RES-Arts was held in conjunction with two international
conferences representing key frontiers in
science and technology:
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.
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
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
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?
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
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.
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
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
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
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.