Analog Future: Materiality in the Digital Arts
This paper questions notions of spatiality in translating from the physical to the virtual. By discussing and recontextualizing Jean Baudrillard’s concept of the hyperreal in a digital modernity, I question the emerging technologies in contemporary music, art, and architectural practices. I argue that these translations are not lossless, that what is vanished is a sense of presence , or what Walter Benjamin defines as object aura, leading to a holistic cybernetic fantasy which blurs the line between the virtual and the real. The physical object is slowly tranquilized and replaced with less potent simulacra of itself. Furthermore, cybernetic algorithms have largely informed modern conceptions of intelligence, thus ignoring the ways in which naturally-occurring physical systems (e.g., rainforests, murmurations, fluid dynamics) also form networks encoded with complex information. Interactive artwork which is mediated by the digital screen poses a layer of abstraction between the viewer’s eyes and the originary subject.
My research aims to imagine a lost future which reengages materiality. I discuss the technological principles of weaving to develop a mechanical cellular autonomer whose conditional movements are materially encoded during construction. By discussing passive compliance in soft robotics, I demonstrate how smart materials can be employed to address environmental unpredictability more effectively than computerized control systems. The computational properties of bar linkages are examined: their original use for computing continuous functions is compared to their subsequent application as early binary converters. This quantization of analog information, from continuous data to discrete data, from unfiltered information to 1’s and 0’s, is a process which intentionally simplifies and restructures the natural world in order to increase control and accuracy. My works seeks to voluntarily relinquish this computerized regulation in favor of an analog aesthetic.
The Hyperreal and the Real
I.: Technological Utopianism
Cyberspace, in its conception, was once a radical utopian experiment for Silicon Valley hackers in the early 90’s—a parallel world separate from the aggregate political problems in a Bush-era United States. Rather than a space to be controlled and monitored, the Internet was imagined with a freedom empty of borders and capital, a type of escapism from the preexisting hierarchies in the real world. It was not a loss of faith but instead a reconceptualization of idealisms, a way to start over from scratch in an ungoverned wilderness. In his manifesto The Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace , John Perry Barlow writes:
Governments of the industrial world, cyberspace does not lie within your borders. We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere, may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. We will create a civilisation of the mind in cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before (Barlow, 1996).
This statement was copied in over 40,000 sites upon its publication. While there still exists the promise of an uncontrolled virtual space as a location where impossible dreams can be materialized (as evidenced by developments in VR, AR, MR, and AI as aesthetic disciplines), global networks have also lead to the proliferation of cybernetic technologies which have dangerous consequences for the future of civilian regulation. What Barlow describes is a lost future, one which never fully materialized.
What did materialize is a future based in the micromanagement of risks and assets, numerical calculations meant to maximize growth and minimize loss for the population as a whole (Curtis, 2016). The anonymous French leftist collective Tiqqun writes at length about the development of a cybernetic state, one that idealizes management and control. According to Tiqqun, the goal of cybernetics is to solve “the metaphysical problem of creating order out of disorder.” The unity of cybernetics “has imposed itself as the world-wide method of universal enrollment, simultaneously a rage to experiment, and a proliferating oversimplification.” This oversimplification is necessary to control instability and crisis created from capitalist growth, and is empowered by the state of emergency (Tiqqun, 2010).
The expansion of cyberspace‚ following a consumerist model of growth, becomes entangled with the pursuit of profit. Technological progress becomes unilaterally equivalated with corporate prosperity: wearable gadgets, security software, the internet of things, interactive advertising, smart cars, smart devices, and handheld screens dominate modern conceptions of innovative technology. These technologies do not address the multiplicity of the user as they inherently atomize individuals into singularities of capital; even personal customization becomes a marketing technique.
This also leads to what Henry Giroux describes as a “disembodied self” — the rise of a posthuman subjectivity ultimately void of geospatial culture, instead defined by a virtual world which is fully monetized under the illusion of escapism.
Cybernetics—automated control systems meant to mechanize the flow of bodies—are now invisibly used for predictive policing, targeted advertising, health and fitness apps, monetary management, and other mundane elements of daily life. Continued dependence on algorithmic forecasting leads to “technological solutionism,” where layer upon layer of control is added in order to mediate between reality and the increasing complexity of an interconnected world (Morozov, 2013).
II. Technological Solutionism:
In China, a country with one of the highest pollution and overpopulation rates in the world, companies sought to address issues of overcrowding in cities with the creation of bike sharing apps. Their software allows users to rent a bike cheaply by the hour, perceived to be a simple way to reduce carbon emissions through communal property. In 2017, dozens of bike-share companies quickly flooded the streets with millions of rental bicycles in order to seize the market. Chinese infrastructure was not meant to handle the sudden insurgency, resulting in mountains of abandoned bikes which were soon impounded and left in vacant lots, or chaotic piles (Taylor, 2018). Their debris have become a haunting sight, a reminder of the market bubble bursting on false dreams of corporatized sustainability.
Figure 1. A pile of discarded ride share bikes in Xiamen, Fujian province, China (2017).
Figure 2. An aerial view of unused rideshare bikes collected from Shanghai streets by local authorities, arranged neatly into row (2017).
Translations between imagined Internet movements and its real-life implementation outside of the cybernetic utopia are not seamless. Software solutions are often incongruent with the material world, as they oversimplify already existing political problems, further complicating them until they spiral into madness. In his documentary HyperNormalisation ,Adam Curtis argues that, since the 1970s, governments have created a simplified and completely simulated version of reality, run by corporations and kept stable by politicians under the guise of maintaining a functioning society (Curtis, 2016). Social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook are effective for joining masses of people under a common emblem, but fail to mobilize populations into real agents of resistance. This can be seen in movements that began as a hashtag on the netscape but never metamorphosed into physical scenes with lucid goals: the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street are potent examples of this (Curtis, 2016) .
The discord between initial hysteria and long-term endurance are markers of the anxious and schizophrenic present, a pathological temporality which fail to be foundational for real change. The desire to program virtual simulacra could indicate a cultural panic over the loss of material conditions, namely that the real world has become so impermeable that users must create alternate realities in order to retroactively imagine a future that includes them. A symptom of this intense alienation, atomization, and privatization is what Jean Baudrillard refers to as hyperreality —a postmodern semiotics in which it is impossible for human consciousness to distinguish reality from a simulation of reality (Baudrillard, 1994). It is the condition in which what is real and fiction are seamlessly blended, augmented by a digitization in which we seek stimuli from a copy world and nothing further. Baudrillard argues that this “reality by proxy” operates not simply as a perverse image, but instead as an autonomous world that lacks definite origin.
Figure 4. Hyperreality: images of clear skies on an LED screen in Tiananmen Square, in front of a smoggy Beijing sky (2014).
Smart Cities and the Myth of Interactivity
The smart city is an urban space engineered to manage resources with maximized efficiency. This is implemented through electronic data collection systems which allow built structures to respond intelligently to human stimuli. What constitutes intelligent interactivity will become mediated by these technologies which fully regulate the population via the passive collection of data on its habitual trends. A citizen’s participation in the smart city is thus reduced to a data point. And yet responsive architecture—which is meant to creatively responds to the user’s demands—has been delineated by these surveillant gadgets, constructing a prevailing myth of interactivity. In his book The City is NotATree,C hristopherAlexanderwritesabouthowconceptionsofarchitectural interactivity have been confined to information transmitted between the eyeball and the hard drive. He gives the example of a traffic light at a crosswalk as a network which responds to its users:
“For example, in Berkeley at the corner of Hearst and Euclid, there is a drugstore, and outside the drugstore a traffic light. In the entrance to the drugstore there is a newsrack where the day’s papers are displayed. When the light is red, people who are waiting to cross the street stand idly by the light; and since they have nothing to do, they look at the papers displayed on the newsrack which they can see from where they stand. Some of them just read the headlines, others actually buy a paper while they wait. This effect makes the newsrack and the traffic light interactive; the newsrack, the newspapers on it, the money going from people’s pockets to the dime slot, the people who stop at the light and read papers, the traffic light, the electric impulses which make the lights change, and the sidewalk which the people stand on form a system—they all work together” (Alexander, 2015).
These physical systems are already systems of interactivity—by existing in the world and reacting to human stimuli, they form networks of information between a myriad of agents and objects. Physical systems which allow chaos to occur (vs. a preprogrammed finite list of options) leads to an interactivity that is less calculated and more variable in its function than a fully computerised system. The crosswalk model described by Alexander can be contrasted with a vision for the smart city crosswalk, temporarily installed in South London by urban technology developer Umbrellium.
Figure 5. Umbrellium’s model of the smart crosswalk, as it lights up for a pedestrian unknowingly crossing into traffic while being distracted by their smartphone (2017).
In a promotional video for the project, a pedestrian is absorbed in her mobile device and unknowingly walks into oncoming traffic. The smart crosswalk detects this trajectory and lights up a LED crosswalk beneath her feet. Umbrellium writes, “If a person is too close to the road surface when a car is nearby, a warning pattern lights around them to fill their field of vision” (Umbrellium, 2017). This appears as an improvement to public safety, but it comes ingrained with a contradiction. The user was not engaged with the physical world because they were engrossed in a virtual one, but the proposed solution for the issue is more technology, another layer of cybernetic abstraction. Conversely, this prototype leads to less interaction between the users and their environments; it blurs the line between image and world, allowing users to move seamlessly between the two as they collapse into a singularity. In Virtual City, or The Wiring and Waning of the World, Sanford Kwinter writes:
“Though today we in the west receive far more information than at any other point in human history, we certainly receive far less than ever before in an unfiltered, raw, or unmediated form, in what might be called its ‘whole’ state, that is, naturally embedded in a sensuous complex array and apprehended directly by actual experience… All background noise and all free, unchanneled flows are eliminated in the name of creating frictionless, ‘dedicated,’ or task directed environments” (Kwinter, 1996).
The example of the smart city shows how models of interactivity have been ingrained in processes of digitized data collection in which the active citizen becomes a point on a graph. This pushes old models of interactivity into obsolescence, overwriting the body’s dynamic synergy with its landscape unless it has been holographically rendered. Total digital connectivity ignores how information transmitted between analog systems is also interactive without being recorded in a database. A techno-futurism is one in which the body is simulated and phantasmic, a semi-presence in a world of automation.
Not only do these smart cities reinforce surveillant biopolitical agendas (e.g., predictive policing, mobile device tracking, CCTVs blended in the scenery), they also render the population invisible by lacking the agency to restructure their own habitats according to their needs. In Alberto Vanolo’s essay Is Anybody Out There? The Place and Role of Citizens in Tomorrow’s Smart Cities , he writes:
“There is arguably little space for citizens’ voices in this imaginary, because planners and technological gurus seems to know exactly what citizens desire and how to provide it to them, much in line with the approach assumed in the tradition of colonial and modernist utopian planning…The real agency of the active smart citizen populating this imaginary is very limited, because it is reduced to the generation of data that are manipulated, controlled and mobilised in ways that are completely out of control of most of citizens’ understanding of technologies” (Vanolo, 2016).
While the smart city gives the illusion of structural fluidity, it is precisely the opposite in practice: the population is passively regulated and responds mechanistically, choosing between a limited selection of possible outcomes selected by an elite class of architects and engineers. What is lost is the ability and freedom to mould our own physical environments.
Hackney Wick & Maker Culture
The contemporary fixation on software skills leads to the obsolescence of hand skills: the keyboard, mouse, and touchscreen have become universal instruments for every career. This represents a flattening of skills and the disembodiment of the working mind. In the mass exodus of the hand-making from urban culture, urban citizens are stripped of a wide array of empirical knowledge such as how to build furniture or grow food from the earth, leading to a kind of tactile starvation and depreciation of skills that are explicitly tangible to the body. The disappearance of communities of makers can be seen as a symptom of this transference of skills. An example of this is in the gentrification of Hackney Wick, an urban artists’ neighborhood in East London, and the location of the newest Bartlett School of Architecture campus.
Hackney Wick was home to over 600 artist studios in 2008. Artists lived in cooperatives within converted warehouses, often with 8-24 people per unit (Brown, 2012). These concentrated spatial arrangements became foundational to the community which thrives within it—garbage found on the street was collected and made into murals, graffiti artists climbed perilous heights to vandalize high-rise apartments, and underground raves took place deep within the Hackney Marshes to the tune of hand-made sound systems. The structural elements of the warehouses are often not engineered for these purposes by professional architects; the communities maintain full jurisdiction to alter their habitats to suit their changing desires.
Figure 6. Exterior and interior drawings of the Victoria Wharf warehouses (2012).
These warehouses, which were once home to industrial plants, have been refurbished by hand and made into workspaces where artists can freely rearrange its elements without contact with the landlord. In this way, warehouses units operate as individual ecosystems rather than isolated singularities (such as apartment buildings or suburban-style houses). This generates communities where many objects are communal and resources are managed with egalitarian efficacy. By seeking to live cheaply and autonomously, these artists form communities rooted in the unique spatiality and material resonance of their habitats. The ability for artists to self-regulate their spaces, having the power to materially reconstruct them as needed, was crucial to Hackney Wick’s vitality. But what were once self-sustaining communes are quickly being disappeared due to the expansionist nature of capital accumulation.
Figure 7. Stour Space studios
Figure 8. Unit One, Old Ford Works (2013)
Figure 9. Picture of a high-rise apartment development in Hackney Wick. A digitally-rendered image of graffiti, which reads “AUTHENTIC”, is used to market luxury apartments. These walls use an anti-graffiti coating so that real paint can be regularly hosed off (2017).
There is a tension between the cultural desire for self-made spaces and the commodification and eventual dissolution of these spaces. This is exemplified by the marketing campaigns for Hackney Wick culture of ‘authenticity’ (handmade crafts, co-owned cafes, and flavors distinct to a region). This becomes advertised as such simply because of its rarity. In Making: Anthropology, Art, and Architecture, Tim Ingold writes:
“Once, to have said that an article is ‘made by hand’ would have been a statement of the obvious…In today’s world, however, ‘handmade’ is a mark of distinction. It connotes a kind of authenticity and devotion that people, increasingly cast as passive consumers rather than active citizens, feel is otherwise missing from their lives. With citizenship comes moral responsibility, yet how can we be responsible for a world that comes to us ready-made?” (Ingold, 2013)
The tracelessness in mass-manufactured products marks an erasure of labor, or what Karl Marx refers to as commodity fetishism, where objects exist without the consumer understanding the intricacies of its production. This highly sanitized and curated consumption of goods marks the disappearance of the object’s “aura,” a loss of optical depth and destruction of originality (Benjamin, 1936). This following sections describe the theoretical foundation for my aesthetic endeavors, which seek to emancipate digitized data in order to create interactive sculptures that are tangible to the senses.
The Materiality of Music
I. Physical Media
In 2014, as part of the German research project Survey Musik und Medien, Anne-Kathrin Hoklas investigated the “haptical experience of physical storage media”, finding that older people encounter and consume music through behavior “orientated to tangibility.” Younger audiences, what she calls the digital generation, “instead see music as a freely floating object, accessible at any time or place” (Hoklas, 2014). This freely floating object is a model of music where instantaneous access becomes a marker of progress. While listeners now have the convenience of carrying gigabytes of data in their pockets, the digital refinement of music also indicates a decay of physical scenes (basement shows, record stores, underground raves, etc.), locales where music was once a form of collective ritual. Stephen Graham’s research in Sounds of the Underground: A Cultural,PoliticalandAestheticMappingofUndergroundandFringeMusic,h as shownthato ldergenerationviewthedigitalageasa“cheapeningofthe potential richness of culture through the facilitation of a superficial, trouble-free, consumer-focused model of cultural exchange and experience.” Graham suggests that a model of instant gratification has perhaps replaced the “old struggle to source obscure music, to make contact with obscure musicians and obscure audiences.” (Graham, 2016)
This instant gratification caters to a model of music production where users are prone to engage with media devoid of its cultural context. The Internet encourages planetary networks of automatic music dissemination rather than localized configurations. This decay of physical scenes coincides with a shift away from physical media. What is lost is the palpable trace of artistic production: the grooves on the record, its individual scratches, the artist collectives and the buildings they inhabit, the rooms where their music is written and recorded, the care necessary to maintaining instruments and objects, etc. The Slow Media Manifesto, written by Jörg Blumtritt, Benedikt Köhler, and Sabria, is a 14-point manifesto which advocates slow media formats such as CD players, record collections, cassette decks, printed text:
“2. Slow media promote Monotasking. Slow Media cannot be consumed casually, but provoke the full concentration of their users.
5. Slow Media advances Prosumers, i.e. people who actively define what and how they want to consume and produce. In Slow Media, the active Prosumer replaces the passive consumer.
9. Slow Media are distributed via recommendations not advertising: the success of Slow Media is not based on an overwhelming advertising pressure on all channels but on recommendation from friends, colleagues or family.
11. Slow Media are auratic: Slow Media emanate a special aura. They generate a feeling that the particular medium belongs to just that moment of the user’s life” ( Köhler, David, Blumtritt, 2010).
The destruction of presence is linked to the metaphysical destruction of material objects, their erosion in value as they are migrated from the real to the virtual. The modern concert space for music is now a hybrid space, where the audience inhabits the venue but also is living mentally in the virtual space, generating images on their iPhones which will proliferate the web and create a record of the event. The audience member may find themselves more involved with their online appearance as a participant of the concert and less involved with the event itself. These habits demonstrate a kind of rewiring of the brain, where younger generations treat the concert as an experience to be documented and shared, rather than an experience to be lived. In Disposable Futures: The Seduction of Violence in the Age of the Spectacle, Henry Giroux writes: “Being elsewhere defines the presentness of the modern human condition such that distancing increasingly shapes the most mundane of social interactions” (Giroux, 2015).
Figure 10: Diana Ross performing at Studio 54 in New York, surrounded by musical objects and slow media (1980).
Figure 11: Ace of Heart tour at Sports arena in Thessaloniki, crowd engaged with virtual space (2014).
II. Live Performance and Individualism
The consumption of musical performance through images reduces experience to that of the individual. What was once marked by its ecstatic ephemerality is infinitely captured until the original experience becomes indistinguishable from its reproductions. The physical scene’s power as a space for collective aura (artist, guitars, records, crowd, and drum kit all as one aura) is dramatically reduced. The crowd is rendered a sea of individuals, disengaged from the potential for collective consciousness which surrounds them. The live VR experience, offered by companies such as NOYS VR, Melody VR, Live Nation and NextVR, Samsung’s VR Live Pass, and Facebook’s Oculus Venues, is emblematic of this shift toward technological individualism. These technology companies, in pursuit of profit and blinded by San Francisco culture, persistently innovate the live music space into a disembodied zone.
Large architecture firms like Stufish incorporate an “Instagram moment” in their design, when concertgoers are meant to take out their phones and digitally distribute the show, as a method of free marketing. In The ontology of performance: representation without reproduction , Peggy Phelan writes: “Performance honors the idea that a limited number of people in a specific time/space frame can have an experience of value which leaves no visible trace afterward.” The Instagram moment causes performance to “plunge into visibility” and destroys the “maniacally charged present” of live events (Phelan, 1993). The ‘here and now’ feeling of a concert is flattened in a binary world where there is no “where.” My work is a response to this sense of displacement. Un like the digital image, the physical object has a “where:” vibrations of the sound system propagate micro fractures of the wooden sculpture, moisture from the dance floor fills its pores.
Robotic sculptures exist in the here and now, empowering digital information to create rich atmosphere for audience members to feed off of. In December 2017, I built a screen and light scaffold which creates an interactive display of shadow projections. A number of point-source light are made to move in time with music, rotating and swaying, while objects rear-project their shadow. Due to the motion of these lights, the shadows of stationary objects appear to scale, skew, and translate through space. The screen was brought to a live music event in Hackney Wick, in February 2018, where concertgoers could interact by controlling the lights and placing their own found objects on the screen.
Figure 12. Rear-view of the light show, where participants place objects and control lighting (2017)
The semi-outdoor setting of this event allowed concert goers to collect sticks, plants, leaves, etc. These objects were then placed on the wire frame provided, and became part of the light show. This tactile interaction encourages social engagement and bodily presence, adding to the sense of ‘here and now’ that people look for on a night out.
Figure 13. Front of the light show, where concert goers view the analog visuals (2017).
This analog lightshow could be compared to audience-responsive visuals which track the audience with 3D cameras and reduce them to data points, or iPhone apps which track crowd feedback. These arrangements allow only preprogrammed options to be triggered or modulated by the crowd. While my analog light show will be considered less “innovative,” the materials which it is reliant upon (light fixtures, bike wheels, leaves, branches, etc.) can all be physically accessed and allow for structural fluidity. At the end of the night, the scaffolding chronicles a collective record of the events which took place. In the next section, I will argue that these analog materials are not less agile or sophisticated. Instead, they are encrypted with wealths of information not surveilled by a platform.
I. Analog Data
Objects which have not been instilled with a human presence (systems whose input/output is illegible to humans) are viewed as “less intelligent.” Conceptions of intelligence are formed on the basis of human understandings of their mechanisms rather than networks of intelligence such as rainforests (Braton, 2015), whose individual components interact with an equally complex semiotic system, but are not considered on the spectrum since much of its intellect remains unparsed to the human eye.
Conceptions of ‘information’ have been similarly rendered. Material as simple as wood contains an array of information such as: the directional density of the wood, its resistance to stress, strain, bending, and twisting which are dependent on the spatial arrangement of wood fibre, knots, and uniquely grown elements which themselves are data representing the life and growth of a tree. The temperature of ignition and point of ignition of a flame on the wood’s surface is dependent on turbulent and laminar flows oxygen around the wood and the vector field which describe the flow velocity at any point in time, as well as the rates of convection and conduction by which these flows cary heat to locations on the woods surface. Wood has potential to absorb moisture in every fibre, and will elongate depending on how much moisture has been absorbed, changing in elasticity depending on this moisture level, not only on the global scale but also on the level of single atomic interactions, etc.
All of this information becomes missed when analyzing through the lens of the anthropocene, in a world where concepts of innovation and intelligence are limited to silicone. In her essay An Internet of Things, Keller Easterling writes about how agency can also be encoded within nonhuman and non-digital subjects:
“We are not accustomed to the idea that non-human, inanimate objects possess agency and activity, just as we are not accustomed to the idea that they can carry information unless they are endowed with code/text-based information technologies…Indeed, the more ubiquitous code/text-based information devices become, the harder it is to see spatial technologies and networks that are independent of the digital” (Easterling, 2012).
II. Hand-made Code
The Penelope Project, based at the Research Institute for the History of Technology and Science at the Deutsches Museum in Munich, was set up in 2016 to investigate the “the technological principles of ancient weaving” (Penelope, 2016). They consider the layering of thread as an early form of code, and develop software models and topologies of weaves. In an ongoing project, I take advantage of these code-like properties to construct a digitally controlled 2D matrix of panels, which can each flip between a black or mirrored surface. Columns of wooden blocks are encoded to fall in a rotating cascade, from the arrangement of ribbons which are fixed, folded, threaded, or loosened during assembly. The project involves 12 such columns, each triggered by a note on a synthesizer keyboard octave. When a note is played, a corresponding cascade of silver falls as shown below:
Figure 14: frames showing the cascading effect of panels being flipped from black to mirrored. The first panel is flipped by a motor, and each subsequent panel is triggered by the previous.
Figure 15: assembly process for weaving ribbon between panels to form a column
Figure 16: computer model of the servomotor mechanism, and first two panels.
Figure 17: digital control along the horizontal n axis, coded weaves along the vertical m axis
The panels are coded (by weave) as nodes in a decentralized system. Each block is ready to flip when commanded by the block above—a one-dimensional cellular autonomer. To trigger this behavior, servomotors are arranged horizontally as shown above ( n = 1 to n = 12) and the computer outputs instructions to each based on simple MIDI commands—note on: rotate to 0 degrees, note off: rotate to 180 degree.
if(block n == noteOn)
if(block n == noteOff)
This code instructs a motor when to flip the first block in the woven column, m= 1. Theremainingpanels,rows m= 2to m =16,areflipped consecutively in response to the first panel, due to the specialized construction of wood and ribbon. These panels execute an operation which could be written hypothetically in C++ as:
if(block m == flipped)
block m+1 = flip;
if(woodBlock(m).state != woodBlock(m+1).state)
These lines of code are not executed by a computer, but by the wood, ribbon, glue, paint, etc. This arrangement allows a matrix of 192 panels to be controlled with only 12 motors. An alternative arrangement would be one in which all 192 panels are controllable from the computer, by a matrix of 192 motors. This would be more expensive, less elegant, and require dense wire routing.
Figure 18: a hypothetical version of this project, allowing the computer full control over each panel
Intelligent materials are used in my projects for affordability and as an aesthetic style: real-world output for digital commands. These materials are also useful in scientific fields. Skylar Tibbits’ Self Assembly Lab at MIT conducts research on programmable materials and active textiles. The lab’s goal is “true material robotics or robots without robots.” The lab has shown that complex processes such as cellular division and reproduction can be rendered in “non-biological physical objects” (Tibbets). Professor Robert Howe’s group at the Harvard Biorobotics Lab has used intelligent materials to address the challenges of robotic grasping: “While robot hand research has been largely focused on dexterous manipulation, robots today cannot autonomously perform even simple grasping tasks in a typical home setting” (Howe, 2010).
III. Non-software Solutions for Environmental Complexity
Robots today can read, speak, navigate, hear, and see the world around them. They are unable to reach out and grab it, except for in controlled environments such as manufacturing. The failure to develop real-world robotic grasping is in part due to an overreliance on precision and digital feedback systems. Traditional robotic grippers are made of rigid metal (they must not deford or risk de-calibration), built with a large number of motors at at each joint (to bend, rotate, and position the fingers around a variety of object), and incorporate a thorough network of sensitive digital encoders (to log force and tactile data, proprioception for computer vision, and other flows of information feedback for the software to process and re-issue commands). Grippers of this nature are extremely complex and expensive, sometimes with over 25 actuators and 100 sensors per hand (Shadow, 2015) (Chen, Lii Wimböck, Fan, Liu, 2014). Each of these joints must be given precise instruction from the sensors, which places a heavy burden on software, especially when expected to grasp a large variety of objects.
Soft robotics researchers are able to build more capable grippers which rely on smart materials rather than advanced software control systems. The human hand can be operated by the brain at a low level of cognition – humans can blindly locate and lift a coffee mug, or reach for a railing when the feet slip. The brain does not issue the hand a precise series of commands, nor does it need to parse normal vectors to calculate the most stable grasp surface. The human hand is a flexible mechanical system, which by its physical construction contains the intelligence to grasp objects in the complex real world. Howe writes: “Carefully designed passive mechanical compliance and adaptability in the finger and hand structure can allow the gripper to conform to a wide range of objects” (Howe, 2010). Due to passive compliance, interaction with complex and unpredictable environments is made possible.
Figure 19: soft robotic fingers designed with passive compliance, underactuated by tendon cables and a single force, as shown by the location marked ‘Actuator force’ (bottom left image).
The diagrams above is from the SDM (Shape Deposition Manufacturing) adaptive robotic hand. The passively compliant design of a this gripper reacts in real time to the forces of an item in its grasp. The configuration and shape of urethane rubber layers, and their varying durometer, is a solution which responds instantaneously. The bottom-left drawing shows that a single actuator is used by the computer to drive the movement of all four fingers—one linear force. This condenses what was once digital sensing, analysis, and command into a single mechanism. In this way the hand is more effective than direct digital actuation, and moves in a way that is unpredictable for software.
The problem of robotic grasping was perceived to be a software problem because computer scientists believed the hand could be encoded with the same cognitive function as the brain. In reality, the hand adapts fluidly to its environment, molding its shape to fit the object in its embrace. The flesh of the hand, mirrored by the urethane rubber, is an example of an intelligent material which responds to its tactile climate. Cognitive physical objects can form a symbiosis of analog and text-based information to create elegant solutions to complex problems. The pursuit of purely software solutions to technical challenges is a temptation borne from the perceived flexibility of the virtual world: the coder has seemingly endless control over their imagined space, but these solutions fail when they do not translate seamlessly to the real.
IV. Generating Complexity from Simple Inputs
My research concerns information and instruction hard-coded in mechanical designs to animate complex spatial arrangements with minimal computation power. Complexity can emerge from these elegantly simple inputs.
The series of linkages I constructed in the Spring of 2018 generate wave motion across 32 individual armateurs by utilizing some material properties of the four-bar linkage. These projects use string to translate the rotation of a central point into simple harmonic motion, the rate and amplitude of which may be digitally controlled. Each of the 32 strings are attached to the drive-bar of 32 specially calibrated four-bar linkages, which responds within the amplitude range of the oscillating strings. The diagram below shows a single linkage—and the various forms through which it translates—as the drive-bar moves in simple harmonic motion. This design is similar to the mechanism which simplifies the SDM robotic hand, a single actuator force for input (represented by the grey arrow) results in a complex movement as output.
Figure 20. Frames showing the motion of linkages, from left to right, in response to a single input: a horizontal force (grey arrow) applied to the end of the drive arm via string. The remaining linkages move in response to this input (2018).
Figure 21. Still frames showing all 32 armatures, each with a 1/32 wavelength shift (2018).
Each armature is mechanically encoded to translate the linear oscillation from drive-bar into a variety of angular motions in the free-bars. which each vary in angle, direction, and speed, creating complexity despite a simple input. Due to the circumferential geometry of construction, each string undergoes a phase shift of 1/32 wavelength compared to its neighbor.
Figure 22. Computer model showing the path of motion for each bar of the linkage (2018).
These armatures were developed using straight line bar-linkages discovered by the mathematician Harry Hart in 1875 (Dijksman, 1994). Four-bar, six-bar, and eight-bar linkages are descriptive mathematical objects; they can be designed to trace straight lines from rotating hinges, as well as the Cassinian oval, the lemniscate, the limacon of Pascal, the cardioid, and the trisectrix. Combinations of varying bar lengths and hinge positions can theoretically describe any continuous function of the nth degree in Cartesian coordinates (Svoboda, 1948).
Figure 23: Design of an early bar-linkage computing device for coordinate transformation (left). This device can perform topological transformations of a grid structure (left), to produce the corresponding grid structure (right)
The bar-linkage was a component of early computing and can be employed as an additive cell, multiplier, integrator, etc. They are able to compute the parameter y as a function for an input x, including linear functions, polynomials, sinusoids and other well-behaved functions. (Svoboda, 1948). This demonstrates that information encoded into physically accessible machines existed before the advent of analog electronics and the black box of binary devices.
In 1961, IBM released their Selectric typewriter, which sends digital signals from the keyboard to the a single typeball, as opposed to individual typebars (Eisenberg, 1992). The digital to analog converted in the typewriter is operated by a bar-linkage mechanism. This bar-linkage is distinct from those described above: rather than moving through continuous space, the bar positions are reduced to either 1 or 0 (up/down).
Figure 24: diagram showing discretized bar linkages, used in the IBM Selectric typewriter.
The discretization of this bar-mechanisms was desirable to achieve higher accuracy. Bar-linkagecomputersrequirecarefulconstructiontoavoidbacklash, limit elasticity errors, achieve high tolerances, and secure rigidity of the structure intheplaneofmotion. Byassigningthelinkagesdiscretepositions,theseerrors are made insignificant in the same way digital computer logic overcomes electrical noise.
The linkage mechanism in the Selectric typewriter went on to be used in early computing as part of the first terminals and word processors (Eisenberg, 1992). The concept it demonstrates, discretizing the continuous physical world for greater accuracy and control, forms the theoretical basis upon which modern computing is built. The binary of 1 or 0, and the negation of all inbetweens, would become the new standard by which media and communication are defined. But when computing is used for art there is not necessarily a need for such high accuracies, and the aesthetic quality of continuous motion may be more desirable than binary 1 and 0.
I. Simplification by Virtualization
The binary processes by which an object is carried from reality to the virtual world is necessarily one of simplification and reduction. The digital moving image consist of frames which are each a binary bitmap—a grid of elements defined by their x-y position, and a set of associated values which describe color and brightness. The majority of contemporary image formats use pixels with a bit depth of 24, allowing for 16,777,216 color variations. As the human eye can distinguish no more than 10 million colors, an image with at least 24 bit depth is giventheterm“Truecolor”(Judd,Wyszecki,1975).T hesamelogicisusedin digital audio where the full range of human hearing is carried by uncompressed audio formats that sample at a rate of 44.1kHz. This rate is used in accordance with the Nyquist theorem, as it is more than twice the highest frequency the data must represent to prevent aliasing, 20kHz for human hearing.
Figure 25. audio in the physical world (a record groove), which exists continuously throughout time
Figure 26. Audio in the digital world, discretized and discontinuous in time.
Figure 27. a flower in the physical world, which exists continuously across time and space.
Figure 28. a flower in the digital world, discretized and discontinuous in time and space.
There is significantly more information contained in the object than even the most advanced digital reproduction of the object. Consider the physical flower (Figure 27), which is quantized only down to the atomic level. There are over 620 billion atoms on the surface of one pixel in the iPhone X’s new “Super Retina HD” display (Apple, 2017) (Clementi, Raimondi, Reinhardt, 1967). Even this level of quantization may be an underestimation as quantum physics continues to identify smaller and more complex units of matter than the atom. While a video file (Figure 28) plays at up to 30fps, the real flower is continuous in time (or is perhaps in units of Planck time, equal to 1.8×10^43 fps) (Mares, 2017). The number of color variation for the physical flower approaches infinity, as the frequency of light emitted by atomic particles is continuous and not binary. It is always possible to find an object whose color is between that of two others, in the same way it is always possible to find a real number between two positions on a continuous mathematical function.
But it is not a matter of larger data sets, faster access to information, greater bandwidths, more colors, or higher resolutions. Outperforming the human sensory system in “true color” or 4K, which contain as many as 8 million pixels per frame, much more than we could perceive over the area of a TV (Visual Functions Committee, 1984), does not make an image equal in quality to the physical object. The quality of a physical object resides in its aura, as identified by Walter Benjamin:
“Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence.” (Benjamin, 1936)
II. Virtual Reproductions
Benjamin attributes the value of handmade objects to their unique existenceintimeandspace. Forexample,ahandmadevasehasacertainaura, while the reproduction of that vase via mold injection and mechanical automation reduces the object’s value. It is likely that the room you sit in now is occupied by reproduced objects—items of which other manufactured copies exist. However, in comparison to the reproduction of object by virtualization and digitization, mechanical reproductions are each relatively unique.
Figure 29: unique object (left), reproduced objects (center), digital reproductions (right).
My copy of the mechanically reproduced object may be from the same factory as your copy, and perhaps formed by the same mould, but it will always contain unique signs of place and ownership. The object may be scuffed and marked, or display small but unique variations in the way the mould was poured and pressed, or how the object was removed, finished, and transported. There may be color variations from lighting, heat, and humidity conditions in which it has lived (the aura is nothing if not the life of the object).
Digital media avoids accumulating these signs of uniqueness and presence inherent to objects of the physical universe by existing in an alternate space regulated by binary quantization and predictability. The new crisis of reproduction is digital, and this crisis has become so severe that what was once considered by Benjamin to be a banal reproduction—an object born from mechanical automation—is significantly more unique than today’s digital objects which transmit across smart devices and social media platforms.
Flawless reproduction is an intentional feature built into the framework of digital communications. In his essay History of Art in the Digital Age: Problems andPossibilities,W illiamVaughanwritesthatthedigitalimage“isnothingbut reproduction. There is, literally, no original of a digital image, since every version has equal status by virtue of being absolutely identical” (Vaughan, 2002) The aura is inseparable from the object’s unique existence, and the irrevocability of this existence is precisely the limitation for the virtual image.
When digital data is copied, error-checking bytes are used to verify that every signal came through the wire correctly. Each pixel of a video—and each point on an audio sample—will be exactly identical to its copy with no variation, despite that fact that it is being transmitted via the messy world of continuously flowing electrons, analog circuitry, copper wires, and satellite signals. The elimination of error (and uniqueness) from a digital reproduction is made possible by quantization, as electrical signal noise is made irrelevant. Quantization occurs spatially with pixels, temporally with sampling rate, qualitatively with bit depth, etc. Error checking means that an Instagram image will render with perfect consistency, regardless of the place or time it is viewed. This contributes to the feeling of time standing still or the destruction of presence, as identified by Mark Fisher in Ghosts of My Life:
“The shift into so-called Post-Fordism – with globalization, ubiquitous computerization and the casualisation of labour – resulted in a complete transformation in the way that work and leisure were organised. In the last ten to fifteen years, meanwhile, the internet and mobile telecommunications technology have altered the texture of everyday experience beyond all recognition. Yet, perhaps because of all this, there’s an increasing sense that culture has lost the ability to grasp and articulate the present. Or it could be that, in one very important sense, there is no present to grasp and articulate any more.” (Fisher, 2014)
III. The Redefinition of Space by Quantization
The Internet is a spaceless domain which considers the screen only a cage. Although the digital image can be viewed in any space (and in the future will not be limited to screens), these variations have no ability to create uniqueness. Many efforts have been made to simulate the physicality of objects with haptic devices. Others simulate presence effects with artificial intelligence and algorithmic graphics which may never repeat over the lifetime of a human life. But the physical object’s aura remains untouched by the efforts of digital interaction design.
Physical objects are not only unique in form, they exist in their own locations in space. The object operates on the level of atomic interaction and continued variation of the normal force exerted on a resting surface, absorption and emission of light rays, changing airflows, the reflection of sound, the conduction of heat, and may other processes dependent on its surrounding. These interactions are essential to the agency and presence of a physical object. The virtual object displayed in screen, by a projector, in augmented reality, virtual reality, or on smartphones redefines space into a quantized world where the complex laws of physics have been intentionally eliminated and controlled.
Perhaps it is only when technology starts to break down—when an iPhone is dropped and the screen is cracked—that an image becomes unique to that viewer. The patterns which emerge as radial and concentric fractures propagate through glass reflect the uniqueness of the moment of impact. It is a function of the strength, angle, and position of impact, the angle of the phone, the hardness, elasticity, and strength of the material on the ground, and all pre-existing micro-defects in the phone which steer and shape the primary, forking, and branching fracture lines (Bradt, 2011). The screen’s binary error checking is now interrupted as analog signals transgress electrical barriers, glitching chaotically as leaking plasma forms a unique and complex chromatic display.
Digital to Analog Conversion
It is possible to engage with digital technology while producing art objects with aura. My line of research is an exaggerated form of digital to analog conversion, or DAC, a commonly used component in audio equipment. The DAC takes a discrete digital signal as input, and outputs a continuous electrical signal as line level for driving speakers. It is this conversion which allows the mp3 file to be perceived by humans. The conversion of RGB data into photons is another common DAC, as is the conversion of the servomotor from computer commands to mechanical rotation. My projects employ exaggerated analog methods—digital inputs are transformed and convolved by additional layers of DAC.
Figure 30. Surface reflections showing the distortion of graffiti, Hackney Wick (2017).
Surface reflections have a strong aura due to their perpetual uniqueness. Environmental fluid flows are highly complex, and are understood mathematically only through experimental modeling and approximate correlations. For example, the Reynolds number can predict the point of transition from laminar to turbulent flow, but has no ability to determine the motion of a single point in the flow. Even modern computer software is limited in its ability to predict the outcome of a surface flow based on initial conditions; models do exist but are unable to match the real-world event.
Figure 31. Surface reflections modulating the reflection of a digital display (2018).
The project shown in Figure 31 is a DAC for sound-responsive visuals, and uses a set of mirrors to project surface reflections above a performing artist. Parallel light rays striking the water’s surface are absorbed by individual atoms and re-emitted along new vectors, a spatial dequantization of the RGB data. The water’s surface wave can also be sound-responsive through the modulation of a fan or wave machine. This constitutes a relinquishment of control and response accuracy in exchange for an unpredictable analog aesthetic.
Computer models of fluid dynamics and are commonly used in the digital arts. Digital artists are accustomed to the creative control and visual power that exists in the virtual domain, but perhaps have forgotten that real fluid flows exists, and that they too can be modulated (via fan or wave machine) and employed as analog filters for computer visuals. This alternative model requires the voluntary abandonment of control, and an acceptance of the complexity and beauty of the physical world. This outlook could be considered a backlash against our hyperreal modernity, as well as an aesthetic and ontological preference.
Rather than restrict digital data to the virtual world—simplified, quantized, inaccessible to the body—I’d like to emancipate bits and bytes back into our sensory-rich physical world. Daniel Rozin constructs mirrors which are controlled digitally but have an aura through the digital to analog conversion of servomotors and his selection of objects (Rozin, 2015). Random International’s Fifteen Points generates a digital model of the human walk, then returns it to material existence (Random International, 2016). The Senster by Edward Ihnatowicz—the first interactive digital sculpture, from 1970—reacts to human actors with hydraulic movements in 3D space (Zivanovic, 2015). These projects employ exaggerated digital to analog conversions, and combine the capabilities of computing with the auratic qualities of the object.
The future which we are rapidly innovating towards is one where the object is slowly marginalized. In Precarious Rhapsody , Franco Berardo writes that “human brains of real people made of flesh, fragile and sensual organs, are not formatted according to the same standard as the system of digital transmitters… (Berardi, 2010). All information that is legible to the human brain is analog information. The state of digital feudalism is marked by a global connectivity masquerading as interactivity. While this cyber-utopia increases the sheer volume of connections made, the depth and intimacy of these interactions are sacrificed.
My research aims to emancipate the object from its computerized form into the material realm, a dequantization of discretized data. This creates more tactile sensory output to parallel the tactile sensory input which interactive sculptures receive from the human body. Instead of forcing virtual media to operate with the same resolution as real life, I’d like my projects to reinvigorate a lost aesthetic interest for analog objects, in which these properties already exist without the need for vectorization. By opposing a future that is corporatized in a touchless ether, we can rebuild a technotopia which augments the real rather than replaces it.
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Figure 13: Heyl, P. (2017). Front view of the light show
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Figure 20: Heyl, P. (2018). Frames showing the motion of linkages.
Figure 21: Heyl, P. (2018). Still frames showing all 32 armatures
Figure 22: Heyl, P. (2018). Computer model showing the path of motion for each individual bar.
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Figure 26: Heyl, P. (2018). The virtual world, audio.
Figure 27: Heyl, P. (2018). The physical world, video.
Figure 28: Heyl, P. (2018). The virtual world, video.
Figure 29: Heyl, P. (2018). Physical and digital reproduction.
Figure 30. Heyl, P. (2017). Surface reflections showing the distortion of graffiti, Hackney Wick.
Figure 31. Heyl, P. (2018). Surface reflections modulating the reflection of a digital display.