week 2 – cybernetic artwork




The piece of cybernetic art I found interesting is Ken Rinaldo’s The Flock (1993) especially since it is related to our topic last week about computer simulation of biological flocking behaviors. The piece is “a group of musical interactive sound sculptures […] which exhibited behaviors analogous to the flocking found in natural groups”(Rinaldo, n.p). The sculptures themselves are three large robotic arms hanging from the celling of the exhibition space, and they identify and interact with the viewers as well as each other through sound- and movement-sensors and emitters. The system of the piece follows a chaotic model of cybernetics. The robotic arms in the piece, like many other Artificial Life systems or mechanisms, have a feedback loop; it follows certain rules created by the artists so that the system always has temporal goals, and it is constantly running on these rules as they detect movements and sounds in their surroundings, including the ones made by each other. When the viewers walk into the exhibition space and around the arms, their infrared and sound sensors would detect the viewers’ positions and subsequently conduct certain behaviors.

The system has a few basic rules – the arms would avoid the viewers in the exhibition space (using their infrared sensors), move towards them when they detect a certain level of sounds made by the viewers, and respond to signal communication (through musical /telephone notes) from each other by either moving towards or avoid the communicated location. These stand-alone rules, when put together, sometimes contradict each other, and thus create “dynamic state of attraction and repulsion for each sculpture” and consequentially emergent behaviors (Rinaldo, n.p).

The artist describes his main intention in creating this piece as to construct and capture emergent behaviors on the global level of the group based on local interactions on an individual level (Wilson 342). On the programming level, this is a rather typical system of boids that recreates emergent behaviors found in natural environment such as flocking by setting a cybernetic system and allowing the boids to interact with each other and the environment they are in. What’s different about this piece in comparison to other artworks that explore the topics of emergent system, boids and simulation of natural phenomenon is that it has a three-dimensional, physical presence, putting it on the intersection between robotic art, A-Life art and cybernetic art. It also makes use of sound, which makes its behaviors more similar to actual animal flocking. Moreover, according to Rinaldo, the set of rules for the system is to simulate the way lives in nature interact with each other and the environment. “Here the participants and other sculptures, as environment, affect the form and the form modifies the environment, which then affects the form again, ad infinitum.” (Rinaldo, n.p.) In this piece, the viewers, as part of the environment, is also constantly moving in response to the behaviors of the arms, which has usually been found in computer simulations of flocking at the time when this piece was made. In a way, the artists did not try to completely simulate a kind of flocking behavior of species that are already found in nature (such as the flocking of birds which many computer simulation programs produce) but a new kind of “life” that interact with its fellow creatures through the flocking model. On the other hand, because of physical and technical limitations, the flocking group has only three individuals, which possibly restricts the development of emergent behaviors in the system.

This piece was made in 1993, just a few years after the emergence of computer programs of boids/flocking simulation. It explores the possibility of realizing/simulating complex flocking behaviors and using such simulation to create Artificial Life, which is a good example of how cybernetic system is employed in contemporary art and scientific work.

Works Cited:
Rinaldo, Ken. “The Flock.” Ken Rinaldo. 2015. Web. 13 Apr. 2016.
Wilson, Stephen. Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science, and Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2002. Print.

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