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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Installation view of Jorge Otero-Pailos's The Ethics of Dust

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.

Sponsored by:





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.

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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:

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Resist, 2002

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.

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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.

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Defense Mechanism

RE: Installation

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?

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Still from Zapped! video

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.

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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.

Video:

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

and

2) interactive projects that are more overtly political and use technology to critique technology: CNNplusplus, Zapped!, Wired Wear

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Monitor II: Audio-activated Dress, 2005

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.

protest_uica03.jpgMisbehaving 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.

Videos:

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

Video:

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...

Videos 1, 2 and 3.

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.

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"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...

Thanks Heidi!

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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.

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8520 S.W. 27th Place, 2004

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.

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Extruder, 2008

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.

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Extruder, 2008

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.

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Carry On

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.

0aapetitphone.jpgI 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.

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Elevator's Music, 2007

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?

0adanslelelavateur.jpgThe 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.


Video of "Elevator's Music" at the Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College in Saratoga Spring, NY

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.

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Nail Jar, 2007

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.

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Gasoline, 2007

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.

0aapluggdinnn.jpgFor 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.

Thanks Fernando!

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.

I guess no one in the assistance will be surprised if i tell you how excited i was when i first saw the video explaining one of the latest project from Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr (SymbioticA): NoArk.

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Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, Noark

I've also been impressed by Julius Popp's bit-flow video and found extremely sweet the OMO robot of Kelly -Blendie- Dobson.

This way to discover them all. In english with spanish subtitles or vice-versa.

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Award ceremony in Barcelona last November

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.

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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.

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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.

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Suzanne Anker, The Sum of All Fears (detail). Image courtesy of the Exit Art gallery

Although the use of Rorschach inkblots is controversial in psychology, the images are widely recognized among the public.

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Crab, 2005

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."

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Gossipers, 2005 (more images)

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.

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Suzanne Anker, MRI Butterfly (detail). Image courtesy of the Exit Art gallery

Another work i found really moving and riveting was a video installation by Phil Buehler, a photographer, fascinated by "haunted ruins" of abandoned Psychiatric Hospitals.

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Buehler, Windows of the Soul. Image courtesy of the Exit Art gallery

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.

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Dustin Wenzel's brass sculptures are brain-cavity castings of Great Whales from the New Brunswick Museum collection.

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Dustin Wenzel, (front) Sperm Whale Endocranial Cast, (back) Right Whale Endocranial Cast. Image courtesy of Exit Art Gallery

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:

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Jamie O'Shea, Alvin (image courtesy of Exit Art gallery)

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.

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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.

Swarm, by David Bowen (whom i interviewed a year ago), is an autonomous roaming device whose movements are determined by houseflies housed inside the device itself.

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David Bowen, Swarm (detail). Image courtesy of Exit Art Gallery

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.

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David Bowen, Swarm. Image courtesy of Exit Art Gallery

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!

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Panthera Leo (Lion)

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.

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Wall of trophies

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.

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Phacochoerus Africanus (African Warthog)

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?

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Rhinoceros Unicornis (Asian Rhinoceros)

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.

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Cervus Elaphus Barbarus (North Africa Deer)

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