Originally published in Leonardo Electronic Almanac, Volume 7, Number 10. Uploaded December 2, 1999. ISSN#1071-4391

From/to Body to/from Robot

Machiko Kusahara

When Eduardo Kac showed his piece "Teleporting an Unkown State" at SIGGRAPH 96, the public might have wondered how one could transfer sunlight via the Internet. If enough amount of light were not provided, the young plant, which was planted in the total darkness in the SIGGRAPH Art Gallery, would die.

In this project any participant from all over the world can capture the "photons" using one's own web camera and "send the photons" via Internet. The signals will be transferred immediately to the computer at the exhibition site thus giving power to a projector hanging on top of the young plant. It was only the participants' collaborative will that would keep the plant alive and growing. This plant grew from a seed without knowing the outer world and real sunlight.

"Teleporting an Unknown State" can be compared to Ken Goldberg's "Telegarden" in the sense that it involved a real plant, and that visitors from the network shared the responsibility in taking care of it. However, there is something very different in "Teleporting an Unknown State ". It is an element that can be associated with the latter part of the title, "Unknown State". While non-material elements such as photons and the network are the medium or vehicle for such physical phenomenon as people sending enough light to a plant, we observe a strong desire for committment toward physical entity and the involvement of one's own body.

It might be deeply related to the fact that Kac was born and grew up in Brazil and then moved to US. Certain similarity can be observed with Stelarc who was born in Australia and lived in Japan for a while before he started using eletronic technology in his performances. Confrontation with different cultures inevitably brings a concern toward one's identity including the role of physical body. Also, artists such as Kac or Stelarc would say that they do not fully belive in the Utopia of cyberspace. In appreciating the works of Kac, we cannot leave the real and physical world with our own bodies, plants and animals.

Looking from the point of view of telerobotics, no mechanical or kinetic output was realized by participants via the Net in "Teleporting an Unknown State". Yet, the nature of physical (in this case optic) interaction it involves and the clever way to transmit such physical interaction over the Net can be regarded as another possibility in telerobotic art. However, among projects by Kac who is known as "telepresence artist", works such as "Ornitorrinco" and "Rara Avis" are more directly related to the notion of telerobotics.

The "Ornitorrinco" project started in 1989 and was developed with Ed Bennett. It was shown in many different configurations until 1996. In this project, participants could move around remotely on the body of a small robot using a live video conferencing connection. "Ornitorrinco in Eden" took place in 1994, and was, together with Goldberg's "Mercury Project" (1994), the first telerobotic artwork on the Internet. The main issue in the Ornitorrinco project was the participants' experience and the process itself in real time over real space. The robot reacted to each input from participants rather than being programmed for certain goal or action, realizing "democracy" in the multi-user environment, according to Kac. Again, such awareness of democracy and real time/space shows Kac's basic attitude toward technology, interactive art, and society.

In "Rara Avis" (1996), a visitor walks into a triangular room and finds a birdcage in front of him/her. There is a group of monochrome birds in the cage and a colorful large telerobot macaw. There is a VR headset on the pedestal. When the visitor wears the headset, one discovers that he/she is seeing through the eyes of the electronic macaw. The visitor would recognize oneself on the Head-Mounted Display screen through the robot-bird's eyes, seen from inside the cage. As the viewer moves his or her head the same movement takes place with the macaw's head thus causing change of the view on HMD.

Here, the identity of the viewer and its position is trapped in an endless loop involving inside and outside, freedom and captivity, seeing and being seen, to manipulate and to be manipulated. The fence divides the free space that opens to the outer world (remember, the room is triangle shaped) from the captured state inside the cage that leads to a narrow end. The configuration of the space is metaphorical both in psychological and social aspect. From an epistemological point of view, telerobotic technology places the viewer both inside and outside the cage. It is said that we receive approximately 90% of the information we get from outside through our visual system. And our cognition is formed based on the input we get. Then, the consciousness of the viewer, in this case, should be floating in the cage, while his/her body remains outside the cage.

The work brings up questions about the reality of our life through contradictions, as is shown in the contrast between monochrome real birds and the colorful artificial (robot) bird in the cage. In our daily life we take it for granted that we live in a single, real world, with a single body and conscisouness -- but is our condition really that secure?

With the advent of the Internet, virtually living in another community (or another space) is becoming our everyday life. Having another 'self' in another world as an avatar is also possible. But then, where do we live -- where are our bodies? Is the reality of life attached to the space one belongs with the physical body, or to the space one's consciousness belong to? Or do we belong to different spaces at the same time in a loop of switching realities? With his life belonging to different cultures in the real world, Kac visualizes the problems we will face in the near future with the layered metaphors in his work. Rara Avis is a work that can really be read in multidimensional ways.

Author Biography

Machiko Kusahara is a Tokyo-based electronic art critic and exhibitions curator. She is committee member of several organizations, including: InterCommunication Center (ICC), Tokyo; Ars Electronica Interactive Category Jury (1987-89); Japanese Ministry of Culture's Media Art Festival (planning committee and jury); UNESCO Web Prize jury (1988-89); Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography (collection committee). She teaches at the Kobe University. Her writings on electronic art have appeared in many books, journals, and magazines worldwide.

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