6 Art and Cybernetics; Origins of Interactive Art
These are just random notes; they don’t represent the entire lecture!
From representing life to creating it
Traditionally arts have been
of life, rather than as
of life itself.
“The imitation of life”: art history knows cases in which the artist’s creations were so
lifelike that they were taken as life itself (about the mimetic tradition, see Erich
The artificial creation of life belonged to the field of the occult, or to the field of
engineering demonstrations (often mytological stories); mechanical ‘living’ marvels,
automata, fell outside the canons of art (although figures like
Leonardo da Vinci did
both). Jack Burnham calls this tradition “subsculptural.”
Automata were display pieces and ‘attractions’, demonstrations of human ingenuity; the
Romantic imagination ‘animated’ them (Mary Shelley, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s), often
them with uncanny threatening features.
Artworks as ‘living’ entities
In the second half of the 20th century the idea of art as living entity emerged. Major
early theorist was Jack Burnham. His key work was
Beyond Modern Sculpture
he concept “cybernetic art”. He also explored this idea in the classic
exhibition called Software, which has curated for the Jewish Museum, New York, in
According to Burnham, cybernetic art will continue the trajectory of
anthropomorphism in Western
art. “Living” artwork will inherit the role of works that
only mimic the external appearance of living creatures. For Burnham Robot could be an
artwork; robots are inheritors of the ancient tradition of automata. Burnham’s ideas
were considered controvers
ial among critics, and even ridiculed.
Cybernetics as inspiration to cybernetic art
Burnham’s thinking was heavily influenced by Cybernetics. The word ‘cybernetics’ was
coined in 1948 by U.S. mathematician Norbert Wiener (1894
1964) at MIT. It der
"steersman," perhaps based on 1830s Fr.
Kybernetics is the science of control systems, theory of self
regulating organisms. It
provided explanations for the functioning of command and contr
ol systems. “Feedback”
was the central concept. Cybernetics offered itself potentially as an umbrella science
that could also bridge machines and organic creatures (’social cybernetics’, etc.),
explaining the modes of communication between them.
Technology based: motors, light, sound. Often (but not always) responsive: reacted in
various ways to external stimuli (wind, light, sound; to natural elements or the visitors’
“Bachelor machines” were an anticipation of some form
s of cybernetic art. They were
absurd, often sexualized machines, imagined and sometimes realized by artists and
writers (Marcel Duchamp, Raymond Roussel, Franz Kafka: “In the Penal Colony”, Jean
Tinguely). However, these machines often had a whimsical, fa
ntastic (‘dadalike’?) quality,
that separated them from the more ‘engineer’ and ‘constructivist’
influenced nature of
cybernetics artworks. The classic book:
The Bachelor Machines
, ed. Jean Clair and
Harald Szeemann, New York: Rizzoli, 1975.
(artworks as machines): Duchamp: “Precision Optics”, Moholy
requisit”, Naum Gabo: Permanent Wave, Len Lye’s late work, Alexander
Calder’s “Mobiles”. Calder’s mobiles were a good example of the use of feedback
(hanging structures react to win
Kinetic Art (1950s
) was a transitory stage (active perception, user activated works);
play with perception, optical illusion; did not necessarily use technology, but often did.
Important theorist and curator of kinetic art: Frank Popper.
bernetic’ artists: Nicolas Schöffer, Wen Ying Tsai, Takis, Frank Malina,
Edward Ihnatowitz, James Seawright. An important exhibition: The Cybernetic
Serendipity, curated by Jasia Reichadt, London, ICA, 1969.
Jean Tinguely: destructive / self
Member or Le Nouveau Réalisme, close friend of Yves Klein. Influenced by dadaism,
surrealism, the tradition of “bachelor machines” (absurd, often erotic and conceptual
machines as artworks described by artists and writers: Duchamp, Raymond
Frank Kafka, Jonathan Swift). Humor meets subversion in varying degrees in Tinguely’s
works. Close collaborator Niki de Saint Phalle: became notorious for hers
Edward Ihnatowicz (1926
Cybernetic sculptor, par
ticipated in Jasia Reichardt’s
London, 1968. Responsive sculptures: SAM (1968), Senster (1969
71), Bandit (1972)
Senster was a giant (15 feet long) hydraulic robot commissioned by Philips to their
permanent Evoluon showroom in
Eindhoven, Holland. Removed in 1974, thought to
have been destroyed, but recently re
discovered (without the electronic control
system) as a sculpture standing in front of the building of the company that constructed
Issues raised by cybernetic
Led to the idea of “art as a system”. Interesting issues: should an artwork be a self
regulating system? What is the role of the audience/spectator? Can art be a system that
incorporates both the work and the spectator/participant? Are hybrid
tic/organic systems possible?
How do “responsive sculptures” differ from “interactive installations”?
sculptures create one
one responsiveness; initiate a relationship; usually are not
really user controllable; simple forms of action
nse. Interactivity raises the
semantic aspects of human
machine interaction in more complex ways?
How do work that respond to environmental stimuli (Alexander Calder’s
differ from those than respond to human presence and actions (Ihnatowitz’s
In which sense can cybernetic artworks be considered as ‘living’ entities?
Artificial Intelligence and Art, some very basic issues
Can a computer system learn, transcend pre
programmed constraints (take a “leap”?)
Is it possible to prog
ram a computer to be an autonomous artist?
Is it possible to create a smart conversational program that could fool a human user to
take it as another human?
Some influential early projects; Joseph Weibenbau, ELIZA, 1966; Nicholas Negroponte
and the Archi
tecture Machine Group, MIT: SEEK, 1970 (show at Burnham’s Software
Harold Cohen: AARON
Continuously under development since the early 1970s. The most important art
project that involves artificial intelligence.
Influenced by Co
hen’s encounter with artificial intelligence research at Edward
Feigenbaum’s laboratory at Stanford University.
Aaron is an expert system that creates paintings and drawings “relatively
For 30 years, the code has been constantly re
written and expanded by Cohen
Series of different output devices: a drawing “turtle” moving on paper, painting
machines (designed by Cohen himself), more recently to a software application that
automatically creates pictures on the desktop
In the 60s and 70s artificial intelligence (AI) represented one of the frontiers of digital
From the late 1980s Artificial Life or A
Life became a buzzword also among media
artists. One of the original centers for A
Life: Santa Fe Institu
te, with Christopher
Langdon, Tom Ray. Also elsewhere Larry Yaeger at Apple created Polyworld, an
artificial life ecological simulator.
Where is the difference between AI and A
Life a new beginning. AI was about
simulating human reasoning and inte
llect with a computer program: interest in learning
systems, natural language processing. A
Life simulates biological life
the computer: ‘theoretical, hypothetical, alternate’ biosystems. Uses genetic
Artists who have explored
the possibilities of A
Life: Christa Sommerer and Lurent
Mignonneau, Karl Sims, Troy Innocent, Jane Prophet…
Origins of Interactive Media Art
What is interactive art?
Videoplace by Myron Krueger
Very Nervous System by David R
Handsight by Agnes Hegedus
playful software/hardware environment for human
Uses video camera as an input, displays colored outline figures of the use interacting
with the software features
immersive and non
tactile: these were deliberate choices, as Krueger has
explained in his important book
Artificial Reality II
Very Nervous System
exploring the intimacy and immediacy of the human / computer feedback loop
visual input / sound output
but could be anything!
physical interaction; compare with ‘non
art’ aplications like the Mandala System, DDR,
where is the difference?
interactive art as a way of exploring
an ‘impossible’ (virtual) world
modified virtual reality experience using a polhemus sensor. (No bodily immersion!)
interactive art as an emotional experience, with intellectual and historical
The immediate context and inspiration
for artworks like these was the changing nature
and role of the computer in the 1960’s and 70’s: from a statistical calculator to a
personal interactive multimedia data processor. This impulse was perhaps more
important than the influence of the tradition
s of art.
Interface design led the development at Xerox Parc, MIT’s Architecture Machine Group
and elsewhere. A classic project that showed the way toward interactive art was
Architectural Machine Group:
The Aspen Movie Map
80: interactive spat
navigation system with a computer
controlled laserdisc (future media artists such as
Mike Naimark and Rebecca Allen were part of the team!)
a ‘classic’ definition
"Mutual and simultaneous activity on the part of both participa
nts [human and machine],
usually working toward some goal, but not necessarily."
Andy Lippman in Stewart Brand:
The Media Lab. Inventing the Future at M.I.T.
Unlike it is often believed, the computer should not ‘automatically’ be
“interactive device”. Interactive computing, interactive media and interactive media art
developed over time.
Interactive systems according to Ted Nelson
You sit at a keyboard, and type. The computer receives the electrical signal fr
key you touch. When it is good and ready it types something back. It types on paper, or
it types on a screen. [...] In the coming years [interactive systems] will help us with
every conceivable human task
whether painting a picture, composing a s
trying to decide how to invest your money."
Ted Nelson: "The Magic of Interactive Computer", Nelson:
Home Computer Revolution
According to Huhtamo, to be understood, interactivity as a cultural phenomenon
should be placed within
a wider context. It can be understood in terms of a historical
; ‘full mechanization’ from around 1900.
(’cybernation’); origins: ‘automata’; ‘automatic machines’ in late 19th
century; ‘full automation’, from
; since the 1960s; entering the “culture of interactivity”, when ?
a hierarchy of standardized segmented and subsegmented parts and subparts, all
a fully Ta
ylorized workforce, performing standardized repeated actions
a continuous, sequential assembly line
From Mechanization to Automation
"Mechanization fixes his [worker's] time and fixes his movements, and he has to
produce a series
intelligent mechanical motions to keep the machine fed and
Automation...by being a self
adapting and a changing piece of mechanism, enables a man
to work at whatever pace he wants to work, because the machine will react to him."
The Age of Automation
, 1965, p.39.)
one of the origins of automation. Automata are self
mechanisms, supposed to work without human intervention, after having been started.
They are the
Automation "is a process which substitutes programmed machine
operations for human manipulations. It is the fruit, so to speak, of cybernetics and
Daniel Bell, Preface to Bagrit,
The Age of Automation
Origins of Interactive Art
Go much further back in time than the advent of digital technology
Media art has been influenced by technology and popular culture, coming from
the traditional art world
Changing the spectator and art aud
ience into active participants
Breaking taboos of the untouchability of the art object by bridging art and life.
The ‘Counter Machine’
The emergence of the
in the late 19th century an important
development. These were machine
s used for pleasure, and not for productivity. The
initiative belongs to the user.
machines were used for several purposes: selling snacks, postage stamps,
etc., gaming, development of skills, fortune telling...
Physical pleasurable interaction
with the machine was essential (contrary to the
forced interaction in mechanized factory or office) !
Some early sources of Interactive Art
Early 20th Century Avant
Garde art was influenced by popular culture,
Surrealism good examp
les (circus, vaudeville, slapstich comedy)
The effort by the avant
garde to bridge art and life created interest in the use of
machines, and the human
Not just avart
garde art, but also exhibition design contributed to the emergenc
Frederick Kiesler’s design for Peggy Guggenheim’s “Art of this Century” Gallery
(New York 1942) pointed toward interactive art.
Ken Feingold’s pioneering interactive installation
(1991) is a p
comment on Duchamp’s
Prière de Toucher
(and much more!)
Ken Feingold’s more recent works using talking animatronic heads with ‘behaviours’
and ‘characters’ have been influenced by automata, ventriloquist dummies, fortune
telling machines and other
anthropomorphic machines. They are also ambiguous
commentaries on the discourses on artificial intelligence.
Roots of interactive art can be found from many different fields:
arcade and coin
educational devices like ‘teaching
interactive television programs like
Winky Dink and You
in the 1950s
driving, flying etc. simulators
Experimental instruments and interfaces created by artists, like Oskar Fischinger’s
Happening and performance (Fl
Optical and other philosophical toys, including games
The History of Interactive art has not been completely mapped. Discoveries are still
possible, such as the interactive machines designed and built by the Finnish scientist,
artist Erkki Kurenniemi in the beginning of the 1970s. His DIMI
only been discovered recently as an early classic of interactive art... More discoveries
Finally: most interactive art is digital, but it does not have to be. Th
is is proven by
Bernie Lubell’s (San Francisco) amazing wooden interactive artworks.