The Fisher-Price Nursery Monitor, sold in North America in the early 1980s, was engineered to transmit any noise from the nursery to a wireless receiver accompanying a parent in another part of the home. However, just like many other baby monitors, this model was known for its pesky audible interferences with signals from radio, static, cordless phone or even from neighbour's baby monitors. Furthermore, as with any audio input/output system, when both units are in close proximity they produce disruptive audio feedback. Not great for sleeping babies.
Darsha Hewitt built a whole installation that exploits these inherent glitches and she appropriately called it Feedback Babies. The receivers are attached to motors and slowly bow back and forth in front of the emitters, creating a subtle soundscape of nuanced feedback patterns and squelching radio interference reminiscent of the whimpers of crying babies.
Feedback Babies will be part of the program of the Sight + Sound festival which will open in Montreal on the 20th of May. Let the screeching Feedback Babies gently batter your ears by clicking on the video below and get more details about the work in the little chat i had recently with Darsha:
Hi Darsha! How did you find out about this late '90s model of Fisher-Price Nursery Monitor?
I grew up in the heyday of Fisher-Price technology - I had the baby monitors around when I was a kid. I had younger siblings so we had them in our home - I had a babysitter, she had them too. More recently, they became a common cast-off in the home electronics aisle at second hand stores. My dad was an antique dealer so the act of collecting old things in multiples comes naturally. Also, I'm a sucker for old radio technology and who doesn't love the idea of walkie-talkies made for babies?
And why did you focus on its glitch?
Audio feedback and radio interference are commonplace in sound art. These particular baby monitors seem to have somewhat of a cult following within experimental music. I've seen them used in performances and they are often subjected to circuit bending.
When the receiver and transmitter are used in extreme proximity they cease to function as a device for one-way human communication. Instead the internal voice(s) of the machine takes over. Depending on how you position them, the sonic distortions can range from Walt Disney style bird song to eerie whimpering. By rigging-up the transmitters slowly bow in front of the transmitters they oscillate through this tonal range. As a group they fall in and out of synchronisation and develop some sort of strange inter-machine worshiping pattern...the overall effect is mildly creepy.
What made you decide to bring emphasis on them?
I am particularly drawn to their scale and volume limitations - in a way they remind me of babies. When a newborn belts out a scream from the top of their lungs it can be shrill and alarming, however; since baby anatomy is so mini its cry is still quite weak and helpless. Similarly, even though these machines are feeding back and generating interference to their maximum capacity, their signals are weak and much more subtle than the more balls-out approach to noise that often dominates experimental music and sound art.
Why do you leave all the wires and electronics uncovered?
Electricity is my medium and I enjoy working with its related material dimension. These are domestic electronics - cables and wires are part of everyday life, why should they be concealed?
You seem to work a lot with outdated technological devices. What do you find so fascinating in them?
I am skeptical of certain forms of innovation. As I mentioned above, my dad was an antique dealer - I was taught to value the quality and craft of objects from the past. Furthermore, the practice of planned obsolescence that inhabits industry generates an abundance of discarded electronic devices. This surplus is an economical and steady source of art supplies. Since old technology is inexpensive and readily available, I am free to experiment without fear of failure because I know there will always be more. In my studio I deconstruct these machines as a starting point to gain material knowledge - if I am lucky, artwork emerges.
Science Fiction: New Death seeks to provoke the question - have the Sci Fi visions we once imagined of the future since become a reality? I guess we all know the answer to that one.
Because i write mostly about art and science/technology, i've seen my fair share of exhibitions that reference scifi. However, FACT's latest show is the first one i've visited that is entirely dedicated to science-fiction and visual arts. And in this instance, science fiction isn't explored as the ultimate future forecaster, it is rather the starting point of a reflection on our current condition, an invitation to explore how our relationship with technology has made our everyday lives increasingly look like it is set against the backdrop of a science fiction novel.
Inspired by the work of J.G. Ballard, our story looks to the bleak, man-made landscapes of the future and asks: What happens when virtual environments become indistinguishable from reality? Will our global culture allow us to choose where to live, and who will stop us? What will we do with knowledge that becomes freely available to all? With social platforms acting as camera, how will 'selfies' develop and what new forms of narcissism will thrive? What is it that we need to preserve, and what do we need to change? These questions are explored through intense visualisations of electronic communication, dystopian domestic interiors, and re-enactments of historical revolutionary moments.
New Death, a title which comes from a text that fantasy writer China Miéville wrote for the exhibition, is ominous but so are the glimpses that the participating artists give into the techno-mediated we've built ourselves: conditions of intensified surveillance and repression, border control, loss of citizenship, etc. Not everything is bleak and joyless in the show though. You can bounce off a trampoline and pretend you're an astronaut, meet intelligent robots that attempt to avoid boredom at all costs, you can even participate to the exhibition by writing a story describing a dystopian near future. I don't know what a sci-fi fan would make of the exhibition but i found it smart, provocative and thought-provoking.
Quick overview of the show:
Accomplice is a small clique of social autonomous robots hidden behind one of FACT's gallery walls. Because these machines are curious, they attempt to discover their environment and the first step to live new adventures is to break down the wall. Their mechanical arm relentlessly punches against the wall. In the process, they not only make holes, they are also acquiring knowledge: how the wall react to their poking, how to best expand their horizon and what it is like out there, on the other side of the wall.
As the wall disappears, the robots discover other creatures: the gallery visitors. The more they can see and hear, the more excited and active these robots are getting. Their behaviour, however, isn't predictable and linear. As soon as the movements and noises made by the visitors or the colours and patterns they are wearing have become too familiar, the robots become bored. In a sense, the roles usually taken by the audience and the robots or the artefacts and the visitors are reversed: the robots are the spectators and the gallery goers perform for them.
I had a chance to talk with Rob Saunders at the press view. I scribbled our conversation on a bit of paper, lost it so i'm going to point you to this Robots Podcast: Curious & creative in which he talks about being inspired by Gordon Pask's conversation theory, designing curious systems, the laws of novelty and the social structure that might evolve from them.
The bits and pieces of walls laying unceremoniously on the floor and the unpredictable attitude of the Accomplice robots echo the exhibition experience that Venya Krutikov & Michael Lill of The Kazimier have designed for Science Fiction: New Death. They turned the FACT building into a disordered, stern and slightly disquieting space to navigate. Your movements inside the gallery might or might not be filmed. That poorly-lit corridor might be off limit. That door over there might open on another artworks or maybe it's a dead end.
Before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon in 1969, the NASA elaborated various exercises to understand how man would move in microgravity. The experiments were not just simulations but "pre-enactments" of a new set of rules that we were about to enter, providing a window into the future through which NASA researchers collected not only data but also visual impressions. One such experiment was conducted at Stanford University in the mid-1960s by Thomas R. Kane. The applied mechanics professor had studied the ability of cats to spin their body mid-air so that they could securely land on their four paws. Kane would film a cat bouncing on a trampoline, study its movements, and then a gymnast in a spacesuit would try to reproduce the cat's movements on the trampoline.
Sascha Pohflepp's Camera Futura enables visitors to replicate the experiment. You are invited to wear a light space suit and jump on the trampoline while a camera captures your moves.
The energy stored in the trampoline's springs amplifies the power of our muscles, so that we can briefly launch ourselves and experience an instant of relative weightlessness when falling back to Earth. Camera Futura captures images from that very instant. These photos allow for a glimpse of our brief moment in a post-gravity world. In a sense, they are impressions of ourselves from one of many futures.
The Infinity Burial Project is an art project with an aim to help us accept the reality of our own death. It is also a very bold and practical alternative to current burial system. Once buried or cremated, our bodies do not just decompose and vanish, they also contribute to the deterioration of the environment by releasing the toxic pollutants that our bodies have accumulated over the course of the years: pesticides, preservatives and heavy metals such as lead and mercury.
Jae Rhim Lee has thus developed the Mushroom Death Suit, a burial suit infused with mushroom spores to assist the decomposition of human corpses. The outfit comes with capsules that contain infinity mushroom spores and other elements that speed decomposition and toxin remediation. Besides, an open source burial container, and a membership society devoted to the promotion of death awareness and acceptance and the practice of decompiculture (the cultivation of decomposing organisms).
Facial Weaponization Suite is a playful but also dark critique of the silent and gradual rise of the use of biometric facial recognition software by governments to monitor citizens.
Masks remain an effective tool to prevent identification technologies from capturing, analyzing, archiving and identifying our face. The use of mask also refers to social movements that use masks as a sign of protests. From the Zapatista rebels, to Pussy Riot, Anonymous, etc.
Brad Butler and Karen Mirza are presenting Deep State, a film scripted by science fiction author China Miéville. The film takes its title from the Turkish term "Derin Devlet," meaning "state within the state," and tells a story about the representation of political struggle, moments of crisis, solidarity, schisms and oppression.
The whole film, which overlays archive protest footage and performed interludes, is online:
At first, i wasn't sure what to make of it but, as the images rolled on, i started connecting them to what was going on in Ukraine at the time of the press view of the show and i realized that at this very moment, maybe we still have a choice: we can be the people who raise their heads, protest and attempt to take some control back or we can be the people who are blindly herded into a society of control.
Also part of the show: Nation Estate, a "vertical solution to Palestinian statehood."
Christian Faubel, Crystal forming robots on overhead
The Crystal Forming Robots are little autonomous robots that are placed on an overhead projector. Each robot is powered by the light of the projector and their movements over its surface make tangible the growth process of crystal structures.
When a robot has collected enough energy, it will start moving around. The robots are equipped with tiny magnets, and as soon as two robots with matching polarity come close, they attract each other. Over time, more and more pairs of robots form, create larger clusters and a crystal like structure eventually emerges. The overhead projector magnifies the process into an abstract movie.
The background of this work are the early experiments of cybernetician Gordon Pask on building a chemical computer as a learning system. With the help of software simulation the idea of a growing structure that modifies its own perception of the environment is illustrated. The robotic implementation of the growth process is a first step towards making such a process tangible.
The robots are going to be presented in a performance and exhibition at the Sight + Sound festival in Montreal next month. The programme of the event is, as usual, rather exciting. Sadly, i can't make it to Montreal so i figured out that the next best thing would be to talk to some of the artists who will be there. Hence this little Q&A with Christian Faubel...
Hi Christian! I'm very curious about the way the little bots move in this video. For example, what happens when they all get immobile? Is the system 'trying to figure out' what to do next? What controls the behavior of the robots? Why do some move and others are more passive? Is there a hierarchy?
There is no hierarchy, each of the robots is fully autonomous and triggers a movement when it has collected enough energy through its solar panel. Even though they are all built with the same components, they may have variations in timing and duration of their movement. These variations appear because the components are not perfect, they have physical differences and theses differences contribute to the behavior of the robots. Another contribution to differences in behavior, is the fact that environmental conditions on the ohp vary, in the center there is stronger light and thus more energy for the robots to harvest. As a consequence robots in the center move more often than those on the borders.
Your description of the text talks about parasites and ecosystems. The way the robots move has something a bit organic. It's particularly uncanny in the video version with colorful umbrellas. How important is the observation or imitation of nature when you're developing robotic artworks?
I see most of my robotic artworks as reflections on nature, I consider these robots as philosophical toys because they make the abstract concepts of autonomy and self-organisation tangible. These concepts were developed to describe and understand the way behavior is organized in living beings. So i think that ideally the artworks tell us something about ourselves.
The crystal forming robots are actually an experimental platform that i keep working on as part of my artistic research at the lab3. The first version, that is also documented in the video, had rectangular shapes, while I am currently working with hexagonal shapes. This local difference in shape has global effects in form of the growing shapes. My next step is to add contact points on the robots, so that when they cluster electrical connections are created. Once i have this in place there are so many experiments to do with growing electrical connections, i am really looking forward to this.
What is the 'diffusion limited aggregation algorithm', developed for simulating crystal growth? Can you explain us how it works?
The diffusion limited aggregation algorithm was developed and described in a seminal paper by Witten and Sander in the 80ties to simulate crystal growth processes. [Witten, T. t., and Sander, L. Diffusion-limited aggregation. Physical Review B 27, 9 (1983).]
The basic principle is to simulate particles that do a random walk (diffusion), when they hit a structure (by chance), they attach to that structure (aggregation). The structure is initialized with a single element, over time more and more particles dock onto the structure and a crystal like structure will form.
When you google for it you will find an overwhelming number of beautiful implementations in processing. Andy Lomas presented very nice simulations on Siggraph in 2005. I became interested in this algorithm by a general interest on growth processes and specifically through works such as Roots by Roman Kirschner, which took the works of Gordon Pask on building a chemical computer as starting point. My research on this topic is documented in a seminar on plasticity. When you scroll down you will also find some examples of experiments on crystal growth, as well as some simulations with the diffusion limited aggregation algorithm.
"Over time a crystal like structure emerges from more and more little robots forming larger clusters." What happens once the structure has been formed? is the bots work over and done? or do they separate and start again the clustering process?
Detail of the current hexagonal prototype
No they will not separate again, the whole process runs into one direction and after an hour or more there will usually be only one single big structure. The robots need to be reset manually when the process has converged. I would say that the experiment is finished, when the process has converged and that you then start another experiment, by putting the robots apart again. What you will observe over the course of multiple experiments is that the shapes that form are always different in detail, but structurally similar.
I saw on the festival program that you will also take part in a Monochrome Layering performance at the festival. Will the Overheadbots be part of the events? Or are you going to do something that has nothing to do with them?
The overheadbots have a lot to do with the performance. When we (Tina Tonagel, Ralf Schreiber and myself) started to work on our performance project some years ago, the overheadbots were sort of a trigger for this project. In our performance, the key is the simultaneity of sound and vision. We place kinetic objects such as for example overheadbots, but also all different kind of small robots or self build instruments on the ohp and we use pick-up microphones to amplify the sound that they make when moving. So that in parallel to the moving shadow, or moving light you also hear the sound of the movement.
Kunst und Musik mit dem Tageslichtprojektor @ Designacademy Eindhoven
Why do you chose to work mostly with analog robots?
I like the openness of analog circuits. You don't need to implement any sort of digital communication protocol to link up to a device. Instead you can couple thinks by simply putting a cable that creates electrical connection. For example the when the crystal forming bots are equipped with contacts, so that an electrical connection between them is created, it is enough to put that connection in between the trigger points of the two circuits and the robots will from the moment the connection is created move in synchrony. This happens without any re-programming or other re-configuration.
Conceptually i like the concept of the analog, not in difference to digital computation, but estimating in contrast to counting. i have been influenced a lot by the book Analogous and Digital of the German designer and typographer Otl Aicher. In this book he writes for example that a digital clock always shows the time precisely to the second. It provides you with exact numerical values, but the landscape of time, whether it is morning or afternoon, too early or too late, i can easier deduce from the positioning of the clock hand on the clock face.
Speaking with Otl Aicher i would say that i am more interested in the landscapes than in numerical measures.
Please, don't miss Martin Creed: What's the point of it? at the Hayward Gallery if you're in London. It is visually stunning, very entertaining and it doesn't even require you to wriggle with your brain if you don't want to. In fact, i think this is contemporary art for people who can't suffer to see the words 'contemporary' and 'art' side by side. But don't quote me on this, i never tried to bring a contemporary art-hater to a retrospective of an artist who won the Turner Prize with Work No 227: The Lights Going On and Off, an installation in which the lights of an otherwise empty gallery were turned on and off every five seconds.
Also i am not entirely impartial when it comes to Martin Creed. I love his work. Whether it's the Sick Films in which people enter an empty white space and proceed to vomit on the floor, the mocking neon signs or the cactus plants neatly positioned by size. I LOVE his work.
What's the point of it? is a retrospective which aim wasn't to simply assemble most of Creed's most representative pieces, but to provide a multi-sensory experience. As the following two works will easily demonstrate...
The word MOTHERS almost literally hits you as you enter the gallery. You instinctively duck as the 6 gigantic neon letters slowly gyrate and dominate the whole room. It is fun and slightly menacing. I wonder how the Hayward wasn't served a loud "Health and Safety No No." Meanwhile, 39 metronomes lined up on the floor gently tick at various speeds.
The small glass room above is filled with some 7000 balloons. I'm claustrophobic. Even the title of the installation, Work No. 200. Half the air in a given space, made me hyperventilate.
The exhibition is also an optical party: the walls serve as a happy splashy backdrop for the works. Creed covered them with layers of paint, stripes of adhesive tape and even with rows over rows of small broccoli prints.
There were also videos from the Sick Film and Shit Film series. Work No. 660 shows a rather elegant and not entirely at ease young woman entering the frame and defecating in the middle of a white gallery.
I wish i could find online videos from the Sick Film series. I don't care much for the crap ones but the vomit series is mesmerizing. Some people throw up generously. Others struggle to do so and eventually give up. "Living," as the artist explains "is a matter of trying to come to terms with what comes out of you... That includes shit and sick and horrible feeling. The problem with horrible feelings is you can't paint them. But horrible vomit - you can film that."
Rise and fall of an erection on to the Hayward's terrace. Creed has distributed works outside of the usual gallery space: on the terrace, in the bathroom, in the lifts of both the Royal Festival Hall and of the Hayward Gallery.
So what's the point of this exhibition? I guess there are many answers to that question. For me, it's about getting lost in sensations, being surprised, feeling awe and disgust at the same time and having a very happy moment that lasted long after i exited the show.
Ah! Martin Creed! Even the man looks very cool.
Martin Creed: What's the point of it? is at the Hayward Gallery until Monday 5 May 2014.
The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on Resonance104.4fm, London's favourite radio art station, is aired tomorrow Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.
This week I'm going to be talking with Antony Hall. I interviewed Antony many many years ago and his work is as interesting as ever. Antony creates kinetic artworks; sculptures and installations, often using sonic, mechanical, fluidic, electronic or biological elements. But in the show we will focus on Owl Project, the artist collective that Antony forms together with Simon Blackmore and Steve Symons.
Owl Project works with wood and electronics to create musical and sculptural instruments that question human interaction with computer interfaces and our increasing appetite for new and often disposable technologies.
The work of Owl Project goes from simple ironic devices such as the iLog which is a log that thinks it is a music player to large scale installations such as ~Flow, a floating tidal waterwheel powered electro acoustic musical instrument responding to the river Tyne in Newcastle. Owl Project has also toured festivals and events with their rather ingenious Sound Lathe, a musical instrument based on a traditional green wood turning pole lathe that explores the relationship between the crafting of physical objects and the shaping of sound.
The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, London's favourite radio art station, is aired tomorrow Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.
My guests in the studio will be Mathias Gmachl and Rachel Wingfield from Loop.pH. The work of the London-based studio speculates on near and far future scenarios as a way to probe at the social and environmental impact of emerging biological and technological futures. Some of their most renown projects include collaborating with a Nobel prize winner to communicate the functioning of molecular machines, designing a curtain made of algae that produce bio-fuel, setting up an edible DIY bio fab-lab for the video of Aussie band Architecture In Helsinki, creating an immersive sound and light performance that explores the field of neuroscience and investigating the possibilities of living architecture.