The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on Resonance104.4fm, London's favourite radio art station, is aired tomorrow Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.
My guest in the studio will be James Auger, a designer, researcher and lecturer operating at the intersection of art and industrial design. He is a tutor at the RCA: Design Interactions and visiting professor at the Haute école d'art et de design (HEAD) in Geneva. Together with Jimmy Loizeau, James runs Auger-Loizeau, a design studio that explores what it means to exist in a technology rich environment both today and in the near future.
In this episodes we're going to talk about James' PHD thesis Why Robots? which uses the robot as a vehicle to study how technology be domesticated. But the designer will also discuss preferable futures and electronic devices that know more about your partner's emotional state than you do.
The radio show will be aired this Wednesday 12 March at 16:00, London time. Early risers can catch the repeat next Tuesday at 6.30 am. If you don't live in London, you can listen to the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud one day.
Check out also James Auger's essay in the Journal of Human-Robot Interaction: Living With Robots: A Speculative Design Approach.
I discovered the work of Addie Wagenknecht a few months ago while visiting The Digital Now exhibition in Brussels. The young artist was showing Pussy Drones gifs. I didn't fully get what they were about at first but the more i looked at the porno-grotesque-aggressive images in the exhibition space that day, the more i thought she was a talent to follow. And indeed, the rest of her portfolio didn't disappoint. Addie made a painting using a drone as a brush, enrolled a stern industrial robot to rock a baby cradle, asked online sexcam performers to replicate classical paintings, and built a chandelier using CCTV cameras.
Addie Wagenknecht studied photography, traveled the world, completed a Masters at New York University as a Wasserman Scholar and right after that got a fellowship at Eyebeam Atelier, CultureLabUK and more recently at HyperWerk Institute for Post-Industrial Design and Carnegie Mellon University under Golan Levin at The Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry.
Now that the long, idle Summer hiatus in which i published roughly 0.7 posts per week is over, it's back to business as usual and i'm glad that Addie Wagenknecht has accepted to be the first artist i interview for the the new 'season'.
Hi Addie! While reading the description of The Optimization of Parenthood (Part 1 and Part 2), i realized that i almost never encounter artworks dealing with parenthood in media art. Or, because the accompanying texts mostly talks about mother, should i say feminism? Do you see these two works as new ways of exploring and discussing feminism?
Theorists wrote and said this series is celebrating the death of the mother. It's not objective, it's subjective. At the time we developed this piece I spent a lot of time trying to decide on a title: "The Optimization of Parenthood" vs. "The Optimization of Motherhood" because those are very different in my experience. We were doing a residency at The STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University. At the time I was pregnant and wanted to examine this false sense of balance between parenting and career in America. How the process is transparent but the structure to function is a secret. The formula is often behind the closed door of people's homes (and psychiatrist's office). I found that being critical of the choice to be a parent, as a parent, is taboo. More so, being critical of the experience as a mother is censored socially if not outright denied by everyone around me. I watched the unraveling of the carefully crafted facade of women and family v2.0.
I think women of my generation were raised to believe that we can have it all, but that theory had never really been tested, our mothers gave us something impossible. At the same time, I was playing with materiality and preconceived notions of perfection within my own work. I wanted to let go of that in a playful way. I never wanted to be responsible for feminism, yet this particular notion made sense and I want to have the poetic liberty to give that away to someone else who really wants it.
The charm of the OfP rocking robotic arm is that it is purely industrial. What made you decide to use this orange factory-like robotic arm rather than a cute robot or even an almost invisible unobtrusive robotic system?
I wanted to highlight the repetitive nature of parenting in a way that was relatable in terms of gestural motion, but foreign in its implementation. The blatantly robotic arm evokes this idea of industry - mirroring the precise, reactive nature that parenting often demands. I wanted the arm to suggest this idea of impossible flawless perfection.
You recently wore the Anonymity accessory for a performance in Vienna. Could you tell us about the performance? How it unfolded, who participated to it, how passersby reacted to the black bars, etc.
Anonymity as a concept is addictive - especially when you're living in a major metropolitan city like New York. That is why projects like Pirate Bay and Tor are some of the most successful works of our time. They have a large scale participatory aspect allowing people freedom and a chance to challenge outdated ideas around copyright. It is one to many system, no one person controls it, there is so much beauty in that. I think we are reaching a point if we haven't already where anonymity is imperative to creativity.
The performance in Vienna was all about encouraging people to openly claim anonymity, as a public statement. While living in New York, I started to became aware that we were constantly under surveillance; I was being watched by security cameras, asked to show my ID to get into a building, etc. The pervasiveness of surveillance made anonymity more desirable. Surveillance has become so ubiquitous its become comfortable. We do not think twice or challenge it. We have become such a surveillance saturated society, in some regards we expect it. Anonymity is becoming a solution for some to protect destabilized identities, revolutionaries, and hackers. It is changing the way we define the face. Mask in public spaces are beginning to be outlawed. I think that the goal has shifted that we no longer want to become an individual, but to become anonymous. People who are able to maintain anonymity have a sort of tense, mystical quality, and we wanted to explore this in a literal, physical piece within public space.
The large-scale performance was commissioned by Bogomir Doringer for the "Faceless" exhibition at MuseumsQuartier. We provided 1,200 museum attendees with limited edition, wearable black bars that allow for preemptive non-disclosure. As they walked through the courtyard, a live feed was projected into the exhibition space. It intentionally occupied the line of criticism and play, allowing the surveilled to become the surveillance.
I think Broken_links is the most irritating work i've seen recently. I keep coming back to that page -and feeling utterly silly in the process- in the hope that the images will eventually appear on the screen. I just can't help it. Did you realize that a work in appearance so simple would create such emotional response?
[laughs] Yes, that's one of the goals. It's looking at those instances when an algorithm, code, or search engine fails to properly interpret code. Essentially, broken_links is about capturing points of failure and glitches in their most literal form. The Internet is so volatile, yet at the same time it's completely cached and highly functional. Images, websites, and texts, are removed all the time without our knowledge as the user. Google, for instance, plays a powerful role because they're able to manipulate the availability of information. They show us what they want us to see, not necessarily what we searched for. So, I wanted to take the information bias, that false sense of trust, and run with it.
I was also very interested in Black Hawk Paint. Especially because I saw that you worked on it in 2008 and, at least in Europe, it's only more recently that artists and curators have started to work on the drone topic. Do you think that the work of artists who engage with UAV technology have an impact on how the public is understanding the issue?
Yes. I wanted to re-appropriate the drone technology as a tool for creativity, expanding the way people consider their potential use. I implemented a computer vision tracking system, and used the drone as a brush. The resulting images are abstract, and I consider the process of making the piece as important as the finished work.
I see Kyle McDonald's "Liberator Variations" he developed for FAT lab working in a parallel way. He noticed people's fear surrounding the Liberator and his response was to produce a series of remixed versions of the original file, transforming the 3D printed gun into a version of the OpenGL teapot, among other things. He wrote: "There is only fear when we feel disempowered, when we lack understanding, when we are censored, when we lack input and are instead being controlled."
You're a member of F.A.T. Lab. Can you tell us how you got involved in the group and how you fit into it?
I suppose I made enough provocations at some point to get an invite. [laughs] I also knew Evan, James, Steve and Geraldine quite well because we were more or less at Eyebeam together around the same time. I consider F.A.T. my friends and family. It's an honor to be part of the lab. They are all extremely talented and they've been an inspirations and constant supporters of my practice. It's really humbling.
Any upcoming project, exhibition, area of investigation you'd like to share with us?
I'm taking part in the first-ever digital art auction at Phillips NYC on October 10, where the piece "Asymmetric Love #2" will be auctioned. It is a chandelier made of steel, CCTV cameras, and internet cables. In November, at MU in Eindhoven is F.A.T. GOLD Europe, a traveling retrospective of F.A.T. Lab's work that originated at Eyebeam Art + Technology Center in April. There will be a few new pieces in that exhibition which are forthcoming. Both of these are curated by Lindsay Howard. In early 2014 the exhibition "Blackmarkt" at 319 Scholes. The pieces for this exhibition are remixed off of items bought off the Silk Road/deep web. We are working on a series of jewelry made from drugs and bootleg items, which is a new space for me. The pieces look at how perception fulfills value, and the relationship of originality, copies and demand. Finally, in June will be my first solo exhibition in Europe at RUA RED Dublin, curated by Nora O Murchú.
Sofian Audry, Stephen Kelly and Samuel St-Aubin started working on Vessels in 2010. The aquatic installation is a fleet of 50 autonomous robots that gradually build up their own micro system by interacting with each other and by collecting and interpreting data related to water and air quality, temperature, ambient light, sound, etc.
However, the robots do not simply process scientific readings, they also communicate through behaviours and interactions. For example, an increase in temperature sensed by one agent may cause it to act more aggressively, with erratic or irrational (random) movements. This change in behaviour will influence its neighbouring agents, who may respond with relative changes to their own behaviour. These agents will in turn influence their neighbours, thus creating a ripple effect of actions.
The ecosystem is thus generated over time by the robots themselves and by their particular environment.
Samuel, Sofian and Stephen have just spent the Summer improving and researching Vessels as part of their artistic residence in Platform 0 at LABoral Centro de Arte.
Since i was curious about those luminous little robots in a white swimming pool, i asked the artists to talk to us about the work:
Hi Samuel, Sofian and Stephen! I read on Laboral's blog that your artistic residency is based on the Vessels project. So what will the residency consist of exactly? Are you going to make Vessels more sophisticated? Or build on it to make an entirely different project? Or investigate another aspect of the installation?
We started the Vessels project in 2010 at the Center for Art Tapes, where the concept and technical structure was initiated within two fairly brief 2-week residencies. Since then, we've spent time fine tuning various aspects of the work to better withstand real-world environments. For example, we had to abandon our original design with air propulsion because it was too energy-consuming and would easily catch in the wind. The version we are currently working on is the third prototype and works with water propulsion. We validated the final design of the electronic boards last winter during a short residency at the Perte de Signal art center.
The goal of the LABoral residency was to assemble the first large group of robots with our new technical improvements, to finalize the material/aesthetic design and to make a first working version of the software. Because we ran into all kinds of technical problems, we decided to put less effort on the material design and more on the software. Thus we spent a large portion of our time at LABoral developing the behaviour of the robot collective.
Vessels is a fleet of 50 aquatic vehicles. That is a lot of robots. So first of all, why did you need to build so many robots? And how big are they exactly? i suspect that they will also need a large area to float around...
When we did our presentation in Halifax, we had about a dozen of robots and we felt it was hard for them to occupy an outdoor space, given their relatively small size (about 20-25 cm in diameter depending on the version). They looked kind of lost. By scaling up their population, we believe we can give a real presence to the installation in large natural environments such as lakes and ponds.
Also, we are interested in the kind of behaviors that can emerge from the interaction between a massive group of autonomous robots, which is something that has not been fully explored in the art world. A lot of work in robotic art has been done on singular robots or small assemblies of big robots but not so much with large groups of small, autonomous robotic agents. In the past decade, a lot of research in the scientific world has been carried out involving swarm robotics and multi-agent collaboration, with encouraging results. Behavioural diversity is something we're interested in exploring with Vessels, and more robots means more potential diversity within the 'population'.
Finally, we felt like 50 robots would give us more flexibility. For instance, we could show two groups of 25 robots at the same time in two different spots in a city, or even in different cities. Because the robots will react to their immediate environment, they will behave differently in the different contexts they are put in.
Is Vessels a group of identical robots? Do they all start with the same set of sensors?
Almost. All the robots have more or less the same "body". They each have a pair of distance sensors, a compass, a directional IR communication system, a pair of underwater pumps for propulsion, a set of LEDs, an onboard real-time clock and some external flash memory for data logging. They will also be using the exact same software.
Their only difference lies in the fact that each bot will eventually be equipped with a unique "environmental" sensor. Each robot has an external, pluggable "card" that we designed to take care of sound production and accommodate this unique sensor. For instance, one robot can be able to measure air temperature, while another one will know about the air pressure, another one about the pH of water, and so on. This sensor will give the robot its "personality", so to speak. They will react to their own sensor in a specific way and their reaction will influence the actions of other robots. The idea is that by putting the same group of robots in different settings (i.e. with different environmental conditions) they will produce a distinctive collective behavior.
But we're still a long way from that! In the version that we produced at LABoral, we don't yet have these environmental sensors. We focused more on establishing the software framework that will enable individual personalities AND group behaviors.
Each aquatic vehicle learns and develops a behavior through Reinforcement Learning and "Over an extended process of trial and error, RL makes it possible for computers to do things that they were not explicitly programmed to do."
If i understood correctly you do not have complete control over what the robots learn and how they evolve. So have they surprised you in the way they learn, interact, behave?
We've just begun to implement learning for individual robots in very simple tasks. We did some small experiments with Reinforcement Learning in which we were able to get a robot to learn how to go straight, which is not an easy task for these round-shaped robots (they tend to spin easily!) At this point we're taking baby steps with learning, so we have yet to see the implications of the entire population of robots with learned behaviours.
Since we wanted to build a first version that "worked" somehow, in terms of the robots going around the surface of water, being able to move straight, approaching one another, etc. we had to work at a much higher level. We thus let the learning stuff aside for a start and decided to work using an Artificial Intelligence approach that is currently very popular in the video game industry for the design of intelligent behaviors. This method, known as Behavior Trees, allows the design of complex, hierarchical behaviors. It makes it easy to design priorities for the robot and to allow it to try different strategies to achieve its goals (or fulfill its desires if you prefer). For example, in our current implementation, the robots move around freely, but when they hit an obstacle they interrupt their moving and try to avoid getting stuck. They also interrupt their behavior when they receive a message from another robot, which might change what they are doing at that moment.
Machine learning methods such as Reinforcement Learning and Genetic Programming are tricky, especially in the context of creating an artwork. They're optimization techniques, so they work well when one tries to solve a specific problem like 'how to navigate in a straight line'. But in an artistic context, the problems are blurry, so we have to invent new methodologies. For example, you can achieve interesting results by playing with the reward functions of the agents, such as what Sofian did last year at LABoral as part of the installation/performance n-Polytope by Chris Salter and collaborators. Also, the process of learning itself has sometimes a very interesting aesthetic value. So, the current focus of our research is how to use machine learning as a critical tool, helping the robots learn behaviours with respect to their environment that might eventually surprise us.
The spectator plays a role in the work. Can you explain it how the public might be involved in and maybe even influence the installation?
Although the environment sensor of some of the robots might be influenced directly by the audience (e.g. if some of them have microphones or light detectors), the installation is not meant to be interactive per se. We see it more as a piece you experience through indirect, slow interaction, where the bots are simply added to our existing ecosystem, responding to it. We hope the audience will respond to it by projecting their own cultural references on the robots, that they will recognize themselves in them.
On another level, we'd like the audience to begin to ask themselves questions. Why are the robots grouping together? Why is this robot making that sound? Why are they so hectic now while they were calm a minute ago? How does that relate to the site they're currently swimming on?
Any upcoming project, exhibition, field of research you'd like to share with us?
Samuel will be attending the Bozar Electronic Art Festival (BEAF) in Brussels from September 25 to 29. Stephen just finished a major work titled Patch at Dalhousie University (Halifax, NS/CA) with robotic agents that react to the presence of students in classrooms. Sofian's underwater artificial life installation Plasmosis is still running at the marina of Carleton-sur-Mer until September 7th (QC/CA). We are also trying to organize another research residency next year for Vessels but we have no definite plan yet.
I closed my report of the exhibition The Air Itself is One Vast Library on the promise that i'd come back to my last visit to Brighton with a few words about the crime scene-style outline of a drone that James Bridle painted on the city seafront.
Under the Shadow of the Drone, commissioned by The Lighthouse, is a one-to-one representation of one of the military drones piloted remotely to strike targets in distant areas of the world. The aerial attacks they conduct leave hundreds of people dead, many of them innocent civilians.
The controversy surrounding unmanned aerial vehicles has been recently intensified in the UK with the news that pilots at Waddington (Lincolnshire) are now working in relay with the military in the US to remotely operate American Reaper drones in Afghanistan.
For Bridle, what matters is not so much the drone in itself but the 'black box' side of contemporary warfare technology. "I have a political interest in drones as well, but beyond that, they stand for all aspects of these invisible technologies that have a great effect on the world but are kind of largely hidden from view," he told the Creatorsproject.
We might read about drones, get horrified by the way they monitor, gather intelligence, destroy and kill but we still cannot fully understand them, simply because we don't see them properly, even people who are directly affected by them hardly ever get a chance to see UAVs. Under the Shadow of the Drone suddenly brings drones into our daily life.
I had intended to write down the notes i took during a talk that James Bridle gave last month in Brussels for The Digital Now series of events but The Lighthouse has recently uploaded on youtube a similar talk that the designer gave to the Brighton audience. I highly recommend it. It is both entertaining and chilling. Bridle explains in detail his research into drones and more generally his investigation into the way we perceive and understand technology. He analyzes how the most reproduced 'photo' of a Reaper drone is actually a photoshopped image that first emerged in a forum for 3D modeling hobbyists, he discusses the Disposition Matrix and the escalating assassination program which tracks and kills suspects militant terrorists in other part of the world, etc. He also illustrates his research by explaining briefly some of his own projects such as Dronestagram: A Drone's Eye View which collects images of locations of drone attacks along with a description of the carnage they incur and A Quiet Disposition, a software system that is constantly scanning the web for news reports on Disposition Matrix and drones and finding links between them.
This much shorter video brings the spotlight on Under the Shadow of the Drone:
Under the Shadow of the Drone remains on view on the Brighton seafront, five minutes' walk east from the Brighton Wheel (do stop by The Lighthouse, they'll hand you a map with the location of the shadow) until May 26, 2013. The work was produced by Lighthouse and Brighton Festival.
If i were a man i'd want to be either Idris Elba or Garnet Hertz. You know Elba, he was gangster Stringer Bell in The Wire and a detective in Luther. Now Garnet Hertz is neither of that (to my knowledge) but he's the guy everybody wants to talk to at media art, tech or design conferences because his works play with several levels of engagement: from instant entertainment to deep reflection on DIY culture, design processes and technological progress. Hertz makes robots controlled by cockroaches, video game systems that you can literally drive around, he gives talks about Zombie Media and has just crafted a magazine about critical technical practice and critically-engaged maker culture that puts us all (us being media people) to shame.
And now for a more rigorous bio of the artist:
Doctor Garnet Hertz is a Fulbright Scholar and contemporary artist whose work explores themes of technological progress, innovation, do-it-yourself culture and interdisciplinarity. His work often involves building real-world technologies that are designed to take his audience into a speculative future gone humorously astray. In the process, Hertz's work inverts the idea that technology needs to be faster, more efficient or higher resolution: innovation is born out of human emotion, historical tradition, and creative obsession.
Hertz is Co-Director of the Values in Design Lab at UC Irvine, is Artist in Residence / Research Scientist in Informatics at UC Irvine and is Faculty in the Media Design Program at Art Center College of Design.
Hi Garnet! I'm very intrigued by Videodome. Can you explain us what the experience of using it will be like? Can the person whose head is inside the big helmet move around? What will he or she perceive and how? And is what they see broadcast in any way to a broader audience?
Videodome is a project that I'm developing that explores different types of virtual reality without the use of a computer. Instead of a computer, I'm using a large number of miniature "spy" videocameras connected to many televisions. At this point, the project has two main physical structures: a helmet-like globe containing the cameras and a two meter diameter geodesic dome covered in televisions. These two components will be configured in different ways -with inner-and-outer facing cameras and screens, for example- to creatively explore the process of mediated sensation, perception and reality.
The initial configuration simulates being inside of someone else's head. To do this, I've constructed a wearable panopticon-style helmet - a clear plastic globe with a diameter of 45cm that has 48 cameras that face inward toward the person's head. Each camera is connected with cables to a flat panel television, and the group of televisions are arranged in a dome with screens facing inward. The screens form a low-tech VR-style cave that show the person's face turned inside-out.
At this point, this project is local and live with no transmission or recording - it's goal is to be analog. If I was going to do recordings of the camera array, it might be fun to try to do it with a mountain of VHS VCRs.
A major theme in my work is the exploration of inefficiencies and intentionally doing things the wrong way, and I have a recurring interest in poking fun at virtual reality. I love graceful kludges, rural folk machinery, and chindogu, and building Videodome is like trying to build a realtime immersive imaging system with parts that don't cost more than $10.
From a technical perspective, the project is a RAID - a redundant array of inexpensive devices - and is easy to reconfigure. It's just a $10 camera, a cable, and an old television multiplied many times. The cameras can be positioned to face outward on the helmet, or the camera cluster can be put on a dog or a tree - or the televisions can be arranged on a floor, in different shapes or on the side of a building. For me, it's a return to the spirit of video installation artists like Dan Graham or Nam June Paik when the format of video still had a sense of technological magic.
When my sons (aged 7 and 9) first played with a typewriter, their perception of it is that it was a very fast computer that instantly printed letters as fast as you typed them. And - if you think about it from the perspective of the time it takes between hitting a keystroke and when the letter is rendered on paper - the typewriter beats a supercomputer every time. In a similar way, an analog video camera is like a streaming video server with zero lag - typewriters, analog video cameras and other devices from media history are still very high performance and interactive devices in their own limited ways. The project is aimed at exploiting the high performance component of an old technology - it's a bit of a novelty at a time where digital cameras are thickly layered in technical infrastructure. You just plug an analog camera and it's instantly streaming video, although your network is only as long as your video cable.
The project is influenced by a few projects, especially Michael Maranda's Sphereorama (1991), Kenji Kawakami's 360' Panorama Camera (1995), and Hyungkoo Lee's Objectuals (2002) - and the idea to use a mountain of cheap cameras initially came from my friend Jason Torchinsky. It's scheduled to premiere in San Jose at an exhibition that Madeline Schwartzman is curating related to her book "See Yourself Sensing". The piece is not in the book, but I'm very happy the project is included in the show - in my opinion her book is the most brilliant contemporary art books I've seen in a long time.
Judging by the reaction the project OutRun received in gaming, gadget, vehicle blogs and magazines, have you ever thought of modifying the work and giving it a commercial existence, making it something that rich kids could buy?
The original car is actually for sale, but it's priced at $100,000 - so it would take a very rich kid to purchase it. I've floated the idea of purchasing the original car to a few obscenely rich people like Jay Leno but as of right now it's still for sale. There was a glimmer of hope when the billionaire owner of Lego, Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, drove the original project in Denmark. He clearly had a lot of fun driving the project - and he had the money to pay to replace anything he crashed into - but I don't think he thought I was serious when I proposed to trade him for one of his Ferraris.
I generally don't pursue the monetization or commercialization of my projects - I tend to enjoy focusing on research and the exploratory prototyping phases of technological development. At this point I'm comfortably paid to do my artwork, so I'd rather spend my time focusing on building new projects.
That said, if anybody is interested in the original vehicle or working on porting the concept into a more commercially viable platform, I'm open to ideas.
And more generally, have you ever been tempted to work more closely with the gaming industry or any other industry? Surely they'd welcome creative people like you?
I used to work in the design industry through advertising agencies, film production houses, and by doing product prototyping, and at that time my slogan for much that work was "Making Your Shitty Idea a Reality". There were a few exceptions of situations where you have a blank slate and a blank check that I found enjoyable, but for the most part I've found it uninspiring.
There are significant exceptions to this - I think of Julian Bleecker at Nokia for example - I think there's a lot of room in research positions that might be rewarding. It also may be that most of my experience in industry was in the 1990s when I had a thinner portfolio and CV; maybe there are a lot of places that would be a good fit.
I generally like the quirks of the art world and academia; I usually find my colleagues in these environments to be interesting, intelligent and strange in a fun way. Both of my current appointments - full time at UC Irvine in Informatics and part time at Art Center in Media Design - are great because of the people and the projects they're working on. Paul Dourish, Gillian Hayes, Don Patterson, Geof Bowker, Anne Burdick, Tim Durfee, Ben Hooker, Chris Csikszentmihalyi and everybody else I work with - they're all brilliant and fun to be around. And for now I generally get to do whatever I want, so I can't complain.
You wrote in your statement page: "I believe that industry and academia often draw false distinctions between experts and amateurs, hardware and software, mind and body, and science and creativity, and my goal is to meld these polarities in the projects I develop. Many of our greatest social challenges and technological opportunities now lie in these connection points." How can experts / amateurs connection lead to technological opportunities? Also what can experts learn from amateurs?
I'm interested in leveraging DIY, hackerspace and amateur cultures for a number of reasons. I believe that innovation and breakthroughs happen when individuals go beyond their standard frames of reference and discipline to learn new skills on their own: breakthroughs often require us to become amateurs in a new field, in other words. During the process of learning new things, we often cobble together materials, figure things out informally, and explore things on our own. For this reason, DIY culture and doing things in nonstandard or non-expert ways are useful models for how innovation is done.
I've also seen a significant cultural surge toward DIY electronics, physical computing, and hands-on "making" over the last decade. The turn toward physical making is partly due to people being tired of mass produced consumer Walmart culture - they're tired of having disposable, spiritless and generic junk. DIY electronics is also partially in response against the trend of conceiving information and knowledge as virtual things. Platforms like the Arduino - which started out filling a niche within the physical computing community - has grown to be quite widely implemented in multiple fields of design.
I also think that higher education has become increasingly detached from physical objects. I think that this is a mistake: I believe that innovation and education needs to be engaged with the real world, get dirt under its fingernails, and learn the skill of working hard at problems that are often ambiguous. Universities needs to combine hands-on construction and skill with advanced knowledge and concepts in order to effectively innovate in research - and for workforce development.
If i understood correctly, the hand-made zine on critically-engaged making were printed in only 300 copies and given out for free. i do suspect that far more than 300 people would love to get their hands on it. Most would even be happy to pay for it. The content is brilliant, so is the format. Are you planning to change the distribution model?
Yes - the project is called Critical Making and I the documentation for the project is at http://conceptlab.com/criticalmaking/. There's been an outpouring of interest in expanding this project and there are clearly a lot of people involved in DIY or maker communities that don't fit into the "family-friendly kit-based weekend-project" focus of Make Magazine. The initial idea was to do an actual photocopied zine with a bunch of people I admire and to give it away for free - although this has become a much bigger project with almost 350 pages of content from about 60 contributors. It's nicely grown into a pack of zines, a little like Ginko Press's "McLuhan Unbound" project.
I'm still going to give the 300 copies away for free - and I'm making a special edition for the contributors - but I haven't yet determined what to do after my initial run. I'm currently talking to some different people and presses, and I'm open to ideas.
At this point, I'm not inclined to just slap an open source license on the content and put a PDF of it online. I'd ideally like the project as only available as a photocopied object that somebody hand produced - but I realize that this may not be practical. I'd consider an academic or art press, distributing it through the contributors, or returning to a zine model of people sending cash in an envelope to an address.
There's an interesting push against electronic books happening - instead of the format of physical books dying, there's a fresh crop of bookmaking work that fetishizes the physical page. I wouldn't term it as a "zombification" of books, but a useful opportunity to rethink what physical components of a book are valuable.
For my Critical Making project, if people want copies or are interested in this as a publishing/distribution project, let me know. I'll send you a copy too, Régine - but the contents of this collection of zines is a whole other conversation... we should talk about it after I've shipped them off.
One of my favourite projects on your homepage must be the customized taco (food) truck that would go around communities and give D.I.Y. laboratory for circuit bending. Is it going to happen soon?
This project, with an official title of Repurposing Obsolescence: Teaching DIY Science, Technology and Engineering Practices to Adolescents in Underserved Communities, will design, develop and test Do-It-Yourself (DIY) hands-on workshops to introduce and teach middle school kids in underserved communities technology and design by customizing and repurposing e-waste technology, like old electronic toys. Right now the major outcome of the project will be the creation of a workshop kit that covers the processes of learning DIY electronics for distribution to after school programs and other informal educational venues.
My team has implemented a number of pilot projects over the last three years that demonstrate the ability of hands-on DIY electronics curricula to motivate and encourage students and to enable them to acquire a deeper understanding of core engineering, mathematics and science concepts by introducing creative and artistic use of circuit bending,ì the creative short circuiting of electronic devices that make sound.
I'm interested in extending maker culture into different environments, and I think the approach is useful in getting kids interested in learning about how things work. In this project, I'm particularly interested in reaching out to communities that normally wouldn't have the resources in their schools to explore art or electronics. Sadly, California has a growing list of schools that have slashed art or any items that aren't part of the standardized test structure. Hands-on education - with shop, woodworking and art classes - have been removed from most schools. This is doing an incredible disservice to kids, and it's especially bad in communities that don't have a lot of resources. It's not teaching people how to think, be creative or holistic problem solving - it's teaching people how to memorize things to get a high score on a test.
I think circuit bending is a great antithesis to a standardized test. It doesn't have one right answer. It uses your hands. It makes noise and can be dangerous. It can be very simple or incredibly complicated. It involves genuine exploration and discovery. In a nutshell, I think it's a better model for how life works than a test on paper, and I think the United States would be a better place and have a more skilled and creative workforce (and more interesting artwork) if more kids were taught things like circuit bending at an early age. The scientific hypothesis of the project is that this approach will lower barriers to experimenting with custom-built electronic instruments and lead to greater participation and success of people pursuing secondary education.
So, my challenge in this project is to develop hands-on workshops, kits and curriculum that work within the educational system of the United States, or at least Southern California. I also want it to work for people with English as a second language, and as a result have translated prototypes of the curriculum into Spanish, Chinese, Korean and French - but within Southern California, Spanish is my main focus.
My vision is to extend this work through the development of a mobile D.I.Y. laboratory to more easily bring our specialized infrastructure to underserved communities. In other words, have a vehicle that acts as a "bookmobile" to bring specialized resources to groups and communities that lack educational infrastructure. The initial idea for this "makermobile" would be to have it in the form of a customized taco (food) truck, a common component of Los Angeles and Orange County culture. This vehicle would transport workshop mentors and specialized tools and would serve as a public platform to disseminate the workshop materials. I've envisioned that the vehicle would need to be really cool - with lowrider hydraulic suspension, nice rims, and a cool paint job - as a form of propaganda to get kids excited.
I've recently got funding to develop the curriculum and hardware component of this project, but I don't yet have funding to buy a vehicle. As it turns out, purchasing a vehicle through a university or research funds is usually problematic - it doesn't fit into the standard categories of research equipment, especially a pimped out lowrider taco truck.
Do you think schools, and education in general, isn't doing enough to make young people 'techno-literate'?
I think kids generally get quite a bit of informal education around technology using computers, mobile phones or iPads at home. What they're missing is the opportunities to open up and learn about the mechanics of what's inside of the black boxes of technology, to go beyond a consumer of the technology. I want kids to move beyond downloading a game off of the Apple App Store - that's not technical literacy, it's just another format of consumption.
You are Co-Director of the Values in Design Lab at UC Irvine with Geof Bowker, Cory Knobel and Judith Gregory. The objective of the lab is to blend "rich social theory with design practice in order to produce information systems and technology imbued with strong social and ethical values." Which kind of works are you developing in the Lab? Do you have some examples of projects that represent particularly well what the students are working on there?
Actually, within the last couple weeks this lab name has changed to "EVOKE" - Emerging Values, Ontologies, and Knowledge Expression - we're working on a number of different things, including a Values in Design workshop for doctoral students.
At this point we're still getting the lab set up, but we're interested in infrastructure, ontologies, values, big data, making, and how knowledge is formed and communicated. It's an intentionally big mix of topics that doesn't neatly fit into the format of something like a TED talk. I see the lab like a research group or design initiative, perhaps like a smaller version of the MIT Media Lab, that work on investigating complex issues, building prototypes and solving problems built on a foundation of serious social theory.
We have a lot of projects going on, including researching new forms of scholarship that move beyond linear texts, design by youth, and work that encompasses biomedical informatics. The first project that we completed at UC Irvine during summer 2012 was a design workshop for doctoral students, titled "Values in Design". Our mission in this project was to train researchers in a broad range of disciplines - including Informatics, Computer Science, Design and Science and Technology Studies - to produce new forms of information systems and technologies which express strong social and ethical values. It ran over the course of a week, and the format was a little bit like Project Runway - with teams designing technology prototypes - and an academic conference with guest speakers lecturing on design-oriented topics. It was a lot of fun.
Within the different projects through EVOKE, I'm primarily interested in making physical prototypes of complex concepts: I'm focused on what art can do to actually extend and add to research and science.
I hope you won't mind if i say this but you're an established artist. You're also teaching and holding academic positions. Could you point us to young, emerging artists whose work we should be paying more attention to? Either students or yours or just people whose work you stumbled upon online or at a Dorkbot meeting?
I have some student work that I'm very proud of, especially my graduate students coming out of Media Design Practices at Art Center. My favorite projects over the last little while are:
- Chiao Wei Ho, Slow Letter (2012). "The design of Slow Letter is based on the concept of Process-based Interaction which focuses on the process instead of the task itself. It is my challenge to the instantaneous interaction of user-centered design. It questions the essentiality of instantaneity and convenience in current digital service. What would the interaction be like when time and space are being elongated? We all have experienced the satisfaction of these digital devices around us, it can take us from point A to point B within no time. However, Slow Letter tends to discover alternative values outside of task-orientated interactions. The project reevaluates the weight of our words in the digital communication by elongates the process between point A to point B. It transforms instantaneity into emotional values and inject unconventional perspectives into the numbed daily routine."
- Alex Braidwood: Noisolation Headphones (2011). You've written about these at http://we-make-money-not-art.com/archives/2011/10/the-noisolation-headphones.php - since you wrote that article an updated video of the project is here:
- Hyun Ju Yang: Measurement of Existence (2010). "This hypothetical device informs your quantum state within innumerable versions of our universe in the quantum state of the universe. The main idea is inspired by an equation, the measurement of existence from the relative quantum mechanics created by physicist, Everett who invented Many-World theory."
A new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present ResonanceFM, will be broadcast today Tuesday 27th November at 4:00 pm. There will be a repeat on Thursday 29th November 10:30 pm. You can catch it online if you don't live in London.
This week, i'm talking with Ruairi Glynn, architect, artist, curator, ex-fantastic blogger and if that were not enough he is also a lecturer in Interactive Architecture at Bartlett. His interactive kinetic installations have earned him awards and exhibitions across the world, from the Centre Pompidou in Paris to the National Art Museum in Beijing. Ruairi Glynn was one of the first artists invited to fill in the Tank space at Tate Modern where he installed Fearful Symmetry, a glowing tetrahedron that glided above visitors' heads, danced and encouraged the public to become an active part of the performance.
It's been a fascinating conversation with a pleasant guy. We talked cybernetics, interactivity, puppetry and machines with a mind of their own. I hope you like the programme!