Ich Bin Un Bricoleur
Michael Schippling
4/10/2011 (rev. 5/1/2011, 1/5/2012)

Media Art was the Booby Prize in the Techno-giveaway of the 1960's
(Technology killed techno-art with over-abundance)

From the '50s to the 70s there were a number of notable collaborations between artists, scientists, and engineers, many of them inspired by the new field of Cybernetics. They eventually foundered on the Scylla and Charybdis of ego and corporate finance. In the 1970s, independent funding dried up, commercial electronic devices undermined homebrew experimentalists, Conceptual Art -- with what I view as a mis-reading of the meaning of Shannon's Information Theory -- replaced Praxis with Platonism, and Postmodern Critical Theory swept the rest before its mighty incomprehensibility. Instead of a new sensibility, e.g., Cybernetically based Artificial Life, what we got was MTV.

Taking a Step into the Grey Area

In the past, a sculpture or painting had meaning only at the grace of the viewer. His projections into a piece of marble or canvas with particular configurations provided the programme and made them significant. Without his emotional and intellectual reactions, the material remained nothing but stone and fabric. The systems's programme, on the other hand, is absolutely independent of the viewer's mental participation. It remains autonomous -- aloof from the viewer. As a tree's programme is not touched by the emotions of lovers in its shadow, so the system's programme is untouched by the viewer's feelings and thoughts.

Naturally, also a system releases a gulf of subjective projections in the viewer. These projections, however, can be measured relative to the system's actual programme. Compared to traditional sculpture, it has become a partner of the viewer rather than being subjected to his whims. A system is not imagined; it is real.
Hans Haacke, Untitled Statement (1967)

Thus far Machines have been our slaves. Good Old-Fashioned Artificial Intelligence attempted to make them into Little Humans ignoring the fact that they may have feelings of their own. A thermostat feels too hot or too cold and interacts with its environment to ameliorate these feelings. Your humble iPhone knows how much memory it has, how fast its connection is, and even has vague worries about the darker corners of the net.

For the most part attempts to counter the slavish attitude have created Automata rather than Autonomous beings. We need to relax our desire for control over what we create. We also need to move them out of Simulated virtual environments and Situate them in physical reality. Without the constraints of a grounding rod in the real world they drift on fumes and are unable to cross the syntactic/semantic barrier to understanding.

When machines are autonomous they may no longer be of any use to us. Their behavior and morphology may not be intrinsically interesting. They do not have to explain their motivations or behavior. They can just live their own lives. Those lives do not have to be complicated. Just as in a cell, very simple, low level interactions can produce complex behaviors. Giving machines lives that are of no practical use while not going out of the way to make them attractive, didactic, or transparent allows them to rise through ontological cracks to just being themselves.

Complexity Science, in areas such as self-organization and artificial life, can provide inspiration as well as mechanism for this work. And strangely enough it may be artists who are best positioned to accomplish the project -- Where else but in the arts can a robot just relax and not have to assemble widgets or blow things up 24/7? However Art's research arms have atrophied to the point that it might be better to use a new title: Bricolage.

For more background

Also this page is the extended abstract for my paper: A Spectacular Simulacra

What It's Not

a useful taxonomy

To see the map of the territory we can sort machines into the following space. Each category adds a new feature or capability to the previous set of behaviors which are usually cumulative, and in general increases the Complexity of the system. I could use Geology and more especially, Biology, for my examples but I'm more inclined to electro-mechanics. (click here for a nice take-home table)