Paul D. Miller is not easy to pin down. Composer, multimedia artist, hip hop turntablist, lecturer, author, curator and self-proclaimed nomad, Miller, or “DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid” as he is better known, is never in one spot for too long. “Traveling is an essential part of my creative process. And while most people try to sleep through the journey, I absolutely love the voyage itself, ” intimates Miller during dinner with the dsgnfix team in Tribeca. Miller is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and was the first artist-in-residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Insightful, introspective with a lively associative vocabulary, Miller is among dsgnfix’s first champions and inaugural curators.
Born in Washington, DC, the erudite artist’s intellectual interests are as diverse as his itineraries. His destinations are actually more like intersections — artistic explorations that trespass and blur the boundaries of art-science, high-low, East-West. Having completed Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica, an ambitious project where Miller, along with a group of artists, sets sail to the North Pole to capture an “acoustic portrait” of the continent’s changing landscape. Miller’s latest book, The Imaginary App (MIT Press) surveys the landscape of mobile applications and their promise of delivering instant “(h)Appiness” at the swipe of a finger.
“I have this credo. I think every good conversation is a walk through a spacious garden — with many pathways and nooks. A good conversation makes you want to go through different paths, but a bad conversation makes you want to stay in the main area, then leave shortly after,” explains Miller.
Over gazpacho and pasta, we lingered and probed Miller about his latest explorations.
You’ve been thinking a lot about apps lately. What led you down this path?
Apps are like these tender buttons, as Gertrude Stein calls it. She would say, imagine if you have a screen where you could touch a tender button to generate anything. In the same token, each app is a route to a different conversation—each icon represents a shortcut that pulls you into different areas of the screen.
So in some ways, those colorful app icons function as doors or portals?
Yes. Actually, since the book is called the “Imaginary App,” we’ve commissioned artists to create buttons for apps that don’t exist. Some interesting proposals came out, and we’ve exhibited them in the Museum London and at Artisphere.
Have you guys heard of Alex Steinweiss? He’s the graphic designer credited for creating the record cover. In the 1920s record cover used to be blank. Then one day, he went to Columbia Records and proposed that they put an image on the cover to give people an idea what the music sounds like. That revolutionized the music and design industry. And if you notice, we’re still using the square format in app icons, as in the record sleeve. I really wanted a book to explore the philosophy and aesthetics of apps.
You’ve actually designed an app yourself. What was that experience like?
I designed a free app that allows you to mix music on your iPhone or iPad, sampling from SoundCloud and your personal music libraries. I learned that you have to promote an idea. When I designed the app, it got copied immediately. We’ve had 30 million downloads, and we saw people copy our format and model.
With the abundance of apps available, how does an app like dsgnfix serve the community?
As someone deeply involved with apps, when I first looked at dsgnfix, I immediately got the sense that it was about community and curation. Similar apps rely on their staff to select recommendations, while dsgnfix flips that model and asks the community to pick. There’s great potential for more reach because you’re bringing in people and their network of recommendations. The content on dsgnfix is more intimate, richer — really, better oxygen.
Tell us about an overlooked gem that’s not on your list of dsgnfix recommendations.
Actually, I can show you. Do you guys have a few minutes?
Where are we going?
Follow me. It’s literally down the block. See that house with the glowing windows? That’s La Monte Young’s “Dream House,” a sound and light installation based on an eternal composition. Young is a minimalist ‘60s composer who influenced Steve Reich, Philip Glass and many others. As the song is always meant to play for eternity, those lights are never turned off. The lights represent waveforms, and they flash according to the cadence of the song—we’re literally watching music. You don’t notice it during the day, but it’s always on.
DJ Spooky pointing out La Monte Young’s “Dream House” on 275 Church Street in Tribeca: