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Hans Tammen: Cream of the Crop

In Art, Feature, Interview on May 26, 2010 at 1:25 pm

Hans Tammen – Deputy Director @ Harvestworks


Digital sound artist, Hans Tammen, has been a musician for more than 3 decades. With a background in classical and rock guitar, Tammen is the Deputy Director at Harvestworks Digital Media Arts Center in New York City.

Founded in 1977, Harvestworks is a non-profit organization created by artists for artists.  On its website the organization states that it has helped “a generation of artists create new works using technology.”  Saying also that its mission is to “support the creation and presentation of art works achieved through the use of new and evolving technologies….to create an environment where artists can make work inspired and achieved by electronic media.”

In his official capacity at Harvestworks, Tammen performs the oversight of all projects related to Max/MSP/Jitter and Physical Computing, also managing the organization’s education program and the audio-video studios.

Tammen is the conductor of Third Eye Orchestra and he is the creator of the ENDANGERED GUITAR – a hybrid guitar/software instrument, for which he received a 2009 Fellowship from the New York Foundation of the Arts (NYFA) in the category Digital/Electronic Arts.

Tammen’s own works have been presented throughout the US, Canada, Mexico, Russia, India and all acorss Europe.  And for his tremendous contributions toward breaking new ground in the world of sound, Tamen has received innumerable awards, felloswhips and residencies.

Hans Tammen: Cream of the Crop

An interview with the Deputy Director of Harvestworks Digital Media Arts Center

by Max Eternity


Max Eternity (ME):  Hi Hans, welcome to AD Mag

Hans Tammen (HT): Hi Max!

ME:  Until a few weeks ago I had not heard of Harvestworks.  Liz Taylor, one of your interns contacted me after reading an interview I conducted with artist and art instructor, Rob O’neill, informing me that she had just heard of AD Mag.  The magazine has been around for 3 years, but your organization has been around much longer than that?

HT:  Yes, since 1977…

ME:  This is a New York organization, but I’m guessing you have a national outreach?

HT: And international. Besides our regular US-artists we have many coming from abroad to create their project, or study in one of our training programs. I recently checked, and we have for example at least one artist from every country in South America, um… well… except those like Guyana and Suriname. But with around 250 artists per year working with us, that’s probably not that much of a surprise.

ME:  So exactly, what is the mission of Harvestworks…clearly you’re not into farming?

HT:  Are we not? We regularly get the “Eastern Livestock” magazine sent to us for free, and proudly display that in our magazine rack (smiles and laughs). But in a broad sense, we help artists create their projects involving technology.

Since Gerry Lindahl and Greg Kramer founded this organisation in 1977, the technology  has changed a lot over the last 30 years. In the 70s it was all about analog synthesis, you could go to Harvestworks and rent an expensive Buchla 100 analog synth to create your piece. Later we had an audio recording and editing studio, plus a video editing suite. We still operate them, because after all the production work is done, you still need to record your audio piece, or edit your video, right?

However, in the last ten years the majority of our work is about interactive art, which for us means programming in Max/MSP and Jitter, Pd, Supercollider or similar programming languages, to facilitate the artist’s ideas. We also work on a lot of hardware-related issues, like building electronic instruments or track people’s movements through sensors to affect an interactive installation.

Another big change is the increase in our training programs. Since many more people have access to these technologies today, they still have the need to learn these. Around two-thirds of all our artist’s projects are created as part of an intensive training session.

ME:  And, your role at Harvestworks?

HT: I’m bringing everybody together… I just enjoy talking with people about their projects, and making sure everything works out well, and the project stays at an affordable price. Like… the artist comes in, we go through all the details, and I connect them to the engineer or programmer who’d work best for them. Sure the engineer has to have the skill to facilitate the project, but this is ore about bringing the artist together with a like-minded engineer-artist. Someone who can understand where you’re coming from. If you want to create your own VJing system, you’re better off working with someone who does interactive live video, too. We’re all artists here, too…

We’re at our best when our lab room is packed, and all of a sudden people take interest at each other’s projects, and start working together. The intern with the Certificate Student, or the Artist In Residence with the regular client. It’s just great to see when the intern from Switzerland and one of our Artist In Residence find a common ground, and ooops… they’re performing at Miami Basel in Florida.

ME: Right, that’s the beauty of collaboration. the outcome is usually quite surprising.  It seems as well that the organization has a commitment to provide services at every step of the way.  You’re not just a recording studio–you do much more than that?

HT: The recording studio (as well as the video editing suite) are meanwhile only a minor part of our work. In the last ten years we came to specializing in interactive programming – for installations, audio or video works, or custom made instruments. We create many museum or gallery installation works that react to the movement of the audience by using camera motion tracking. We build custom instruments for electronic musicians, or program software for live sound processing. If you want to track the flight paths of butterflies in an aviary to use this information to make sounds, we’re the place to do it.

Artists can also learn this at Harvestworks, we’re running numerous classes, and also the Certificate Program, you can study on your project in a one-on-one situation, which seems to work well for people from out of town, or internationally.

Tobaron Waxman’s “Block of Ice” @ Harvestworks

ME: Now I know you have many exhibitions ongoing at Harvestworks, but is the something that comes to mind first in recent events–a show that was perhaps unusually inventive?

HT: That’s a hard one… there are so many. Maybe Tobaron Waxman’s “Block of Ice”, his brainwaves controlling  images downloaded from the internet, put into a collage and projected onto a block of ice? Shana Moulton’s and Nick Hallett’s Whispering Pines, an electronic chamber opera with extensive camera motion tracking to control realtime animation projected onto the performer? Jeff Thompson’s motion tracking of butterflies’ flight paths turned into music?

ME;  Do you have a program(s) specifically for youth?

HT: Yes, we try. Teens can learn these technologies over the summer, so we offer camps for making interactive art, but also Podcasting – which is just another name for learning recording and editing, web skills and some video, too.

ME:  And, could you talk about your residency program.  Who is this open to–any artist?

Fine Kwiatkowski performs with Hans Tammen

HT:  Well, just for artists who reside in the US, but then for all of them. We have a residency program since 1983 I think, and have between 10 and 15 artists a year who receive technical assistance by our programmers and engineers to create their project, plus a stipend. Their final work is then presented in one of our festivals, or presentation series.

ME:  So I see information on your site about Jitter.  What exactly is Jitter–like Twitter?  And while you’re at it, might you also talk about MAX/MSP.  How is that used, to do what exactly for those who may not know?

HT:  Both are part of the same software package, it is a programming language for the arts that’s around since the end of the 80s. The difference comes down to Max/MSP is the audio part, and Jitter is the part that handles the visuals. It is very powerful and complex, but since you program by connecting boxes with patch cords, it is much more intuitive than the usual typing of cryptic code.

Most of our interactive art projects are programmed in Max/MSP/Jitter. It’s just the tool that allows for the widest range of applications for us, across all artist’s needs. We do some projects in other tools, but that’s the case when the project can be done in a software that specializes in things the artist’s project requires. In that case you won’t have to reinvent the wheel again, but on the other hand you may end up in a situation where you can’t find fine tune a project as much as you need.

Hans Tammen conducts the Third Eye Orchestra

ME:  What are some highlights lined up for Summer and Fall–any announcements?

HT:  Not sure…  maybe our event “New instruments for Improvisation and Experimental Approaches” on June 28? That is a one-day presentation/panel/performance event with 4 artists who discuss how their practice as improvisers, sound artists and experimental musicians lead to inventing their own tools, and how these inventions in turn influenced their musical performance techniques. Our “Synesthesia” workshop series in June, where artists learn how to drive their visuals through audio, and their audio through visuals? We are also very excited about our three DigiCamp workshops for teens in July, where they learn various digital tools for animation and so on.

ME:  Hans, thanks for taking the time to speak with me.

HT:  It has been a pleasure!


Visit Harvestworks here and Hans Tammen’s website here.  Tammen’s Youtube page can be found here, and a 3-year archive of AD MAG articles and interviews are found here.

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