The Medialab is much more random than that. This may help to illuminate why John’s approach is so alien to traditional art students. Paul Rand seems to think it’s John’s engineering background which interferes with his leadership ability at RISD, but I think it’s actually scarier. John’s approach is hands off and experimental. Anything goes. Confusing and startling people is valorized.
I believe John wants people to apply that same surrealist/minimalist strategy (e.g. scanning food) to new media. This can be confusing because as soon as he demonstrates an “iPhone processing video using HTML5 in realtime” (as one person decried a recent Maeda work) it seems to be ditching the concept of minimalism, but that’s precisely the paradox I mentioned earlier: John does minimal things atop complex multimedia platforms. Give him a multi-GHz computer and he draws random lines with it like the 80s video game Qix. … This irony is not John’s alone—nearly every new media artist must struggle with the concept of their systems only operating atop complex technical artifacts (e.g. Java running inside a web browser on a Mac or an iPhone, or MAX/MSP or Microsft Kinect or Nintendo Wii Controller), and unfortunately, most of them don’t even recognize it as an issue. I can see it because of the art classes I’ve taken at the ML, MIT, and Harvard taught me to interrogate the situation.
A similar tension is visible in the work of Alvin Lucier (Music on a Long, Thin Wire), Steve Reich (Pendulum Music), some musique-concrete artists (Murray Schafer), and more contemporaneously, Keith Fullerton Whitman and Tristan Perich. Nevertheless, NONE of these artists have managed to broach the basic limitation that electronic computation is invisible. All techno artwork thus far relies on impenetrable microchips which require observer/participants to form abstractions in order to appreciate them. Look how hard it is to teach art students to program. Many of them get it, but it requires activation of a virginal configuration of gray matter.
I think it would be fair to say that John’s work attempts to transplant the user into a fantasy world of pseudo-concrete. E.g. once you get into that coding/processing/minimal graphics environment of his, you may process multimedia to your heart’s content. And it’s seductive... you may actually easily forget that it requires so much expensive, finicky hardware. This is also visible in the work of his students such as Amber Frid-Jimenez (her complex projects intermingling telephony and network video required months of customization of the open-source Asterisk voicemail software), Kyle Buza (his colonization, usurpment and exploitation of the Atari 2600 into the Max/MSP environment), and Takashi Yamimoto (his transplantation of the Processing environment into the web browser). Most of these projects establish alternate virtual worlds in which play and flow do take place, but, only temporarily as they are contingent on the operator to attend to and maintain them: As one poster here noted, once you go back in time and look at a Maeda or PLW project and realize you can’t run their code anymore, the collapsing of reality can be devastating.