment.
Jo Reed: That was the award-winning architect and public artistMeejin Yoon. Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host Josephine Reed.
Working at the intersection of architecture, art, landscape and technology, Meejin Yoon is an innovative and multidisciplinary thinker. She is best known for her interactive light and sound installations for public spaces, which often incorporate alternative energy sources. For example, her installation Hover, was first created for a vacant courtyard in the French quarter of New Orleans. Hover is a suspended solar powered canopy that captured energy and transformed it into an off-grid lighting system that resulted in shelter, shade and light for public use.
Meejin and her partner Eric Howeler first came to public attentionwhen they created an interactive LED light installationfor the 2004 Athens Olympics. White Noise/White Light was constructed of hand-fabricated fiber-optic tubes that responded to pedestrian movement by emitting a pulsing white light and white noise. The crowds loved it,while architects and designers took note that a daring talent had emerged.
Meejin Yoon is founder of MY Studio and a principle in Howeler + Yoon Architecture in Boston. She is an associate professor of Architectural Design at MIT. She was one of the organizers of FAST – the festival of art, science, and technology which celebrated MIT's 150 anniversary. For the festival, Meejin created one of trade mark pieces, an installation called Wind Screen, series of wind turbines that generated energy to create a shimmering light.
Meejin Yoon has won many awards, too many to list here, but they include: United States Artist Award in Architecture and Design, The Rome Prize in design and the Metro New York 5 under 35 Award in 2005. Her work has been exhibited in museums throughout the country including MOMA, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art,and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
I caught up with Meejin Yoonat MY studio which is light, modern, airy and in the heart of downtown Boston, so you'll occasionally hear the sounds of the city in the background. I wanted to know what drew Meejin to architecture…
Meejin Yoon: The chance to make something out of nothing. I think the challenge of trying to take different constraints, whether they're site, or materials, or budgets, or program, and to make them into, I guess, works of art. So, I guess the challenge has always been for me, the most interesting challenge is how do you take a constraint and turn it into an opportunity to make something really unique in the world? And I think that's why I was pulled into architecture.
Jo Reed: Architecture strikes me as such a collaborative art, because there's the architect's vision, but there are a lot of other people you need to work with to make that come into being.
Meejin Yoon: Absolutely. I think that architecture is increasingly a collaborative form of art. It requires imagination and creativity at all levels, by all people: by the client, by the consultants, the structural engineer, the mechanical engineer. Everyone has to be on board with trying to do something unique, and innovate. And, if people aren't aligned, it's very hard to create great works of architecture.
Jo Reed: Just to say that you're an architect doesn't quite encompass everything that you do, because you also do a lot of design, and you do a lot of design for public space. What's the draw there?
Meejin Yoon: For me, I think the public is the most important audience to design and architecture. I think many times when you do a building project, let's say, especially private buildings, they are not accessible to the larger public. At the same time, I think public space in the United States has not received the kind of investment from the public sector that I think is necessary to create vital urban, public environments. So, the private sector has actually done many things, like the Starbucks phenomenon, et cetera, where somehow, the Starbucks is now the extension of the urban living room. And, I think, historically, public space was this: the piazzas, et cetera, in Europe. And I think the U.S., which as an amazing kind of parks and recreation investment. In terms of urban public space, there are opportunities there that I think require designers. It's not enough to just designate a space as public space, and put some benches and some trees; you need to tailor public space to the specific publics that would use them and enjoy them, and create environments which draw them into inhabiting it, and making it their own space. And so, over time, I, through various opportunities, have become more and more interested in enhancing public space, creating interactive architectures to engage the public, and we've had some interesting opportunities to test those things out.
Jo Reed: I want to talk about some of the specific projects you did because the interactivity of your projects just fascinate me. But, can you talk to the way public space and a well-designed public space, and particularly one that's interactive, can really help create and enhance community?
Meejin Yoon: Absolutely. We had an opportunity to do a project in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. And, the project was very small in scale and budget, but what intrigued me about it was that private home-owners were transforming their courtyards into temporary public space for a period of time. So, for a couple of weeks, and through the AIA, the American Institute of Architects in New Orleans, they brokered a deal where private home-owners would turn their courtyards into public space, because many of the courtyards in the French Quarter are private, so tourists never get to see them. But it's an interesting part of the building fabric in the traditional part of the French Quarter. So, what we did is we actually decided to create a solar-powered canopy, so we would be off-grid, we wouldn't connect to the already-taxed power grid. We used photo-voltaics. They were oriented in such a way to maximize the energy. And then, the energy captured was transformed into light, and it created this lit, hovering cloud, in essence, in this courtyard, so that people could come and they could read there, or they could have a coffee there. But, just creating an environment with enhanced lighting, I think, was one first step into drawing the public to use this space in a way they normally wouldn't. Another project we did, in Washington, D.C., on 1110 Vermont Avenue was we created a grove of sound poles. We call it the Sound Grove. There are 20 interactive poles which, when you touch them, they play different sounds, and create a way people can basically interact with each other through making sounds. And it creates this kind of sonic space within the city.
Jo Reed: Another project you did, which has a similar interactivity, is Light Drift. Describe it.
Meejin Yoon: So, Light Drift we did in Philadelphia, for the Schuykill River. The idea was there, they wanted to draw people down to their waterfront. The site is right by the train station, so the river is actually located 20, 30 feet down from the street level. So, drawing people down there is difficult. And we wanted the people to have a direct connection to the water. So, what we did was we created an installation that had about 20 seats, and about 80 floating pods. And the seats are pod-like themselves. And, what happens is when people walk by, they actually flicker, and entice people to sit on them. And when you sit on them, you actually control or change the lighting with a set of four in the river. So, essentially, you can, with several other people, play a kind of urban-scale game, and transform the lights, et cetera. And they flicker from green to blue, which is a very simple behavior, but the point was to allow people to understand that their inhabitation was transforming something in the river, and it had this kind of dynamic quality. And, what was even more interesting about the project, in Philadelphia, because of the orientation of the orbs along the rail, people would actually sit, facing them. The person would sit on the pod, facing the river, and another person would sit on the rail, facing them. And it created a kind of public-scale interactive furniture piece that also kind of choreographed and transformed this kind of mural-like installation in the river.
Jo Reed: So much of your work has a sense of play in it.
Meejin Yoon: Yeah, I've always been interested in play. I think play has an agency to it. I think when people feel that they can affect their environment, they get excited. For me, play is not the opposite of serious; play is engagement with one's environment in a more open way, I would say.
Jo Reed: For me, play is part and parcel with creativity.
Meejin Yoon: Yeah, I think that when you are designing or creating, you have to test things out. And I think another way to define play is: it's a form of testing, as well.
Jo Reed: What I also think is interesting is how people respond to it. Again, that sense of play; and, from what I saw, because I did see Light Drift, in Philadelphia; I loved it. And, myself, you know, a little tentative at first, but then there's a way. One becomes more and more and more engaged.
Meejin Yoon: Yeah, absolutely. I think there's something about being able to defamiliarize the technology in such a way that it's not intimidating. So, the RFID tags, and sensors, and all that stuff kind of disappears, and it becomes more about what are the effects? How am I transforming the space? Is this fun? And I think, in a way, the kids that inhabit the space, they do it much more easily and intuitively than I would say the adults. But, I think a successful project is when you can get the adults to enjoy it, and experiment with it, and forget they're adults for a while, and literally play with what is out there.
Jo Reed: You created something which I thought was really just kind of cool and kind of wacky, at the same time: Defensible Dress. That had a sense of play to it.
Meejin Yoon: Yeah, so the Defensible Dress was a fun project, done as a kind of personal, do-it-yourself project. And, I think, also combines everything I'm interested in. So, it tried to defend one's personal-space zone, so it deals with space. But it uses kind of technology and materiality to do so. So, there's a micro-controller, and you can program your comfort levels of protecting a zone around you. And then, there's a sensor on there, and when someone invades that personal-space zone, a series of quills actuate, and then protect you.
Jo Reed: It's like a porcupine on the go.
Meejin Yoon: Yes.
Jo Reed: And, another work you did, which you designed for the Olympics in Athens: White Noise, White Light.
Meejin Yoon: Yes, and that was the project that initiated all these explorations about art, science, technology, and public space for me. In 2004, I won an invited international competition to propose a light-and-sound installation for the Athens Olympics. And, the concept I had was very simple: that I would create a field, and that in that field, as people inhabited that field, the light in that field would transform and flicker behind them as if it was a wake in the water. And then, in terms of sound, I wanted to deal with the accumulation of all things. So, white light being the full spectrum of color, but white noise being the kind of full spectrum of frequencies within the range of human hearing. So, the idea was through this kind of accumulation, you would create a stillness through white light and white noise. So as they walked by, it would brighten and flicker behind them; and then, also emit the white noise. And it was the first opportunity to test using sensors and micro-controllers and fiber optics at a scale that was more public. So, the Defensible Dress, which uses similar technology, is a one-off kind of personal project. White Noise, White Light was tested under the Acropolis, and had thousands and thousands of visitors a day. So, it was the first project where we were able to test these ideas in a real public space, with the real public. And, it was amazing; it was amazing.
Jo Reed: What was that like for you? What did you hear back?
Meejin Yoon: We heard everything. I think of the interesting things is with technology, people love to try to figure out how it's working. So, one of the most enjoyable things was to hang out there and hear everyone's different interpretations of: one, why the artist crated it; and, two, how it was working. And, little kids were always more intuitive. They were jumping, and running, and playing games in there, and trying to figure out how it worked by essentially trying to break it, in a way. And then, the adults were maybe a little more reserved, more questioning of, "How does this work?" And, like, peering into this and into that. But, I thought what was so wonderful was to see how many different ways people used it. In my imagination, people would walk through it serenely. But, people, like, ran through it; people clustered together and hung out there for hours. Or, instead of walking through, they just kind of plopped down and sat in the field for a while, and hung out with their friends. It was really interesting to see how the public used it. And that's why, for me, that project is a turning point. Because I think now, in the projects I do for public space, I really think the public completes the work. So, in a way, what I'm putting out there is a kind of infrastructure that essentially doesn't work unless it's occupied by people. Like, the Sound Grove is 20 static poles, right, until people start touching the poles, and grabbing two poles at the same time, et cetera. Same with Light Drift: if nobody sits there, it doesn't do a thing. It requires the public to activate it and complete it.
Jo Reed: I feel like we're at such an interesting point in the way science, art, and technology are all coming together again. Though, in your field, architecture, there was never really that separation that we have seen in other disciplines. But now you see it more and more: this coming together of science, art, technology. And, indeed, for MIT's 150th birthday, there was a festival called FAST, which was the Festival of Arts, Science, and Technology. When I think of MIT, I do not think of art, for better or for worse.
Meejin Yoon: Oh, that's too bad. I think, also, when I started teaching at MIT, I did not also associate MIT with the arts. However, over time, I realized that there are amazing artists there, and there are amazing scientists who are incredibly creative. Eric Demaine, who is a mathematician, who does structural origami, is one type of person I can think of who really mixes art, science, and technology together. Todd Machover, with his Opera of the Future, is another individual who I think, for them, art, science, and technology is one thing; it's not three things with plus-signs between them. And, I think that's what's amazing about MIT: it's rich in its support of the arts, it's rich in its people who have one foot in science and one foot in literature, one foot in mechanical engineering, and one foot in music; it's a pretty fascinating place. And I think it leads people to be even more innovative and creative, and aspirational, in a way. I think the Defensible Dress, I might have thought, "Oh, I wish I could be a porcupine and defend myself." But, I think without being in the context of MIT, I would not have had the initiative to take a class where I learned how to make a micro-controller, and figure out what kind of shape-memory alloy was out there that I could use to get the quills to actuate, et cetera.
Jo Reed: You were one of the organizers of FAST?
Meejin Yoon: Actually, Todd Machover was the organizer of all of FAST; the Festival of Arts, Science, and Technology. And the component that I helped with was the curation of the public-space installations across MIT's campus. FAST was amazing because we had an opportunity to bring students and faculty from across different schools and have them collaborate together. Many of the student projects were really amazing and engaging, and they dealt with transforming the kind of MIT, mundane, everyday spaces. And, through different interventions, transform them, literally, some overnight, into kind of spaces that had a quality of wonder and intrigue that examined the relationship between computer numerically controlled components and lighting, or sensors and space, or projections and interactivity, et cetera.
Jo Reed: When we think about art and science, and the way they've been siloed from each other; again, not in your field. But your field really is one of the few where that hasn't been the case. I'm curious if you've had any thoughts about why you think that happened, and how you see artists and scientists learning from one another and playing with one another, at MIT most particularly.
Meejin Yoon: I think specialization somehow tends to silo people more and more. When you think back about the renaissance, quote-unquote man, right, who was an architect, and a philosopher, and a writer, and a lawyer, et cetera, et cetera, there were moments in our history where you were not designated, "Oh, you're an artsy person," or, "Oh, you're a science person," or, "Oh, you're a humanities person." I think specialization, or the need to specialize or professionalize has done some of that. But, I do think you cannot shake it from people. Like, I've met scientists at MIT whose hobby is glassblowing. So, I think it's part of our culture and society that does that, but I think many scientists are incredibly creative, intuitive in a way, people. And I think, moving forward, hopefully, the barriers will dissolve. I think there are more and more initiative across universities to explore interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary approaches to learning. And I think to tackle many major critical problems, you need multiple points of view and expertise to do so. So, it's no longer one technical expert will solve this problem; problems require all different kinds of approaches.
Jo Reed: I think having an artist in at the inception, rather than often bringing them along at the end, "Well, can we make it look nice somehow?"
Meejin Yoon: No, I agree with that. I would say what historically an artist brings to a project is a kind of critical capacity to see the problem from a different point of view, to have a different approach, maybe a more nuanced approach, or even a more political approach, or whatever. I don't think all people do this, but when artists are seen as decorators of public space, or enhancers that drop in their nice wallpaper or sculpture, I think that's a real underestimation of the value of an artist to a project.
Jo Reed: It seems like a missed opportunity.
Meejin Yoon: Yeah, a missed opportunity; absolutely right.
Jo Reed: What's next on your plate? What are you excited about now?
Meejin Yoon: Well, I'm always excited by different challenges. So, we often get opportunities where people say, "Oh, I saw that project; I would love it if you could Light Drift in our river, in Hungary" or something. Or, "Can I order 100 of those sound poles?" And I have to tell clients or potential clients that it's not a product, and we're not interesting in repeating ourselves. What we would love to do is find out what their issue is, what their site is, what they want to enhance, what they want to change, what the public is there, what they want to do, and that we would do something unique for them.
Jo Reed: Well, I look forward to seeing it, wherever it might be. Thank you so much; I appreciate it.
Meejin Yoon: Thank you, thank you.
Jo Reed: That was Architect and public artist, Meejin Yoon. To see her work, go to MYStudio.us.
You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpt from “Foreric: piano study” from the album Metascapes, composed and performed by Todd Barton, used courtesy of Valley Productions.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you can subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U---just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page. Next week, the innovativeperformance artist, Meredith Monk takes center stage and Next week, the new issue of NEA ARTS celebrating innovation comes out. Go to arts.gov and click on NEA Arts for the full issue and special web features, including an installation by Meejin Yoon!
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