Maker Faire New York: “I Want To” Interview with Leo Kang

Craft & Design
Maker Faire New York: “I Want To” Interview with Leo Kang

Maker Faire New York is almost upon us, taking place this weekend, September 29 and 30, at the New York Hall of Science. Academics, artists, engineers, crafters, woodworkers, teachers, welders, astrophysicists, homesteaders, and everyone in between will be sharing hundreds of amazing handmade projects with the community. Some folks are strictly in one discipline, but others straddle two or three, blurring the boundaries of each. One such maker is electrical engineer, artist, and researcher Leo Kang, who will be bringing his interactive installation titled I Want To. We connected with him to learn more.

1. What inspired you to make I Want To, how long did it take, and how does it work?
I Want To is an interactive installation in which the audience can think about whether our desires come from the internal mind or from social expectations. Numerous (currently 50) custom-designed wooden toys, a television screen, and speakers comprise the installation, which is controlled by live Twitter messages. The system extracts Twitter messages that start with the phrase “I want to,” replacing them with “I have to.” The television screen displays the newly formed sentences while they’re broadcast through speakers. With each new sentence, the wooden toys march in unison.

I think the basic inspiration of this work should be examined from my cultural background. I grew up in South Korea, which is, I would like to say, a kind of conservative country where many “controlled” desires exist. When I was young, many social institutions such as family and school kept telling me that “I have to” go to a renowned university or get a respectable job. The society often defined people who don’t meet such expectations as “surpluses” of the society. In such an environment, I (we) must strive to follow the desires and expectations that society creates while we’re growing up. As a result, becoming a person capable of satisfying society became my only desire, and I always followed such desires for a long time without considering what I really wanted to do.

When I was 28, I happened to read Michel Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish, and it strongly inspired me to create this installation. The book basically examines the social and theoretical mechanisms that control our bodies and perceptions. Foucault’s idea is that we are under observation through constant social mechanisms in our lives, and as a result we have to regulate ourselves. Furthermore, such self-discipline becomes internalized and makes us think that those disciplines are our “actual desires.”

This book changed my previous perspective about my dreams and desires, and I started to ask the question, “What is my real desire in the society?” Through art, I wanted to share this question and Foucault’s message, and I think that was the starting point of designing the installation. Other than Foucault’s book, this work has been inspired directly and indirectly by George Orwell’s 1984, Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Marina Zurkow’s works exploring the relationship between humans and animals, and my friend Hyunsoo’s dialectical nagging.

2. Why did you choose Twitter specifically to extract data from?
I think Twitter is a very interesting space where we can observe our “own desires” and “presented desires” easily. On Twitter, a user has to continuously negotiate his/her presentation and identity to satisfy many types of audiences. Such mixed social contexts naturally create the space where “true” and “negotiated” desires coexist. Moreover, its virtual format provides great freedom for users to present themselves in an ideal way. Unlike other social media, such as Facebook, where only one’s friends can normally see published content, on Twitter self-presentation is easily watched by the public, which might lead people to standardize their behaviors to satisfy social expectations.

3. What inspired the design of the wooden toys that march in place? Is there a significance to the numbers on their faces?
I think the toys visualize me, my friends, and furthermore, all of us in the society. Basically, I wanted to design it to represent the life that I have experienced, just following social norms and expectations. The toys make repetitive movements and march in unison with each desire shown on the TV screen, which intends to asks the question, “Aren’t we just following desires to satisfy social expectations rather than trying to achieve our own dreams?” Also, the toys mimic a walking motion, but do not actually go forward. This also expresses the idea that we often think we are moving toward our dreams, when in fact we maybe are only marching in place within the dreams that the boundary of our society will allow.

The numbers on the toys’ faces are the ISBN number of Michel Foucault’s book. I left the numbers on each toy’s face to show that my idea originated from his book. It’s a similar concept to the citation system in academic publications. As an artist, I usually create a new type of medium, which can contain some interesting messages that I have learned from sociology and philosophy, and present them in my own fashion. I would like to give the audience an opportunity to reinterpret and rethink the original idea through the art format.

4. Why didn’t you choose to extract phrases that already start with “I have to”?
My idea is to make people confused between the phrases “I want to” and “I have to,” and to enable the audience to discover the relationship between desire and social mechanism through such a process. For example, the title of the work is I Want To whereas the installation keeps generating sentences starting with “I have to”; therefore the audience naturally becomes curious about the reason behind this mismatch. In addition to such a paradoxical relationship, the audience also gets confused because some messages become strange when the original phrase gets converted into “I have to” (“I have to eat ice cream” or “I have to fall in love”). Moreover, this conversion emphasizes the cadence and the rhythm of the before and after sentences. In other words, the meaning changes, but the sentence
structure remains the same.

5. You have an upcoming Conclusion section on your site. How do you hope to answer the main question you pose?
Although the conclusion section is still under construction, I would like to bring up several topics that I would like to discuss there in the future. For example, I have been conducting several ethnographic interviews to understand how people feel about this installation and how it resonates with audiences about themes of identity, expression, and control in online media. Therefore, the section would be used to share what I learn from this study.

In addition, I would like to open up the broader discussion regarding how artistic and other types of expression can help us explore and understand key concepts and concerns of sociology, philosophy, information science, and HCI scholarship.

6. Where have you displayed I Want To thus far and what type of reaction has it received?
Since the installation has been recently done (and in fact, I am still working on creating more toys for visual impact), I didn’t get many chances to show it to the public. It was once exhibited in the academic conference named iConference 2012 that took place in Toronto in February to show how artwork can speak to an academic topic.

I found that many audiences are really interested in how it works and what intentions are behind the project. The audience often empathizes with its concept, even though they are from very liberal countries. They sometimes tell me stories about the desires and social expectations that they experience in their lives, and it is very interesting to listen to their stories because they inspire me back again.

7. How did you hear about Maker Faire, and why did you choose to participate? Will you be using observations from the Faire in your research?
I have been working as an artist, maker, and engineer for many years. I think it is a kind of natural process for someone like me to hear about MAKE magazine and Maker Faire just like Christians experience the Bible. In addition, I studied at the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) in New York University, where many people are involved in Maker Faire.

My current research interest lies in the breakdown, maintenance, and repair of technologies. My research team, directed by Prof. Steven Jackson, is doing ethnographic research on different artists who feature the breakdown and repair of technology as central methods or themes in their works. Our research argument would be that breaking, hacking, and repairing are very helpful practices not only from an ecologically sustainable angle, but also for getting creative ideas and inspiration.

Maker Faire and Makezine are very interesting venues for such a topic, and I already have gotten a lot of resources from the interview articles in MAKE magazine, and from artists such as Andrew Smith and Nemo Gould, who have been involved in past Maker Faires. I would like to say it was a lot of help in my research.

I also plan to do some research at this year’s Maker Faire by interacting with diverse makers and artists who relate to my research topic. As an exhibitor as well as a researcher, I am extremely looking forward to participating in Maker Faire.

8. Tell us about yourself. What is your background and how did you get started making?
My favorite hobby when I was young was collecting diverse bizarre insects and displaying them on a board to show them to my friends and family members. Even though my mom and sister really hated it and often screamed and cried because of the insects, I think that was the origin of my making activities, in which my curiosity and the wonders of the world were presented through collecting and displaying.

In my undergraduate years, I studied electrical engineering as well as digital media design in Korea. Since there were few academic programs in Korea where I could pursue interdisciplinary studies that combine electrical engineering and art, I decided to come to the U.S., and went to ITP at NYU for my master’s degree. I am currently doing my Ph.D. work in the Information Science Department at Cornell University, and my art studio is also in Ithaca, N.Y. As an artist as well as an engineer, I have been creating diverse interactive media, such as new musical interfaces and art installations. In addition, I am also a travel writer, painter, and graphic designer. I think these diverse experiences enrich my artwork.

Kang’s He (Harmony): Calligraphy as a Musical Interface (2010) installation at Re-New Digital Art Festival 2010 in Copenhagen.

9. You’re an HCI (human-computer interaction) researcher. Give us a window into the types of things you study.
My general research interests lie in the intersection between information science and media art. Specifically, I would like to enrich the current HCI design method by understanding and adopting artists’ nontraditional and creative making processes through an ethnographic method. I think art practice is definitely valuable to observe more carefully since it often opens up possibilities of new methodologies and solutions toward the problems that have been beyond science and technology.

As I mentioned above, Dr. Jackson and I are currently focusing on understanding the artists and makers who mainly feature the breakdown and repair of technology as central methods or themes in their works. Since their making process is very long and unclear, it is very difficult for them to be accepted in the current goal-oriented academic setting. As a researcher, my role is to carefully observe and interact with them over a long period of time, and ultimately try to answer the question, “How can an academic setting support artists’ nontraditional and unclear design processes?”

10. What do you love most about NYC?
I love the culture and people at ITP. That is all my memory in NYC, and that’s enough.

For all the information you need to join us at the Faire this weekend, head over to the Maker Faire New York site, and prepare to be inspired.

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I'm a word nerd who loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon. I was an editor on the first 40 volumes of MAKE, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. In particular, covering art is my passion — after all, art is the first thing most of us ever made. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for untouched powder fields and ideal alpine lakes.

Contact me at or via @snowgoli.

View more articles by Goli Mohammadi
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