Emily Eifler
  • Years in Tech

    2

  • Current Role

    VR Reseacher

  • Place of Origin

    Colorado Springs, CO

  • Interview Date

    February 23, 2016

Im 30, female, and disabled from a brain injury cause by gas poisoning when I was 10. Im an artist working as a VR researcher right now but I have also worked as a dancer and at architecture firms and for the exploratorium.

Why don’t we start from the very beginning. Tell me about your early years and where you come from.

I’m from Colorado. I grew up in Colorado Springs.

My mom is a doctor and a single mom. How do I describe my upbringing? Colorado Springs is famous for like “Focus on the Family” and super conservative Christians. But I wasn’t exposed to any of that, I just had my mom, her medical practice, and all her doctor friends. The problem with this question is that I got poisoned as a child, so I don’t remember anything from before probably thirteen. I have forgotten most of my life actually, I found out recently my husband and I had a wedding that I don’t remember. There are pictures and everything.

Holy shit.

So my whole childhood is basically gone. My mom remembers, you can ask her if you want [laugh]. The primary answer to that question is I don’t know, because it’s gone, all that stuff is just gone. I know I have two brothers and a sister, but I don’t have a lot of anecdotal things from childhood, or even more recently, because it’s just not in my brain anymore. My memory, if you can call it that, is stored entirely in a combination of other people and various kinds of recordings.

I got poisoned as a child, so I don’t remember anything from before probably thirteen. I have forgotten most of my life actually, I found out recently my husband and I had a wedding that I don’t remember. There are pictures and everything.”

So, if you feel comfortable, what happened?

On my tenth birthday, my family­­ so my mom and my little brother, me and then I think two friends, I don’t know, some small group of people went to a hotel that had a pool to do ten-year-old birthday things.

And the hotel was negligent on their maintenance or something, I don’t remember. There was a lawsuit, I never read the findings, I was too young. So they were negligent and carbon monoxide and chlorine gas and some other gases leaked into the pool area, and my mom and my little brother and me and both my friends were poisoned. But my mom and I got the worst effects, we were poisoned the most. So, my mom and I went from being totally normal to having traumatic brain injuries, but by poison instead of war or football or whatever.

How did those injuries manifest in the early years, and how is it continuing to?

It has changed over the years. Gotten better and worse. I get attacks of uncontrollable shaking. My body is usually in pain. I get a ton of migraines, a fuck ton actually. My proprioception, which is like, the accurate sensation of where your body is in space, and the position you’re in is 80 percent gone which means my balance and walking have good and bad days. I am basically a grab bag of neurological issues: Alice in Wonderland Syndrome to Post-­traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s hard.

I seemed to improve slowly until I was in college, but then when my brain was under stress I got a bad relapse. So I guess my junior year in college I was all way back at the bottom. I couldn’t walk, I was having migraines everyday, I shook constantly. After that I was really bad for several years and I’ve been inching my way back out of that hole ever since.

What about your mom?

My mom, you would describe her as like a stroke victim. Even though that’s not what happened, that’s a thing people understand. She basically got a migraine for 8 years straight. She is doing much better now. Still dealing but better.

Wow. So you probably don’t remember but, as a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up­­?

My mom says I wanted to be a surgeon, which I am now like, “That is the most ridiculous thing I could have ever thought of.” But, of course that’s what I wanted to do. My mom was a doctor and her medical practice was very integrated into our lives so of course I wanted to do medicine. I think my initial “I’m going to college” was pre­-med, until I figured out about chemistry. I was like, “ugh, this is horrible.” Chemistry is the worst. Or at least that’s what I like to tell myself. That I had a choice, that I opted out instead of what really happened which is that I was forced out by my disability.

Did you have any idea at that time that you’d end up in Silicon Valley tech?

No. My BFA is in Theater, Film, and Television Production, so I thought I was going to go into Theater. But I got so sick at the end of school that all of my best laid plans were totally ruined. I was supposed to go work as an assistant stage manager in Tokyo. But I was too sick, there was no way I could take that job, or any job.

So walk me through the winding road that took you to VR.

So after college I was essentially on bed­rest for four years. I shouldn’t say bed­rest. I was home­bound for four years. Walking to the bathroom made me dizzy so I crawled kinda thing. So in that time, I started watching Art21, which is this contemporary art show made by PBS. It’s so fucking good. It’s a collection of artists talking about their work and their lives and their families and it changed my life.

I was laying there on the couch at 20 thinking that this painful bullshit was what the rest of my life was going to be like, and I decided, “Fuck it I’m gonna steal ideas from these people.” So I starting copying their work. Andrea Zittel and Ann Hamilton and Vija Celmins and Kara Walker. These women became my pantheon. Oh and Janine Antoni, Janine Antoni! She’s amazing! She’s from the Bahamas and she would place a tightrope right at the horizon and then she would walk across the tightrope on video and every time she took a step the line would just touch the horizon. So good. She also hand spun this huge rope with all these video tapes and clothes and just any material donated from her friends and family. Antoni made a rope so I made a rope. Zittel crocheted so I crocheted. Hamilton talked about social concepts in cloth so I talked about computational concepts in cloth.

I copied lots of work from Art21 because there was nothing else to do. It was just not what you want to happen right after you get out of college. Like, “I’m going to get an internship, and I’ll be out every night and­­—No. You’re going to lay in bed for four years and be bored.” That was basically the start of like, “I am an artist now.” The art was my entire life at that point, I guess it still is.

When I finally made my own work it was these brightly­-colored abstract crocheted sculptures the size of, ironically, the couch I’d been stuck on. I guess the first time I really showed anything was in 2009, with the Armory Show in New York.

“I was told my thesis work wasn’t art because I made a video game. It wasn’t even a game it was an interactive environment that addressed the contemporary way that we go about knowledge formation. They couldn’t see it. It was weird because I was interested in technology. The work that I was making before, the crochet, was about reenacting computational systems. But they had never seen that either, those works were talked about as “heroic women’s work”. It drove me crazy. The professors never could see crochet as data, as captured information in the shape of a linear thread. But I still graduated, so fuck them.”

*Just* the Armory? [laughter]

Yeah me and galleries have never been much of a thing. Then I used that work, and the credential of that show to apply to grad school. I went to the California College of the Arts over on Potrero Hill. That was the first time I was really out of the house everyday by myself in years. I was 24.

Some of it was great. I found a couple professors that were awesome.

It should come as no surprise that I did not fit in well at school. I had just spent 4 years alone with the exception of my boyfriend. I didn’t know how to human and I was learning to be disabled not just at home in a bubble of my own control but at the school, in classes, on the train etc. Once again I have very few anecdotes of grad school, what with my memory but I know it was both great and really stupid. I got really tough and focused because of school. I am a much better artist now, and I found one professor who I am friends with today who is brilliant and funny and really important to me. But because I wasn’t great at interacting with the other students, so they started calling me The Borg. They were like, “But it’s endearing because we like you,” and I’m like, “No, it’s socially separating and bullying.” But they never stopped.

I was told my thesis work wasn’t art because I made a video game. It wasn’t even a game it was an interactive environment that addressed the contemporary way that we go about knowledge formation. They couldn’t see it. It was weird because I was interested in technology. The work that I was making before, the crochet, was about reenacting computational systems. But they had never seen that either, those works were talked about as “heroic women’s work”. It drove me crazy. The professors never could see crochet as data, as captured information in the shape of a linear thread. But I still graduated, so fuck them.

So what happened after that? I got my first job. I was so proud of myself. I worked as an architectural assistant making drawings and writing their blog. I worked there until she couldn’t afford to pay me anymore. Then I started working for Axis dance company and they’re in Oakland and they’re physically integrated dance company and I worked there for almost two years, man, what I thought at the time was going to be a dream job turned out to be awful. Anyway I also wrote for KQED in there, writing about net art, the internet, and video games mostly, and I was doing a lot of both digital drawing and ink on paper which both turned into making gifs and prints and comic books. It was around that time, in 2013, I started making YouTube videos too. Again copying existing work I liked from Mike Rugnetta and PBS Idea Channel. Huh, twice now PBS has been foundational to my art.

The videos started as talking head style technology and cultural criticism pieces plastered with wild editing. It was a great way to restart with video. I had experience editing short films and features from college but the show, self-titled BlinkPopShift, also leaned hard on the writing and research skills I forged at grad school and KQED. It became a way to think across tech and culture and art and science the same way I had been exploring in my masters thesis, but now everyone, not just the limited pov’s of my professors, could see the result. Simultaneously I built a whole body of work exclusively on my phone, the Still Lives series, using a combination of photogrammetry and various gif making apps.

I became super immersed in Youtube so I went to Vidcon and met Mike Rugnetta and Vi Hart and Malia Moss who all turned out to amazing friends and collaborators. A few months later I got a call from Vi asking “Hey, do you think you could build a VR camera?” And I was like, “Yeah sure, I don’t see why not. That doesn’t seem that hard.” And I was right, I mean it took months of work and cameras melting and trial and error and math but I did it.

“A few months later I got a call from Vi asking “Hey, do you think you could build a VR camera?” And I was like, “Yeah sure, I don’t see why not. That doesn’t seem that hard.” And I was right, I mean it took months of work and cameras melting and trial and error and math but I did it.”

So you just… made a VR camera?

I mean, yeah. We, along with Andrea Hawksley, the three horsemen of eleVR, have been working on various projects in VR, AR, and mixed reality every since. Vi’d hired me to work at the then Communications Design Group, Alan Kay’s Research Lab at SAP. Working for an open lab is great because with no pressure to publish traditional papers, we can write up everything on our blog for anyone to read.

I have to say I was so happy when fully spherical, auto-stitching cameras came on the market and I didn’t have to actually build them by hand with a fucking hot glue gun anymore, which was fun but also so tedious. I focus on studying how immersion works and how aesthetic techniques communicate to viewers. Recently I’ve been building the foundation of spherical cinematography so I can use that knowledge when designing immersive web systems.

What excites you about that space?

Making hybrid reality projects where linkages are no longer limited to computers and screens. When I write or make art, I like to put stuff everywhere but computers in their current conception don’t allow for creative messes. Sure, you can barf icons all over your desktop, but that’s not a creative mess. It feels heavy and in need of “organization.” Good messes feed my creativity through serendipity and flexibility. But my physical messes don’t have search for when I know exactly which bit of red paper has to go on the collage next. That divide between the physical and the digital will close, ‘cause me and my vice grip say so.

But that also means taking seriously the considerations of what the body wants. Because like, we are not fingers with eyes and ear holes. The way we do knowledge creation has a lot to do with this flappy meat thing. We completely disregard its wants and needs and its ideas about the world for what, a touch screen? This is the most embodied form of computational media that we have? Pinch and zoom and swipe and tap? Gross. There’s so much touch you can’t get in the little rectangles we carry around everywhere, it drives me crazy.

When I write or make art, I like to put stuff everywhere but computers in their current conception don’t allow for creative messes. Sure, you can barf icons all over your desktop, but that’s not a creative mess. It feels heavy and in need of “organization.” Good messes feed my creativity through serendipity and flexibility. But my physical messes don’t have search for when I know exactly which bit of red paper has to go on the collage next. That divide between the physical and the digital will close, ‘cause me and my vice grip say so.”

What is it like straddling two worlds—art and tech—that often feel at odds with each other?

At work, I don’t feel at odds because like they specifically set up the lab for that kind of cross disciplinary flexibility. I am the most traditionally “visual art” person there, which I find funny since in grad school I was the most “tech” person, but being a weird inbetweener is kinda our thing at the lab. But when I’m out of my bubble it’s really hard because my work, and probably my personality too, is hard to parse as either or, as art or tech, as artist or researcher. A good example is that I don’t go to VR meetups any more. Everyone was too newness focused. There was no bubbling curiosity, no juicy conversation. It was just, sorry to say it but, a bunch of white dudes being boring. Ugh, tech Industry problems.

What are the biggest motivators behind your work?

I make art for two people, which people do not like to hear, but it’s true. I make sculpture for Steve Sedlmayr, my husband, who is such a fucking treasure, we’re 12 years this summer, and I make video for Vi Hart, who is one of my best friends and my boss. That’s it. The sculptural work is for him and the video work is for her. When I can make either of them tilt their head or think “What is that?” or smile or laugh or say “Yes. More please,” that’s winning.

There is definitely a subtle pressure from social media to care about a bigger audience and I do have a small audience online. Some people watch the videos online, and some people read the stuff that I publish, and that’s great but I don’t crave their opinions. For me, seeing Vi watch a video and afterward be like, “Damn!” That’s my chocolate sundae.

I am the most traditionally “visual art” person there, which I find funny since in grad school I was the most “tech” person, but being a weird inbetweener is kinda our thing at the lab. But when I’m out of my bubble it’s really hard because my work, and probably my personality too, is hard to parse as either or, as art or tech, as artist or researcher. A good example is that I don’t go to VR meetups any more. Everyone was too newness focused. There was no bubbling curiosity, no juicy conversation. It was just, sorry to say it but, a bunch of white dudes being boring.”

I think it’s like you’ve miraculously managed to achieve something that I’m just starting to achieve—the “art of giving no fucks.”

I think it’s absolutely pivotal—or giving exactly the right fucks. You’re going to give a fuck about someone’s opinion, but just give it to exactly the right ones. My husband, he is also an artist. He makes games now but he knows a lot about sculpture and is really interested in sculpture. Making a sculpture for him is so powerful and awesome and his feedback really pushes me. Don’t give no fucks, just give the right ones.

I love it. What are your thoughts on the state of tech in 2016, both the tech that you considered tech and the tech that a lot of people consider tech?

Tech is so confusing. What even is the technology industry? Are search engines and camera manufacturers and Crispr therapies and video games really in the same industry? I feel like we use “the tech industry” the same way people used to “big business.” What is that thing I hear over and over about Uber? “Uber is a taxi company, not a tech company.” Bakers with online delivery are still bakers. Podcasters with an app are still in the business of podcasting. Tech is just a lazy over simplification of the Bay Area’s $785.5 billion economy that makes it all the more frustrating for people like me to take my work out into the world. I’m not an academic and I don’t make a product… I make art to do research.

Condensing all these different companies into a thing we call the tech industry does gives us something to blame for the city’s problems. The industry is refusing to act as proactive stewards of the place where their employees live. It seems like a lot of money’s being made and not very many taxes are ending up in city coffers. There is clear evidence that private corporate bus lines do increase evictions near their bus stops. Rents are increasing along with poverty.

“Tech is so confusing. What even is the technology industry? Are search engines and camera manufacturers and Crispr therapies and video games really in the same industry? I feel like we use “the tech industry” the same way people used to “big business.” What is that thing I hear over and over about Uber? “Uber is a taxi company, not a tech company.” Bakers with online delivery are still bakers. Podcasters with an app are still in the business of podcasting. Tech is just a lazy over simplification of the Bay Area’s $785.5 billion economy that makes it all the more frustrating for people like me to take my work out into the world.”

Homelessness is intensifying as more people are flooding into the Bay Area chasing after those sweet, sweet jobs. Did you know 70% of the homeless population in San Francisco was housed in the last year? Along with all these changes fear mongering about the collapse of San Francisco’s weirdo based culture. Most people would say that I’m being naive, that corporations have no obligation to nurture the community in which they exist, but if you don’t do that—if you don’t support the community—then all you’re doing is going to Southeast Asia and cutting down the mangrove forests and planting palm trees so that you can get palm oil. There it looks like environmental destruction, here it looks like community destruction. We have to grow out of the self centered capitalism that disregards the larger systematic effects until disaster strikes. We have to take responsibility for that because we’re not heartless idiots who just stomp around the world with our big dumb America boots. I don’t want to be that kind of America.

Man. It is kind of wild to think that big tech is actually necessary for new innovation to survive long term.

Oh yeah, I totally agree but also like big tech is completely dependent on Chinese money, right? Like a lot of VC money comes from China and that’s fine. I’m not saying it shouldn’t come from China but if that’s going to be true, then you also need to take into consideration the health of the system of products and money and labor is there too. The whole system should be healthy, not just any individual part of it. Why is making as much money as possible still a thing? Who in their right mind is motivated by I want to make as much money as humanly possible. Why? It’s boring. Come on. Look I was raised by a woman who taught me that holistic world views were the only path to true equality, whether that’s in a body or a society, and I hold that as a core value to this day.

We have to grow out of the self centered capitalism that disregards the larger systematic effects until disaster strikes. We have to take responsibility for that because we’re not heartless idiots who just stomp around the world with our big dumb America boots. I don’t want to be that kind of America.”

Total side note, but maybe possibly related, I remember reading that you have received death threats for speaking your mind.

Oh yeah [chuckles] yeah, that was a problem. My team and I went to the first Oculus Connect, and there was an open panel, and it was being live streamed on the internet. And they were like, ”Anyone could come up and ask a question.” And there was 1% women at this conference and very few people of color and there were no female speakers and I was mad. So I went up and asked how they planned to prevent the clear race and gender biases of their conference and the industry as a whole from doing to VR what sexism and racism has done to video games.

And they answered it really poorly. It was so lame. But since I am female and it was live streamed that question turned into doxing, and death threats on 4chan and Reddit. We had to get our corporate security officer to intervene. It was scary. I hadn’t expected such an infantile response. I felt so naive. I’m still super naive, because I still assume that everyone wants everyone to be equal. Also, people who do death threats are so uncreative. I felt like they were just copy and pasting from Anita Sarkeesian‘s death threats.

I’m curious, are you able to give no fucks about that or­­…?

I don’t care.

That’s good.

Yeah but I have the ability not to care because of my privilege. 1. I’m white and cisgender and 2. I work for a place that can provide corporate security. Privilege means the death threats are less meaningful to me.

The whole system should be healthy, not just any individual part of it. Why is making as much money as possible still a thing? Who in their right mind is motivated by I want to make as much money as humanly possible. Why? It’s boring. Come on.”

How do you think tech could be more accommodating right now to a more diverse set of people?

I mean hire them? I love Ta­-Nehisi Coates’s phrase “People who believe themselves to be white…” so I would say people who believe themselves to be white should maybe consider people who do not believe themselves to be white. People always complain the lack of diversity is a pipeline issue which is such blame shifting horse shit. If you think of people like crude oil who can only reach your factory via a standardized and maintained pipeline then maybe you shouldn’t be a company. Or hire people who you perceive to be less qualified. Because your perceptions of someone’s lower qualifications are based on your own biases. Go around saying that you’re biased. Be like, ”Hello. I’m white, and I have white people bias.” No one is going to think that you’re a horrible, evil person by acknowledging the fact that you’re biased. Everybody is biased, just acknowledge it, and then build systems to make sure that it doesn’t affect the population of your company. Super simple things. When you have a varied population of employees, go to them and be like, ”Hi. How are we not helping you to do your best work? Please tell me? We are trying to do better.” Be a person with feelings and failings for fuck sake.

What advice would you have for someone who wants to do meaningful work in tech, but doesn’t know where to start?

Pretend like you can accomplish the thing that you want, and write about it as though it were an inevitability. Write about how the meaningful tech that you want to make is the most important thing in your whole life. Read those writings into a camera. Publishing all of it online. Repeat. Thinking publicly and meaningfully about what it means to use a computer, what it means to use your phone, what it means to use stuff that you want to exist in the future will not only hone your ideas but attract interested bees. Write up design documents for your fake thing. Make drawing of it. Research. Don’t make a product. Go to the library. Because that’s what I do. I don’t make a product. I don’t make technology, really. I make art. I think deeply about the stuff I make and I write about it in clear ways people can connect with.

People always complain the lack of diversity is a pipeline issue which is such blame shifting horse shit. If you think of people like crude oil who can only reach your factory via a standardized and maintained pipeline then maybe you shouldn’t be a company. Or hire people who you perceive to be less qualified. Because your perceptions of someone’s lower qualifications are based on your own biases. Go around saying that you’re biased. Be like, ‘Hello. I’m white, and I have white people bias.’ No one is going to think that you’re a horrible, evil person by acknowledging the fact that you’re biased. Everybody is biased, just acknowledge it, and then build systems to make sure that it doesn’t affect the population of your company. Super simple things. When you have a varied population of employees, go to them and be like, ‘Hi. How are we not helping you to do your best work? Please tell me? We are trying to do better.’ Be a person with feelings and failings for fuck sake.”