VIDA 10.0 Awards
The hybrid forms of the artistic proposals submitted to VIDA and the transformation of the discipline of A-Life itself have prompted the jury to consider new issues, such as the rising importance of simulation in both social life (for example, in the concept of virtual personality) and organic life (evident in the concept of “neo-organisms”). These phenomena are increasingly present and have therfore received special attention in our current approach to art and artificial life.
The jury for the Vida 10.0 competition in Madrid, Daniel Canogar (Spain), Monica Bello (Spain), José-Carlos Mariátegui (Peru/UK), Simon Penny (USA) and Nell Tenhaaf (Canadá), reviewed 165 submissions received from 35 countries. The Telefonica Foundation in Spain will give out the following awards:
FIRST PRIZE (€ 10,000)
MISSION ETERNITY SARCOPHAGUS
Etoy.corporation launched the Mission Eternity Project in 2005, foregrounding on the one hand respect for the human longing to survive in some way after death, and on the other a sense of irony about dated sci-fi fantasies we contrive to satisfy that desire. The Sarcophagus is one materialization of this project. It is a mobile sepulchre that holds and displays portraits of those who wish to have their informational remains cross over into a digital afterlife. The size of a standard cargo container that can travel to any location in the world, the Sarcophagus has an immersive LED screen covering its walls, ceiling and floor. There, interactive digital portraits can be summoned via mobile phone or web browser from virtual capsules that are stored in the shared memory of thousands of networked electronic devices of Mission Eternity Angels (people who contribute a small part of their personal storage capacity to the mission, currently 765 of them; to date, 2 volunteers have been accepted for encapsulation). The data spectres that populate this tenuous memorial space are composed of details of lives lived, in visual, audio and text fragments. But when they are summoned in lo-res pixellated form in the Sarcophagus, they resemble one merged personality. The massing of details that we find in archives and records that keep the dead with us has a similar compositing effect, yet the Sarcophagus is also very unlike those. It gives us access to a novel social world generated among networked computer users who have a common goal of keeping something alive, which can invoke intense feelings such as care and wonder.
SECOND PRIZE (€ 7,000)
Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, Australia
Catts and Zurr, the artists of the Tissue Culture and Art Project, call the biomass that grows in NoArk’s bioreactor a semi-living or sub-life neo-organism. Because of its origin in tissue samples of various kinds, their ‘chimerical blob’ still participates in the vast domain of living things. But it is orphaned, bereft of parentage or kinship, abandoned by the Linnaean classification system that depends on organismic coherence. Yet NoArk’s sub-life is incorporated into a novel dynamic system that becomes its living context: the social body that receives and responds to it. NoArk consists of a transparent vessel reminiscent of an eighteenth century curiosity cabinet, which houses both the bioreactor and a collection of dead and preserved animal specimens. These components rotate together on a turntable and relentlessly expose viewers to the ineffable quality of living cells, whose properties are so imminent to us yet so elusive. The cell is the basic self-organizing unit of life. Cultured in a medium, abstracted from life as we know it, it is transformed into a synthetic embodiment of life processes and their artificial replication. This technique of abstraction is familiar enough in the science lab – biochemist Stuart Kauffman called it ‘second life’ long before the virtual world of the internet took up the name – but it is radically new as public display in the cultural domain. The semi-living thing we see in NoArk is afflicted by an excess of freedom to cross boundaries between definitions and taxonomies, just like the limitless tagging and cross-referencing that characterizes digital information. As long as the semi-living is on life support, its bio-information persists through time and space, and poses the startling question of how such information can be deployed in ‘first life.’
THIRD PRIZE (€ 3,000)
Leandro M. Nuñez
In Propagaciones, Leandro Nuñez has physically instantiated one of the archetypes of Artificial Life, the cellular automaton, originated by John Conway in 1970. Now usually referred to as the Game of Life or Conways Life, it was itself motivated by John von Neumann’s notion of self reproducing machines. Conways original realisation was physical, sheets of paper on the floor, only later was the CA instantiated in software. Nuñez’ machine installation brings Life back into the real world of dirt and vibrations and inconsistencies, the very unpredictables so difficult to simulate in-silico. Nuñez’ work belongs to a long but minor tradition in the arts, that of the machine-sculptor, epitomized by such disparates as Duchamp, Takis, Tinguely and Ihnatowicz. What unites this group is a desire to connect with fundamental electrophysical realities, and to work artisanally and manually, taking basic mechanical, electro-mechanical and electronic components as a palette, in the production of eloquent artefacts which embody such ideas in a materially sensible, performative mode. Works such as Propagations do not so much depict as enact the behaviours they refer to. Propagaciones is also significant in that it contains no digital technology, reminding us that digital micro electronics is not the sole and privileged location of automated computation.
Cloud appears at first to be much more complicated in construction and behaviour than it actually is. This ruse is highly effective, because the experience of complexity endures even when one has understood that the work functions through repetitive motion. Cloud is suspended from the ceiling in a very large space (the Great Hall of the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, Canada, who commissioned the work), so it is always seen from below. Consequently, the vertical components of the work extend into the space, towards the eye of the viewer, and the overall effect is one of filling a large volume while at the same time leaving it open, penetrable. The sculptural components of Cloud are one hundred 13-foot long acrylic shafts that each hold six sets of thin acrylic planes, half transparent and half pale blue-grey. The movement programmed into this array of elements is a simultaneous rotation of all of the shafts, slightly out of phase but synchronizing at specified intervals. The constant movement of the elements, plus the consistency of colour and texture, contribute to an intense expectation of emergent patterns. And pattern does appear – a ripple of light, a solid block of colour – but only for an instant and only directly in front of one’s line of sight, while along its edges a movement that can be perceived as either a disruption or a new consolidation begins to take shape.
The austere, biomedical look of bit.flow presents an enigmatic, even hermetic spectacle for the uninformed audience. This is not unsurprising given that the work instantiates a deep ontological inquiry into the nature of self-knowledge, among machines and, by extension, among people. It is, we might say, the exercise of philosophy in the performative mode. Bit.flow seeds its physical form, a random tangle of flexible tubes, with a random binary pattern of coloured (red) and transparent fluid. This pattern manifests as a constantly changing complex three-dimensional pattern as alternating bands of red and transparent fluid pass around the loops of the tangled hose. Thus the most simple, temporal on/off rhythm, plus an undisciplined physical presence, generates complex pattern richness. This material ‘body’ has no sensor feedback, no sensorial self-awareness. It watches, contemplates, itself via a video camera. By analysis of this image flow, bit.flow seeks to understand, and replicate, its own pattern. In this process, bit.flow implements fundamental assumptions of machine vision and ‘traditional’ artificial intelligence, while asking questions deeply pertinent to artificial life. bit.flow is a very Cartesian machine which says ‘Cogito, ergo, sum’.
Jed Berks’ Autonomous Light Air Vehicles combine many of the themes of artificial life and multi-agent robotics research in an accessible and elegant public presentation. These include capable powered navigation and obstacle avoidance, organized multi-agent behaviour (such as flocking), discernable (quasi) intelligent individual behaviour, and interaction with other (quasi) intelligent agents, i.e., people. Connecting these agendas with more contemporary interest in mobile and locative technologies, Berk has implemented human-ALAV communication via mobile phone technology. The rigors of such a project must not be elided. While robots in research-lab contexts often exhibit remarkable capabilities, they are just as often delicate, unreliable and require the constant attention of one or several highly trained staff. A project like ALAVs must exhibit its qualities in the general public, must inform and entertain, and at the same time be robust and resilient to the unpredictabilities of unusual architectures and architectural materials, weather, children and crowds (and sometimes, animals) – influences which are almost always filtered out in the controlled environment of the lab. The ALAVs achieve all this, while remaining lighter than air, an achievement in itself given the weight of batteries and other components. The ALAVs are beguilingly delicate translucent agents which drift and float in a most un-robotic way.
Hibernator: Prince of Petrified Forest, 2007
Great Britain, 2007
Artists Jo Joelson and Bruce Gilchrist have created an installation that extends throughout the gallery space and offers a wide variety of information that challenges the spectator to take an unusual intellectual journey. Based on their interest in suspended animation, the collective proposes a surrealistic piece that subverts one of the major icons of the 20th century: Walt Disney. In the gallery, the public encounters an animatronic figure that is the protagonist of a series of animated films recorded during the exhibition. This robot has the physical features of Disney’s head, and a conglomerate body of two of his favourite creations: Bambi and Thumper. The films, shot with blue-screen technology, show the fanciful Disney robot resurrected in a world of cartoons, a knowing wink to the reputed conservation of Disney’s head with cryogenic technology. The character is in a distorted and grotesque paradise, where he has to face the darkest side of his being, that which he hid from the world while he cultivated his insatiable hunger for worldwide-fame and endless self-promotion. This project interprets the myths created by mass culture and the scientific promises of a technological society. These are examined in the gallery space by a precise manipulation of all the elements, using an open creation process that results in a striking narrative. The result is a highly versatile mise en scene, accompanied by a 30-minute film that includes pantagruelian elements of the modern day.
Evelina Domnitch and Dmitry Gelfand
Camera Lucida: Sonochemical Observatory, 2007
USA, Belarus, 2007
Camera Lucida investigates and allows the visualisation of an almost unknown and unexplored marginal natural phenomena called “sonoluminiscence”. Sonoluminescence consists of the emission of short discharges of light conditioned by the explosion of bubbles in a liquid excited by sound. In the installation/observatory, the activity focuses on a translucent glass ball that contains gas and recreates the process, which can only be seen in complete darkness. The immersive and perceptual space created by the artists brings to the light hidden and somewhat esoteric natural phenomena, making it real and tangible for us to study. This project evokes territories to be explored in the kingdom of the invisible, and questions the stale flatness of the material in favour of what is ephemeral and volatile.
United States, 2007
Omo is an artifact that shares empathic relationships with humans. Rather than using the hackneyed paradigm of a mechanical invasion of the body, the piece suggests an organic allegory that enables new subconscious feelings to emerge. In that sense, Omo might also be seen as a friend or a companion. The creature expands and contracts, either matching the users’ breathing, or helping the user to adjust to its mechanical respiration. The physical sensing generates prosthetic emotions; for example, placing Omo on your stomach and feeling its gentle contractions is remeniscent of the intimate sensations triggered by feeling the turgid belly of a pregnant women. Omo is one of several informed artifacts drawing from the emerging discipline of Machine Therapy that combines art, design, psychodynamics, and engineering. This field makes visible complex dynamics that may occur between humans and machines. Machine Therapy tweaks technological artifacts in order to awaken human’s sensitive side, forging their role as relaxing and stimulating companions. As humans are increasingly in contact with technological artifacts, works such as Omo highlight unexpected human emotions, helping us develop more profound, complex and expressive interrelationships with machines.
Delicate Boundaries explores the fragile and sometimes unperceivable juncture between real and physical space. This work is an interactive installation that uses the body as an extension of the digital ecosystem inhabited by a crowd of digital bugs. When a presence is detected, the creatures move from the screen onto the human body via an over-head projector. Delicate Boundaries generates an animated illusion and a virtual intimacy by transfering the bugs’ virtual behaviour onto the real bodily space. The interface senses the contours of the human body, invading it in life-like manners, and giving the illusion of a viral-like infection of the organism. There is a seamless transition between the real and the virtual, an effect that leads to learning and appreciation, turning the behaviour of artificial entities into ritualistic visions.
INCENTIVES FOR IBERO-AMERICAN PRODUCTION
The second category of the competition, Incentives for Ibero-American Production, helps finance art projects exploring Artificial Life (and related disciplines) that still have not been produced. Applicants must be from South America, Spain or Portugal. This year’s recipients are:
Alex Posada and Alejo Duque
Greenbots will be comprised of a series of small robots created with simple electronics, using sensors, communication systems (radio, infrared, RFID, GPS) and solar panels that can absorb in daylight the energy required to power their night-time prowling. These organisms, whose shapes will vary (mechanical butterflies, balls, etc.), will be located at strategic points and react to the environment, gathering data, changing shape, generating light and sound effects, evolving, reprogramming themselves or other nearby greenbots, and transmitting all this information to an online database. This information is a creative and innovative way of representing the levels of environmental pollution we are continuously subjected to. Pollution will also affect the Greenbots physically, modifying them internally without them realising. The Greenbots are an allusion to the new technological ecosystem we have created and to the damaged natural ecosystem we live in.
Sonic Alter Ego
The scope of sound creation traditionally covers two large conceptual categories: tools (instruments, software, sound materials, methods) and sound pieces (composed, improvised, random, etc.). Sonic Alter Ego is a system-concept between the said categories or, more specifically, a virtual creative entity that includes both. It will produce original, variable sound creations as a result of the interaction between the author’s criteria and the sofware’s working architecture. The fundamental concept of Sonic Alter Ego is not the development of a software tool for a potential user, but rather the transfer of crucial aspects of Francisco López’s creative spirit to a virtual machine. Using evolutionary computation techniques, the system will gradually learn the artist’s creative criteria, such as the selection of sound material, editing choices, compositional decisions, etc. This virtual alter ego will reveal hidden or unconscious aspects of the author’s own creative spirit.
Hamilton Mestizo Reyes, Luis Enrique Martínez, Sofía Cordero, Marcela Ayala, Patricia Muethe and Jonatan Gómez
This project by Hamilton Mestizo (et al) seeks to apply contemporary biotech research to the question of artificial life in a way that has relevance to the traditions of robotics, to the emerging fields of bio-art, and to environmental and ecological issues, as well as to the history of cybernetics and cybernetically inspired biology. Electricium Vitum applies the research of Logan, et al into biological sources of electrical power – bio-batteries – to the construction of a cyborgian life-form, by using the power from the battery (driven by human waste decomposed by E.coli) to drive a microcontroller which monitors its environment (via sensors) in a homeostatic or autopoietic way. This is an important intervention in robotics because, while processing has become relatively easy, electromechanical movement is manageable and sensing is at least tractable in most cases, the question of power remains unsolved, and is hidden under the table in most (autonomous) robotics projects – you charge the batteries at the wall socket. That the generation of its own power is fundamental to Electricium Vitum is, therefore, a rather profound intervention in robotics and artificial life.
It is also profound in that its power is derived from the repugnant, the less than worthless, that matter which, in most cases, is removed, with attendant energy consumption. This aspect of the work makes it a provocative intervention into environmental issues. Electricium Vitum also intervenes in the realm of bio-art. Bio art practices to date have focused largely on specialised technical practices, such as tissue culture, DNA manipulation and synthesis of hybrid cells – all practices made viable for the artist by the boom in genomics and biotech and the attendant availability of mass-produced lab appliances. In this, bio-art follows large scale patterns not unlike the early years of computer art. Electricium Vitum therefore stakes out a new territory on the margins of bio-art and robotics.