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.
Hello readers! Here's something i was keeping in my Magic Bag for ages: the videos of the projects which received an Award or an Honorary Mention at the VIDA competition. This international competition on art & artificial life, set up 10 years ago by Fundación Telefónica, rewards works of art produced with and commenting on artificial life technologies. Most of them will give you a fantastic glimpse into the mind of the creators of projects which include empathic blobs, cabinets of curiosities for the biotech age, exploration into digital survival and animatronics.
This way to discover them all. In english with spanish subtitles or vice-versa.
Nice, nice. I've lost my connecting flight and now i'm stuck in Madrid Barajas waiting for the next flight to Sevilla. It's an 8 hour wait but i'm on my way to ZEMOS98 so i am still cheerful.
Anyway, gives me plenty of time to catch up with the emails and the long overdue posts. So back to New York where i was a few days ago and the Exit Art gallery. I'm still wondering how this place managed to escape my radar so far.
Until April 19 they are running a fascinating exhibition on artistic explorations of the current advancements in neurological research. The works shown in BRAINWAVE: Common Senses encourage visitors to consider the brain not only as the center of human activity but as a site for interpretation, for scientific and philosophical debates, for examining our relationship to the world - and for questioning our common sense.
I am usually not very excited by media art works which engage with the little grey cells. Blame it on the BrainBar, when i discovered it i somehow felt that had seen it all. Well, maybe not... I went to Exit Art to see Fernando Orellana and Brendan Burns' robot that "plays back dreams" which was twice as fantastic as i expected but i also discovered 2 or 3 outstanding works.
Suzanne Anker's fascinating and elegant The Butterfly in the Brain uses three-dimensional Rorschach inkblot tests, brain scans and images of butterfly wings to explores the imagery of the symmetrical (or virtually symmetrical) structures of butterflies, the brain, and chromosomes.
I somehow can't get the black hovering butterfly bat she painted on the wall out of my mind. "By taking the butterfly bat image out of a textbook, scaling it up to a large size, and putting it in a site-specific environment, one turns the image into an entirely new and other kind of affective entity," she explained.
Although the use of Rorschach inkblots is controversial in psychology, the images are widely recognized among the public.
Anker used a computer program to convert an inkblot into 3D structure so intricate they could probably not be re-created using traditional sculpture. After which a machine produces the object using plaster and resin. "Looking in 3-D," Anker argued, "one begins to assess new meanings: bones, sea creatures, body parts. These are surrogates for the imagination itself, opening up a dialog between the mind and body. What happens when you can pick up a psychology test in your hand? The mind essentially has been embodied."
She also transposed butterfly wings onto MRI scans, drawing a parallel between genetic patterns in nature and advanced imaging technologies. Like constellations in the sky, butterfly shapes may be found in neurological maps as well as charts of urban sprawl.
Windows of the Soul, asks whether or not one can read madness in another's eyes. 300 b&w mug shot photographs of mental patients, taken in the '50s when they were admitted in the hospital. The eyes of the individuals are projected on a canvas hanging from the ceiling. The rest of the face lays on the floor. Every 5 seconds, another pair of eyes and a face take their place on the split screen. Riveting and disturbing.
Dustin Wenzel's brass sculptures are brain-cavity castings of Great Whales from the New Brunswick Museum collection.
It has recently been discovered that some humpback whales have spindle neurons, a type of brain cell previously considered to exist only in dolphins, humans and other primates, which may indicate a high capacity for intelligence. Although white males possess the largest physical brain of any animals (Wenzel's castings were indeed impressively big), there is no scientific consensus about the nature, magnitude or even existence of cetacean intelligence.
And now for the gizmos:
Artificial neural networks are often used in voice recognition systems and IA research. They consist in mathematical computations that mimic the neural network patterns of the nervous system. Jamie O'Shea's Alvin is a realization of an interactive and electronic neural network constructed with physical hardware. When left alone Alvin is dormant, but if you the lay your hand on the interface provided, you will set an electronic neural-like network in motion.
Alvin is a cellular automaton organized around eight cells which produce sound. The sound one cell produces is determined by what sound the other cells are making. This interrelated input and output scheme is an artificial neural network; a simulation of a brain. The imitation of life goes even further, because Alvin's sound circuits are built and destroyed by one another, rather than just turned on or off.
The chamber where they live contains food, water and light to keep them warm but also sensors that detect the changing light patterns produced by their movements. The sensors send the light data to an on-board microcontroller, which in turn activate the motors moving the device in relation to the movements of the flies.
Oh, look! i took all those little images.
BRAINWAVE: Common Senses is on view until April 19, 2008 at Exit Art Gallery in New York. This exhibition is part of Exit Art's Unknown Territories series of exhibitions that explore the impact of scientific advances on contemporary culture and examine in particular how contemporary artists interpret and interact with the new knowledge and possibilities created by technological innovation in the 21st century.
France Cadet had showed us slides of the Hunting Trophies she was working on during the presentation she gave at De l'objet de laboratoire au sujet social (From Laboratory Object to Social Subject), a week of lectures, screenings and workshops she organized at the Ecole d'Art d'Aix en Provence (France.) That was last November and i've been looking forward to see the final result of the work ever since. That day has come, yeah!
Hunting Trophies is a collection of 11 hunting trophies hung on the wall. They feature the most frequent species used in taxidermy for the realization of wall trophies, mainly deer and cat family. Instead of being real taxidermied animals they are chests of modified I-Cybie robots.
An infrared sensor allows the robots, each in its own way, to detect the presence but also the movements of visitors.
As you approach, the robots turn their heads in your direction, their eyes light up, come too close and the robot suddenly growls. The closer you get, the more aggressive its behaviour.
If you walk fast facing the wall of trophies, a chain reaction will emerge such as a wave of protestation following your walk and manifesting their anger at having been tracked, chased, killed, cut up and exhibited as decorative icons.
After raising the side effects and dangers of cloning, eugenics, and other animal experiments in Dog[LAB]01 and Dog[LAB]02, France Cadet chose to focus on a problem which concerns each of us as, this time, we cannot pretend that scientists and directors of laboratories or factories are the sole responsible for it: the unequal consideration given to animals and humans and even between different animals species. Nobody would want to eat their pet, but most don't really care about the fact that some animals are bred for the sole purpose of making food or clothes, that others are hunt for sport, or are the subject of experiments to create unnecessary, yet safe products.
Just how far can we justify human power of life and death over animals?
The idea of the Animal-Machine has long been overtaken by the idea of a pain-feeling animal. Peter Singer argues that because animals have the ability to experience pain and suffering, they should be granted the same moral considerations as any other sentient being.
Besides, these trophies raise new issues about the robots' quality, function and integration into society: Are they different robots species? Rare species facing extinction? Are they the testimony of a future world where androids would be facing extinction? Or where they would have supplanted real animals such as in Philip K.Dick's vision? Will we need a Susan Calvin, the robopsychologist of Asimov's novels?
After all, there are already an AIBO clinic and a AIBO hospital.
In his wonderful book, Les Machines apprivoisées (Tamed Machines), Frédéric Kaplan invites us to reflect upon the place that these creatures could have one day in our society. And beyond that, will we one day be able/allowed to kill robots? With more impunity than animals? Which ones have and will have more value? More respect? More rights?
All images courtesy of France Cadet.
Using recorded brainwave activity and eye movements during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep to determine robot behaviors and head positions, "Sleep Waking" acts as a way to "play-back" dreams.
I asked Fernando to give us more details about the robot:
How does Sleep Waking work exactly?
I spent a night at The Albany Regional Sleep Disorder Center in Albany, NY. There they wired me up with a variety of sensors, recording everything from EEG to EKG to eye positioning data. We then took that data and interpreted it in two ways:
The eye position data we simply apply to the position the robot's heads is looking. So if my eye was looking left, the robot looks left.
The use of the EEG data is a bit more complex. Running it through a machine learning algorithm, we identified several patterns from a sample of the data set (both REM and non-REM events). We then associated preprogrammed robot behaviors to these patterns. Using the patterns like filters, we process the entire data set, letting the robot act out each behavior as each pattern surfaces in the signal. Periods of high activity (REM) where associated with dynamic behaviors (flying, scared, etc.) and low activity with more subtle ones (gesturing, looking around, etc.). The "behaviors" the robot demonstrates are some of the actions I might do (along with everyone else) in a dream.
We also use robot vision for navigation and keeping the robot on its pedestal. This camera is mounted about three feet above the robot and it not shown in the documentation.
What do you think the robot can bring to our understanding of possible human-robot relationships?
Sleep Waking is a metaphor for a reality that could be in our future. In the piece we use a fair amount of artistic license. Though the eye positioning data is a literal interpretation, what we do with the EEG data is a bit more subjective. However, perhaps one day we will have the technology to literally allow a robot to act out what we do in our dreams. What could we learn from seeing our dreams played back for us? Will we save our dreams like we save our photographs?
Taking a wider view, robots are increasingly used to augment human experience. From robotic prosthetic devices, personalized web presences, and implanted RFID chips, technology is moving from being an externalized tool, to being a literal extension of who we are. By giving an example of and drawing attention to this process. We hope to give people the opportunity to think critically what personalized technology actually means.
Did you use an existing robot or did you build it from scratch?
We used a modified Kondo KHR-2HV humaniod robot. In the next iteration of this piece, we will be fabricating my own design for a humanoid robot.
Ever since i heard the endearing and hilarious talk of Wim Delvoye (ha! every single gesture or word from this guy screams "Belgium!") at ars electronica last September, i'm trying to follow the episodes of his Cloaca adventure.
The Casino de Luxembourg has recently held a retrospective exhibition of Delvoye's defecating machines.
The whole family was there: Cloaca Original, Cloaca - New & Improved, Cloaca Turbo, Cloaca Quattro, Cloaca N° 5, Super Cloaca and Personal Cloaca. Plus original drawings, 3D and x-ray photographs, models of Cloaca Clinic gates, videos, sealed bags of Cloaca Faeces and other paraphernalia.
The brand new 8th Cloaca, Mini Cloaca (on the left), was premiered at the Casino. The tubular structure is made of metal and glass, and composed of mechanical organs that swallow, grind, digest and defecate a given amount of food. While Super Cloaca consumes 300 kg of food and produces 80 kg of faeces per day, the quantity of food ingested by the dwarfed one is equivalent to that of a breakfast.
The idea of a mechanical reproduction of the human digestive system goes back to the Digesting Duck by 18th century engineer Jacques de Vaucanson and just like Piero Manzoni 's Merda d'artista [Artist's shit] Delvoye's machines can be regarded as an assault on the system of art.
The best part of the exhibition for me were the video extracts of tv films about Cloaca.
Favourite is an extract of "Is This Sh*t Art", an episode from the very very brilliantissimo Art Safari.
I will go to any lengths to find out if art means something. Just talking to the artist and looking at the work is never enough. The artists are usually inarticulate, or English is their second language, or they're just not very bright. None of these criticisms was true of Delvoye - but his art was so ambiguous it was impossible to work out what it meant. Was it raising up the lowly, or humbling the mighty? Was it optimistic or cynical?
In this case not only did Lewis get himself the same tattoo as one of Delvoye's pigs (video extract), he also ate the same meal as a Cloaca machine, gathered some of the product of its digestion, went to the toilet, collected some of his own faecal matter and brought the two samples to a laboratory. The scientist compared the two samples bacteriologically and found them very similar. Video:
I could not find the other videos online, except this extract from Eurotrash. Definitely not the best of what i've seen there but if you're interested in cloaca's farting problems and the solution to it...
I realized that what i liked best in Delvoye's work was not that much the work itself but to listen to Delvoye talk about it. Cloaca, he said in an interview, is not about aesthetics. Each machine is in total synchronicity with the advances of technology, there is no frivolity. Every single element you see has its function: you pour the food into the "oral" side of the machine, it is then processed by a series of mechanical organs (there is the stomach, the small intestine and the colon). Yet, Cloaca is not a commentary of science and is not either meant to be useful. The artist actually refused to sell one of his machines to a diaper company that hoped to use it for tests.
Delvoye also set himself the task to insert the products of Cloaca in the global economic system. The Casino Luxembourg had a special Wim shop where you could buy a Wim action figure but also a whole range of Cloaca products: Cloaca T-shirts, a 3D Viewmaster, Cloaca toilet paper, posters, etc. But that's just a merchandising detail: the Cloaca machines are works of art which produce works of art. On show were dozens of vacuum-packed Cloaca eliminations made during the 5 first exhibits of the machine around the world. There's apparently a waiting list of collectors eager to buy one of those, and the faeces made during the New York exhibition are the most sought-after. The matter is irradiated with gamma rays to kill bacteria, dried and vacuum-packed. After that they are packed air-tight in a plexiglass box. In 2003, they were offered for sale online. The faeces were also integrated into the company Cloaca Limited as a contribution in nature.
Cloaca X-Rayed immediately brings to mind another famous art piece by Delvoye: his X-ray views of people having sex which he then turned into stained-glass church windows. Utilizing mammograms, sonograms and MRI's in addition to standard X rays, the artist captured skinny (they had to fit inside the machines) models tongue kissing, masturbating, or doing blow jobs. The key to getting such images was to slather the models with barium powder mixed with Nivea cream in order to "illuminate" the bones during x-raying.
I give the microphone back to Ben Lewis: Delvoye's work satirises the art world, with its inflated prices and daft intellectual cul-de-sacs. Cloaca makes the ultimate criticism of modern art - that most of it is crap; that the art world has finally disappeared up its own backside. 'When I was going to art school, all my family said I was wasting my time, and now I have made a work of art about waste,' he told me happily.
My set of images.