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sentient circuitry : the helpless robot
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Norman White's The Helpless Robot (1987-96)
Description, Bio, Ideas
by Norman White
The Helpless Robot has no motors. It must depend upon its synthesized voice to encourage people to move it as it would "like". Fortunately, the Helpless Robot is trilingual: it can plead in English, French, and Spanish.
The Helpless Robot was built primarily as an apparatus to test different techniques of automatic knowledge building. In this case, the machine attempts to assess and predict human behaviour. In that sense, it is essentially an unfinishable work.
by the HorizonZero editors
Norman White was born in Texas, grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, and obtained his B.A. in biology from Harvard University in 1959. His intent was to become a fisheries biologist, yet for him the challenges of art would soon prove more compelling than those of science. During the 1960s he traveled widely, working as a shipyard electrician in San Francisco, painting with oils in London, England, and spending a year in the Middle East, where he became fascinated with the logical geometry and biological sensibility of Islamic art and architecture. In 1967, White moved to Toronto, Canada, where he began to build and experiment with kinetic electronics. He has been teaching classes such as "Mechanics for Real Time Sculpture" as part of the Integrated Media Program of the Ontario College of Art and Design since 1978.
White's early electronic art consisted mostly of gridded installations of lightbulbs controlled by contemporary-vintage digital logic circuits. Like most of his art, these displays were concerned more with communicating internal rules and behaviours than straight visual appeal. For example, White's first major electronic work, First Tighten Up on the Drums (1969), generated shimmering light patterns through the unpredictable interaction of many interconnected circuits computing simple logical questions independently. Complex behaviours - for example, patterns akin to swirling clouds or rain on a window pane - emerged from simple principles. In retrospect, White recognizes this first project as an early cellular automata experiment. He constructed approximately a dozen similar light machines during the early 1970s, culminating in Splish Splash 2 (1975), a large light mural commissioned for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Vancouver offices.
Following the purchase of his first computer in 1976, White refocused his attention on the emerging field of robotics, and during the mid- to late-1970s began making interactive machines whose internal logic expressed itself primarily through motion.
Menage (1974) was White's first robotic work, and again demonstrated his interest in exploring complex behaviours generated from simple principles. Four robots mounted upon ceiling tracks were fitted with photo-sensitive scanners and programmed to recognize and react to light sources mounted on the other robots. The machines competed for one another's attention as they moved automatically along the overhead tracks. Surprising group dynamics ensued.
Subsequent robotic projects have included: Facing Out Laying Low (1977), a stationary interactive robot designed to react to "interesting" behaviour in the gallery space surrounding it; Funny Weather (1983), a robotic artificial wind-generator; Them Fuckin' Robots (1988), a collaboration with Laura Kikauka investigating simulated sex; and The Helpless Robot (1987-96), a motor-less kinetic sculpture designed to be a sort of electronic hustler that enlists, then exploits, the physical assistance of passers-by via its persuasive, electronically synthesized voice. Since 1992, White has also been an essential force behind the O.C.A.D. Sumo Robot Challenge, an annual competition akin to an automaton Olympics in which robotic entries dance, paint, and bash each other to smithereens.
During the three-decade span of his career, Norman White has also created many solo and collaborative electronic works in areas such as sound installation and electronic telecommunications. For a presentation of the full range of his interests, philosophies, and works, visit the artist's Web site. There, in the breezy lofts of the "Normill," the online explorer may also discover the artist's museum of obsolete computers, new media cookbook, and consuming passion for "fussy" logic and esoteric quotations.
Source: The Normill
by Norman White
Norman White's favourite quotes:
"If I'm going to work for an idiot, it might as well be me."
"Deniz cok, barbek yok."
The Oughtist Credo
1. Art should concern itself as much with behaviour as it does with appearance.
2. Some of the best art happens when behaviour and appearance are completely at odds with each other.
3. Economy of means is a critical part of aesthetics.
4. Art functions best, and is most needed, outside of galleries and museums.
Source: The Normill
The Funhouse Computer
For me, art comes alive only when it provides a framework for asking questions. Science provides that framework too, but "good science" is too constrained for me. I would rather ask questions that simultaneously address a multitude of worlds ... from living organisms to culture to confusion and rust. Only art can give me that generality.
To this day, very few artists have discovered that the computer is far more than a tool. A tool is a device designed to perform a set of very particular functions. On the other hand, the functionality of a computer is open ended. Its full scope is not, and can never be, fully understood, even by its designers. The entire notion of information processing is a cipher, expanding as consciousness expands, its fullest significance always remaining beyond our grasp. It is as though we have accidentally hooked ourselves onto the tip of a horn of the beast at the heart of the existential labyrinth.
Part of the problem lies in the word "computer" itself. The name implies willfulness and constrained results. It would be far better to call it "fun house mirror", so that we are reminded how it can take our intention and throw it back to us as a surprising metamorphosis. Potentially, that metamorphosis provides a conceptual bridge to a wholly new pattern of thought and investigation.
Thanks to the "fun house mirror" effect, my work has been able to liberate itself from tight human control and expectation. Another part of that liberation is a liberation of context. I believe that for too long, society has clung to the idea that art galleries are integral to art practice. The result has been the alienation of large sectors of a society who feel intimidated by the highly controlled, self-conscious aura of the average art gallery. My projects in the last ten years have therefore included strategies to bring art to all people, especially those people who would never enter a gallery willingly. Often, the most effective way to do this is by presenting the work in non-gallery settings, anonymously, without labels or explanations. In this way, the work, itself already released from strict control, is set loose into a social situation which is further open-ended. Hopefully, some form of the question at the heart of the work rubs off on the people who encounter it.
Source: The Normill
Robotics and Fishing
My biggest problem with computers is that they're far too alike ... keyboard, mouse, video screen ... you see one, you've seen them all. This is not the fault of computers; rather, it comes from designers' narrow ideas about what computers are good for. I reflect a lot about various, very customized ways whereby computers could interact with humans and the world in general. Mostly this takes the form of tinkering with robots. My inventions usually find their way into my art, after I've purged away any traces of usefulness, of course.
In retrospect, I think my love of robotics began with a childhood love for fishing. Mostly I liked to fish for bass, because it gave me the opportunity to fish with "plugs" (called "crankbaits" these days - a term I avoid). The only thing that really mattered was how the lure behaved. If I simply pulled the plug through the water, it had a kind of "wallowing" action, like a swimming mouse. Or with patient and creative twitches of my rod tip I could make the thing look like an injured minnow. In short, it was up to me to turn this unseemly, garish conglomeration of chrome and plastic into something subtly alive! Thus were planted the seeds of my fascination for making robots ... the possibility of creating some very artificial-looking thing with wires and tubes sticking out of it which might in some small way take on the subtle functional attributes of a living organism.
Source: The Normill
Toasters as Metaphors
In the Normill, I design and construct appliances which, unlike toasters, are clearly pointless and useless. I'd be proud if I could fix toasters. Almost nobody fixes toasters. This is because a modern toaster is nearly impossible to fix, held together with little bendy tabs which break off if you bend them more than twice. The toaster manufacturer naturally expects that you will do the Right Thing - toss that dysfunctional item in the dump and buy a new one! All in all, the working toaster is a perfect symbol for modern utility in general ... glamourous and efficient! Nevertheless, staring at this glamourous, efficient, high-resolution computer screen for hours at a time, you and I are both wrecking our eyes, not to mention our social lives. But, hey, I don't mind ... do you?
Source: The Normill