Alex Chung – Interview

by | Sep 8, 2015

I’m always looking to share the experiences and knowledge entrepreneurs have when engaging with art. I truly believe that entrepreneurs and artists have many things in common. I was so grateful and excited when I had the opportunity to interview Alex Chung, founder of Giphy and longtime entrepreneur, about his experience working with the artist Paul Pfeiffer during seven on seven conferences.

The Artian: Alex, you participated in the 2013 edition of  Seven on Seven hosted by Rhizome. An event that brings artists and tech entrepreneurs to work together. You are a very successful tech entrepreneur and you also have strong ties to the art world: you studied design at Parsons, director at MTV on music videos, designed a TV for GE, and built ArtSpace discover this info, an online market for contemporary art.
What brought you to participate in 7X7?

Alex Chung: I was working at Betaworks as a Hacker in Residence and the goal was to put out one product in a 3-month term.  I think I went a bit out of control and put out 5 or 6 products, ie hacks.  It was a pretty fun and creative time where we really did treat technology as art.  John Borthwick the CEO of Betaworks is also on the board of Rhizome suggested that I participate on 7×7 and introduced me to Heather Cocoran the executive director at Rhizome who is the best person ever.  It was such an amazing opportunity.

Paul Pfeiffer (left) and Alex Chung (right) at Seven on Seven 2013. Photo: Ian Forster
Paul Pfeiffer (left) and Alex Chung (right) at Seven on Seven 2013. Photo: Ian Forster

TA: What you were expecting to see or experience while working with an artist?

AC: I had watched every 7×7 video ever made and found out there were one of two ways it could go.  You either fell in love or hate your artist.  Sometimes hate made better projects.  But anytime you bring two passionate people together something is going to happen.  I had gone to two different art schools and had lived with artists for many years so I was expecting it to be like it is every day in New York ie filled with crazy people, in a good way that is.

TA: What was a surprise for you to discover after this experience?

AC: Paul Pfeiffer was the biggest surprise.  It was like the celebrity episode and they picked me out of the audience, he was definitely on a different level.  He also showed me that deep analytical thought was not dead in contemporary art but was still at its heart which was rejuvenating.  He would probably have been one of the best technologists of his generation if he had gone that route.

TA: I listened to your conversation with Paul Pfeiffer and you mentioned how much you enjoyed your conversation with him and it was one of the best ones you had in years. It really resonates with me because I like spending hours speaking to artists and I encourage others to do the same – especially young business men and women.  I’m interested to know your thought in a wider aspect – Why do you think entrepreneurs should engage and have close relationships with art and artists?

AC: I believe artists and technologists are the same people just different mediums.  Technologists will spend hours in a dark room working on a computer alone, smelly, semi nonfunctional humans.  Artists do exactly the same in their studios.  In that sense anytime you’re able to talk with another artist/technologist working in different medium good things will happen, new ideas will be born, new mediums invented.  Entrepreneurs are the same as technologists and artists.  They have an idea that has to be fulfilled and race to quickly create this idea.  To have a good startup you need to have these conversations/collaborations between explorers.

As a sidenote, the typical startup is 2-4 founders.  The core functions needed for a startup to get off the ground are usually a business entrepreneur (CEO), technologist (CTO), designer (Creative Director/CPO).  So mixing business with technology with art is how you get a company off the ground.

TA: At one part in the video both you and Paul explained how you got to your conceptual idea of The Loop Function and you straight away transformed it into a business idea (Corporate training) which later you presented as I wonder, how do you think artists can be part of the entrepreneurial or business environment?

AC: Every good startup starts from a concept that is different than the status quo.  Artists are essential for this phase to explore the idea from a conceptual point of view without thinking about the design aspects.  We do this type of thinking a lot in technology as well where we solve the problem in pure theory without constraints.  Businesses should always have artists involved to keep pushing the boundaries of what can’t be done or thought of.  A perfect example is the relatively new field of video games.  Concept artists create visions of what can be done and thought of and engineers will make those visions a reality.  The same can be done for all industries.

TA: More and more research studies show that art will take an important role in our future. In its recent 2015 research Deloitte stated that future IT employees will need art in their lives to succeed in the job market. Art started from “nice to have” but becoming “must-have” – what in your opinion is the reason for this development?

AC: It’s a bit strange that computer science is generally taught in liberal arts but only until recently has technology been considered a humanist field.  Technology because it has been so new was always divorced from the human condition into a small beige box on your desk.  With the pervasiveness of computing and technology, we are seeing integration into every aspect of human life.  So it follows art will play a key role in the future of technology as a humanist medium.

TA: You are the founder of Giphy. What are the influences, tools, or others aspects you think Giphy suggests to artists?

AC: Visual language is still evolving.  We see it every day at Giphy.  The short-moving image is changing the language we use to communicate.  This new language is the newest tool we have for creating expression and meaning.  We’re just at the beginning too which is the exciting part, we need a lot more explorers.

TA: How do you see artists using Giphy? I read that many artists already using Giphy Do you think that we will see at some point an online Giphy Art Exhibition?

AC: Artists have always been core to Giphy.  We have a network of hundreds of artists, many of them our friends.  Giphy is not only a place for them to show their work to the world but also we get them freelance work via the Giphy Studio and are looking into more ways to help keep the community strong. So in a sense, is a 24/7 online art exhibition.  We also will be doing an offline art exhibition with printed gifs soon.

TA: In one video (below) you stated that the people who get into the startup world for money and fame shouldn’t enter, but those that enter for the art should – your advice was “Make it your artwork”. Can you elaborate more on that?

AC: 90+% or more of startups fail, that’s just a fact.  Having a successful startup is a long long shot.  If you’re doing it for money or fame most likely you’re going to fail and be disappointed or start heavily drinking.  If you’re doing it for art then it doesn’t matter if you fail or not because it’s for the love of the journey of the idea.  In that case, there is no failing there’s just not getting the bonuses of money and fame but that’s ok because you don’t care about that.

If you want to make a lot of money get into banking.  If you want to be famous get a reality tv show.  If you want to have a startup just love what you do and do that.

TA: Any last comments, tips, or suggestions?

AC: Send gifs!

Alex Chung and Paul Pfeiffer in Seven on Seven:

Seven on Seven 2013: Paul Pfeiffer + Alex Chung from Rhizome on Vimeo.

Alex Chung speaks about the art of startup:

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