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April 15 - June 29, 2003 at Art Center College of Design, Pasadena

by Mario Cutajar

Ken Goldberg, Pietro Perona, John Bender, + collaborators,“Infiltrate,” 2003, installation--darkened room with one video projector. In the center of the room, on a riser approximately 5 feet tall, a square fish tank, bare, approximately 2 x 2 x 2 feet, spotlit from above. Inside swim 6 fat koi fish, one black, the others gold.

Christian Möller, Pietro Perona, + collaborators, "Natahsa", 2003, installation using human face recognition technology to evaluate four person's "smiles" and rate them according to sincerity.

Jennifer Steinkamp + collaborators, "Untitled," 2003, altered architectural space using projecting computer-generated graphics, digital mock-up for installation at Caltech's Athenaeum lobby.

There is something seemingly benign about an exhibition that sets out to explore the potential for cross-fertilization between art and science--and specifically the intersection between installation art and a frontier area of science dealing with machines that simulate the neurophysiology of living organisms. Not to mention one that is relevant to the development of artificially intelligent systems. Consideration of the sinister possibilities of the technology on display, however, is not part of the mix. And yet, given the context of the invasive reality of what the government calls the War on Terror and what others are unfortunate enough to experience more directly as the terror of war, Neuro unwittingly provides metaphors for the post-9/11 emergence of the national security state.

Two instances in particular stand out. A collaborative installation by Ken Goldberg, Pietro Perona, John Bender and others provocatively entitled Infiltrate (but which is, nonetheless, mute about the longstanding association of infiltration with insurgency and counterinsurgency) consists of six koi (five gold, one black) swimming in a tank under constant surveillance by several tracking cameras. The cameras relay their data to a computer that generates a video projection of the five gold koi as ellipsoidal forms, the idea being that these forms represent the gold koi as seen by the black fish. The stated intention is to grant the viewer the simultaneous experiences of being “inside and outside Nature,” which seems like an extraordinarily simple-minded notion to wed to such sophisticated technology. Instead, the installation evokes the Orwellian connection between surveillance and control, and by extension, the fact that despite our highly evolved technical abilities, we human animals remain as instinctually primitive and obsessed with dominance as any of the “lower” life forms.

Christian Möller and Pietro Perona’s installation, titled Cheese, uses face recognition technology to rate smiles according to sincerity. This type of lie detection technology may soon become part of the standard equipment of security screening (Remember the Voigt-Kampff test in Bladerunner?). At which point your boss will be able to measure your real enthusiasm for your job, and the government will be able to ferret out your true level of patriotism and civic compliance.  This is the closest Neuro comes to an overt consideration of the social implications of smart technology.

Probably the best way to approach this exhibition is to think of it more in terms of science center display than art show.  The role of the artists in Neuro is to contribute elegant ways of showing off cutting edge technology. Neuro is in fact the product of a collaboration between Art Center and Caltech, and one of the installations, by Jennifer Steinkamp, is on view at Caltech’s Athenaeum lobby. The Caltech people involved in the project are attached to something called the Center for Neuromorphic Systems Engineering (CNSE), which does research on machines that will “interact with, learn from, and adapt to their environment with a flexibility equivalent to that of living creatures.” Inevitably, that brings to mind the fictional scientists in Terminator who created the sentient Skynet computer and in so doing unwittingly touched off the apocalypse.  The question that this raises for me is: if Hollywood and the TV networks can come up with narratives (think X-Files) that imaginatively explore the implications of futuristic technology, why can’t artists? Maybe they can. Once they get beyond the awe of the technology at their disposal.