Michael Takeo Magruder (b.1974, US/UK) is a visual artist and researcher who works with new media including real-time data, digital archives, immersive environments, mobile devices and virtual worlds. In the last 20 years, Takeo’s projects have been showcased in over 250 exhibitions in 35 countries, and his art has been supported by numerous funding bodies and public galleries within the UK, US and EU.
In 2010, Takeo was selected to represent the UK at Manifesta 8: the European Biennial of Contemporary Art and several of his most well-known digital artworks were added to the Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art at Cornell University. More recently, he was a Leverhulme Trust artist-in-residence (2013-14) collaborating with Professor Ben Quash (Theology, King’s College London) and me as Director at Mostyn, to research and develop a new solo exhibition – entitled De/coding the Apocalypse – exploring contemporary creative visions inspired by and based on the Book of Revelation.
In 2014, Takeo was commissioned by the UK-based theatre company Headlong to create two new artworks – PRISM (a new media installation reflecting on Headlong’s production of George Orwell’s “1984”) and The Nether Realm (a living virtual world inspired by Jennifer Haley’s play “The Nether”).
The following year, he was awarded the 2015 Immersive Environments Lumen Prize for his virtual reality installation A New Jerusalem. Takeo is currently artist-in-residence at the British Library, undertaking an arts-research project – entitled Imaginary Cities – that involves the creative examination of digital map archives drawn from the Library’s 1 Million Images from Scanned Books collection.
Takeo makes work in and around the Internet. His practice explores concepts ranging from media criticism and aesthetic journalism to digital formalism and computational aesthetics, deploying Information Age technologies and systems to examine our networked, media-rich world.
Alfredo Cramerotti: Let’s start with the main ideas behind your work—I realize this is a big question, and of course I have my own reading of your work, but it may not be the same with what you think are the main guiding principles of what you do. I am interested in knowing how you ‘read’ your own work. Can you step outside of yourself for a moment and let me know what you see?
Michael Takeo Magruder: When I look at my earliest resolved artworks (from the late 1990s), I have an odd sense of detachment from them. Of course, I well remember making and exhibiting them, but they don’t feel as if they are fully mine anymore. As such, I view them – or at least I believe that I view them – from a more third person perspective. From a compositional standpoint, the pieces have a very modernist aesthetic that is seductive and precise in form. Each work incorporates and purposefully juxtaposes both analogue (by the human) and digital (by the machine) materials and processes, and embodies many of the qualities and characteristics of the globalized Information Age – light, structure and data.
Some works appear to highlight and pay homage to the beautiful possibilities of this emerging time, while others allude to the potentially darker sides of this revolution that we will likely have to face and overcome. Now, some twenty years later, I think those fundamental aspects remain at the core of what I create, and therefore could arguably be read as the essence of what my work has always sought to explore.
Alfredo Cramerotti: Did you get any particular source of inspiration for the visual styles of your recent projects—such as Living Data, De/coding the Apocalypse, PRISM, Lamentations for the Forsaken, and Makljen (re/constructed)—like the video/projection/light box formats; the ‘lab’ ambience; the research/archive framework; etc., or did they arrive in relation to the nature of the ‘materials’ (read: people) you have used, and locations you were in?
Michael Takeo Magruder: I gain inspiration for my artwork from a variety of sources, many of which exist well outside of traditional art practice and history. My work often references and incorporates elements from contemporary techno-pop culture – from video games and electronic music to Japanese anime and science fiction. In a similar fashion, I also draw deeply from academia and industry.
Science and technology are obvious influences, but I have also developed long-standing connections to and collaborations within the humanities sector – in particular, in areas such as theology and religious studies, and archives and collections. In these instances, both the expertise of my colleagues and the contexts in which they are working get assimilated into the creative process and are frequently reflected in the formats and locations of the final artistic outcomes.
Alfredo Cramerotti: Can you dive a bit into the technical aspects of the works? Such as the gathering of raw material, software or hardware used (in the wide sense; they could be thoughts or bodies), as well as the selection and ‘editing’ process (what you take in and what is left out)? What are some of the particular challenges you and your teams face when realizing works?
Michael Takeo Magruder: In producing an artwork, my primary concern is always to employ systems and methods that are both technically and conceptually fit for purpose. To do otherwise is (in my opinion) counterproductive to creating an effective piece of art, especially when one is working in challenging or sensitive moral/ethical/legal contexts. Regarding the selection and ‘editing’ of informational content or data (e.g. the raw source ‘material’ for my artworks), I strive to maintain a transparent and balanced approach that is as far removed as possible from the power/propaganda agendas of governments, corporations and media organizations. Of course, any process of artistic selection or exclusion will contain some degree of the artist’s own perspectives and prejudices.
So, with this in mind, I constantly reflect upon and critique my decisions, and try where possible to realize projects in dialogue with collaborators who are considered (by the public) to be experts within the areas in question. In terms of challenges, the greatest issue is almost always preservation. This is not surprising given the rapid evolution and deprecation of the technologies that I integrate into my artworks. But even with acknowledging and understanding this issue, there is still a constant struggle to keep works ‘alive’ and ‘real’ (i.e. not faked approximations of their original forms) both in the medium and long term.
Alfredo Cramerotti: I curated a couple of installations of your work (e.g. Manifesta 8, at MURAM in Cartagena, at King’s Cultural Institute and at Somerset House in London). The exhibitions were basically made of a series of ‘spaces’ that viewers were moving through, so that people could walk underneath, above, into them—or beside them, or between them, or sit in them—but could not really see them from an ‘external’ point of view. You chose instead to have an ‘immersive’ type of installation. What was the underlying approach to this?
Michael Takeo Magruder: My art explores various geo/socio/eco/political issues and relationships that are part of everyday life, and as such, it seems most appropriate for me to produce exhibitions which visitors experience immersively from the ‘inside’ rather than simply view externally from the ‘outside’. In outlining a show, I always consider the individual artworks as the basic building blocks that I use to construct the exhibition’s principal narrative. For this reason, nearly all my works are explicitly designed to be modular – and therefore inherently adaptable to the wide range of spaces in which I exhibit – thus facilitating this process of reconfiguration and linking, to (hopefully) create compelling site/context-specific experiences for visitors.
Alfredo Cramerotti: Tell me a secret about your work, even a small one.
Michael Takeo Magruder: I constantly strive to blend aesthetic form and technical function when realizing a conceptual objective within my art. This, coupled to my desire to achieve precision and a depth of compositional layering within each work, often leads me to instill underlying numeric/geometric/logic associations within the spatial and temporal structures of my pieces. These ‘hidden’ aspects of a work can always be reversed engineered and extracted if one notices and has the desire/aptitude to decipher the ‘puzzle’. Returning to the influence of video games on my practice, one could certainly consider these as ‘Easter eggs’ to be discovered.