Golan Levin: Welcome back every­one, to the final pre­sen­ta­tion of our Friday after­noon ses­sion. There is of course a Friday evening ses­sion, which will start at 5:00 o’clock, I believe. But for now, it’s our great plea­sure to intro­duce Imin Yeh. 

Imin Yeh is an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary and project-based artist work­ing in sculp­ture, instal­la­tion, and par­tic­i­pa­to­ry events, espe­cial­ly involv­ing the inno­v­a­tive use of paper and print­ing. Imin is my col­league here at Carnegie Mellon, and she is cur­rent­ly an Assistant Professor at Carnegie Mellon University School of Art. Everyone, Imin Yeh.

Imin Yeh: Hi, thank you so much. So my name is Imin. I con­sid­er myself a project-based artist. I get sort of real­ly obsessed with mak­ing these very one-to-one paper repli­cas of dif­fer­ent objects I find in the world. And in this pre­sen­ta­tion I’m gonna talk about a cou­ple larg­er projects, as well as to give some insight about what it is that draws me to what­ev­er it is that I’m mak­ing a repli­ca of.

And so why paper? I think of paper as like that OG, like orig­i­nal tech­nol­o­gy that changed the world. So along with the devel­op­ment of the writ­ten lan­guage, paper, printing—and print­ing is my area of focus with­in CMU, those things were about humans want­i­ng to leave a record and leave their sto­ries and spread it to as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble. And there’s some­thing about that that’s unique to our species. A desire to com­mu­ni­cate with far beyond the imme­di­ate peo­ple in our vicin­i­ty. And so that is one of the main rea­sons why I’m so in love with paper and print­ing, this hum­ble mate­r­i­al that we now think of as…nothing. You know, a scrap piece of paper—we don’t even need it; we’re mov­ing to a post-paper world—is also the paper that is like the old­est record and the old­est archive of the entire sort of human story. 

So all of my sculp­tures are uni­fied by that they’re almost…you know 99.9% just paper, with dif­fer­ent meth­ods of print­ing, and are all hand­made. And so the small­est sculp­ture that I’ve ever made is the stinkbug. And I think a lot about scale, and how the small­est thing can take up space. So this was a copy of a stinkbug that actu­al­ly was in a white instal­la­tion of mine. And I had to make a copy of it, and it actu­al­ly trav­eled to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington DC, where I coerced my moth­er who’s a vol­un­teer there to put it in the collections. 

And the largest sculp­ture I’ve ever made is the seventeen-foot-long paper black I‑beam that matched anoth­er I‑beam that was in a gallery space here in Pittsburgh. And even though this is the largest sculp­ture I’ve ever made, and that these I‑beams actu­al­ly func­tion in the space to hold it up, nobody could see it. And so I spent the entire art open­ing pro­tect­ing the I‑beam from being smashed by all of the vis­i­tors. And so that’s sort of the the range of objects that I am in love with. 

I think maybe a sculp­ture that best illus­trates this idea of hum­ble things tak­ing up big­ger space and big­ger val­ue in the world is some­thing like this. This is the Pittsburgh Parking Chair, an idea that a chair if put in a cer­tain space can take the impor­tance of a car which has a clear val­ue and a clear usage fac­tor. And so I am real­ly inter­est­ed in the idea of usage and how val­ue is invest­ed by like, the sto­ry behind the object or the labor in mak­ing the object. 

Other things that real­ly sort of illus­trate that to me are elec­tri­cal con­duits and wires around build­ings and how peo­ple will paint them to hide them. That they have such a use but they’re not val­ued sort of like aes­thet­i­cal­ly in the space. So I love that. 

This is at the Asian Art Museum. They have arma­tures pro­tect­ing pre­cious ceram­ic work—and some­one’s job is to paint them so they dis­ap­pear and that you can’t see them—from earth­quakes, and I love that func­tion, right. Like the func­tion of some­thing ver­sus the lack of func­tion of art is inter­est­ing. I wish my art was as good as this paint­ed armature. 

When I look at art and pho­tos of art in muse­ums or on Instagram on peo­ple’s web sites, I can’t help but notice that shar­ing the space often are out­lets. And this idea that again the out­let is so ubiq­ui­tous and so nec­es­sary. It’s part of build­ing code, it’s the only way that we can charge things and light things up and have a space be use­ful. And it’s always sort of along­side these pre­cious art­works that don’t have a util­i­ty val­ue oth­er than like, cat­a­lysts to think­ing, or sort of for­mal objects to look at. And so once you start see­ing the out­lets you can’t stop see­ing them. 

An old­er work is Paper Phone Jack: A Sculpture For Not Working, which is a down­load­able project. I have a lot of down­load­able prac­tice, where peo­ple can down­load and make their own paper sculp­tures. So I love the phone jack in that it was a tech­nol­o­gy that was in every sin­gle house and every build­ing and now is rarely used. And so there’s these like ves­ti­gial objects in walls. 

And my love of out­lets even­tu­al­ly bled into this idea that every­one needs an iPhone charg­er and that we’re so sort of con­nect­ed to these devices and we need to be charged, which built up into this large instal­la­tion of about 300 paper out­lets and iPhone charg­ers. And my big excit­ing news with this is that this is actu­al­ly a com­mis­sion for the Facebook Oculus build­ing here in Pittsburgh. And so this build­ing that is made to sort of…a think tank of cre­at­ing the cut­ting edge sort of tech­nol­o­gy on vir­tu­al real­i­ty and aug­ment­ed real­i­ty is actu­al­ly host­ing all of these sort of use­less outlets. 

And then final­ly, the biggest excit­ing point of that is that they had to put a sign up on the space to urge their staff to not charge any­where near the art. So I love the use­ful­ness, becom­ing unuse­ful, becom­ing valu­able because of the labor becom­ing art. 

And of course a friend of mine’s daugh­ter loved the sculp­ture and decid­ed to make this paper lap­top, out­let, and exter­nal hard dri­ve as a gift. And we end­ed up doing a trade, where I trad­ed her one of the sculp­tures. And that is sort of my last point with paper, that it is the mate­r­i­al of child­hood. That chil­dren just make what they want. And that imag­i­na­tion and play is so exciting. 

So one of the first works I ever did in this way of think­ing is a make-your-own down­load­able paper mahjong set. So you can build this set entire­ly for free if you down­load the PDF. And com­mit your­self to thir­ty or forty hours of mak­ing. The idea being that the val­ue is entire­ly in your labor. 

And this project is over a decade old, but just a few months ago a young man in India actu­al­ly emailed me dur­ing quar­an­tine. He saw the paper mahjong project online, and he has been real­ly inter­est­ed in learn­ing how to play mahjong, unable to find it in his town, found my web site, found the PDF down­load it, and made it. And sent me this email and sent me all these pic­tures of how this PDF became an actu­al set in his home. 

And so this is his built set. And that’s him. So that was a lit­tle bit of mag­ic of this idea of play and exchange, and just putting these files out there into the world. 

Another recent project is at CMU in the stor­age clos­et in the print­mak­ing area I found this film­strip box set. Now this box set is two film­strips and two cas­settes about paper and print­ing. It was pub­lished in 1983. The uni­ver­si­ty bought in 1987. And they spent almost $200 on this box set and it was nev­er used. I mean, the cas­settes were wound so tight, the film can­is­ters weren’t open. It even includ­ed the orig­i­nal receipt. And I was so tick­led by this because I love archive his­to­ry, obvi­ous­ly I love books, and I love that moment where in tech­nol­o­gy where they thought like, the film­strip is gonna be this inno­v­a­tive way where we can talk about paper and print­ing and not in this bor­ing book way but in this excit­ing like, mul­ti­me­dia way and you had to have all this oth­er equip­ment to share the infor­ma­tion. And so I knew I had to make a paper copy of this, and I got invit­ed to do a res­i­den­cy at Women’s Studio Workshop to pro­duce this into a large-edition artist’s book. 

And to do it I used every sin­gle tool in the print­mak­ing trade. So there’s sil­ver foil emboss­ing, there’s hand­made paper to look like foam that was die-cut on a let­ter­press, hand-built foam inserts. 

Each cas­sette was built by hand, screen­print­ed with the labels. 

Copies of the film can­is­ters. I had to make a copy of this beau­ti­ful receipt. So actu­al­ly each of the dot matrix paper is like, hand-perforated and the holes are cut. 

And this is the final box set. You can see the orig­i­nal on the left and my artist’s book on the right. And because it’s an artist’s book there was a lot of pres­sure to like, make it actu­al­ly a book, and so I decid­ed to try to actu­al­ly glean the infor­ma­tion off the orig­i­nal filmstrip. 

And to do that, all of these old boom box­es had to be dragged up from the base­ment of this art cen­ter, and huge amounts of double‑D bat­ter­ies were involved. So we even­tu­al­ly played the tapes and tran­scribed them. They eBay’d this old film pro­jec­tor in order to project the film, and set up a DSLR cam­era to doc­u­ment the slides. 

And so with the images from the film about paper and the audio from the film on paper, I built it into an artist’s book that basi­cal­ly is just the entire pre­sen­ta­tion into a book form. 

And because this whole thing is an artist’s book, what’s excit­ing to me is that it’s actu­al­ly being col­lect­ed back into libraries and spe­cial col­lec­tions, rare art book rooms. So this is the the search engine at the Hunt Library here at CMU. And I love the idea of these things get­ting to exist as sculp­tures to look at and then pre­served and pro­tect­ed and cared for as archived spe­cial objects that were just dis­card­ed and for­got­ten about.

And then of course because this beau­ti­ful film pro­jec­tor is so extreme­ly good-looking and I’m very obsessed with the mechan­i­cal indus­tri­al age of tech­nol­o­gy, because there were still like knobs and gears and you could still real­ly see how it works, I had to make this out of paper. And so a few shots of my process, which is all just hand-tailored pieces, often using sort of screen­print­ing for the graph­ics and text. 

Building all the knobs. And the final sculp­ture. And I do think a lot about as our tech­nol­o­gy becomes more dig­i­tal and more nano and micro and how uncom­pli­cat­ed they are as objects, will they make not as inter­est­ing of a sculp­ture. Open-ended ques­tion for the discussion. 

Okay. So the last project I want­ed to share today is a project that was spon­sored by the STUDIO here. It’s The Making of the World’s First Paper Facsimile of the World’s Oldest Blue LED

So I did a res­i­den­cy at the Sarnoff Collection, which is RCA’s cor­po­rate archive. And what you’re look­ing at here is the world’s first blue LED, a pro­to­type made in 1972 by Herbert Paul Maruska. And it was the first time that some­one was able to get the light to glow blue. I knew I had to make a copy of this because it was such a hand­made prototype. 

This is a lit­tle pic­ture from the archive, Will the blue LED ever make Maruska a rich man?” Before this inven­tion could real­ly take off, RCA went bank­rupt, closed down, they did­n’t con­tin­ue sup­port­ing this inven­tion. And the momen­tum behind this dis­ap­peared. And it was­n’t until the 1990s where a trio of Japanese engi­neers designed an LED light that would ulti­mate­ly win them the Noble Nobel Prize in physics just a few years ago. But they all cite Maruska as the orig­i­nal inven­tor of the blue LED

So in order to make this, the cura­tor at the Sarnoff Collection sent me pic­tures of the machine and also a won­der­ful draw­ing of all of the dimen­sions of the blue LED

This is my first paper pro­to­type. I got to play with con­duc­tive screen­print­ing inks to see if I could pow­er the light with just a three-volt coin bat­tery. And this was the sort of final pro­to­type that it could pow­er from just a small bat­tery as a portable sculpture. 

But I had an inter­est in build­ing it into a much larg­er sculp­ture, one that uti­lized some pro­gram­ming in order to blink the light in Morse code in order to sort of speak a sto­ry, an inter­est to sort of make sort of a far big­ger impact, maybe than this small­er, sin­gle sculp­ture. And with var­ied results. So here are some pic­tures of the attempt­ing to make that sculpture. 

So lots of paper screws, paper knobs, hand-drawn mask­ing tape arrows. 

Ultimately build­ing about six­ty of these sculp­tures. In order to make them be pro­gram­ma­ble with Morse code, I had to hard-wire in these Arduino Nanos to code the lights. Which I’ve nev­er done. 

So here’s all of the wired sculp­tures. To pow­er the Nanos, I need­ed elec­tric­i­ty, which is some­thing that as you know with the out­lets I don’t often engage with. And because there was hard­wires and elec­tric­i­ty, then I need­ed to build a shelf in order to hide the cords. And I was not very good at sol­der­ing so there was a lot of sol­der­ing in the gallery.

And final­ly the work…works, and the lights would blink in Morse code. And in order to ship them or car­ry them I had to build these cus­tom box­es. And final­ly the final piece in the exhibition. 

So what you’re look­ing at is about six­ty copies of the blue LED, each pro­gramed to speak one let­ter in Morse code. And what they spell is a famous quote by David Sarnoff, the chair­man of RCA at the time, which was, Competition brings out the best in prod­ucts and the worst in peo­ple.” And I think so much about that quote in my own prac­tice in that I want to do the oppo­site. I want to make real­ly bad prod­ucts that don’t do any­thing, that don’t have any func­tion, but maybe are the best in the human abil­i­ty to make by hand or to cre­ate. So this is like my anti-quote. 

But all this to say all of that work with the sol­der­ing and the elec­tric­i­ty, I took the orig­i­nal pro­to­type that was just pow­ered by a three-volt bat­tery, brought it back to the muse­um, placed it on the shelf next to the orig­i­nal blue LED light, and it even­tu­al­ly just lost its juice and togeth­er they were just two lights that once shined blue. And I do think in that sim­ple ges­ture of the one-to-one and just the giv­ing back, the work is at its strongest.

We’re gonna watch a short .

Because I make mul­ti­ples and because a part of my prac­tice is always about shar­ing, I end­ed up send­ing that light back to Herbert in Florida. And he wrote back Dear Professor Yeh, what a pleas­ant sur­prise the oth­er day when the post­man deliv­ered your box. I’m hap­py to report that the paper repli­ca arrived in per­fect con­di­tion and now sits on a shelf in my office. It is an exact repli­ca of the original.”

So I think that that idea of a gift, of the one-to-one, of the copy that is worth pre­serv­ing even though has no more func­tion, is some of the mag­ic in my work. And in that ges­ture, I always have a gift at the end of my pre­sen­ta­tion. So a brand new sculp­ture for every­one here. It’s avail­able in the zine as part of the fes­ti­val’s down­load­able give­aways and also on my web site. This is a paper watch copy of an illus­tra­tion from a 1981 Byte mag­a­zine cov­er of a future com­put­er wrist com­put­er. And so on the right is the paper sculp­ture. On the zine and also on my web site you can down­load the pat­tern and the bits in order to make the watch. You can see on my web site I have a whole series of down­load­able art projects which I would love to share with you all and I always love DM images of sculp­tures being made. 

And then I’m gonna just quick­ly show you that it’s a real watch in real life. And you can just slap it right there on your wrist and try not to do any­thing all day. Cause you break it. And that’s it. 

Golan Levin: Imin, thank you so much for the present of the down­load­able watch that is in our zine. It’s on the cov­er of our zine and if you folks go to the con­fer­ence web site under zine,” you’ll see Imin’s page where you can print it out and cut it, put it together. 

Imin, we have a lot of real­ly great ques­tions com­ing up on deck here. I per­son­al­ly love and real­ly admire how your work is in dia­logue with tech­nol­o­gy and how there’s a kind of alchem­i­cal qual­i­ty to the hand-making of these things. That mak­ing some­thing that’s seem­ing­ly banal like an elec­tri­cal out­let or an iPhone charg­er becomes kind of imbued with some­thing incred­i­bly spe­cial because of your labor and it’s sud­den­ly remark­able when you make it by hand as opposed to it being in some factory. 

One ques­tion is how does mak­ing this kind of work affect your own rela­tion­ship to these pieces of tech­nol­o­gy that you’re recre­at­ing? Like, do you feel like you have a clos­er rela­tion­ship to them because you know them so inti­mate­ly, or is there an ele­ment of crit­i­cal­i­ty in remak­ing them in such a use­less way?

Imin Yeh: Yeah. I think a lit­tle bit of both. But the big thing with the paper film was every­one’s like, Did you watch the film?” I’m like I don’t care about the film. You know, I cared about the foam, you know. And this receipt that some­how made it through like, almost forty years. And the same thing with that film pro­jec­tor. I guess I think it’s such a beau­ti­ful for­mal object. And in the paper ver­sion that’s a dis­play thing, you know. And so it’s like a fetishiz­ing of the indus­tri­al design of it, the his­to­ry of it. 

But then once I make the paper copy I almost don’t care about the orig­i­nal, which is like a dan­ger­ous thing. But I start­ed my pre­sen­ta­tion with that 3.5 flop­py disk. And then I’ll show it here… 

And this is exact­ly to mea­sure­ment. But I love this, that like some­how Tucker kept his flop­py disk for like thirty-some years and found it in a draw­er. And so I wrote to him, I was like, I’ll make you a paper one as art and then you won’t be a weirdo keep­ing tech­nol­o­gy that does­n’t work any­more but you can keep it as a sculp­ture.” And so I think that kind of gets to the sense of humor with it, or just the love of the object but not the use­ful­ness that it has. I guess.

Levin: Another cou­ple of ques­tions, one of which is could you talk more about the instructable, for lack of a bet­ter word, aspect of your work, or the inter­ac­tive aspect. The pub­lish­ing of the tem­plates so that peo­ple could make it them­selves. The shar­ing the mak­ing, what led you to that. I mean, you start­ed mak­ing these beau­ti­ful things your­self and then sud­den­ly you’re pub­lish­ing them so that peo­ple can make them themselves. What led to that shift and how’s that sort of change your think­ing about your practice?

Yeh: Sure. Well actu­al­ly the mahjong set is basi­cal­ly the first paper sculp­ture I ever made, and the orig­i­nal idea was always that it was a down­load­able ver­sion, right. So it was always like yeah you want an orig­i­nal, hand­made, authen­tic, real mahjong set? Then make it your­self. And the prac­tice always exist­ed as a give­away. And then slow­ly kind of moved towards…you know, I got five years ago a chance to show that work at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. And then I made a fan­cy sculp­ture ver­sion. And now it exists where there’s sort of both hap­pen­ing at the same time. 

The down­load­able PDFs have been this idea that like what­ev­er job” you work, you can always steal some paper from the print­er. And so when I had more bor­ing office jobs I’d like, look up free…you know, there’s so many free craft projects out there and then you could just steal, skim a lit­tle paper off the copi­er and then make work. So I want­ed to make stuff so peo­ple could like not do work at work. So that’s that that impulse of the free. And I love—because there’s so much fan stuff and there’s a lot of fan art out there and there’s a lot of food objec— I like that these are real­ly kin­da use­less pat­tern— I mean like…is some­one real­ly gonna make 144 pieces, you know? And one of my favorite sculp­tures that’s a give­away is an orange peel, and it’s just this…you know, like an orange peel for the— I think it might be my best work. It’s like, it isn’t a paper­craft that you want to make, unless you want to make it. It’s a sculp­ture. It’s like an art­work, that’s a free papercraft.

Levin: What you’re say­ing con­nects to one of the ear­li­er speak­ers, Max Bittker, who said he makes things for peo­ple who are bored at work. And I think Evan Roth is anoth­er artist who’s talked about the sort of bored-at-work audience. 

The last ques­tion is, is there a machine you’d like to make in paper that you haven’t made yet? I know that the wrist­watch was one. But do you have one that you’re sort of like…you’re plot­ting because it’s even more preposterous?

Yeh: There’s so many. I got a tour of the serv­er at the Carnegie Museum, like the base­ment serv­er. I’d love to do like… Those things are so beau­ti­ful with all the crazy cords and lights, and so I would just throw it out there that like that— I’d love…the iPhone thing was this impulse of scale, right. Like an every­day lit­tle thing at a scale that was so sort of…formal in its line and its shaped and its shad­ow. And there’s some­thing about that in like the hid­den tech­nol­o­gy that makes all of the stuff look vir­tu­al and wire­less and free. So that’s like a dream thing. It’s end­less, you know. All of these things are just like…I’m build­ing up my reper­toire of but­tons and knobs and cords. So I’m just more in shape for that opportunity.

Levin: For when you get the big com­mis­sion to repro­duce a serv­er rack with all those wires com­ing out. 

With that I need to con­clude this talk, and I’m just gonna give a quick lit­tle note to the audi­ence fol­low­ing about what’s hap­pen­ing this after­noon. At five o’clock, Leah Buechley and Nani Chacon will be pre­sent­ing. The pre­sen­ta­tion after that will be at six o’clock. If you did­n’t can’t it ear­li­er, unfor­tu­nate­ly Olivia McKayla Ross has had to can­cel. Something’s pulled her away. But we’ll see you at five o’clock for Leah Buechley and Nanibah Chacon. 

And Imin I want to thank you again so much and for all the speak­ers who were in this ses­sion, Ari Melenciano and Sarah Rosalena Brady, thanks every­one and we’ll see you at five.

Further Reference

Session page