Material Beliefs is a group of designers based in London. They might create pieces of furniture and accessories but they are not your usual tables and cups. The result of a close collaboration with scientists and engineers, social scientists but also members of the public, their projects take emerging biomedical and cybernetic technology out of labs and into public space. The members of Material Beliefs use design as a tool for public engagement, a mean to stimulate discussion about the value and impact of new technologies which blur the boundaries between our bodies and materials.
Each of the prototypes they develop is the starting point of a fruitful and much needed debate in public space about the relationship between science and society.
Their prototypes are questionable and puzzling. They include a series of extremely cruel and useful Carnivorous Domestic Entertainment Robots (think moth-eating lamps and a robotic coffee table that doubles as a mouse trap) and pastel pink or baby blue Vital Signs monitors (a product of the child surveillance industry, they enable data about the body to be communicated across a mobile phone network.) You can encounter them in venues as different as the Dana Centre in London and LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial in Gijon, Spain.
At the heart of Material Beliefs are Andy Robinson, Elio Caccavale, Tobie Kerridge, Jimmy Loizeau (with James Auger) and Susana Soares, supported by collaborations with Aleksandar Zivanovic, Julian Vincent, Kevin Warwick, Slawomir Nasuto, Ben Whalley, Mark Hammond, Julia Downes, Dimitris Xyda, David Muth, Tony Cass, Olive Murphy, Nick Oliver, Dianne Ford, Luisa Wakeling, Julie Daniels and Anna Harris.
My victim for this interview is designer Tobie Kerridge whom i wanted to talk with ever since i read about about a project he conceived than actually prototyped together with scientist Ian Thompson and designer Nikki Stott: Biojewellery. The project catapults traditional engagement and wedding rings into the world of tissue engineering and biotechnology research by using bone tissue cultured from human cells in order to create bespoke jewellery.
I must admit that i almost regretted to have asked you this interview. While preparing it, i had a long look through the website of Material Beliefs and found it so complete and so well documented that i felt that there was nothing left for me to ask you. I then had the idea of doing a 'designboom style' interview where the designer is asked all sorts of apparently frivolous questions. So now the idea has become irresistible and here's a question i stole from designboom: I assume you notice how women dress. Do you have any preferences?
Then I'm going to be cheeky and and steal someone's answer, Inga Sempé's was nice - "no".
I like the name of the project, Material Beliefs, a lot. Where does it come from and which kind of ideas do you want it to convey?
Ah, this is a long story, and it also shows a lack of imagination under pressure. I was writing the funding proposal for Material Beliefs with Savita Custead, and we had to get the thing submitted. Being a bit stuck for names, the project title came about by co-joining the titles of two beloved projects.
One is Materials Library, run by Mark Miodownik, Zoe Laughlin and Martin Conreen. They operate an archive of materials, and take these artefacts into public spaces by staging performative events. They convened a series at the Tate, and then followed on with events at the Wellcome Collection themed around Flesh and one coming up soon will focus on Hair. Their obsessions create new communities that play across disciplines.
The other was a proposal for funding to the ECRC by Robert Doubleday, Mark Welland, James Wilsdon and Brian Wynne called "Material Imaginations". Their proposal followed on from a project I first read about in See Through Science, a report by DEMOS. Doubleday set up an ethnographic project in Welland's Nanotechnology lab, the aim being to work with scientists to imagine the social outcomes of their nanotechnology research. He said "My role is to help imagine what the social dimensions might be, even though the eventual applications of the science aren't yet clear". This made me think about the role of design as a set of speculative tools for working with science and engineering.
I was a student of Durrell Bishop, Tony Dunne, Bill Gaver, Fiona Raby, and other fine tutors at what's now the Design Interactions course at the Royal College of Art. In this context, my practice emerged through an interrogation of design methods and aims. Material Beliefs is an attempt to make design's association with science and technology more embedded. It takes influence from Doubleday's - and previously Bruno Latour's and Steve Woolgars - encampment in labs. The difference is that the role of that occupation is more than analytical, it attempts to synthesise outcomes - what happens when speculative attitudes to science and technology get located at the site of laboratory research? Well not much sometimes, but other times it works out and you get a fascinating and messy shared practice. Designers and Scientists/Engineers also have to work harder to understand each others roles and offer respect and support - it's difficult and rewarding.
The other aspect is that these collaborations take place in public as much as possible. Taking inspiration from Miodownik, Laughlin and Conreen, it's about doing the work in front of and with audiences. These are not only the audiences you might find at art or design exhibitions. Sometimes the model of public engagement is not top-down, but about getting people into labs and enabling them to do new stuff - making enquiries, building their own prototypes, asking researchers about the ethics of technology, finding out how funding is awarded.
Here design becomes a tool for translating academic knowledge into resources for independent enquiry, and a way of enabling others to access technology. This can be tricky as you have to sneak people into labs, under the radar of public relations departments who might not see the value of access for groups that wont promote the research in a straightforward way. This is not a criticism, it just that some institutions are not yet set up for challenging forms of public engagement. This situation I think is aggravated by an institutional anxiety about campaigning groups, but that is another story.
Finally, when I first Googled "Material Beliefs" it was all about religious practices, and it seemed appropriate, seeing as we were going to be doing so much preaching.
Material Beliefs looks like a unique structure. I suspect that many artists and designers would dream of engaging with emerging biomedical and cybernetic technology in close cooperation with engineers and social scientists. Which kind of advice would you give to artists or designers who might want to set up a design lab like yours? How did you manage to get the ear (and funding) of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council in England?
It's a good time to extend design practices that ask questions about our relationship with technology and science. In the UK at least, there is an ongoing discussion about how public engagement of science should be done. This is a discussion at a policy level, about democratising access to the research that will have its outcomes in the products and services we use. So while public engagement of science used to be about persuading the public that science produced a benefit, or where it was a strategy for encouraging a new generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians to keep the nation competitive, it is now also about looking for new ways to involve different groups of people in science. These discussions then filter down into decisions about how funding is awarded. I think Material Beliefs probably benefited from new attitudes about what public engagement of science is allowed to be.
We set out to say that design lets non-specialists respond to science in creative ways, to make their own things out of their curiosities with bioengineering, and to have an active role within the production of research, or at least to play a role in the discussion of what unfinished research might come to mean. Rather than be told that this or that technology is not really risky, or at best being invited into a conversation that decides if a technology is risky, publics can actually have some kind of active role in how technology encountered. That's what design can do, it encourages an active orientation towards materials and processes, it provides a reason to try to do something, rather than sit back passively, then point your finger out of anxiety, for example over the potential effects of biotechnological products and services that suddenly appear on the market - "Where did that come from? Frankenfoods messing up my body, I am even angrier now!". The fact is that science is complex, it is enacted through a relationship between peers and rivals, institutions, markets, funders, politicians, ethics committees. Rather than ignore that, or treat science as monolithic entity, why not try to situate a practice productively somewhere amongst this fascinating network? Material Beliefs is only starting to think about this extended role for design, others have been doing it for some time, and I'm thinking of Natalie Jeremijenko's practice, Symbiotica's lab in Perth, and the thinking that has informed the Design Interactions course.
More generally, how do scientists react to your interests and works? Are they immediately ready to cooperate? Do you have to painfully win them over? How easy is the dialogue with people who seem to have a radically different background?
One thing learnt from this project is to take the invitations very wide initially, and to rapidly make sense of who might want to collaborate. Material Beliefs is lead by the designers, James Auger, Elio Caccavale, Jimmy Loizeau, Susana Soares and myself, and I must say that all of us broke our backs pursuing eminent, exciting but ultimately uninterested scientists and engineers. If people want to do stuff, then run with them. The hardest aspect was articulating our approach, and making it clear what was expected and what we would be doing. Academics are busy, whatever their discipline, and there are not many academics you could expect to spend time doing activities that are outside of there specialism. That is asking a lot.
Luckily, there is some pressure on science and engineering to do public engagement. Being able to show you have done this helps with funding. This was something we could appeal to. I don't think this is being tricksy, it's just a matter of finding a recognisable space in which to hold the stuff you want to do, that makes sense for everyone, even if it is for slightly different reasons. You all need to take risks, the designer needs to be elastic with their focus as a practitioner, and the engineer scientists need to take into account alternative descriptions of their research objects. It's not easy to make sense of a question about the ethics of a technology that you have been developing intensively for two years.
We are, or I hope were, quite naive in the way we approached science, which of course has a different culture to design. I have a particularly painful memory of filming an interview with a researcher, and not making it clear that the interview was to be put online. He was very angry when | sent him a link for approval, particularly as the first clip was me setting up and dropping the camera, and kind of laughing awkwardly. I thought the clip was charming. He thought I was taking the piss, and sent some quite angry emails. Have a look at some of the interviews that did get approved. This was a way for us to read around the research, to get it from the researchers mouths. Their descriptions are imbued with their excitement, and taken down a notch so we can understand. Perfect. Imaging having to orientate your practice to biotechnology through academic papers, or newspapers - the extremes of possible discourses - that leave you respectively bewildered or sour.
"Material Beliefs blur the boundaries between material culture and bioengineering research, designing speculative products that embody emerging technologies." How does one design a speculative product? And how can a product be "speculative"? How do you avoid the label "Art"?
You design something that you don't mean to manufacture. We all used design methods and processes, and built prototypes, but the emphasis was with the interaction between the prototypes and statements about social life, rather than the prototypes and business. If you want to make a product, you will spend more time specifying materials because unit cost is important, or you will be looking for intellectual property opportunities, and talking to distributors. That's fine, but you can't also then ask public questions about the role of technology. You can try, but I'm sure you will be very tired, and loose some friends and alienate your family.
The question about art is important. I think it would have initially made our lives easier to say we were doing a sci-art, both in terms of forming collaborations and finding a descriptive label for the outcomes. The problem with using established relationships is that you also have to deal with a set of associated problems, and limitations. I'm not talking about participating in art exhibitions, or discussing the work within an art theory discourse, this is more about assumptions various people might have about doing a sci-art project. While initially frustrating to say "this is neither art, nor design for innovation" it was liberating to develop our own processes and methods for working with scientists, engineers and publics.
One place that seems to do sci-art well is the residency programme at Peals, Elio did something there. What often seems to happen, is that there is an assumption that art will benefit from science, and science will benefit from art. That's crap, it's like a small dinner party for two couples, both delighted at the company of one another. What Peals does is address the way the collaboration can be enacted through a much wider network of people.
So it's not about a problem with the label of art, just whose label that is, and what they are trying to do with it. It's worth mentioning SymbioticA again here, who have managed to set up a lab that invites and educates arts practitioners. This is proper, it has been developed slowly and carefully, to the point where it is respected and supported for what it does, by people from many different disciplines. Of note in the UK also is Arts Catalyst.
Do you have pictures of MB working studio? Does it look and function more like a lab or your usual design studio?
Material Beliefs is scattered about the place. There is the Interaction Research Studio and design workshop at Goldsmiths, RapidForm and Design Interactions at the RCA, the Institute of Biomedical Engineering at Imperial College, Cybernetics and Pharmacy at Reading University, and the Institute of Ophthalmology at University Collage London. Project activities are based at the most appropriate site, and in some cases need to be run across multiple sites at the same time. The Neuroscope project is noteworthy here, with Julia Downes and Mark Hammond working with cell cultures and server side software, Elio Caccavale desiging CAD prototypes and David Muth writing a client application.
Equally important are the venues where members of the collaborations curate public events. These have included The Dana Centre, the V&A, MoMA, the Design Museum in London, The Royal Institution of Great Britain, the National Theatre, The Stephen Lawrence Centre, LABoral and Selfridges. There's a full list here. These forays into public spaces have acted as a cross between work in progress shows, design crits and think-tanks.
There have also been some smaller scale activities that are really messy, and which have transgressed divisions between labs and publics. There was an event at the Institute of Biomedical Engineering (IBE) called Mind the Loop, that had no clear design outcome, it was just too interesting to neglect. The silicon beta cell is designed to behave like an artificial pancreas, sensing blood sugar levels in the body and applying this biometric data to an algorithm which controls an insulin pump to regulate the blood sugar levels. That's the loop, It's a biological system rendered in silicon. Then around this technology you have different people, including the engineer who is making it work, the person who might use the silicon beta cell, and the doctor who negotiates and implements use. Mind the loop was a conversation between these three people, filmed by Steve Jackman.
Material Beliefs kicked off with a statement about biological and silicon hybrids, looking perhaps for the collaborations to establish a contemporary description of cyborg. The conversation about the silicon beta cell was striking because it showed the model of this hybrid was more extensive, it was more than one person, the technology is not stable, both in terms of its function and meaning and it took on the values of different communities. At the same time, as the collaboration at IBE was being discussed at public events I became aware of lots of discussion about the relationship between biomedical engineering and monitoring, trust and risk. I built Vital Signs to locate this discussion in a product that monitors a child's biometrics. In the UK there's a debate about childhood and risk, Cutting Edges Cotton Wool Kids and the RSA's recent report are examples. The Vital Signs prototypes are not critical of biomedical research, but designed to ask some questions about how technologies reproduce and materialise social relations.
Sorry, that's drifted away from the question a bit! I hope it gives an example of how the collaborations operate across different sites.
I'll ask Andy.
Andy Robinson: My approach to managing the specualtive is to combine the essentials of any project management role, aims and objectives, timescales and milestone etc etc. with a very clear understanding of the particularities of the participants and their ways of working. It is a conversation between participant and the aims set up for the project, where review and redirection are always possible within an agreed, often revised, playing field. The funder is crucial in this in setting up the opportunity for such a project in the first place. This is where the important tone is set, and i try to manage the conversion between participants and this tone. My function therefore is to have an overview, be neutral amongst agendas, but support the initial voice of the projects aims to engage with the participants skills and motivations. Ultimately it is to support creativity to flourish, risks to be taken, the unexpected to be embraced, and speculation to thrive.
I had a huge row with my boyfriend a few years ago. And you're the one to blame. He was totally into doing one of your biojewellery rings and thought i didn't love him enough to sacrifice a bit of wisdom tooth to make one. Where are the rings now? Are you still working on the project? What separates them from mass commercialization? The technology is too expensive? People find the idea hard to stomach?
Ha, sorry to hear about your row! At least you didn't end up with a nasty mouth infection like one of the participants. She was very nice about it, despite the discomfort and having to go on a course of antibiotics. I think the project managed to pay for parking fines she incurred while having the operation, which is some small compensation for a rather frustrating series of events for her.
Though it was not the tooth that provided the sample for the rings. Painful wisdom teeth merely provided a medical reason to have a bit of jaw bone removed, "while we're in there, lets just take a little chip of bone". I'm trivialising something that Ian Thompson did a great deal of work on - an application to a medical ethics committee for permission to run and experiment on the in vitro interaction of osteoblasts with ceramic scaffolds. So growing the rings for the couples also contributed to research about how to culture bone tissue into fairly large volumes.
The real rings are with the couples, and there are various models that tour around. Nikki Stott is setting up an exhibition in Spain shortly, and there have been quite a few shows this year. So it's archived and still active.
Any upcoming projects you could share with us? Either personal or from Material Beliefs?
Carnivorous Domestic Entertainment Robots and Vital Signs are part of the Touch Me festival in Zagreb, so Jimmy Loizeau and I will take some prototypes for exhibition, and I think present Material Beliefs as part of the symposium. The festival theme "arises from the need for artistic and cultural analysis of contemporary forms of violence and systems of control". This is something of a departure from the other weekend, when I was sitting with four year olds in the Royal Institution of Great Britain drawing fly eating robots with felt tips.
I'm then really looking forward to 2009 and getting into my phd, and your questions have given me some things to think about, so thanks for that!
All images courtesy Material Beliefs.
In little more than 24 hours, i managed to visit some compelling art events in Paris. My first stop was for numeriscausa, a gallery that dedicates its energy to prove critics, audience and institutions (hence the market) that the so-called digital arts have achieved maturity.
The space is currently inhabited by the robots of France Cadet. With her exhibition, Artificial Curiosity, the artist questions once again the relationships we have with our pets, whether they made of hardware or flesh and blood, she also takes a critical look at the limits of science and eugenism.
At the entrance, you're greeted by a wall of Hunting Trophies (video), then by an installation bearing a title that references one of Philip K.Dick's most famous novels: Do Robotic Cats Dream of Rlectric Fish?. An electronic kitten is sitting in front of the TV set, transfixed by the image of a virtual fish, floating around the screen.
Will one day robotic pets behave like our cats and dogs? Will they be willing to engage in social activities or watch TV? Will they want to be entertained like the rocking robot that awaits visitors in the back room of the gallery?
Its name, Gaude Mihi, comes from a Latin expression that can be translated as 'amuse me', 'entertain me'. As soon as the robot feels a presence it starts balancing itself. All the robot wants is to have fun without any consideration whatsoever for the entertainment of its owner (though i must say that i found his behaviour hilarious), it rejects 'interactivity' (the presence of a proximity sensor is not enough to qualify the piece as really interactive) and participation, redefining in the process the roles of the toy and the player.
Video visit with France Cadet (in french.)
On view at the Gallery numeriscausa in Paris, until October 25, 2008. France Cadet will also have some work exhibited on October 20 to 28 at Slick, a young contemporary art fair which takes place in Paris on the occasion of FIAC in Paris.
Daniel Canogar is a media artist living between Spain and Canada. He's also the Artistic Director of VIDA, an international competition on art & artificial life. Launched 10 years ago by Fundación Telefónica, the prize rewards works of art produced with and commenting on artificial life technologies.
Previous winners include projects as different as a robot that sweats, a table that follows you around, robotic dogs suffering from the mad cow disease, solar-powered devices which modify their own instruction code in response to environmental changes, autonomous non-violent protest agents, a mobile cemetery tank, a Universal Whistling Machine, etc. What these artworks have in common is that they engage with emerging behaviours, which evolve over time, react with their environment and seem to have a life of their own.
The dozens of projects which have received an award over the past ten years form a unique collection documenting the evolution of electronic art in one of its most significant aspects. The looming deadline to submit projects (6th of October 2008) is the excuse i took to interview Daniel Canogar about the competition.
Last year the VIDA competition celebrated its 10th anniversary. How did it evolve over the course of the years? Did it get more ambitious? Set itself new goals? Opened its scope to new territories? i'm thinking about last year's winner, NoArk by Symbiotica, which is not based on electronics but on biotechnology.
When VIDA began, A-Life as a discipline was still very recent, a little over 10 years old. So as usually happens with young disciplines, there has been an evolution in the field, which has been reflected in VIDA. A couple of years ago there was a heated discussion amongst jury members if VIDA should be open to biotechnology art projects. The origins of A-Life are in computer simulation, not biotech, so this was quite a controversial issue. In the end, we did decide to include biotechnology projects, as they are closely related to A-Life concerns. The important thing, in my view, is not to remain faithful to categories, but to keep VIDA alive with the kind of art projects that are relevant to our times.
I guess this will sound like a silly question but do you see trends in the entries the prize has received over the years? For example, artificial life of animals being abandoned at some point because the trend is more in artificial life at a nano-level? How closely do the entries reflect the changes occurring in our society and in research more particularly?
It's not art's mission to be a direct mirror of what is going on in research labs. A-Life art has taken some of the evolutionary concepts of the field, and in a sense created a totally new field that is much closer to the general public. But more importantly, these projects are not so concerned with specific technologies generated in research labs. They are extremely concerned with concepts, ideas, questions about how technology has changed the way we feel about ourselves, about notions of what it means to be alive, or dead, etc. It is exactly the kind of conceptual questioning that is often so lacking in research labs. VIDA submissions do not come out of A-Life lab research, though their contribution to the field is extremely valuable. In fact, I hope scientists working in the field of A-Life take note of VIDA art projects, and take some of the serious questioning that occurs at a sociological and cultural level back to the lab.
VIDA rewards works of art developed with artificial life technologies and related disciplines. How much of this artificial life has already moved away from research labs and artists workshops to crawl into our everyday life?
A-Life research is present in everyday consumer products, such as children's electronic pets (Tamagotchi, Dogz, Catz and many more), video games with characters that evolve over time, or in intelligent interfaces for mobile telephones and other electronic devices which "learn" about the user, including search engines. No doubt, in coming years such technologies will become a staple of our quotidian life.
Fundación Telefónica exhibited the winners of VIDA 10.0 at the ARCO art fair in Madrid last April. Has FT always done that? I found so far that very few art fairs actually give space to art practices engaged with technology. Why is the presence of VIDA in the commercial context of an art fair so important?
Fundación Telefónica has always exhibited VIDA winners at ARCO. First of all, it is important to give ARCO, Madrid's art fair, a little bit of context. ARCO is not like any other fair, it is a fundamental cultural phenomenon in Spain. It transcends contemporary art, arousing interest from every creative field, and people from all walks of live, young and old, rich and not so wealthy, high-school students and major art collectors. Every year about 200.000 people visit the fair. So VIDA's presence in ARCO is a fantastic way of getting the public to learn about the award.
But beyond visibility of VIDA, there is also the art market issue. New media artists need to find alternative ways of circulating and distributing their work beyond the rather small circuit of specialized festivals and conferences. Funding of technologically driven artwork is expensive, and artists need to find ways of financing their projects. There have actually been VIDA awarded projects that have sold at the fair, and of course, the sale goes directly to the artist.
This is very encouraging. It's a very daring thing for the Fundación Telefónica to present this kind of technological work in the context of the art fair, and through the years, Fundación Telefónica's booth has been one of the most successful at the fair.
VIDA is also involved in a series of workshops taking place in Latin America. Can you tell us something about these workshops? How do they go? What is their objective? What happens there?
Latin America is a region where artists have a hard time funding their new media projects. Fundación Telefónica has exhibition spaces and programs in Lima, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, Santiago de Chile and Mexico City, so VIDA's projects in Latin America grow out of this preexisting network. Certain places have a lively new media scene, such as Buenos Aires. In other cities, the scene is practically non-existant. Funding for VIDA workshops is conceived as seed money for potential VIDA award candidates. We want to tap into the tremendous creative talent that exists in Latin America, and also help create a context for the emergence of A-Life art. For this reason we ask VIDA award recipients to develop workshops for Fundación Telefónica's centers in Latin America. This year Gilberto Esparza, a fantastic Mexican artist that won a VIDA award last year, has directed workshops in Buenos Aires, Lima, Santiago and Mexico City. It's a way of creating a community of artists helping other artists create new work. This is an exciting development for VIDA.
The Incentive for Iberoamerican productions award helps artistic projects that still have not been produced. How difficult is it to judge the validity of a work which doesn't really exist yet? How far must the artists be in the advancement of the project?
When the artist has a conceptually clear idea of what he/she wants to do with his/her art project, it usually comes through in the actual proposal. The technical description of how the work is going to get made is also important and very revealing. Many members of the jury are very savvy about both software and hardware and can usually figure out if the work can get built as described. Past work by the artist also gives the proposal more context, so we often look at dossiers or webpages. Its always really exciting to see these works actually materialized having seeing them in their infancy as proposals. And what really prides the jury members more than anything else is when we begin to see some of these art pieces circulate in exhibitions and festivals.
Were it not for VIDA and a few other initiatives i, and i'm sure many people in Europe, would know almost nothing about Iberoamerican art projects developed using artificial life technologies, electronics, robotics, etc. Do you have some advice for people curious about what is going on over there?
Well, for starters, it may be interesting to look at VIDA's webpage with documentation of selected past projects: many of them are from Latin America. Another fantastic source of new media art made in this region is the exhibition Emergentes. Curated by Jose Carlos Mariátegui, it is one of the first exhibitions focused on Latin American new media art. This is a traveling show which opened in Laboral, the center for new media art in Gijón, northern Spain. The catalogue is a good source for references, understanding of the cultural specificity and historical background of the emergence of new media art in Latin America.
Can you tell us something about the project of Fundación Telefónica Virtual Museum? When will it go live? What will web users find there?
It should be available early next year. The Virtual Museum wants to be a didactic tool, the best source for A Life Art on the web, where you will not only see documentation of VIDA awards, but you will actually be able to experience some pieces first hand with web-based projects. It will also document the history of A Life art, and show many landmark projects that have significantly contributed to the field. The interface will allow for a very intuitive and seamless navigation through all this documentation. It's a large project, one that will require constant updating to make it really alive, and hopefully become a significant reference in the new media art scene.
Over the years the competition has gained fame and visibility. How does it translate in terms of number of entries? And do you tend to receive more entries from Spain, Iberoamerica and Portugal?
Last year we received close to 200 entries from 25 different countries. There has been a steady increase of submitted projects through the years, a real accomplishment if you bear in mind how specialized the award is. Every year three projects get awards, plus 7 projects are selected as honorary mentions. That means that on VIDA's web page, you can study an archive of over 100 art works related to A Life. About 30% of submitted projects are from Spain, Portugal and Latin America. Contributions from the US and Canada form another 30%, European projects comprise approximately 30 % and the remaining 10% are submissions from Asian countries. One of our objectives for the close future is to reach out to Japan, Korea and China, where significant A Life art has taken place in the last few years. There is always room to improve! VIDA is a unique award, the only one in the world specialized in A Life and Robotic art. I am now hoping for another 10 years of growth, enabling more artists to realize their life-like creations all around the globe.
I liked 'The Rest of Now', the Bolzano section of the Manifesta biennale so much that i fear that i'll end up forgetting about the other exhibitions i saw at the Biennale this week. Two of the participating artists/architects took very literally the questions put forward by The Raqs Media Collective who curated the exhibition: What gets left behind when everything is taken away? What can be retrieved, and what can be remembered? How can the residual become the engine of meaning?
Over time, parasitic micro-organisms such as cyanobacterias and the Cladosporium genus of fungi, have occupied and taken over the walls of the abandoned Alumix factory. The restoration of the ex-factory means that the building is loosing its value as habitat for the organisms.
Architects Stangeland and Kropf decided to engage with this transitional state. The Naked Garden is generated by the mediation of different modes: biological propagation, mathematical abstraction and technological execution. A robot, programmed with the rules by which the fungi grow, engraves and perforates the wall already inhabited by fungi, thereby allowing light, water and wind to enter and to facilitate the basic conditions of life.
Jorge Otero-Pailos is an architect and theorist specialized in experimental forms of preservation. His contribution to Manifesta is The Ethics of Dust, an installation intended to preserve pollution and the dust that has to be swept away from the building during the renovation process. Pollution has negative connotation. Yet, it can tell fascinating stories about our social, cultural and industrial past.
During two weeks, Otero-Pailos and his team of architectural conservators coated in latex an entire wall of the a wall inside the ex-Alumix factory in order to trap the dust and any trace of air pollution that have accumulated over decades. The architect then peeled the latex off, displaying it like a semi-transparent and precious shroud.
Following the tradition of nineteenth-century archeologists, who made plaster casts of the world's monuments so that European academics could study the architecture of distant cultures, Otero-Pailos suggests a new way of looking at architecture and our history.
Manifesta 7 - the European Biennial of Contemporary Art runs until November 2, 2008 in Trento, Fortezza, Rovereto and Bolzano.
Heidi Kumao's art pieces explore ordinary social interactions in order to reveal what lies beneath them: psychological states, emotions, compulsions, thinking patterns, and dreams. She is currently teaching animation, video, experimental television production, and electronic and conceptual art at the School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. For 2007-08, she has been awarded a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship from the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation.
A few years ago i discovered her set of female kinetic sculptures "Misbehaving: Media Machines Act Out," and classified her work under robotics and kinetics. Then i stumbled upon the performative techno-enhanced series of clothing she had developed and here i was trying to fit her work inside the "wearable" category. A closer look on her portfolio revealed household objects sabotaged to become cinema machines, overtly activist projects and the geekiest wedding cake i had ever seen. The experience taught me that any attempt to classify of her work would be pure folly unless i'd try to trick her into giving me a helping hand:
You first graduated in photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. How did you come to work with kinetic installations, RFID activist projects and quirky wedding cakes? What made you broaden the scope of your artistic practice?
This is a big question, so I'll answer it in sections as a way to answer the larger issue of shifts in artistic practice. How I get from here to there to there to there...
Re: transition from photography to sculpture
The Art Institute had a very interdisciplinary photo department at the time and we were really encouraged to "go outside the box" of photography, to mix photography with other media, to be artists who USE photography rather than pure photographers. In the 80's and 90's, photography was exploding in 100 different directions and open to a variety of approaches. Everything was possible. Everything could be photographic in some way.
When I entered graduate school as a photographer I was already starting to work with sequential imagery. I was driven by a need to animate physical gestures and behaviors as indicators of psychological states. Simultaneously, I was collecting domestic objects and record players and researching pre-cinema devices and the 19th century creation of spectacle, Emile Reynaud's praxinoscope from the 1880's, in particular. My first kinetic works were homemade-looking zoetropes that projected a sequential loop of 12 images: a child being spoon-fed, a woman's legs curtseying, a woman frantically sweeping. Like a memory that can't be repressed, each animated sequence repeated endlessly and mechanically. In this way, each object seemed to be speaking with its images, a visual and mechanical voice replacing text. Much like the girls' legs I made much later, they were an artificial life form, a stand-in for a real person that I could construct and bring life to. These "cinema machines" (as I called them) allowed me to combine all of my interests (photography, performance, sculptural assemblage and the psychology of everyday life), into one art form. I loved working this way and continued to create cinema machines for several years.
While much of my work could be categorized as "kinetic installation," a more accurate descriptor might be "animated tableau." I tend to think of myself as a theater director, staging events for the viewer. A lot of my art practice is about creating a situation for something to unfold over time. This grew organically out of my experience staging photographs. It seems to be a mode of art making to which I am intuitively drawn.
Each tableau intentionally uses recognizable objects that suggest a possible scenario from everyday life. As I craft each piece, I am very conscious of the psychological experience that is created for the viewer. Can the space of each tableau imply both a physical site and a psychological state? How can I make the viewer re-examine seemingly ordinary events such as childhood play, family dynamics, television news or even the wearing of clothes?
RE: RFID Activist projects
I worked on Zapped! a multi-part project about the mass implementation of RFID technology with Preemptive Media in 2005. I met the members of Preemptive Media (Beatriz da Costa , Jamie Schulte, and Brooke Singer at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA where I was a Microsoft Artist-in-Residence Fellowship for 1999-2000. Besides being a great school for robotics, computing, AI, engineering and art, Pittsburgh happened to be an amazing hub for art collectives, tactical media practitioners, and technological art at that time. I was surrounded by tons of brilliant people including folks from Critical Art Ensemble, Institute for Applied Autonomy, and Subrosa, to name a few. Just being in this environment made me rethink my artistic process completely, and motivated me to learn how to incorporate electronics, microprocessors, computing, and digital imagery into my work.
Before we ever did Zapped! a few of us had collaborated on a project (Nomadika) about data-veillance and wireless technologies for the 2001 Sculpture Conference in Pittsburgh. We educated and informed the public about the future of data mining by opening a storefront for our fake marketing firm. Researching data mining and privacy loss in our contemporary era later led Preemptive Media to the project on RFID, which seemed to be (at the time) yet another way in which corporations and the government would invade citizens' privacy. As someone who creates and teaches animation and video, my primary role in the collaboration was to make the educational video from all of the research and information we had unearthed as a result of this project.
After working solo for so long, I relished the opportunity to collaborate with others on a project.
RE: quirky wedding cakes
The 6,000 volt wedding cake was a collaborative project with my husband, Michael Flynn, a high school physics teacher and science exhibit designer. As two mechanically minded people, we decided that our cake had to reflect our interests in machines and the project grew from there. It started with the idea to have two cakes cut to look like interlocking gears and progressed to two motorized cakes on gear-run platforms. Michael made two dolls that represented us in our wedding costumes. These dolls were going to stand on the top of each cake and would basically pass one another every time the cakes turned. Eventually, I thought we needed to incorporate an electric "spark" between the dolls, like the "spark" between us (cheesy, I know). This led to the idea of using a Jacob's Ladder to generate a much larger spark. Michael purchased a neon sign transformer and wired the cakes and dolls with opposing charges. When powered on, the cakes turn, and once a turn, the dolls hands meet and a large flaming spark erupts from their meeting hands. It's pretty funny. And like other collaborative projects I've done, it was loads of fun!. Our "how to" article appeared in Make Magazine.
What made you broaden the scope of your artistic practice?
When I look over the various transitions I have made with respect to media
(from photo to cinema machines to kinetic sculptures to animation to collaborative technological projects), I can map those changes onto personal and cultural moments of change. For many years, I made a life as an artistic nomad. I relocated every year or two for jobs, fellowships or other opportunities. This experience of having to re-contextualize and refocus myself in so many different places shaped my art practice in a deep way. Each time I moved, the new school, city or community raised new issues to consider. For example, (like I said earlier) as a research fellow at Carnegie Mellon, I was exposed to art practices that critically engaged technology rather than simply used technology. I had access to people, tools, and resources such as machine shops for the creation of custom parts, computer programmers, robotics labs, video editing equipment, etc. As a result of being at Carnegie Mellon, my work shifted away from more personal themes towards more political issues and cultural critique.
While I had been using technology for many years, my time at CMU caused me to rethink how I used it and why.
Exposure to such a large computing environment had other long-term effects on my art that didn't show up until much later. Researchers in AI, computing, robotics and gaming exposed me to the possibilities of generative artwork, which was a complete paradigm shift from creating "fine art" objects for the art world. I was excited to think about making a dynamic system or a tool as an artwork rather than a fixed object. However, it took me awhile to decide on a project that would best be served by this approach.
Later, when I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, 9-11 and the proliferation of cable news caused me to analyze the visual and conceptual construction of the news broadcast more critically. CNNplusplus, an interactive and dynamic news broadcast, was born a few years later (in collaboration with Chip Jansen.
The short answer to your question is simply new places, new people and A.D.D. or the tendency to get bored easily...
You seem to navigate effortlessly from one discipline to another but are there particular issues or elements that you keep returning to?
Yes! I find that I return to an exploration of ordinary social interactions and their psychological undercurrents, institutional critique (mainstream media, traditional gender roles, others), and performance (creating theatrical spectacle, behaving/acting social roles, performing for a camera). I view performance as an integral part of everyday experience and define it very broadly: as a means to define our identity and sexuality, as an examination of roles we play as employees or family members, and as a tool for self-expression. Every piece has its origins in everyday life: an argument, a memory of childhood, the frustrations of watching television, the act of being a consumer--
My art making process is grounded in these types of experiences.
Combining these three things together has produced two main types of work that are pretty different (at least to me):
1) Work that emphasizes a visceral experience and tells a more personal story: the "cinema machines," the girls' legs, stop-motion animations, and my latest shadow theater pieces
2) interactive projects that are more overtly political and use technology to critique technology: CNNplusplus, Zapped!, Wired Wear
I find I am drawn to the more personal works because they provide an outlet for me to imply/suggest a critique of institutions of power without being so literal. Almost every piece starts with a personal story of some kind and the creation of a tableau is an opportunity to create a visual poem of images and objects together. By exposing the physical apparatus that drives the bodies into action, I draw a parallel between this machinery and the mechanisms of our unconscious: defense mechanisms, sex drives, thinking patterns, self control, dreams, impulses, instincts.
With the public/interactive projects, the emphasis is more educational and/or ironic. Working collaboratively removes the personal emphasis and creates opportunities to address larger cultural issues and their effects on the general public.
Misbehaving is a series of three female "performers" for intimate installations. What is the performative part of the work?
Misbehaving consists of three pairs of aluminum, mechanized legs fitted with girl's shoes: Protest, Resist and Translator. The legs in Protest stomp loudly and unpredictably while standing on a coffee table. In Resist, a pair of girl's legs squirms on the floor in a way that is both sexualized and challenging in response to viewers' speech. The girl in Translator is trapped on a track between two "adult" chairs with video projectors for heads. As viewers hand crank her from one side to the other, she becomes like a child caught between two feuding parents, or a political mediator, whose body/screen reveals/exposes the real text of the conversation through non-verbal gestures.
With these pieces, I was thinking about the performance of gender, especially for little girls. We learn what is appropriate behavior so early that it becomes naturalized, we don't realize that we perform it. In developing these pieces, I wanted to intentionally create girls that perform "badly", act out, misbehave, or act against type. As machines and girls, these works operate in stark contrast to a culture obsessed with "increasing job performance," high performance cars, and athletic performance. Their acts of defiance are small, yet powerful, signs of agency.
The kinetic girls legs have also some feminist (may i use that word?) undertones. Why is it still important to propose a view on feminism today?
YES, you may (and SHOULD) use the word "feminist." I consider myself a feminist and I think the stigma around the word (created by conservative males) has (unfortunately) had its prescribed effect of preventing people from self-identifying as feminists.
Those legs were born out of my experience at Carnegie Mellon where I was surrounded by really macho robots: machines that can fight fires or repair a nuclear reactor, robots for combat, robots for Mars, etc. At the same time, television programs were priming the mainstream public for what I call "performative robotics," including BattleBots and Robo-wars, as vehicles for violent entertainment. With technological art and computing still so male dominated, and the research funding driven by the Defense Department, I do think it's important to remind ourselves that robotics has a range of applications that are social, psychological, poetic, beautiful, and quirky. Are those feminist, or just alternatives to the mainstream?
I think it's important to maintain a vigilant feminist critique of the world in the same way that it's important to be vigilant about racism and economic justice.
Sometimes people forget that feminism has benefited EVERYONE, not just women. Civil Rights legislation in the US has benefited everyone, not just African-Americans. In the developed world, we have this idea that everything has been "accomplished" when really, it's just a way to keep people complacent and apathetic.
A couple of years ago you developed Zapped! together with the other members of Preemptive Media. The work examines the mass deployment of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and its effects on our everyday activities. At the time the website of the project said that "RFID is not yet a household name or a pervasive technology, but Preemptive Media predicts that everyday encounters with this technology (whether known or not) will soon be commonplace." How much has changed ever since? How much is the public aware of the possible downsides of RFID technology?
In October 2006, the US started issuing passports with RFID chips that include a digital photo and all other information currently printed in passports. These passive tags in passports are only a small beginning of all-around use as they can be embedded into nearly everything you buy, wear, read, or drive. At the time we did the piece, there was a common fear of surveillance--that by carrying items with tags, you could be tracked, your personal data could be compromised, etc. The reality is that the tags need to be scanned at such a close proximity (a few millimeters) that it's difficult for someone to scan your item without your knowledge. Plus, if all the tag has is a reference number (for another database) rather than concrete data, there isn't much to gain by secretly scanning...In general, as with so many of these new technologies (GPS, for example), people choose convenience over privacy. In our current climate, you can't have both. We all love the convenience of having a cell phone, even though they all have GPS chips. You don't hear people complaining about the possibility of being located through triangulation of their cell phone chip. At least not yet. I think that data privacy is the new "civil rights" issue of our time--at least in the US where there aren't many data privacy laws.
I've always been fascinated by the story of the roach release. I saw a brief mention of it a newspaper one day. Can you explain us what it was about and in which context it took place? But also, how did the public react to the idea?
The roach release was but one part of the Zapped! project. The multi-part project included the educational video, a school kit for "arming" yourself against RFID surveillance, the roach release station, and educational workshops. Each of these reached a different segment of the population with the goal of not only informing the public about the technology, but also providing them with means with which they might take action against it.
At the time, WalMart was setting the standards for RFID implementation by requiring its top manufacturers to embed tags into the cases and pallets of merchandise. As the largest retailer in the world, its protocol affects the business practice of nearly everyone in merchandising. WalMart pushed for this change touting its increased inventory efficiency. At this point, we speculated that if a WalMart had RFID readers and a corresponding database, they would all be located in the loading dock/storage area of the store. We discussed different ways to use or subvert the signal of the WalMart RFID reader- for passive tags, it sends a small signal in order to read the information on the tag and puts that information into a database. As we went round and round with ideas for tricking/toying with this Goliath, the idea boiled down to creating a small interruption in/jamming the WalMart RFID database. If WE couldn't gain access to the loading dock and the readers, perhaps we could send a robot, or, as Beatriz da Costa suggested, a rodent or insect in our place. The final solution was to send a cockroach (with an preprogrammed RFID tag glued to its back) into the store's loading dock area. The RFID tag was programmed with a small text message of resistance--and would definitely cause a "hiccup" in a database that was accustomed to standardized product information. In the video, we gave instructions on how to do a "roach release," and in Houston (at Diverseworks), we gave away all the Zapped! roaches. I am not at liberties to say anything about the actual release. The public loved the idea and the roach became the project's mascot.
Any other Wal-Mart action?
Not with that piece.
What was the impetus for the audio-activated DRESS? How do you exhibit it (or any of your other wearable pieces for that matter)? As part of a performance? As a static piece in a gallery? As a garment you can lend to gallery-goers?
The wearables started as an idea for a fun Halloween costume. I was initially inspired by the humor that could result from providing visual feedback, especially on a woman's body. The lights on the dress light up incrementally, starting at the bottom when the sound is softer, and lighting up the entire column when it becomes very loud. When I wear the dress, I become a walking audio-meter which is really an absurd (and poetic?) image. These pieces are custom made to fit my body, and I use them in humorous video performances. The project is less about the objects and more about what I can do with them. So far, I have exhibited them as objects on mannequins with a video that shows them in use. In the end, the final product is really the short videos. There are many more places I can take them...
You seem to be attracted by the idea of "intimacy". Which one of your works expresses the idea better and why?
As an artist, I use machines, projected imagery, and animation because they offer me a visually compelling way to investigate what is unseen: psychological states, emotions, compulsions, neuroses, desires, dreams. I find that I naturally gravitate towards work that examines everyday behavior and personal issues. I've called my work "intimate installation" because of its scale (human sized objects), its content (domestic and interpersonal issues) and its viewer experience (dark or dimly-lit rooms). With a minimum of objects, each tableau recreates a private ritual or occurrence for the viewer. I use the word "intimate" to describe the spaces I create and to draw a distinction between my domestic theaters and other large-scale environments.
"Letter Never Sent" is a good example of this. In this piece, video footage captured under a dissection microscope is projected onto the space of the typewriter page. Sounds of a woman weeping, a doorbell ringing, and someone knocking on the door are juxtaposed with black ink creeping up the page and fading, and turbulent, dirty water which seems to spit out from the base of the typewriter. With this piece, I was trying to describe one woman's difficult experience of writing a letter that is erased or never sent because it is too harsh, too truthful. Rather than use words, I used fluids, like emotions, to wash over the page like a wave. The page is filled and emptied again and again, similar to how one might write and edit oneself in pursuit of the perfect correspondence. Even though the work explores one person's intimate experience, I think we can all relate to written communication, self-censorship and the strong emotions that result.
Yet another video:
You are also teaching at the University of Michigan School of Art and Design. What are your courses about? Can you give us a few examples of your students' projects?
At this University, I am mostly teaching animation, video and various conceptual classes (this fall, an introductory class on TIME!). The most enjoyable courses focus on creating material for "experimental television broadcasts," and rethinking the space of the television as an art gallery for time-based work. I know it seems like an old idea since video art first emerged as an alternative to mainstream television, but here at the University of Michigan, we have a unique collaboration with our local PBS station, WFUM. PLAY is a "collaborative project from the University of Michigan School of Art & Design and Michigan Public Media, transforming the gallery space for time-based media." This project features time-based work (video, animation, documentary, performance, other experimental forms) by faculty and students in the School of Art and Design. Selected pieces air on television as interstitials-in between programs at the top of the hour, say between "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" and "Antique Roadshow," while all submissions are viewable on the web. In my class, "Animation for Broadcast," students get real-world experience producing fun promotional pieces as well as content (under 3 min.) for this gallery space we call a television. You can see some of their promo animations here. They were encouraged to think about the concept behind PLAY Gallery (an online, virtual place for art, television as gallery space) and play (the activity). They were given the PLAY logo and could do just about anything with it.
I think it's a really great moment in history to reconsider what television and broadcast can be, do, say: with the YouTube-ization of the world, everyone's a performer, everyone's a filmmaker. How does that impact what we make and produce?
Any upcoming project you could tell us about?
I'm working on some totally new and different works. "Timed Release" is a series of performative portraits focusing on people who have developed a creative mental space to survive physical confinement. Paper cutouts and small kinetic sculptures contained in bell jars or other containers are brought to life through video projection to create illusionary shadow theater. It's an engaging hybrid of image and object...
I've discovered Fernando Orellana in 2004, the year i realized that there were artists playing with technology out there. All along my tumultuous and whimsical 4-year relationship with new media art, artists have been appearing and disappearing from my BVBMA (Best of the very best media artists) list. I'm slowly moving away from the entertaining, the merely playful, the very geeky, the strictly techy and i'm now looking for something called "an artistic experience". Well, Fernando's installations are quite geeky in a sense and some are even playful but, no matter how you define art, i've always found something extremely meaningful and touching in Fernando's work: a robot dreams, others are unable to make a decision, an elevator appears to be self-aware and a vintage radio relentlessly searches for God. Needless to say, Fernando's work has always amazed me and i can see in my crystal ball that it's going to be that way for the years to come.
The artist has uploaded several videos about his work on you tube. As a starter, here's an ABC news segment on his robotic art piece "Sleep Waking":
When i first met you in Gijon at the opening of the exhibition Emergentes, you told me about the personal story behind 8520 S.W. 27th Pl. v.2 (don't miss the video of the robot assembly), an installation about the pointlessness of our never ending decision making process. Can you share it with the readers?
8520 S.W. 27th Place is the address of the home I grew up in Davie, Florida after my family moved from El Salvador in 1979. It is in a housing development called Rolling Hills. I've linked it in Google maps.
For the most part, my siblings and I assimilated and became part of American culture. Subsequently we grew up in the burgeoning suburban sprawl that has now swallowed southern Florida into an endless ghetto of cookie-cutter dream homes. This is what frames a large portion my childhood memories. Neatly cut lawns. Driveways with two-car garages. Manicured gardens adorned with transplanted trees. Swimming pool parties. Mosquito nets. Packaged people living out their packaged lives. Day in. Day out.
This imagery is what fueled the aesthetic for this 8520 S.W. 27th Place. I wanted to reference the suburban dwelling that millions of other people worldwide grew up in as well. I thought it this would be the appropriate stage for a sculpture that speaks of humanities' decision-making process. It is within the walls of these prefabricated, automated homes that we ceaselessly make decisions about everything; from the type of partners we want, to the garnishing on our pizza delivery, to what color we want our IPods. Endlessly. Back and forth. From the moment we are born till the day we die.
How did you come up with Extruder? Where did you get the idea of making a machine that makes play-doh cars?
I arrived at the idea for Extruder from a couple different places. It branches from a series of drawing machines that I made a couple years back. Extruder started because I wanted to make a machine that could make sculpture. I had been doodling designs for this mechanism for years. I suppose funding issues kept them from materializing until now.
This last summer I made a series of paintings that spoke of war, dismemberment, IEDs, and automobiles. During that process, I came to appreciate the impact that the automobile has made on this world. I read a statistic that still baffles me when I think about it now. There is one car for every 11 people in this world, roughly 590 million passenger cars total. The automobile is involved in everything. From pancakes to penicillin, Play-Doh to parking lots.
I developed Extruder as a response to this machine that we worship. I wanted to celebrate it. Criticize it. Emulate it. Making hundreds of Play-Doh cars. Millions. The ultimate goal of Extruder is to make the total number of automobiles that were made in 1947 (the year Henry Ford died) by the Ford motor company, an estimated 429,674. As you can imagine that is also a whole lot of Play-Doh; about 11 tons. Until May 11th 2008, Extruder will be making Play-Doh cars at the Mandeville Gallery at Union College in Schenectady, NY. When the next venue emerges to exhibit it, the process will continue.
The colors that Play-Doh comes in were also a nice reference to my recent paintings. Vivid primaries and secondaries, suggesting the Technicolor cartoon reality that we in the developed world live in. Entertainment for the masses, delivered in candy-wrapped doses of violence, humor, and erotica.
The Carry On installation features a series of suitcases fitted with robotic arms and micro-cameras which survey their surroundings. Why did you feel the necessity to develop a work that explores surveillance and paranoia? How much impact on the public can artists have when they comment on surveillance technology?
Carry On is a direct reaction to post-September 11th paranoia, both in the USA and abroad. Since the attacks, I have traveled quite a bit. On these trips, I have passed through countless security and surveillance systems, always hunting for the would-be terrorist. Subway cars now display and sometimes speak "Report ANY Suspicious Activity". If you happen to look even slightly of Arab descent, you may think twice about growing a beard or wearing your traditional garb. Leaving your luggage or backpack alone in an airport or a train station, even for a moment, could lead to a cavity search.
Holding a miniature video camera, on one side of each suitcase in Carry On is mounted a two axis robotic arm. The live video feed from this camera is displayed on a LCD screen mounted on the other side of the suitcase. Every couple of minutes, the robots change the position of the cameras, thus changing what is being displayed in the LCD screens. Lacking image analysis of any kind or other sensory capability, these suitcases blindly look about, never understanding what they see.
I'm not sure what impact artists make when they reference surveillance technology. Perhaps it may give a person a moment of peace or clarity. Realizing that, like the artwork in front of them, the whole affair of paranoia and fear based politics is an illusion; clever clockwork designed to create the reality they want us to believe in.
I saw that images of one of your recent project, Phoney. What is the work about?
Phoney is a toy. It is a kind of absurd videophone. There are two terminals to the piece. The terminals are installed in separate parts of a gallery, with no line of site between them. Each terminal is fit with an old-school telephone receiver, a video screen, and a black and white camera attached to the head of a modified mechanical toy. When a person speaks into the telephone receiver of one terminal, their voice makes the mechanical toy on other terminal dance. This causes the video image they are looking at to shake, since the camera on the other side is attached to the mechanical toy. If two people are involved, a bizarre and sometimes funny conversation can commence. To me the piece references the countless methods or proxies that we now communicate through and the ridiculous information that we pass through them.
I read that your work is about "creating systems that seem to be alive". How much life is there really in your artworks? and how would you define such kind of life?
The key part in the quote above is this: "seem to be alive". My machines are not alive. They never will be. I have become much more interested in the simulation of living systems. It is remarkable how easily we anthropomorphize things, especially things that are in motion. The perception of what humans will assume or believe to be alive is where much of my robotic work is headed.
The latest iteration of this investigation is Elevator's Music, a site-specific robotic sculpture that I exhibited in an elevator at the Tang Museum in Saratoga Springs, NY in the winter of 2007. It consisted of four small robots that emerged from the elevators translucent ceiling panels. When people entered the elevator, the robots would sense them and might emerge. Fitted with sonic sensors and having the ability to maneuver in three axes, they were programmed to seek out and respond to near and far objects. If a robot found something near by, it would try and interact with it via randomly determined mechanical gestures and a watery stream of sounds. The robot would also send a message to the other three robots (through a local network), informing them that it had found something of interest. This would cause all robots to look in the direction of the object, causing a kind of musical symphony to commence. If the object was somehow to close, or if nothing was found, they would recoil back into the safety of their ceiling panels.
With this relatively simple set of instructions the elevator robots were able to illicit innumerous reactions from their passengers. Some believed that the robots were watching them or trying to attack them in some way, while others became enamored with them, whistling and talking to them like one would to a pet bird. When one of the robots failed (as all robots eventually do), passengers reported it immediately to museum officials, feeling empathy for the hurt machine. Future robotic sculptures that I design will foster this tendency to assign anthropomorphic qualities to inanimate objects. Through this investigation I hope to arrive at more sophisticated and realistic artificial life simulations.
What can technology developers or scientists learn from digital artists like you? Is there any reason why they should pay more attention to what crazy artists are doing?
I like to think they should pay more attention. In this country there is a general undervaluing of fine art and art education. Art departments all over the nation are the first to suffer from severe budget cuts. The argument that art is not a "mission critical" subject has dominated the establishment for decades. The problem with this of course is that students become completely illiterate to the visual culture all around them. In engineering and science I think this becomes a handicap. The engineer or scientist that can beautifully communicate their findings will undoubtedly fair better on the world stage. Moreover, those engineers or scientists that are willing to experiment with ideas that seem pointless or ridiculous may arrive at discoveries, innovations, and conclusions that otherwise might have eluded them. Perhaps "crazy artists" do have something to teach, other then just being dismissed to be irrelevant or a waste of time.
What is your favorite gadget or bit of technology and why?
It would have to be my laptop. I basically live inside it (or through it?). That aside, I have to say that I am a huge space technology nerd. I read everything and anything about space. Spirit and Opportunity, the two rovers scooting along on mars, or Voyagers one and two, speeding out of the solar system at this very moment are like aphrodisiacs to me. In fact I have a number of art projects that I am just waiting to develop specifically to be put into zero-g environments. Hopefully by the time I am retiring, this will be a possibility! In classic nerd style however, I would first need to over come the crippling and ridiculous sea-sickness I suffer from, sometimes even on sea-side docks.
What are the common factors between your media art installations and your paintings? Or maybe they have nothing to do with one another?
Painting and drawing is something I have always done. It was my doorway into art and in many ways it keeps me balanced. Until recently, the subjects I painted came from the schools of dada or surrealism, seemingly from my subconscious. This all changed in my recent work. Without really knowing why, last summer I started tackling the subjects I was exploring in my electronic sculptures in the paintings. Painting allows me to quickly approach different angles or points of view within a subject, some of which would not be possible in media sculptures due to funding or physical limitations. It is also a way for me to quickly explore new ideas, some of which are now leaving the canvas surface and becoming sculptures.
You are also developing an electronic art program at Union College in Schenectady, NY. Can you tell us what the highlights of the program are?
I was hired three years ago to help start an electronic art program at Union College. Our program is one of the few electronic arts initiatives that is jointly sponsored between the Computer Science and Visual Arts Departments. Drawing from aspects of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and The Ohio State University's Art and Technology programs (both of which I graduated from), we have created a thorough course of study, covering topics in digital imaging, video, 3D modeling, physical computing, experimental computer programming, web-design, interactivity, and animation. We have worked hard to make the program as cross-disciplinary as possible, offering courses that computer science, fine-art, and students from other disciplines can benefit from. In many ways the program was a perfect fit at Union College, since it has a long tradition of combining world-renowned engineering within a equally solid liberal arts education.
Any upcoming project or event you could share with us?
There are a couple projects cooking. The most imminent is a real-time video series titled Plain Text. The series plays on the "infinite monkey theorem" which states that given an infinite amount of monkeys, typewriters, and time, the monkeys will type out any particularly text you choose. If one instructs the monkeys (or monkey simulators), to type the King James Bible one of them eventually will. Interestingly, this also includes all the text that you did not choose or any text that might ever be written.
I apply a version of this theorem to a series of short phrases that over an extended period of time cycle through every possible permutation of themselves. For example the phrase:
"You want _ _ _ _ _ _."
Starting right-to-left, like an odometer only with letters, all the blank spaces in the phrase sequentially cycle through every letter in the alphabet. By this, every word that is six characters long will eventually appear in the phrase above. Differing in theme, amount of blank spaces, and speed, each piece in the series has a different phrase displayed by itself on a large LCD screen.
For the PluggedIn Exhibition happening in Hudson, NY from May 17th - 30th, two of these phrases will be on display in the vestibules of the Mark McDonald store, along with one large phrase projected on the store's second floor windows.