While many digital artists have embraced technology in the internet age, technologists have also embraced art, blurring the boundaries between art and science. Mechanical-engineer-turned-digital-artist Tamiko Thiel has been at the forefront of this evolution for over four decades, encouraging digital artists not only to play with these boundaries, but to break them.

Peter Traynor  |  Ed Cristina Brooks   | 2 November 2020

CM-2 on view starting 21st March 2020, for next several years at @tekniskamuseet in #Stockholm © Courtesy of the artist.

In 1986, the MIT AI Lab startup Thinking Machines Corp. introduced the Connection Machine 1 (CM-1), the most advanced super-computer of its generation and an early step towards attaining Artificial Intelligence. The lead product designer on CM-1 was Tamiko Thiel, an engineer who had studied at Stanford and MIT and worked in product design at Hewlett Packard. 

Despite a bright future in technology, Thiel went on to become a globally recognised digital artist. She regards CM-1 as her first work of art. It is easy to see why — visually CM-1 and its successor CM-2, blend form and function to create something that looks as at home in a New York gallery as a laboratory (one of the few remaining CM-2 machines is enjoying retirement at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC). 

Comprising eight black cubes, with each cube face showing grids of bright red LED processor chip status lights, the CM machines seem to invert Mark Rothko’s meditative Light Red Over Black (1957) for the digital age. They also recall Kitt, the intelligent talking car from the TV show Knight Rider (1982 – 1986) with its sleek black shell and red pulsing lights. This playfulness could be said to be a recurring theme in Thiel’s work. 

Starbright Spielberg Demo – Worlds Incorporated © Courtesy of the Internet Archive.

On her website, Thiel describes her artwork as ‘exploring the intersection of space, place and cultural memory’. It’s a prosaic description of a body of work that spans genres and fuses themes and formats in novel and quirky ways. Of course, Thiel uses her extensive knowledge of technology, and is very much an early adopter — she creates technologically complex installations, often in collaboration with other techy artists — but she also uses digital art and new media to speak to art consumers and the wider public. In 1996, decades before the tech became commonplace, Thiel created (in collaboration with Steven Spielberg) Starbright World, a multi-user online 3D virtual reality space in which seriously ill children could play and interact with each other. Likewise, Evolution of Fish (2019, with /p) used augmented reality projections to create an interactive display that allowed visitors to engage with digitally projected underwater ecosystems, and to see the potential harms that arise when we over-interact with the environment.  

Tamiko Thiel, The Travels of Mariko Horo (2006) Interactive 3D virtual reality installation, Edition ed.1/5 (ed.5+1AP) © Courtesy of the artist and Priska Pasquer Gallery

As a woman of mixed eastern and western heritage, who moved from a career in technology design to digital art, we should not be surprised that a central concern of Thiel’s work is the blurring of boundaries. In her exhibition The Travels of Mariko Horo (2006) she flips the usual western gaze on the ‘exotic’ orient and explores Japanese imaginings of a mythic west during that nation’s centuries-long closure to the world. The show satirised the absurdities of Marco Polo’s observations of foreign cultures — in the eight-armed Christ who offers judgement after death for instance. In doing so Thiel invites us to think about how we might project our own desires and dysfunctions onto the ‘other’ — creating a fabricated view of an entire culture in the process. 

Tamiko Thiel, Lend Me Your Face (2020, with /p) © Courtesy of the artist.

Thiel remains busy. Her current project Lend me your Face! (2020, with /p) is a ‘participatory artificial intelligence installation’ that takes a critical look at new facial recognition and ‘deepfake’ technologies. 

Despite starting out as a product designer, after over four decades as an artist Thiel continues to work across science, digital art and new media, inspiring us to continue blurring and breaking disciplinary boundaries.  

Reflections about water and water pollution by Olivia McGilchrist, interdisciplinary multi-media artist, researcher and student responder for the New Nature virtual conference in May, featuring Atmos Sphaerae by Tamiko Thiel, a virtual reality artwork in progress created in partnership with the Digital Museum of Digital Art (DiMoDa) for its 4.0 (Dis/Location) release, curated by Christiane Paul. © Courtesy of the artist.
“Unexpected Growth” the more you intervene with the natural order of things; and the more they’ll turn into plastic garbage says artist @tamikothiel. Listen as she talks about augmented reality and the message behind her work! ⁠⠀ © Courtesy of the artist.

About the artist

© Courtesy of the artist.

Tamiko Thiel is a visual artist who explores the ‘interplay of place, space, the body and cultural identity’. She creates 3d, augmented, virtual, and mixed reality artworks and installations and works with computer, video and print media. 

In 1979, Thiel gained a Bachelor of Science degree in Product Design Engineering from Stanford University. She focused on human factors design and went on to work as a product design engineer at Hewlett-Packard, before gaining a Masters’ of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering design from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1983. 

Thiel worked as lead product designer on the Connection Machines CM-1/CM-2 supercomputers at Danny Hillis’ MIT AI lab start-up Thinking Machines Corporation. 

Thiel moved to Germany in 1990 to study studio art at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts, where she specialised in video installation art and received a Diploma in Applied Graphics. Since then she has worked as an artist and gained an international reputation in digital and new media art.

Artist Website

Current or Next shows

Until the end of Nov 2020: Medientage München online

Lend Me Your Face! deepfake AI video installation

– In Re-start, VR gallery, curator Julie Walsh

Sponge Space Trash Takeover

– In Sponge Space, created by Cyan Planet for xR Hub Bavaria

Until 17 Nov 2020: National Library of Latvia, Riga

Unexpected Growth, AR installation

In Ecodata exhibit, RIXC Art Science Festival

Guest VR artist for My Identity Is This Expanse! by Karolina Markiewicz and Pascal Piron

23 – 27 Oct 2020: BIAF Animation Festival, Bucheon, South Korea

23 – 27 Nov 2020: 360 Film Festival, Paris 

12 – 13 Dec 2020: PSIAF Palm Springs Int’l Animation Festival, California, USA             

Until 17 Dec 2020: online & @ Telematic Gallery, San Francisco

Suspended Spring, AR installation in The Archive to Come 

Group exhibit curated by Clark Buckner and Carla Gannis

Until 21 Feb. 2021: Lichtsicht Triennale, Bad Rothenfelde, Germany

Water Lily Invasion, am Krokodilteich

Brush the Sky: Odoroku – Astonishment – am Kurmittelhaus

Past and Museums shows

Solo Shows

in 2020

  • Haus der Kunst, Munich, Germany. Götzendämmerung/Twilight of the Idols, Artists Association in Haus der Kunst. Premiere of Lend Me Your Face! participatory deepfake artificial intelligence installation, and “Drei Menschen, erfasst/Three People, Recorded” fine art print.

Group Shows

in 2020

  • Haus der Kunst, Munich, Germany. Götzendämmerung/Twilight of the Idols, Artists Association in Haus der Kunst. Premiere of Lend Me Your Face! participatory deepfake artificial intelligence installation, and “Drei Menschen, erfasst/Three People, Recorded” fine art print.
  • Rixc Art Science Festival, Ecodata exhibit of Unexpected Growth AR installation, National Library, Riga, Latvia. Curators: Raitis Smits and Rasa Smite.
  • BIAF Animation Festival, Bucheon, South Korea. Guest VR artist on the dream sequences for My Identity Is This Expanse! by Karolina Markiewicz and Pascal Piron
  • Telematic Gallery, San Francisco. Suspended Spring AR installation is part of “The Archive to Come,” exhibit curated by Clark Buckner and Carla Gannis
  • Lightsicht Triennial, Bad Rothenfelde, Germany. “Water Lily Invasion” and “Brush the Sky” AR installations.

Museums

2019

  • Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York. Energy,curated by Paola Antonelli and Anna Burckhardt.
  • Museum Sinclair-Haus, Bad Homburg, Germany. “Illusionary Nature,” curated by Ina Fuchs, with consultation by Wolf Lieser, DAM Gallery Berlin.Clb Berlin In Aufbau-Haus Am Moritzplatz, Berlin. Solo exhibit “Virtuelle Mauer Zeitlabor 2.0.”
  • San Jose Museum Of Art, San Jose/Silicon Valley. Beyond Manzanar (with Zara Houshmand) showing in “Almost Human: Digital Art from the Permanent Collection”.

2017 Museum Of Modern Art (MoMA NY), Connection Machine CM-2 exhibited in “Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age, 1959–1989,” New York.

2018 Whitney Museum Of American Art, New York. Unexpected Growth AR installation (with /p) premieres in the group exhibit “Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965–2018.” Organized by Christiane Paul, Adjunct Curator of Digital Art, and Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, Melva Bucksbaum Associate Director for Conservation and Research, with Clémence White, curatorial assistant.

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