What happens when tech engineers and artists collaborate? "Only Human" Curated by the New Museum's NEW INC and Nokia’s Bell Labs at MANA Contemporary

 Lisa Park, Blooming, Photo courtesy of NEW INC.

By Irina Abraham, May 2018 

Wires, buttons, cold metal, zeros and ones, unbreakable logics of algorithms - even though created by humans, technology is largely regarded as our polar opposite. There is no emotion, no creativity in the way robots “think.” The people who work in tech world also seem to be mostly driven by logics, calculations, functionality. But in the head quarters of Nokia’s Bell Labs artists work side by side with the engineers during a year long residency. When the Head of Innovation and Experiments in Arts and Technology at Bell Labs Domhnaill Hernon is asked why they collaborate with artists, he makes an example: "One of our resident artists was working with VR helmets. One day he asked our engineers the following question: what do you see when you encounter a mirror while wearing a VR helmet?" Mr. Hernon pauses, smiles and adds: "you see, we wouldn't have thought of that. But an artist did.” 

A new exhibition Only Human curated by New Museum’s cultural incubator NEW INC and Nokia’s Bell Labs at Jersey City’s MANA Contemporary explores what collaboration between artists and tech engineers brings. Domhnaill Hernon explains that the goal was to infuse a creative approach into research. “Tech people are trained to take a reductionist approach whereas the artists are divergent and nonlinear. We feel when combined, these two approaches create magic.”

I walk into a dark room filled with ambient music. There is a video of a cherry tree projected onto the wall. There are silhouettes of two people standing in front of the projection. They reach out to hold hands and the tree starts to bloom, the sound is changing, too. The figures embrace and the tree comes to life with colors. This is Blooming by Lisa Park.

When Lisa talks about her research of human emotion, she describes technology as a tool she uses to turn the invisible into images and sounds. The biometric sensors on participants’ wrists read the heartbeat changes a human touch creates. Thus, the human interaction affects the state of the tree, its colors and the sound in the room. What is normally invisible takes a beautiful shape and with the help of technology that is so often there to separate us, we are watching the magic that human connection creates. I walk out of Lisa Park’s installation feeling peaceful and hopeful for humanity.

 Sougwen Chung, Omnia Per Omnia Performance. Photo by Irina Abraham. 

In Omnia Per Omnia Sougwen Chung explores collaborating with robots as opposed to using them as a tool.  As I enter the room, the artist and the engineer Andy Cavatorta are fussing around little machines with exposed hardware, which seem to roam free around a white platform. Sougwen and Andy look like two caretakers with the little robots being their wards.

When Sougwen first contacted Andy about the project, he jokingly asked if she wanted him to build her an army of painting robots. To his surprise it was exactly what Sougwen who had    designed, coded and engineered the prototypes, intended. The robots are using surveillance footage and have the collective movement of the city power the movement of their swarm.  Sougwen is painting the portrait of the city together with the robots. When asked what the difference is between collaborating with humans and robots, Andy and Sougwen laugh and say that humans cooperate. Their hope is that the robotic swarm will keep learning and evolving.

On the day of the performance, Sougwen is surrounded with audience and journalists. Once the robots start moving and the music fades in, everyone turns quiet. The slow and seemingly purposeful movement of the robots, the traces of the blue paint they leave behind, the motion of Sougwen's brush and the expression of total concentration on her face create an atmosphere of a ritual, a spiritual action. The audience is affected by the magic happening in front of them. Watching the artist paint with the robotic swarm creates a true emotion, the way only art can. 

Omnia Per Omnia by Sougwen Chung. In the photo: engineer Andy Cavatorta. Photo by: Irina Abraham.

Next up is Hammerstep’s interactive show. Indigo Grey is a dance theatre show that involves motion sensitive drones. The dance company is exceptional. Blending tap, River dance, African stepping, Hip Hop and Martial Arts, they create a movement style that is edgy, visceral, modern, with a cross-cultural quality to it. The show is very visual. A white pyramid with projections on it towers in the center. It's made of movable pieces and is an organic part of the production with dancers coming out from the inside and certain pieces serving as a platform for dance routines. 

Indigo Grey by Hammerstep. Photo courtesy of NEW INC.

The drones leave the audience in awe as a fierce young dancer performs a routine to which the machines respond. The theatrical production aspect of the show needs more work: the writing is too wordy and the storyline is struggling to support the dance and technology elements. However, the show has a lot of great ingredients. Bell Labs and New Museum’s NEW INC gave the founders of Hammerstep Jason Oremus and Garrett Coleman and their talented crew a unique opportunity to explore the possibilities that come with blending dance, immersive theatre and technology. It is a beginning of something new: a space where human bodies interact with robots in an unexpected way.   

Indigo Grey by Hammerstep. Photo courtesy of NEW INC. 

The world of emerging technologies is mysterious and abstract. The language scientists and engineers use is coded. What Only Human exhibition does is bring us in touch with the new technologies in a very human, tactile and emotional way. I also see it as a glimpse into the future. In a world where most tasks will be taken over by robots, all that will be left to humans will be playing, imagining and inventing. Interdisciplinary will become the new normal, it will all be about play, creativity and out of the box thinking.

So what happens when engineers and artists collaborate? I have to agree with Domhnaill Hernon: magic.WM


Irina Abraham

Irina Abraham is a writer based in New York City.

view all articles from this author