The sciences encourage us to expand our knowledge by the pursuit of physically defining how we work in the world we live in so we can understand our place in life. Spirituality encourages us to expand our spirituality to become more than our physical limitations so we can feel content with our existence in the world. My artistic practice investigates how these two opposing approaches to understanding the world can be mixed together to create contradictory statements that show the complexity and diversity of being a conscious being.
My Blackboard works are driven by my curiosity in exploring and researching the human need to understand themselves within the context of society and the need to feel comfortable with the place they find themselves in a cultural setting. Human beings are all individually dynamic and we can behave in as many ways as our imagination will allow, yet our cultural framework has a tendency to pigeonhole our personalities and activities into a one-dimensional archetype. I am interested in the friction and interplay that exists in having a place in another's expectations that is both comforting and restrictive depending on the perspective that can be used to understand that place in society. I can't help but wonder why this tendency to turn dynamic people around us into a one-dimensional archetype is so embodied in our behaviour.
The Blackboard drawings use schematics, calculations and diagrams to celebrate the human beings ability to imagine many possibilities to understand the nature of ourselves. But the ephemeral blackboard is also a space for examining the truth of the ideas that the drawings attempt to test to see how they can sustain themselves over time. The drawings are always redrawn when shown in new spaces. Every time the drawing is repeated, I can improvise and improve the truths implied in the drawing to see how their implications grow and change.
This process is a scientific method that allows for ideas to grow into something that can be applied in a later electronic installation. Then the idea evolves, it is no longer a hypothesis but a theory that can be simulated in a real object, an art installation. This artwork shows the consequences and implications of what the blackboard originally attempted to resolve to see if it still has any meaning as a real performing object.
The medium of robot creation is very advantageous for showing or acting out ideas in a way where the robot is capable of sensing and choosing a reaction. Thus, a robot is a wonderful tool as it is like an actor you direct using software - I can provide for a latitude of behaviours and choices in the program so the robots can demonstrate independence and behave on their own when shown to the public.
In building robots, I limit myself to using very rudimentary sensors so that my robots' behaviours are always based on simple relationships to their environment. I also program in a low-level language, assembler. This choice to program my robots in this way makes it difficult for me to program my robots my way; there is always a compromise, a sort of dialogue, where I have to work around the machine's architecture and understand how it works with exterior sensor data in order to create its behavioural responses. This allows me to learn about the robot I want to create so I can understand its nature and how it sees the world in its mathematical way. This relationship I have with the robot informs my understanding of the robot I am creating so I can reflect this "identity" into its behaviour. Thus, the robot behaviour appears familiar, like an animal, yet unfamiliar, since it is an artificial life-form. This controversy is an example of how I like to make my robots appear as "conscious beings" while making it blatantly apparent in their physicality that they are not "conscious" at all.
Robots are an interesting tool for creating characters that can play out roles. The roles that the robots "act" out can appease the stereotyped roles of what we presume a robot should be, or these roles can become distorted in such a way where they appear to have flawed personalities and demonstrate behaviours outside of the viewer's expectations. I am very interested in how our concept of a robot carries several preconceived notions. A robot installation is meant to entertain the viewer so the viewer becomes the center of the robot's attention. In practical applications, the robot works for us to make our work easier and more efficient. In my work, I question these ideas by building physically impractical robots that behave for themselves and for each other so that they are completely separate from the viewer like animals caged in a zoo. Thus, the robots I create become performances, each robot has a tragic flaw that is played out with the others in a narrative to show the consequences of that behaviour on the robot's existence.
An automaton is historically a mechanical object capable of complex movements that separates it from children’s toys. These mechanical objects attempt to create a feeling of wonder in the owner at the maker’s ingenuity in creating a realistic or beautiful intricate moving object. The contemporary practice in making automata usually involves the creator making humorous, even mildly subversive objects that touch on the ridiculous. The movement does not take itself too seriously but the objects they create has a charm in they way they move. Most automata in some ways mirror human behaviours and amuses people with their ability to mock or show absurdities in life.
The act of building automata is long and arduous. It demands patience and offers the maker an extended feeling of failure in the many attempts it takes to build a successful mechanical object. It is no wonder that the movement is culturally humble. The point of the effort is to experience the wonder of an object that is capable of doing a little performance from the movement of cams, levers and gravity. Unlike robot building, automata pieces appear to be more realistic in how they move due to their imprecision in how they are constructed.
It is for creating these effects that I use automata in my artistic practice. Automata characters seem toy-like but they have a strong feeling of hand crafted and denote a sense of humanness in how they move. This naturally makes them the perfect material for creating narratives that have a mythical feeling while maintaining a sense of irony in being a mechanical object. It is an inanimate thing trying to fake something that is real, the truth to a story by offering a punch line in how it moves. The object can fake the idea because our imagination suspends our disbelief so we can enjoy the possibilities that the object’s actions offer. The object becomes a space of the imagination to be captivated and roam with ideas and new possibilities which is a place that evokes my curiosity to attempt to create this kind of scenario.
Whenever possible I find myself opting to use CMOs or preprogrammed chips to control elements of all my projects. Sometimes they just take the load off from my microcontrollers so they can focus on the hard thinking stuff and don’t have to waste there time multitasking something simple like bobbing multiple heads in sequence (an issue easily solved by a 4017). Or creating an audio component by attaching a contact mic to a mechanical object that is run through an amplifier straight to a speaker or use a 555 timer to create robot sounds like in SICB.
The method of using components and CMOs can create a lot of chaos and lead to unexpected results. Playing with electronic components for hours to control something before resorting to a microcontroller is a part of my creative practice. It is a humbling experience and reminds me that electronics have very mysterious qualities that I have yet to learn.
Over the years I have learned many tricks and rules to deal with the dreaded noise situation. But I always need to play with simple components to marvel at just how mysterious those electrons can be when they run amok through the wires of my art installation like little nymphs out for causing trouble. It makes it very clear that electricity is very organic. We must add all sorts of parts to try and rein the electrons under control so the artwork will run without freezing or fall into some random mishap that permanently stops everything from working until rebooted.
Though sometimes it is these weird buggy results that make the most interesting machine behaviour. As an example, the Autonomous Robot, if its sensors hit too many wall surfaces would periodically leave the wall and spin in a circle indefinitely until its bumper was hit again or the robot was rebooted. I did not program this quality but my ignorance in filtering audio on the power lines of the robot put the microcontroller in a tizzy where it never stopped turning. This is the magic moment that I look for when playing with electronics. The moment where there is a mistake with the components but it yields a beautiful behavioural result that is not part of the program I created. It is the bug that brings the art piece to life without causing it to fully malfunction (appear broken) or tear itself apart.
Much of my work is inspired by the philosophy of W. Grey Walter’s fascination in creating artificial behaviours. He was a great behavioural robot creator from a time before ICs existed.
There is no serious difficulty about the elaboration of function, once the principles of mechanical "life" have been demonstrated in a working model. If the principles are preserved, no matter how elaborate the functions of the machine, its mimicry of life will be valid and illuminating. (The Living Brain, 131)
The robots I build have been designed to literally be used to see how an artificial environment can be used in the attempt to validate and illuminate principles of life. And to ask the question of whether a robot can honestly teach us anything about ourselves by its mechanized attributes. Or is it the ideas illustrated by their actions that trigger in our imagination that is most important.
My artistic practice investigates the frictions between being part of society and being individually diverse in a technology driven culture; I use technology to show human 'problems' as a farce to see its inadequacy in dealing with complicated social problems. The fabrication of objects that can move freely by their own decisions allows for the opportunity to create simulations of behaviours that the public can view to make their own interpretation of what it is that they see.