There’s an Art to Getting Brilliant People to Surprise Themselves – Kevin Slavin of The Shed
Before The Shed, Kevin founded the Playful Systems group at MIT’s Media Lab.
He also gave a TED talk in 2011 called How Algorithms Shape Our World.
Craig Cannon [00:00:00] – Hey, what’s up? This is Craig Cannon and you’re listening to episode 51 of the YC podcast. Before we get going, I just want to say thanks to all of you for check it out. We passed one million downloads a while back, and that’s pretty cool, and an extra special thanks to anyone that’s reviewed it on iTunes, because that’s super helpful for us. Today’s episode is with Kevin Slavin. Kevin is the Chief Science and Technology Officer for The Shed. The Shed is an art center in New York, and they’re opening in 2019. Before The Shed, Kevin founded the Playful Systems group at MIT’s Media Lab, and he also gave a TED Talk in 2011 called How Algorithms Shape Our World. That talk’s been viewed of three million times, and I’ll link it up in the show notes. Alright, here we go. There are a couple questions from the internet, but I figure we could just start with kind of what we were talking before, about education in general.
Kevin Slavin [00:00:54] – Sure.
Craig Cannon [00:00:55] – As you’re a dad now and you’re thinking about education, having now been at Cooper Union, now on the board at Cooper Union, been at the Media Lab, and now The Shed interacts with that education in art in that cultural way, and that’s its value.
Kevin Slavin [00:01:11] – Yup.
Craig Cannon [00:01:12] – How do you think about higher education for your kids in 20 years?
Kevin Slavin [00:01:19] – We have 16 years before my daughter is released from the American high school system into who knows what really. We talked about this a little bit earlier, it’s basically 15 universities a year that go bankrupt in the United States. There’s a lot of reasons for that, but one of them is that, maybe it’s just simply the model as they have constructed it and are buttressing it to keep it exactly as it has been. Maybe that’s no more appropriate for education than it is for many other things in our lives. You know, it’s arguably easier to change the sensibility of a city than of a university, because cities, people leave… And universities, the people who really determine the core sensibility of it are tenured, which there are very good reasons for tenure, and it arose under McCarthyism to protect free thought, essentially, which is great, but if you look at the downstream effects of protecting free thought such that then only the people who got caught in that particular net are preserved, and the questions is what are the downstream effects for everybody else within that, and how do you search for that? The bottom line is that I think academic institutions and cultural institutions have this thing in common, which is that what they provide you with is a sense of continuity between you and some larger set of people and ideas. If you didn’t have cultural institutions and you didn’t have schools, in the contemporary United States there’s not that many things that are accessible to most people.
Kevin Slavin [00:03:43] – There’s a lot of abandoned churches, we don’t work in factories or offices the way we used to, so there’s not the same sense of community there. The role of institutions, whether it’s The Shed, or Cooper Union, or MIT, or whatever… The thing that they do is they force you to acknowledge that you are not an individual. That you exist in some broader context, that hopefully you’re helping to shape, and hopefully is a positive context, right?
Craig Cannon [00:04:36] – It’s not dissimilar to YC. We were talking about this before, but I think that that batch structure, even though they’re so close together, it’s three months apart between the winter and the summer batch, but still you’re like, “I’m winter ’17, you’re summer ’17, we’re in the same alumni cohort, and that’s awesome, but I am still summer ’17. I’m tight with people in that way.”
Kevin Slavin [00:04:57] – I was thinking about it just yesterday, because I was thinking, wow, I have two friends who’ve never even met each other, who just got MacArthur grants, and I have another friend who just released beautiful, beautiful work, Frank Lantz, who just released The Paperclip Game, that is so popular right now.
Craig Cannon [00:05:18] – Oh, really? That’s awesome.
Kevin Slavin [00:05:20] – And some amazing work from … And I was just thinking, it’s not that I’m in all of their work at all, it’s their work, but all of their work is in me. Through my friendships and relationships with them, that’s what makes me who I am. I have no illusions that the ideas that I have, or the capabilities that I have, or the knowledge that I have comes from me and hard work. It comes from being connected and embedded with an amazing group of people.
Craig Cannon [00:06:05] – And is that through Cooper Union?
Kevin Slavin [00:06:07] – It’s through everything. I’ve had a really, really peripatetic journey in my life, and so it’s possible that I’ve crossed through more industries, and disciplines, and so on than on average.
Craig Cannon [00:06:23] – We don’t normally talk about this, but I actually think folks would be interested in you giving a little bit of the backstory. Connect the dots in the five minute version.
Kevin Slavin [00:06:33] – Usually in meetings that I’m in, I had a meetings yesterday with the Cisco Hyperlocation crew, and we’re talking about how to do indoor positioning systems, and I was talking about signal attentuation through steel versus concrete, and this and that, and at a certain point the guy from Cisco said, “You know a lot about this. What did you study?” And this is always the punch line, it’s sculpture. I studied sculpture, and that’s actually the only thing that I ever went to school for was sculpture, and everything else are things that I have been sufficiently interested in, motivated by, and, or capable of attracting and engaging with people who are brilliant in other disciplines. I’m working on a project, this is the last project that I have at MIT, that I can’t talk about what it is, but I’ll just say it’s a very large scale artwork that’s using CRISPR, and I know fuck all about how to get that done. I now know just a little bit, but what I do know is I know how to work with people who are really good at their craft, and I know how to connect them, and I know how to draw out their best work, I think. I would say that, I would say that I’m good at drawing out the best work out of people.
Craig Cannon [00:08:18] – Is that an innate quality or is that something you have cultivated?
Kevin Slavin [00:08:22] – I don’t know. At a certain point I became aware that that’s one of the only things that I’m good at. And so now it’s very deliberate, but it comes from really valuing what other people do. I worked for years with Frank Lantz when we had a company called Area/Code, where I can say we legitimately pioneered some of the earliest examples, and actual products, et cetera, in location based games, when nobody know what that meant, when you still had to pull cell site signals off of towers, right? When we had to negotiate with carriers for location data. We were doing all that, but the thing is that Frank was basically my favorite game designer, and I think it comes from really valuing that, and it’s not trying to, there’s a difference between managing people, and actually drawing things out, and I think learning what brilliant people, there’s an art to getting brilliant people to surprise themselves, and that’s what I have tried to do in all of my endeavors.
Craig Cannon [00:10:02] – And is that, because I’ve worked on a handful of projects with people that I think are absolutely brilliant and amazing, more often than not, it’s because I’m like, “Hhey, I have this particular skill set, you have this particular skill set, I think you’re amazing.” Part of the sales process, or the meeting is I’m just kind of fawning over you. This is super cool, and I can’t do it. What did you provide in that relationship? Because I think certain people who feel like they can spot talented people also feel a little inadequate, and a little like an imposter, and they don’t know how to add value.
Kevin Slavin [00:10:36] – That’s a good question. I think there’s a couple things that I bring to it. One is I usually bring the beginning of an idea, more often I bring the beginning of an idea. For example, this project I can’t describe, I had an idea I couldn’t begin to articulate, and I brought that to a pretty hardcore computational biologist that I know, and she turned it into a much richer idea, but it was also beyond her ability to do it, but then it kind of snowballs, right? Then it’s me and her, and we go find the floral geneticist, who can really pull it off. So that’s part of it is you kind of snowball, you kind of find the person who can add that much to it, and then the person who can add that much, and then so each time you meet somebody, you’re bigger, and it’s richer, and I think the other thing that I’ve been good at is that I’m very good, I think, at demonstrating the value of whatever it is that we’re doing to somebody who has some money to pay for it. Just bottom line, and that I think people who are really, really good at whatever they do are often not in a good position to be able to do that, because it requires a certain level of detachment from what you care about to be able to look at if from somebody else’s point of view, and to be able to tell a story about it that isn’t the story that you tell yourself, necessarily. It’s a true story, it’s just not the story that you tell yourself, and in my travels, among other things, I spent eight years in advertising, and I learned a lot about how to tell a story, and I learned a lot about how ideas can provide value, basically.
Craig Cannon [00:12:51] – Fid you fundraise for Area/Code?
Kevin Slavin [00:12:54] – No, Frank and I just bootstrapped. We just totally did that, it was just two dudes in a room with some savings.
Craig Cannon [00:13:04] – Okay.
Kevin Slavin [00:13:05] – And we were anomalous. I must have been 35, Frank was maybe 38 or so. Totally anomalous, but it meant that we had the savings that mid-30’s people might have, so we were able to deal with it.
Craig Cannon [00:13:26] – Well because the question I was wondering is if you had raised on the entrepreneurial side. VC standard, versus raising at MIT, or are you involved at The Shed now fundraising?
Kevin Slavin [00:13:41] – I am.
Craig Cannon [00:13:42] – Okay.
Kevin Slavin [00:13:42] – I am, yeah.
Craig Cannon [00:13:43] – How does the story differ when you’re trying to pitch a different product?
Kevin Slavin [00:13:49] – People might argue this, and I don’t even know if I believe what I’m saying, but I think probably I would say that the essential story that you have to tell when you’re fundraising is a story of scale, right? Because the premise of fundraising is that the money’s going to scale, and that means something else has to scale to produce that scale, and so that’s just the bottom line is that you’re telling a story of growth, and the reason that Area/Code grew, and we grew to roughly 40 people by the time it was acquired in 2011, the reason it was able to grow is that we weren’t trying to. It just wasn’t a priority. We were just trying to do the best work we could do, and we would just grow as we had to, and if we’d had to think about growth from the very beginning, man, we would never have done anything we did. We would’ve bet it all on this idea that we had in 2004. That we went and talked to the Nintendo corporation, and we had this idea for PokÃ©mon. We probably would have bet it all on that, and what I mistake that would have been.
Craig Cannon [00:15:09] – Yeah, right. What ended up being the big success of Area/Code?
Kevin Slavin [00:15:16] – In terms of the things that we did, there were a lot of little successes. Area/Code was this very unusual beast, and I don’t think there’s been many like it before or after, which is that, normally, if you want to make money in games, if you even want to make a living in games, you say I’m going to build a shop that’s optimized for triple A (AAA) console development, which has nothing to do with the shop that you would build if you were doing iOS development, because the level of engineering and expertise, et cetera, is so intense for existing platforms. If you think back to when we started, 2004, everything was just fucked up. It was like the very end of flash based casual games. Those were sort of tailing off, and the console industry sort of didn’t know what it was doing, it couldn’t figure out what its next big move was, and mobile just didn’t exist yet in the United States, and so it mean that what we would, we weren’t a game development shop.
Craig Cannon [00:16:35] – Yeah.
Kevin Slavin [00:16:36] – We were a game design shop, and that is insane, because what we would do is we would just pick up technologies or ideas that would fall of the back of different trucks, and we would hold it up, and we would say what does this mean? Okay, so cell site sector location, that means you know that you’re within three blocks of this tower. What kind of a game would you build for that? Which is totally different when, in 2006, maybe I think, we got in the States our first phones that had a GPS chip in them. There was only one, it was a Boost Mobile, it was just a terrible handset, and we would like getting J2ME. Oh god, it was so difficult, it was so awful. It was so difficult just to get the handsets, because we needed 20 for testing, and the idea that there would be 20 handsets in lower Manhattan that people would buy that had GPS, we would have to wait a week for new shipments. Every new thing that happened, we would be like what could you do with that, what could you do with that, what could you do with that, and the reason that that’s insane from a business perspective is that the efficiencies in that are exactly zero. It’s like basically you work really, really hard to solve all of these problems, technology problems, design pattern problems, all the problems of making essentially the first game where you’re running through the streets, tracking your location, and then we’re like, now let’s do a game about synchronous watching with TV.
Craig Cannon [00:18:26] – Start again.
Kevin Slavin [00:18:28] – And we would just throw it all out, because there was no business to build on there, so we were like, okay, what’s the next thing? What’s the next thing? What’s the next thing? The success of Area/Code, in retrospect, is that everything that arrived, we met it, and towards the end of it, the things that arrived started to scale. The two things that arrived five years into our project, like after five years of really just like, “Wow, is it this, is it this, is it this?” Five years in, iOS arrived, and we were like, “Oh, we’ll make an iOS game,” and then Facebook games started to happen, really just started to happen, and we built one that was insanely successful, by early Facebook standards. Basically everybody that we knew on Facebook was playing this game. It was called Parking Wars. It was a game about parking your car. But it was brilliant. It came out of Frank’s head. It’s actually one of the most beautiful games that we made there, and one of the most successful. The accidental success of Area/Code is that because we met everything when it was new, when too new things had unimaginable scale, or unprecedented scale that they were unlocking, we became experts at launching into those unknown spaces, and so that was, at that moment in 2011, that was very valuable to a lot of different companies.
Kevin Slavin [00:20:18] – Who hadn’t been trying to get into those new spaces because they’re game development shops. What they’re trying to do is just optimize for what they know.
Craig Cannon [00:20:26] – Yeah, are you tapped into the gaming space right now?
Kevin Slavin [00:20:30] – Certainly not as an industry.
Craig Cannon [00:20:33] – Okay. I’m just curious what your thoughts on, basically, the new technologies, right? People seem to be bullish about VR. What do you think?
Kevin Slavin [00:20:42] – There will be some great games in VR. I haven’t seen one yet. Broadly speaking, everything that I’m seeing in VR games is basically done by people who made console games and where their essential mode is thinking in console games. If you think about how long it took cinema to stop just putting people on a stage and filming it, to realize that you could cut, you know?
Craig Cannon [00:21:23] – That’s true, yeah.
Kevin Slavin [00:21:25] – It took a long time, right? And then when they did the first cuts, people were like, wait a minute, I don’t even understand. What the fuck? I was looking at a train and now I’m looking at a person.
Craig Cannon [00:21:36] – Can you put some text in between there?
Kevin Slavin [00:21:38] – That moment hasn’t happened yet, which is fine, it’s very early. That person or that company, I don’t think has emerged yet and I don’t instinctively, and from my experience, I don’t think that that person is going to come from one of the big AAA studios, because they’re going to have to be thinking in a different way, you know? I don’t think there’s anything to be gained in looking at VR as a wraparound console.
Craig Cannon [00:22:22] – Just think about how quickly the technology outpaces the education. I went to NYU and I was in an English program so you’re doing all this creative writing. Not at any point was there a course offered on how to write for binge TV. And now, it’s a whole industry.
Kevin Slavin [00:22:42] – Right, right, right, exactly.
Craig Cannon [00:22:44] – I don’t even know if any film school has something like that right now. How do you write a narrative for VR?
Kevin Slavin [00:22:50] – Games aren’t narrative vehicles in general. There’s a whole very nerdy set of ideas around games and narratology, which we’re not going to get into. If I think about it, actually, having had a minute to reflect on it, I can’t remember the name of it, but somebody did a game where you, this is was just some independent developer, it was a game where it’s for multiple players and one person is trying to diffuse a bomb and they’re looking at that in VR, trying to do that in VR, and everybody else has the plans and they’re trying to communicate to the person who is trapped in a helmet, basically.
Craig Cannon [00:23:51] – Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. If that’s one of them.
Kevin Slavin [00:23:55] – No, that’s a different one, actually, that’s a new one. But yeah, that’s actually, I think, a modern instantiation of something that was about three years ago. It was very raw, it was very rough. But it was like, right, maybe what the materially of the medium of VR should include is the fact that you’re wearing a fucking helmet, right? And you’re in a room with other people. Maybe that’s not something to write off. Maybe that is one of the essential aspects to play with, the fact that you can see things that other people can’t see and they can see things that you can’t see, right? One of the research assistants at the Media Lab is Greg Borenstein, who is now a proper game developer at Riot, and he did some early experiments. He did a game called Case and Molly that was the very first, a very early Oculus. It was one person with an Oculus, one person with a mobile phone out in the world, and they have an audio signal between them, but the person in the Rift can get some access to some information about the streets and vice versa and they’re basically trying to negotiate the fact that they are separated.
Craig Cannon [00:25:27] – Oh, okay.
Kevin Slavin [00:25:31] – It’s an explicit reference to William Gibson’s Neuromancer in which Gibson was very interested in this idea that when you were in cyberspace, you weren’t somewhere else and that a lot of things would be happening there and that there would be some interplay between them, they’re not the same thing, and the fact that they are so different is maybe part of what makes it so interesting. That’s just one example of the ways to think about VR and play in a way that’s not hoarding conventional modes of interaction.
Craig Cannon [00:26:24] – Yeah, exactly, because you spend all this time thinking about games, thinking about new technology, thinking about the future, and then an acquisition happens, and then you somehow end up at the Media Lab, right? What transpired to make that transition happen? And then how did being at the Media Lab affect how you think about building products?
Kevin Slavin [00:26:46] – Yeah, it’s a good question. The answer to how the transition to the Media Lab happened is super dull, which is that they asked me to apply, and I applied, and then they asked me to come, and I came. I wasn’t looking for it, but also, I knew some of the people who were there. I was close with Neri Oxman, who runs the Material Ecology Group, and so that sort of informed my sense of what the Media Lab might be, and they had a sense of me, in part, through the relationships that I had. But it was really interesting, because then I arrived and they’re very happy that some, you know, there’s a new faculty member who’s very different. I was there for four years, and one of the most interesting things about hiring new faculty at the Media Lab is, like, the primary criterion is that they’re a misfit. We’re looking for misfits who are thinking about how to ensure the heritability of CRISPR engineering.
Craig Cannon [00:28:06] – Right.
Kevin Slavin [00:28:08] – Because that’s not a discipline, that’s a person. And that’s actually what the Media Lab is looking to hire. They’re looking to hire disciplines that don’t exist yet, that are hiding inside the minds of a person. The problem is, what is the…
Craig Cannon [00:28:28] – How do you scout for that person?
Kevin Slavin [00:28:29] – Yeah, how do you scout, and how do you even establish, what anti-discipline are you? Where does it go? The best way to describe the way the searches go, it’s when I finally, I didn’t understand how I got there until we went to get other people, which is that you basically kind of map out the spaces of where all those 30 people are, and then you just look for somebody who is equidistant from all of them.
Craig Cannon [00:28:56] – Oh, wild, okay!
Kevin Slavin [00:28:57] – You know, right? If they’re too close to this one, we have one of those, you know?
Craig Cannon [00:29:02] – Yeah.
Kevin Slavin [00:29:04] – And so, I think for the Media Lab, they were really looking to try to figure out games and play, and that’s what I have been doing with Area/Code for seven years. But it’s also true that when I got there, I got there in 2013, and everybody was like, “We are so excited for you to keep making location-based games,” and urban whatever, and I was like, but that’s not research. That’s just going to be an industry. I didn’t know that that’s what we were doing in 2004, but it was research 10 years ago. The fact that it’s new to you doesn’t mean that it’s new. If I was interested in scaling that again, I wouldn’t try to do that there. For me, I came to the Media Lab to figure out, you know, they brought me there because I was somehow orthogonal to the 30 different planes that are represented there. But I went there to figure out what was similarly orthogonal to everything I already knew and did. I did some game work and brought in some pretty brilliant games folk and we got some interesting work done on games. I would say within two years, I had become just totally interested in microbiology. And that’s what the next two years really looked like. Really, sort of, revisiting the ideas that were underneath Area/Code for me, but not how would you express those ideas in terms of play, but how would you express those ideas in terms of biology? I can’t really say, there’s no straight path. I could construct a clever story, but it was instinct, and the instinct was for the idea that cities are not as simple as hardware and a bunch of users.
Kevin Slavin [00:31:54] – That’s not what they are, and when we started Area/Code, what was underneath it was, we’re going to build software for cities, that’s how we talked about it in 2004. I think now, that’s a powerfully banal idea. It seems like a meaningfully banal thing to assert. But in 2004, we were like, “What is software for cities?” What would it mean to change your sense of the city? We weren’t reading, we had well read all the work from the Situationists in the 50s and 60s. People, artists, primarily philosophers, who were looking for strategies to get you to reimagine the cities that you were in. We didn’t go into it to do Facebook games or any of that.
Craig Cannon [00:32:50] – Parking Wars.
Kevin Slavin [00:32:52] – We found something very interesting in them, but when we started, it was because cities felt like, at the time, in 2004, it was like, well, that’s something that technology is going to affect in 10 different ways. It’s going to affect logistics, it’s going to affect traffic, it’s going to affect policing. How will it affect play? When I got to the Media Lab, I was sort of digging underneath the work that we had done and trying to figure out what was important to me about it. If I were to reboot all these things and they didn’t generate location-based games, what would they generate? And it turned out that they generated some investigations into the notion of cities as biological super organisms. To understand that, if you step all the way back and you just look, it’s like, you know, you look at termites, and they make mounds that look like this. You look at ants and they make colonies that look like this. You look at humans, and they make these weird super structures that look like this, and why? What is it about our essential trajectory that produces these things? Across many different cultures, across long, long slots of history, what is it? There’s super interesting work by Geoffrey West at the Santa Fe Institute, really studying cities as a complexity problem. Really, really beautiful work about how they scale and so on. Through a series of very weird tangents, which is what the Media Lab is good at, what I became interested in was… I had a hobbyist’s interest for a long time
Kevin Slavin [00:35:06] – in the gut biome, which is now weirdly popular. It’s like, now everybody talks about their gut biome. I talked about poop long before poop was, like…
Craig Cannon [00:35:20] – Congrats, man.
Kevin Slavin [00:35:20] – An emoji. The role of your gut in terms of, I’m not so interested in it in terms of your health and wellbeing, although I do care and I have a two year old, so now I think about it a lot, I think about poop a lot, again, but what I’m interested in is just how it reshapes your notion of the world to know that you are a collective organism. There’s all kinds of ways to represent this and it depends how you measure things, but one way or another, the majority of the DNA of you, it’s not you, it’s not from your parents, and much of it, we literally don’t even have a name for it. There are species that live inside us. Without them, we’re dead. Without us, they’d have to find somewhere else to go. That should change what we think of when we think of an individual. I’ve been thinking about that a lot. This is all a very roundabout way, the only way I know. It’s a roundabout way to get to the question of if I have a gut biome that’s distinct from your gut biome does New York City have a gut biome that’s different than the gut biome of Tokyo or Lagos, or you know, wherever? And if those gut biomes are different, why are they different, and what does it do, what does it mean? In the gut biome that we have, it comes through the exchange of material, living material, with the environment. What does it mean to live in one city or another? You are effectively in exchange with that city. It’s why you get sick when you travel. It’s why you eat the food that, you know, in some city that you’ve never been to, you eat the food that everybody else there can eat
Kevin Slavin [00:37:34] – with no problem and it causes you problems, it’s because you are literally carrying your country, your city of origin, with you and it’s incompatible, lightly incompatible with the city that you’re in.
Craig Cannon [00:37:50] – Seemingly, this project could’ve expanded. You are the hub maybe in the Media Lab or your cohort of people, and you’re like, “I’m just going to go everywhere in the world now and I’m going to do tangible scientific research,” but instead, you’re like, “I’m going to go back to New York, where I’m from, and I’m going to work at a cultural institute.”
Kevin Slavin [00:38:08] – I did. It’s exactly the point. For that project, which was around figuring out a discipline that is now, a couple of years later, called urban meta genomics, I amassed this amazing group of collaborators and some of them were very, very hardcore biologists, really top in the field, and some of them were amazing artists, like Chris Wilkin. We weren’t trying to write a paper. We were trying to effectively publish a poem. What I was trying to communicate wasn’t data, it was an idea. That’s basically what culture does, right? Basically, it transmits ideas rather than information. In that distinction, it’s not like they’re in opposition, but culture is distinct from information. The Media Lab is really good at information. I had to figure out the right environment for me, in terms of how to be expressive in terms of culture. At the Media Lab, we would always draw this diagram, this sort of four quadrant. There’s artists, and there’s designers, and there’s scientists, and there’s engineers. I don’t know who’s ever explicitly stated, but roughly, if you brought less than three of those to the table as an individual, you’re not that interesting to the Media Lab, right? I’m overstating it. Maybe even misstating it. But that model of artists, designers, scientists, and engineers. It took me a while to understand that what I was doing for myself and for the Media Lab was basically representing the artist and design piece of that, half of that, and bringing art and design,
Kevin Slavin [00:40:28] – I wasn’t the only one, but I was bringing art and design to a scientific and engineering environment. It’s not the Massachusetts Institute of Culture. Right, it’s technology. To bring art and design into that, with the deliberate goal of finding out how to blur those boundaries or eliminate those boundaries, I understand my role here at The Shed, and I say it explicitly, basically, bringing the science and engineering back. This is essentially a cultural environment. It’s not really a design, it’s art. But figuring out how science and engineering play a meaningful role and have meaningful forms of expression within culture, it’s basically the inverse of what my job was pre-Media Lab. It’s nice to be home in New York.
Craig Cannon [00:41:31] – Of course, yeah.
Kevin Slavin [00:41:38] – This is the first cultural center, The Shed. The Shed is the first cultural center, at scale, to be built in New York City since Lincoln Center.
Craig Cannon [00:41:49] – Wow, which was when?
Kevin Slavin [00:41:51] – 60s, I guess. It’s embarrassing, I don’t know.
Craig Cannon [00:41:55] – Roughly.
Kevin Slavin [00:41:55] – It’s at least 50 years ago. The opportunity to literally be part of that process of building the institution is too good to pass up. I’m good at the beginnings of stuff, right? And this is the beginning. The building is still under construction. Part of it is just that it’s the opportunity, it’s a new cultural institution for New York City. You’d be crazy to pass that up. But also, part of it was the opportunity to work with Alex Poots, the Artistic Director, who prior to this had been the Artistic Director of the Armory and had done a bunch of shows there that, on paper, are obviously bad ideas, and then you would go and they were just unbelievable shows.
Craig Cannon [00:43:03] – Does that mean curator effectively?
Kevin Slavin [00:43:05] – Yeah, yeah. For a performance, you’d call it programming which means something different here.
Craig Cannon [00:43:12] – Oh, okay. I just wanted to know what the actual job is.
Kevin Slavin [00:43:15] – We have producers and programmers, but they don’t do what you think they do. I didn’t even realize that he was sort of the secret brain behind some of my favorite things. It was actually four years ago, just recently, a show, the filmmaker Adam Curtis vs. Massive Attack playing live, an obviously terrible, terrible idea, and it was so beautiful, it was so extraordinary, and it was legitimately risky. It is just so rare that, these days, it’s just so rare that anybody takes an authentic risk of any kind. It’s maybe even especially true in culture. Especially large scale cultural institutions, they’re weirdly risk averse to my mind these days. The opportunity to work with Alex and the opportunity to work at the very beginning of this thing. The building is designed by Diller + Scofidio and Renfro, Liz Diller, and also the Rockwell Group. Liz Diller is an old friend and one of my heroes. She’s the architect who did the High Line–
Craig Cannon [00:44:40] – Oh, cool!
Kevin Slavin [00:44:40] – Among other things, and The Shed is right on the High Line. She came up with the idea of a building that moves. It’s one thing to come up with that idea and kind of sketch it and whatever, but you know, we’re building it, we moved it about a month ago for the first time and nobody got killed. Eight million pounds moved at about 12 miles an hour, and nobody died.
Craig Cannon [00:45:11] – That’s amazing. It kind of looks like a concept car that actually made it to production.
Kevin Slavin [00:45:19] – Yeah, yeah.
Craig Cannon [00:45:19] – But it’s cool.
Kevin Slavin [00:45:20] – That’s well said. Also, I took a tour recently with some pretty hardcore folks from NASA, some Voyager engineers.
Craig Cannon [00:45:33] – Oh, cool.
Kevin Slavin [00:45:35] – We were sitting up top looking at the motors that move the building, and one of them said, like, “This is ambitious.” And it’s like, if you’re the systems integrator on the Voyager, and you’re looking at a building and you call it ambitious, that’s an ambitious building. It’s an ambitious building. And it is tabula rasa. It also has this very weird quality. I didn’t realize how strange it was until I started working here about four months ago, which is that it’s an exhibition space of five stories, three enormous galleries, sort of white box galleries, really large, and then a very large performance space. And then, two small theaters. Alex, when I first came in, said, “You have to understand, this is very unusual. It’s basically never done that you have a combination large scale performance space and exhibition space.” I sort of didn’t take it seriously, ’cause it just sounded, but if you think about it, yeah, you haven’t been in a place like that. You’re not going to go see opera at MoMA, and you’re not going to go see an exhibition at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Craig Cannon [00:46:48] – Right.
Kevin Slavin [00:46:49] – Those things, they’re never going to happen. They couldn’t happen even if they wanted them to happen, because they are built around doing the things they do. It took me a while to realize that it really is unusual. Then, I had to understand why you would even want that. There’s a couple different answers, but the most valuable answer, is it’s what allows us to… You don’t start with a format, you start with an artist, or you start with an idea, and then you figure out, what does that become? That will produce new forms. I’m down for that. That is so necessary, so important, and so fucking difficult. Because that’s the third part of it, there’s also a reason that nobody has built performance spaces with exhibition spaces.
Craig Cannon [00:47:47] – There’s a reason no one made moving buildings.
Kevin Slavin [00:47:49] – Right, putting aside the fact that the building moves, it’s also… The best way to make it real, how few efficiencies you get in having an exhibition space with a performance space is, think about what it’s like to get a ticket to go see, the Rauschenberg show at the MoMA, and trying to get a ticket to go see Hamilton. Now, think about one institution that has to accommodate both of those, and what does the ticketing software look like?
Craig Cannon [00:48:18] – All these little things.
Kevin Slavin [00:48:21] – And that’s this big, you know? The analogy I always give is, like, helicopters float in the air and planes float in the air, but nobody is like, “Wow, it’d be a better plane if it also had huge rotors on the top.” You know? No, they’re different, they’re different for a reason, and they operate differently for a reason. But our bet is that it’s worth the struggle. It’s not just that the building moves, it’s not just that the building is weird, it’s that the notion of the institution is weird. It’s weirder than anybody knows.
Craig Cannon [00:49:03] – Can you put the risks you want to take in tangible terms?
Kevin Slavin [00:49:06] – Yeah. I wish I could tell you about the risks that we’re going to take in the programming, which I really…
Craig Cannon [00:49:18] – It’s two years out now, right?
Kevin Slavin [00:49:19] – It’s a year and a half.
Craig Cannon [00:49:20] – A year and a half.
Kevin Slavin [00:49:21] – There’s going to be a show that is going to be extraordinary.
Craig Cannon [00:49:29] – We might have to do round two at that point.
Kevin Slavin [00:49:31] – It’s a show where I can’t imagine how, it’s like, if you’re setting something up and you cannot imagine what it is actually going to be at the end, that’s exciting and that’s risky. It’s very beautiful, risky work with an artist that I can’t reveal yet. We’re planting the flag with the first show that says, “This is the 21st century.” It’s not neutral. It might not be pretty, but it’s going to be important and loud and rich. There’s a lot of risks in the program. Some of it is riskier than others. But part of my role is, there’s a couple different parts of it. One of them that’s very important to me is to start commissioning scientists to do work in the museum. Even the idea of commissioning a scientist is stupid and probably destined to failure, but maybe not. I’m working with a scientist who I can’t also reveal but one of my favorite living scientists to bring something to life in 2019. What we’re aiming for in that is that this is a scientist who sees the world differently than you and I do because of their work and everything that they’ve done up until now is trying to describe that world in academic papers and instead we’re going to bring it to life and that feels pretty risky to me. But then putting curatorial stuff aside, one of the things that we’re going to do is eliminate any form of paper tickets. It’s basically your ticket’s going to be your phone.
Craig Cannon [00:51:56] – Cool, okay.
Kevin Slavin [00:51:58] – By 2019, 98% of the United States will have smartphones. Even Obama phones are smartphones. You won’t be able to buy a non-smartphone in 2019. And so that’s going to be your ticket. There’s a bunch of things that happen with that. They’re basically, in most ways, just plain better than waiting in a long line and there’s a window. You’ve been to Times Square. You see people with umbrellas in the snow waiting and it’s just like, “You know what, it’s 2019 and we say fuck that.” And we have no legacy infrastructure. We have no incentives to do any of that so it’s your phone. But now here’s what’s interesting. If all those people aren’t in line to buy their tickets or to pick up their tickets, where are they? And so now we have to think about that and that’s a problem that no institution has ever had before, right? If you don’t have everybody who is waiting to see the show standing in line, what are they doing? And we have some thoughts about it. I only noticed it when I was looking up the flow numbers and I was like, “Whoa, 200 people. What are we going to do with the 200 people who are waiting?” We’re going to be doing some things. It doesn’t feel like a big idea to just have your ticket on your phone, but it turns out you’re changing the entire experience of guests and it actually changes how we program the spaces. You tweak that and all of these a prioris that you have for cultural institutions go out the window with it. So, that’s one of the big risky initiatives and then the other that I can talk about is when I first got here four months ago,
Kevin Slavin [00:54:07] – the architects reviewed with me a bulkhead on the northeast corner with cables that were going to come out and a broadcast truck would come up ’cause it has a satellite dish on the top and PBS or CNN or whatever, they would be able to live televise the events that we do in The Shed like they do sometimes with The MET or whatever. I looked around and I was like, “Guys, the likelihood that in 2019 that truck is going to show up is basically zero.” It’s not absolute zero but it’s very low that those trucks are going to show up to broadcast a live signal from cables off of a satellite to television sets that people are sitting at who can’t wait to see this.
Craig Cannon [00:55:02] – Meanwhile everyone could watch it from their phone on their ticket device now.
Kevin Slavin [00:55:07] – Right and so we killed it and the reason is because the architecture team had the insight to put in an unprecedented amount of bandwidth for a cultural institution. It’s the first time I’ve ever been part of any kind of architectural something where you look at it and you’re like, “Yeah, that’ll probably work for the next 50 years. That’s probably enough.” Where I actually can’t figure out how to max it out. I don’t even know. I don’t even know what we can do with them all, but what we can do with that bandwidth is basically do digital broadcasts. The idea of doing live digital broadcasts not incidentally but as the core ethos of what we do at The Shed where this thing that we’re going to do in the first weekend it’s going to be enormous, but I don’t know maybe in total over one week 20,000 people will pass through those doors and it just doesn’t sit right. It just doesn’t work for me. And then you have whatever it is now, three or four billion addressable broadband connections out there in the world, that we should be thinking about it less of a building and more like a beacon, this thing that emits a live synchronizing signal to everybody around the world. I don’t want to put it up on YouTube. It’s not about the archive of it. It’s about that at seven o’clock on Thursday this thing is going to happen and I’m sorry if that’s seven a.m. in Tokyo or whatever. Wake up early because we’re going to have to make it worth your while like we do for the World Cup. Because what is valuable isn’t just the performance and the event,
Kevin Slavin [00:57:29] – what’s valuable is that synchronizing signal and that, to come back to the very beginning of our conversation, that I think is the most important thing that cultural institutions can do now is to basically provide synchronizing signals, is basically to say, “Right now, we’re going to gather together and we’re all going to be on the same fucking page. For the next two hours, we’re on the same page. For the next two hours, our attention is on this thing, but I’m here with you.” And to be able to provide that feeling of being with people at the same time with the same attention, it’s very, very powerful. It’s generally unexploited in technology in general and it’s definitely underexploited in culture. If you look at what technologies do and have done is they basically delaminate whatever it is that we like from its mode of transmission or expression, whatever. If we didn’t love that so much, it wouldn’t have worked, but it turns out we don’t want to buy albums and we don’t want to…
Craig Cannon [00:58:44] – We just want the stuff. We want the stuff.
Kevin Slavin [00:58:47] – Okay, it’s true we do, but also we want to feel what it’s like to be connected in a limbic way, in a synchronized way. It’s the premise of theater. It’s one of the core ideas of theater, but the idea that we will be producing very, very high end live cultural events for the internet constantly feels like… Well yeah, that’s probably what you would do in the 21st Century but I don’t know ’cause nobody’s ever done that.
Craig Cannon [00:59:36] – No one’s doing it. We could talk about this infinitely about attention and the separation of mind and body in our work, but we’ve been going for almost an hour now and so I just wanted to wrap up with one question about you in particular. You’ve done so many interesting and seemingly different but connected things. Ten years from, what are you working toward to make Kevin better?
Kevin Slavin [01:00:03] – I hope 10 years from now I’m actually still here at The Shed. There were some things I liked okay about advertising, when I worked in advertising for eight years. There were a bunch of things I hated about it. There was one thing that I really loved and I was so afraid to leave advertising because I loved this thing so much and this thing was I had no idea what I was going to do tomorrow. You’d be working on some breakfast cereal account. This is a real thing that happened. You’re working on a breakfast cereal and you’re there until eight o’clock at night because advertising is hard and then you come in the next day and they’re like, “No, you know what, actually you’re on the F-22 fighter bomber.” It was like wow. Now I have to learn everything about fighter bombers and how people in Congress buy them. I thought when I left advertising I was going to give up on living a life in which everyday I’ve got to figure out something new that we’ve never figured out before. I think the projects and positions and even types of companies that I’ve been part of making, they all have that in common. I sort of don’t care what I’m doing in 10 years as long as I get to exercise that muscle. At a certain point I had to abandon the notion that I would ever have legitimate domain expertise in almost anything really. But if I could figure out how to work effectively and with real capabilities between everything as everything is arriving all at once that turns out to be valuable in the world which was surprising to me as an adult,
Kevin Slavin [01:02:16] – it turns out to be valuable in the world, and also it’s like I feel like as long as you’re doing something for the first time, you’re still young. In 10 years, I just want to feel young so that’s my long…
Craig Cannon [01:02:30] – We should just close it right there. Alright, thanks man. Alright, thanks for listening. As always, the video and transcript are at blog.ycombinator.com and if you a second, please subscribe and review the show. Alright, see you next week.