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Interview with Dan Zen, Mad Inventor360°ANALYSIS

On creations, madness, art, game, and interactivity. Yuna Rault interviews Dan Zen.

I meet Dan on a transcontinental interactive communicating device called Skype and I am not disappointed with my first impression. With his pale skin, high front head and flyaway hair, he matches the mad-inventor image, but I am a bit disappointed that he is not wearing the big black-rimmed glasses or the cool sunglasses his profile pictures promise…

Dan, when did you start inventing stuff?

I've been inventing things as far back as I can remember. Especially when I was little, I would entertain myself building things with mud. I would also invent games for my brothers and sisters – cardboard games and haunted houses and all sorts of creations like that. Then at one point I had to ask myself: What do I do?

If I am an inventor, I am supposed to go to university…I decided to take engineering, because they make sure you know how to build and design things properly.  So, I have been considering myself an inventor all my life and I don't know anybody else who does, so it's been — not really a lonely track — it's been fun.

At what point did you become madthough?

Ho ho, the ‘Mad Inventor’… Good question. I suppose, sometimes inventors or scientists are considered mad if they build things that are a little bit unusual. I've never invented things that are terribly useful, they've been more towards storytelling or making people smile or laugh or go: "Oh my God! How about that!" So, "mad" suited that, because it was different and it was also a bit of a joke. I don't invent Frankenstein bodies with tubes sticking out…  (At this point, the mad inventor feels the urge to laugh in a rather sadistic way… do we have to be afraid?)

It was when I started inventing for the Internet in 1995, that I first coined the phrase "mad inventor finds Internet, finds peace" – there was something new and I was like: "Wow! Look at what I found!" And it was fun to invent for. Half of the things I've been making, I couldn't really say what they were, so they ended up being termed "gadgets". Things like the Grim Reaper's age-guesser. (With over 10, 000 participants, this is one of Dan Zen's more popular games, where you answer 13 questions,  one of them being: At what age did you last hop? Over a period of five years, The Grim Reaper guessed more than half of the ages correctly). So that went along the line of the mad inventor making gadgets that just do things.

Dan, we need to get serious now. As an inventor, designer and artist, what is the value of interactivity in your creations?

For me interactivity has three main aspects. I'll start with the third, least important one, which is sort of obvious to everybody: choice. That's the mild form of interaction, which I usually ignore. Especially when it comes to Internet interaction: if all you're doing is choosing which page to go to, it's no different than reading a book. To me, interactivity on the Internet is more than that. One of the two remaining aspects is interacting to create. The other one is interacting to communicate. This doesn't necessarily mean interacting with what I build, but rather, interacting with people through what I built, or more specifically the environment I provide. More so I like creating an environment in which other people can create and interact. That is why it is hard to tell if I call myself an artist. These environments can be themselves artistic. For instance, they might have characters, which came to my mind and which I created. Then people get to interact with the characters, but may also take on a character and then interact with other characters — like a mystery game.

This brings me to my next question. For you, where would the frontier between art and game lie?

Ah between art and game… That's a tricky one. (Dan sits back to think) Well, a game can include, what is called the background design or the animation. All those are often considered art on their own. There also is the game itself — meaning the idea that goes into the game. I myself love games, I made hundreds of games and they all have these unique ideas. I know there's creativity there, but I don't know if people call it art that much. I tend to think not. It almost goes into ‘life as art’.

The way I am, is the way I go outside and I carry my cither down the road and I feel so artistic. And I might wear a space helmet doing this. And with gaming I think you can sometimes play that way. It just depends on what games you play. In role playing games you may be able to express yourself as an artist. In shooting games I am not sure if I'd call the end-result art. It may be more related to a sport.

Dan, cards on the table: are you more of an artist or an inventor?

Lets see... Well, if you put a number on how many pieces of art vs. games I have made, I've probably made a 100 games and a 1000 art pieces. I think art is easier to make, it's a broader category. My art also includes things that aren't interactive or digital: for example, using a walking stick and putting a little house on it with shells and calling it a tree house and making a whole series of them. If I were to say how many interactive art pieces or environments vs. how many game environments I created, I have probably invented more games. Though in terms of interactive things I made more interactive game environments. Haha, you nearly got me there!… I also built tools like opartica (a tool to tile or segment shapes, that overlap to make patterns, and animate op art backgrounds), which is probably the most quintessential art environment that I've made, specifically to let people make a certain type of art themselves using interactivity. And with that I've made thousands of final art pieces myself. So in that case I've probably made more art with my interactive tool, than I made games. But in the end, if we're not merely comparing numbers, I am neither purely an artist nor purely an inventor. I'm an inventor that can go across any medium: I might invent in food, I might invent in art, I might invent in games, I might invent in philosophy, in photography. And I do.

You are doing a lot of new media art. For you, in what way is interactivity in art possible without high-technology devices?

I think, here again, it would come down more to environments. The art comes from the moment, the experience of working together, being together in this environment. I am not as interested in the end product as an art form. I am more interested in the setting up of an environment to feel like art is happening. I use art a little bit loosely there. It certainly moves into drama, character building, or literature. It might be termed storytelling: As we're telling it we're making art. We don't need to write it down, the fun part lies in the telling of it together and the imagination of the people that are there. In that regard, it's always nice to do art at a party, where people go on a story-telling adventure or build something together. In my ideal world all parties would involve creating art at the party. Interactivity in that sense is to create, so that people can experience an interactive environment. For instance, you could create this sort of common experience by taking a ball and attaching to it a bunch of tubes and then you can talk or whisper secrets or sing into the tubes and listen to the tubes and nobody knows who's saying what: performance art amongst people.

And what would you consider the favorite piece of art you made?

Probably it would come down to Gorgolon, a multi user-game on an underwater civilization based on a song, which from a creative standpoint was one of my better works. Creativity comes from taking two or three potentially different ideas, bringing these together and figuring out what lies in these together. In Gorgolon I brought two concepts together: the underwater civilization, and the spotting of an artificial intelligence. But I also wanted to provide a reason for doing it, because that's my favourite thing: to connect a story to a game, so that the game makes sense. In1995 there weren't a lot of people using the net all the time; I scheduled the game at 12 pm. The reason we were trying to spot an artificial intelligence at 12 pm is itself connected to a bit of poetry that I wrote earlier for a space rock band. The poetry gave me the environment and the reason for this game to happen. Suddenly everything was connected and I was thinking: "Wow! That's cool". Also, the players got to answer questions about what it's like in this underwater civilization and those who spotted the artificial intelligence got to read that commonly written science fiction as a prize. I've taken a look at that science fiction myself: I cheated. And people over the years have been writing most wonderful things about living in an underwater civilisation. Well… not very many people played the game, but still …  I loved it as a piece of art, as a creation.

Any inspirations, any idols?

The answer is a solid No. For two reasons: I purposely try to stay away from any inspirations as I find that trying to find inspiration is just not the way to get inspired. You would end up seeing too many people doing cool stuff and either end up thinking "Oh I can't do that" or "Everything's been done". It's just not the way to do it. The way to do it is to look within and I learn how to think — it's my philosophy called Nodism. So I understand how creativity works and how to think: by thinking about thinking. With that I am able to come up with creations and I've got so many ideas — it's just unbelievable. The only thing is that as an inventor I've always wanted to really make the things I thought of. But to realize all the ideas I've ever thought of is becoming more and more difficult. I'll have to get some helpers. You kind of have to turn it off almost. You'd have to say: All right, today I am going to build. Tomorrow I will think of new things (Dan just invented a solution to the classic problem of postponement). So inspiration? I am afraid, no. No inspiration…

Which brings me to my last question: What is the thing you most regret having not built?

Well, first of all I hope that it's never to late to build. There are some things, where you get the idea and then you don't build it and then you see somebody else did. I mean it doesn't happen often with me, I've been very lucky, and that's another thing: when you think within your own mind, usually you get very lucky and you end up not building what other people have thought of. There was a time though, when I had an idea for something and I told people about it and I wanted to build it but I didn't and then I saw a Halloween video of somebody else doing it. You want me to tell you what it was? Well, When you put a camera on  your back and the screen on your chest, people can see on your front what the camera is seeing in your back. So what it ends up looking like, is that people can see right through you. And I always thought it would be fun to walk around with a hole in myself.

Hahaha… And I was just about to do it, but somebody else had done it for a Halloween Costume (Dan makes an indefinable sound of anger). I am also planning on doing a bunch of wearable computing. Applications where you take just the devices that already exist and place them into your pocket. Then you cut a hole in your pocket, so you can see the device. And that way people can walk around with messages or patterns that are moving and stuff like that and it could be expressive. I've had all sorts of people combing the Internet to see if they found anything the like and they haven't yet, so I think there's an opportunity to be the first to take  normal computers and use them as wearable parts. But I'm sure there's something out there like that, which just hasn't really been utilized yet. So that could be another case of "Darn, I wish I had done it".