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the artist as inventor : artist's biography
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by HorizonZero editors
Art drives a car. Programming provides the fuel to get me there.
David Rokeby is an interactive sound and video artist based in Toronto, Ontario. His new media installations have garnered acclaim in Canada and internationally for both artistic and technical innovation in the field of interactivity. He was recently awarded Canada's 2002 Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts for distinguished career achievement. Rokeby also won the prestigious Golden Nica for Interactive Art at Austria's 2002 Prix Ars Electronica festival for his installation n-cha(n)t.
Rokeby was born in Tillsonburg, Ontario in 1960. Like many children of his generation, his exposure to experimental electronics began early. "I messed around with transistors and other components on a Radio Shack Experimenter's kit when I was quite young," notes the artist. "I was in search of weird sounds. I wired things together until they heated up and did strange borderline sorts of things...Usually unrepeatable, as the systems were pushed to a point of instability."
Rokeby first became interested in computer programming in 1976, and became serious about making electronic art during the early 1980s, when he enrolled in the Ontario College of Art and Design. "I had a really transformative time at OCAD," he says, "I had intended to go for a commercial art degree, and somehow ended up taking all the most unusual courses in the experimental department. I don't actually remember making the decision to veer from career into the unknown, it just sort of happened...I entered OCAD a somewhat confused artist wannabe, and left with a very clear, and very idiosyncratic, direction."
The computer began to appear in Rokeby's art in 1983 when he developed his first interactive sound installation, Reflexions, followed shortly by 1984's Body Language. These works were early prototypes of what would become Rokeby's best-known project, Very Nervous System (1986-90), which premiered at the Venice Biennale in 1986, and won the Prix Ars Electronica in 1991. Like its precursors, VNS used video cameras, computers and sound systems to create interactive spaces in which body movements were translated into music. The project arose as an investigation of the relationship between humans and interactive machines -- a theme that has continued to inform most of Rokeby's work. Later, during the 1990s, Rokeby developed a software version of VNS's motion-analysis system, softVNS, which has been commercialized and widely adapted by other interactive artists and musicians, as well as medical rehabilitation programs working with virtual reality therapy techniques.
Rokeby followed up on these sound-oriented projects with a series of video installations that adapted VNS as a tool for working with images in interactive space. This work began to ask questions about human sense and perception, and the ways in which digital technologies often filter and distort human experiences. Many of these camera-based works also began to illustrate the artist's concern with issues of digital surveillance, voyeurism and social control. Most notable among these video projects are Silicon Remembers Carbon (1993-2000), Watch (1995), Watched and Measured (2000), Guardian Angel (2001) and Shock Absorber (2001).
Another well-known Rokeby project, The Giver of Names (1991-present), evolved through a series of developmental stages, eventually culminating in 2001's award-winning n-cha(n)t installation. These works explore the differences between human and artificial intelligence, using computers programmed to analyze input words or visual images and then respond uncannily through speech -- idiosyncratic, oddly poetic sentences that seem to imbue the machines with coherent, if alien, personalities and points of view.
Other recent Rokeby artworks have addressed the perception of time and memory. Machine for Taking Time (2001) was commissioned by the Oakville Galleries in Oakville, Ontario. This installation explores time, space and change by presenting a montage of archival images from a video camera placed in the gallery's garden. The images pan across the landscape and wander through the seasons in a pattern reminiscent of shifting, non-linear human memory. Another new installation, Steamingmedia.org (with Tapio Mäkelä; in-process) will also feature archival video footage that wanders fluidly through time -- this time in Finnish-style saunas wired for telematic communication.
Music and movement, time and the senses, surveillance and alien intelligence. As an artist, Rokeby has become known for being esoteric; a contrarian who often works against the biases embedded in the computer's design in order to express his aesthetic goals, and who looks beyond the borders of the digital art world for his major artistic influences. "I don't think that new media work has shaped my aesthetic more than tangentially and accidentally," he explains. "I use the machine in a very personal way. I write my own code, evolve my own style. The computer itself has of course shaped my work -- mostly by providing a context in which I can set forces, interactive or not, into motion." The inspiration guiding these forces has tended to spring from music, visual arts and literature. "John Cage and Marcel Duchamp would be at the top of my list," he explains, "But I have been strongly influenced by a number of authors as well: Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz, Michel Tournier, Thomas Pynchon, Russell Hoban, and Robert Musil."
David Rokeby's consistent success in the interactive arts has led to exhibitions at prestigious venues around the world, including the Kiasma Museum in Helsinki (2000), the Biennale de Firenz (1996), Korea's Kwangju Biennale (1995), and three appearances at Ars Electronica. Recently, Rokeby was asked to extend this worldly ambassadorship by collaborating with two fellow Canadians, pianist Eve Egoyan and architect Michael Awad, to create Next Memory City, Canada's contribution to the 2002 Venice Biennale exhibition on architecture.
All quotations are from an interview with David Rokeby by Patricia Robertson, commissioned by HorizonZero, July 2002.