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sentient circuitry : the hysterical machine
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Bill Vorn's The Hysterical Machine (2002)
Description, Bio, Ideas

Robot Description
by Bill Vorn

The Hysterical Machine resembles an enormous aluminum spider that dangles from the gallery ceiling on a thick steel cable. Its pendulous, multi-legged form flails and shudders at the approach of visitors. Each skeletal appendage terminates in a stage lamp that pierces the darkened room with erratic beams of light. The crack of the arms snapping in and out of position resembles the sound of a troop of misbehaving children trying to play folding metal lawn chairs like castanets. The interactive relationship between robot and visitor is minimal but direct: motion sensors detect the presence of humans, and the mechanism reacts. Its convulsions dissipate to occasional, gentle spasms once the visitor exits, leaving the impression that this machine exists for the sole purpose of causing a pathetic and overly demonstrative scene.

Artist Bio
by the HorizonZero editors
Born in Montréal in 1959, Bill Vorn is a media artist, sound designer, and composer who has been working in the field of robotic art and artificial life since 1992. He received a doctorate in communications from the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) in 2001 for his thesis on "Artificial Life as Media." He currently teaches new media in the Fine Arts Faculty at Concordia University, home of the Artificial Life Art Lab (A-Lab). Vorn also directs the robotics department at HEXAGRAM, an institute for media arts run cooperatively by Concordia and UQAM.

Vorn has engaged in successful collaborations with many other artists, including a long-standing partnership with Québec artist and robotics engineer Louis-Philippe Demers, who currently teaches at the Technical College for Design in Karlsruhe, Germany. The Vorn and Demers duo have created several large-scale robotic installations: Espace Vectoriel (1993), At the Edge of Chaos (1995), The Frenchman Lake (1995), No Man's Land (1996), La Cour des Miracles (1997), and The Trial/Le Procès (1999).

The artists populate interactive environments with communities of cybernetic organisms programmed to display metaphoric behaviours. Visitors intrude and become immersed in surrealistic spaces full of mechanical motion, sound, and light. For example, No Man's Land is a habitat made exclusively for robots. Nine different robot species, each designed to embody a different natural metaphor (parasite, scavenger, colony, or herd) are "planted" around the installation space. The movement of visitors about the space sets off various reactions: robotic motion, light, and sound communicate the impression of "living" metabolisms.

La Cour des Miracles (The Court of Miracles) was first presented at ISEA '97 (Chicago). This was another reactive installation that the critic John Massier described in Canadian Art as a "squalid industrial pit" inhabited by "thirty robotic entities that reel and stagger like mutant bastard children of the Terminator." These pathetically injured and groaning "animats" included "The Begging Machine," "The Limping Machine," and "The Convulsive Machine." Each artificial organism is intended to prey upon the viewer's more anthropomorphic instincts by coaxing out instinctive feelings of empathy for what are essentially cold and metallic (if horribly bleating) simulacra. The installation as a whole tends toward sensory overload.

Bill Vorn has also created several solo artificial life projects. Life Tools (1996) is an artificial life software toolkit that is downloadable from his Web site. Evil/Live (1997) was an interactive sound and light installation based on a "cellular automaton" called The Game of Life, invented by John Conway in 1970. Vorn has also recently collaborated with Australian interactive artist Simon Penny to create bedlam, a further exploration of the universe of artificial "organisms" funded by Montréal's Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology.

In April-May 2002, Vorn participated in the European Media Art Festival in Germany, where he and Louis-Philippe Demers co-curated a large robotics exhibition, Es. Das Wesen der Maschine (Es. The Nature of Machines).

Presentations of Bill Vorn's robotic art, as well as other projects in multimedia and "electro-rock," are accessible on his Web site. An extensive online biography and bibliography of writings by and about Vorn has also been compiled by the Daniel Langlois Foundation.

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Artist's Ideas
by Bill Vorn

"Real artificial life is more than an immersive media, it is a world on its own."
Louis-Philippe Demers and Bill Vorn

Real Artificial Life
Real artificial life is robotics. The hyperreal simulacra of the robot world go beyond the unreachable simulation of life on a computer screen. Robots are not only a virtual model (a pattern in space and time) but also a dynamic and evolving phenomenon embodied in matter.

As far as we can observe in the architecture of living things, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. Our installations evoke fictitious behaviours of a global robotic ecosystem through local interactions of minimal mechanical organisms. The underlying design of the whole system (an organism of organisms) is founded on the characteristics of natural societies' behaviours: chain reactions, propagation and aggregation comportments, herds and swarms, etc.

The machines can be seen as virtual organisms that move and produce sound and light as the outcome of their invented metabolisms. In this sense, we do not intend to simulate or physically reproduce real-life animals. We deal rather with simplistic behaviours engendered by primitive mechanical animats. This metaphor feeds on organic sounds and movements in order to create a hybrid world between nature and the artificial.

The concept of replication is fundamental to these projects, leading to the large number of machine-organisms in our works. Ecosystems are obviously based on population (gender and number) and their complexity is obtained from multiplicity of the inherent interactions. The illusion of life would not be as convincing if there were only a few units, limiting the combinations of possible states of the system which are consequently perceived as behaviours.

Hypnotic and repetitive movements are easily foreseen with these machines. The kinetic art itself suggests that the real (as opposed to virtual) movement generates a response in us and that any movement outside our body is hypnotic. Rituals, hierarchy, chaos, aggregation, the collective versus the individual are among the potential comportments addressed by the installations.

Life/Machine Asymmetry
We can suggest that no prerequisite or imposed equivalence exists across the boundaries of life and its machine representation. Since one of the forefront aesthetic choices of these works is the evocation of life through an abstract, even displaced, bare inorganic skeleton, the machines are kept deliberately simplistic. Shapes move from primitive abstract objects (spheres, cylinders, sound, light) to kinetic and complex organisms (polymorphic patterns).

Immersion erases the distance between the artwork and the viewer. Immersion makes the frame disappear by integrating the viewer completely inside the work. This process tries to stimulate the viewer's senses to enhance receptivity and the illusion of reality.

Kinetic Art
The objects of kinetic art, machines and artifacts, feed on the concept of continuous transformation and participation by the viewer. Movement is the perceptible change of state of an object (sound, light, image, matter, etc.), and is always perceived subjectively. Movement itself can be seen as the objective nature of the machine, while its perception (by the viewer) can be seen as its subjective counterpart.

Intelligent Habitats
In the usual format of presentation for installation works, the attention of the viewer is generally focused on the presented objects, causing the surrounding site to disappear. While these objects may show some behaviours, they are exogenous entities in a silent environment.

In our robotic ecosystems, the audience is invited to explore fictitious habitats by becoming immersed in a strange and disconcerting world composed of machines and immaterial objects of light and sound. The ecosystems evolve around the viewers, constantly creating new virtual architectures within a fixed physical space.

In creating intelligent habitats, we promote an endogenous situation in which the viewer is immersed within the site. The viewer is not only presented with a central object but involved within a whole environment which, in turn, becomes the object. The transformation of an inert site into a reactive locus will force the viewer not only to consider a society of machines but also a habitat made for machines where their sole presence will disrupt the system and engender reactions.

Sound and Light
Sound and light are natural immersive media. They spread in all directions without the need to be artificially rendered in a virtual manner. Each organism of these installations emits sound and light on an individual and specific basis to produce a general polymorphic ambiance that entirely surrounds the viewers. As a result, the guests become part of an environment where every point of view has something new to offer.

The Reactive Model
Interaction is usually associated with the direct control of viewers over systems. These installations can be categorized as reactive rather than interactive.

In the reactive model of man-machine interaction, the viewers do not gain control at their leisure over the self-steering system, but instead influence the unfolding of high-level events (expressed by the system's behaviours) through their simple presence and movement.

In many ways this communication scheme seems closer to the relationship between living organisms and their environment than the usual interactive model found in hypermedias, where the system is usually waiting for a command from the user in order to react. These systems have their own inherent comportments without any external input from their environments. However, this determinism can be constantly altered by random changes in the outside world, as perceived by the robots' sensory devices.

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