Originally published in Dobrila, Peter T. and Kostic, Aleksandra (eds.), Eduardo Kac: Telepresence, Biotelematics, and Transgenic Art (Maribor, Slovenia: Kibla, 2000), pp. 59-64.


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. A young plant was in total darkness in the Siggraph Art Gallery. If it did not receive enough light it would die.

In this project any participant from all over the world could capture the "photons" using one's own web camera and "send the photons" via Internet. The signals were transferred immediately to the computer at the exhibition site thus giving power to a projector hanging above the young plant. It was only the participants' collaborative will that kept 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 believe in the Utopia of cyberspace. In appreciating Kac's works, we gain a renewed sense of connection between the real and physical world and 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 gallery visitor walks into a triangular room and finds a large aviary in front of 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, she discovers that she is seeing through the eyes of the electronic macaw. The visitor then recognizes herself on the Head-Mounted Display (HMD) screen through the robot-bird's eyes, seen from inside the cage. As the viewer moves her head the same movement takes place with the macaw's head thus causing a change of viewpoint on the 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 front of the cage separates the free space that opens to the outer world (remember, the room is triangular) 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 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, living virtually in another community (or another space) is becoming an ordinary aspect of 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.

Further expanding his previous telepresence work, in 1999 Kac realized a new telerobotic piece, entitled "Uirapuru". The piece was shown at the InterCommunication Center (ICC) in Tokyo, and won a major award at its Biennale. Roy Ascott, who was a member of the jury, commented as follows: "Eduardo Kac eschews consolidation in favour of a kind of risk-taking hybridization, irreverently mixing not only communications media but modalities of myth, metaphor and representation. It is a risk that pays off poetically, providing us with a kind of Roussel/Rousseau world, in which pockets of cyberspace punctuate an almost mall-like plastic reality. Here the pingbirds sing the song of the Internet, the telerobotic blimp rises over a forest of fake vegetation, awakening us to the dawn of a new world, a multi-user universe, of VRML, streaming video and telepresence. In this jungle of communications complexity, the duality of being is celebrated with a lighthearted and brilliantly orchestrated joy." [1]

It was a breathtaking sight that a visitor encountered at ICC, as one entered Kac's space on the fifth floor of the Tokyo Opera City Building, in Shinjuku, the heart of the business district in central Tokyo. An enormous fish, which was a radio controlled blimp in tropical colors, floated in the sky above the canopy of palm trees and other tropical vegetation inhabited by a few tropical artificial birds. The trees looked quite realistic, but a closer look revealed they were artificial as well. There were two winding paths in the forest which led to a bench. The visitor was invited to stop and rest. The physical world in the gallery was simulated in the VRML world which one could see on one of the flat screens at the rim of the artifical rain forest. Visitors experienced seamless interactivity both in real space and virtual space on the Net, forming their own narratives as they negotiated the multiple layers of agency enabled by "Uirapuru".

Kac explained the piece as follows:

"The word "Uirapuru" is the name of both an actual Amazonian bird and a mythical creature. In the rain forest the bird Uirapuru sings once a year, when it builds its nest; even then, only from five to ten minutes early in the morning. According to the legend, Uirapuru's song is so beautiful that all other birds stop singing to listen to it. Both in legend and reality Uirapuru is a symbol of rarefied beauty. (...) My version of the legend presents Uirapuru as a flying fish and reinvents Uirapuru's dual status as a real animal and a mythical creature through an experience that is at once local and remote, virtual and physical. Uirapuru's own spirit is hosted by a virtual fish, who flies and interacts online in virtual space with other virtual fish. (...) The telerobotic fish hovers above a forest populated by colorful pingbirds. Pingbirds are telerobotic birds that send ping commands to servers geographically located in the Amazon region (where the rainforest is located). The pingbirds sing the songs of real Amazonian birds according to the rhythm of global network traffic. In "Uirapuru" greater Internet traffic results in the telerobotic birds singing more often." [2]

As I sat down on the bench, watching the whimsical fish hovering peacefully above the forest canopy while listening to the "pingbirds" sing, the strange feeling I already had since I had entered the space grew stronger. The strange feeling was about the "physical reality" of the space. The artistic/artificial walk-in diorama of the Amazonian rain forest is the multiple layered interface between the real, physical world, and the virtual world. We believe the Amazon rain forest is natural. We believe we live in a real, physical world. But the physical world in the gallery, the rain forest, is already totally artificial. The bird which sings the spirit of the rain forest in the Amazonian myth has turned into a plastic fish, floating in the air.

But that's not all. Everything in the gallery, the physical space, seems to have a double meaning or a double state. The two worlds interact with one another via both physical and digital interfaces. Uirapuru, which is a bird in reality and in legend, is represented as a fish, which usually lives in a different world. Birds in this physical space represent the information flow on the Internet with digitally recorded songs of the real Amazonian birds. In the gallery we can manipulate the blimp, which observes us from above and broadcasts what it sees. The blimp resists complete control, as it is not possible to make it stop in mid air with absolute precision. At the same time the blimp is being observed, under constant surveillance. Here again, like in Rara Avis, we find ourselves within an endless loop of contradicting states, to see and to be seen. Our consciousness seems to hover above the edge of physical space and its counterpart in virtual reality. Artificial Reality, was the term we used before the phrase Virtual Reality became popular. Maybe the term should come back. In "Uirapuru" Kac offers a mythical world in an intentionally lighthearted way. In this world, experience oscillates between being present and being telepresent, between being oneself and being something else. In this work Kac shows that real and virtual constitute each other and that their boundaries are no longer firm or evident.

NOTES

1. Ascott, Roy. "Judge's Review", in ICC Biennale '99; Interaction. (eds.) Komatsuzaki, Takuo. Kawai, Haruko. (Tokyo: InterCommunication Center, 1999), p. 55.

2. Kac, E. "Uirapuru", published by the InterCommunication Center as a gallery leaflet and distributed during the Biennial (1999). Also published online at: http://www.ekac.org/uirapuru.html.

Originally published in Leonardo Electronic Almanac, Volume 7, Number 10, no page numbers. Uploaded December 2, 1999.


Machiko Kusahara is a Tokyo-based electronic art critic and 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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