- 27 March:
Poeme Numerique Masterclass: Days 5 and 6 with David Rokeby
David Rokeby began his session introducing us to his weapon of choice – Max/MSP and his own software that works with Max/MSP, SoftVNS. Max/MSP is a visual programming environment that allows artists to connect just about anything to just about anything else (I’m being deliberately vague here), enabling a wide range of possible interactions between computers and the outside world.
Rokeby’s introduction to Max/MSP was clear and pitched perfectly for the group and their wide range of interests. Following on from the tinkering with cameras that took place the night before, Rokeby asked the participants to think of the camera as a sensor. Running through several video processing Max “patch” (the name for a file in Max/MSP) examples and explaining their internal logic, he described how the improvisational nature of visual programming allows for a more sculptural approach. Rokeby himself is adept at both visual and text programming, and he articulately described visual programming as a kind of sculpting, as opposed to the starkly logical approach of text programming. He showed one of his own “rat’s nest” Max patches to demonstrate how organic and slightly overgrown visual programming can get when you’re “in the zone”.
Later, in a casual moment over lunch, Rokeby told a great story about being in art school. One day, one of his favourite professors gave his class the assignment of simply looking out the window for 3 hours. Rokeby said he was “enraged” and utterly bored by this very simple assignment for the first fifteen minutes, but then after that initial adjustment period, was fascinated by what he saw outside and began to take note of many details. The story was a great reminder of the patience, mindfulness, and attention to detail that benefits people choosing to pursue the intersection of art and technology — especially when debugging a “rat’s nest” Max patch!
After the introduction to Max/MSP and SoftVNS, David began running the masterclass through examples of his own work. At several points, dialogue about the work itself segued into a longer discussion about the underlying issues. When Rokeby showed Taken, his piece created in 2002 that deals with automation of surveillance, he discussed the perennial subject of surveillance, but from the perspective of how machines are taking over the process. When making and showing the piece, he was interested in how visitors felt about the encroaching phenomenon of decisions being made about them by a machine. In all of his pieces that deal with surveillance of human visitors, Rokeby noted that he found a wide range of responses among the gallery-going public. Some, he said, were so angry they couldn’t even speak to him, and others had alarmingly uncritical responses.
After years of working with cameras as sensors, and topics such as surveillance, Rokeby shifted his practice into a new kind of work with a piece at the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto entitled Cloud. The piece consists of a hundred identical sculptural elements in a ten by ten grid. These elements are rotated by computer-controlled motors and their movements shift in and out of sync. Rokeby describes the key features of the piece as “tension between chaos and order, between scientific theory and human experience, and between objectivity and subjectivity”. When describing the piece to the group, he said he enjoyed how it generated a change in the experience of (a very public) space, by taking really simple elements and getting as much out of those simple elements as possible. Because Rokeby liked feeling of the space, he made the elements of the sculpture translucent, allowing people to see the space, not blocking the features of the space.
Once he started introducing a recent and completely non-interactive work, long wave, he told the group of how when he started making interactive work, he intended to stimulate the memories, desires, and emotions of people, creating an emptiness in the work, and inviting them to fill it. After the non-interactive and simultaneously beautiful work he did in Toronto with long wave, he created a new, extraordinarily interactive work in Pittsburgh that hearkened back somewhat to his early days of software development, when he was developing Very Nervous System.
Rokeby mentioned the ancient Greek idea that the eyes beam rays of perception outward, not receive images inwardly. In his latest piece at Wood Street Galleries in Pittsburgh, “Dark Matter, infrared cameras are in each corner of the room, watching, making the room filled with potential intersection of these “rays of perception”. He used Max on the iPhone to set specific trigger points in the space, as mathematically there were an enormous number of possibilities of interaction between the beams and visitors, 16 million or so. When visitors move through the darkened space, their bodies create an improvised soundscape.
Preparing for the public presentations later in the day, the participants then turned their attention to making demos or maquettes to show: back to quiet, heads-in-laptops time.