- Mobile Performance
- Electric Speed
- Schematic as Score
- (Re)purposed Clothes
- Collaborative Spaces
- Device Art
- Digital Dub
- Rise of the VJ
- Sample Culture
For hundreds of years, artists and craftspeople have been creating machines as artworks. The history of automata includes such traditions as European clockwork constructions, and Japanese karakuri ningyo. More recently, artists have begun working with robotics and embedded electronics to create self-contained mechanical and electronic devices. Initially, this sort of work often meant collaborating with engineers, or sponsorship by large corporation, but the barrier to entry has been lowered- there are many low-cost development tools available. Some, like the popular Arduino microcontroller are targeted specifically at artists. Many art schools schools now teach electronics, robotics, rapid prototyping, and wearable computing. At the same time, consumer electronics has been progressing at the exponential rate predicted by Moore's law. Robots sold today as children's toys would have been unthinkable only a decade ago.
This abundance feeds an underground culture of hackers and "circuit benders" in much the same way that the post World War II glut of cars fuelled the hot rod craze of the 50s and 60s. See Martin Wisinowski's article for a detailed overview of recent developments in the realm of amateur hardware and software hacking. We are not entirely dependent on industry's cast-offs, however. The rise of rapid protoyping and small-run custom manufacturing means that an artist can essentially have a factory in their living room, and produce electronic devices as easily as previous generations made prints or ceramics.
This edition of Vague Terrain contains work from nine artists working in the world of machines.
Miriam Clinton, aka iriXx is a composer who chose, in her piece is, to work with iconic devices from the past: John Harrison's chronometers, Charles Babbage's Difference Engine, and Arthur Scherbius' Enigma Machine. Each of these devices can, without exaggeration, be said to have changed the course of history, but the skills used to create them have almost been lost in this digital era. Gears and clockwork are no longer, as Clinton points out, practical solutions to any real problem, although they continue to be fetishised in the fad of Steampunk, and in wristwatches for the wealthy, but at the times that the devices used in her piece were created they were deadly serious high technology. These machines are also, however, highly aesthetic creations, carefully styled, in an age before universal industrial design.
Brad Borevitz also addresses the past world of automata in his piece Inscription of the Girly Man. The ability to make a machine which could write like a human has always been a test for the most skilled makers, such as Pierre Jaquet-Droz, whose Little Writer amazed the courts of 18th century Europe, or Tanaka Hisashige who created a karakuri ningyo (roughly, 'surprising mechanical doll') which could write Japanese characters. Borevitz turns this tradition on its head, and goes at it with a brute-force industrial robot which hammers its message into a massive concrete block, while exploring issues of masculinity, mechanization, and the role of the object in art.
Ken Gregory's Sun Suckers exist as individual machines, which absorb the rays of the sun, and convert them to insect-like chirps. However, like insects, they are listening to each other as we are listening to them, and the strength of the work comes from the listener's realization that these devices are not simply individuals, but members of a community. The pieces have a delightful hand-made appearance-making the mechanism visible, yet still opaque- there are no moving gears or pulsing muscles from which we can infer the mechanism of the sound production- we must take it on faith that what Gregory shows is what we are in fact hearing.
Similarly, Jessica Field's Maladjusted Ecosystem is a community of robots with individual, yet conflicting desires. The function, or malfunction of the ecosystem results from the conflict between the members. Just as an antelope has no desire to feed a lion, or a lion to balance the antelope herd's population, Field's machines live out their lives oblivious to each other, except where their needs conflict. Of course, the machines have all been made and programmed by her, and so there is an underlying subtext of the debates that still grip our society. Are we the products of a cruel, or perhaps merely incompetent, Maker? Or are we, like Field's machines, mere collections of gears and blind reflexes to stimuli? Field further blurs the question by presenting the machines as transparently mechanical, yet she speaks interchangeably of them as being rigidly programmed and yet having wants and desires. In the language of the philosopher Daniel Dennett, she is slipping between the "design stance" and the "intentional stance", knowing full well that we can't have it both ways.
Peter Flemming, like Field and Gregory, also shows us the works, but goes a step further, placing the means of reproducing his modified Montreal-Saskatoon Miller Solar Engine in the hands of the readers of Vague Terrain. Flemming is an example of the new breed of artist-manufacturers. Needing a component for the control of motors in his work, he used freely available CAD (Computer Aided Drafting) and CAM (computer Aided Manufacturing) software to create the specifications for circuit board for the device, which he then had manufactured. And while the design is "not properly released under some kind of open source license" it is nonetheless freely available for you to use and modify. The importance of this can not be overstated: we are entering a time when the manufacturing specifications for devices can be shared as easily as we trade MP3s. This, combined with the ability to have these devices produced quickly and cheaply (even on our own desktops, much as we now print a document), and new economies of sharing knowledge, such as Creative Commons, and the General Public License, bodes well for an interesting future for the art of devices.
Darsha Hewitt too makes her process transparent, in this case by showing us her personal sketchbook, where she draws the diagrams and schematics for her devices. Her drawing style is in large part an homage to the inventor Forrest M. Mims III, who wrote many do-it-yourself electronics books and articles in the age before the internet and computer-rendered schematics. Darsha's meticulously drawn and lettered schematics on grid paper are, to those in the know, instantly evocative of Mims', yet manage to convey Hewitt's obvious excitement and delight with this material. Her style is deliberately anachronistic, even the Rona Jaffe novel which donated its cover to the notebook dates from the era of Mims' notebooks. This could well be, except for a few small clues, a document from 1978 rather than 2008.
In Erin Gee's piece Formants, the mechanism is hidden, rather than explicit - we are taken into a realm where it is entirely plausible that a disembodied head of hair could sing when brushed, without the 'trick' being revealed to break the spell. We are entering here into a new world of emotional relationships with machines. Machines of the future may not even be recognizable as such- they may become friends, pets lovers, or something as yet undefined. Hair has powerful sensual and emotional connotations, and we are left wondering if brushing the hair of a machine could be considered an intimate act.
Nicholas Steadman is also concerned with machine intimacy, but his After Deep Blue does not take any visible emotional cues from humans, or even stereotypically comforting animals such as kittens or rabbits- instead, it most resembles a snake, which for most people is the antithesis of an emotional creature. And yet, in this cold plastic body is embodied behaviour which could be considered at very least intimate, if not actually emotional. It is a machine, which, like us, seeks out and responds to human touch. Its reasons for doing so are programmed into its segments, but there is no master program- the behaviour results from the interaction of the individual segments much as the behaviour of Field's ecosystem, or Gregory's field of Sun Suckers results from the interaction of autonomous agents. Are our emotions and behaviours similarly reducible to (and therefore reproducible as) a similar set of interactions? Stedman suggests that we are not far from the time when machines could pass an intimate version of the Turing test.
Rob Cruickshank, Toronto