Kickstarter founder Perry Chen on living in an increasingly complex world.


Kickstarter, a crowdfunding platform meant to turn ideas into reality, has spawned numerous success stories, among them a tiny cube for fidgeters, an independently produced album by an aspiring singer-songwriter, and a card game about exploding cats. Out of more than 50,000 projects that have been launched through the site, more than half are from the categories of art, film and music.

Perry Chen

It’s no surprise that the man behind it all, Perry Chen, is also an artist himself whose installations have been exhibited in New York and Berlin.

His works, which he prefers to call “projects,” are fascinated with the effects of technology on everyday life. An early piece, Virus (2001), featured the entire code of four notorious viruses: Stoned, Melissa, I Love You, and Michelangelo. The said computer viruses, created at the turn of the 21st century, were considered to be the most destructive of their time. They also became catalysts for creating increasingly sophisticated methods of protecting and encrypting personal data. Recent projects include Oscillation (2013), a single-video loop of a collapsing bridge, and an extensive 155-book research project on the Y2K bug in 2015.

“I think a lot of my projects are created around thinking about how we’re just living in an increasingly complex world. And how there are little flaws and unintended consequences and things we don’t know,” Chen told High Life in an interview at the Shangri-La Hotel at The Fort. “The world is complicated. How do we negotiate and come to grips with it?”

As chairman of Kickstarter, he has more time to focus on his creative projects and reflect on the concept of complexity — something he likes doing in his favorite place: his New York studio.

Why a studio?

It’s a place to go and think and work and waste time. It’s really important to get away and be by yourself and do creative work. A studio is essential.

Can you describe the space?

It’s in Brooklyn, New York. It’s about 800 square feet. It’s a really good size; it’s probably the best studio that I’ve had. I go there every day —  whether it’s for two hours or five hours, whatever — and just try to get into a zone. When you’re trying to do creative work, sometimes you get work done and sometimes you don’t — but you just keep going and keep trying to work.

There are lots of books — lots and lots of books — and some records. It’s like a lot of art books and a lot of dub records. Good sound system and a table. Nothing too fancy.

It’s a luxury these days to have a studio in New York. So I’m fortunate but it’s kind of sparse. It’s like in a commercial space: it’s industrial-looking — bricks, sheet rock and exposed pipes — not a SoHo kind of thing. It’s just a warehouse building. It’s utilitarian and it feels like old New York in a very, very good way.

And it’s a good place to think. There are really no windows on the street. It’s just a skylight. It’s pretty quiet.

How often do you create?

There’s no regularity. As soon as you work on something, you have no idea where it goes. I think we always start more things than we finish. You have to accept that as normal. The ones that keep you excited and the ones that are possible — or you’re going to make possible — those keep going.

Tell me more about Oscillation (2013).

That’s the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Seattle. I think I just saw the video at one point. It’s on YouTube and people have seen in it in their physics classes. It’s so meditative: I couldn’t stop watching it.

(N.B.: The Tacoma Narrows Bridge was a suspension bridge that opened to the public in 1940. It collapsed just a few months after due to 64 km/h wind conditions.)

A lot of these projects are about complexity: take this bridge — this amazingly large project — that was hit by a strong wind at a certain direction. Because of just one design flaw, the thing shook and wobbled until it broke.

What are you working on now?

I found these fantastic organizational charts of NASA, when they were putting together the first space flights; of the Manhattan Project when they were developing the atomic bomb; of the former Soviet Republics, how they organized themselves; of different parts of organized crime; or of the waste disposal industry. It’s not just about the charts, though. The charts are just able to show the different ways that we organize ourselves — and it’s kind of illuminating.

Perry Chen was in the Philippines for the Ateneo Graduate School of Business Leadership Summit in celebration of its 50th anniversary. His portrait was shot in the Provenance Gallery of Modern Art, Shangri-La at The Fort.