RES-Arts was held in conjunction with two international conferences representing key frontiers in science and technology: ALifeX and ICDL5. Artists participated in a symposium as a joint workshop for the conferences. It was heralded as a dialog amongst artists, scientists, and engineers. In the few days after the symposium and before the exhibition ended, discussions continued. The following is a humble summary of the symposium and of some of the more salient topics that tended to come up.

Colin Allen moderated the symposium. He introduced the artists and began discussion by asking artists to describe their work.


Christy Georg spoke first. She had two pieces in the show. One, called "Attainment", was comprised of two items that made sounds as they responded to one another. The first item was a mechanically amplified tuning fork aligned with an automated hammer. The other involved a glass capsule filled with water. Water would slowly drip from the capsule onto a cork. The cork made contact with the rim of a second glass attached to a rotary motor. Occasionally the glass would spin and because of its contact with the wet cork, a resonant sound was produced. Over the course of the day, the water supply would be depleted and the viewer would be left to wonder what would happen to the coupled system at night when the water actually did run dry.

Next to Georg sat sound artist Norbert Herber. He and Larry Yaeger combined talents on a project entitled "A(rt)Life 2.5". They built an immersive environment in a chamber at the far end of the gallery. Sets of heavy black felt curtains absorbed stray light and sound so that the room became a world of its own. Carpet and pillows on the floor allowed the viewer to lay down and relax and to watch projections on the ceiling and to take in the flow of sound.

The projections on the ceiling were those of flocking agents. Each agent's moment-to-moment movement was determined by a standardized set of simple rules. Agents were visualized as triangles of colored light where, due to these simple rules, triangles would coalesce into traveling groups, or flocks. When a flock achieved a certain status - or more specifically when an agent in the flock would react to a certain condition - that agent would jump to another functionality and change color. Behaviors of agents corresponded to changes in sound textures. For instance, when a stray agent intersected with and joined the flock, the flock dynamic might change to the point that another agent might jump from a red to a blue color. That change would be accompanied by a ping sound that might shift in acoustic location through the environment. Sounds combined into textures corresponding to the flock dynamics being visualized.

Parallels between the cellular interacting agent simulation environments of Yaeger's work and the sound qualities that Herber seeks to capture in his music made for a rewarding collaborative effort.

Bill Seeley then introduced his piece entitled "Spring Loaded for Action". It was constructed of steel, stone, and wood to portray a medieval technology. This piece addressed an important aspect of the RES-Arts theme as it began to question what differentiates people from robots. In his work, Seeley seeks to demonstrate the interaction between viewer and object. He noted that as one observes this piece one cannot help but to see it in reference to one's expectations and experience with the world. Spring Loaded becomes a kinetic sculpture where motion is contributed by the mind of the perceiver. His work addresses the questionable boundary between the internal and the external - where by popular definition, the robot is considered not to have an 'internal'. How might a robot perceive the tension implied by the piece?

Natalie Jeremijenko described one of her projects involving feral robotic dogs. She and her collaborators taught various youth groups how to hack robotic and remote control toys to include sensors for detecting toxic materials. These 'robotic feral dogs' were released in packs around toxic waste sites to record cleanup progress or lack thereof. One aim of the project was to make truth claims; to question the use of modern technologies in the manufacture of interactive toys. She asks: what (if anything) do children learn about interaction by playing with plastic electronic dogs? In noting how quickly kids and adults become bored with such toys, Jeremijenko illustrates a need to examine the use of technologies in the context of culture.

Max Kazemzadeh talked about his piece "Content Context". It was an investigation of the concept of the interface, where the interface is an influence of and is influenced by interaction. Here, two systems see one another and size one another up to compete or cooperate: a Japanese sound toy (reacts to sound) interfaces with an American toy (Half-Life, a first-person shooter 3-D video game). The viewer determines the spatial position of the Half-Life agent based on his or her distance to the Japanese toy. Thus, three systems are effectively interfacing with one another. Kazemzadeh noted that interfaces carry cultural expectations and values - and that extensions of ourselves are found in the pervasiveness of technology.

Kathy Weaver works in the traditional craft medium of quilting. She discussed her series of fiber pieces entitled "Cycle of Females" and how they speak to the topic of gender and technology. She drew on a narrative about how her father but not her mother used to enjoy tinkering with electronics and mechanical devices while she was growing up. The very use of her quilting medium prompts us to consider the ideals of the masculine and the feminine in modern terms and in the context of life science and robotics.

Andy Holtin then introduced his work called "Contraption for the Influence of Breath", or "Blow" for short. This was a large-scale interactive device installed on a full wall of the gallery. At one end was a set of sensors mounted on a piece of acrylic glass with the instruction to "blow". When a participant would blow on the sensors (a set of microphones with high activation thresholds), the signal would be amplified as voltage to a set of motors. The motors were used to actuate movement on a set of wooden planks. The movements of the planks mapped to how they might move if the participant had blown on them from that distance with super-human force. From this context, Holtin developed on the concept of transformation, a theme that presented itself in numerous discussions.

Mike Brady completed the introductions by commenting on his piece entitled "Voxhead". He fabricated a humanoid head framework to house a mechanical vocal tract. The artificial tract was made of parts that formed an acoustic cavity or tube where the resonant shape of the tube was altered as motors changed the shape and position of a rubbery tongue. An electric speaker mounted at the bottom of the tract provided the sound source. The resulting apparatus generated eerie humanistic moans with changing vowel qualities. Brady intended for the piece to be somewhat creepy. He sought to evoke the kind of uneasiness or empathy one might feel when considering the loneliness and despair felt by Frankenstein's Monster. He contrasted this with the realism-oriented animatronic androids and the fuzzy-cute mechanical puppets being produced today in human-robot interaction research.


Interdependent relationships and coupled systems, transparency, transformation, the interface and the boundary between internal and external or subject and object, and distinguishing among levels of analysis were some of the recurring themes for discussion during the week of RES-Arts. Though it ultimately rests on the viewer to interpret the works and to digest them in relation to one another, it might be fun to read what people had to say to each other and about each other.

What is Art?

At a party on the last night of the ALifeX conference and RES-Arts exhibition, a history and philosophy of science graduate student remarked "I prefer real art, not this electronica bullsh*t." Those were surprisingly dogmatic words to hear from the lips of someone who studies how innovation often must overcome institutionalized thinking. Though the student failed to get a rise from the artists present, his comment introduces an important topic that we should address first: what do we mean by "art" in the context of RES-Arts?

RES-Arts aligns with the view that contemporary art reflects on the needs of contemporary culture - there is an interdependent relationship between science and technology and the arts. Modern achievement is questioned and digested into mainstream culture through the arts and, in turn, mainstream culture and institutionalized thinking tend to determine the areas where achievement will occur.

Yaeger stated at the symposium: "I do it because it's fun". This is probably - or at least hopefully - the ultimate truth. Why making art and doing science is fun and why and how society chooses to embrace some art or artists over others are topics we leave for the reader to struggle with.

Transparency and Aesthetics

At one point during the week, Georg and Kazemzadeh reportedly exchanged sharp words about the aesthetics of cords and cables and visible electronic components and such. Georg sought to obscure the electronics of her work as she considered them to be irrelevant and even distracting whereas Kazemzadeh used electronics strewn across the floor in spaghetti-tangle fashion to create an electronic entity. The embodiment of a digital interface was an important aspect of his piece. Their debate introduces the tangled topic of transparency and aesthetics in contemporary art. How readily do we interpret the message of the artist without being distracted by its implementation details? How readily do we see through the underlying science and technologies of an installation? In art that informs and is informed by modern culture there is an intricate relationship between the message and the medium. Transparency often hinges on the familiarity and understanding that the mind of the beholder brings to the table when interpreting a piece. Distractions inherent to the medium work to bring the medium into the mainstream. A piece that functions to make its medium more transparent is by practical definition not transparent. As Kazemzadeh and Georg might now agree, aesthetics and transparency do not equate and may even be inversely related. Mastery of a medium implies cultural acceptance and associated norms and expectations for that medium. One of the artists noted that how we would evaluate the transparency of a van Gogh painting today has shifted since the time when his works were first entering popular culture.

Consider Yaeger and Herber's flocking agents. Was the underlying technology a computer stashed away in a broom closet? It may be more accurate to consider that algorithms were the medium of A(rt)Life 2.5. The viewer examined sound and animated projections on the ceiling of the A(rt)Life chamber without ever seeing or perhaps even thinking about the computer or wiring or loudspeakers. Motivation for the piece had to do with the rules that determined the behaviors of agents and emergent flocks and sound textures. Herber broadly noted that the absence or presence of the physical computer was not relevant to the beauty and wonderment of the system. Transparency of the piece depended on the viewer's understanding of the algorithms. He hoped that people would not find the emergent sound textures to be transparent. If this had been the case, he would have failed in his quest for people to question the experience of music.

Jeremijenko's project further illustrates the relationship of transparency and culture. It involved teaching children about robotic technologies. In peeling back the plastic skin of the robot dog so that even pre-teens could appreciate its mechanistic assembly, the robot begins its journey towards being truly received into society. The robot is exposed and though access may at first obscure aesthetics, ultimately the true capabilities and limitations of the robot will be received. Instead of a mysterious gizmo to awe over or base Hollywood futurism movies on, the ideal of the robot becomes something useful. It becomes something that integrates with our culture. It becomes something that asks us how or even whether people will be interested in interactive robotic dog toys once robotics technologies become as commonplace as the computer.

Transformation and the Internal

Seeley's message about the collaboration between perceiver and object calls into question the fuzzy boundary between mind and environment. Even as he works with the technologies of days long past, he calls on and continues to challenge today's philosophers and cognitive scientists. What is the "internal"? Where does the environment end and the self begin? Is the mind an isolatable entity that transforms the world into representations? Or, is the world its own best representation? If indeed the world is its own best representation, we are left to conclude that the mind is not bounded by the body.

Georg's second piece, called "Punctuation", involved the viewer bringing his or her head into a device to look through a set of eye holes. A mechanism detected when a head was present and if so, two small hammers would strike down to ring resonators just in front of each of the viewer's eyes. The experience was both curious and startling. The viewer was taken from one reality to another merely by a change of physical environment. As Holton, Kazemzadeh, and Brady discussed the concept of transformation at a restaurant after the dust had settled and they were the only ones left in town, this piece of Georg's came up repeatedly. Holtin's message of how a system transforms input to output was applied to "Punctuation." Yet Kazemzadeh asked, where was the transformation without output? How can the mind be evaluated as a vehicle of transformation if the output is internal? What does it mean for output to be internal?

Artists and scientists

It is lastly interesting to note the dynamic that surfaced based on the inclusion of both artists by profession interested in science and technology and scientists by profession interested in doing art. An internationally known philosopher attended the conferences and the exhibition and posted an extended review of the exhibition on his blog. As an obviously well-informed art critic, he made very honorable mention of two or three of the artists from the show yet was not as enthusiastic about the contributions from others and from the scientists in general. This is probably not surprising and he accurately reflected something of the overall sentiment as an art review. Yet, the circumstance of the scientific environment undoubtedly impacted thinking and the artists were repeatedly prompted to discuss their work in terms of the science and engineering installations. Contrast is a powerful tool. Science and engineering examples placed next to visual and sensory statements meant for transcending words contextualized each other. As Moncayo stated, "the show itself was an emergent system."


Robots are reactive agents. They gather sensory information and mechanistically respond to that information by actuating motors and making sounds. The interior of the robot is generally not thought to involve consciousness or free will. Robot behavior is the result of mere collections of cold deterministic processes - an intricate arrangement of on-off switches. An emergent system is an assembly of simple agents where each agent also behaves based on cold determinism. These agents interact with their neighbors to form new higher-level holistic entities. From atoms to molecules to DNA and RNA to proteins to the cell to the nervous system and organism, life itself is regularly conceptualized as a vastly complex emergent system. From switches to robots to emergent behavior to self awareness, the boundary of the system becomes increasingly ill-defined.

Here we have some metaphors and abstractions for reasoning about the science of artificial life and its impact on our beliefs. Each artist offered a unique perspective. By contrasting these perspectives, we hope that some may have walked away from the show with questions and with newfound insights for interpreting the reality we find ourselves in.