Films, (no)borders

The Travels of Mariko Horo

Tamiko Thiel presents her VR piece and talks about her career

The Travels of Mariko Horo (2006/2017)
By Tamiko Thiel, with original music by Ping Jin
Video walkthrough of the interactive virtual reality large projection installation
Version 2017, recorded from screen in 2021

Tamiko Thiel’s career started with a breakthrough: she was responsible for the game-changing design of a supercomputer that influenced Steve Jobs and is now a part of MoMA’s collection. Soon after, she turned to art, pioneering the use of 3D graphics as well as augmented and virtual reality.

For EastEast, Tamiko Thiel has recorded a new walkthrough of her VR piece, The Travels of Mariko Horo. In it, a time-traveling Japanese woman crosses the borders between the 12th and the 21st centuries, exploring and constructing the exotic and unknowable Occident, in which Byzantine and Venetian imagery collides with Shintoist and Buddhist patterns, and Dante’s Christian universe is seen through the lens of Buddhist cosmology. Tamiko Thiel told our Senior Editor Lesia Prokopenko about her work, her mixed background, and the reality of the virtual. 

Lesia prokopenko:I would like to begin with a question about your design for the Connection Machines CM-1 and CM-2, the first commercial supercomputer built to respond to the needs of artificial intelligence. How did you end up working on this project? 

TAMIKO THIEL: It was a combination of good luck and being in the right place at the right time. I did my bachelor’s at Stanford, in the product design program—it was a very unique program for the mid 70’s. I started out taking art classes and physics classes, I also had a student job at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. The physics world had just discovered quarks at the time and that was really exciting—much more exciting than the “art for art’s sake” being taught at Stanford. In the Product Design program however, I could finally combine my interests in art, design, and technology. Later I worked as a product designer at Hewlett Packard designing computers, but that got boring. In Silicon Valley, I had been socially in a circle around the Xerox PARCXerox PARCPARC (Palo Alto Research Center; formerly Xerox PARC) is a research and development company in Palo Alto, California. Formed in 1969, the company was originally a subsidiary of Xerox, and was tasked with creating computer technology-related products and hardware systems., where the mouse and windowing system were invented. There were also people from Apple: my best girlfriend told me later that she was on the secret team to design the Macintosh. It was all very intriguing, but it didn’t fit in with my personal interests. So I decided to go to MIT and look for something more exciting. I was in the mechanical engineering department there, but friends from Xerox PARC gave me introductions to the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab, Marvin MinskyMarvin MinskyMarvin Lee Minsky (1927–2016) was an American mathematician and computer scientist concerned largely with research of artificial intelligence. He is the author of Computation: Finite and Infinite Machines (Prentice-Hall, 1967), The Society of Mind (1986) The Emotion Machine: Commonsense Thinking, Artificial Intelligence, and the Future of the Human Mind (2006). and his graduate student Danny HillisDanny HillisWilliam Daniel “Danny” Hillis is an American inventor, scientist, author and engineer, as well as the founder of Thinking Machines Corporation, a parallel supercomputer manufacturer. He is currently best known for inventing the 10,000 Year Сlock, which he is building with his Long Now Foundation.. Danny and I really hit it off, we became great friends. And it just turned out that most of my friends at MIT were at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab. I didn't study AI, they just had the best parties! For the first year, I went ahead with my mechanical engineering degree. And after that, I had all the requirements completed. So I could take whatever classes I wanted, and I discovered what would become the Media Lab after I graduated. They were teaching computer graphics and using computers as tools to deal with visual issues as well as with cultural and social ones. When I discovered that, I decided that I wanted to become a media artist. 

After I graduated I was going to look for an art school when Danny Hillis pounced on me and said he was about to start a company to really build the Connection Machine that he was designing as his PhD thesis. He asked, “Could you give the Connection Machine a form that will really convince people this is a completely new machine, like nothing they’ve ever seen before? This is the future of computing.” We were both about twenty five and then a whole lot of people on the team were even younger, they had just got their bachelor’s, like Brewster KahleBrewster KahleBrewster Lurton Kahle is an American inventor, philantropist, and digital librarian. He is an advocate of universal access to all knowledge. Kahle founded the Internet Archive that offers 85 billion pieces of deep Web geology., who went on to create the Internet Archive—he did the chip design for the Connection Machine. So it was a really young company, confronting the old men who had been creating machines like the CrayCrayCray Inc., a subsidiary of Hewlett Packard Enterprise, is an American supercomputer manufacturer headquartered in Seattle, Washington. or other supercomputers of the time, which were number crunchers. They would have at the most a couple of processors, but could do calculations very, very quickly. Danny’s designs were completely different: with 64,000 small one-bit processors that worked slowly, but simultaneously, so they all do the same calculation on different data points at one time. 

This was before big data. Brewster Kahle might’ve even been the guy who invented the term big data, because he was always interested in huge amounts of data. But that was not the way people thought or worked and not the way computers worked. Back in the mid 80s, for most people, it was inconceivable that the internet would ever contain so much data, that data-intensive computing would even be interesting. So the company and the machine were really revolutionary at the time. Sergey Brin, who co-founded Google, learned parallel programming on the Connection Machine as an undergrad—he really took that programming paradigm that Danny Hillis and the other scientists developed, and applied it to the server farms that Google is now famous for. This technology is what has enabled artificial intelligence to be the breakout technology of our time. 

Top: Karl Sims’ Genetic Images art installation running on a CM-2, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1993. Photo by Karl Sims.
Below (color): Connection Machine-2 and DataVault mass storage device
Below (black & white): Connection Machine-1

LP:This leads to another question I had: what kind of differences do you think there are between the dream of machine intelligence back then and today?

TT:The funny thing is that there actually is no difference. It's just that back in the mid 80s, there was a small group of extremists who were dreaming it and now everyone's talking about it—but it's the same thing. People are saying: “Oh, within five years, we’ll have computers that are more intelligent than we are.” And that’s exactly what we were all saying back back in the 80s, as we were designing the Connection Machine. As you can guess, those predictions are always wildly off base. But that was part of my job as the product designer for the Connection Machine—to understand these dreams and use these dreams to find a form for the machine that would express them. The goal of the design we came up with was to make the customers stop dead in their tracks and say, “I’ve never seen a computer like this in my life. But you know what, I’ve always dreamed that this is what an artificial intelligence supercomputer would look like.” And, you know, that’s not just a marketing ploy. I spent two years of my life thinking about the dreams, the fantasies, the wishes, also the fears, reading science fiction about artificial intelligence, about intelligent machines, and trying to distil that into one object that would not just be visually arresting, but would also communicate what that machine was and how it was different. 

The structure looks like eight cubes plugged into each other, and really spoke about the CM’s internal routing network designed by Nobel physicist Richard Feynman, who was our big hero and worked with us during his summer vacation. So basically, I played around with his description and his sketches, and eventually was able to really change them spatially: he could draw them up to the fourth dimension, but I had to draw up to the twelfth dimension. I wrote about this in my article on the design of the Connecting Machine. We didn’t have 3D computer graphic design tools at that point—we were doing everything on paper. But I was able to come up with a way of depicting that structure, so I could repeat it endlessly. 

The blinking of the lights coming through the translucent doors essentially shows you the machine “thinking,” shows the internal workings of the software running through its computations. And of course, with a computer, that’s the important thing, not the size, not the shape, but really, you know how the software works internally. So that was my first professional artwork. Of course I was really delighted when, thirty years later, the Museum of Modern Art in New York took it into its collection!

Tamiko Thiel working on CM-1 prototype, 1985

LP:Do I understand correctly that after working on the CM, you moved your focus to art?

TT:Yes, I wanted to keep on doing the dreaming and creating I had been able to do with the Connection Machine and resolved to finally go to art school. For various reasons I ended up in Munich. I really went from being an engineer working with America’s top AI scientists to being a poor art student—and at the time in Germany, if you admitted you worked as an engineer with technology, people wouldn’t really speak to you again, because you were evil, technology was evil, it was the Big Brother. And it was totally uninteresting for them. That meant that the first twenty seven years of my life were completely uninteresting and irrelevant to my new circle of friends. It was a complete restart—and in a very hard way—but in the 90s, it all worked out. You know, ten years later, the two worlds merged back together. The World Wide Web was invented and all of a sudden even Germans thought it was cool. And even Germans got email! And so my two worlds merged back together. Life flows in funny ways. 

LP:What do you consider to be your most important artwork that you started your career in Germany with? 

TT:It might not be the most “important” of my artwork, but the one most dear to my heart and my identity as a half-Asian artist is my 2006 large projection VR installation The Travels of Mariko Horo. Actually, if I had stayed in the US, my work would have probably concentrated a lot more on Asian themes. You know, I grew up between the West Coast of the US and Japan, I lived in Japan a couple of times as a kid, I spoke Japanese fluently as a kid, and the West Coast of the US is also permeated with Asian culture. I thought all Americans knew how to eat with chopsticks and liked sushi, but then I moved to Boston in 1981 and found that was completely not true. And for Western/Central Europeans, as you know, Asia is very, very far away. 

Tamiko Thiel, The Travels of Mariko Horo, 2006/2017

I created The Travels of Mariko Horo as a reflection on Christianity versus Japanese Shintoism and Buddhism. When I came to Catholic Bavaria I encountered all the Catholic saints, the corner niche of a building with a sculpture of Maria built into it, or at some crossing in the middle of nowhere there will be a Christ on the cross because someone died there in a car accident. And when you go to Upper Bavaria, many houses have some sort of painting on the wall, images of St. Florian to protect them from fire or some sort of indication of the Catholic faith. My Japanese grandfather converted to become a Methodist minister, so in America I grew up in a Protestant culture, which is really very abstract, there’s a cross but no Jesus hanging on the cross. When I arrived in Catholic Europe, I realized it was like Asia—like Japan, where in some little tiny niche, there’ll be a little temple with some Buddhist figures, and there’ll be ropes tied around a rock or a tree to mark them as being sacred. These are all animistic beliefs that underlie all the older world religions. I recognized this world in the Greek and Roman myths I loved to read as a child—and then later in Catholic Europe, where this older animist past was covered by a thin veil of Christian imagery. 

In The Travels of Mariko Horo I was looking at Europe, specifically at Venice, from the viewpoint of an Asian steeped in Buddhism and Shintoism. There is an entire genre of Japanese pre-modern art imagining foreigners and foreign lands, and I took that as my point of departure for Mariko Horo, my time-traveling fictitious alter ego. She creates the exotic West in her imagination, interpreting Western art images with a worldview shaped by Buddhism and Shintoism.

Tamiko Thiel and Midori Kono Thiel, fragments of Brush the Sky, 2015

LP: Could you tell me more about your relationship with your Japanese legacy? Many of your pieces include references to Japanese aesthetics (Brush the Sky, In the Land of Barbarian) and Buddhism (Lotus Meditation). How did your mother’s artistic practice influence yours?

TT: Growing up in Seattle our house was filled with books on Japanese art, design, architecture, fairy tales, myths, legends. My mother became a Japanese arts expert, beginning with modern abstract woodblock printing, then becoming a master at Japanese calligraphy and the shamisen instrument, with high proficiency in ink brush painting and in performing arts—Kyogen and Noh theater, the koto, classical song and dance—as well as being an important cultural organizer, for instance with the Seattle Cherry Blossom Festival. I didn’t practice calligraphy myself, beyond taking beginning calligraphy in the 3rd grade in Japan, but the aesthetics were always there. You can see it in the aesthetics of the Connection Machine, Japanese arts form an important part of my “vintage” VR installations Beyond Manzanar and The Travels of Mariko Horo. My first VR piece for stereo VR headset, Land of Cloud, was for me the fulfillment of a dream I had as an art student: to be able to paint in 3D with the gestural strokes that I knew from Japanese calligraphy and ink brush painting.

Tamiko Thiel, Land of Cloud: The Cloud Deities Speak, 2017–2018

LP: How did AR and VR become your primary tools? And what exactly are you using them for?

TT: After graduating from the Munich Academy of Fine Arts in 1991 I was working with video, the primary media art of that time. In 1994 however my husband and I decided to move to San Francisco, and I got a job at a VR startup called Worlds, Inc., as the creative director and producer of Starbright World, which was the first online virtual 3D, avatar-driven world for children. It was the brainchild of Steven Spielberg, the film director who was chair of the Starbright Foundation at the time. I was hired because at that time very few people had experience working with art and virtual reality—I didn’t either, but I had both technical and art degrees, and because of my work on the Connection Machine, a proven track record at being able to unite them. The mid 1990s were the first time that computer technology had improved enough so that interactive 3D computer graphics—VR—could run on high-end PCs costing mere thousands of dollars, instead of the workstations that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars!

With the VR technology that all of a sudden was in my hands, I first thought I could use this to simulate video installations that were too complex and expensive for me to implement with real video equipment. It turned out it was still too early to do that, but with VR, I had no spatial restrictions. The first art project of my own that came out of that was Beyond Manzanar, completed in collaboration with Zara Houshmand, in which I created a simulation of a part of the Manzanar Incarceration camp where 10,000 Japanese Americans were imprisoned without trial solely on the basis of their ancestry in World War II. We then overlaid the camp with surreal elements of Japanese culture and the historical incarceration, together with elements of Iranian culture and the threat of mass incarceration that Iranian Americans had faced in 1979-1980 during the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Virtual reality was a way for me to create huge virtual worlds that couldn’t exist otherwise, enriched with layers of cultural, political, social meaning and commentary. 

Tamiko Thiel and Zara Houshmand, Beyond Manzanar, 2000

My German American father was a professor of architecture and urban planning, so I grew up with him talking about the wonders of European city planning and of Japanese stroll gardens. In the stroll gardens you turn a corner, and all of a sudden you see a completely different vista that you hadn’t expected. I was always hearing about the design of space and the experience of sequences of spaces. The work of my father’s is really the theory that I use to create virtual worlds, and also the theory I use when I teach about creating virtual worlds. Merging the real and the virtual is what I’m interested in.

I started doing AR in 2010. A friend who also did VR, Mark Skwarek, invited me to participate in an AR intervention he was organizing at MoMA New York—without their knowledge or approval. I was totally jazzed when I realized that I could create site-specific works in AR without having to re-create the entire site first, as I had to do in my “site-specific VR” artwork. The next year I led our intervention into the 2011 Venice Biennale, the two interventions were recorded in several books to become part of the media art canon—and we were all off and running as AR artists!

Tamiko Thiel, Newton Creek (Oil Spill), 2011

LP: What about the cohabitation of the technological and the biological? In recent years, your works have been dealing a lot with ecological issues—the way species and environments mutate (Gardens of the Anthropocene, Wild Gardens, Unexpected Growth, Evolution of Fish, etc). 

TT: Ecological issues crept into my AR practice very early, starting in 2011 with Newtown Creek (oil spill), a piece about the extremely polluted river that forms part of the border between the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. It runs through areas that have become very expensive real estate, but there is almost no access to it and many residents don’t really realize it is there. I slowly started realizing that climate change was a serious issue (helped by my artist friend Mechthild Schmidt-Feist, with whom I would stay in New York and who drummed into me how awful the situation was already). I started “mutating” plants, flowers, algae into science fiction scenarios to “visualize” a nature out of control, a nature that started fighting back against the destruction that humans are wreaking on the ecosphere. Especially with an invisible art form like AR, which the users have to actively install on their smartphones to see at all, I felt I had to provide a positive inducement for users to view my works. So I create beautiful scenes that lure users into viewing the work, and then when they look more closely the works reveal the dystopian destruction of ecosystems.

Additionally through my Japanese background, I see flowers and plants as sculpture, and I love to be able to create these forms that are somewhere between realistic and abstract—computer graphic ikebana in some sense, the Japanese art of flower arranging. The human or animal form is so much more demanding, but with my science fiction plant scenarios I have full artistic freedom!

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Tamiko Thiel
Artist. Tamiko Thiel was awarded the 2018 Visionary Pioneer Award by the Society for Art and Technology Montreal for her (now over 35) years of media artworks exploring the interplay of place, space, the body, and cultural identity. She was the lead product designer on the Connection Machine CM1/CM2 AI supercomputer, in 1989 the fastest computer on earth, which is now in the collection of MoMA NY. Tamiko began working with virtual reality in 1994 as a producer and creative director of Starbright World (1994–97), in collaboration with Steven Spielberg. Her first VR art installation Beyond Manzanar (2000) is in the collection of the San Jose Museum of Art, and her AR commissions include Unexpected Growth for the Whitney Museum, now in the permanent collection.
Lesia Goleva
Head of Outreach and Partnerships, Contributing Editor at EastEast. Born in Kyiv and currently based in Berlin. She has studied Chinese philosophy and worked in culture and PR.