VIVIANE EL KMATI
Folly Feast Lab creates visually-led immersive and interactive experiences to address present social and urban themes, co-founded by Viviane El Kmati and Yara Feghali.
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Yara Feghali: We are FollyFeastLab, and we create visually-led immersive and interactive experiences, to address present social and urban themes. Our studio is co-founded by Vivian El Kmaty and myself, Yara Feghali.
Viviane El Kmati: We try to use technology to speak in a human-centered way. We try to pick a specific urban context that we find extremely interesting or a subject that we've been dealing with. I think an example of this is in our recent research that has been around the Mediterranean Sea and specifically the E-waste.
YF: We have four main themes or different categories that we always work with. The first one is what Viviane just mentioned, the social one. It’s centered around people, social conditions, and social stories. We usually focus on the Middle East, because we are both Lebanese, and we feel that there's a lot to uncover and research there. The second is urban, and by urban, we mean that we use a real context. This is also why in our technologies, we use photogrammetry because we like to always be close to a physical reality. The third theme would be the technology of virtual reality; we work in VR. The last theme, I would say, is simulation. We use artificial intelligence and game engines to simulate different behaviors within these environments.
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You are both Lebanese, so did you know each other before moving to Los Angeles?
VEK: We did. We knew each other from university in Lebanon. We then went to Frankfurt to study. We both live in LA right now.
Were you both having the same conversations then as you are now, or has it changed over time?
VEK: I think it has changed. I think we have become much more socially involved than we were before. I think we still try to incorporate aesthetics and technology in our work, but I think we're more focused right now on the social impact of it, and this has been a big change.
YF: Since we moved to different places, where we had different education, it influenced the way we think about architecture. Coming to the US, and the last two or three years, have really influenced the way we focus our intention, as Viviane has said. It's the same tools and techniques that we have developed an interest for, but I think we have been focused on social problems centered around us, and from our background, the Mediterranean area.
Talk About Beirut
I would assume architecture in Beirut, for example, is very different from architecture in Los Angeles. Would you say that you are challenging the status quo of the traditional definition of an architect?
VEK: I think that we are. We both come from architectural backgrounds. I think Yara might still be a little bit more in this context. Yara deals a little bit more with architectural problems as in spatial problems, and I involve more technology to see how we can recreate experiences. Especially now, it fits perfectly with COVID because we usually try to recreate the physical experiences virtually, and ask, “How do you actually communicate with other people? How do you have a forum or an event, that's usually superphysical and has a specific space around, in VR?”
YF: It’s funny that you picked up on that, Ryan. I've never thought about how the work we do would be understood or will be interpreted as architecture back in Beirut, and I think it's really funny to think about because where we started is with this bizarre education of the engineer architect. We have a strong base, a strong core understanding of structure, mechanical, etc., but what we do today, is very far away from that, even though I think this main education influenced our whole path or the way we think about spaces.
VEK: I think it also helps us create systems, and inform how we design the systems for our worlds, how the circulation works in our environments, and how we bring energy into our environments. The way that we bring electricity, water, all of these, is mainly influenced by this, and we take this knowledge, and just push it further.
VEK: I think so. Even before the pandemic, it was more of an interest in trying to replicate it. I think now, it somehow has become crucial to replicate it. It became way more important because I want to have conversations with people. I still want to have this feedback, I want to have the society and create an empathy over related themes. I think that helps a lot, just to recreate this experience.
YF: Maybe it's like a test, like a fast forward, for living in a virtual space, and figure out what the benefits are and what the terrible sides are. This pandemic and remote teaching and learning, and remote working have challenged the idea of virtual space, and how one would inhabit and use this type of technology to pursue the same type of forum that we were doing before. For example, in a curriculum, we see that an old curriculum became suddenly extremely flexible, and we see the introduction of asynchronous and synchronous teaching. We understand different speeds of learning, technical classes have tutorials that are now uploaded online, anyone can watch on their own rhythm. I think there is flexibility and there is an adaptation of education to people's specific learning. Not everybody learns the same way, but everybody has the flexibility of learning at their own speed, of rewatching a tutorial many times, or being able to not always have to raise their hand. You can text and ‘drive’ and someone will answer you. There are a variety of means of communication, which allows for diversity in our students and our work environments so that everybody can express themselves through these different means.
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We are transitioning to this kind of asynchronous learning environment where people can come and go and learn at their own pace, or even repeat things over and over again, which seems fascinating. Yara, I know you're teaching at UCLA. Do you think this asynchronous aspect will stick around after the pandemic is over?
YF: I think some things that seem more practical to do via asynchronous and synchronous teaching would stick around. Even though before, we had in place the systems that allowed you to record the classes and leave them online for students to have access to, I think that technology felt different or felt other. Today, everyone is very comfortable with using all these different tools. I hope some of it will stay. I hope that we will learn something from this period, and we won’t go back to the way things were. Because of the way we teach now, I think there's more agency for students to decide their own path, to take more classes. The fact that, not only UCLA but a lot of different schools have their lectures online, means there’s more shared information. At the same time, for UCLA, which is a research school, it's really hard right now to access archiving places, because of COVID. I think there's a win and loss, but I hope that it has influenced the way we teach, but also that it influences the spaces we live in. It would influence the way we teach in a conceptual way too. Right now, for example, we're working with a simulation in our studio with Greg Lynn. We're working on how to rethink spaces for post-pandemic work, and this includes how to rethink different types of functions, from offices, to retail, to recreation and education, and how to rethink all these spaces with the new rules of a post-COVID-19 world. I think it influences not only the way we teach, but also what we teach and the content of what we teach. There's also a really important event that happened at the start of the pandemic, which is the rise of demand for social justice, which I think also has influenced the way we teach and the content we teach. It's super important. Hopefully, this diversity that we're seeing now really gets anchored even more in the program, and into what we teach and in the content.
I've been on reviews at the IDEAS campus for UCLA a couple of times, and what I find fascinating about it is that a lot of the research is practical in the sense that it could really transform society. What's interesting about this moment is that, instead of the institution creating something and projecting it out, the world has transitioned drastically, and now it's projecting back into the institution. Vivian, you are doing some R&D for Google for the built environment. Is that a counter aspect to what is happening in the academic context, that these kinds of corporate companies, and also the public, are transforming physical and digital spaces?
VEK: I agree. This is something I've been saying recently. I feel like 10 years ago, everything, like Facebook, came out of universities, but somehow it's shifting. I feel like right now it's corporations that are leading us to where the future is, and a lot of academia is trying to pick up. A lot of academics now are trying to use game engines; a lot of academics are trying to use cinematography methods. They're trying to use everything that's already in the professions and trying to incorporate it, which is a big shift, I would say. I think it's an interesting shift because it might say something about the way we teach. Corporations are listening more to the social aspect, more than academia is, and academics are still trying to follow up because they already have a curriculum set up. Maybe it’s easier for corporates. I'm not sure if I’m more with it or not, but I think it's something that's been happening recently, and it's interesting.
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Yara, I've been on a couple of your reviews at UCLA. What kind of techniques and software are you currently using in your courses?
YF: In my courses at UCLA, I use most of the tools that we use together in FollyFeastLab. We use game engines like Unity, and we work with artificial intelligence and machine learning. We use simulation to see the behaviors of different people in different environments. Last year, when we had the pleasure to have you at our review, we were also using photogrammetry. I would say that I bring to studio similar tools that we use in our practice, because I think these are contemporary and crucial tools for students to be acquainted with, and for them to start to understand and to see the limits and how they could be used in different ways. I always try to include in what I teach what we're doing in our practice, and what we believe in.