Artist Reflections

I am an artist and roboticist. The two roles are inseparable: I approach my research work as a study of embodied equilibrium, and I apply my engineering knowledge to create new forms of media and sculpture which explore questions of interdependence. My art work comprises sculpture, movement, choreography, narrative, and interactivity. I especially enjoy using freely flowing fabric as a kinetic element since it so expressively addresses my central artistic questions of connection and empathy.

My inquiry revolves around understanding the ways in which we cling to our individual boundaries while ignoring our dependencies. I use the medium of physical engagement to explore this question by creating machines which physically interact with each other and humans. This naturally leads to a dance metaphor: I make machines which dance beyond their boundaries.

I have worked in a variety of forms, especially in my collaborations with other artists. But this statement addresses my solo work involving kinetic fabric sculpture and my personal artistic inquiry.

What is the nature of the illusion of the separate self?

We can begin to unravel this inquiry with a few observations about our world. Consider all of human activity: much like cells in the body, humans act together to create this process we call civilization. No one person controls the course and yet we are all part of the equilibrium. Similarly, the consumption which sustains life itself is dependent upon the ecological, biological, chemical, and physical processes of the planet. By simply living we cannot help but have a far-ranging effect on a complex system.

Of course, individual cells in the body follow their own rules and processes and could be said to follow an individual destiny. The same can be said of individuals operating within the system of civilization. Nevertheless, despite this local application of free will there is an emergent complexity with unpredictable effects. Occasionally individuals in a system can have disproportionate influence. But more often than not, an attempt to create influence can stimulate unexpected dynamics and lead to unexpected results.

At its heart this is a formulation of systems theory, and these broad ideas show up in ecology, economics, engineering, and any discipline involving dynamics at a multitude of scales. But the social observation is that humans are remarkably good at overlooking these effects. We cling to our sense of individual identity and free will as a bulwark against the chaos of the incomprehensibly large systems tethering us together.

In our culture this induces a cognitive dissonance resolved by assuming an independence from our social and physical world. We choose to believe that we are the sole authors of our successes and failures. But maybe there is another resolution, one in which we accept the duality of chaos and individuality.

Proximality and engagement.

This broad inquiry is a starting point for elucidating the permeable boundaries between people, machines, and the natural world. I follow through on my physical metaphors by working with the tangible physical relationships we create.

We share the physical world. The physical reality of possessing a living body connects us. Artwork which itself possesses a body begins on this common premise. It interrelates with its surroundings, co-exists with us, and illuminates the nature of dependency, discovery, fragility, and uncertainty.

This engagement is what I use to distinguish my work from other artifacts. This is not a precise distinction, since anything we physically make co-exists with us and is immersed in the world. But I am focused on works that are dynamically engaged, which actively participate with their surroundings. This can be as simple as a kinetic fabric sculpture which animates the air or as complex as a robot with tactile interactivity.

Interactivity, dance, and performance.

My work focuses on physical relationship and empathy rather than social relationship. I consider the proximal physical relationships we form by simply inhabiting shared space to be a specific kind of interactive media. An artwork in this form sets up a subliminal, transient, proximal relationship and then manipulates the terms of that relationship.

The idea of dance serves as a framework for exploring this medium. Performance dancers moving together negotiate the use of space, rhythm, and each others bodies in the context of learned rules to create a mutually satisfying result. Partnered social dance particularly serves as a metaphor for transient pairings, whether machine to machine or human to machine. Partners negotiate shared movement entirely through unspoken, physical, tactile interaction. All sorts of machines blindly dance for us, but I am drawn to making machines which engage our unconscious awareness to leave us with a feeling of shared purpose.

January 16, 2013