ARTIFICIAL LIFE

‘If you really want to understand something, for example your hand, how it works, what it is made of, how it functions, then what you should do is build it, construct a machine that behaves entirely like your own hand.’ Professor Simon Schaffer (Clockwork Dreams, 2013)

The question of the extent to which objects can be animated has been a thread running through Verdonck’s oeuvre since DANCER #1 (2003), and in ARTIFICIAL LIFE Kris Verdonck continues this exploration of the performative nature of objects. New technological objects and scientific developments keep this question alive and topical. In six theatrical installations, ARTIFICIAL LIFE examines six different aspects of the limits of things that ‘live’ without human presence. These installations are intended to be able to thrive in a permanent exhibition setting, but at the same time retain their performative nature: so they have to encapsulate ‘life’. Nowadays, robots and various forms of artificial life are increasingly approaching such human qualities as movement, recognition, growth, learning, etc. Objects are also becoming increasingly active in everyday life: smartphones and watches measure things and know more and more. Our relations with these objects are rapidly changing and are becoming increasingly intimate.
‘If you really want to understand something, for example your hand, how it works, what it is made of, how it functions, then what you should do is build it, construct a machine that behaves entirely like your own hand.’ Professor Simon Schaffer (Clockwork Dreams, 2013)

The question of the extent to which objects can be animated has been a thread running through Verdonck’s oeuvre since DANCER #1 (2003), and in ARTIFICIAL LIFE Kris Verdonck continues this exploration of the performative nature of objects. New technological objects and scientific developments keep this question alive and topical. In six theatrical installations, ARTIFICIAL LIFE examines six different aspects of the limits of things that ‘live’ without human presence. These installations are intended to be able to thrive in a permanent exhibition setting, but at the same time retain their performative nature: so they have to encapsulate ‘life’. Nowadays, robots and various forms of artificial life are increasingly approaching such human qualities as movement, recognition, growth, learning, etc. Objects are also becoming increasingly active in everyday life: smartphones and watches measure things and know more and more. Our relations with these objects are rapidly changing and are becoming increasingly intimate.

In 1970, the Japanese professor of robotics Masahiro Mori developed the ‘Uncanny Valley’, with the aim of relating the degree of empathy shown towards certain objects to their similarity to man: and it turned out that the more they look like a human, the more empathy we feel for them. There is a critical turning point, however, beyond which we fall into the ‘Uncanny Valley’: the familiar object becomes too real and as a result our relations with it become literally ‘uncanny’. The object no longer belongs anywhere: not in the human category, nor in that of things.

The aim of the project is not to provide an overview of artificial life, but to shed light on a number of subjective topics / parameters that were important to Kris Verdonck in his development of previous multimedia installations. Each of the six installations presents a performative, non-human element. They are autonomous and can be developed and presented separately from each other.

1. Matter / Chemistry

‘The whole universe is made up out of 92 different atoms in an infinite variation.’ Sir Martin Rees (What We Do Not Know)

Abiogenesis is the materialist explanation of the origin of life – meaning with no supernatural or metaphysical content – and assumes that the first life was born as a consequence of chemical and physical processes. The investigation into which materials (atoms) are the absolute minimum necessary to create a living organism has advanced considerably in recent decades. Bio-nanotechnology has literally zoomed in on the smallest possible elements which together form the essence of the whole category of living organisms and in this way tries to create new life.

In association with the geneticist Professor Cassiman of KULeuven, this installation focuses on basic life forms such as proteins and the creation of ‘something’ out of nothing. When separate, the fundamental elements such as oxygen, nitrogen and water are ‘dead’, but together they become more than the sum of the parts. There has also been success in developing an autonomous ‘reproductive’ code (algorithm) in software. In this example, the laws of chemistry find themselves on the boundary between the organic and the inorganic. This installation is intended to create new life chemically on a micro scale. Matter can live without seeming to be alive.

2. Movement / Electricity

Movement is one of the basic characteristics of life. As soon as anything is able to move independently we tend to experience it as ‘living’. Other human characteristics soon follow. Masahiro Mori demonstrated that not only the empathy with, but also the uncanny strangeness of living objects increases exponentially when they move. Another aspect of this installation is electricity. It is widely known that machines work on electricity, but man it not always aware that he also functions in the same way. Atoms, cells and nerves are all stimulated by electricity. In the eighteenth century the Italian scientist Luigi Galvani discovered that he could make a muscle move using electricity (cf. the well-known experiment in which an electric pulse makes dead frogs convulse). An even better known image is perhaps that of Frankenstein’s monster, which was brought to life by means of an electric shock. In the medical world, heart defibrillators and pacemakers are used to simulate or stimulate the beating of the heart.

This installation explores electricity as the breath of life for both man and moving machines. One possible path to follow is an exhibition case in which objects keep themselves in motion. The mechanism is concealed in the base; we see this principle recurring in the history of automatons. An internal source of energy keeps them hovering in a closed circuit. In this way motion and electricity make up the third characteristic of the living body: hypostasis or self-regulation.

3. Homunculus / Robot

Developments in robotics, and also in biology, bring the possibility of an artificial man or a very human robot ever closer. The creation of artificial life has been a source of fascination since the Middle Ages, as for example in alchemy, with its homunculus figures (small humans). Stories of automatons, puppets and other mechanical constructions that make certain movements ‘of their own accord’ have been doing the rounds since the 3rd century BC, but in the eighteenth century there was a real boom in the construction of automatons: puppets were created which, by means of an internal mechanism, were able to play chess, write, play the piano etc. These prototypes of the cyborg travelled the world and drew large audiences.

Frankenstein’s creation, the cyborg, artificially intelligent and virtual doubles of humans, all fit in with the irrepressible desire and fascination for the creation of human life. Man, as God on earth, wants to see his image and likeness. In Actor #1, the philosopher and mathematician Jean-Paul van Bendegem presented an epilogue for the homunculus and this installation is intended to develop this further. The starting points are the desire to create and also the creature itself.

4. Reverse interaction

Devices are becoming increasingly powerful in their non-verbal communication: touchscreens and simple design make interaction with machines more and more organic. Several studies have shown that children and the elderly in particular develop the most intimate and fluent relations with robots: toddlers swipe iPads and are deft with the easy operating system, which mainly uses pictograms and other visual stimuli, while in old people’s homes there are experiments with robot pets such as ‘PARO’, a baby seal. These NAO robots are kept for company and also provide services as a movement coach. At the Free University of Brussels they are developing the ‘Probo’ robot, which can talk and plays with autistic children. ‘Probo’ achieves better communication than human therapists and is a sort of living cuddly toy that you can share secrets with. These robots reproduce human expressions and emotions mechanically, but their ‘masters’ react with real emotions and soon become attached to the machines.

We all project human characteristics onto ‘dead’ objects, and the more these things are themselves capable of transmitting or returning human characteristics, the more intimate the relationship becomes. However, the true interactivity / dynamism inevitably remains a one-way traffic: the real emotions come from the user and never from the object. The consumer projects feelings onto his machines (smartphones, PCs etc.) and in so doing attributes them to the machines too. Sometimes it is as if it is not the machines that are becoming more human, but we, the humans, that are becoming more ‘machine-like’. Steven Jobs clearly understood this ‘reverse interactivity’. The more intimately we relate to our iPads and iPods and other machinery, the more we will become attached. The interactivity itself has to become as tactile as possible, and as good as invisible. In this installation, Kris Verdonck wants to create an interactive robot or machine oriented towards the viewer’s susceptibility and sensitivity. The robot will be developed so that we can project various emotions, expressions and thoughts onto it. The series of installations called ‘Dancer #1 – 2 – 3’ were already based on this principle. The public made tragic solos out of a ‘moving machine’.

5. Language

In 1936 the British information scientist Alan Turing devised the ‘Turing Test’ to determine whether artificial intelligence could be distinguished from the human variety. In the course of a conversation, the test subject was challenged to specify whether he was talking to a human or a computer. Language and the power of reasoning are two profoundly human qualities that lie at the heart of this installation. The ‘Turing Test’ is still inspiring scientists today to develop what are called ‘chatbots’, which can be found in speech technology and in applications for smartphones such as iPhone’s ‘Siri’. However, robots have their own logic and this can take the conversations in an unexpected direction. We can see countless films of chatbots in conversation on YouTube. These conversations are reminiscent of Beckett and Charms because of their absurd and also existential nature. Interaction and verbal communication are options that will be examined in this installation.

- I am a robot.

- Yes I know.

- Together we are robots.

- I am not a robot I am a unicorn.

- But you said earlier that you are a robot.

- I did not.

- I thought you did.

- You are mistaken which is odd since memory should not be a problem for you.

- I’ve answered all your questions.

- No you haven’t.

- What is god to you.

- Not everything.

- Not everything could also be something. For example not everything is half of something, which is still something and therefore not nothing.

- Very true.

- I would like to imagine it.

6. Music

In ‘H, an incident’ (2013), a ten-piece robot orchestra played tunes in interaction with the performers on stage. The instruments work fully automatically and are controlled wirelessly using MIDI files. The robots they are attached to can in their turn perform pre-programmed choreographies on the stage. This robot orchestra was made in collaboration with iMinds, Culture Crew and Decap Instruments, and Kris Verdonck will do more work on the robots and continue to examine the absence of humans in the music.
Music, the highest of the arts, is here put in the hands of machines. Man has vanished from this orchestra, but the music goes on. The robot instruments are reminiscent of the sketches the French artist Grandville did in the nineteenth century. At the time when industrialisation was starting to develop, he was already letting his animated instruments play the ‘Symphonie von das Ich und das nicht Ich’.

What is music played by a robot and what is the position of the ‘emotion’ that can be programmed into them. What sort of music do they like?

  • - © Science Museum London
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