Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Web Artist: Ken Goldberg

Ken Goldberg is an artist. Ken Goldberg is a professor of engineering.

So what defines who is an “artist”? What enables a professor at a major university have an alter ego that can encompass whimsy, caprice and felicity? Do his two sides have an irrational connection or a rational disconnection?

Many facets of Ken’s development and output are reported in a 2005 biographical article from the East Bay Express. But there’s more and new data waiting to be explored. In 2008 I hope to be in contact with Ken via a project or two. While doing so I hope to research and report back to you at a later date what Ken is looking into these days and where he is setting his sights.

In the meantime let's begin to look at three of his works of web art: Ouija 2000, Demonstrate and Memento Mori.

Ouija 2000

Ouija 2000 is an on-line Ouija board. Up to twenty people collectively manipulate an on-line planchette. Once the application is loaded, questions appear at the bottom of the screen. If you are the only spiritualist participant online, you can move the planchette anywhere over the virtual Ouija board. If you stay in a single location for a length of time, Ouija 2000 recognizes and informs you that the planchette is over the desired response. The interesting thing happens when multiple participants are on-line. In this case the planchette moves according to a specially-designed voting or averaging algorithm.

When I think of Quija 2000 lots of ideas pop up:

  • As far as I am concerned, I will never again need to purchase another physical-world Ouija board. My guess is that most spiritualists are Luddite enough so that Ken has not singlehandedly wiped Ouija factories off the board (so to speak).

  • In the next revision, it would be nice if we could create our own private groups and ask our own questions. How about a custom Ouija board question generator? The we could consult it to help us decide whether our next project should be built with Python or Ruby on Rails, for example.

  • It would be great to have a Ouija Widget (say this out loud please) for chat rooms and blogs and other social networks with numbers of online lurkers. As a supplement or enhancer to online polling widgets or plug-ins. I feel that such a toy could lead to some freaky crowd-sourcing responses.

  • Could one replace the Diebold voting machines with Ouija 2000?

  • One could have lots of fun with the positioning algorithm. In corporate environment, you could start off with the low paid employees having one vote while the CEO has 1023. The number of votes would readjust according to who has the best guess of the quarterly sales figures or earnings whatever.

  • Perhaps Ouija 2000 is some way of capturing the collective subconscious. See also Demonstrate just below.


Quoting from Demonstrate web site:
Demonstrate set up...a web camera over UC Berkeley's Sproul Plaza, birthplace of the Free Speech Movement. For six weeks, the camera was made accessible to anyone on the Internet. Online participants shared remote control of the robot camera, allowing them to zoom in to frame and photograph activity in the Plaza at any time of day or night.

The project, timed to coincide with the 40th Anniversary of the Free Speech Movement attracted over 4000 online participants from around the world. The resulting archive of 1200 photos and textual comments offers a portrait of public space as viewed from the public in cyberspace.

Arising from the same root as demon and monster, the Demonstrate project set out to visualize the concept of public space. The camera and archive illustrate new imaging technology and human behavior in the public zones of both plaza and cyberspace.

So here was a surveillance camera whose images were open to viewing by the public with access to the Internet - which could be the vast panoply of angels, the KGB or you. A place to see and be seen.

Was this another first step towards the state in which all that can be known is knowable by all?[1] Certainly here is an early draft of the answer to the question "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"

Responding to this question, in the 17th century Bishop George Berkeley said "esse est percipi" which translates as "to be [exist] is to be perceived". Berkeley invoked God and said that God can observe everything. Thus everything we humans perceive or do not perceive must nonetheless exist because God perceives everything.

Fast forward three hundred years or so, go from Berkeley to the webcam in Berkeley (the California city named after Bishop George Berkeley), progress from God being the omniscient observer to you, me and all the rest of us being the collective observancy. Then, according to this Berkeley mashup, are you God?

And thus we have a nice neat and tidy curatorial statement about Demonstrate without ever once mentioning the word "gaze", semiotics, the Patriot Act or other complicated stuff.


Or Memento Mori - is a Latin phrase that may be freely translated as "Remember that you are mortal," "Remember you will die," or "Remember your death".

Paraphrasing the Memento Mori site:
Minute movements of the Hayward Fault (above the above University of California at Berkeley) are detected by a Streckeisen STS-1 seismometer that measures vertical ground velocity. The up and down motion reflects the up and down movement of the Earth's surface and is converted to digital signals, and transmitted continuously via the Internet to a server at UC Berkeley where it is further processed by a Java application and then made available in a continuously sites scrolling visual display.

Apart from the intrinsic frisson you may have when observing Memento Mori, the very interesting thing about this work is its age. Memento Mori was first brought into operation in 1998! This was before the DotCom era. The first popular web browser, Gopher, was just five years old. The latest browser was Internet Explorer 4. Google, NetFlix and PayPal were started in 1998.

There were something like 40 million hosts online (an order of magnitude fewer than today), but how many of these were streaming to end users data gathered from a remote source in near real time for free? And then how many of these sites have been ticking over for ten years. And then how many of these sites were doing this for the art of it? Memento Mori is a rare treasure, perhaps, even of earthshaking proportion.

Bravo Ken!


[1] See Vannevar Bush's article: "As We May Think" in Atlantic Monthly of July *1945* that established the idea that a person could record everything they do and have this data readily accessible forever.

"Presumably man's spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems. He has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory. His excursions may be more enjoyable if he can reacquire the privilege of forgetting the manifold things he does not need to have immediately at hand, with some assurance that he can find them again if they prove important."

See also Gorden Bell's MyLifeBits and JustinTV.

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