Originally published in Interface, Vol. 4, No. 2, November 1992, Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, 1992, pgs. 2-4.


TOWARDS TELEPRESENCE ART

Eduardo Kac

Introduction

Like holography thirty years ago, telepresence is today a new area of scientific research with which artists haven't experimented yet. In the late sixties the first art holograms were created. The few artists who dared appropriating this technology opened a new artistic field at the same time that they questioned traditional artistic concepts and stretched the very definition of art. Ornitorrinco (Platypus, in Portuguese), the work I have been developing since 1989 in collaboration with electronics technician Ed Bennett, may be understood along the same lines as a first effort to create "telepresence art". The question to be addressed here, therefore, is the creation of a "telepresential aesthetics", i.e., what experience is or can be unique to an art work which is created with existing or invented telepresence techniques. Our telepresence installation, "Ornitorrinco in Copacabana", was unveiled at the SIGGRAPH '92 Art Show, as part of the SIGGRAPH '92 Conference held at McCormick Place, in Chicago, from July 26 to July 31. I'll introduce here some of the ideas set forth by the piece, hoping that the issues it raises may contribute to motivate others to push and develop telepresence art beyond this initial stage.

Shifting Perspectives

Under the phrase "Ornitorrinco in Copacabana" printed on a small poster, Siggraph Art Show visitors saw nothing but a telephone without the hand set and a B&W video monitor on a desk. Out of the 25,000 technologically educated people believed to have visited the Conference and the Art Show, many noticed, some interacted with, but only a few really understood what was behind this very simple hardware. As if the two old pieces of equipment weren't odd enough, in a context that often celebrates the latest as the best, the two foreign words did nothing to clarify their function. A young British gentleman, who was introduced to me as a graduate from the Royal College of Art, interacted with the piece for awhile and then started a conversation about it. Having been briefed by myself on some ideas that were significant to the project, and making it clear to me that he found it interesting but was unsure that it could be considered art, he started to ask a series of thought-provoking questions. At one point I remarked that one of the key concepts was to try to go beyond the traditional linear model that defines communication as the sending and receiving of messages. I observed that I wanted to use telecommunications to create an open experiential context with it. He seemed not to see any sense in my argument and replyed: ­­ Everything is an experience. When I wake up in the morning and I put my shoe on I have an experience. I owe Indian computer artist Chitra Shriram for the answer: ­­ When you put your shoe on, you certainly have an experience. But not from the perspective of the shoe... As one experiences the work, one in a sense "becomes" this telerobot we call Ornitorrinco, looking at an invented remote space through its eye. The installation "Ornitorrinco in Copacabana" was realized simultaneously at McCormick Place (Place 1) and in the Kinetics and Electronics Department of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (Place 2), where I built an environment. SIGGRAPH Art Show visitors, which were physically present at Place 1, navigated in Place 2 by pressing the keys on the phone in Place 1. This allowed them to control in real-time the telerobot Ornitorrinco. Pressing the keys also let participants see where they were in the environment created at Place 2. Since the environment was built to the scale of Ornitorrinco, and not to a human scale, a sensation of strangeness was produced when participants tried to relate what they saw, as they navigated through Place 2, to their conventional expectations of a space inhabitable by a human. It was not a matter of being successful or frustrated in figuring out the actual physical dimensions and visual characteristics of Place 2. The issue was the subjective construction of an imaginary space in the mind of each participant based on his or her decisions as he or she navigated in space.

Some social aspects of telepresence art

Ornitorrinco embraces new technologies with ambiguity. It reveals a mixture of enthusiasm for new artistic possibilities and a critical perspective on the social implications of these new technologies. On the one hand it reflects the cultural conditions of late-twentieth century society in respect to its attempt of eliminating the consequences of geographic distance in human affairs. Ours is a society that can save lives or massacre other societies from afar. Physical presence is acquiring a more and more secondary role in both processes. We use remote vision to look inside our own bodies and inside celestial bodies. We collect samples from both. We make decisions and implement them based on what we see and on what we sample. Ironically, the distances between different cultures shrink on a physical level but remain largely untouched on a social and political level. The perpetuation of distance as such, be it territorial or symbolic, becomes an impediment to knowledge of different cultures and viewpoints. In this sense, perhaps, the simulated experience of a new identity with Ornitorrinco (the participant "becoming" the telerobot) might have implications other than strictly artistic. On the other hand, by creating a displacement of electronic devices that would otherwise simulate human senses with expected coherence, the piece also questions the conventional wisdom that equates new technologies with progress and social improvement. Technology is generally seen as a precise, logical and reliable extension of our senses (notions which contribute to the reinforcement of a utilitarian view of the world based on the dangerous and controversial concept of "progress"). In order to create Ornitorrinco, we appropriate, deface, transform and subordinate technology to artistic experience. This experience aims to engage the participant in questioning established artistic values and the social structures that support them. Ornitorrinco purports to provide a participant (in Place 1) with conditions that allow for a remote experience of presence in an environment of which the participant has no previous knowledge (Place 2). In the current stage, the project aims to do so by allowing a person to see through the eye of a telerobot and control its motion in space from a remote location in real-time. By employing a regular telephone line of the sort used ubiquitously for private interpersonal communications, as opposed to the more unaccessible forms of commercial or industrial communications, this project introduces the notion of "personal telepresence", which makes telepresence a subjective and individualized experience open to creative inquiry. As the participant explores the remote environment and gathers image after image of that environment, he or she constructs a personal mental image of the space. This mental space will vary from person to person. In this sense, each participant creates in real-time a personalized imaginary environment. Each person navigates in a relatively different space. It is clear that in science the goal of telepresence is to improve human performance in otherwise inhospitable places, such as coal mines, nuclear plants, outer space, or bottom of the sea. In art, telepresence will have very different goals. As I see it, telepresence art will be characterized by the creation of invented worlds populated by imaginary creatures embodied in electronic parts. Most of all, telepresence art will create the context for the participant to explore these worlds Ñ not from a human scale, but from the perspective of their denizens.

The collaboration

Ornitorrinco only became possible with the technical expertise of Ed Bennett, with whom I started to collaborate in 1989, in Chicago. From 1989 to 1992, Bennett built several versions of Ornitorrinco, creating the practical conditions for experimentation. Our first event was performed in 1989, in a satellite link between myself in Rio de Janeiro, and Ed Bennett in Chicago. In July 1992, Ornitorrinco was experienced publicly for the first time as part of the Siggraph '92 Art Show. Although for different reasons, Ed Bennett and I were equally motivated to collaborate in the creation of this telepresence installation. In my case, I have been working with telecommunications media since 1985 and I always felt that telecommunications art could and should go beyond the exchange and manipulation of messages. In 1988, while still living in Rio de Janeiro, I drew my first sketch for a pair of telerobotic sculptures to be controlled over regular phone lines. Ed Bennett has worked with other artists before. Coming from a more scientific background, he welcomed the opportunity of designing and building a system that was rich in technical as well as conceptual challenges.

Vision and motion systems

Ornitorrinco blends modified consumer electronic products with circuit boards and electro-mechanical parts custom designed by Ed Bennett specifically for the work. The numbers on the keypad of a touch-tone phone form a code created by us which the participant uses in a variety of combinations. For example: by simply pressing and releasing the number two, the participant actually moves forward about a foot. Pressing and releasing the number four enables the participant to make a ninety degree left turn. Pressing the number two and then the number four, for example, allows the participant to combine the two commands and navigate around obstacles. Fresh images can be obtained just by pressing and releasing the number five. The motion control and vision systems of Ornitorrinco are time-multiplexed over a single phone line. This means that the participant uses only one line both to transmit motion control signals and to request and receive fresh images: A) Motion control: The tone generated by the keypad in Place 1 travels over the phone line to a telephone in Place 2. The signal is transmitted to Ornitorrinco, decoded and amplified to drive the motor relays. Ornitorrinco moves at the speed of 40 feet per minute over level ground. Skid steering gives it a zero turning radius. B) Vision: Ornitorrinco's vision system transmits a video signal over a 900 MHz carrier to a video modem connected to the phone line. At Place 1 another modem converts the signal back to video for viewing.

Conclusion

The Ornitorrinco telepresence installations to be produced in the near future will continue to play on the displacement of geographic references. "Ornitorrinco in Copacabana" was the title of the one created for Siggraph '92. Bennett and I are currently working on the next installation, to be called "Ornitorrinco in the Sahara". By attaching names of existing geographic areas, many of which a large percentage of the participants will have never experienced in body, the work plays on cultural expectations and preconceptions, which are fueled in part by clichés circulated in the media and in part by our own lack of knowledge and understanding of foreign cultures and places. The remote environment where the participant is telepresent may or may not have elements that make reference to the location it is named after. Clearly, again, the question is not and could never be that of mimicry, resemblance or duplication of an existing environment. The question is that of the image-which-now-becomes-place. The participant experiences the image not as a sign in the semiotic sense of the word, but as a locus. Without direct access to the remote environment, and without prior knowledge of it, the participant structures imaginarily the space he or she experiences according to his or her decision-making process. The work then becomes the ephemeral bridge between real spaces and the mental architecture instantiated by the participant as the navigation takes place. Ornitorrinco is a first step. Taken from the perspective of the shoe. It should be understood not as a single event or a finished piece but as a platform for ongoing aesthetic experiments.


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