In December, Yves Bernard invited me to give a talk at Art+Game, a conference and exhibition about video games from an artistic point of view. After my usual little show, a guy came to me, his name was Angelo Vermeulen. He had curated a part of the exhibition with such talent and impeccable taste that i was all ears, i thought he'd want to talk about games. He didn't. He wanted to give me a CD of his work. Man! Don't you have a website like everyone? A CD! Something tangible that will meet the same end as all those business cards that people keep handing me: they end up in the bin of some hotel because they just clutter my handbag. I came late to digital data so now i stick to it, if i want to find you, i just google you and that's it. Anyway, a few days later i was in one of those hotel rooms. There was no internet. I open Angelo's CD and look at its content. The next thing i did when i finally managed to get online was to ask Angelo if i could interview him. Angelo doesn't have a website (yet!), he's way too cool for that.
He wrote part of the interview in NYc, part in Sint-Niklaas and then disappeared somewhere in Andalusia.
Originally trained as a biologist (PhD at the University of Leuven, Belgium), he also followed a photography training at the Art Academy of Leuven. Moved to London to work with Nick Waplington. Back in Belgium he took up post-graduate studies at the Higher Institute of Fine Arts (HISK) in Antwerp.
After that traces of his activities appear online. Most notably, his installation Blue Shift [LOG. 1], introduced last Summer at Isea2006, aims to question the status of the utilitarian in art and science and push interactive installation art into Darwinian realms (detail of the installation on the right). A community of single-cell algae, water fleas, fish and water snails is set up in the exhibition space. Visitors induce a gradual microevolution of the - genetically determined - light-responsive behavior of the water fleas. When the system is in standby, yellow lights illuminate the aquaria from the top. The water fleas are attracted to this light and swim towards it. Whenever a visitor is detected in proximity of the installation, blue spotlights are activated. Water fleas, repelled by this color, flee downwards and pass through holes in a false bottom in the aquaria... where fish are waiting to wipe them out.
What can be considered to be a survival strategy in natural circumstances - blue light indicates clear open water and hence potential detection by fish - has quite a different meaning in this set-up: it is exactly those water fleas that do not swim away from the blue light that survive and reproduce. In this way their genes will become dominant in the water flea populations and a "contra-natural" selection will occur.
He has been working on â€œSKANNERâ€?, a new media project on human fear in cooperation with Tamuraj, electronic musician and mathematics researcher. The audience is exposed to a frightening live montage of video images and sounds generated by the artists and an artificial intelligent computer system. Physical reactions of the audience such as heart rate and blood pressure are monitored. An artificial creative agent uses these data to decipher and simulate the relation between fear responses and sounds and images. The agent functions as a third â€œvirtualâ€? artist. Through the accumulation of empirical data and learning algorithms, SKANNER tries to evolve towards a real fear machine.
Angelo is currently busy writing a book on the relation between art, technology and spirituality in partnership with art philosopher Antoon Van den Braembussche. In collaboration with Quebec-based artist Louis Blackburn, he is also preparing several new media projects and a documentary on computer game culture. He and Etienne Van den Bergh, president of Contour Mechelen, will be touring Europe with a series of lectures on games (games & cinema, games & the body).
Angelo, youâ€™re one of the few people who are both trained as a scientist (biology in your case) and fine artist. Do you make a clear distinction between your work as an artist and your scientific activities?
In the beginning of my life as an artist I was mainly focused on photography and I was convinced that my scientific background was something I had to get rid of in order to make good art. It was only a few years later that I discovered that combining these things would lead to much more powerful creations. Now I feel a lot of my work is a layered convergence of rationality, intuition and hyperesthesis. In the interactive cinema project â€˜SKANNERâ€™ (2002-2005) and the installation piece Blue Shift [LOG. 1] (2005) I explicitly combined both my art and my science background. Certain aspects of these projects were strictly scientific, while others were purely artistically motivated, and there is evidently a different mindset for each of the positions. Blue Shift [LOG. 1] was created with Luc De Meester, a former colleague of mine and a specialist in evolutionary biology. For this project I had to make a lot of choices about the setup of the piece in a larger art exhibition context. I choose a basement location because that gave the right kind of conditions and associations I wanted; a half-hidden and darkened laboratory with close proximity to a workshop where technicians were running in and out. Once the location was chosen the process started of building up the piece in relation to the space itself. These decisions were primarily artistically motivated: I wanted to create a 3D image that had an immediate and strong impact on the visitor. I have learned by now that such creative choices only can be rationally analyzed and (partly) understood after the piece is ready. When creating an installation I strongly rely on intuition to decide which specific materials to use, where to put things, how to set up the lighting etc. Of course there are also significant conceptual issues related to certain choices, itâ€™s not just a formal process. However, with Blue Shift [LOG. 1] things became even more complex than that; whenever I made a creative choice I had to make sure it did not violate the scientific rationale behind the work. The idea of this piece was to create a work that functioned both as an interactive installation, and as a scientific experiment. A true hybrid work.
SKANNER was a collaboration with musician and mathematician Tamuraj. The goal was to create a live horror movie that would use images and sounds from a database in combination with a live-generated soundtrack. During the performance we monitored the publicâ€™s bodily responses as an indication of emotional state, such as heart rate and blood pressure. We then used these data to optimize the live montage of image and sound in two different ways. First, all the data were displayed in real time so that we could actively use the publicâ€™s emotional state as a directive for mixing sound and image. Second, Tamuraj programmed an artificial intelligence module that constantly compared output (the live movie) and input (the publicâ€™s emotional data). The software then automatically optimized the impact of the performance by making autonomous decisions about the sound sequencing for example. In this way, the soundtrack during our last performance was to a large extent created by the audienceâ€™s hearts. In an art project like this, the aim is to create a powerful audiovisual experience that at the same time uses systematic scientific analysis.
Did the art audience react to Blue Shift [LOG. 1] in the same way as the scientific audience?
Both audiences reacted strongly to the aesthetics of the piece; to its visual language and its setup in the space. But each audience also responded very specifically from within its own context; art audiences tended to be fascinated by the conceptual dual nature of the work, while scientists quickly started investigating the experimental design of the project. During the exhibition Luc De Meester invited an American colleague who was visiting Belgium. His colleague was extremely enthusiastic because he saw both a scientific and educational value in the project. We were provoking Darwinian evolution of the light responsive behavior of water fleas through exposure to predating goldfish. Our hypothesis was formed from related observations, and had never been tested before. The project was a way to bring specific research to a wider audience. The feeling that your daily practice gets a meaning for a broader public is very gratifying, but unfortunately, this happens hardly ever for scientists.
What makes the art approach interesting in a regular scientific context? Can your artistic explorations be fed back to the scientific frame?
I am not sure that the art approach in general can have a major impact on scientific practice. The last decades itâ€™s been very popular to stress the similarities between art and science. Artists and scientists are â€œcreative and inspiredâ€?, the artist studio can be seen as a sort of laboratory, etc. Recently, at an exhibition opening in Los Angeles, an artist came up to me and stated that â€œscientists are artistsâ€?. I personally oppose this oversimplification. There are fundamental differences between both worlds that cannot be bridged. First, the idea that scientists have of the world is completely different than that of artists. According to science, the world is something to be fully understood and modeled and mathematics is regarded as its true underlying basis. Through a process of continuous refinement science is looking for the one universal model that will explain everything. This is a very Cartesian way of looking at the world still. As an artist you have the freedom to reject this, and personally I believe you have to reject the supremacy of such reductionist models to make truly engaging art. Art is about what escapes definition, there is a sort of spiritual element in good works of art that defies any analysis. Take poetry for example; a computer program using artificial intelligence could probably convincingly simulate a poetic style. However, true engaging poetry has an authenticity you cannot artificially create. This may seem like a very Romantic notion of art, but I believe ambiguity and ungraspability are crucial characteristics of art.
A second important difference between science and art is the handling of tradition. In a more traditional view, science is a constant flow of historicide, while art production is a process of reiteration. Through the continuous creation of new subsequent models, science progresses towards a sort of utopian ultimate understanding of the world. Older models are replaced by new ones, hence the concept of historicide. In contrast, art would constantly build on the works of former generations. â€œUnlike art, science destroys its own pastâ€? Thomas Kuhn argued in his Comment on the Relations of Science and Art. I donâ€™t fully agree with this. In the daily practice of science its history and traditions are continuously present. One of the most central aspects of scientific practice is its use of statistics, the universally adopted methodology to analyze data and present insights. If your insights do not comply with the norms of this standardized system, they wonâ€™t be considered valid. Itâ€™s quite a fascinating system in its own respect and works really well. However, for me this was a major difference when I started making art: in art there is no such inevitable standardized context to work in. Art works do not have to comply with a specific set of rules to be considered â€œvalidâ€?. On the contrary, in the avant-garde/modernist model we use today, art should be questioning, even annihilating predecessing art and should create more pertinent and visionary answers. This doesnâ€™t mean that the contemporary art world is always so â€˜refreshingâ€™, quite the opposite. Contemporary art seems to suffer heavily from reiteration, and we see the same things over and over again such as conceptualism, minimalism, pop art etc.
Apart from similarities, both art and science have their individual specificity that you have to handle in their own respect. Like I said before thereâ€™s no need to throw away things; combining different attitudes is the most fascinating thing you can do. However, the desire to fuse everything into one â€˜modelâ€™, into one singularity is a typically Western cultural attitude. This attitude not only has its roots in scientific thinking but has also been shaped by religion and economics. A religion in which everything is reduced to one singular deity, and an economic model â€“ capitalism â€“ which at the root is obsessed with efficiency and hence singularity.
So, because of fundamental differences between contemporary art and science, I donâ€™t believe they will blend again into a sort of neo-Renaissance model. Moreover, in practice science is often only superficially interested in art. Scientists donâ€™t have the need and, more importantly, donâ€™t have the time to indulge in an art practice consistently. However, there are examples in which the scientific community truly shows interest in a complementary artistic approach. In the specific example of â€˜Blue Shift [LOG. 1]â€™ there was effectual feedback to the scientific community on different levels. Luc De Meester was happy to see that his year-long laboratory work finally found a way to a broader public, and that the work resulted in actual data to be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Personally, this is one of my favorite aspects of the whole project; publishing an art piece in the world of science through a sort of Trojan horse.
On the other side, a lot of contemporary art does happily embrace science and technology. ISEA2006 (International Symposium for Electronic Arts) in San Jose was a clear example of this. This symposium is organized every two years in a different city, and for the 2006 edition the organizers worked together with ZeroOne San Jose, a festival on digital culture. During a full week in August there were numerous artist presentations, lectures by media theorists and curators, panel debates, etc. All this in conjunction with an extensive showcase of art works and performances throughout the whole city. The art projects somehow always made use of recent technology, both in very simple and in very elaborate ways.
Now, this embrace of technology in art has its own problems. What particularly struck me during the symposium sessions in San Jose was the desire of many artists to drown their work in an academic jargon. It looked a bit like a desperate attempt to be taken seriously and make sure the audience realized there was a â€œdeeper meaningâ€? to the work. I think that by doing this so explicitly you basically â€˜killâ€™ the work, you kill the potential for an open experience by your audience. And then again, donâ€™t forget that clever rhetorics can be used to apply â€˜deeper meaningâ€™ to almost anything. Of course all this is a consequence of conceptualism and of the enormous influence of academic discourse in the shaping of art careers. Another way in which the importance of an art project was put forward was through stressing its technological innovation value. Most often this resulted in art project presentations that were basically nothing more than fancy tech demos. Thereâ€™s more â€“ or sometimes less â€“ to art than impressing with a technological trick developed in collaboration with a prestigious university. Itâ€™s the sort of techno-fetishism that is rife in the new media art scene. A new creative technology is presented as an art piece but essentially lacks genuine layers of poetic meaning simply because the focus is on the technology itself, and not on what lies beyond. The medium has become the message; nothing new here.
You wrote that today (new media) artists are often under pressure to present their work as "research". What are the pitfalls of such attitude?
I have no problem with research in the arts whatsoever. Itâ€™s an interesting evolution that artists donâ€™t necessarily have to produce well-defined (collectible) objects. Itâ€™s the art practice as a whole that has come to the foreground; what artists stand for, how artists make their attitude come true in the world, how they communicate their ideas, what other experiments and side projects theyâ€™re involved in, etc. Such layered activity and exploration is also valued these days. However, there are some pitfalls in overtly stressing research in art practice.
First of all, research may become an end in itself; the artistâ€™s work becomes interesting simply because it is research. As a consequence some artists start legitimizing their work through some sort of research concept hoping that it will make the work more relevant. Well, itâ€™s up to the spectator to decide whether the research presented is actually meaningful or just a â€œmarketing trickâ€?. Sometimes research even becomes an excuse to avoid making a clear-cut artistic statement or finalized work. The work-in-progress-syndrome. I have nothing against work-in-progress tactics but they should be meaningful in view of a chosen strategy, not a pretext to procrastinate. In some cases artists fall victim to their own endless technical research. This is a phenomenon which you often encounter in the new media scene. People start up a technically complex project and keep struggling with it for years and years, continuously working on the technical and financial aspects of the work. Once again, this is not a necessarily bad strategy but in some cases the artist would be better off picking up some completely new ideas and a fresh new project. Experimentation and exploration seem essential for me.
I also believe there is a strong tendency nowadays to instrumentalize art, especially those art forms that do not sell well. This is of course a neoliberal vision on the art practice; art should somehow financially sustain itself within market forces. Thereâ€™s a big cultural difference between this in Europe and the US. In Europe, art that has less or no commercial value can be funded by the government, much less so in the US. As a consequence, American artists tend to present their new media work more often as research with a utilitarian benefit for society: it has an academic value, itâ€™s technologically innovative etc. I think this is not always a healthy situation. Art should reclaim its rights to be sometimesâ€¦ well, not useful at all, not in a directly measurable way. I even think contemporary art should become more irrational. We badly need more â€œnonsenseâ€?.
Is Drumlander a way to, as you put it elsewhere, "reclaim the freedom to play"? How did you get into the game culture by the way?
Yes, Drumlander is exactly that. This doesnâ€™t mean we approach our game-related projects in a casual manner; on the contrary, we are very focused on bringing quality in what we do. Computer games are something Louis Blackburn and I grew up with. I was playing a lot but never really thought of incorporating games into my art. All this changed when I visited Louis in QuÃ©bec City in 2004. We started talking about games; about the beauty, strength and craftsmanship of our favorite games, links with other media, and above all, approaches to recycle this culture in a creative manner. And thatâ€™s how we decided to set up Drumlander. Drumlander was originally conceived as a DJ project with game music, but quickly evolved into a much broader platform to explore the creative potential of games. In the DJ set we mix original game tunes, game music remixes and chip music made with old game consoles. We have gathered a massive collection of game songs and sounds, and depending on the venue, things become more dancy or experimental. Itâ€™s undoubtedly a great new experience for me coming from a background of science and visual arts.
I really liked the games you curated for the exhibition Art+Game organized by IMAL in Brussels last December. It presented the most interesting aspects of video games today: activism, education and fun. Which criteria guided your selection?
Drumlanderâ€™s game arcade The Sweet and Violent Underbelly of Game Culture is a showcase of independent games, mostly freeware and open-source. The present-day game industry can be compared to the film industry, with a small group of massive studios creating the most lucrative games, and a widespread scene of independent artists and programmers. For the arcade we consistently look for computer games that show a level of artistic ingenuity. As a spectator, this may not always seem so obvious at a first glance; sometimes you really need to submerge yourself in the game to discover this. There are many different levels on which a game can excel in creativity: its concept, gameplay, graphics, music, etc. A crucial aspect of the arcade is that we are constantly around to introduce people to the games, to play with or against them, discuss the significance of games, etc. This results in a whole different experience for the audience. For many visitors, games transform from a previously misunderstood commodity to an exiting medium with loads of creative potential.
For our last installment of the arcade at Art+Game in Brussels, we also included a personal selection of political games. These are games that take current political and social issues as a central theme. Sometimes in truly activist sense, and sometimes more in an ironic way. Through their sheer subject matter these games possess a sort of documentary value; something I learned during a debate with Eddo Stern and Peter Brinson at Gamezone deSingel in Antwerp last year. I find this a very interesting new way of looking at games.
I read about one of your upcoming projects that will star mad scientists. It is certainly an ironic idea coming from you. What motivated the choice of that character?
I have a strong interest in cultural icons like the zombie, the alchemist, and mad scientist because they represent a sort of underground science. Each icon has a specific and consistent logic of its own but at the same time clearly transgresses the boundaries of normalized rational thinking. They also reflect peopleâ€™s fears; both about science and the unknown. The alchemist and mad scientist are figures that operate in an ethical no-manâ€™s-land and use technology without constraints, thus provoking fear. On the other hand, the mysticism which is involved in alchemy and zombies reflects manâ€™s inexhaustible fascination-repulsion for the unknown.
I am currently planning an audio piece using the in-game dialogues of mad scientists captured from a wide range of computer games. The piece will be a multichannel surround installation set up around a central video sculpture. My idea is to create a sort of incongruous conversation piece that in a way reflects the representation of science in popular game culture.
Can you already tell us a few words about the book youâ€™re working on?
The book I am currently writing with art philosopher Antoon Van den Braembussche, is a series of dialogues on contemporary relations of art, science, and spirituality. We met some years ago at the HISK; a postgraduate art school in Antwerp where I was studying at the time. During our first meeting at his home we had a non-stop conversation of more than seven hours. Consequently we thought it might be a great idea to use such conversations as the basis for a book. We approach the rather wide spectrum of the bookâ€™s subject through ten different angles: art and science, the virtualization of contemporary culture, computer games and visual culture, spirituality in the digital age, etc. Itâ€™s an extremely â€œnaturalâ€? project that flows wonderfully well. The discussions are almost always unprepared and lead to the most surprising insights. We also travel around for this project. We go to Spain quite often, to work in isolation in a small mountain village in Andalusia, and weâ€™re also planning to make a trip through Asia to go and talk with local philosophers and Buddhist monks.
Thereâ€™s already a big interest in our book; people keep on asking me when it will be finished. We plan to have the Dutch manuscript ready by the end of this year, and the book should be out in 2008. After the Dutch version weâ€™ll start working on an English and French translation.
Now two silly questions that I think you deserve!
In February I will have a brand new web site. It will contain both an artist archive, a blog and a vault for all texts, ideas, scans, manuals that I think might be useful for the community. Until then you can check some of my work on the IBK Visual Arts Database.
2. Is there any talent that you donâ€™t have?
Oh, one thing I am pretty bad at is orientation. I donâ€™t know why but I have a harder time than anyone else to get a clear oversight of a city. In the end I usually get it, but it takes me like 15 times longer than a normal brain. However, in games I do pretty wellâ€¦
All images courtesy of Angelo Vermeulen (except the portrait of Thomas Kuhn.)
When i asked her what she does or drink to have so much energy and creativity Cati Vaucelle simply told me that she is spending the nights playing World of Warcraft. Well, i'm sorry Cati, it doesn't work for us mere mortals! Hanging around with druids and having a stroll through Dun Morogh on the back of a tiger doesn't usually results in projects that i'd want to blog. And if Cati's avatar kills monsters and completes quests as fast as she engineers new projects then she might be one of the most formidable players around. One day she's working on a touch-sensitive dress for sensory therapy, the day after she announces that she's just finished collaborating with Hayes Raffle on a rubber stamp that children can press onto the page to record sounds into their drawings.
I don't know which label i should put on Cati Vaucelle: is she a researcher? an artist? a designer? Something in between?
I am a knowledge shopper. I studied philosophy and fine arts, applied computer science, psychology, and computational linguistics starting in Paris with a B.S. in mathematics and economics. At MIT I took classes in engineering and programming, recently graduating from Harvard University in product design and architecture. Juggling among degrees triples my inspiration. I feel empowered by applying this knowledge in my research. Now I define myself as a researcher, an inventor and an artist at the same time. I collaborate frequently as I find it extremely enlightening. My work has implications for fields as diverse as HCI, architecture, fashion, learning and health care treatment.
Can you tell me something about your career: how you came to be interested in tangible interfaces, digital technology, augmented "everyday" realities?
I started to use microcontrollers to augment everyday objects back in Paris. I searched for prior inventions in the domain, and discovered the work of the MIT Media Lab. After a few years of research in physical augmentation via computer means I found that a new materiality emerged based on our physical limitations supported by digital possibilities. This new materiality was also created through the possibility to keep memorized an impossible number of data. I was fascinated by the power of computation in recalling memories. I designed a range of computational linguistic tools from toy design, storytelling systems, to performative text instruments to record stories of experiences. Gradually the six exteroceptive senses became part of my design principles. I like to engage peopleâ€™s associative memory for elements in their life that can be recalled through AI tools and products.
In my sculpture work, I combine the material representation of a souvenir and its effect over time. I print a series of clothes in plaster molds and in life-sized frames. The pieces of clothing carved in the plaster come from people I care for. Their prints represent their passage in my life at a point. The mold essentially keeps the shape and the textural significance of the clothing.
I designed a series of kinetic and architectural installations, electronically mediated clothing, and smell collector systems in relation to my take on memories. I created the Memento Box, a kinetic installation that symbolizes a view on my relationship to souvenirs. This kinetic and electronic Box represents an attractive passage from door to personal space of souvenirs.
The Breathing Wall kinetic piece that I created with Ana Aleman consists of a wall made from thin transparent tubes that react to the public space. Made out of architectural objects that work independently or dependently of one another, it deploys and retracts soft fabric. The wall remembers the sense of the public and reacts accordingly.
In Touching Memories, I originally wanted the system to capture the memory of touch represented by its pressure and warmth. This system, later called Taptap and built with Leonardo Bonanni, Jeff Lieberman and Orit Zuckerman, supports the remembrance of a lost one, sharing physical prompts to recall a souvenir of touch for distant lovers. This work resulted in a series of prototypes: Squeeze Me, Hurt Me, Cool Me Down and Touch Me with implications for support in mental health care treatments. I continue independent research on Seamless Sensory Interventions for the treatment of mental and neurological disorders. Haptics are the key to bringing treatment into the social sphere through devices, providing new ways to mediate between the patient and the therapist both in and outside of therapy. Self-mutilation is a perfect test-case, because of the definitive â€œphysicalityâ€? of the symptoms. However, the broader solutions that I am proposing have implications for diseases as diverse as autism, depression, and schizophrenia.
Together with Yasmine Abbas I explore the design of a touch-sensitive dress for massage and sensory therapy. The research focuses on the material - how the structure and the embedded components of the garment participate in pushing its function to become an envelope or cocoon for one's well-being. TouchÂ·Sensitive is a haptic apparel that allows massage therapy to be diffused, customized and controlled by people on the move. It provides individuals with a sensory and alerting cocoon.
I design the Odora Storyteller, a smell collector. It encompasses the experience of the everyday collector and creates an associative memory of smells, places and objects. The first prototype is conceived for children to collect samples from their environment. The children can reveal and create associative connection between smells, textures and visual components of elements that they gather. The collected elements are then used to create and recall stories. I also envision this concept for persons suffering from Alzheimer's disease. People with Alzheimerâ€™s could benefit from associative memory between smell and souvenirs of places.
The smell collector became a collector of everyday sensations. The collector allows a child to also collect temperatures - from the heat of the sun to the cold of the ice, invited to capture more complex temperature such as the soil.
I am designing Jewelry in the form of arial patterns of a city. My vision is to have in miniature the multitude of patterns that one can see from a distance. The research implication/discussion is now that we constantly travel by plane, use GIS, google map, satellite imagery, our vision is expanded. We now consider differently objects, we have a different representation to them. As much as the car has influenced painting and the representation of space and movement, I want to show how the use of new technologies can change our way to design objects.
Crazy toys allow children to voice out their drawing construction. Crazy toys capture the pitch and loudness of the child's voice and generates patterns on a screen. I am working on a database management of the child's pre-drawn pattern that she could decide to use for her compositions. I am currently making a generic doll whose body reacts to the sound input and generates digital drawings. I link max/msp to processing. The digital patterns from processing flow through the body of the doll as a metaphor on how digital technologies invade our everyday space and body.
One of your prior researches was concerned with the underlying mechanisms regarding the improvisation of narratives by children. This gave way to some pretty imaginative projects. What have you learnt from that experience with children? How much did their interaction with the objects/devices you gave them modified your perception of the subject?
I learned that tools for children need to be designed to support their evolving skills. Electronic toys, toys with AI and digital applications for children could benefit from multiple levels of learning including different layers of complexity.
As a research associate at Media Lab Europe from 2002-2004, I designed Textable Movie with Glorianna Davenport. In the framework of computational storytelling, Textable Movie promotes the idea of maker-controlled media and can be contrasted to automatic presentation systems. By improvising movie-stories created from their personal video database and by suddenly being projected into someone elseâ€™s video database during the same story, users can be surprised as they visualize video elements corresponding to a story that they would not have expected. With Textable Movie, users make their own inference about these discoveries rather than using artificial systems that make the inference for them. They can then create a personal mode of interaction with the system, e.g. mapping keywords to videos, and incorporate new video clips and sound samples to their database.
The complexity, power and flexibility of Textable Movie can be seen in how novel projects presented themselves through its use. The immediate response from the system by the children made it comparable to a video game. I created Textable Game that extends the concept to the realm of video games. This application aims to engage teenagers in building their own games, e.g. action games, exploration games, mystery games, using their own video/audio footage, and allowing them to create their own rules and scenarios. The goal of Textable Game is to invite teenagers to be their own video game producers.
Evaluations with Textable Movie informed me that more fusion between creating an idea and producing it was necessary. For a revisit of Textable Movie, I wanted to couple mobile technologies to a platform that could materialize ideas and retrieve them seamlessly had to be implemented. I explored the concept of tangibility of digital data as a way for children to gather and capture data around the city for later retrieval. In this case, tangible objects become metaphors of captured elements. I conceived a device using mobile technology combined with tangible objects as metaphors called Moving Pictures: Looking Out/Looking In. This project became a team project that I developed with Diana Africano and Oskar FjellstrÃ¶m, both researchers at the UmeÃ¥ Institute of Design in Sweden.
With Moving Pictures the experience for the user is transparent. The cumbersome process of capturing and editing becomes fluid in the improvisation of a story, and accessible as a way to create a final movie. I integrated different layers of complexity, from digitizing the media, performing a movie, to storyboarding a more complex narrative. Elements of design such as cards symbolizing the composition of the screen are used to offer the children the potential to become video artists, understanding and playing with the frame as they go.
Based on our evaluations with children, I found that Moving Pictures suffers from several limitations related to the problem of how to best digitally support meaningful interactions in the physical space. First the scalability of such a system at a networked and international level is flawed. I need to redesign the software technology to centralize the linked data and distribute the nodes of contained data in an organized fashion. To have the technology better assist how an individual moves about the physical space while capturing content their platform needs to be mediated by a centralized software architecture.
Second, system centralization implies new communication technology to mediate the video platforms and allow them to communicate with one another. The RFID technology in the wireless cameras could be redesigned into a pattern based technology using the video camera of any device.
Lastly, I would like to escape the hardware limitations of commercial video cameras. Users could use any phone, any camera or text based device to exchange material. The system should be designed to generalize despite different input modalities. All of these modifications shift the emphasis of the system from a simple, transparent, video platform, and into an architecture for supporting content generation that reflects the physical environment of the user through multiple information platforms.
What are the challenges, pecularities and pitfalls when working with children (compared with projects you'd develop for grown-ups)?
It is complex to work on projects for children because of our responsibility as adults. The video game world is very attractive to kids and it can also easily be allienating without any parental and environmental support. I also wish that companies could facilitate their console hacking for kids, by protecting certain parts of their market, but making it hackable for more creative projects. Kids could still use the console for its game purpose but could appropriate its design to make their own. As an example, experimented adults can hook up applications to the new Wii console using emulators, but this is not being hacked by children.
Also the Wii is an example of interesting design because it uses body motions and physical space as part of its design principles. I recently saw multiple generations, from the young child to the grand parents, play with it and everybody enjoyed it. It seems fully integrated within the family context as much as traditional board games have been in the past. In the realm of PvP video games, World of Warcraft has a nice goody for its users: they can take a break and double their experience the next time they come online but to not forget their addiction, WoW only doubles it up to two levels. This is smart, it allows users to go away from the computer screen for a few days and engage back into their addiction. However, sometimes this time is also used to create other charactersâ€¦
There are also challenges for electronic toys. In 2002, a friend of mine commented beautifully on the matter:
"The most beautiful thing happened on Tuesday night. I was babysitting for Colum, Jenny's little boy, he's 5 (and three quarters!). We made up 2 new super heroes Lava Man and the other Lava Man! We were just having a really good play with lots of jumping around and shouting. Anyway, later we were just sitting down and talking more quietly. He was showing me this little dinosaur that has tiny batteries inside and when you open his mouth he roars. Colum said the batteries were wasted and I said I can get new ones for him. He said 'no, its terrible when the batteries work because every time he opens his mouth all he can do is roar, even when he tries to eat something all he can do is roar so he canâ€™t even eat anything so lets leave him with the wasted batteries, heâ€™s better that way'. All I could do was smile the widest smile." Andy Brady
Traditional toys such as puppets and dolls encourage young children's storytelling in the form of pretend play. Unfortunately, the majority of commercial technological toys do not provide the space for children to tell their own stories; rather they tend to tell stories to them or constrain their play pattern. Children could benefit from creating stories rather than listening to them. The quote from Andy Brady is an example of how technology can be useless and, worse, annoying or constraining to the child. In this example, technology is not contributing anything to the play pattern of the child except the repetitious dinosaur roaring which apparently is not pleasing for anyone! The child voices his complaint by asking not to use this technology anymore.
In my work, I aim to add technology to prompt the child in a way that allows the child to be an active participant in story creation. When a system for authorship is well designed, the technology is not invading. In 2000 I created Dolltalk (PDF), a set of computational puppets designed for storytelling. Dolltalk captures the child's storytelling though motions made with puppetry and the voice of the child. In this work, the challenge was to combine the right balance of technology coupled with a narrative structure inspired by the toy. I have worked on business applications of this project with Mattel, Fisher Price and Lego.
Kids today grow among mobile phones, computers, sophisticated video games,... we didn't. How do you think it affects their perception of the frontier between virtual and physical world?
This current question reveals that each time there is a change, it transforms our ideal image of ourselves.
A useful historical metaphor exists in photography. At the inception of photography, the new medium was equally feared and admired. It was reduced to the status of being useful, but devoid of meaningful interpretations of reality, which was the provence of the fine arts and painting in particular. However, over time, the status of photography changed, and gained its independence from painting. Eventually, the photographic medium was accepted as having its own formal and aesthetic values. The end result was a revisitation of what painting could be, driven by the new aesthetic findings in photography, as exemplified in some of Duchamp's work, such as le nu dans lâ€™escalier. The paradigm shift was not limited to painting, but provided social change as a new form of expression in the arts.
I gave this example to say that with photography we realized it was not an anti-art, it was another art. It is a medium. Children use these tools. It is important that we understand what they are. Digital is a revolution. It creates children's expectations of their interaction with their environment (virtual and digital) that can be different from ours (because we have not grown up in the same environment as the children of today).
When i go to tech conferences, i only see a tiny minority of women. how is it like at Harvard Design School? do you feel like you're part of a minority of geek girls? does it affect you?
In Paris, I studied with a majority of men. Women seemed to fear technical matters. It was clear that this was perpetuated socially. I graduated from Harvard University, Graduate School of Design (GSD), with a Master in Design, Product Design and Architecture. I had previously studied at the MIT Media Lab for a Master of Sciences. I am now back to the MIT Media Lab as research assistant and PhD candidate with Dr. Hiroshi Ishii in the Tangible Media Group. I can compare the impact of women in these environments. Women are less represented in general at the professorship level. A woman with engineering skills and with the same qualifications as a man seems to always be strangely discredited. On my side, I try to avoid this polemic and just develop my engineering work on my own. At the GSD, there are lots of women as students, but not that many as faculty members. At the Media Lab women are under represented in general. There is a mix between designers and geeky girls at the media lab, but the majority have a background in CS or electrical engineering and if not they all learn on the fly. I like working with women a lot at Media Lab, especially because I like seeing a feminine sensibility empowered with the technicality of engineering.
You're working mainly with technology: computers, rfid, even robots. Are you interested in emerging technologies like nanotechnology, biotechnology, synthetic biology? or is it too far from your own sphere (one only has 24 hours per day after all)?
These topics are fascinating and I am interested in everything that is emerging. I am a knowledge shopper after all! Maybe I will follow a degree in nanotechnology â€¦
How do you think that digital technologies make us re-evaluate the physical world?
We are perceiving a new physicality through digital materials. This modification of our perception of the environment is developed thourgh our experience with the digital.
As an illustration of this new area consider the usual RFID tagging. RFID tags have been used throughout the physical space for cuing purposes. Beyond that, I argue that the presence of content cues throughout the space redefines our very perception of that space. Now an alternative to RFID tagging is possible, such that arbitrary physical properties of objects can be used as tags to content. One promising line of work is using mass to arbitrarily define tags. Any object can be assigned tag status by linking the mass of the object to some content that the user likes to represent from their environment. By reintroducing the appropriately weighted object to the system, the content can be recalled. Tagging serve as a means for feedback from the physical environment back to the virtual community. This line of thought is now possible by having been digital, conceptually, and subsequently discovering new design principles within the physical space. Tagging with the mass of the object uses technology to link the intrinsic physicality of the material to new conceptual possibilities regarding how we perceive physical space, content of physicality and extended virtual communities.
What did you try to achieve with "The Texture of Light"? Was it just a project you had to develop for the Smart Materials course at Harvard or do you plan to go further and exploit the idea in novel ways?
The Texture of Light is a tangible system that exploits lighting principles and the exploration of life feed video metamorphosis in the public space using reflection of light on transparent materials. This project is an attempt to fight the boredom of everyday life and employs the simple use of chemistry, Plexiglas, and plastic patterns to form a visual reconstruction of reality, giving it a texture and expressive form. The tangible potential of the direct use of light on Plexiglas lenses and transparent materials presents three opportunities that are critical to this project. First is the collaboration in the public space facilitated by tangible means. The second opportunity is the improvisation and experimentation space offered by such tangible and mechanical systems. The third is the reinvestigation of the physical texture of light materialized, allowing a direct understanding of the effects of light properties on transparent materials e.g. reflection, color transformation, density, and diffraction.
I am implementing my vision of this project on a larger scale such as building-size panels the public could mechanically control using remote devices. Each panel will be pattern and transparent material specific. Two Plexiglas sheets could embed a water-fall, or viscous transparent material the user could distribute along his/her selected point of view. The software will allow media distribution among cities so that the outcomes of the public performances could be exposed on the panels of other cities.
Your work involves augmenting the physical using the digital. aren't you having nightmare of a physical object that does more bad than good because its digital "layer" is running amok?
The digital has suffered by trying to be too physical, trying to justify its existence by refining itself with physical rules. There are fundamental limits between the form and function of the digital and physical. This step was necessary to combine the digital to the physical without independence between these two modes of interaction. Now that the digital is part of our everyday life, it is the perfect moment to study how it can inform the structure of the physical and how it can drive new conceptions of the physical. The goal is to strike a balance between digital technologies and their physical components, such that despite their fundamental differences of form and use, the two can be seamlessly integrated and mutually inform one another.
I only augment the physical with the digital in certain conditions, because I also care about interdependencies between the digital and the physical. With each other they have a function. Without each other they also have a function. This differs from current considerations of physical and tangible representation by allowing the virtual and the physical to exist independently from each other, or, rather, to co-exist in a way that informs one another.
Specifically, the challenge is to augment the physical using the digital by maintaining a reason dâ€™etre of the physical with the digital. Consider a scarf that warms up if a friend is missing. This computational scarf, even without technology, can be designed so it remains useful as a scarf, and keeps a memory of the interaction with the digital without detracting from its design as a physical object. On the other hand, the warmth generating sensor module, if removed from the scarf, can have another digital function and be integrated into a bedding to provide some warmth as well. Both the physical platform and the technology are dissociable, although the combination of the two generates the impact of the application.
My work incorporates materials that borrow rules from the digital and offer a sense of magic in the physical world. Smart materials are a reasonable platform for our desire to have the digital and physical inform one another simply due to the technical opportunities, such as scalability, computational power, and extensibility. However, in addition to having digital and technical possibilities, smart materials offer a relatively unexplored opportunity to drive new conceptions of digital and physical by adhering to intrinsically physical properties of material. Our concept of materiality can be intelligently redefined by the introduction of technical extensions to the material platform.Digital and virtual applications are changing our very conception of the physical space. A new materiality is emerging, based on our physical limitations supported by virtual possibilities. Digital has changed our perception of the physical, as in surface, light and texture, and also our body, as in its ideal representation. However, I believe that an incredible opportunity is being lost. Combined virtual and physical applications are not being designed with their independent principles of physical and virtual in mind. My research explore the fundamental differences between these worlds, and how, as the line between them blurs, we can take the lessons of the virtual space and redesign the physical space.
Yesterday, C-Base organised a fantastic dorkbot. I'm going to report on it but right now i'd just like to mention that Maximillian Nakamura aka Shintaro Miyazaki is trying to set up a dorkbot event in 3D virtual world Second Life.
I asked him a couple of very quick questions:
Can you tell us why and how you got the idea to set up a SL dorkbot?
I got the idea, because I really enjoyed dorkbot meetings in Switzerland. They are a good way to get to know other people, who are also doing strange things with electricity. So I thought it would be nice to have that too in the now emerging world of second life, which grew really really fast in the last few weeks.. I always wanted to be a curator and a chief-organizer of a cutting-edge place, which is intended to support and promote digital art cultures and philosophy. As I was starting to play second life the idea came soon. So I think that I am just trying to realize my dreams like most people in their second life are trying to do!
Who are you hoping to involve in SL dorkbot meetings?
The place or platform I created in-world in Second Life is called "rhizomatic." Therefore my expections are also in this sense rhizomatic. Get connected to people doing strange stuff with electricity from everywhere through and in reflexion of the medium of the metaverse. I wanna make maps of digital art cultures and philosophy in-world and out-world. Like you and all the others ,who are mapping new media art, but I can claim that I was the first who came up with dorkbot meetings in SL. I think the hype about Second Life is already over and its gets just a new medium for everybody like myspace.com a year ago (and I hope even technology critical European artists and art-related people will soon create accounts in SL).
There is also a mailinglist.
Editor's blurb: GameScenes. Art in the Age of Videogames explores the rapidly expanding world of Game Art in the works of over 30 international artists. Included are several milestones in this field, as well as some lesser known works. In addition to the editors' critical texts, the book contains contributions from a variety of international scholars that illustrate, explain, and contextualize the various artifacts.
This is one of the most educational (just remove any negative connotation that might be associated with that adjective), stimulating, and fun book you might find on the subject. So what about the subject? The introduction, by Bittanti, features a series of disclaimers. The book is not about "Videogames as art", nor "Art as game", nor game art, it's not about Art Games either. It is about Game Art. If you find these different terms confusing, you're certainly not the only one, that's why the author explains very clearly what distinguishes one area from the others. He defines Game Art as "any art in which video games played a significant role in the creation, production, and/or display of the artwork. The resulting work can exist as a game, painting, photograph, sound, animation, video, performance or gallery installation."
Quaranta and Bittanti have asked a bunch of smart people (Rebecca Cannon , Henry Lowood, Maia Engeli, Valentina Tanni, etc.) to write a couple of witty pages or more about 32 Game Artists (or Game Art groups) and their work. They range from the usual and bright suspects such as JODI, Miltos Manetas, Brody Condon, Cory Arcangel, Eddo Stern, Margarete Jahrmann and Max Moswitzer to talents who have emerged over the past couple of years like Aram Bartholl, Alison Mealey, etc.
The result is a wonderful little exhibition on paper (which in fact echoes a real exhibition held in Monza a couple of months ago): the curators are passionate, they know their subject, and gave the images of each work the space they deserve, visitors will very probably discover new pieces and/or be happy to find that some of their favourite ones have not been left out, etc. As the authors themselves admit, they could only select a tiny fraction of what makes Game Art today but that's enough to get a good idea of how multi-faceted, exciting and sophisticated the field has grown to be.
The book closes with an essay by Quaranta: "Game Aesthetics - How video Games Are Transforming Contemporary Art" looks at how this twitching of codes, symbols, themes and representations by videogame artists is conditioning the aesthetics and registers of other media.
I still have to go through all the essays on artists, i'm taking my time, enjoying the pages bit by bit. Next week or so i'll probably share with you some of the discoveries i made through this book, but i won't blog them all, i'd rather let you dig up the rest in Gamescenes.
Bonus 1: A glossary. Bonus 2: at the end of the volume, there's a translation of the essays in italian.
Images are some of Jon Haddock's Screenshots. The drawings are made from an isometric perspective, in the style of a computer game. The subject of each drawing is the image, or images, that created a popular cultural event. Historical events (like the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Motel) are used interchangeably with fictionalized events (like the picnic scene from The Sound of Music).
ET is a wearable computing system that uses RFID tags to transform any common object into a toy. When the user touches an object, the ET armband reads its RFID tag. ET makes a sound according to the user's actions. For example, an umbrella becomes a sword, an orange becomes a fireball, and a chair on wheels becomes a racing car.
Yuichiro Katsumoto was kind enough to answer a couple of questions:
Bingo! For AMAGATANA, an acceleration sensor is embedded in an umbrella. Therefore, it's nothing more than an umbrella which makes a sound of sword. So we took a sensor out of the AMAGATANA and applied it to a wristband with a RFID reader.
What was the biggest challenge you encountered while working on E.T?
In creating ET, we developed two devices each called "BracelET" and "PockET". BracelET is a wristband with an RFID reader and acceleration sensor. PockET consists of a PC(Vaio Type U) and a system software which runs on PockET. The user wears the BracelET on the arm and PockET on the hip. When the user touches an object, BracelET reads its RFID tag, and PockET makes a sound according to user's action. We think that this new experience with the combination of technologies is innovative and challenge.
Anyway, fact is stranger than fiction. However, we cannot just behave like heroes in movies and video games as we are people who live in the real world. ET solves this despair. ET changes our daily life itself into play. ET will correspond to all commodity objects which surrounded us. Every act can become play. Finally, our life will be stranger than fiction!
The (free) software keeps track of all the servers you visit, their geographical location and the kinds of data you access. Uploads make hills and downloads valleys, their location determined by numbers taken from internet address itself. The size of each hill or valley is based on how much data is sent or received. Plants are also grown for each protocol detected by the software; if you visit a website, an 'HTTP plant' is grown. If you share some files via eMule, a 'Peer to Peer plant' is grown, and so on.
None of this information is made public or shared in any way, it's your own private landscape.
Somewhat related, Visualization of statistics in computergames, by Michael Zoellner and Daniel Kupczyk, tracks and projects the behaviour of German internet users in a 3D world. Topics as different as politics, sex, sports, environment or economy are translated into the appearance, behaviour, and the sounds of an avatar. As the stream of data creates and changes, so does the population of this world, unvealing a mirror image of the net society.
The second level gives the player more possibilities for interaction and to influence what is happening in the game.
The third level represents a realistic environment, a scene in the street with a supermarket, cars and lawns. This representation projects the statistics in a real world. in a later further development the game could be experienced in an augmented reality environment, meaning that the avatar would be projected in a real scenery.
Search words which date back further in the past are represented by ghost-avatars. One can recognize very fast how different weekdays and daytimes influence the search words and hereby the significance of the categories. On a Sunday morning you will find another population as during the nightly hours of a working day.