Interview of Ken Rinaldo

6kenrinaldo.jpg I remember browsing through the programme of the ars electronica exhibition in 2004 and reading the most intriguing title ever for an art piece: Augmented Fish Reality. Five rolling robotic fish-bowl sculptures allowed Siamese fighting fish to use intelligent hardware and software to move their bowls themselves. Seeing the installation made me think a lot about the relevance of augmented reality (a technology i had found super exciting so far without exactly knowing why), the concept of “augmenting” animals and “interacting” with them through technology, new ideas of robotics, etc. But more crucially, it was with that work that i discovered Ken Rinaldo. He’s teaching 3D Sculpture/Modeling at the Art and Technology Program at the Ohio State University, he’s also lecturing and showing his work all over the world (check the list of his upcoming talks and exhibitions at the end of this entry.)

Photo of Ken Rinaldo at the AV Festival England 2006. Photographer John Marshall

What’s your background?

My family is from Europe and I am first generation American. My French grandfather Vincent Rinaldo studied at Les Beaux Arts in Paris, and he painted allegorical, anti religious paintings and became a member of the Salon des Independents. He was killed in Inor France, on the Eastern Front during WWII when he was 27 years old and this resulted to my father Jean and grandmother immigrating to the US after WWII. My mother Ann and her Danish mother and Scottish father (an electronics inventor/dabbler) immigrated to the US also after WWII. In the US my folks met on a bus stop and after the birth of my older brother and sister, I was born the middle child of five, in Queens, NY.

I grew up in Long Island NY in the presence of my grandfathers artworks as well as surrounded by both my parents artworks. My folks still work with ceramics and as a child I loved playing with clay and on occasion I would help with their commercially successful slip-cast chess-sets and other ceramic pieces. We also had an eccentric surrealist oil painter Frank Nicholas Stein, living in our basement and our babysitter Jimmy was also an artist, known for casting his ears, nose and fingers in chocolate, for marketing at NY arts fairs.

As a teenager At Ward Melville High School in Setauket NY I was lost in music (choir), visual art and marine biology thanks to a fantastic bio teacher Dr Ernst. Later I went to NY to study ballet, jazz dance and a bit of modern. In the day I was working in SoHo, NY as a machine operator, sewing high fashion clothing for Gretzinger, Inc. and in the evening practicing dance and on occasions sneaking into David Howard’s dance studio on 62nd St. to watch Baryshnikov and Peter Martins practice with the NY City ballet. These experiences made me realize I would never be a great dancer, having started too late at 18.

Wanting to find a career that I could excel at, I followed my mom to California and at 20 began to study Computer Science at Canada College in Redwood City. COBOL and business programming applications were not for me and I went onto a BA degree in human Communications from the University of California Santa Barbara and had the good fortune to meet and work with the inspirational James Grier Miller, one of the founders of Living Systems Theory; a kind of magnum opus of living systems. I only realized much later how influential this research was to be.

After an inspirational visit to some NY galleries, at 27 I decided I would pursue art. With years of study and production I applied and went onto receive a Masters in Fine Arts from San Francisco State’s excellent Conceptual Information Arts Program, studying with artists Steve Wilson, Brian Rogers, George LeGrady and Paul DeMarinis. Art historian Whitney Chadwick introduced me to the ideas of Marcel Duchamp and when I realized I could create work that was based on a conceptual thinking, rather than just formal qualities, this set me free to really explore living systems theories through art making.

For survival, I have worked in many different capacities both during and after my school years, including; a laborer, steel worker, a court reporter reader/trainer, sewing machine operator, carpenter, computer salesman, art salesman, singing telegram messenger, commercial electrician, independent engineer, visiting artist at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and now as a professor at The Ohio State University, in Columbus Ohio. I have been married to my soul mate Amy Youngs for 18 years and our ongoing dialogue about art, as well as all my early experiences, has been central to my artistic evolution.

1fishyyy.jpg3fishy.jpgAugmented Fish Realty. Photo Otto Saxinger Ars Electronica 2004

Would you say that you’ve been trained more as an artist or a scientist?

I think I was trained as both an artist and a scientist. My upbringing involved visiting many art and science museums such as MOMA NY, the Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian and this helped create fascination and motivation for exploration and discovery. Now, that I can pursue art through science and research, I can see they are not such unique motivations as artists ask conceptual questions about the nature of our universe and create systems of context and analysis based on experimental results, as do scientists. Artists share an interest in form, structure, systems and processes and along with scientists they posit questions and propose hypothesis.

These questions are often based on leaps of faith, intuition and a desire for deeper understanding and a move toward poiesis. Still, this sort of research results in artistic and scientific theories that are judged sometimes on aesthetic qualities and of course statistical probabilities for reproducible scientific and/or artistic results.

It is an exciting time to work on the fringes of art @ science and I suppose researcher may be a good word for thinking about what I do.

Your “works express concern for ecological issues, which are often not considered within the realm of technological and cultural progress.” Do you think the work of artists could lead to more awareness of ecological issues?

I think it would be fantastic if artists’ works did lead to more awareness of ecological issues and I think artists have been successful in raising ecological awareness though more needs to be done.

It seems that art that involves technology in particular, should be concerned with ecological issues since these are the materials and processes, more than others, that are forcing changes in, and challenging the ecological stability of our planet. Commerce is not so willing to offer critiques of its own activity and this can be one function for the artist.

0weaponofmas.jpgMel Chin – Weapons of Mass Distribution


If artists can just ask questions, ask large and loaded questions, resinous questions that can really rile our emerging whole-world-culture. These questions can be in the form of written provocations however they are better experienced and witnessed directly as works of art or installation.

If these questions can create an environment of criticality about who and what we are and how our species are connected to all species both biological and an emerging technological, than we will have provided an important service to all living and non living entities.

Can you give us a few examples of artists that explore ecological issues in a critical way?

Mel Chin is an artist that engages the use of ecological principles in Revival Field planting of heavy metal hyperaccumlators or his WMD Weapons of Mass Distribution work, a large MX missile shaped mobile home. Amy Youngs does interactive sculpture works that involve living worm environments and recycling junk mail to feed flowering plants. Heath Bunting is asking important questions about the nature of potentially poisoning of our genetic environment with genetically modified foods. Mierle Laderman Ukeles or Dan Peterman are other great examples of artists exploring and engaging ecological issues that have real impact. Architects Ken Yeang author of the Green Skyscraper or Michael Reynolds with his New Mexico tyre houses are all asking great questions, producing their work and having direct positive impacts on our planets health.

I think we can also expand the notion of environment and we can consider artists working in the realm of media arts as perhaps working with an emerging “Ecology of the mind� Artists like Roy Ascott are asking important questions about “noetic networks� in which our brains have seamlessly merged with the global electronic networks to create new forms of consciousness.

At Pilchuck Glass School this summer Amy Youngs and I produced a solar powered Hydroponics Herb Garden for growing vegetables and herbs, indoors.

1grdnn.jpg2gardenn.jpgHydroponic Solar Garden

How much irony (about for example “augmented reality” which was the buzz word in 2004) is there in Augmented Fish Reality?

The title is intended to have some irony and to poke fun and ask questions about mediated and augmented experiences. I have tried heads-up augmented-reality display systems for example and have found them heavy, tethered and lacking in visual resolution.

While thinking about augmenting a fish environment, we must also not underestimate the social intelligence of fish (and other living things) while simultaneously overestimating the intelligence of computer systems and their myriad forms.

Some critical reviewers have dismissed the intelligence of the fish so they dismiss this as phony augmentation and yet the revisionist thinking about fish is they are steeped in social intelligence and the system was designed to hook into thir social and competitive behavior. Research by Dr Collum Brown at University of Canterbury, Australia, who surveys international research on fish has concluded that fish are far more intelligent than formerly thought.

Is this really augmented reality? Yes in a manner of speaking. The fish really do get to interact and move their robots around augmenting the limits of their bowls and it remains to be scientifically proven that they have learned the interface. This would take a statistical probability analysis and perhaps at some point in the future I will go there, however I am onto my next research question at this point.
The important thing for me was putting the viewer and myself into a place of empathy, to consider the fish’s desire. I struggled to engineer something that would be a comfortable home for these fish, including foam wheels and rubber shocks to reduce vibration. Additionally I set up a simple fish waste and oxygen exchange ecosystem with a peace lily in each tank to absorb the fish waste. The fish are very comfortable building their bubble nests around the peace lilys and the exposed roots add complexity and a natural element to the glass fish bowl.

Humans have already intervened in the Siamese fighting fish’s natural evolution, through cross breeding to select aggressive traits, so the fish will fight to the death.

With this work, I have provided an augmentation device that augments the fish’s real space and augments or challenges the human manipulation of their DNA, so you can see there is a bit of double meaning here.

How can the development of micro-machines, biotechnology and computer systems contribute to bridge the gap between the organic and inorganic world?

This is a big juicy and exciting question, as much exciting research is happening right now, with many promises of what new research will bring. It will not be by design alone but rather, by allowing nature to do what nature does well and then setting up systems, that allow the natural reactions to take place.

For example the scientist Jeff Brinker and his colleagues at the University of New Mexico are using living cells to direct the formation of scaffolds that would help keep them alive. Here the cells were able to organize a shell of water with lipids to surround themselves and this separates the cells from drying and damaging silica and keeps the cells alive.

0cockler.jpgDouglas McCreery of the Huntington Medical Research Institute’s Neural Engineering Laboratories has been heading a group working on restoring hearing to profoundly deaf individuals, with cochlear implants that electronically stimulate the auditory nerve and allow formerly deaf individuals to hear [image on the left].

Researchers have been successful in bypassing damaged auditory nerves and directly attaching the electrodes to the brain stem. They have discovered that by varying the shape and length of the electrodes, they neither puncture nor crush the neural cells as the probe penetrates the brain stem near the ventral cochlear nucleus. This team has been successful in allowing formerly deaf individuals to distinguish pitch much better than with past implants.

The next question I would ask is what kind of implants are possible that will allow us to augment and extend normal ranges of hearing? Perhaps to the subsonic or ultrasonic levels so we can hear the ultrasonic chirps of bats or sub audible rumblings of killer whales, without cumbersome electronics. This will certainly increase the possibilities for interspecies communication.

What if we could hear the subsonic rumblings of plate tectonics to predict the beginning of earthquakes? What new knowledge and ways of seeing might we have access to with new extended senses? What other senses, like vision, touch, or smell could be augmented? Might we create a sixth sense that would allow us to directly sense pheromones? Might forms of synethesia be induced through the electronic rewiring of our senses? [portions of this answer were excerpted from Interactive Electronics for Artists and Inventors, forthcoming by Ken Rinaldo]

Do you think animal species can really benefit from it?

If we struggle and define this as an important prerequisite to working in the areas then I hope so. Apparently, we need something more than the EPA, for protection of the natural environment as fish and other species are ending up absorbing too many human pharmaceuticals and getting jacked up on caffeine and sexual dysfunction drugs.

It is often difficult to separate the fantastic speculations of new chemical or material applications and the panaceas that are promised with each new technology. As long as capital alone drives technology, then we will have the greatest promise that each new technology will solve the problems created by our last technologies. We often end up with a series of engineered re-solutions, which may have been better at looking at the original system and finding ways of better designing and implementing new solutions.

I am a romantic here perhaps to a fault and what I see now is that companies are starting to realize that green thinking is actually good business and perhaps our evolution as a species will have us realize our intrinsic symbiotic relationship to the complete ecosystems to which we depend but more so green thinking will just cost less, when we factor environmental issues. This is part of the emerging noetic network.

The machines and the connectivity and power of analysis computers give us really can be of benefit to the planet. Research for example is now starting to unravel the food web of the Steller Sea Lions radically declining populations and understanding this is related to over fishing of herring and Alaska is doing a pretty good job of managing their fisheries to limit over fishing of herring, using remote sensing, computer analysis and fisheries management.

With our earth a finite spaceship, we really have no choice but to learn ecological ways of thinking, though with world populations rapidly rising, it could be a rocky (or wet) road ahead, to a sustainable and symbiotic ecotope.

1flickrg.jpg2flickrg.jpgFlickering Signifiers

How does the audience respond to installations such as Flickering Signifiers or Autotelematic Spider Bots?

Audiences respond with overwhelming enthusiasm I think for some viewers they are lost in the beauty of the craft and gorgeous qualities of the glass and they are also hypnotized.

With Flickering Signifiers I was concerned with the rhythmic and hypnotic nature of TV light and additive consumerist behavior. I wanted humans to feel complicity in the act of consuming (which is why forks and spoons were hanging from the ceiling) and to have the viewer realize TV was part of this consumption circuit. Recent research by Robert Kubey and Mihaly Csikszentktmhalyi in Scientific American has identified television watching as an addictive behavior and they estimate that on average people spend 9 years of their lives watching television.

The works are a formal synthesis of the human eye and retina but incorporate rewired color televisions encased in blown glass forms. The eyeballs (glass forms) replace the TV tube and the TV’s glow is projected onto large silver and white parabolic lenses, which are emblematic of the retina. This accentuates the fluttering TV glow, while removing the TV images.

The result of TV as tool for consumerism is impacting our planet and TV clearly does affect our collective cultural dialogues about what we need to buy to appear successful though the human and environmental prices are too high. In an article in the Hightower Lowdown “Toys of Miseryâ€? Jim Hightower sites that toys alone are a 30 billion a year industry. Corporate giants like Mattel, Hasbro, and Wal-Mart spends nearly a billion dollars a year on advertising toys. The problem is that these toys are most often produced in “sweatshopsâ€? in China. These companies use thousands of Asian toy factories where the National Labor Committee found shocking conditions. They reported that one of Hong Kong’s top producers employs 20,000 teenage girls and young woman with a common workday starting at 8 am to 9 pm, seven days a week. The article sites that the Chinese minimum wage of 31 cents an hour is not adequate for “basic human needsâ€? and still, these workers are paid 13 cents an hour. These abused workers are literally “sick of workâ€? because of the dust from paint, the toxic glues and other petroleum-based solvents to which they are exposed, each day.

I would have killed my TV years ago but I am also addicted.

0automoto.jpg1automoto.jpgAutotelematic Spider Bots 2006. Photos John Marshall

With the Autotelematic Spider Bots commissioned by the AV Festival in England in 2006 the audience reaction was tremendously positive. It consists of 10 spider-like sculptures that interact with the public in real-time and self-modify their behaviors, based on their interaction with the viewer, themselves, their environment and their food source.

The Spider Bots see participants in the installation with long distance ultrasonic eyes at the end of springy antennae-like necks. The ultrasonic eyes at the end of these antennae allow the robots to see out to a distance of 3-4 meters and allow human interaction and during the exhibition it was really exciting to see viewer/participants learning to interact with this new alien species, as the robots are constantly seeking human interaction by swinging their antennae back and forth.

Still one of the primary questions for the series was to see if “digital pheromones� could allow the robots to find their own food source in feeding themselves. Ants have been discovered to be “rule driven systems� which is true for computers as well.

While the robots could find their food source through random foraging in the installation looking for a 1 Hz infrared beacon that sits under a recharge rail they just took too long to charge up given current battery technology. This became a confirmation as to why the Honda Asimo robot can also only last about ½ hour on a single charge and I am excited with new research currently going on at MIT with carbon nanotubes for super fast charge batteries and this or other battery research may allow robots to feed more quickly.

Future versions will allow both quicker charging and the chargers will be hooked to solar cells, so the robots get their energetics from the sun.

(Click here fot the complete interview of Ken Rinaldo.)