Here students and teachers can explore the STEM concepts and skills found in the artists work. The STEM Concept tool provides a basic definition of a key concept in Science, Math or Engineering and suggests possible ways it has been applied or illustrated in each artist's work. It also includes artist tips and views on STEM for a personal perspective on the STEM + Art connections.

Hector Leiva
What is your name and where are you from? Tell us a little bit about yourself.

My name is Hector Leiva. I was born in Fairfax, Virginia. My father and mother are first generation immigrants from El Salvador and Chile respectively. I grew up in a bilingual house speaking Spanish and English. I've lived in Los Angeles and Baltimore, and currently reside in New York City.

Are you a digital native or digital immigrant?

Digital Native.

What is the purpose behind your ISEA2012 piece and what inspired you?

I came to my current project by a long and rough road of conclusions (if you can bear with me, this road is kinda bumpy). Initially I wanted to create a series of works about being raised as part of the "digital generation” or “millennials." I wanted to make the work about what it was like being a part of this generation whose identity was being molded by mass media. But, my graduate director Timothy Druckrey encouraged me to think about the bigger picture. What I believed was such an isolated issue in fact wasn’t isolated at all. Thinking about generational differences, I investigated why being a “millennial” was important to me. I realized it was because my generation, for the most part, was trained to work with computers from a very young age. More importantly, I wanted to know at what point in history technology really began to take off. Was it when the personal computer first became available? Was even further back, maybe when electricity was available for the first time? Was it when the first photo-camera was invented? Each question took me back further and further into time. I watched a lot of documentaries about the late 1800’s and early 1900's. I read books about the scientist Étienne-Jules Marey (he's now one of the most interesting scientists to me of all time) and the photographer Eadweard Muybridge, whose work is truly inspiring. The history of our modern technology is what fascinated me the most. I wanted to get to the basics of how things worked and how they came to be, because if I got to the core (really into the core) of how something is made, then I could begin to change it and make it my own. I didn't want to know which buttons on the camera did what, but what happens when I press the button? What moves inside the camera?

What do you hope an audience takes away from this piece? 

When people use my app, I wish for them to think of what may have happened where they are. If you are inside a school building, how many people have sat in the same desk you sit in now? How many have been inside the same classroom, learning the same material? If you are in a new building, or a new house, what memories are you making there? The places we walk by every day were once meaningful to someone, but we wouldn't know it without them there to tell us. My app is a way for someone to leave behind a memory that they believe is important, so that someone else can find it and understand the history of that place.

How is your medium or technique unique? How have you integrated, adapted or recombined STEM components to create something innovative?

The medium (being the iPhone) is new, but the act of recording and playing back sound goes back to the early 1900's and record players. Everyone is able to record sound now with their phones and computers, but my technique is putting limitations on the technology to make it more compelling. One limitation I made in my project is that you can't play someone's audio memory unless you are within 100 feet of where the memory was recorded. Technically, I could change the programming so that all the memories recorded by everyone would be available no matter where you were. However, I chose not to do this because the project is more interesting when people who want to listen have to go to the same place where the recorder stood. It is interesting to experience the same space the person who made the recording was seeing when they were recording their memory. When you maintain boundaries you've created, you start to explore your work within that boundary, which begins to make artwork interesting. Making rules for yourself can often lead to creative solutions that would not be found if you had infinite possible choices.

What would you suggest as a STEM activity or resource for a student that would like to explore the type of work that you do?

My project uses GPS positioning and recording sounds to talk about memories and spaces. In the past, artists didn't have as many resources available to them, but they created work about these same topics. Janet Cardiff ( is an artist who creates “Walks”. You put on a headset and walk around, either with an MP3 player or CD player, as she guides you through the museum or open space that she has already been through. All of the audio is pre-recorded to guide you through the space. During these walks she tells you a bit about her life and asks you questions about what you believe is true as you listen to her story. Her “Louisiana Walk” (1996) using a CD Player was quite elegant and beautiful: ( | as are her other walks. I suggest getting into understanding how machines function. Programming is becoming a necessary language to understand how the world is changing. But even more than a language, programming is the relationship that you have with the machine, which is you giving a set of instructions and waiting to see what the outcome is. Many times you get back errors that turn out to be very interesting. Open Processing ( is a website that has everything set-up to begin programming in a program called “Processing.” “Processing” was created with the idea of having artists use computer code to modify and set-up works of art. They made sure to make it easy (it looks harder than it actually is) to learn how the language works and get people going and creating their own interactive artworks. This is how I started with programming as well. This basic set-up ( can be modified and when you hit "Run", your code is up and running. Always feel free to change the numbers around, make up new equations, never fear "breaking" the machine - you can always go back to the original. Keep changing it until you get something you like.

Can you share your methods for brainstorming and how you get your ideas?

Whenever I have a big idea, I always make it clearer by breaking it down into smaller and smaller parts until I get to the core of the idea. Then I make artwork that fits that idea. Initially, I wanted to work with memory and the idea of spaces containing histories that we aren't aware of. Creating work about that big concept could go in an unlimited number of directions. To reduce that infinite number, I asked myself how I want people to experience the artwork. Do I want people hearing or seeing memories? Hearing a memory was more interesting to me because it caused people to use their imaginations to create an image of the space. Do I want people to physically visit spaces in order to hear the memories? Yes, because I want people to be active with my work and experiencing the space with multiple senses. Do I want people be able to push a button and record their own memories while they were there? That seemed even more interesting! I ask a lot of questions over and over in my mind about how others might experience the work, the core of the question always concerning memories and spaces.

Once you had your idea how did you approach the phase of designing and planning for its realization?

I knew from all my research that I wanted to take the concept of "walks" or audio tours and give people the ability to make their own. I didn't know exactly how I was going to do it, but I knew that this was what I wanted to do. The thing that helped me the most was literally drawing it out. I made several sketches in my sketchbook and finally made a simple diagram in Photoshop of what I wanted it to do. The diagram showed a person pressing a button on a device, talking into that device, and then pressing another button to send the audio to a computer that would store it. Then, the drawing showed someone else with the same box, being notified of the other person’s audio recording, and listening to it with headphones. That was it in a nutshell. No actual devices were identified, just ideas and how they would relate to one another without focusing on the details. At that point I had no idea what the device was or what type of buttons people would push. The bigger looming problem was, how would anyone know a memory is nearby? All of this I tried to figure out while I was prototyping my design.

Did you build a model or prototype for this piece? if so, how did you decide what to make it out of and can you describe the process?

Before I decided to make the app for the iPhone I was prototyping everything on an Ardunio ( Physically working things out with a GPS module allowed me to see how everything worked at a very basic level. I combined a few Arduino shields together (one that would play audio, one that would track my GPS location) and it looked like a small shoebox filled with electronic equipment. It was somewhat of an inexpensive way to prototype, but the best thing was that the Arduinos let me prototype my idea very quickly. Getting any idea up and running in whatever form is the most important part, even if it doesn't look so pretty. The code could always be shorter, the electronics can be made to process faster, the cases made to look better, etc.. but getting the first working prototype is the most difficult part.

Did this piece require doing research and if so can you share why it is important and how you go about it? Is there any advice you can offer about this phase?

Different types of research helped me figure out how to create this work. First I did technical research of which types of equipment I could use that would process GPS data, record and playback sound. I asked a lot of professors and friends who were working in the same field of interactive artwork for guidance. They all pointed me in different directions (Arduino, making an iPhone app, automated answering machines) and I went ahead and did a lot of Google searching on my own as to how these specific pieces of technology could help execute my work. Then there was the philosophical research, which is an important part in creating my artwork as well. It is important to be sensitive to what other artists have already done in the past and what other artists in other fields have done. These sources can come from unlikely places such as poetry, scientific papers, films, video games, etc.... A book I'm currently reading is called "Gramophone, Film, Typewriter." In this book is a poem about the horrors of poets losing their voices with the introduction of the typewriter. Before the typewriter, handwriting was so fluid and personal, and then all of that was replaced by the letters of a machine. I keep that thought in my head as I continue onward with my art making. All these aspects are important in research because in the end it is the artist's mind that creates these connections to make the work what it is. Using the latest and most advanced pieces of technology do not make for especially fantastic pieces of art if there is no consideration for history or emotion.

How did you test and evaluate your design? For example, did it work the first time or were there many versions before the final one? Do you have standard ways of testing your work?

The Arduino was the first thing that helped me prototype a physical working module of my idea. I configured many versions of the Arduino and rewrote the code many, many times before it worked out. As I was finally completing this Arduino prototype, I realized keeping the project up and running was going to require a lot of supervision. Initially I was planning on building six units, but then certain issues came to mind. "How would I be sure that everyone would bring the units back if they took them outside the gallery to record?" "What if the machine breaks?" "How easily could I reproduce another one?" "Would people have to wait in line if more than six people wanted to try it out at once?" So many issues came up with having a completely custom built GPS/Audio recorder that I had to rethink the machine entirely. By that time, I had already spent around two months learning how to code for the Arduino. In that time, I learned that when making successful interactive artwork, simplicity is key. Handing someone a box with unknown electronics inside to record a private memory and then return it wasn't user-friendly. I had a discussion with James Rouvelle, a professor of Interactive Media at the Maryland Institute College of Art, (MICA) about my concerns and he simply pointed out that the Arduino wasn't powerful enough to do all of these functions successfully anyways. He suggested that I "level-up" and start thinking of machines that were more powerful. He mentioned that iPhones are incredibly powerful pocket computers with GPS that many people have access to. Of course, then I had to learn how to program for the iPhone, which is an entirely different story.

The test and evaluate phase is where we confront our limitations and “failures”. Often we prefer not to talk about them because we are encouraged to only talk about our successes. What can you share with students about the process of “success and failure” that emerges in the test and evaluation phase?

Throughout this process I tried too hard to make sure that what I had working was 100% operational before asking other people to test it out. Eventually I came to the conclusion (as hard as it is) that whatever I end up creating won't be perfect. Speaking to people about my project when I felt that I’d hit a hard turn was great technique that kept me thinking about the bigger picture. I never wanted to lose the bigger picture.

What criteria did you use to evaluate your piece, or your work in general?

I evaluate my work in general against my core idea that I was aiming for and how far I went from that starting step. The biggest accomplishment I’ve had was an internal one-- how much I’ve grown as an artist by working with my own idea for such a long period of time. I started with the intention to create an artwork about memory and place and ended up with all this knowledge about iPhones, Arduinos, programming in general, about how people throughout history attempted to record and playback sounds, and artists that deal with the subject of memory. The more I try and understand the world through my work, the more I feel fulfilled as an artist.

What do you get from sharing your work with others? This question addresses the greater question of why we create art in the first place? What is its role in society? Why is it important for us to create and share art?

Ideas are what give artwork its power. To share ideas with one another is to create a greater sense of understanding of our world. This place that we all exist in has so much to offer us and it takes time for us to understand. Art is a way for us as humans to help each other connect on a deeper level to try and understand what is beyond our comprehension.

Did you have to collaborate to realize this piece? If so why? Is there anything you would like to share about the collaboration process?

To make my work, I collaborated with others in a few different ways. As I was working with programming on the iPhone, I ran into a lot of roadblocks and errors that I knew other people had encountered. Going to forums and looking up other people’s solutions was a collaboration process of a bigger sort, that got through a lot of the small details. When it came to the bigger roadblocks I was able to ask my fellow members at the Baltimore Node and over e-mail correspondences they were able to get me back on track. They never gave me any answers directly because they wanted me to learn by myself how to solve the issues.

Is there anything else about your creative process that you would like to share? Perhaps we missed an important part of your creative process.

It is never an easy process. Even now the idea of working with science/technology/art together is still a difficult concept for the general audience to accept. My recommendation is to always continue onward and explore. If you find yourself having created something that doesn’t quite match what you intended to do, but you find it interesting, follow that interest. Computers and programming aren’t as rigid as they seem. Computers and programming code have ways of reacting in unfamiliar ways, this is true especially when you create “errors”. Errors are always very interesting.

Do you come from a STEM background or an Arts background? What is the STEM skill or concept that inspired or formed this piece, or your work in general?

I hold degrees in fine art, but I’ve always been interested in modifying computers and learning more about technology and the relationships between networking systems and people. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I began to learn how to program for my artwork. I had for the longest time thought that it was too difficult or outside my expertise to understand any type of programming. As an artist that uses programming in his work, I learn the bare essentials in programming in order to get my idea off the ground. To learn every single facet of programming will not only take a long time, but probably isn’t necessary to carry out your idea.

Has working with science and technology improved your professional career or life and if so how?

In the working world now, it is difficult to get a job that doesn’t recommend having some computer skills. Having worked a lot of different technology jobs, it is my impression that every industry needs curious individuals who are not afraid of working with systems. When I say “systems,” I mean a number of things-- the way people work with one another, stock market exchange, internet protocols. In general understanding systems is understanding how things work with one another. The people most able to gain better employment opportunities are those who are adaptable, take risks, and above all, are curious of the world around them.

What was your experience with STEM in middle and high school and what would you change if you could?

I wished that in my middle-school, there were more options for after-school opportunities to continue any sort of applied sciences. Too much of the time there was an emphasis on learning the basic material without the ability to recreate what we’ve learned in a more practical real-world example. I think a bigger issue is having standardized testing in school systems that forces the teacher to teach towards the test and not towards what is actually interesting for the students.

How has your creative work influenced your use of technology and/or how has technology changed how you work or the pieces you make?

My work has made me see that technology and networking systems aren’t as binary as they seem. We see this all the time with what we are all aware of called “computer errors”, which I often find to be very interesting. Seeing a machine able to make mistakes makes me think that “Yes, computers are tools made by humans for humans” and makes me feel not overburdened by technology. I want to learn more about the tool and how it works rather than feel powerless because it is this big machine system that will go over my head. It won’t go over your head if you spend some time with it, and you end up learning about the nature of the machine itself.

Can you share any differences and/or similarities between artistic and scientific creativity that you may have personally explored by uniquely merging the two in your work? Or you may choose to share the more general question of what the arts and sciences have in common, or differ?

There doesn’t seem to me to be any difference between the arts and the sciences, only different perspectives. I believe that science and the arts aim to explain the unknown. The sciences wish to create answers and theories and test them to see if they are true, but also create more questions in the process. Artists do the same thing with their own methods and conclusions. Both fields aim for a greater understanding of the world while never wanting to present a definitive answer, because claiming to have an answer would be a disservice. Scientists will always want to question their own theories, and when presented with enough evidence they will make a more accurate conclusion. Artists investigate the world in their own manner and create artworks that affect their own conclusions as well. Both fields work towards a greater understanding of the universe and of humanity.

How do you think artists can benefit from science / scientists? and/or visa versa, how do you think scientists/science can benefit from artistic creativity?

People from both field can benefit each other because of the different perspectives they bring to the same problem. A better understanding of the world is created by attempting to view it from as many different perspectives as possible. A few years ago I was a teaching assistant for a video class. It was an interesting class because it had students from completely different majors from two different universities. Their majors ranged from sculpture to microbiology, and they were all working in the same medium. Once they began to let their barriers down as to what constituted “art,” they presented their own interpretations of the assignments which ended up being one of the best classes I’ve been a part of. Their work ranged from: Having all the computers in the classroom speaking to one another in ancient Egyptian, a film about the lifecycle of a microorganism using time-lapse photography, and a TV projection screen that was built on rollers that would move on its own back and forth changing how the image looked.

Do you think the arts are as important as science? If so why, if not why not?

Yes, I believe in their importances being equal because both fields are about questioning every aspect of reality. They provide answers and even more questions to humanity because this is what drives us as human beings, our curiosity of the unknown and attempting to understand.