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Transforming Mirrors : Automata

Contents / Intro / Art Context / Models / Navigation / Media / Mirrors / Automata / Conclusion

Although he hopes that his works will surprise him, Myron Krueger feels that "nothing should happen in an interactive medium25 since this would be confusing to the interactor. Other artists create artworks that are not intended to be an extension of the interactor; their creations are essentially self-motivated and autonomous. These automata survey and manoeuvre through their environment, of which the spectators are only one aspect.

The Holy Grail for these artists is the self-replicating, self-sustaining machine -- artificial life. The immediate aims are less lofty. Norman White aims to endow his robots with what he has termed 'artificial sanity', which he defines simply as the machine's ability to make sense of its environment.

Whereas most interactive works present acoustic, visual or conceptual environments, these works present individual entities. As a result their interactions with the public take on the nature of social behaviours and relationships. Although these works use many of the approaches and technologies used by other kinds of interactive works, it is not the individual interactor who is reflected in these works so much human behaviour itself. In a sense, the responsive environment and the automaton complement each other, representing both sides of the relationship between man, and the social and natural environment.

A particularly provocative example is White's Helpless Robot. This is an unusual robot because although capable of perceiving, it is incapable of moving.

I see the work behaving as the classic "hustler". For instance, it might initially enlist human cooperation with a polite "Excuse me... have you got a moment?", or any one of such unimposing phrases. It might then ask to be rotated: "Could you please turn me just a bit to the right... No! not that way... the other way!" In such a way, as it senses cooperation, it tends to become ever more demanding, becoming in the end, if its human collaborators let it, dictatorial.26
Another of White's robots, Facing Out, Laying Low, interacts with its audience and environment, but can become bored or over-stimulated, in which cases it becomes deliberately anti-social and stops interacting.

This kind of behaviour may seem counter-productive, and frustrating for the audience. But for White, the creation of these robots is a quest for self-understanding. He balances self-analysis with creation, attempting to produce autonomous creatures that mirror the kinds of behaviours that he sees in himself. These behaviours are not necessarily willfully programmed; they often emerge as the synergistic result of experiments with the interactions between simple algorithmic behaviours. Just as billions of simple water molecules work together to produce the complex behaviours of water (from snow-flakes to fluid dynamics), combinations of simple programmed operations can produce complex characteristics, which are called emergent properties, or self-organizing phenomena.

These emergent properties, like the surprises that Krueger and Seawright seek, represent, to interactive artists, transcendence of the closed determinism implied by the technology and the artists' own limitations. While such unexpected characteristics delight artists, they represent the ultimate nightmare for most engineers. The complex systems within which we already live and operate are perfect breeding grounds for emergent behaviours, and this must be taken into account as we move into greater and greater integration and mediation. (Next / Contents)

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Copyright 1996 David Rokeby / Very Nervous Systems / All rights reserved. 3/7/96