Tree Rings


My instructions create a scenario in which the participant must defer bodily control to a process. I put particular emphasis on eye movements and blinking. In the context of Tree Rings, the participant’s line of sight and blinking speed are signals that control point position and point generation respectively. Ideally, the piece fosters a sense of closing in as the “bounded region” approaches a single point.


This result revealed a serious hole in the logic of my instructions. Namely, that it’s possible to stare at any fixed point to satisfy the end condition. In the above case, the participant stared at some fixed point after only one iteration.

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These last two examples illustrate the ambiguity (delicious, I hope) of the instruction “connect each point.” One participant opted to connect the points with curvilinear lines, resulting in flowing, topographic contours, while the other connected the points with straight lines, resulting in more jagged contours.

I made an effort to avoid instructions that would generate arbitrary doodles. However, there are aspects of the drawings that are arbitrary, just as there are aspects that resemble doodles. I don’t think that these qualities are bad in themselves. In fact, it seems like the most interesting processes anticipate and account for randomness and choice.


“Wall Drawing” by Sol Lewitt


On first reading the Sol Lewitt’s “Wall Drawing”, I felt totally overwhelmed. Although it was clear to me that the instructions were precise, I found them excruciating to parse mainly because of the nested structures littered throughout the text. To remedy this difficulty, I broke the text down by isolating the instructions for each point (the instructions for any two points were separated by the word “to”). I then transferred these instructions to a table, and organized them by line number (1, 2, 3, or 4) and by point number (p1, p2). Within a given instruction, I found instances of nested points (halfway between a point halfway between) and color coded them for readability.

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I eventually generated a quadrangle from the instructions, but was not satisfied by the results. Particularly, I was unsettled by the ambiguity of this instruction:

A point where a line would cross the first line if it were drawn from the midpoint of the right side

This instruction, I found, allowed for an infinite number of points along a certain line. To be sure, Lewitt might have intentionally embedded ambiguity to allow for variation and an element of interpretation. And yet, this particular instruction stood in stark contrast to the specificity of the other instructions, all of which referred to a single point.


Looking Outwards 1

Personal Crunchology

Personal Crunchology is a project by Kjen Wilkens, a former student in the Royal College of Arts Design Interactions program. Wilkens proposes a “statistical fortune telling service,” in which personal data is mined and used to inform predictive computer models. On his website Wilkens minimizes the technical aspect of the project, which makes sense since the message trumps the medium in this case. By this I mean that Personal Crunchology succeeds conceptually, at least within the confines of speculative design idioms. Like many other projects from RCA Design Interactions, there is a looming threat of impending dystopia, and sterile, possibly totalitarian graphic design. That being said, I think Wilkens’ term “data obese futures” is not necessarily an exaggeration. When applied haphazardly, “quantified self” has enormous potential for abuse. Wilkens’ prescient melding of a mystical process (fortune telling) and an “objective” one (quantified self) reveals the discrepancy between our data-selves and our personalities. It privileges human judgments via a fairly dubious application of big data.


Pendulum Choir

Typically, we control machines for our own benefit. This relationship is reversed in the case of Pendulum Choir (the winner of the 2013 Prix Ars Electronica in the Interactive Art category), in which 9 a cappella singers are made the instruments – in both senses of the word – of 18 hydraulic jacks. The performance achieves a wonderful gestalt, where the singers seem to move and operate as a single entity. Considered from an aesthetic lens, the musical virtuosity of the singers makes for an unsettling juxtaposition with the cold precision of the hydraulic jacks. I had a similar feeling when viewing Ryoji Ikeda’s video installation data.tron at the Wood Street Galleries: one of overwhelming domination by a hostile force. But Pendulum Choir generates alienation in a slightly different way; it engages actual people, and proceeds to reduce them to a sort of flower arrangement for the sake of a robot mating ritual.



Obake: interactions with a 2.5D elastic display from Dhairya Dand on Vimeo.

One difficulty of three-dimensional interfaces a la Minority Report is a lack of tactile feedback. An elastic surface that uses linear actuators to respond to the user seems to address this problem, at least partially. For this reason, I was initially intrigued by Obake, a prototype of a 2.5D input device by Dhairya Dand and Robert Hemsley. But Although Obake is a worthwhile experiment, the implementation (at least as it is shown in the project video) does little to build on a the offerings of a humble touchscreen. Dand and Hemsley do not make a compelling argument for pulling and pushing being sustainable additions or alternatives to the existing vocabulary of touch gestures (pinch, flick, etc.). The task that is highlighted – manipulating a topographical simulation – is an uncommon one, and it was difficult for me to understand why I would want to use Obake over a 3D mouse. I would have been sympathetic to the project had the gestures first been applied to a common use case such as image manipulation, and only then to a more exotic case.

First Word Problems

The Gartner Hype Cycle and Michael Naimark’s First Word Art / Last Word Art relate the radical to the acceptable. Whereas the former is a spectrum of technology maturity, the latter is a dichotomy of emerging forms of art and established forms. These spectra point to the fact that mass adoption of a new art form or technology is closely related to accessibility. In terms of technology, accessibility most closely correlates with cost, where in art accessibility correlates with familiarity to a set of artistic idioms.

I’m primarily interested in First Word Art, which to me means exploring new and radical forms of expression. While this may involve experimenting exclusively in bleeding edge technologies, I don’t think this is always necessary. In my practice, the message or artistic agenda tends to take priority over the medium or technology used. Practically speaking, working in the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” consumes more money and time than working in the “Trough of Disillusionment.”

Engineering that engineers us

5. The Critical Engineer recognises that each work of engineering engineers its
user, proportional to that user’s dependency upon it.

This tenet touches upon the extent to which technologies can modify our habits and behaviors. Having experienced dependency engineering in a variety of online and offline settings – Duolingo, Facebook and Scientology come to mind – I find that this tenet is particularly pressing. With an awareness of the potential for engineers to affect the behavior of their users, the critical engineer can go on to deconstruct and critique habit-forming structures.

A critical engineer might be interested in appropriating a tactic like gamification in an artwork or provocation, so as to bring it to the attention of the public sphere. Concretely, this might involve rewarding participants with a badge for every hour that they clean a window. As an aside, I think it’s crucial for an engineer or maker to be intensely aware of the ethical dimension of her work.

Silk Pavilion

SILK PAVILION from Mediated Matter Group on Vimeo.

Developed by the Mediated Matter research group at MIT Media Lab, Silk Pavilion endorses a non-anthropocentric future in which a variety of creatures (engineered or otherwise) play vital roles in the production of shelters and resources. Silk Pavilion is a tangible prototype of a potentially disruptive means of production. It is undeniably beautiful, both aesthetically and in the rich constellation of environmental and social implications it elicits.

At its simplest, Silk Pavilion is just what the name implies – a pavilion constructed by 6,500 silkworm laborers.  A structural skeleton was designed based on meticulous research into the behavior of silkworms, and laid out in silk thread by a CNC machine. This process raises interesting questions regarding robot-insect cooperation.

Silk Pavilion resists disciplinary classification, a fact reflected in the diversity of the research group itself, which includes, among others: architects, interaction designers and scientists from various fields.