Elastic Minds is a series of interviews about creative people working at the intersection of various disciplines. With these interviews we would like to explore the network of these creatives and add an element of chance by giving each of them the power to select the next person. Rather than static players chosen by us, they become dynamic parts in the system, able to define the evolution of the entire project.
For our second interview in the Elastic Minds series, Tobias Klein sent us off to the Bartlett School of Architecture to meet Ruairi Glynn. Ruairi works in a crossover between architecture, cybernetics, puppetry and dance. Apart from being a practising artist (his latest installation, “Fearful Symmetry”, has made it straight to Tate Modern), Ruairi does a PhD in Architecture and teaches on three Masters programmes (Architectural Design, Adaptive Architecture & Computation and Textiles Futures) at London universities. He also curates conferences and has published two books on digital design and fabrication in architecture. No pressure.
We meet Ruairi and his colleague Ollie Palmer in the workshop at the top floor of Bartlett. A big room with workbenches, cables, tools and parts of robots scattered left and right. This is a place where things are made! Students and lecturers of this department are featured in Wired magazine; one of Ruairi’s students recently became a TED Fellow. Robotics and Artificial Intelligence are clearly back in the spotlight.
HFA: Being in the driver’s seat of this trend, how do you guys look at media picturing it as a movement? Do you take it seriously when NYT publishes headlines like “Chris Anderson Leaving Wired for Robots”?
RG: (laughs) Anderson’s discourse about the Internet being over and 3D printing and Maker Movement being the new black is quite a statement. Don’t get me wrong: the whole focus on creating and the idea of instructables is fantastic. Having direct access to resources necessary to prototype has literally changed the way we are teaching. If you want to know something, the first thing you do is Google it. And if you want to create something, you now have open-source hardware such as Arduino or plug-and-play motion detectors such as Microsoft Kinect.
This democratisation accelerates our work, but it also poses a danger. As a student, you do not need to know any basics about electronics anymore – you just find predefined libraries and start playing around. It catches up with you once you encounter a problem though. Same as with programming: you cannot take other people’s codes indefinitely.
OP: But overall it is a great thing. It used to be massively constraining to think in code terms when you tried to bring some beautiful concept to life. Today you can start prototyping ideas much quicker.
HFA: Ruairi, let’s talk about your art. Your latest installation, which was exhibited this summer at the Tate Tanks, is quite an accomplishment. A collaborative effort of a team of specialists from several universities, it comes with state-of-the-art technologies such as the world’s largest delta robot or luminescent sheet that you would normally find in jet fighters. You named it “Fearful Symmetry”, a direct reference to William Blake’s poem. How do you connect Romantic poetry with robotics?
RG: It is true that poetry is not something I usually reach to for inspiration, but Blake’s work resonates with me on many different levels. His frequent use of Masonic symbols and geometry, his referrals to some form of otherworldly, divine design – a life force if you like – all this offers a rich ground for interpretation.
When I was looking for a fitting title for my piece, I first came across Blake’s painting “The Ancient of Days”, introduced to me by Ollie, which shows a God-like figure holding a triangular compass – the tool of creation and navigation. The poem itself (“The Tyger”, Ed.) came later, but once I read it, it was as if each verse described the various stages I was going through: the experience of being in darkness, the piercing light travelling across the columns, terrifying and beautiful at the same time, and the almost industrial work that had to go into creating something very soft and light.
It also served as inspiration for the quality of the robot’s movements that ranged from menacing to calm and graceful ones. Since the entire room was dark, the only part of the installation, which the audience actually saw, was the glowing tetrahedron attached to the robotic arm – a dazzling element that glided through space and appeared to have its own personality. It could be perceived either as frightening and alien or as a companion offering guidance through the darkness. Most of the time the reactions of the audience changed dramatically from fear to fascination, once they saw it interacting with another person.
HFA: So you are standing in relative darkness with a glowing object moving through space and playfully interacting with you but at the same time staying out of your reach. There are some sounds that further enhance the impact of its movements. Creating such highly immersive experiences would also be a typical challenge for game designers. Is game design part of your world and inspiration?
RG: I do not know a huge amount about gaming, but one thing that really inspired me were the behavioural patterns of the Pac-Man* enemies. There are just couple of rules that these ghosts run by and they are all strictly deterministic: a combination of simple logic with a little bit of randomness. The right amount of randomness is crucial, in my opinion. When carefully balanced, it will trigger the player’s interest; add too much and it will create noise and no sense of control. The key to success is a principle of simple agents in a complex environment together with a bit of random behaviour. And that is what made Pac-Man so popular.
Rather than games though, most of my inspiration comes from perceptual psychology, social behaviour and ultimately, from neuroscience.
HFA: This randomness and complexity also appears in your other piece “Motive Colloquies”, a 3-metres high interactive robot mirroring its audience’s gestures. In the video it seems that whilst the robot shows an initial interest in one particular person in the audience, it quickly re-focuses on someone else. Where did the inspiration for this work came from?
RG: The central idea was derived from a concept in neuroscience. Our brain has neurons that mimic behaviour of other people in order to gain better understanding of our environment. This sort of mimesis also increases an empathy we feel for each other. The giant robot scans the environment, then picks up and imitates movements of an individual within the audience. As its body is very different to a human one, the movements are transformed but still mirror features of audience movement. It would randomly change its attention to different audience members, which was interesting because audience members – flattered at first by the robot’s attention and then confused when confronted with its rejection – started questioning themselves and competed for the robot’s attention.
From a technical point of view scanning of the environment was one of the most challenging things, but in order to create an immersive experience we needed to add this little bit of randomness to keep the audience intrigued.
HFA: Back in 2008, you installed four robots in a gallery in Brazil and called it “Performative Ecologies”. On your website this work is described as a kinetic ‘conversational’ environment. What exactly was happening there?
RG: This project was inspired by the work of cybernetician Gordon Pask and explored how his conversation theory framework can be extended, using contemporary digital technology.
The installation consisted out of four machines with lighting patterns that individually learned while they were in the gallery. They started a bit like newborn children, with very limited scope of behavioural and movement patterns. By competing for attention of the gallery visitors and by learning from one another as a community, each of them gradually developed its own personality.
So what was happening there, technically, was that each robot performed movements generated from a gene pool of evolving dances functioning in a genetic algorithm. They used facial recognition to assess how successful their movements were by analysing the attention level of the audience after each performance. And just as in natural selection, their behaviour adapted and the most successful movements won. It was interesting to see how – after only three months in the gallery – they all became different and the gallery staff had even given them names.
HFA: Robots with adaptive behaviour that make use of genetic algorithms sounds very intriguing. Are all these inventions recent? And how do you see them within the context of architecture and fine art?
RG: It is all not that sophisticated and some of it has existed for a long time. I build upon the tradition of Artificial Intelligence** and cybernetics from the fifties and sixties, guys like Gordon Pask and other non-architects, deeply interested in machines. The Architecture Machine Group over at the MIT, John Frazer building interactive machines at the Architectural Associations in the seventies and eighties – they all have paved the way for us with their fantastic work.
There are basically two ways to look at Artificial Intelligence and robots. The old one is to put as much intelligence as possible in a robot to replicate a human being. The emerging AI of the last 15 to 20 years, however, focuses on letting the robot learn from his environment and gradually evolve its behaviour.
The latter – which is the area where I work in – is actually very close to architecture. Because of the importance I give to the environment, my work becomes very site specific, one of the key elements in architecture. Machines with adaptive behaviour fascinate me and I think architecture can benefit from them a great deal. Would not it be amazing if we could create buildings that adapt to their environment?
From an art perspective, my practice is often described as kinetic art. I think I prefer the term motive art, since my focus is not only on movement as such, but also on the reasons and goals behind it. In my PhD research I am digging further into this area of perception of movement, the human experience of it and how you can design it. According to perceptual psychology, movement has a bigger importance and impact on our visual perceptual field than color or form, yet it is still rather unexplored territory within the traditional visual arts. So with my focus on movement, I feel like I am pulling on the strings of fine art, performative art and architecture.
HFA: The Microsoft Kinect has teleported Artificial Intelligence from the research lab into the living room. How do commercial applications using AI principles differ from your own approach?
RG: Although we might be using the same kind of tools, I feel we ask slightly different questions. In research, and especially in the Architecture department of Bartlett, we focus on non-screen interactions. We also touch upon a more ambient way of interacting, which often involves multiple participants.
Another point is that we look at how something operates in space over a long period of time. Do not forget that in terms of architecture, what we create, could last longer than a lifetime. All this makes our approach very different from gaming and experience design applications that mostly focus on direct, deep engagement from a single person’s perspective over a relatively short time frame.
HFA: We talked about control in the context of creating immersive experiences and getting the audience intrigued by movement (of robots). In a less direct way, your work also deals with the question of giving up control and granting the machine autonomy. How comfortable are you with the notion that your machines get increasingly smarter and might even get their own will over time?
RG: Indeed, lot of my work deals with this. I do not want to control what I build, control kills part of the mystery. I want it to adapt to its environment and be reactive to change. Only then does the interaction become interesting for the viewer – and also for the machine (laughs).
In an extreme case, there is of course a possible risk to this. It is interesting you mention it, because just this morning, British researchers at Cambridge University announced they wanted to create a Centre for the Study of Existential Risk to analyze the threats to mankind’s survival from biotech, nanotech, extreme climate change, nuclear war – and from runaway artificial intelligence. It is clearly a sign that scientists they are taking a possible danger from AI seriously.
HFA: Thanks, Ruairi, for a fascinating interview. Next time we meet, maybe we can try the Voight-Kampff test.
(On our recurring question about who should be the next victim for the Elastic Minds interview series, Ruairi just pointed towards Ollie’s table. Ollie Palmer, we learn, has found a way to make insects dance by using synthesised ant pheromones. To be continued!)
Photos from our visit
Fearful Symmetry at the Tate Tanks
Adaptive Architecture and Computation at Bartlett, UCL
Graduate Architectural Design at Bartlett, UCL
Interview with Régine Debatty (We Make Money Not Art)
* Pac-Man was already named as the most recognisable computer game character of all time by the Guinness Book of Records, and this week MOMA announced that it had acquired 10 video games – Pac-Man amongst them – for its permanent collection.
** AI (Artificial Intelligence) US computer scientist and cognitive scientist John McCarthy coined the term Artificial intelligence in 1955 but since then the meaning of the it has changed dramatically.
Ruairi Glynn studied Art & Design at Central Saint Martins College, UAL in London, MediaLab Art at the Institute of Digital Arts and Technology in Plymouth and Architecture at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL in London.
He is an artist who builds interactive kinetic installations that reveal the primacy of movement above and beyond colour, form and texture in human visual perception. To achieve this, he draws on a rich heritage of cybernetics, puppetry, dance and architecture. He also spends his time curating, authoring publications and lecturing at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL & Central Saint Martins, UAL.
Ruairi’s work has been exhibited internationally, most recently at the Tate Modern in London, Centre Pompidou Paris, the National Art Museum Beijing, Seoul’s Olympic Museum of Art, Sao Paulo’s Itau Cultural, Beall Center Los Angeles, the Madrid Art Fair, the Kunsthaus Graz and London Design Festival. He lives and works in London.
Other Elastic Minds interviews:
Tobias Klein (October 2012)