“Elkins reminds us [from the perspective of an artist turned art historian] that there is a genuine human joy in making stuff. But little is written on this.” (p146) (1) We sculptors love making things and immerse ourselves in the material world, shaping it into joyful expressions of material performance. We must make tangible the images and sensations of our mind but the objects we imagine are often disconnected from material reality.
Technology, including everything from a rock and stick to a 3D printer or laser cutter, can help sculptors manifest our work. However, in the machine-age of factory line production and the digital-age of information technology there has been a move towards utilizing technology to automate our actions and thoughts. “Through the nineteenth century, there was progressive removal of human judgment in the production of images used in science; mechanically produced images are [perceived to be] more objective than those produced with the aid of human judgment and artistic skill.” (p195) (1)
“Popular conceptions of technology and art are still characterized by the belief in a linear narrative of progress featuring an extensive canon of inventors and their machines, or of artists and their works. … Linear methodology has outlived its usefulness in the field of art history, though it is hanging on a bit more doggedly in the history of technology.” (p11) (2)
Instead of separating our limited bodies form the production of objects and processing of complex information; I propose a technological co-existence that depends on juxtaposing both human and machines qualities.
In addition, “the technology has to fit the values, not the values fit the technology” (3) and traditional material sculptors still hold ancient traditional sculptural values. These values are embedded in the techniques and practices that have been passed down (unspoken) from generation to generation. Sculpture that utilises modern interactive technological implements, needs to merge with traditional sculptural values in order to benefit from centuries of tacit knowledge.
“The spectators power to perturb the animism of the machine through interactive processes could ultimately contribute to a co-productive understanding of what machine autonomy actually signified: the potential of interaction between machines and us to create a new ‘environment in a state of awareness’ (Vasulka 1988a, 15)” (302) (4).
Therefore, material sculpture is at the forefront of expanding interactive technology and facilitating the development of a new tactile-interactive electronic art lexicon.
“The question of how to deal with the total freedom of being able to design an instrument based on the human (in)capabilities instead of a traditional instrument form, has not been answered yet.” (p42) (5) Additionally, sculptors have always been at the forefront of innovating tools to manifest sculptural artifacts by whatever means necessary, or possible. For “avant-garde artists [historically], the technology of their time was a stimulus of perception and, at the same time, its limitations were a challenge to their search for new artistic media.” (p9) (2)
“The greatest dilemma faced by the modern artisan-craftsman is the machine. Is it a friendly tool or an enemy replacing the work of the human hand?”(p81) (6) Of course, like most other Hegelian dialectics, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Sennett coined the term ‘mirror-tools’; “an implement that invites us to think about ourselves” and he claims that there are two types of ‘mirror-tools’ “the replicant and the robot … the replicant shows us as we are and the robot as we might be” (p84-85) (6).
Adding tactile interactivity to sculpture adds the element of touch, making the sculpture an object to be touched or a tool of touch communication. Touching something facilitates the transference of haptic and tactile information that carries with it tangible messages although there is “an essential dimension of instrumentation [that] lives outside of language” (pxvi) (1).
“‘Craft knowledge,’ ‘fingertip knowledge,’ ‘tacit knowledge,’ and ‘know-how’ are useful concepts in that they remind us that there is more to knowing than saying. But they tend to render this kind of knowledge ineffable. Instruments have a kind of public existence that allows for more explicit study.” (p18) (1)
The tools of touch, including the tools used to make sculpture, and even the sculpture itself, are tools of touch-transfer. This is a good starting point for thinking about facilitating the development of a contemporary interactive electronic arts lexicon.
“[C]onsider a blind man with a stick. Where does the blind man’s self begin? At the tip of the stick? At the handle of the stick? Or at some point halfway up the stick? (Bateson 1973, 318)” (p58) (7) In the same way we might think of a viewer-as-artist when they are interacting with a sculpture. Where is the artists touch in this creative act, and does the artists leave traces of ‘touch’ in the artifact to be passed on to the audience? Are interactive tangible and tactile sculptures transforming the notion of communication to include the artwork as a touch-transference instrument?
Braid performed an analysis of instrumentation from within the electrical and chemical sciences and problematized the fact the economy of instrument guides and even controls our interaction and productions in the physical world. Instrumentation distribution can be a vehicle for the control of the direction of scientific research. Once in the possession of an electron microscope, for example, lab X will find a plethora of research questions requiring an electron microscope. What this means is, that instead of fostering the development of a scientific community that knows how to, and tries to, develop its own experimental instruments, we tend to rely on the industry of instrument development. If this industry were to be controlled by a small group of large corporations, then these corporations could control more of the research than the researchers using the equipment. Theoretically, of course, the combination of controlling the instruments and even the journals where the research is published means that a small politically oriented group could (theoretically) control most knowledge capital.
Creative electronic art however, requires that the artists at least have enough knowledge to participate in a healthy collaboration with technologists, and in advanced cases, acquire the ability to build their own instruments (the sculptures). After the limitations of the human body, artists are only limited by the tools they can gain access to, or appropriate and develop. The technical know-how has become easier to acquire because of the democratization of learning resources like YouTube and developments in the ‘do it yourself’ (DIY) creative electronics community. In any case, we need to keep in mind that access to technology, and the ways in which technology are developed and introduced into the world, will ultimately affect the developments of aforementioned new tactile-language.
This point can be illustrated by the world of computer aided tools, and Manovich points out that;
“the functions of cultural production software (subset of application software which enables creation, publishing, accessing, sharing, and remixing images, moving image sequences, 3D designs, texts, maps, interactive elements, as well as various combinations of these elements such as web sites, 2D designs, motion graphics, video games, commercial and artistic interactive installations, etc.) affect cultural production itself.” (8)
In a similar way, interactive material sculpture is trying to address the fact that the electronic tools designed to make and form physical objects affects the resulting cultural product by way of the production process.
“From the very beginning, computers were used to automate various processes. Over time, everything – factory work, flying planes, financial trading, or cultural processes – is gradually subjected to automation. However, algorithmic automated reasoning on the Web arrived so quickly that it hardly even been publically discussed.” (p207) (8).
Automation perceivably benefits economies and industry by way of efficiency but; this demands constant critical discourse when considering the arts that need to remain, or become essentially techno-liberated.
“In general, technical arrangements reduce or eliminate reciprocity … some manner of interactive give and take, a genuine interaction among interactive parties” (3) In the example of the television [or the radio], “the reciprocity is ruled out by design” (3) Ursula Franklin believes that “reciprocity is not feedback” in that the participants “cannot [physically] alter the design” (3).
According to Franklin, reciprocity requires the ability for physical interaction and manipulability rather than constructed environments with co-operative possibilities. Contemporary technological developments in creative electronics for artists are focus on establishing dynamic interactivity and change the limitations of directional media. We see the possibility of simulated reciprocity, not in the alteration of the physical artifact, but in variety of expressions. Interactive electronic sculptures are dynamically shifting form and viewers can share in the manifestation of the intended expression by way changing and contributing to the forms variety of possibilities. In order to move into this new realm of ‘reciprocity’; we need to facilitate symbiotic relationships between human and machine agents. This requires a critical paradigm shift in our perception of how technology is used. Chris Salter notes that, “… machinic performances encompass a delicate dance of control between machines and their human counterparts” (p279) (4).
“… The word and concept of ‘robot’ made its first appearance also in the context of artistic performance. Derived from the Czech word robota, meaning ‘slave worker’ or ‘drudgery,’ ‘robot’ was brought into widespread usage by the Czech writer Karel Capek in his 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) (p280) (4)
In new media art, robots help materialize sculptural movements performed by a human participant. “A robotic machine is ourselves enlarged: it is stronger, works faster, and never tires. Still we make sense of its functions by referring to our own human measure.” (p85) (6) It becomes quite apparent after looking at biomimicry, humanoid robotics, and robotic prosthesis that we have consistently been moving closer and closer to the merging our body with machines. Each new application fuses man to machine and embarks on the journey of expanding the haptic material and tactile language required to facilitate said merger. This requires a kind of touched-knowledge-transfer that was not possible until recently, significantly after the developments of human computer interactions, specifically for ‘virtual reality’ and haptic robotics.
Dyson states that “whether through physical movements in VR or by pointing and clicking a mouse, the user’s actual embodiment becomes another component in the simulation of ‘immersion-in-a-space,’ with the body providing the here-and-now being, while the simulated environment stands in as the ‘there’.” (p3) (9)
Conversely, tangible interactive sculptures normally require physical interactions and can transform the actual space, place and time that they inhabit and define. Technological implements can expand or be combined with our bodily experience to stimulate the mind. “Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye—if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man.” (p12) (10) Thus, every single unique artwork is a technological development that opens up new possibilities for the expression of the body and machine. In each case we are given a new language to work with.
‘Software’ can be seen as extensions of the mind in the same way that physical tools can be seen as extensions of the body. A key difference being that we can only reliably represent simulated spaces in real time on a flat screen. With sculpture, we must form objects in the ‘real’ material world and in real time. Yet, the act of ‘making’ something, could be seen as being inherently the same when simulating something on a computer or ‘making’ something tangible. Both processes start in the imaginary and are forced to deal with the practicality of a tool. We have generated a hybrid process of expanding our mind via human-computer mediation due to the commonplace acceptance and use of the computer as a design tool. A strong link has been formed between the simulated-virtual and physical objects we produce. However, this has fostered limitations in our tactile knowledge because it abstracts the making of physical objects and simultaneously shifts creative focus towards solving problems native to the computer, that are often never represented in material reality.
We therefore experience a loss of material sensibilities while transforming thoughts and intentions into virtually simulated representations. This is partially due to the abstracted nature of the machine and the limited physical interactions enforced by inputs like the mouse and keyboard.
I state this here only to point out that there is a merger of body and computer in the imaginative sense as much as there is a merger of body and machine in the material world. However, for the purposes of this study, I am focussed more on the merger of the body and material during the making and presentation of interactive sculpture. Therefore, I will focus on and try to understand the tactile material human machine interaction more so than the simulated computational tool.
“We may speak of an objective result because it is accurate and/or stated in a way we consider to be free of human bias; alternatively, we may speak of an objective method because it is specifically designed to avoid human bias in its application.” (p194) (1) In other words, we find little use for human ‘error’ in both method and result. But what if the perceived human error was of some benefit?
Creative thinking can be accomplished by surrendering one’s will to the materials and if we accept that we make mistakes, which is really just a defiance of our expectation, and if simply observe the unexpected properties of the materials we ‘make’, we gain the ability to see new and existing possibilities outside of our internalised imaginary cycle. Within perceived error is the ability to see outside of the box and therefore, we must not expect the machine to help us produce ‘perfection’, but rather we should try to interact with technology in such a way as to excogitate options from the ‘errors’.
Manovich states that “architects working with the media of 3D computer graphics started to imagine different things than their predecessors who used pencils, rules, and drafting tables.” p131(8). However, Sennet would add that CAD programs cannot render the actual environment and “cannot render well textures of different materials or assist in choosing their colors, though, the CAD programs can calculate to a marvel the precise amount of brick of steel a building might require” (6). If we just add material interaction to the mix, then interactive material sculpture facilitates self-reflection using tactile-reciprocity and the unspoken awareness of our felt experiences are communicated back into our conscious moment of action.
A lack of skill comes with a lack of autonomy and control of the making process. When a worker simply performs a repetitive task, over and over, they lose a holistic skill-set, prevalent with traditional craftsman, who were capable of building something form raw materials. The Asian manufacturing model is rife with this problem and it starts with economic incentives that drive linear types of manufacturing-line design. The workers can be easily re-skilled because the task they are asked to perform are remedial and can be learned quickly. With all of these slave workers and only a relatively small hand full of designers putting the system together, a severe lack of ingenuity ensues. Asian manufactures are notorious for looking outward for innovation and then making innovative ideas into drone-like assembly plants. But, it is the first step, the ideation, which they are lacking. This is in part because the task of innovating is given to a few people and they are not the ones making things – they just dream up the plan. If instead, we had tools that merged automation with intuition and material feedback, we could harvest the collective conscious efforts of the factory worker and bank what Nick Bontis calls the “Intellectual Capital” (11) – in this case as a derivative I call ‘gestural property’.
“It seems that the purification project of modernity (Latour 1993) that habituated our minds to think and talk in terms of clean divisions and fixed categories blocks our path as we seek to shift the focus away from the isolated internal mind and the demarcated external material world towards their mutual constitution as an inseparable analytic unit.” (p53) (7) “The major problem with this paradigm was, and remains, that it provides a view of human cognition so purified and detached from the world that in the end it resembles a ‘brain in a vat’, a disembodied input–output device characterized by abstract, higher-level logical operations.” (p55) (7)
It is plain to see that we need to develop more ways for humans to interact with materials. We need to develop machines that facilitate the materializing of an intelligence stored somewhere in the material itself and as manifested in the human-machine interactive event. Interactive Sculpture is therefore at the forefront of materializing intelligence as it both facilitates and explores new ways of interacting with the material world.
“Working with technology has to be personal and hands-on, since a collaborative process in cooperation with technicians does not permit an intuitive ‘working before words’ approach.” (p10) (2) However, working with interactive sculptural technology requires a working without words and facilitates both hands on and collaborative possibilities.
In computer simulation, “we can manipulate our representation using various tools with ease and precision which is qualitatively different from a much more limited ‘manipulability’ of a model made from any physical material (although nanotechnology promises to change this in the future.)” (p131) (8).
In the meanwhile, the very foundations of materializing co-generative artistic expressions is given to interactive sculpture. The interactive sculpture making artist is thus, at the very fore of material expression and is thus at the forefront of developing the foundational language of touch.
For artists who advance technology to achieve desired affects, “technology is both: objective motif and subjective motivation, impression and expression of their art.” (p9) (2) It is about the ‘thinking’ process of making that becomes a shared event within interactive sculpture. The making of a sculpture is a methodological reality that can translate into a language for “research creation” (12).
Sculpting a bust out of clay is the same as sculpting a website out of code, or a poem out of words, or a juice out of fruits; you take the substance in your hands and mind and you work with its properties, trying everything you can to enact your creative intentions.
I sculpt everything and; everything is a sculpture, in that the functional processes of making things with my hands and my mind does not change, no matter the ‘material’. One can subtract, add, polish, tweak, twist, bend, melt, and negotiate any sort of ‘material’ code or clay, although notably in the real world there is no ‘undo’. As such, I see every process as a sculptural process. I do not distinguish between writing code and building a car because in both cases you can use the same methodological elements to develop a final product. The ‘materials’ configurations and contextualisation are all that really changes. The process of making is therefore a scholarly practice consisting of iterative experimentation, which attempts to evolve into a hypothesised end goals via tangible material engagement.
Material Sculpture plays a role in Interdisciplinary “research creation”(13) by including a co-generative adjunct to linguistic based analysis with new forms of knowledge production. “It is a process of connecting difference modes of practice at the level of the process in a way that makes them collaborative”(14) towards new scholastic experimental expression. One might question the qualifications of artists as researcher and certainly “an artist resists external definition, whereas the label ‘inventor,’ though indeed not the designation of a profession per se, can nevertheless be substantiated by means of objective criteria such as patents.” (p12-13) (2) The artist’s validation comes from the observations and iterations manifested in studio and in public, often gallery, spaces. If artists-inventors were to document their findings of the ways in which audiences interact with their work, we could easily start to develop a lexicon of material interaction.
“A major epistemological event of the mid twentieth century has been the recognition by the scientific community of the centrality of instruments to the epistemological project of technology and science.” (p5) (1) Why has the art community not has its own recognition of object as instrument? It is commonly held that an artwork is an artifact and not an instrument, per say. Classical art history, until recently, would have regarded a print to be more of an art object than the printer’s plate or printing press. At some point, our notions of instrument are transformed from tool to artwork and false delineation has given way to the exhibition of the artifact as representative of the entire creative process. This leaves out the paint brushes, sculpting tools, bits-n-pieces and everything else that was a part of the physical creative process. At one point this might have been acceptable, as the ‘tactile-aware’, mainly hands on workers and ‘cultured’ Bourgeois and even Elite would have been able to trace a brush stroke or mark of a sculpture and stand in awe of the artists material-craft, leaving no need for the ‘tatile-story’. In contemporary times however, a sculpture can bring with it, a literal record of its unfolding, for the audience to experience during interactive events. “To understand technology and science now, however, we need to construct an epistemology capable of including instruments.” (p5) (1) I would add that we may understand contemporary interactive artworks as evolving epistemological vehicles capable of carrying both expressive intent and tactile material performance as one and the same.
“The tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at the turning points of history cannot be solved by optical means, that is, by contemplation, alone. They are mastered gradually by habit, under the guidance of tactile appropriation.” (p14) (10)
I believe that touch, as a language, is one of the most undeveloped sensory potentials. With developments in haptics, we have the potential for ‘tactual-transference’. However, we have not attempted to develop a structured language for the description and development of a ‘language of touch’, within interactive art. Our observations have thus far, been focused on the physics and philosophy, the equivalent of studying sound and metaphor in English – yet without the presence of the language and its historical developments.
“Once a master [craftsman] dies, all the clues, moves, and insights he or she has gathered into the totality of the work cannot be reconstructed; there’s no way to ask him or her to make the tacit explicit” (p78) (6). Yet, if there was a way to record touch and structure the enactments of touch, during an interactive sculptural experiences, a language of touch may begin to take shape. Perhaps for this we need artists who “see far ahead of their time” (p49) (15). In the case of sculptors, have the ability to see with their hands and hopefully develop a formal language of viewing touch.
“Experimental studies have just begun to explain the ways that tactile sensing enhances manipulation capabilities, and many questions remain unanswered.” (p4) (16) The development of tactile skill is a central components to art education and is usually a part of the curriculum from our very first interactions with clay, paper and paint. Expanding the scope of art education, to include skill based learning objectives, which incorporate interactive electronic sculptural experiences, could further the tactile learning objectives already present in art education.
“Skill is practice; modern technology is abused when it deprives its users precisely of that repetitive, concrete, hands-on training. When the head and the hand are separated, the result is mental impairment – an outcome that is particularly evident when technology like CAD is used to efface the learning that occurs through drawing by hand” (p52) (6)
The unspoken, unwritten, unseen elements of the universe challenge us the most and we tend to shy away from them in academics, ironically for touch, because we cannot make valid proofs without tangible evidence for their existence or validity. Additionally, academic discovery is constrained to the limits of a given language used to describe any observations being made. The language of touch however, seems currently to be outside of the limits of linguistic codification. Now that we have sufficiently developed the foundations of tactile sensing and haptic communication robotics, we are ready include touch in the codified cannon and pedagogical record. Furthermore, the cultural and ‘haptic-record’ already exist in the living body of all makers, we just need a way of engagement that can record touch and make external the internal.
Richard Sennett operates in the analysis of “cultural materialism” or “Material Culture”, a philosophical tradition of “American pragmatism” (6). looking at “what the process of making concrete things reveals to us about ourselves” (p7-8) (6). He has a beatify way of letting the creative process become a reflexive event that we can use to both materialise and analyse creative expression. “We learn by interacting with bits of the world even when our words for how these bits work are inadequate.” (p4) (1). We can now perceivably design educational experiences that do not require, even if they benefit from, linguistic visual or oral instruction. Much like we have seen in the rise of interdisciplinary academics, we could perceivably see an increase in the development of interdisciplinary pedagogical media. This new touch-media really should include tactile experiences that developing touch as a part of the curriculum and will thus, enable art students to comprehend the material world and excogitate expressions from a transferrable material language.
“… Discoveries are made by pursuing possibilities suggested by existing knowledge.” (p67) (17) If we look to the material world as a source of existing knowledge, then we need only interact with it to uncover the knowledge within. “Agency is the ability to perform actions, to intervene as we observe” (p10) (15) and as such, facilitating performances within interactive sculpture promotes the evolution of a tactile and iterative electronic arts vocabulary. Developing tools of touch requires the merging of body and machine with the goal of materializing intelligence for scholarly material practice. This will form a new kind of language expanding on the ways we interact with and learn from the material world.
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* Copyright Morgan Rauscher © 2015