Second Lives — Maya Man, Artist and Programmer

I had the below conversation with Maya sometime during 2020, and as time likes to do, it slipped away. Revisiting this conversation in October 2021, about a full year after we had initially spoken, I’m struck by how ~deeply in conversation~ I am with Maya. I remember walking away from our summer chat in her apartment, which jumped from her work as a computer programmer and dancer, to our personal grievances with a life lived very online as an incredibly nourishing conversation. Maya is the coolest - she’s smart, talented, stylish, creative, and well spoken.

Maya is a dream candidate for this series’ original intention -- to celebrate and dive into the brains of people who allow themselves to be messy and multi-faceted in their careers and personal lives, where the boundaries are blurred and one inevitably blends into the other. What does it mean to be a human functioning within capitalism with multiple interests? How do they play together? How don’t they play together? How do you retain integrity in your passions while making progress?

I have since closed Ghost Vintage, which was the original place that these interviews lived, because I finally learned that you can’t do anything well if you’re doing too many things at once. Maintaining a vintage store alone no longer appealed to me, but the spirit of these conversations and the practice of taking portraits of people is something I want to continue, so we’ve re-packaged the series, so that it can continue to live on Second-Life Marketplace. I’m excited to share my conversation with Maya in this new way, which we are calling ‘Second Lives’; a celebration of being a complex creative human being with competing interests, and what it means to allow yourself to play and explore the parts of ourselves that are both polar opposites and in total harmony. I hope you enjoy. :)

Check out Maya's website here.


Second-Life Marketplace: What’s your name and what do you do?

Maya Man: I'm Maya Man. I am an artist, a computer programmer and a dancer, and my full-time role is at the Google Creative Lab as a technologist (Note: Maya left the Google Creative Lab in June and will be pursuing her MFA at UCLA's Design Media Arts program in the fall). My role at the Creative Lab is using code to prototype things quickly, or build websites to showcase an idea, or really whatever's needed to help bring different creative experiments to life. I studied Computer Science and Media Studies in school, and at first I thought, “Oh okay, everyone is becoming a software engineer. I’ll probably do something with Computer Science.” But then I realized there was this whole world of people that use code to make art or for design.

Second-Life Marketplace: It sounds like this kind of field is at the forefront of what art can explore in terms of medium!

Maya Man: Definitely. I really do see code as a tool. It's my medium, the way that paint and a paintbrush is for someone who's a painter. Growing up and when I started studying computer science, it really lived in my mind on one end of the spectrum that was opposite to art and design. I thought to myself, “Okay, I'm doing the STEM thing.” That was really different from what my mind saw art as, which was the traditional fine arts side of things.

And so it was really exciting for me to realize that there were people who were in the middle and genuinely interested in merging both sides that I didn't have to pick one. I also grew up dancing and that was a big part of my life. Realizing I could bring that into my technology work and into my artwork completely changed my life. Growing up, I thought that artists were all people who were really good at drawing. I didn’t know there was an existing world where people were making code based or more conceptual art.

Second-Life Marketplace: How did you merge dance and art into coding and technology?

Maya Man: Another big realization for me was that I can make whatever I truly want to make with the skills that I have now, and not just what other people are assigning me. It was actually very organic, because dance is my favorite thing in the world, so bringing that into what I was doing felt really natural.

More granularly, I started working with it through some computer vision experiments. First I tried using the Kinect camera, which does depth sensing and allowed me to get an image of my form moving on screen. I used code to create different visualizations around my body moving, which was really exciting! Since then I’ve experimented with a lot of different things, everything from a machine learning model that can detect where key points are on your body in an image to performing for a motion capture system in a studio. It's been really fun to bring that background into the work that I do.

Second-Life Marketplace: Are there things that you are interested in expressing through dance and code specifically?

Maya Man: A common thread through all of the work that I do is this idea of putting yourself on screen in terms of identity and performance, and the way that you translate an offline, fully experienced human person into pixels.

In a lot of ways, I’ve been performing a lot of my life. I would dance and be on stage, but the process of putting yourself on the internet is so complex in a different way. The way that we think about it is often warped and we can easily equate that to being the person when it's really an abstracted representation of a person -- the way that they want to be seen. When people are engaging with my work, I always want them to be questioning: “What really happens when we try to represent our multidimensional, offline selves on screen?

Second-Life Marketplace: I also think it's interesting because when we see other people online, we see them as, like you said, fragments of their real selves. At the same time, when you grow up on the internet, and express yourself and communicate and connect through that medium, there is a question of ‘what is the real self’. How much of us is shaped by the internet, and how much of the internet is shaped by us?

Maya Man: I don't see what I put online as totally separate from my offline self. Like you’re saying, there is this very reciprocal relationship between those two things.I put things online and I produce things for the internet, but at the same time, I'm constantly consuming things, and that's affecting the way I work and think and go about my day-to-day life.

I think of a Chrome Extension I made over a year ago that’s called ‘Glance Back’. Once a day at random, when you open a new tab in Chrome, it will take a picture of you really fast so you don't have time to fix your hair and look cute or anything. It just happens.

Second-Life Marketplace: It feels like we spend so much of our time being in this strange Twilight Zone in terms of how we’re experiencing emotion and then packaging emotion for other people to see.

Maya Man: I totally feel that, and I think as much as we want to feel like people are being completely authentic with what they put online, I don't really believe there is such a thing as true authenticity on the internet, because in some way you're always thinking about the audience.

I constantly feel like I spend too much time online unintentionally, and so I really value the intentional time that I spend on it, like when I’m doing research for a project or going on social media and seeing people that I admire or that I really care about, what they're doing with their lives, and what they're sharing.

Where it starts to feel more negative is when I feel this loss of control with the way that I interact with the online space. A lot of these platforms are intentionally designed in a way that's meant to optimize your screen time. That loss of control is frightening to me in some ways, and afterwards I always feel disappointed.

Second-Life Marketplace: Do you ever explore the idea of control in code or in dance? Code itself has its own rules and language, which is very controlled, but you're doing experiments with it that makes it spontaneous and almost like dance.

Maya Man: It is totally inherent to the way that coding works. I've always liked math and logic, so I think I find the process of coding really satisfying. I can tell the computer what I want to do and then hopefully it does exactly that.

With a project like Glance Back, part of the motivation was to interrupt myself in those moments when I'm online and suddenly regain control of my thoughts and feelings to have a moment of reflection. Even though I aspire to be able to do so without that kind of programmed interruption, I realized I need that frictionless interaction to happen for me, because I would love to suddenly in the middle of like scrolling on Twitter, stop myself and think, “How are you feeling right now?”

Second-Life Marketplace: How do you find your full-time role now? How does it affect your energy and interact with what you’re doing on the side?

Maya Man: I'm very lucky in that what I do at the Creative Lab is very similar in terms of the medium and the practice to what I like to do outside of my full-time role. I feel really lucky that I get to work with people in my full-time role who don't do what I do.

I get to work with a lot of filmmakers, designers, writers, producers, people who have experiences that are so different from mine that I can absorb and learn from, even if I'm the technologist doing the coding on a project. Seeing them do what they do helps me a lot outside of that role and on the personal projects that I make. It really helps me think about design and storytelling in a different way, so I think having that relationship is very important to me.

I feel really lucky because oftentimes as an engineer you're on a team of engineers working on a project, but at the lab I’ll usually be the only technologist working on a project with people who are doing something else on it. It keeps things really interesting.

Second-Life Marketplace: Do you see yourself pursuing the path of being an artist long-term?

Maya Man:I would love to work towards prioritizing being an artist. I love the work that I do right now, but the more deeply engaged I become with my own work, it feels hard to fully divide and spend my time. I think right now I’m making it work.

In the beginning, my career was focused on making a lot of things, because I would look at the portfolios of other people and be amazed that they've done so many projects. I was really focused on the pace of output in a way. I would love to be able to slow down and start to do less projects, but more conceptually based ones that are larger scale and more long-term.

Second-Life Marketplace: That must be hard to keep in mind when the pace of information is so fast now, and that we’re constantly tricked into thinking of our value lying in our productivity. How can you truly take the time you need to do less but better, if the perception on social media is that everyone else is moving at warp speed?

Maya Man: On the internet, all you're ever seeing is people's output and people being productive. because no one is sharing the in-between. In “How To Do Nothing” by Jenny Odell, she talks a lot about maintenance as a form of productivity.

That's something that we don't visibly see much on the internet. People are putting up things that are exciting, like launching something, or working on a new thing, changing their job. The visibility of just maintaining the work you've already done or the projects that are slower, but you care really deeply about, you don't see that as much online. By acknowledging that, I'm understanding that there's value in other forms of production. And there's so much to consume all the time!

Second-Life Marketplace: So much to consume. It's almost like Instagram can just be a live reel of people doing better than you! I’m constantly like, “How is everyone so successful?!”

Maya Man: Right. And I think so many people were probably thinking the same thing about you, like everyone is thinking about each other.

Second-Life Marketplace: If you could speak to yourself five years ago what would you say?

Maya Man: As someone who feels like they're walking this weird line between engineering and art, both are spaces where I think I’ve always felt the need to prove myself. When I was doing a project, I used to worry whether engineers would think it was technically impressive enough.

The realization that I can make something because I want to see it in the world, not because I think anyone else will be impressed by it or is expecting that of me, was really helpful and something I'm still working on. It would’ve been helpful for me to see that five years ago because that fear or expectation of judgment is very inhibiting.