The S.B. Questionnaire: Alan Macy

Talking Collaboration with the Founder of BIOPAC Systems and SBCAST

Alan Macy at SB Cast
Paul Wellman

I was relieved when Alan Macy wanted to meet me at The Wildcat for cocktails rather than over lunch, as I felt a bit intimidated and could use a drink. He’s one of the most multifaceted and accomplished people I’ve ever met.

Alan is the founder of BIOPAC Systems, which designs and sells data collection and analysis tools, such as electrodes, transducers, and amplifiers, used by life scientists and researchers to interpret the signals of various biological processes. But he’s also an artist who specializes in interactive sculptures and environments.

Most importantly, Alan is the mastermind behind the Santa Barbara Center for Art, Science, and Technology. SBCAST, as its commonly known, is an “arts incubator” community on lower Garden Street where artists, scientists, and other creatives live and work, with their rents partially subsidized. That project was the subject of a wonderful cover story by Charles Donelan in The Independent in 2016 and Alan was also honored by the paper as a Local Hero in 2017.

Alan immediately puts me at ease. He’s humble, personable, and curious. He’s also willing to explain things to me in layman’s terms. “I make tools that scientists use,” he says. “It takes about a tenth of a second for data to travel to your brain.” As that data navigates your brain, it creates a reaction, and his tools measure this change.

Alan grew up in San Diego, the son of architect Alfonso Macy. His brother, Mark Macy, is also an architect, and designed SBCAST, and his sister, Christine Macy, is the dean of architecture at Dalhousie University in Canada. Alan studied engineering at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, but also learned glass-blowing and ceramics. He graduated in 1980.

“It was the time of the computer revolution,” says Alan, and engineering grads were being courted and flown everywhere by recruiters. Remembering an eight-hour interview with Hewlett Packard, Alan recalls, “I got a feeling this was the last thing I wanted to do, and decided to go to graduate school.”

He enrolled at UCSB to pursue a Masters in electrical engineering, focusing on digital signal processing and biomedical engineering. His thesis enhanced the development of a speech recognition system by adding sound processing characteristics associated with the human ear. He graduated in 1983, and quickly co-founded BIOPAC with fellow students from UCSB and Cal Poly.

It was during Alan’s extensive travels that he came up with the idea for SBCAST. Specifically, he was in residence at Amsterdam’s STEIM (Studio for Electro Instrumental Music), which develops new musical instruments and features an exhibition component. “I had a chance to see a few places like that,” he says.

In 2016, Alan opened the doors to SBCAST, which he still calls a work in progress. Most of the artists and scientists are in residence for a cycle of 18 months, but there are shorter programs as well. In addition to collaborating, they also exhibit their work regularly. The first group of long-term artists ended their stay in November 2017.

“Collaboration is a sophisticated way of working,” he says. “It’s stressful. It’s taxing, but fruitful. As an artist you have a vision. When you collaborate, you have to open up to other visions. It might not be exactly what you want. We don’t do it enough. Our inclination is not to do that. The world is a very siloed place. Many wasted opportunities.”

Alan Macy answers the Proust Questionnaire.

What is your greatest extravagance?

I put energy into bizarre, utopian projects. A very good friend pointed this out to me.

Who do you most admire?

Polymaths, or artists, who are disciplined and wandering. Hedy Lamarr and Richard Feynman come to mind. I have learned to admire people, with these qualities, because they are extremely creative and prolific.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

Lovely. Fabulous. Excellent. Appalling. Excruciating. It seems my preferred word choices are polarized.

What is your greatest fear

Living through the onslaught of dementia. The possible answers to this question are examples of the downside to an active imagination.

What is your current state of mind?

Vaguely uneasy. It feels as though everything is at risk.

What is the quality you most like in people?

The bold beauty that people can create. It’s so heartening when people bring their best.

What is the quality you most dislike in people?

Arrogance is typically appalling. Although, I put up with it when it’s paired with generosity or substantial competence.

What do you most value in friends?

Their participation, their understanding, their kindness.

What is your most marked characteristic?

I’m not particularly talkative.

What do you like most about your job?

I enjoy working with academics. These individuals are, more often than not, engaging, curious, and eager to share information.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I don’t have a clue about perfect happiness. I’m probably too restless. This stated, however, that sometimes beautiful moment of introduction, even if brief, can be delightful.

Which talent would you most like to have?

To be a fabulous storyteller. Even better would be being able to do so in five languages!

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

I would appreciate being able to keep a cleaner workspace. It’s really easy for me to make a mess. There is something about the disarray that feels helpful, until it scales to become an obstacle.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

A shared achievement, the advent of my daughter.

Where would you most like to live?

I keep getting pulled back to Santa Barbara. For me, there is an irresistible siren song established by the people, weather, mountains, and ocean.

What is your most treasured possession?

I think this might be the phone I’m typing on right now. Even so, this possession feels like a bittersweet circumstance.

What makes you laugh the most?

When there is a project underway and dear friends are involved.

What is your motto?

It’s not just my motto. I reserve the right to be capricious.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

That cave artist from 35,000 years ago. I like camping, I don’t shave that often, and I’m usually scribbling diagrams.

On what occasion do you lie?

I see that this happens, in retrospect and periodically, when I’m conflicted.


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