A Conversation with Yagiz Mungan, CODAME Artist
A series of interviews of Artists and Speakers featured at the CODAME ART+TECH Festival  by Irene Malatesta
Interdisciplinary artist Yagiz Mungan creates work that blends VR/AR, sound/music, interaction, performance, virtual worlds and gaming. He is especially interested in generative strategies of creating visuals and sound, and ways to use technology to push the boundaries of human perception and emotional response. His work often aims to recontextualize familiar experiences, or addresses uncanny technological encounters in modern life.
Mungan holds an MSc in computer engineering and MFA in interactive arts, and has exhibited his work around the world. For the 2018 CODAME ART + TECH Festival, Mungan will be exhibiting a project called Illy, an AI that communicates via sound without language.
This year’s CODAME Festival, codenamed #ARTOBOTS, will feature 4 days of installations, workshops, talks and more, all centered around the expanding influence of artificial intelligence and robotics in the modern world. In this conversation, Mungan discusses those themes and more, including his background and early sound experiments, how he mixes various technological mediums to create new media art, and how VR can help us experience the impossible.
IM: Hi Yagiz, thanks for agreeing to chat. You’re an artist working with interactive installations, interactive music, and mixed reality. Could you begin by talking a bit about who you are and the kind of work that you make?
YM: I like creating interactive things or generative things, where the computer or the software is a part of the experience as an active agent. Back in the day, I studied engineering, and I was inspired to look into how to make my projects more creative. I looked into algorithmic and generative approaches to my work. I was able to get to where there was no user but there was more expression through software. From there, I got into gaming: game design and interactive installations.
I always worked with music and art, but technology and art were really two separate things when I was younger; they did not exist together. My idea to combine them grew over time. As I got into algorithmic generation, I wrote software that composed music and created visuals. I got into systems that you can interact with, to create music, videos, create code for a game or installations.
Mixed reality or VR is just another medium to create installations, if you will. And in VR, you don’t have any physical limitations on what you can create.
It sounds like you might describe yourself mainly as an artist that works with interactivity, and all of these different mediums were different ways to get at that.
That’s one way to put it, yes. To me, I would say “interdisciplinary” artist, because coding is my craft. For me, sounds always are the most important aspects of a thing: I always try to make it sound-focused or music-focused. Visuals are always there but I always try to make the sound a very important part of the project and build around it, as opposed to, “Let’s put some music in the background.” Instead, I usually want to make it about creating music.
That’s interesting because that’s a really distinct point of view about whether the music is the subject or whether the music is in the background. You mentioned before that coding is your craft. You have a Masters in Computer Engineering and also an MFA in Electronic Art. Could you talk a little bit about your background and where you’re from, and how you decided to pursue that formal training path?
I come from Turkey. Where I’m from, in my childhood, back in the early 2000s, it was a culture where, if you are a successful student, you have to go and study certain subjects. I didn’t have too many options to choose from so I studied Engineering.
I always felt like something was missing there. When I did my Masters degree, I went from investigating what can be done with programming or engineering, to realizing, okay, I can use this to craft the music that I like. My master’s thesis was about creating compositions algorithmically. Once I was done with it, I thought I also wanted some user interaction.
My second Masters was about interactive art as a time-based medium. That focused on installations, more art-based ideas and user interaction. That was kind of my path.
Your creative path actually makes a lot of sense: you’ve been a UX developer, a university instructor, you worked on game design…you’ve done a lot of different things but they all involved this component of creativity, creating something and interactivity and engineering. You’ve also traveled a lot. Can you comment on the jobs you’ve had and cities you’ve been?
That’s an interesting question because I spent so much time in grad school. When it comes to jobs, the titles I’ve had changed but what I do is mostly the same. What I find most interesting is the work I do outside of my regular “jobs.” The people I meet, the tech and art community in San Francisco. Talking to people in this community is always, more than entertaining, it makes me feel that I need to do more. Not in a competitive way but you know, I feel inspired!
I’ve been in many cities. I was in Indiana after my grad studies. I’ve been in Sweden and then some time in Germany. Lots of time in Turkey. As for the arts community, I can’t compare, say, Indiana to San Francisco, because it’s so different. Here, there’s always new people to meet. There’s so many things happening here.
Regarding your work in particular, was there any particular project that inspired you early on?
I was always involved in music since about age seven. My main instrument is the guitar. I also play synthesizers. I think that started when I was in a class, and I made a very simple sound-making code and I was interested in going further. I looked into the basic research, there’s lots of things out there, and I realized there was this field existing that I could study, research to improve myself.
For the first part, it was a bit accidental. For example, you get advertisements all the time, emails from vendors and that’s all, see the new speaker, whatever. I remember, I got the email claiming that the new speaker had some particular frequency response and I thought, “Humans can’t hear that!” I was inspired to test it. I made a simple code to play that sound and of course we couldn’t hear anything from the laptop.
This was just an early experiment. I was just having fun, and then I realized, I can actually make music this way. Over time, I discovered whole range of tools that people have used for creative technology. It was the first step for me.
Let’s talk a little bit about the work you’re making now. Could you talk a bit about your current creative projects what you’re most excited about and also what drives you to create them? Why you’re making them, what you want to communicate most of all?
Well, my work goes along two paths. Sometimes, there something in visual art that I want to investigate, or some user interaction that I’m curious about. So, there’s no real message or meaning but I just want to see where I end up from a more aesthetic position. Sometimes, like there’s something that’s bothering me or makes me think, I make a piece about that.
Right now, I’m moving toward more work with music visualizers, creating abstract landscapes through music. I’m trying to get away from the old abstract shapes, and get into more realistic looking visuals. It’s a fun project, looking into some visual effects that I can drive through sound.
What is it about the landscapes that you’re drawn to, why landscapes?
Well, I would say not as like landscape as in nature, but landscapes for example, in a city. Like when you sit at a coffee shop and watch people crossing the streets. I can create something like this that would be impossible in real life, with some people moving up, some people moving down….
And then I can use motion capture to create this. Brokenness interests me, the fact that they don’t truly exist or they can’t exist.
To create your artworks, you use Unity and WebGL. Can you talk a little bit more about mediums and tools that you use to create your work? What are most important to you?
Yes, those are my main two tools for the visuals. I like to work in a space, and working in physical spaces is interesting but not always affordable or practical. So that’s why I like to work in virtual spaces, or I combine them, so like there’s some physical aspects about the virtual aspects. In those cases, I use Unity or WebGL.
The reason I might choose one or the other is if there’s something specific I need in one of them. Mainly I choose based on the means of distribution. If I need to distribute the work online to people then I’ll go to WebGL, the browser way, [I] like using the library three.js so you can just share a link and others have access to it. For an event-based thing, I like using Unity. It is very fun and easy to use with lots of capabilities. It’s a little harder to distribute.
Another thing [to consider] is fidelity. With my skill set, I can get a better quality in Unity which is important sometimes. For the sound, it’s a little bit interesting for the sound. I love Unity but its sound creation capabilities are pretty limited. Most of the time, I link another thing like MAX/MSP, which is like a live performance tool, but that makes the overall product harder to deploy or send to others.
When I’m working in a space, I like to use a lot of the sounds in that space to mix into back into the exhibit, capturing the sounds and processing them back. I also sometimes like to feature my own compositions playing guitar as part of the experiences I create.
In your opinion, what sort of emotional artistic content is now becoming possible because of mixed reality technologies? You work in VR with all of these new tools. There’s obviously a reason why artists want to use VR to communicate something new, right?
Yes. In the physical world, there are many things you can’t achieve, because of basic limitations like space or resources like money, et cetera. What VR gives you is that capacity to create things, like impossible scenarios. It puts you inside the impossible in a very first-person point of view. Everything becomes suddenly real, like, “I can actually touch this.”
One of the things that I did recently was a VR and dance piece. Freya Olafson and I created these dancing avatars. Once you create enough of them, it just felt like you’re in the forest floor of a towering, robotically, moving avatars. It created a feeling of the sublime. You can’t get there very easily. Getting there to the point that is beyond possible, but you’re suddenly feeling that, “I’m actually here, this is impossible.”
Some people use VR to recreate the physical world and then it just becomes fun, like a joke. To me, what’s interesting is putting people into these impossible situations where it becomes a very personal form of experience. You’re seeing it with your own eyes. It can really get to you.
Artists have been engaging with the sublime in different ways for a very long time. Do you think that mixed reality technology is an especially good medium or space for communicating that feeling?
Yes, I think so. It’s a medium for anything, but the fact that you can put people anywhere is very strong because you can put people into wherever you are imagining, not just within a landscape but also in a mindstate. It doesn’t need to be a real space that they could stand on. It could be a space without any ground, or it could be transitional space. It could be just lights and sounds. It could be a no space. That’s pretty strong.
Absolutely. And how about looking into the future a little bit? Are there new technologies that you are super excited about that are still in the proof of concept phase but haven’t really been fully used to create high-level artwork yet, in your opinion?
There is always the linear progress that emerging technologies have. We still deal with network cables and sometimes the cables become more disturbing than the piece! But as for the new technologies, it would be interesting to see where AR goes. At this point, it’s just scraping the surface level but when it becomes actually there, it’s kind of hard to say what is augmented reality and what is physical. That will be interesting and scary.
Let’s talk about the upcoming CODAME ART+TECH Festival. Can you tell us about the work you will be showing?
It will be a version of Illy, which is a semi-intelligent system. It’s an evolving project that’s been on for some time.
The starting point for Illy was a device: an Amazon Alexa or Google Home. When you use one of these, you’re talking with a plastic thing, you say something and you expect a result. And when you get that result, you feel happy and satisfied, but when it says, “Oh, I didn’t get that,” you feel frustrated. When it plays the wrong song, you get frustrated.
Having gone through this process with my accent, I was bothered that I could get so frustrated over a plastic bot. After thinking about that a bit, I came up with Illy, which is an artificial intelligence that does not understand English. Illy doesn’t understand any language, doesn’t understand talking, but it tries to interpret the voices, the pitch, the volume, the main characteristics of sound, and it tries to respond back based on that. It creates a communication where both sides know that there will be no understanding. It’s up to you to put any meaning to what it says.
So it communicates back when you talk to it, but not in language?
Exactly. The conversation is more like a monologue, but it’s up to you what it says. So that’s the main idea. There will also be either a VR project or a large display. You can look at Illy as a thing that just makes raw sounds, or it could be your most understanding pet, or you can treat it like a baby. Like you know, you talk to a baby. You know that the baby doesn’t understand you. It’s all about how you are feeling.
What would you like people to know about your work? Or what would you like them to think about most when they see your work at the festival?
It’s about our relationship with things, with technology, with AIs, and how the means of communication changes our perspective and expectations. Like for example, I’m saying something now and you can understand because we are using the same symbols, but if I was talking in Turkish that would be just noise and completely not valuable to you.
Or consider the relationship between people like when you go to a coffee shop and ask for a coffee. Most of the time in our rushing lives, our expectation is, “This person gives me coffee.” If that person tries to make small talk with you, your reaction is, “I have to go, why are you wasting my time!” It’s that small thing, but being really aware of these interactions, versus subconsciously aware, is very different.
It’s interesting to think about how sound, the quality of sound and the meaning of language get conflated a lot of the time. As in your project: you’re presenting it that way, but we know we can say something mean in a very sweet voice, and vice versa. It’s very easy for us to have these expectations that are then wrong because we’re just applying our own perspective.
That’s the cultural construct. Different languages have different ways of saying things. With some, for example, pronouncing something “cute” in one language could sound like I’m talking down to you. All of these meanings are human-made cultural things that we have to agree on. You need the correct decoder in order to understand, and what if you don’t have it?
Connect and learn more about Yagiz Mungan on the CODAME site:
R. Yagiz Mungan is an interdisciplinary artist whose practice is located at the intersection of VR/AR, sound/music…codame.com