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Science + Tech

New Media Gallery’s Alarming Art Machines

Sometimes creepy, sometimes fun, the computer-driven works offer a disturbing look at our relationship with the technology.

Dorothy Woodend 31 Mar 2021 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor of The Tyee. Reach her here.

The other day, while flicking through channels, I came across The Terminator. I’ve probably seen James Cameron’s 1984 film about a killer robot from the future about 500,000 times, give or take, but I watched it again, thinking bemusedly that the Armageddon it depicts is only a scant few years from now.

The artful machines in MirNs, the current exhibition at the New Media Gallery in New Westminster, bear little resemblance to the Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 cyborg. The installations seem more interested in learning from humans than murdering them. But nonetheless there is a certain menace beneath the playfulness.

The title of the show takes inspiration from mirror neurons. What are those, you ask? Mirror neurons kick into gear when you watch someone doing something and feel as though you were doing it yourself.

This system of the brain was accidentally discovered by Italian neuroscientists at the University of Parma, who found that when monkeys watched, or even heard, other monkeys doing stuff like reaching for fruit, certain neural networks in their brains were activated.

Walking through MirNs, the other thing that came immediately to mind was the curious story of Eliza. Created in the early 1970s, partly as a joke, Joseph Weizenbaum’s computer system simulated conversation, partly by mirroring back statements fed into it by human users, offering a kind of therapy. No one was more surprised than its creator when people began to tell the machine all manner of intimate and personal secrets, even though they knew it was only offering back what they had provided.

As the Eliza experiment indicated, people like talking to machines because they don’t judge, aren’t condescending and don’t get insanely annoyed listening to them whine about their problems. Also, machines are fun.

As the New Media Gallery’s curator Sarah Joyce explains, fun was a big part of putting the show together. This is very apparent in Klaus Obermaier, Stefano D’Alessio and Martina Menegon’s installation entitled Ego, inspired by the Lacanian theory of Ego formation.

How to translate psychological theory into an interactive art installation? Make it fun, dammit.

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Klaus Obermaier, Stefano D’Alessio and Martina Menegon’s interactive Ego. Photo via New Media Gallery.

At first glance the piece is just a tangle of lines projected on a blank wall. But the moment a human enters the frame the installation leaps to life, accompanied by a garbled soundtrack of Lacanian German nonsense.

Two abstract figures — one male and one female, denoted by symbolically suggested genitalia — mirror the movement of the human participants. You move, they move. The action mostly proceeds like you’d expect, until things spin wildly out of control and the male figure’s penis begins to whip round, spiralling out like a lasso. Joyful chaos ensues. Joyce and I danced so hard in front of the work that she fell over and our laughter interrupted the film crew working outside the gallery.

A similar animal pleasure is attached to Daniel Rozin’s PomPom Mirror. Rozin’s work is a paradoxical thing, hard and soft, sweet and a bit scary. Motion sensors move black-and-white fur pom poms in real time, offering fuzzy silhouettes that move in sinuous lockstep with the humans moving in front of it. Wave your arms, and the buzzing beehive sound of 464 motors accompanies the motion — fun fur meets animatronics, like a Disney ride on acid.

This sound of the machine at work adds an uneasy quality, as if underneath the softness of its appearance something else lurks. Peel away the fuzzy surface and what you get are metal servos, clicking and buzzing, not unlike the scene in The Terminator when the cyborg strips off its human skin to reveal its metal skeleton. The schism between outer surface and inner structure prickles the senses. When people step out of view, the machine goes to sleep and begins to dream, purring softly to itself as it generates random images.

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Daniel Rozin's PomPom Mirror creates dizzying silhouettes in real time from black-and-white pom poms. Photo via New Media Gallery.

“My pieces are very boring when there’s not a person in front of them,” Rozin has said. “But the minute a person stands in front, it takes your image. I try to think that maybe it takes more than your image; maybe it’s capturing something about your soul and displaying it back to you.”

If the notion of having one’s soul displayed makes you a tad uneasy, you might turn tail and run away from Mario Klingemann’s Uncanny Mirror. The most deeply unsettling work in the show, but also the most fascinating, Klingemann’s machine learns from people.

Using facial-recognition software, the work’s built-in camera captures the faces of people standing in front of it. As you stand there, the piece begins to build a portrait of you, drawing upon the biometrics markers of your face as well as a cache of earlier images gathered from wherever the work has been exhibited. In essence, it makes a picture of you out of the bits and pieces of other people. It is a deeply strange experience, part sinister Frankenstein creation and part earnest attempt to learn. One lurches unsteadily between different reactions of “Ewww...” and “Aww...” as your amalgamated portrait evolves.

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A visitor stares at the digital regenation of their own image in Mario Klingemann's Uncanny Mirror. Photo via New Media Gallery.

Although artificial neural networks have come into wide use in recent years, as Joyce explains they’re still only as good as their programmers and thus can inherit all manner of things from their human fallible creators. The Uncanny Mirror seems better at picking up certain faces more than others, perhaps because of where it’s been previously exhibited.

The beautiful and the creepy similarly infuse Louis-Philippe Rondeau’s Liminal. The installation looks like the time portal in the Stargate film, a large round hoop that prompts viewers to leap through and end up in a different reality. Stick any bit of yourself — arm, leg or your entire body — through the vertical ring, and an image is captured and projected onto a wall that runs the length of the gallery.

It doesn’t take long to figure out how to make the most grotesque, funhouse mirror images possible. Put your face directly in front of the technology and what appears is an elongated, disturbing image of your eye distorted to horrific proportions. There is a sound component as well, like a theremin that is affected by the length of exposure to the camera.

The installation lends itself to playfulness. If there were other folks in the gallery, one might be less inclined to go nuts, but in these pandemical times, when alone in a room, you can be as weird as you want to be.

This performative impulse runs through the rest of the work in the show, including Random International’s Fragments, which involves 189 mirrors reacting to human motion like a sentient disco-ball party, and Shinseungback Kimyonghun’s Nonfacial Mirror. Mirror looks like something you might buy at IKEA, but it has ideas of its own about what it wants to look at. As you stare into it, it turns abruptly away, like it cannot bear to look at you.

In a statement about the work, the artistic duo explains: “With technology we humans become the creator. We create the world ourselves. The work is getting digitalized and so are the humans. Our children who will live in the 22nd century might as well be called human, but they will be much different from us...”

Each individual work in the show is fascinating. But taken as a collective, they offer something even deeper, surfacing the strange, occasionally perverse reactions that humans have to machines, but also our love and dependency upon them. At some point, we may well become indivisible.  [Tyee]

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