Live Coding with Viola He

A conversation about interactive experiences, performance, and the barrier to learning new technological tools

Published June 28, 2023
Today, we’re joined by Viola He, a Shanghai-born, Brooklyn-based interdisciplinary artist, live coder, educator, and cultural organizer. We talk about their foray into live coding, the meaning of interactive art, and the barrier to learning technological tools.

You can follow Viola on their Instagram, visit their site, or check out LiveCodeNYC. You can also listen to an extended version of our conversation on Spotify, where we talk more about translating the meaning of art, choosing the right tool, and creating immersive environments. 

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USURPATOR: We were just talking about how I’m new to live coding. I didn’t know what it was until a week ago. After Kit put me in contact with you, I was asking my friends about it and they were putting me on to DJ Dave, stuff like that. I was able to check it out,  then I went to your collective's show.

VIOLA: Yeah, it was a LiveCodeNYC show, which me and someone named Matthew co-organized.

U: It was extremely cool to see. But first off, I'll get you to explain a little bit about your background, your practice, and how it's taken shape throughout the years and how you started getting into live coding.

V: Yeah, honestly, I'm pretty new to live coding in the grand scheme of things. I started live coding last year, in June. So this is my, I guess, one year anniversary of the practice.

So, prior to moving to New York in 2020, I lived in L.A. for four or five years. I did a lot of film and theater. I went to school for communication studies, but I've always had a love for visual arts and performance arts. I was a filmmaker for a couple of years, I worked on a lot of my friends' projects, mostly working in camera and G&E stuff. I never really touched music though, even when I was doing theater. I was directing theater, acting, and I did some projection stuff as well. So for me, it's always been a very visual medium. Then I moved to New York to study at NYU, I did this program called ITP (interactive telecommunications program). It was an art and technology program that focuses on different types of new media and how to apply them. Through that program, I met a lot of really, really awesome people who make sound and music.

Because I've always made visual arts, I started to do a lot more visual-focused practice. I've done visuals for DJ’s and I've done visuals for performance art. But it wasn't until last year that I took a live coding class, and I realized there's this whole world out there that makes music with real time programming. Something about it just clicks with me. I was like, Wow, that is so awesome. I still like doing visuals, but at the same time I'm like, Oh, this makes so much sense. I explored a new medium. I've never really seen myself as a musician or a sound person, but I've always appreciated sound. I love sound design, just analyzing them in film. When I used to do theater, I always really appreciated people who could voice act and do all the sound stuff. So I thought that maybe this could be something I could try, and I've been doing it for a year now.

I feel like, as an artist, my practice is all over the place and live coding is just this recent thing that I latched onto. It makes sense to me in many different ways, and also ties what I've done in the past together into a very wholesome way.

U: It's a medium that seems so unique. I don't know how long this has been around for.

V: It’s super niche. I'm not the best live coding historian, but I think it’s been around at least 10-15 years in different cities. LiveCodeNYC, as a collective, started around 2012. It's been around for a while. A lot of my current friends that do live coding started in maybe 2018, 2019. A lot of people in my cohort or generation of live coders started to do it around then. DJ Dave as well, I think she's the most well known live coder, she started doing live coding around 2019 and then blew up on TikTok in recent years. I think, to many people, live coding has only started to become big in the past two years, but it's been around for a long time.

U: I was watching some videos online and when I went to your event, maybe this is just me projecting, but it looks incredibly stressful. I was going to ask you how you feel about the  performance aspect. Everyone can see the process as you’re putting it out, it looks very vulnerable. 

V: I think that's kind of the appeal or the selling point of live coding. That's what attracts a lot of us to it. That process is power. We really honor the building process of it, you're being really honest and vulnerable and exposed. Another thing is that live coding is just made by nerds for nerds, people are genuinely excited about seeing interfaces and code, just seeing it being done in real time. Even if you don't fully understand the language, you can kind of guess the process and the structure. I think it's just a very vulnerable way of creating, even though I feel like different people might have different approaches or understanding of live coding, like “what counts as code?” Is it node-based programming even programming, or does it actually have to be written code? Also, what constitutes code versus an interface? Is an interface okay to expose or are we only exposing code? A lot of it is just thinking about it critically in terms of what programming is. For example, when I do live coding, sometimes I like to use the code comment as a way to use natural language to explain what I'm doing. Maybe I’ll use it to tell some jokes or have an audience interaction. A lot of friends have told me that they really enjoy seeing my code comments and how I structure my code. I think that's a huge part of it. Performance has an arc, has a structure, and so does my code. All of these things intertwine together as a whole performance. But there are also people who build a complete set from scratch, which is from an empty code editor into having music come out. There are also other people who already have the entire set built out and they're executing it along the way. There are different approaches to live performance.

U: Are some of them less complex than others, where you can fire it off more seamlessly?

V: Yeah, to me, I still want to balance art expression and honor the process while entertaining the crowd too. I want the drop to happen at the right time. I think of it as structured improv. I used to do jazz dancing. In jazz, no matter if it's jazz dancing or jazz music, so much of the improvisation happens within a structure. I like to do my live coding practice in this way too. I usually already have a structure, so I feel good about it. I usually pre-write my drum loops and I will also pre-write some of the chords, some of the melodies, and I only improvise within these structures. I know exactly when I’ll do a certain thing, but those certain things can change all the time.

U: Yeah, I was going to ask if you have some type of form or structure going into it in contrast to just improvising in freeform.

V: Yeah, I also don't think of myself as a really good programmer. I wouldn't even call myself a programmer. I think so many people in live coding are tech workers, a lot of them have programming as a day job. A cool thing about live coding is how you're using these tools that have traditionally been employed for capitalistic purposes, but you can use them for completely artistic reasons. I think I come from a little bit of a different background, programming has never been my job, nor do I ever expect it to be my job.

For me, this is a purely creative medium. But at the same time, I also have a lot of imposter syndrome, being tech-adjacent but not actually working in tech. To be honest, if you want me to code a whole thing completely from scratch on the fly, it would be extremely stressful for me. So it's also for my own sanity that I make it more structured. It's just more fun that way, and it makes me less anxious.

U: I was going to say how it seems very vulnerable, even just the idea of sharing the screen. I don't know if you experience this, but every time I get asked to share my screen, I get very shy. I get kind of paranoid and start double checking everything that's on there. I could only imagine showing everyone your process as you're doing it. It really leans into the mistakes that you're making, or how you’re figuring things out as you go.

V: Yeah, absolutely. It's not that different from playing an instrument on stage, because your instrument is your tool, and your language is your tool, your program or software is your tool.

For me, I grew up with this very DIY approach to technology. My family got our first computer the year I was born. I kind of grew up with this tech, and figuring things out is a part of my approach. Tech has been such an integral part of my life. It feels more natural to be using programming versus playing a guitar, for example. I think it's just a different approach to what constitutes an instrument to you.

U: You were talking earlier about the visuals, how you used to be more into the visual side before you got into audio. How do the visuals play into this? Are they part of the live coding, or are they curated beforehand?

V: Yeah, visuals are also live coded. Live coding is interesting, because different people see it in different ways. I've had people who ask me about live coding, only expecting live coding to be visuals. There are, I think, a lot more straightforward live coding languages or like, understandable frameworks for visuals. People can write Shaders, people can write Three.js. There's this very popular light coding language called Hydra that people write in. I think a lot of people associate live coding more with visuals. Typically, a live coding performance has two artists on stage at the same time. You have a visual art person and you have a sound or music person. Both of them do live coding on stage, just one for visuals and one for sound.

U: Do people ever do both at the same time?

V: Yeah, yesterday we had a solo set with this person, Mark, and they were doing sound and visuals at the same time. I've also done it, but it's not my preferred way. There's so much more fun in a collaborative performance. Also I think it's just that there's so much going on at the same time, it's hard. But if it's for a very conceptual piece, people might want to do the sound and visuals at the same time, because they want full creative control over the environment they're creating.

U: So what kinds of sounds are you trying to create? What do you find you're drawn to?

V: Yeah, that's an interesting question. I get insecure when people ask me about music, it’s a very vulnerable thing. Recently, I've been getting a little bit more into sound design, like designing different synth sounds, and finding different sounds that can be mixed together that might not be categorized as music. Things that I would think of as sound design, drone-y, or ambient. But I also grew up playing piano and percussion. I wasn't a good musician, because I grew up in China, and music education has a very specific craft to it. It's very craft driven, not music theory or expression driven, I guess. But then I got pretty good at percussion and for me, rhythm has always been a huge part of it. It also inspired me to do jazz dancing because it's a very rhythmical dance, a lot of footwork. So for me, I love making drum loops, I love just making rhythms. With code, it's so easy and so fascinating to create different rhythms that trigger different sounds and synths. So, I do like to do that kind of stuff. But at the same time, I think a recent goal for me is to make danceable ravey music that has a little bit of techno influence, a little bit of pop influence.

Live coding, as a performance, is what people call algorave, a mixture of algorithm and rave. I think that explains it well—it's a mathematical process, but it's also a rave. It’s a party. It’s a party for nerds. In my experience, it's also a party for queer nerds. This community embodies so much spirit, just like underground queer raves. Sometimes it feels very punk to me, that there's like a real party element to it.

So, sometimes I just want to give people very dancey sets so that people can just have fun and dance. I think there are two sides of me: one side thinks of this practice as an artistic narrative where I want to create a world, to create a soundscape with interesting synths and drips of sounds and rhythms. But at the same time, I also want to create dancey stuff like pop music. When I discovered Sophie, I was like, “Wow, that's what pop music can sound like.” It can be so creative, so rich, so full of personality. But at the same time, it's also relatable for people. There's so much radical meaning in this type of music that I didn't know existed before, because I don't think I listened to a lot of pop music. So, I do think this became something that I should dig more into, and give people what they want.

U: I was trying to break down in my head how this whole scene skews towards one genre, electronic rave music. But there is so much more space within that. There's so many different paths that it could go down into. I know a lot of people do ambient music. It is still very electronic based, but it doesn't necessarily have to be just raving.

V: Yeah, and a cool thing about coding is that you don't really have to follow any Western music rules. There are so many numbers, numbers in between numbers, and fragments of numbers. You can really go into strange sounds and notes that are tonal or microtonal, that are swinging or barely swinging. There's so much potential in between different structures and different genres that you don't really have to define what kind of sound you're making or if it's music or not. I think the show that happened last night, Queer Coded, was so cool. I didn't even know what I was expecting because, even though we curated the show, we know most of the artists playing and we know that everyone has a very different style. But there's still a vast range of the sound and the visuals that people make. It surprised me how everyone took live coding completely into their own hands, just wielding the tools that they find most challenging or comfortable or creative to produce these things that cannot really be put into boxes. And that's queer, that’s super queer.

U: Do you see more potentiality to be creative in live coding versus traditional music, for yourself personally?

V: For me, absolutely. I think I have a very specific reason for it, as someone who is not trained in music theory but still likes creating music. I think I have a pretty good sense of what sounds good or what tickles something in my brain and or what makes me feel a certain way. But I think because of my lack of musical theory training, it's hard for me to put language into it, also with creating music. For example, in Ableton, which is the main DAW that I use, I’ve been learning to produce better as I was learning live coding, but I feel like it only happened because of live coding. It was this very easy way to generate music in a pretty structured format, so I could learn music in my own way and in my own time. It feels like a lot less pressure, because I guess there's much less of a structured format to it. I feel less self-conscious or ashamed to make music. Even learning Ableton, for example, which has a specific interface to it, learning interfaces can be very difficult for some people. Maybe for others it might be different. It's really just different expressions for different people.

But I remember I took my first live coding workshop with two other friends, we're all kind of tech adjacent people. But out of the three of us, only I was like “Oh my God, this makes so much sense.” The others were kind of like “What is this? I don't understand.” Everybody has a very different way of understanding things. So, one might work for me, but it might not work for other people, right?

U: I think people feel more creative in the thing that they feel most adept at. You break open this world and you can do anything with it, depending on how much or how little you click with it when you first start trying.

I was reading a little bit about your work, and trying to get to know the full shape of it all better. I saw that you're interested in blending our physical and virtual selves. Specifically, there’s one quote where you say that you “often dream about infiltrating digital spaces with physical bodies as tools for intervention.” I was wondering your take on this, on the interactions between our physical and virtual selves.

V: Yeah, I think nowadays there's so much VR and 3D. It's a very straightforward way to make avatars and make them work for us or morph them and change them into different shapes. I think there are so many possibilities with that. But I'm not a 3D artist. For me, my medium is so physical. Even though I like multimedia, I think I’m fundamentally a performance artist. Being in a physical space with people is very integral to the art that I was making, and I think it’s also part of the reason why I stopped doing film. I think that visual art is so interesting, but at the same time it's like, producing a film, going through that whole process, and then just having it just there on a computer screen feels very alienating to me. When you make a video art piece, and you have it displayed on a wall, after thinking about how you mapped the place, and the material that you're projecting it on, all of these very physical, textile things to me are very important. A big turning point for me was trying to reconcile all of me, myself, my body, and especially my dancing body, and then combining that into my digital practices.

I started this project in 2021, called 100 Days of Digital Bodies. I did that because I went to grad school during COVID, and it was like being trapped in different types of screens. But it was actually kind of cool. I kind of liked it. It’s probably a really controversial take, because most people thought that COVID isolation sucked, you know, Zoom University and all. But I feel like I almost learn better that way. It feels like a multiplayer world to me. We're all in our physical world, but then we transcend this time and space to be in this digital world together. When I start to think about how we’re infiltrating this digital world that is so flat and so cold, but then we're adding warmth to it. There's so many personal touches when you're on Zoom with people. Sometimes my cat will come over and say hi to my professor's cat. Then there's so much emergence of different time spaces that are super interesting to me. I was struggling to like, still dance and move my body, but at the same time there's so much more to this digital world, and we're going to get more used to it.

I was having a crisis because I was like, “Oh, is this just going to be our lives from now on? Are we just going to live in these different screens? And how can we make the screens work for us?” I wanted to see if I could dance, but at the same time, make digital art. So I did. I started to do more motion capture stuff, but in a very DIY way, like just a simple webcam, sometimes using code, sometimes using computer vision, sometimes using a depth camera to capture data and translate it into visual formats. Then I started to do some gesture mapping into sound. It's not new work, I've seen so many artists use these types of technology to do movement based work. But it speaks to me in a certain way and I feel like I can finally still move, but not be against this digitization, and still find new ways to represent myself in the screens that are going to dominate our lives.

U: So, would you say that you’re trying to find ways to be more interactive?

V: Yeah, I think there are many different ways to think about interactivity. Me, as an artist, I’m being interactive with the mediums that I choose. But it's also the people who see the art or experience it and how they feel and how it matters to them. The video arts professor that I had in undergrad would argue that video art is interactive, because people can have different interpretations, and people will see and feel different ways. If it touches you or changes how you see or how you feel, would you still say that's interactive? I think there can be many different arguments and theories about what is interactivity, and it's kind of funny that I went to this program about interactive art, but I still don't know how I would define interactivity.

I think for me, it's always about creating experiences, creating spaces, and I think that leads us back into live coding, because I think so much of live coding is about space making. Sound fills the space, and there are visuals at the same time. If you think about it as just being on a computer, it's like you're kind of squishing spaces. You're squishing something into a 2D representation of what it is. But then when it turns into projection mode or a map space, it becomes light as well. It fills the space and its colors, its shapes, but it’s also light. It really controls the environment. So eventually, the sound and the visuals create the space together for people to experience. It's a very collective, socially engaged experience, and I think that's the kind of interactivity that I seek. It's not just for myself, it is also for other people to experience as well.

U: Yes, it's engaging you in multiple ways, right? There's the sound, you're reading certain things on the screen. There's also the visual component, lights as well. All of that is coupled with the people who are around you. It's kind of like a rave, right?

V: Yeah, it is. It's a very visceral thing to be a part of.

U: Since you were mentioning interactivity, when I was looking at your art, I saw some of the interactive work that you’ve done, specifically the piece Vessel 615. I love seeing stuff like that, but I'll let you describe it first and then I’ll follow up.

V: Yeah, so Vessel 615 is a video sculpture piece that I made with my friend, and it's mostly based on my own experience of being sick and being hospitalized and then reflecting on the hospital systems, the language that they use, being objectified and being perceived as a sick body for a huge chunk of my life when I had cancer when I was younger. So, the whole piece is this big fish tank full of water with images projected on the back. The images are a combination of some abstract video arts and actual CT scans of my body. Then there are subtitles underneath that read out the diagnosis and the medical report that the hospital wrote about me. They describe your body in such cold medical language and it puts you into very binary boxes, like your age, your sex. Like, they describe your bladder, or the shape of your heart, and how much of a certain element is in your blood. It's just a very scientific, categorical description of what's wrong with you, basically. The interactivity part of it is that the entire tank has this water pump system that constantly runs in a heartbeat rhythm. But then there's also a squeeze bottle on top with ink, so any time that anyone gets closer to the tank, especially if they're trying to read the text or watch the images, a drop of ink gets squeezed from the bottle into the water. Over time, as people pay attention to the piece, the piece gets contaminated and it continues to run until it becomes a tank of black water and the subtitles can no longer be seen.

U: What I was trying to get at, which I think you just addressed, is how you were describing this confrontation with the absurdity of body alienation when you're being looked at and examined in these medical facilities.

V: I took this class in school called Stories of Illness, and I think that class really gave me some more perspective. I feel like the patient has a very specific experience in the hospital and is completely different from people who practice medicine, and people who are nurses, or people who are families and friends and caregivers. For people who practice medicine, they go through these things every single day. It's not their fault that they're alienating our bodies, but the pain that we feel is also real. We’re being pictured and categorized and looked at and being read. It's not only from the doctors, but it's also just from everyone around us as well.

While I was sick and going to the hospital, especially as someone who occupies a female presenting body, there's this kind of intersection of a female body being objectified and a sick body being objectified. People looked at me because I'm young and I have this body, but then I'm also sick. It's just a very surreal experience. It's absurd. It's super strange to hear these words being spoken to us, about ourselves.

U: It seems like it exacerbates this sense of dualism we have of mind and body. The boundary of them is drawn very firmly when we're in these situations, and that inherently makes us uncomfortable. These two parts of ourselves are constantly interacting in our brains to the point where we have to think about: what is my mind and what is my body?

V: These languages are also not accessible to real people who don't have medical knowledge. It's like we need them to be translated to us in a way that we can understand, that doesn't sound as cold or objectifying. It's not the job of the doctor to do that, but I think it takes some serious work to reconcile.

U: Since we were talking about dualism—I know we were already discussing virtual and physical dualism—but, when I was reading some of this stuff on your site, you were describing the love/hate relationship you have with technology. I think this is something that we all deal with, but it channels itself differently. We all have different gripes with technology. I was wondering if you could unpack that a little bit for me.

V: Yeah, this is actually my thesis. Tech has always manifested itself in a very DIY way. I talked about how I grew up with a very amateur internet. I was very online as a child. I was in a lot of forums, ChatRoulette, meeting different people, but also modding these spaces. I was a mod in a lot of the forums that I was participating in. I also learned to make flash animations for fan art purposes and also just making silly games. I learned a mixture of markdown and HTML/CSS. It's not real programming, but I was writing a blog in this service that’s shut down called BlogBus, it's a Taiwanese blog service that was pretty popular in China for a while. The coolest function for me was being able to customize your blog. They have their own interfaces, so it's not pure coding, but it's part coding, part built-in interface. That was the coolest thing, I was obsessed with customizing pages and I was building my own site. I was helping my friends build theirs, like “Let me teach you how to code.” I didn't even know it wasn't real coding.

But for me, it has always been wielding these things for very creative purposes, without even knowing that they're technology because they're so ubiquitous. And then on the other side, there's being in school and learning math. We had to learn Visual Basic in computer class. None of that has resonated with me at all. I'm very bad at math, I'm okay at physics, but science has never been my thing. I've always been more of a liberal arts person. So, there is this very linear, science education part that never really resonated with my brain. Then going to college and stuff, just affirmed I can do tech things for fun.

I kind of forgot about this whole using tech for fun thing when I was a child, when I started to go to school and I did more serious school stuff until it was almost my senior year of college where I discovered there is an arts/tech program at my school. It was pretty new, but they exist. I took an HTML, CSS, and JavaScript class. It was a web art class where we talked a little bit about web art history, but we also built our own site. So, I made a lot of handmade sites at the time, and it's like this labor of love. It takes a lot of care and maintenance and learning things by yourself. It's deeply creative. But then, it's structured and you do have to follow a lot of rules and you do have to do a lot of learning. For me, it feels like some kind of alternative education that I never really experienced in programming or tech in that way. So I was like “Oh, like maybe I can do that.” That's when I started to make friends with people who do new media art. I decided to do more experimental performance theater things like video designs and all of that.

That's when I applied to ITP. It wasn’t what I expected, but I think in a tech sense, it was the first time I was exposed to so many different tools, which was great. But at the same time, I feel like there is a lack of discipline, a critical aspect of how we use these tools. Are we using it for ethical reasons? Are we using it for something that's unnecessary? That's another thing for me. I like visual art, but I never really got into VR because I feel like it's not a super accessible medium. For people who build things like Unreal Engine, the cool thing about the tool of that specific software is the real time render power that you can make complex interactive systems with. But then when people just use it to make some animation or, you know, one avatar that moves, it's like, why do you even use that tool?

A lot of times we're not really having these conversations. So I have to explore that for myself. I get very frustrated because you have so many things laid in front of you, but what is the right tool to use? What works for me, and the things that I'm trying to express, and what works against me? Learning new tools is hard. Learning tech is difficult. There are so many accessibility issues. So much tech requires either GPU or computer power, and so much tech requires you to have internet access at all times. There are many open source resources that have online tutorials, and people teach each other. Learning is not linear in that way. Trying to learn tech by going to a school probably isn't the best way to do it, as I reflect back on it. But I'm also really grateful to be exposed to so many people that do different things. Eventually, it leads me to feel more grounded in what I do. But I think it took a lot of trial and error to find what I like to make.

U: What do you think is the best way to learn new tools?

V: For me, it's always learning through making. But you oftentimes don't have time or the brainpower to be like, “Let me just do a project.”

U: I have such a hard time reading instructions. Whenever there's a new tool that I want to try, I'm like, “I'm just going to do it. I'm going to dive in there and see what I can do and learn as I go.” Eventually, once you're immersed enough in the platform that you can start watching tutorials or learning more, it makes sense to you. You're like, “Oh, it would have been way easier if I started this way.” It’s a patience issue.

V: Yeah, true, but you also need to be comfortable enough to even start reading the documentation, because, even that's a barrier. The language involved in writing these tutorials is something I constantly reflect on now that I'm trying to teach people how to do what I do, and trying to write documentation for the projects I've made. I always think back on when I first started to use these things and just how difficult it was for me to even open GitHub and try to read what people have written, and I'm like, what? Again, I learned to write websites by having a blog that I loved, and I wanted to make it pretty. You start to figure it out by doing it. I learned how to edit videos, I learned to use the entire Adobe Suite all just because I had something that I wanted to do right? For me, I think it's always been the best practice. But at what point do you find a more disciplined structure for yourself? Once you're more comfortable with it, I think you can start to seek other resources or dive deeper into it. It's always been a struggle, like, where is that point? When do I feel comfortable enough? Even with live coding, I still feel very self-conscious using it. It's not second nature yet.

U: It kind of blends into what you were getting at earlier about the construct of left and right brain. When you're an artsy person growing up, you stay away from math and science. Especially in this space that so many of us are inhabiting right now, the “intersection of art and technology”, you realize that the boundary between those two things is not so firm, and they actually have been blending into each other the whole time.

V: Yes, definitely, and there’s a gendered connotation too. Like, science and STEM in general, it's really hard to push past that. The spaces we inhabit are already so much better for women, for queer people, for people of color. But there's still so much space to improve. Especially considering how institutional spaces are supposed to be forward thinking, a lot of these programs that I see, or am a part of, are already very female dominated. There's an increasing number of queer people and people of color, but still, there are a lot of cis white men who have helped build motorcycles with their dads since they were eight. They’re so comfortable with it. They’re like, “Just let me just do it.” And then they will just do it because it's comfortable for them. For me, it's not second nature. I didn't do carpentry when I was eight. I was never afforded the opportunity. Sometimes, these institutional spaces are the only places that we were told that we can learn these things. And the moment you're not excelling at these things, you give up.

U: Exactly. It does turn into this self-defeating narrative of not being used to something, and that turns into the idea that you’re not able to do something. Just because you weren't good at something in your youth, or it's hard for your brain to rewire itself to understand these things, you're just like, “Well, I can't. It's not in my nature.”

V: Yeah, and that's why I think live coding has been so empowering. When you think about tech and ask, “What is tech?” I think programming is one of the first things that you would think about. When I was younger, I thought programming so hard. It seemed like the most frightening thing, 1s and 0s and numbers. Like, how does that even work? But with that, you can make beautiful experiences and bring people together. It becomes an educational space. At LiveCodeNYC, we have workshops and meetups. I've seen so many new people emerging in this space, I mean, including myself. People in my collective see me as a new person emerging into the space and then really, really enjoying what I do. There's a lineage of knowledge outside of a traditional pedagogy system, outside of the institution. Because it's just a collective of people. We genuinely like each other and we teach other things and I think that's so beautiful.

U: How do you guys open up space for each other to learn from the rest of the collective?

V: We have biweekly meetups, but it's usually at Brooklyn Public Library. It's every second Sunday. Then people just go there and show work and discuss. Sometimes people just bring their laptops and they’ll code and people can just look and ask questions. I want there to be a more linear way because, yes, we do try to teach each other, but you're still making your own performances. This is not a class where we have to make assignments, or even help each other every step along the way. But at the same time, I think there are some beautiful things about exposing someone for the first time and then giving them a little bit of knowledge, or guidance.

A lot of it is translation—translating what live coding is into human languages, like what we're doing right now, that’s easy to follow and letting them go crazy, do their thing. Then in a month or two, some new people will come up with a set and then we're like, okay, let's put you in a show.

U: How big is the collective now, and do you find it's kind of popping off?

V: It's so hard to say because our Discord is so large. We have 1011 members in the Discord. but I think we have a very solid 30 to 50 people that I've seen, people who have played or organized shows. We have around 10 to 20 people that are active volunteers and organizers, people who organize shows and help run the discord, lead the meetup, and do more community building work. I think it's a perfectly good scale for a subculture.  I think we are probably one of the bigger collectives in the U.S. There's also San Francisco AV Club, they’re a relatively bigger scene. Then there are some other scenes in different cities scattered throughout the country. We're not the only ones that do this, but I think we're one of the largest. There are people like DJ Dave who will play our shows, but they do their own thing. There are a lot of adjacent spaces and there are a lot of deejays and experimental musicians that we're trying to establish relationships with who hopefully we can work with in the future.

There are a lot of LiveCodeNYC members who also play like, Bushwick queer raves or noise events. We have a lot of members who are in the synth or noise communities, or in the more experimental sound making scene. I think we have a lot of different branches and live code is no longer a very linear narrative.

U: In terms of your own work, I feel like I'm seeing these different parts that are interrelated: your live coding, interactive art, motion capture, installation work. How do you see all of this coming together? I'm wondering if there is some sort of throughline that you’re trying to create or if you're just throwing yourself into all of your different interests?

V: I think I am throwing myself into many different interests. I think understanding yourself is difficult, especially as a multicultural person. It took me a very long time to understand my cultural identities as an expat who’s living in this country, writing and existing and thinking and dreaming in two different languages.

There's so much of me and my identity that I was very afraid to not compartmentalize, if that makes sense. I almost feel like I have to put myself in these very specific boxes in order for me to be understood. That's why I'm like, “Okay, maybe I can say I am a performance artist, but then I can also say that like I'm a comedian or I'm an installation artist” I think these labels are helpful to understand parts of you, but they don't summarize the whole of you. It's a complex thing that I'm still trying to work on. I think so many of these things are now making sense to me as a whole. Especially in these performance practices when I used to do theater and dance. Performance art to me makes so much sense together as a whole, because it is about how you express yourself and how you entertain a crowd.

I’m also an event organizer, because I'm not only performing, I'm also really into organizing these things and then curating a show and putting together an experience. For me, it's always related to my interest in other people and the human experience. And then just creating spaces for everyone to exist.

I think so much of performance art is about bringing people together, sharing and celebrating togetherness. So, I think there is a throughline there in cultural organizing and performing in different mediums. There's another part, the installation and interactive media part that's kind of related, because so much of interactive art is electronics. I also got into hardware while I was in grad school. I think one of the coolest things about these electronics is, again, the bridging of physical and digital. You use these physical sensors to sense the world. You have an input and you have an output, you input something and output something else. I think that's true for a lot of these digital mediums that we work with, you turn something into another thing, right? Transformative, literal translation. So much of my work is a process of translation. You've heard me use this word a lot because I feel like I've been translating things all my life, from different cultures, from different languages, and from different experiences. In this country, as an immigrant, I constantly have to explain myself and what I mean.

I want to be as clear and articulate as possible, but I also want to be creative. So much of interactive work is just translation. You're translating one experience into another, you're translating one movement into something else, you're translating sound into visuals, visuals into sound. Translating between different mediums and these physical/digital processes that are super interesting to me. The tech making part of it is also super exciting, and making these interactive installations makes a lot of sense to me.

U: I was wondering if you feel the need to translate or explain the metaphors behind all of your work. Sometimes that can feel exhausting, but especially if you're learning to do art in these traditional academic settings, you need to do that.

V: You need to do that, yeah. I think it's also twofold because on one end, I hated rigid art practice reasoning. Like, why do you have to find meaning? Sometimes it’s just pure aesthetics. Does it have to have a deeper meaning? But at the same time, I also feel like it's so important where you’re coming from and it's like, what is pretty to you? Yes, I am just making a pretty thing, but why is that pretty to me? I have a history and a culture and a context of why I make these and what I like. So, I do think that there is something really beautiful about trying to explain. By trying to explain, we also try to relate to each other. I think there is a huge part of it that's just making our intentions clear. It sucks too, though, having to explain your art in 2000 characters.

U: I was listening to an interview with a musical artist recently and she was asked to explain her album in a sentence. And she was like, “If I could explain it in a sentence, it wouldn't be an album.”

V: Yeah, exactly. These things exist in their mediums for a reason. These are the mediums that we choose to make art through. But I also do believe that nothing comes from nothing. Everything has a reason and a context. It's not something that feels painful for me to explain. So I don't mind explaining myself in the beautiful language of English, or the beautiful language of Chinese. But there’s always an added layer of translation in there.

U: Is there anything that you'd like the people to know about where to find your work, what you're doing, where it's happening?

V: Oh, I have Instagram, my main is v10101a, my website is You can always write to me through Instagram or you can email me, my DMs are very very open.

I’m also trying to put together a show at the end of July. It's not set in stone yet, but I think it will be super cool if I can put together a show in L.A., because I lived in L.A. for many years and I have cool musician and visual arts friends there, but there's also no live coding in LA at all. So I'm trying to gather some New York friends, some SF friends, and some musician friends that do AV work, get them together and then do a show in L.A. in late July. So that will be my big production. Then, I’m mostly trying to focus on some wearable tech stuff for a residency that I have in August. I'm trying to be more chill about organizing shows and stuff until then.

U: Can’t wait to see your stuff, thank you so much for coming. 

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Images courtesy of Viola He

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USURPATOR is an online magazine sharing essays and interviews about the user experience of our current virtual landscape

Run by @hard_boiledbabe