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David Rokeby: Technology as Transforming Mirror

David Rokeby

David Rokeby is an important and internationally-known media artist capable of creating artworks which are both beautiful and thought-provoking. He has articulated his ideas on media, computers, and art in interviews, lectures, and essays. His essay Transforming Mirrors : Subjectivity and Control in Interactive Media approaches computers and computing as a kind of performance space wherein complex strategies of facilitation and control shape the outcome, whether of a database or an interactive work of art such as his Very Nervous System. Interactive media can function as transforming mirrors, especially if they embed "navigable spaces" in their design. Rokeby is also keenly interested in improvisation; many of his pieces play with chance configurations, even as they seek to involve the intentionality of their viewer/participants.

Very Nervous System

Installation Notes by the artist (European Media Art Festival - September 1996-Osnabruch):

The installation is arranged so that three low-resolution video cameras, positioned at the vertices of a triangle, relay information about what is happening within their field of vision to a control system which includes a custom-made fast processor, sound synthesizer and specially designed software.
The computer processor receives information from the cameras and translates this information into sound. The software is designed to detect the location of people, how much of their body is in motion, the relative intensity, suddenness or continuity of their movements and the locations of the greatest activity.
The volume and instrumentation of the sounds which are produced are directly related to how the subject within the sculpture moves. Simultaneous feedback, made possible by microelectronics, creates an atmosphere in which sound an motion conspire to create a cybernetic circle.

Very Nervous System

Very Nervous System and the Benefit of Inexact Control: Interview with David Rokeby: http://www.brown.edu/Research/dichtung-digital/2003/issue/1/rokeby/index.htm

Canada by Design: Identity in Computer Space

Excerpts from a talk by interactivity artist David Rokeby for Canada by Design (Visionary Speakers Series):

...reality, raw experience, I term as being among other things, as having very high parallel bandwidth. So that would be differentiated from the fact that in knowledge space, or virtual space, you're dealing with very low band width, compressed sound, vision and text. It's important to remember that our interface with reality involves I don't know how many cells, all directly interacting with the physical world in some way, in some tangible way, that our vision is operating in a very massive number of central receptors, and that all these things are centered in the body, in the nervous system and our basic experience of being comes not only from the final digestion of that in the brain, but the overall tangible, sensual, physical experience of that.

Certainly tangible, sensual experience is not lost when we're looking at a video screen and things like that, but there's an inverse problem here whereas when we touch reality, reality touches us back. In virtual space we may be bombarded with a massive number of pixels and lots of fluctuating signals in terms of multimedia and multi-channel sound, but in fact the return loop on that is very narrow bandwidth. In general, we are represented in our computer systems by a string of computer clicks, or mouse clicks or mouse motion, a few key taps etc.

So even though our model of the computed space is relatively complete, the computed space's model of us is extraordinarily simplistic. And, as I argue in this text, if we accept the statement, the assertion made by the feminist movement that the images of women made in the media affect women's image of themselves then we must also accept the possibility that the image reflected back to you by your computer system, through interaction, has some effect on your image of yourself in that context as well. So, the way we are engaged in interaction has a profound affect on our self-image as well.

The second aspect of reality vs. virtual space that interests me is the question of the difference between the sort of artificially integrated collage of data objects that we have in virtual space, and the generative and emergent constant inter-relationship of again a huge number of things in real space. Things can be put profoundly out of context in virtual space, and they can't be in real space. Now that can be a virtue or that can be a vice, but its an important thing to remember.

Even in a digital photograph, which is ostensibly of a natural object, the pixels themselves do not emerge and organize themselves into that image that we see, whereas the object that we see does actually have that kind of inner, organic coherence.

...We communicate in words and gestures. We communicate through visceral activity. We communicate on a raw, sensual level. Things presented in knowledge space, in virtual space are generally pre-filtered down to a theoretical space or a language space first. So that there is a relatively limited number of modes of simultaneous communication going on. And while there has been a lot of attention paid in multimedia to expanding that and enhancing that to images and sound, I think there has been a massive misunderstanding or diminishment of the dimensionality of lived experience if we compare it to that. The problem is particularly interesting, for example, in terms of looking at communications systems, and one example I use very often is the issue of video compression.

We use now quite often video telecommunications for communications between people, and they inevitably use various kinds of compression in order to crunch the number of pixels, the amount of data, into something that can pass through a telephone line. What's interesting is that the compression routines that analyze the images mean that someone has made a decision in designing the compression routine to say that these aspects of the image are not important, and these aspects are. One very interesting thing is to consider the problem of eye to eyeness. When we look at someone eye to eye, or when we encounter someone we have what seems an almost unexplainable ability to tell whether they are looking right into our eyes or not. And this is clearly a very complicated neural thing that's going on that is allowing us to detect the exact angle of light that is reflecting off the eye, and an embodied knowledge of the shape of the eye, and how that light would be reflecting if they were looking at us. It is quite remarkable actually how good we are. We can tell someone is not looking here. We can tell that someone is looking right at our eyes.

If you put an image of someone looking straight at you through something like a jpeg image compression routine, there is nothing in the image compression routine that's going to guarantee that very solid things like data are retained. We've decided that there are certain things that are important to retain in images and we don't even have at this point a way of registering or understanding how to detect that information in the image so there are levels of filtering always going on there....

Image from David Rokeby's Watch

...I've been finding it rather difficult over the years to define why I think randomness is rather important, and I think maybe the best way to articulate that is to say that things like the emergence of life, meeting the love of your life, things like that, extremely unlikely events, these are things that may never be generated by something that is fractally complex for example. They would certainly not be generated by a random number generator, but may be generated by a randomness of a much higher scale, which is what we encounter in real space. One way of looking at that is to think of those monkeys typing at their typewriters, and the fact that theoretically yes, if they were typing at their typewriters long enough and it was truly a random process that the works of Shakespeare would come out. You can look at that by saying well, that's already been proved because the atoms and molecules of the universe have gathered together in a way that did generate...the works of Shakespeare...

...since we are spending all this time in knowledge space it's important to look at what knowledge space is conducive to and what it is not conducive to. Certainly knowledge space is conducive to communication of knowledge, and this is where we get to my problem of analyzing what the knowledge nation might be because I keep wondering about what knowledge is and what knowledge excludes.

...Knowledge space is friendly to knowledge. Or to take it to an extreme point the rational space of Boolean logic is friendly to things that can be articulated in those terms. So, it's really important to look then at things that are not conducive to that space.

My most recent work is a piece called The Giver of Names, and that work has ended up being in a way a kind of very personal research into the state of Artificial Intelligence right now, and in particular the notion of what intelligence is currently. There's quite an amazing quote from Allan Turing, the computer pioneer, he said when asked by Time Magazine in 1960, if he believed that machines would become intelligent, "I believe that at the end of the twentieth century the use of words and general educated opinion will be altered so much that one will be able to talk about machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted." Now that is a rather remarkably carefully phrased statement which has been misquoted recently by interestingly enough Time magazine to indicate that machines would become intelligent. What he is actually talking about is convergence of what machines can do, and what the word intelligence means to us in common usage. And this kind of convergence of things is a particular danger as we move into knowledge space. It's getting more and more likely that we fall into a position of danger of letting what technology can do set the human agenda in that space, and I think that's an extremely dangerous possibility.

I had a very personal experience of that kind of convergence very early on in the development of "Very Nervous System". I was invited to show it in Vancouver in 1983. It was not really finished at that time, and I had to work a month and a half solid, eighteen hours a day, not seeing another human being through that period of time to get it done, but I got it done, and I was extremely happy with the results, and I took it out to Vancouver, and it didn't work. It worked for me, but it didn't work for anyone else. And it took a few months for me to figure out what had happened. But there was some videotape of me moving in the installation in Vancouver, and I watched it, and I noticed that my movements were rather strange. In the course of working with the system my movements had become changed so that I was moving in something that resembled this [makes robotic gestures] which is not surprising that the piece did not respond to other people because most people don't spontaneously move like this, in public spaces at least. And I realized that what had happened that what the machine could sense and what I was doing had converged. We had come to some kind of agreement on the definition of what movement was. And that's certainly a lesson I haven't forgotten.

...we find ourselves, for some strange reasons, competing with machines. It's interesting to watch, for example, in musical performance the way the rising level of the compact disc has changed musical performance. People are competing with their compact discs now, for example, to have as few errors as possible. What happens is that the things that machines can do are things that we privilege in ourselves as well in this sort of competition to the death. And I think that is exactly the wrong attitude. If there is a great potential for the computer in relation to knowledge it is that it will liberate us from the burden of the mechanical aspects of thinking, and open space for I don't even know what to call them. One might touch on it by saying they are intuitive or whatever....We create a situation where exactly what we should be liberating in ourselves is under extended critique and being lost .

I have to admit that I was somewhat gleeful to read a few times over the past six months about the study that has shown that music lessons, piano lessons, were a much better educational tool for spatial-temporal reasoning than access to computers for students, and it's important, what I love about that is that it ties in that notion of the complete integration of the sensual in the broadest sense, the whole body as something sensing the piano's resonances...

I really believe it's a mistake to believe that we have to be on the front wave of this thing in order to compete successfully as a people and as a nation. And just get to back actually to the tremendous Canada of light. One of the things that Bruce Powe points out there is that "one of the profound riches of Canada has been it's willingness to embrace contradiction and ambiguity." And the problem is that computer space is really hostile to those things. We need to be able to back up and have a fuller awareness of where we are now in order to be able to move into the future intelligently.


David Rokeby Site: http://homepage.mac.com/davidrokeby/home.html

David Rokeby - Media Installation Artist: http://www3.sympatico.ca/drokeby/home.html

David Rokeby Installations

Very Nervous System by David Rokeby: http://www.emaf.de/1990/vns_e.html

Very Nervous System and the Benefit of Inexact Control: http://www.brown.edu/Research/dichtung-digital/2003/issue/1/rokeby/index.htm

David Rokeby @ WCMA (Williams College Museum of Art) at Big RED and Shiny website http://www.bigredandshiny.com/cgi-bin/frameset.pl?

David Rokeby: Projects at Foundation Langlois: http://www.fondation-langlois.org/html/e/page.php?NumPage=80

NML: Neighbourhood Markup Language - David Rokeby: http://proboscis.org.uk/prps/artists/rokeby/nml5.html