In a way, it was to direct films. I love films, and it's always been something that I've been interested in and wanted to do, and kind of did do as a kid. But I was also very worked up about certain political issues. This was the Bush era, and then I was really angry about Israel and Palestine as a teenager. Read a lot of Noam Chomsky and that kind of thing. I have never been very interested in focusing very clearly [on one thing]. And one of the reasons that my education turned out the way it did, as an undergraduate, was a constant desire to not get too specialized.
How did you decide to attend UC Berkeley?
I knew really clearly when I was applying to college that I wanted to leave the city I was from, LA, and I really wanted to go to a small liberal arts college. I only applied to colleges that offered both film studies and international politics, because I was not willing to make that choice at that age. But that meant that I didn't apply to a lot of places that, in retrospect, might have made more sense.
I applied to 12 schools, and probably got rejected from half or more. I mostly didn't get in anywhere that I wanted to, and found it completely heartbreaking. So it came to a decision between UC Santa Barbara, because I didn't get into Berkeley, and Oberlin College, because I didn't get into Brown or Wesleyan. I went to visit Oberlin on a very beautiful day and everybody was sitting outside on the quad. And it tricks you because, really, you're there for nine months out of the year and seven of those are the worst months that you can imagine. There's not a single hill between northeast Ohio and the Arctic, so the winds are insane.
So I went to Oberlin and pretty much immediately hated it, and immediately applied to transfer. You can only transfer to the UCs as a junior, but because I had taken so many APs and I took enough courses my freshman year, I could transfer in with junior standing after one year. Also, the money was a major factor and I was driven completely crazy with stress by the idea of how much money I was paying for Oberlin.
I got into Berkeley, and by the end of freshman year it was a hard decision to transfer, because by that time I had made good friends that remain really good friends to this day. I ended up going back to visit Oberlin a lot, and I was there for their graduation. But I transferred to Berkeley as a sophomore, and it's one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I really loved it there.
How did you choose your major?
When I got to Oberlin and actually had the opportunity to study the things that I was interested in in a real way, I realized that I didn't want to study international relations. I'm still interested in the subject matter, but I had some really good experiences in the film studies department at Oberlin, and I really loved the vibe of that field of study.
To transfer into a UC, you have to apply as a specific major, but you are not bound to actually study that major. So I applied as a peace and conflicts studies major, which is some hippy degree from the 60s. But I was pretty sure I was going to be a film studies major.
I chose not to double major even though I had other interests, which meant that I had this incredible freedom to take courses in other departments. I took art practice classes to learn actual filmmaking and art production techniques. I took an entire semester long class about the history of silent films. We watched every single one and talked about the historical and technological antecedents of film, and it was great. I kind of joke that my college degree was just watching movies, but it's true. Just doing it with brilliant people who have doctorates and with a certain rigor and structure.
Then I did my spring semester as a junior at NYU doing this famed program called the Interactive Telecommunications Program. It’s creative uses of technology, like electrical engineering for artists, or programming for graphic designers. It's a really amazing program. And I got to live in New York and I got to do film production in a way that was not offered at my school.
How did you get from college to where you are now?
I graduated from Berkeley a semester early, so I had that money in my pocket to go to Europe for a couple months. I bounced around different places where I knew people. I came back to the US, actually to Oberlin, and I lived in a house with my friends, and got a job washing dishes. I hung out in this little college town in the summer, which is the time you actually want to be there, and then I kind of tricked my friends into driving back to California with me. It was one of the greatest trips of my life.
At that point, it was the summer of 2010, and I went back to San Francisco and I moved into what was basically a closet in my sister Kari’s apartment. It was actually kind of great. So it was 2010, a great time to get a filmmaking job in the Bay Area. It's funny because if I had done that five years later, there are tons of jobs doing videos in the Bay Area now because tech is so much bigger.
Before I went to Europe, I started interning at this camera rental house. They own really expensive, $200,000 cameras, and you can rent them for your film. When I came back to San Francisco, I said, "Hey, can I have a job?" and got one, which was honestly amazing.
I wasn't getting paid much, but I learned an insane amount. I honestly had no idea what I was doing. After getting a degree in Swedish movies from the 60s, I was like, "Okay, but, how does a camera work?" I had done some courses in college, especially at NYU, that had taught me how cameras used to work, when we used film. But then there was a moment in the film industry when digital cameras really began to replace film cameras. And it's a really big deal for cinema, both metaphysically but also practically. And this place had those cameras, the cameras that I couldn't even afford to rent for a day, but I got to learn how they worked every day. It was really hard and challenging, and eventually I got fired - the only time I've ever been fired from a job.
At the end of the day, I just wasn't sufficiently detail oriented. I was an intern and I made mistakes that an intern would make, but that were not acceptable for one of two employees, so they let me go and it was devastating. It was on Valentine's Day, I remember. But at the same time, I think one of the reasons they let me go was because they knew that I wanted to learn from this job and then go do something else.
Pretty much immediately after that, I started hustling. I was doing all this freelance work, but also interning at other places to try to find something more secure. I did all kinds of random stuff, some of which turned out to be really cool. I interned for a filmmaking company featuring robots that was later bought by Google. I worked on a documentary that was the history of radical sexuality in San Francisco. I worked at Modcloth with Kari for a summer doing video.
Through the film work, I got really interested in San Francisco. I just really love the city in weird way. I got really interested in politics again, but not abstract, impracticable, impossible issues like settling Israel and Palestine, but rather how are we going to make this city run. I somehow talked my way into an unpaid internship at a leading planning nonprofit in the Bay Area. And I decided that I really wanted to go back to school for city planning.
If it wasn't clear from before, I really loved college. I really deeply valued it as a learning experience, and I wanted to go back because I wanted to feel like that again. And so I applied to MIT and Harvard for city planning. I had decided I was giving up on this filmmaking bullshit. That is was not a real way to live. That I was really interested in how cities are run. I figured I’d get a two years master's degree, come back to the Bay Area, and get a high paying, somewhat boring job, doing good work. And just no longer make creative pursuits my means of living, but rather do something that's hopefully still interesting, but not art for a living.
I struggled a lot in my master's program. I pretty quickly realized I wasn't really willing to make that sort of bargain that I just described. And obviously grad school is very different than undergraduate, and that feeling I had of wonder and learning and fun and the joy in simply knowing things and reading books is not a thing that exists in graduate school.
It was also a very distinctive feeling that the discipline itself is flawed. In a lot of ways, you're going back for a self-directed, second bachelors degree, focused on cities. And in the same way as my undergraduate degree, I was able to target it to the things that I wanted to learn. I ended up taking a lot of classes at Harvard. I was an instructor in the art department at MIT. I was able to direct it toward some useful things, and honestly when I look back now, it's a bunch of pretty good resume boosting things.
I was at a conference in my last semester of my master's program, and I saw a professor speak who was very charismatic and interesting, an award-winning architect in Switzerland, doing interesting work, specifically with film, which is something I ended up working with the entire time I was in my master's program. And I said to him, "Hey, can I have a job for the summer?" And he was like, "Yeah, sure, come, live in my loft!"
I now know this guy pretty well, and he did not mean that. He was bullshitting. But I took it very seriously, and I think literally the same day, I went out and talked to the study abroad office, which funds graduating students to go do projects the summer after they finish. It was so funny to be in the group orientation of all the students from MIT who were going to Switzerland for the summer, because they were literally all going to work for CERN, and I was like, "I'm going to learn about architecture and Latin America in Zurich!"
Literally a week after I finished my degree, I moved to Zurich. And about a week after that, I found out that I had gotten the National Geographic Fulbright digital storytelling fellowship, the first year that they had done it. So I finished up that summer in Zurich, went back to the U.S. for a couple weeks, and then I moved to Mexico City.
I applied to make a documentary film about the suburbanization of Mexico City. It's a very big city, and on the outskirts of this city are very famous informal settlements, and also the homes of the very richest Mexicans and gated country club estates, and a really massive program of government sponsored suburbanization for the middle class. And what I wanted to do was go out to these areas and make a film and understand what it's really like to be in these places.
The first part kind of worked in the sense that I, a person who does not look Mexican, managed to go all around this city for a year, with a camera that cost as much as a home in a lot of these places, and found people to be extremely welcoming, helpful, interested, and supportive. But it didn't turn out to be a film because if I had carried all the stuff that I would've needed to carry to make a film, I would've been robbed. It was simply not possible to do what I set out to do, for practicality's sake.
In a lot of ways, my summer in Zurich was pure recovery from the stress of writing a thesis, and Mexico City kicked me back up into this intense pressure that I felt for having won this really competitive thing. This is a project that defines my life; I need to absolutely kill it. And it drove me a little bit nuts.
It turned into a photography project more than a film. And I have shared a lot of stuff from it here and there, and I'm really proud of the work that I have accomplished, but it's not finished. I ran out of money, so I couldn't keep working on the project. Then I moved back to Zurich where I had been offered a full-time job in the office I had interned at before. So I left Mexico. And I'm still working on that project.
I stayed at that job for a bit less than a year. I actually really loved living in Zurich. And I worked with a really amazing group of people that I'm still very tight with. Then I got a job offer here in Berlin, and I felt like I wasn't ready to leave Europe. I thought I would stay at that job for maybe eight months, and then I would go back home. That was two years ago.
I stayed at that job for a year and a half. I had some really positive experiences at that job. I got to travel a lot, I got to meet a lot of really cool, famous architects, I got a decent amount of freedom in what I was doing, and I produced some work that I'm reasonably proud of. But as a work environment, it wasn't a good fit for me. I quit without having anything else.
I had money saved up, and I figured I’d have a fun summer in Berlin. Toward the end of the summer, a few friends of mine sent me a job listing for Olafur Eliasson Studio, and I’d always liked his work. I've only been working there for six months, but it's really wonderful. I feel incredibly lucky to work there.
Looking back, what seems clear to you now?
I think you just have to believe that things work out. Even if it isn’t true, which I do think it is, life's just better if you can not sit around and worry about the future. I also think a lot about if I had not gone to MIT. If I were to give advice, I would say, if you want to make an art project or a film or something, borrow that two years’ worth of money from I don't know where, and go work on that stuff full time. If you're serious and disciplined, you will get way further than getting that degree.
This is very particular maybe, but I have moved around a lot. In the last ten years, I've lived in eight cities, and for a lot of my life, I changed jobs or I changed cities or I changed careers or I changed paths really dramatically. And in a way, it's all something that was compressing me.
And now I'm in Berlin, and I've been here for two years, which is the longest I've lived anywhere since the Bay Area. And in part, I decided that I really wanted to stay, and luckily I got a job that let me do that. I decided to not move and to stay in one place and try to sort some things out in my life. And I think that's been super valuable for me personally. Changing external things may not always be the answer, it may never be the answer. Obviously doing it at a young age, you come to learn a lot about yourself and all that. But, maybe, don't always run away.