Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Heroism of Transformation and the Machine

This article is a version of what was originally drafted as a presentation entitled, "The Creature" for the Pune Design Festival, held on February 10-11, 2017. The festival's theme was "Transformation." This presentation was mainly directed towards the students in the audience.   

The idea behind this presentation is to thread together a narrative based-on topics I have worked with, and observations I have made over the past several years. These areas include technology, education, and culture, taken as a whole, form a complex dynamic which shape our expectations of the future. In part, I will highlight a few elements which bind our notions of these systems, pointing out that there are no new revelations, no recipe or cure for the challenges of our present times or immediate future. If anything, I am simply retelling a very old story in somewhat unambiguous terms.

That is, in considering the idea of transformation, I was a little surprised to keep finding myself returning to a heroic figure in the context of science fiction; one recurring time and again with a consistent set of attributes, qualities, and conflicts.

Science Fiction is arguably one-of the more important narrative forms because it allows a writer to critique the hopes, fears, aspirations, etc. of contemporary culture by creating a temporal remoteness. For us, it is an opportunity to contemplate ourselves and what we, collectively, would like to bring into a future reality. Because the future is a speculative void, at the very least, Sci-Fi is able to provide us with some sort-of operational image of what that future might be. Of course, it is misleading to represent all science fiction as popular culture, but for sake of presentation, I have considered a few notably popular cinematic experiences.

By Per Sundqvist [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
"The famous story of the inhuman creature who lurks forever in the human imagination." Is the tag line on the cover of a print of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Even in the early 19th century, the notion that science, at some point, may potentially offer solutions for life everlasting. This obsession of Doctor Frankenstein's, fueled by blind ambition (or perhaps a broken heart) would ultimately be his demise. It is a classic story of modern times because it challenges us in considering the ethical role of science, as well as, the depth to which we accept the integration of technology in our lives. But, the ultimate tragedy of Frankenstein was his inability to consider the unpredictability of the natural laws and the ability to empathize with the stark reality of his creation.

Technology is an integral part of our evolution, and pervasive--in terms of biology, even sentience-- that it is difficult to measure the effects, let alone quantify the outcome of any number of possible future scenarios. We are in the process of a great experiment, even with something as seemingly innocuous as social media; we are contained neither by geographic nor cultural boundaries. Because we are completely dependent upon these processes, we cannot never go back. We are committed. 

By Florian Elias Rieser (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
We are also completely accepting of technology that we consume without question, mainly because it is viewed as an advantage. In science, the advantage technology offers, are things we inherently lack, or are not very adept at working out. We struggle with nature's complexity because it is difficult for us to imagine exponential functions as a process. Perhaps this is due to our perception of time as a linear event, but exponentials throw us for a loop.

Gold Cortex II
Visually, and mathematically, this form has been the basis for how we relate to the world as artists, designers, musicians, etc. The form and structure exists everywhere in nature, including our own bodies. What we have learned about ourselves, we have observed through our interactions with these patterns. In turn, the structures we create are derived from the science of these observations. Technology has been invaluable as tool in perceiving the nature of the universe which lies beyond our biological limitations. What if we could integrate the technology into our bodies? What if our minds where augmented for efficiency? This a wonderful premise for number of sci-fi narratives.

scenes from The Matrix (1999)
The metaphor, of technology as an external factor which allows us to unlock the potential lying dormant within our minds, manifests as the sci-fi hero with powers to rival the sentience of the malevolent machine which has taken control of the human species. This hero has been augmented (made self-aware) of his environment, allowing him to develop the ability to experience the virtual reality as the computer experiences it. He understands the processes and abstraction of data, as the operable parameters of this reality. His ability to control the environment is on par as the computer. The one caveat is that his power only exists while his conscious is fully immersed in the realm of the machine. Outside of the virtual reality, he is quite ineffectual and ordinary. So what if the world-actual were the machine? Then, would the division between technology and humanity not be as contrasted and obscured by the measure and depth of integration?

Scene from Lucy (2014)
Lucy, the unlikely hero, similarly finds her power through chemical augmentation, and arrives at self-awareness through an evolved consciousness while experiencing the world-actual. However, the properties and theoretical underpinnings which form the virtual reality, namely a world comprised of numeric representations, are defined as those defining the world-actual. Her enemy is a tyrant fed by the greed of his own wealth, as well as, the limitations of her own biology, and her own fear of transformation. In adapting, her conscious abilities allow her to flip through time like pages in a magazine and manipulate matter on a molecular level. Instead of understanding the machine as an external entity, her conscious evolves to understand that *it* [her body], is the machine. The cost of stripping away emotion qualities characteristic to humanity. She cost of shedding her mortality is her loss of identity. This heroine realizes a greater conscious which is machine-like. She has no choice but to go forward.

 scene from Ex Machina (2015)
What if the machine has the capacity for deductive reasoning? What if the machine takes to decision-making without human intervention? It is more sophisticated than Frankenstein's creature, but what made Frankenstein’s creature dangerous was his unpredictability roused from unidentifiable emotions and associations from the former life. His ability to feel, desire, perhaps even a longing for fulfillment, as well as, any number of emotional states, were likely incoherent fragments which plagued his reality. What sense of self-identity was the creature given? This creator, the doctor, blinded by ambition, failed to recognize the dangers of being partially human. Human nature has the beautiful aspect of illogical and emotion-based behavior. At our current stage of consciousness, we are not the most trustful and reliant of beings. Even if we are able to quantify these attributes, it does not seem to make sense to design anthropocentric machines. However, this is a recurring theme in Sci-Fi. Usually, the story does not end well. Perhaps if the machine's ability for deductive reasoning is sophisticated enough, a natural ambivalence emerges. Could our heroine be a machine compiled with the best of what humanity has to offer? Could she be profoundly curious and content with her identity? Could she develop an acute sense of introspection? After all, there is a logic in philosophy. 

The qualities of humanity that we recognize and encourage, socially, can be summed up by one word: empathy. Empathy shapes our propensity for kindness, effects our decision-making processes so as to solve for the greatest good. It allows us to build a community and facilitates our capacity to collaborate and effectively progress towards an ideal. It also gives our hero something to fight for--a motive to excel and succeed--and the power to rise above oppression or catastrophe.

Therefore, in the evolution of technological human, it seems more likely that humans will be the element of empathy in the machine; a realization that this jump of consciousness has to first originate within ourselves, as opposed to, creating compassion in an external entity.

"Computational thinking is typically associated with coding and computer programming, but is more than that, involving 'solving problems, designing systems, and understanding human behaviour.' ”

Perhaps it seems far-fetched and altogether irrelevant, but if you code, you are beginning to think like the machine. This notion of thinking like a machine has already begun to be integrated into educational systems world-wide, and will likely be developed in many more educational paradigms in the years to come. In the EU, educational plans outline a directive for students to work with code from a very young age. The intent is not only to develop a marketable skill, but for the fundamentally more poignant outcome of having students, future citizens, assimilate computational thinking.

Overall, it clearly indicates a shift towards an education of the future as being radically different to contemporary education. Systemically, it is an interdisciplinary approach. This type of educational agenda is just one way in which we can transform our thinking as we move ahead. But, it is not to say that this approach is valid or even relevant for propagating computational thinking in other cultures. It does, however, invite innovation.

Students who are exposed to coding and the processes of computational logic will not necessarily be imbued with the heroic ability to read the universe as a pythagorean, like so many of our heroes from sci-fi, but it does provide a greater likelihood that any given individual will develop a more comprehensive understanding of exponential processes. In other words, maybe thinking like a machine is possible without being a machine or sacrificing humanistic qualities, like empathy. 

Information is not experience.
Information does not invoke empathy.
Empathy is realized through experience.

scene from The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Pt.2 (2015)

As the dynamics of problems increases with complexity, we become more reliant on the information we receive. Information, such as data, can be quite abstract, and we don't empathize with abstractions well because humans do not have a visceral connection between information and experience. It is only through experience that we come to some sort-of learning and understanding. As the narrative forms in emerging media are assuming more substantial and intimate roles in our daily lives, increasingly our experience will be a digital fabrication. 

The admirable heroine understands the media and develops media literacy. She has learned skills in distinguishing the validity of informative sources. She is familiar with the double-speak and can unhinge the intent, from outcome. Again, the hero is ordinary, one who survived a trial before becoming an icon. As a symbol for the suppressor's rule of law, the heroine took the necessary steps in learning the media's language, the medium of messages, before she could evolve into a symbol of revolt. And behind these messages, she learned how to disguise herself in plain view. The heroine's transgressions worked in favor of the opposition, utilizing the same methods of persuasion learned from the oppressor. It is only through courage and self-awareness that she is able to find her own truth. Her empathy is disguised as her fictional persona plays her role, quietly maintaining her humanity.

scene from Insurgent (2015)
Perhaps humanity is in need of a recalibration, a transformation in terms of our perceptual bias for media and technology. We require a new facility for critical and analytical thinking as our reliance and integration with technology grows. In order to do this constructively, we need to better understand at least a couple of things. Firstly, how technology functions. If it is to surround us, immerse us, inform us, teach us, serve us; innovation in the educational system is essential. Secondly, we need to be able to internalize the real and virtual, perhaps it is not necessary to distinguish the two, as it is to be able to understand the distinction between fantasy and reality. This entails the biggest challenge, one of heroic proportions; knowing ourselves.

The commonality between most, if not all sci-fi heroes, is the critical turning point in their story. It is the confrontation which will allow them to succeed or fail in the larger quest. This is the crucial conflict against themselves. There is always an element of doubt and fear which is established early on in these narratives, and is touched upon with regularity as the story progresses. It is weakness, a challenge to the heroine's completeness. Before the hero can complete the mission, save the community, defeat the ultimate evil; he or she needs to confront themselves. To varied degree, this incompleteness reflects on his or her's own sense of identity. Who am I?

scene from Scott Pilgrim v. the World (2010)
In the context of a global digital culture, a sense of collective success will depend on the relative means and strength of the identity of the individuals of that system, and the ability of these individuals to maintain empathy towards others. It is only in this way, or some other variation with similar scope, that we will be able to proceed to the next level. Otherwise, like Frankenstein's creature, we will be unable to complete ourselves, discontent and detached from place, and ultimately fall back upon the unpredictability of detached emotions and empty fantasies.

Student Notes: Anonymus 

Saturday, April 4, 2015

TeZ: the Synesthetic Dialogue

TeZ in the optofonica capsule, 2008
Tez a.k.a. Maurizio Martinucci, is an Italian multimedia artist, living in Amsterdam. You might be able to place him in a genre of artistry called ArtScience; however, that might exclude him from many of  the activities that could label him as a musician, composer, producer, hacker, a maker-of-the-magical-and-mysterious. And, perhaps a few other things that we know nothing about. Above all, Tez is a prolific collaborator, working with many artists and organizations, notably the Optofonica Platform for Synesthetic ArtScience (facebook). 

Much to his credit, he is interested in the promotion of art, technology, and science: infused or separate, for the sake of education. At any given time, he may be approached in conversation regarding esoteric scientific theories of the 19th century, Italian art of the renaissance, or Iggy Pop at his most debauched... We catch up with him in Southeast Asia, or Singapore to be more precise, where he has taken time from his electronics' shopping to talk to us.

As an artist, how would describe your relationship to technology? Why are traditional "art" mediums not capable of producing the type of effect you envision or wish to communicate?  

I never think of art as means for communication. Art for me is the ability of evoking an experience that is intimate and personal, as such it transcends languages. Of course, there's a degree of communication happening inside the viewer.. I would call it a "synesthetic dialogue", a dialogue between sensations.

Technology is extraordinary in the fact that it enables us to follow the progression of time. Willing or not, the evolutionary pace of humanity is regulated by technology and in complete feedback with it. Meaning, the use and application of it (especially if creative) leads to new inventions and to the evolution of technology itself. In the future, what you call "traditional" will be tied to the medium of the time it refers to. Therefore, art made with computers and sensors will one day will obsolete too and somewhat traditional. Every age had its own technology and it produced ingenious creations with it. 

My focus is on the senses rather than the medium itself. It doesn't matter if I use a painting, a candle or a laser beam... My work aims at evoking a specific sensation related to the physical body and the space it interacts with, including other bodies and/or inanimate things.

"Technology is extraordinary...
it enables us to follow the progression of time...
the evolutionary pace of humanity"

What perceptions do you have of digital culture? If you heard in some context terminology like  "digital tribalism" or "digital imperialism" what association comes to mind? 

Non-Hertzian Wave Transmission
When I was younger, in the 90's, I had a great fascination for the "digital" and all the socio-cultural implications of it. It was the time of the Cyberpunk, and "hacker" truly meant something revolutionary. Today is so very different. On the one hand, mainstream culture has appropriated those ideas and stripped them of their activist and unconventional meanings. On the other, we're looking at a progressive embedding of technology in everyday life, both as commodity and tools for expression and, of course, communication.

Cultural prejudices can only belong to poorly educated people who are looking at things passively. Unfortunately, there's plenty of them. It's not the fault of any one particular, let me be clear on this; we are a product of a system. In one way or the other, the system has become what we know and it promotes horrible fallacies that only time may fix. We can help the debugging though! However, "digital culture" has no other meaning for me than "the culture of this time".

What creative work have you been engaged with recently, and may the public be able to experience anything in the near future?

Lots of different things really. Starting from electronic music for Clock DVA, and more articulated and spatial immersive sonic performances (TeZ / ambisonics), to audiovisual generative art (PLASM), and immersive multisensory installations (ILINX).

The works differ in nature and technique, but what they have in common is the passion for art and science as a holistic paradigm.

Urban Farmers - Singapore
I have an art-science residency in Singapore right now, until May 2015. It deals with underwater vehicles doing swarming actions for both scientific monitoring of the marine environment and orchestrated choreographies of sound and light to "communicate" their findings. Parallel to this activity, I'm working with students on biology and botany related experiments. I'm truly excited to learn more about robotics and acoustic (underwater) communication. Also, the chance to get students to experiment with unconventional ideas and hacking to make their own tools. It makes me really happy and it's lots of fun!  In two weeks time I've connected with all the mainstream and underground scene of Singapore, from the ArtScience Museum and the National University of Singapore, to the main "makers" group, the urban farmers and, of course, the local hackerspace.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Stanley Ruiz: No Fear of Empty Space

Stanley Ruiz wears many different hats. He is a musician and is knowledgeable about quite a few genres, but atop of them all, he is a designer with a growing international reputation. He has developed new products for a dozen companies in Bali, the US, and the Philippines. In New York, he has worked with SOHO Studios, Real Simple, and Jonathan Adler. He has been invited to present his work and lecture in Europe, and throughout Southeast Asia. In March of 2015, he will be showing his work at the International Furniture Fair Singapore. This past year, he launched his own design studio, centering his efforts in Manila and Brooklyn while exploring regional manufacturing resources. Mr. Ruiz is also involved with cultural agencies in the Philippines, namely Hacienda, a social enterprise providing employment for sugar plantation workers and their families, and CITEM, the Center for International Trade Expositions and Mission.

You have produced work globally. How might you make local, regional, and global comparisons in design, particularly in regards to the production process? Is there an interplay between resources and styles which shape the development of various identities?

To understand the regional influences, you need to consider the availability of resources and the tradition of craftsmanship that comes along with that place. Years before Sustainable Design was a sound bite, many countries were already practicing this form of production by recycling and making use of renewable materials, and by considering a product's life-cycle as it breaks down. The resources and materials are valuable in developing production techniques and skills. 

What is a product's lifecycle?

It is just the expected life of a product. A sustainable design would consider not only how a product is made, but how it impacts people and the environment as it degrades. Maybe there is a follow-up use or sequence of uses it can serve as a material for. On the other hand, maybe it is a good quality product that lasts for generations like late-nineteenth century furniture. In this way, quality is sustainable because it replaces the quantity of lower quality products.   

Empire Lights
The majority of products, regionally, are handmade with techniques developed, mostly on the basis of resource availability. For instance, if I want a particular fabrication, material and specialty; I would look to Bali for shell mosaics, wood carving or wrought iron; I would look to Thailand for wood, ceramics, some textiles; and India for fabric and cast metal. In the Philippines, I can find weaving with natural fibers like palm, bamboo, also shells, termite-patterned wood, twigs, things woven. In the last year, I have traveled extensively visiting factories to review and evaluate: capabilities, man power, quality of output, equipment and tools, as well as, prototypes and sample products that any of these factories might be producing at the time. Also, part of the routine is to visit scrap yards, public markets, and souvenir shops, not only to get an idea of what is being produced but to glimpse at what has been produced in the recent past.

What traditional art and crafts in the Philippines are, involves mostly patterns and stories. Generally, what you see around Southeast Asia is what I call a "fear of empty space".  People fill the entire space with very colorful, ornate patterns, usually hand painted. There are a lot of bells and whistles, not necessary in terms of function, but they may have some cultural significance or perhaps it's just for the sake of having something.

Tropical Modern has been influencing the design world for quite some time now. Mainly, it is a style which is cleaner, modern contemporary, but one that incorporates traditional Asian motifs, tropical motifs, and materials.

"Design is a concrete way of implementing change in the world...
a silent tool to manipulate the way of life for people."

Double Happiness
One of the roles of design is to explore and discover new ways of making things, otherwise objects end up just being the same. In taking a survey of factories and materials, it is like asking yourself, "What will I cook for dinner?" You get cooking ideas by visiting the local market and seeing which ingredients are quality and fresh. So, then, this is the palette you build your design from. You can import your spice by adding flavors that have influenced you from different regions maybe even different cultures and countries.

So then, what are some measures you take towards innovation? And, how does your perspective and output play in the context of the design world at large?

[hehehe] That, is the question I ask myself. It is a constant challenge. Even the most simple of objects can present a complexity of problems. I am usually asking myself "what is a different way I can make products?" After I ask that question, I consider proportion. Proportion of a product is perhaps the most important, if not the most important consideration. Proportion makes the product.

I try to inject technology into the production technique and mix-in a more industrial design. I think about materials by studying their structural integrity. By understanding material, we are able to develop new products produced with traditional techniques. For example, when boiled to a pulp, Abaca [a type of palm] can be processed like paper. It is quite strong and can be molded into forms or hand woven. There is a whole new range of products which can be produced with this material.

Anno Domini
I don't like to overdo it and have it look more "designee". That is, design for sake of design. I like things to be minimal, but then it is very difficult to get away from a European sensibility. Although, design is a European invention. In the context of the design world at large, it is difficult to offer an alternative because it is so pervasive, thus people end up embracing it because there is really no alternative. Design movements have popped up but only been short-lived, like Memphis Group or Superstudio. Interestingly, one of the most influential names in industrial and product design is an Australian, Marc Newson, who recently joined Apple's Design Team.

I think you have to ask yourself, what is your domain? In the sea of conversation, what is your dialogue? How can I then identify with an aesthetic, that is regionally distinctive without being folk art? What I get from European design process is a tool or framework for critical thinking and evaluation. As a means of offering an alternative, not a rehash.  

How easy is it to have that dialogue, especially since it involves your particular cultural identity which includes living abroad for over a decade?

Labyrinth Floor Lamps
I don't know if this is an official term, but I have thought of myself in terms of being a trans-cultural designer for some years already.

The communications via internet create a flux of information and influence, dramatically changing the status quo of human behavior and interaction in many cultures, including how we view the world. But, when you live in a different place you experience nuances of language and behavior first-hand, as a means of internalizing perspective. I am not just a Filipino, I have lived in America and traveled abroad in Europe and other Asian countries. Having this amalgam of experience allows me to say that the problem with design is that, what might work well in one culture might not work well for another. Design might not have a cross-cultural translation in some circumstances.    

I think Kenneth Cobonpue (a designer based in Cebu) expresses the notion of trans-cultural design in his work and production techniques. So, in collaborating with him to design lighting solutions, the unspoken expectation is that outcome are products with similar combination of influences. 

Stanley in the Brooklyn Studio
What do you think the role of design is ultimately about?

Design is a concrete way of implementing change in the world. Design can be a silent tool to manipulate the way of life for people. My hope is to have an economic impact and generate incomes, not just from major cities, but by providing opportunities for rural populations. For instance, if a company employees fifty people in a local economy, an effect is that these people won't feel compelled to uproot or displace themselves to a major city. This situation compromises their quality of life. Perhaps it is likely they end up living on the street and having to do things they don't really want to do as a means of survival. It usually has a negative impact with outcomes of crime, pollution, ethnic tensions, and so on. So, it is not much for me to provide opportunity to fifty people, but if 20, 100, or 200 companies are doing what I am trying to do.... then it becomes substantial.

If you like Stanley's Work, visit his site: or start following him on FaceBook or Instagram

Monday, June 2, 2014

Hsien Yu Cheng: the Collector

Hsien Yu Cheng is an artist, designer, and programmer. He provides hardware designs for artists working with technology and programs applications for iOS. But, most notable is his creative output of technology-based art. He begins by giving us a description of some of the works from his solo exhibition.

Well, I do many different things, and I am probably going about doing things the wrong way. I should become highly specialized, but I enjoy working with different media and languages. So, the result is an exhibition with the theme of Collector v1.0.0, or the objects that collect stuff. I have revived two older works. One is a web browser you can connect 88 mice to. All the mice can surf the internet and when there is no screen activity, the mice cursors come together to display Portrait 2013: Douglas Engelbart, inventor of the mouse. The second work is a new version of Afterlife.

I have two new pieces which collect more stuff. Like Half-Life, I have an object called 'Collect a Life' which is a robot that makes very loud noises and continues to do so until you put coins into it. Then, it becomes quiet and returns to its place. The second, is a re-make of a work called 'Out of Position' or Fish on Dish by an important Taiwanese artist, Yuan Goang Ming. His installation is a video of a swimming goldfish projected on a large white dish. My re-make is called Dish on Fish, in which a robot fish swims around on a projection of a large white bowl.

Additionally, I will issue a plug-in for Quartz Composer which allows you to program in real-time with OpenGL scripts. This could be useful for people working with multimedia design.

Because you work developing software and hardware for a variety of artists regionally, as well as yourself, can you explain what the relationship between art and technology means to others in the region of Taiwan? Is the process of creating art integrated with developing skills with technology?

Well, artists in Taiwan don't really build too much; that is why I am busy. I think this disconnection comes from the academic environment. They offer courses and degrees for new media, but it is something you or I would call video art or digital art, and maybe, there are a few artists who even build sound installations. But, even the term 'new media' is quite old already.  In general, there is not much engagement in artistic research for new media. Sometimes you will see simple electronics with lots of wires being very obvious that object is technical. You can not mistake the technological work with a more archaic approach. Regionally, I mostly see projects that are mixed media or traditional materials with no real interest in interaction. At the Taipei art exposition, I saw a Japanese artist presenting work that I saw my classmates in Holland working on and developing with more of a focused outcome. Perhaps he even saw the project on the internet and decided to make his own version. I can not be certain, but I am sure that technology tends to be viewed in the art-world as an after-thought.

"If they can see the soldiering, the wires, and the detail
...maybe they will see this part of the story."

When artists approach you, do you wear the hat of a designer; the one that strictly tries to resolve problems? Or, do you not distinguish the artist from designer, perhaps thinking how the projects you work on for others maybe be improved not just technically but artistically as well?

Ummm. I think there is a design process, but a different type of design process at work. If artists have difficulty working with technology, then they really will have difficulty understanding the design process. It is more likely they will not even get involved with process at all. But, maybe this is better.

I began working for artists at Mediamatic in Amsterdam. So, I understand how process can turn in any direction. We made things that we thought clients wanted, so the design choices were based-on meetings, and then more meetings with the client. And, more meetings still. When you finally present a prototype, you want it to be the best possible solution because the client does not always understand that there is a version control; with every subsequent view and use of the material, the design is potentially revised. At some point, you have to just go with it.

As a artist working with technology, the design process begins with the concept. You have to be flexible with materials, both hardware and software, as your knowledge increases with out abandoning your idea. However, it may be that your idea gets better, so you adapt to new decisions. It is more casual compared to the business of product design. 

Whether you are building a complete object or appropriating some consumer product, it is usual that you ask many companies for materials, such as internet searches through AliBaba. This alone is an interesting process. When you start to make something, you have to think so much through the process, that the process itself becomes designed.

As you say, design in the art process is different 
then product design because you don't have to go through the length and rigor to form an idea. If artwork does not have to conform to any particular standard, the standard is self-determined? 

Of course. If the design is for your own consideration, it has to be something that you are happy with. I want the stuff I make to look nice. When I choose the components for a project, I will not just think about the needs of the circuit, but the physical characteristics and the visual appeal of the object. Maybe, I want to have nice, big, older components. Something that is not necessarily defined by any time or place in particular. If I am purely a designer, I would ask a company to make my circuit and print a board. I know I will get something small and cost effective for quantity production. But, as a work of art, that is not what I want to present.

I try to think from the viewer's perspective, so I consider what the audience wants to see. I think hiding the electronics and wires away in a box also hides the process away from the audience.  Components are an important part of the composition and I like those visual characteristics. Seeing how things are put together gives the audience an opportunity to understand another layer of the work involved. If they can see the soldiering, the wires, and the detail of the components, then maybe they will see this part of the story.

Let us say we are looking at a coffee maker on display, and we did not know anything about a coffee maker. It is some thing clean-looking with no indication of what is inside. Without seeing any of the functioning parts, we might think the art work was purely conceptual. Basically, you show people what you think is important, and that all depends on your artistic disposition.

The other aspect of working with technology is that you have to have skills to make tools, and often. You make tools to build your ideas, and these tools can be shared and passed on. This is the essence of open source. I think this will be important as artists realize new levels of physical computing.

Lastly, some description of the work you presented in a recent Group Exhibition(?)

I am becoming more interested in bio electronics, so in developing a piece for a group exhibition focused on a theme of energy, I thought it was appropriate to make something based on the Thesis of Ruud Timmers and his work with microbial fuel cells. I have modified a VU meter based-on his research. When the plant is really producing a significant amount of electricity, the needle with point to the label reading something like, "we are working hard" or Hard Working.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Nikhil Joshi: the MultiModal Narrative

Nikhil on-location
There is not a form of media which can aptly describe a reality of difference. One of the qualities of being human is the assumption that we know much more than we do; that all things can somehow fit into the framework of our culturally-biased reasoning and imagination. Although, if you consistently draw comparisons between cultures in order to give meaning to an experience, you will likely miss the underlying condition and the essential communication. This experience can be a frustrating mastication of ineffective words, which circle meaning, and never arrive. However, from this ambiguity, unassuming is the palate which can distinguish these flavors of humanity. Language is much more than words. But, that is why we have art.

Presently, the term Post-Digital is floating around the air. The basic effect of this term, is that the novelty of technology is wearing off, leaving us to (re)define that which has meaning. So then, what is an effective means of  communication within this expansive domain of media and even greater domain of meaning? In this context, India is interesting because it is a culture that has transformed radically within the last thirty years. Because of this rapid change, you are able to find a range of technologies juxtaposed. Part of this transformation includes a flow of western media containing messages of morality, ethics, trash films and unchallenged ideology. However, another part brings innovation, media production, design, and aesthetics. Academic programs and interactive design and production in India are still infantile, without any hint of design epistemology.  But, perhaps starting with a 'clean slate' is a timely advantage in the post-digital era?

I recently spoke with Nikhil Joshi, who is an artist working with technology and founding partner of Digital Jalebi. As a designer he is progressive and questioning, as an artist, sensitive to the evolution technology presents to the broader spectrum of the mass of culture called India. I asked about how culture has influenced his education and development with technology. 

One can be overwhelmed by the brilliance and expertise available to an Indian design student. I studied at the National Institute of Design  for 3 years. NID is a mixed bag of crafts inspired by design practices and technological innovation. Most of the courses find their way in the crafts found all across India, from glass work and jewelry design to toy design.  Some famous crafts are the glass work of  Ferozabad, wooden toys of Chennapatna [e.g. Maya OrganicKaveri Crafts], and braiding from Karanataka.  The education process starts with inspiration from these artists and craftsmen, then moves toward contemporary design practices. Including, considerations for mass production, usability, and brand reflection.

Another factor which has detracted from the emergence of a particular contemporary style, is the lack of documentation of regional arts and crafts. NID has been trying to document and share works from different parts of the country for last 50 years, to make them available to the next breed of designers.Otherwise, this lack of documentation, backed by a culture of not-documenting-things, makes it very difficult for a style to grow and develop, so it is a blow to the the entire idea of opensource, as well as, research practices.

Technology can't be separated from culture, anyone's culture, I think this is a pre-requisite for selling that technology to people. But, you have provided some examples of how technology is changing concepts in art and design, but do you perceive a dilemma or paradox at work? Between your reality and the ideals propagated by the media (foreign or domestic)? 

This contrast doesn't really effect most of us who have lived and studied in cities, with a  high western impact. Our schools and academics have had a heavy western influence, and like us, most of the post-80's artists from cities are a result of Indian acceptance of digitization and technological advancements. We have seen TV sets go from a single channel to 1000+ channels.

Although, there is a heavy conflict when it comes to accepting technology as an expressive medium. Particularly from more experienced artists from the more under-privileged parts of India. Someone has correctly said, "It is very hard to unlearn". With the opening of western markets for Indian artists and craftsmen, there is an exposure for them to understand uniqueness as a fundamental need, but the entire design world from India is so new to the western markets, that it will still take another 15-20 years for them to strive for competitive uniqueness among themselves.

"Humans want to judge everything in good or bad, pleasure or pain, profit and loss."

Cross-culturally, the narrative is essential to all. It seems that many artists (analog or digital) in India reference traditional art forms. Are culturally established forms of the narrative particularly relevant to evolving artistic disciplines which use technology? And, what, if any, consequence does this have on an individual's identity?

If you look at an art school in the U.S., uniqueness has a relation with being the best. If you want to be the best, you need to be unique and spectacular to that effect. That is, how people judge you and that is how you judge yourself. I think this is linked with a core belief that is on a basic level in western society; you have only one life. You you have only one life, so you have to be the best now!

By contrast, culture in India accepts the idea of many life's or Janams; you have seven lifetimes. This aspect is something which is deeply rooted in us, spiritually and/or culturally. It is reflected in the arts and crafts all across India. They make things that are relevant to their culture, and they are likely to produce the exact same work throughout their entire life.

Technology today does help a lot in exploring ways towards creating more multi-modal experiences. So, the potential is not being fully realized, yet. But, narratives are very important to India. I think they are important to everyone, everywhere because any piece of information is contextualized by events. The cultural context creates patterns people can recognize and learn from. For instance, I was reading Ramayan the other day, where the Ram says, "Humans want to judge everything in good or bad, pleasure or pain, profit and loss." People create meaning out of narratives to form culture, and that forms their perception of the world.

When considering contemporary design, the idea of interactivity or an 'experience' is superficial in India. When I say superficial, that actually is not a question about the skill or the output but their intention of how much they want you to be a participant in the system. Most of the artifacts coming out of the interactive design process access fewer human senses then they are possible. So the point I am try to make here, is art or design was never meant to be multimodal in nature. It is as if these designers never thought of the ways they would invite people to participate, as well as the ways in which they could broaden and enhance their experience. Technology has played a major role in empowering artists/designer with tools to achieve multimodality. I think multimodality would just allow you to experience objects or events in more ways then just one singular way.

I don't know if I would agree that art was never meant to be multi-modal, but by making a comparison of superficial work, you must know of examples in which the relationship is between viewer and artifact is multi-modal? Work which the designer or artist approached the viewer as a participant?

This is the biggest difference I see in our approach today as new media artists; looking back at what people have already done or have mastered. Different artists in different domains are now trying to experiment with media and attach more senses to their creations. I think one of the best examples is the work of Nina Sabnani. She presents a very interesting way of telling stories that includes different sensory input. She narrates stories using a tangible art form where you flip open a structure with various faces and use it to tell stories: Kawad Storytelling Tradition. So, when you start putting music, texture, visuals all together in an interactive format, you are really expanding the playground for your viewers.

Nikhil and Digital Jalebi have recently been working on a project for the Kathputli Colony in Shadipur, Delhi, which involves the relocation of a community of artists and artisans in the wake of gentrification, likely to disenfranchise families that have worked for generations as performers. The project gives expression to the residents' hopes in realizing the colony's potential by focusing the viewer's attention on what they have to offer now. 

In an optimistic world, the performers of Kathputli Colony would, someday, have a chance to develop technology for their own performances. Maybe they would realize an original re-appropriation for technology which even technologists or academics could not think of(?) Cultural diversity has much more to offer humanity. Diversity has only ever allowed for a greater range of possible outcomes. 

India's culture is comprised of diverse range of micro-cultures. If it becomes standard practice to disenfranchise these cultures, what remains?