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Q&A with David Dobkin

Street sat down with Dean of the Faculty/computer science professor/amateur artist David Dobkin to chat aboutthe interplay between his mathematical background and his art, being self-trained within contemporary art and computer science communities, as well as the theme of creativity within both of these worlds. The Lewis Center for the Arts displayed his works of American Kitsch as an exhibition titled "Myself, I Think We Should Keep Collecting Titles," which closed last Friday.

DP: Before becoming a professor, you earned both a master’s degree and a doctorate in applied mathematics. How does your academic background influence your art?


DD: I’m not sure that it did at all, except that there’s a creative element to doing applied math or computer science, and there’s a creative element to doing art. It’s obviously different. Different results come, but they are both driven by curiosity.

DP: Do you consider your current research in computational geometry an extension of your art?

DD: I don’t think so. A lot of the research that I’ve done is more theoretical. It’s hard to tie that into the art, which is obviously very hands-on.

DP: Some students on campus tend to think of mathematics and its related fields as very technical subjects, somewhat devoid of creativity. How would you say creativity factors into your professional work?

DD: I can’t believe that anybody would think that mathematics is devoid of creativity. If that’s the case, we really need to educate people. Research in any field is about being creative, and the purpose of a university is to give people a route to be creative. Does much more technical mean that you can’t be creative?

DP: Does that creativity differ from what you feel when repurposing your collections of kitsch to form art?


DD: In a way no and in a way yes. I mean, in math we’re moving symbols around to get a pretty picture — a proof of a theorem or a derivation. When you write a computer program, you’re getting something to help you move symbols around. I think the art that’s in the show involves moving objects around to make them more interesting. In all cases, you start with atomic things that in and of themselves are not that interesting. If you just did math by sitting down with a piece of paper and writing a bunch of x’s and y’s and z’s, that’s not particularly interesting unless you can make a coherent story out of them. If you sit down with a jar full of Snapple lids and think of them as a jar full of Snapple lids, that’s not as interesting as making curtains out of them.

DP: You have previously identified as a student of American Kitsch. How does your artwork stem from and contribute to the movement?

DD: What I’ve done as a student of American Kitsch is created these collections. A lot of the show derives from having the materials that were necessary to have the show, and a lot of the show derives from figuring out how to show the materials. You might say it’s not very interesting — and I’d probably agree — to collect several hundred Snapple lids or several hundred empty rolls of toilet paper. But once you figure out how to show them, then it can get more interesting. On the other hand, you can’t figure out how to show them unless you’ve collected them.

DP: On the subject of artistic labels, do you identify as a member of the outsider movement as a self-taught artist?

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DD: I do.

DP: During the latter half of the 20th century, the established art community began to recognize the work of outside artists like Judith Scott. During the same period, various self-trained programmers began to find success in producing computers. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs come to mind. What are your thoughts on what prompted the celebration of these raw professionals, and why the two movements coincided?

DD: I think they are correlated in the sense that some of the movements in art, even in the early part of the 20th century, led to a certain kind of freedom that let a broader group of people play with art, that opened up the world for art hobbyists, as it were — in the same way that Billy Gates succeeded because there were hobbyist computers. Steve Jobs succeeded because there were integrated circuits that he could build things out of. In some sense, Bill Gates succeeded because Paul Allen appeared at his dorm room at Harvard with an Altair, and Steve Jobs succeeded because Steve Wozniak could get him the chips while working at HP to make a computer.

DP: How would you characterize both communities’ current acceptance of self-trained practitioners?

DD: I think that it’s obviously a good thing for that to —I wouldn’t necessarily say encouraged — but be tolerated and to judge things not on the degrees a person has but on their ability to do things. Now that said if I needed my appendix out …