Q&A with Varsha Iyengar
Welcome to Q&A, a new series from the editors of Artists + Machine Intelligence. Each week, we’re featuring collaborators working at the intersection of art and technology. This March, in celebration of Women’s History Month, we’re spotlighting women techmakers at Google. Follow us on Medium to read new posts every Tuesday. You can always reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Based in San Francisco, California, Varsha Iyengar is a creative technologist working within interactive performance. Since 2016, she is also a software engineer at Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group, where she specializes in motion capture and human movement analysis. She’s collaborated on projects like Soli and most recently, Jacquard, where she works with gestural data in the wearable space. Check out her work on varshaiyengar.com
What is your current state of mind? On the edge of conflict and surety
Describe a typical Tuesday: Normally a recovery from Monday’s meetings and lack of exercise, on a good Tuesday, starts with a Pilates class. Since the end of last year, I split my days between work and developing personal projects. The day usually ends with a re-run of a tv show with dinner and some light work in bed.
Currently reading: The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant
Just started watching: The Mentalist
Your favorite place on ‘the Internet’: Any blog that tells you what the “hottest 5 restaurants” in any area are.
Where do you find inspiration? A kindred collaboration! I find inspiration in observing patterns in bustling and colorful places — like the marketplace!
Which came first for you: art or tech? Art. My mother is an interior designer and used to dance Kuchipudi while growing up, so, by 6th grade, I was learning jazz, ballet, Bharatanatyam, theatre, and Indian classical music.
What are you working on? I started some discussions on creating an interactive performance with a dance company in India. It is definitely an unexplored area for the audience in India, so I’m excited to work with enhancing some specific cultural context with tech! In my past projects, I double as a technologist and dancer, but for this one I will be collaborating with the founder of the company purely as a creative technologist.
Artwork you’ve been thinking about lately: The Rain Room from 2012 by Hannes Koch and Florian Ortkrass — it has been in LACMA for two years now, and I’ve wanted to experience this for a long while. For me, the concept marries the quotidian + tech perfectly, and I want to see if the experience matches up.
Artist not working with AI that should be: Emily Tareila — her work is currently featured in Google’s ATAP building. Through the process of creating her work, Emily maps conversations that hold rich context within a space. I think it would be amazing to add this context to written language datasets.
Advice for technologists working in the art world: During performance art, it is almost always never about showcasing the tech. This [realization] is something that helped me work with previous artistic collaborations.
In 2020, I want to see more: More crossfade between mediums for artists to enable larger scale installations. Can an artist primarily working with paper as a medium, transfer over to the virtual world to explore the same art piece? What changes when a 2-D work is brought into an immersive experience in three dimensions? Do we have the tools to scale [that experience]?
In celebration of Women’s History Month, tell us about a woman you admire: I went through a long list of incredible women I admire, but narrowed it down to someone I came across recently when I started exploring the art+tech world: Jessica Rajko, an interdisciplinary practitioner, who was semi-formally my mentor at Arizona State University.