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futureScreen 00: getting Alife

Mitchell Whitelaw talks with Keith Gallasch

Michele Barker, Præternatural Michele Barker, Præternatural
I’m part of a large organising committee including people like Annemarie Jonson, and John Tonkin. I’m helping out with the exhibition components. I’ve recently finished by PhD which looks at artists using Artificial Life because essentially that’s the theme of this futureScreen.

The right man at the right time in the right place. How is the theme realised?

It’s been taken on in a broad way. Alife is a quite coherent little scientific discipline with its own conferences and papers and journals and there is quite a lot of art that draws directly on the techniques of that scientific culture. On the other hand, the idea of artificial life is much broader than that and embraces all kinds of re-engineerings of life including biotechnology and medical technologies; it also filters into artificial intelligence and robotics. All those things are broader than Alife as a discipline but all of them are involved in futureScreen 00.

How is it staged?

The core event is a forum that spans technoscience, creative practice and cultural thought. So in the last one, which was about avatars, we had technologists who were building software to make avatars and people who were building virtual worlds from the technology, IT and commercial industry point of view. We also had lots of artists who were doing the same sort of thing. Similarly with Alife, we’ve got people who are researchers in the field. We’ve done incredibly well and got Christopher Langton, the guy who basically founded Artificial Life. He’s coming to give a keynote, which is fantastic.

When did he make the discovery?

During the early 80s. Alife defines itself by distinguishing itself from Artificial Intelligence. It came about through a hunch that AI was basically going about things the wrong way by trying to start with intelligence as the object that needed simulating. The basic intuition of Alife is why don’t we start with something simpler and see if we can work out how living systems work. The key approach of Alife is to think that the intelligence will pop up out of the life once the life is put together in the right way.

Over the years we’ve seen life being generated and mutated on computer screens.

It’s an obsession but it’s also quite a well-established tradition in the electronic arts. This is quite a strong thread, which almost parallels the science. I think of it as a generative urge and an urge for automatism, if that’s the right word, for the automatic, for the thing that does its own thing. I guess you can trace it back to kinetic art and systems art in the 60s if not well before that. To me that’s what’s fascinating about this. Artists are taken with it because they’re interested in exactly those aims. So they take up these techniques from the scientific field and start tinkering with them...

It’s so different from the idea of the static, finished artwork.

On the other hand there are things I have problems with about it—things like organicist ideas about the wholeness of the work or the work being some sort of perfect functioning unit or ideas about the “living” work. That’s the whole modernist tradition which all of this stuff is really involved with, I think. But when it works well it sidesteps that.

In what way will it manifest itself in futureScreen?

All kinds of ways. We’ve got some beautiful robotic work. An American artist called Kenneth Rinaldo for many years has been building robotic systems. He calls them a “confluence” between technological and biological systems. They’re robotic arms but the structural material is grapevines with delicate little wire and pulley articulations. The work’s called Autopoiesis and consists of 14 of these arms; we’ve got 8 of them, each about 3 metres long. They hang from the ceiling, sense each other’s location and sort of flock around. They also sense the location of people walking around in the room and they twist and turn and sing to each other, using telephone tones.

Sounds like a major piece.

It’s huge. It’s come fresh from the Kiasma Museum in Helsinki who commissioned it. It’s a piece of straight Alife in the sense that it’s using all of the basic techniques from Artificial Life to do with putting lots of simple units together and watching them interact in order to make something more complex, something emergent happen.

These things are generative—is there a chance element?

With Ken’s work and a lot of the other work it’s a kind of involvement of the environment, the work is sensing itself and sensing changes within itself. It’s really the setting in place of a system that is richly interconnected both with itself and with its environment. So it’s reacting and that is, I suppose, where the impression of life-likeness or autonomy comes from, from the complexity and the patterned nature of those responses.

Autopoiesis is at the Australian Centre for Photography. Also at the ACP is Michele Barker’s new work Praeternatural which is a very luscious, interactive CD-ROM-based work about the engineering of a being, a build-your-baby scenario. There’s also an Australian group called Tissue Culture who make tiny artworks out of bits of living tissue—tiny postage stamp sized bits of scaffolding with actual living stuff growing on it. That should be interesting to see.

Then opening during October at Artspace are 4 other works. Two of my favourite Alife artists, Erwin Driessens and Maria Verstappen, are relatively unknown in the electronic arts world because they come out of the contemporary European gallery scene. We have 2 works of theirs. One is called IMA Traveller, which is a computer-driven video projection piece, very very simple. It looks like you’re diving into a field of multi-coloured clouds and the clouds advance towards you and keep differentiating and you keep diving in and in and in. It’s a kind of zoom that never stops. But it’s made by a little cellular structure. They call it “pixel consciousness”—each of these pixels looks around at its neighbours and then splits into a bunch of other pixels. So it’s like a microbial mat of pixels.

What’s it responding to?

Nothing apart from itself. It looks around in the picture plane. Each pixel looks at its neighbours. The work borrows an idea from Artificial Life called cellular automata, a kind of computational system involving cells which do things based on what their neighbours are doing. The classic is a work called The Game of Life by John Conway. This one is really great because it has cells but the cells actually split. Conventionally, they stay as static units, but these sort of split and push each other out. So it’s a much more dynamic structure. It gives a beautiful result. As a sensual thing, it’s gorgeous. I’m really excited about seeing that on a big projection screen. The other work of theirs, called Breed, uses similar cellular splitting process but in 3 dimensions. The artists are sending out some intricate little polyester resin computer manufactured forms. Their work is interesting because while it’s very beautiful, it involves a kind of blankness, a total removal of artistic volition from a process of morphogenesis.

So, once it’s going, it’s going.

Yes. It’s like the artists are asking how can we remove our aesthetic decision-making and just make varieties of stuff. One of the most complex works in the show is Life Space by a pair of European artists based in Japan, Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau. It’s an artificial ecosystem where the creatures live in a thicket of vegetation and you can interact with them on a video screen. Interestingly, the way that you generate more creatures is by typing text into the system. You can send it an e-mail, which it will interpret —this is the genetic code for a new organism and based on the characters in your e-mail it will generate some new creature. Then other people can log into the site and see what the creatures are doing. You can encourage them to get together and have babies or stop your favourite creature from being eaten by the others. Stuff like that. It’s a play garden.

Do you have to learn a code to do it?

No. All the interaction level is quite fluent, quite intuitive. Also in the exhibition there’s a listening station for a site I’m curating called Autonomous Audio, which is a collection of audio pieces by artists using Artificial Life and other complex generative systems. Everything from conventional Artificial Life techniques of cellular automata and simulated genetics through to more open-ended physical feedback systems and other complex forms. That’s at Artspace and we’re streaming audio on line as well as mpeg downloads. It includes some interesting Australian computer music—academia-based computer musicians in the art music mode—and then some people who are more experimental media hackers but often using similar processes and coming up with stuff that in some cases sounds quite similar to old school computer music. There’s a piece by Oren Ambarchi and Martin Ng who are local improv. merchants—a beautiful piece using feedback systems running through turntables.

Then there’s the forum event—another all star lineup. There’s Langton, as well as Tom Ray, another Alife pioneer who will be doing a remote presentation, and Cynthia Brezeal, who builds “sociable robots” with Rodney Brooks at MIT. We also have Steve Kurtz from the American group Critical Art Ensemble, who makes a strong political critique of biotechnology. There are some interesting AI people. There’s Claude Samut, who was involved in the Robo Soccer Tournament with the winning team of Sony AIBO dogs; Sony’s little artificial pets. There’s also some good local people like Stephen Jones and Jon McCormack, an artist who has been working in this area longer than most people. Oh, and also, we have Don Colgan from the Australian Museum who’s involved in the Thylacene project, hoping to clone or revive the Thylacene from preserved genetic material. That’ll be fascinating.

dLux media arts, futureScreen00, Symposium, Powerhouse Museum, October 27 - 29, Exhibitions: Artspace, October 5-29, ACP (Australian Centre for Photography), October 20 - November 20, (

RealTime issue #39 Oct-Nov 2000 pg. 32

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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