Category Archives: provocative objects

alone together

sherry-turkle-phd

Sherry Turkle has been researching and studying: technology; our relationships with technology; and our relationships with each other through technology — as an expert singularly focused on the fascinating psychology of technology, she’s been on the case for decades now — along the way she’s published her findings in the books:

needless to say, i’m one of her biggest fans

without her critical, observation-based body of psychological research at MIT in the psychology of Sciences, Technology and our Devices i do not think we’d have such a cohesive and thoughtful collective of intellectual material that really reports from the front-lines of these matters with such an objective sense of discovering the nuanced facts of the matter

i recently had the pleasure of coming out to the Boston Athenaeum to a promotional lecture for her most recent book Alone Together — and more than the talk itself, more than the questions and answers, i found the micro-conversation i had with Turkle to be the most intriguing part of the event

i eagerly waited in line with my friend’s book in hand for the author to sign — i wasn’t sure if i had the courage to bring it up, but i had an important question based upon some of the feelings and thoughts i personally experienced in the middle of reading Alone Together just months prior to this event — this seemed to be my only chance to find out if the author herself might have the same notions regarding the research she conducts as i was having regarding rather dark discoveries about the current state of humanity and our relationships with and through technologies

i finally got to the front of the line in this rather illustrious neo-classical, intellectual and academic library setting

Turkle asked who to make the signature out to and started to quickly ink in her John Hancock on the title page of the open book — and while she scribbled away the instant sentimentality of this anonymously scribed autograph, i started to ask my question — i described the personal horror i felt midway through the reading of Alone Together, these frightening discoveries and extremely deep philosophical questions that arose in me due to the very material of her critical research in the book that she wrote and was now in the middle of signing

here’s the gist of what i asked { in summary, as best as i can recall it at this point }:

i wanted to ask you about some thoughts that came to my mind in reading about sociable robotics — i found it fascinating, the kind of deep and real emotional relationships you described developing between people and machines — there was a section of the book, you visited these isolated, lonely elderly people in their retirement and care facilities and, after deciding that it might be difficult, if not impossible, for the elderly to enjoy the companionship and company of a real pet, such as a dog or a cat or some other small animal, you introduced the simulation of a pet into their living environment, this robotic seal

i think you reported that after introducing the seal to the elderly person and leaving it with them in their home, that it only took about a week for them to develop a real relationship with their new pet — although shy at first when talking with you in the company of the robotic seal, within the course of an hour you observed affectionate behavior and genuine interaction between the new owner and the seal

the owner conversed with the seal in the same way one might with a real pet and all of the ways in which they interacted with the robotic seal indicated that this simulation of being accompanied almost seemed good enough to introduce love, companionship and a reduced sense of loneliness with these elderly people living out the end of their lives

this, of course, brought up a ton of questions — some ethical, some psychological and some philosophical

the main question that came up for me might have something to do with the psychological nature of attachment, i’m not sure

but basically, i wondered — if it seems that easy for someone to form a genuine, human, loving relationship with a robotic seal, what does that say about our real relationships to each other as human beings? do we simply project and imagine love onto each other? are we, as the title of your book suggests { if only in very Freudian Slipped-like ways }, truly Alone Together?

Turkle finished signing the book and looked up at me, almost as if she were disgusted by my presence now, and replied:

No, no, no — that’s not what the book is about at all

and the conversation was over — she might as well have said, ‘NEXT!’ at that point because the book in front of her closed, she handed it back and we were simply done with these dark discoveries and intriguing philosophical questions i felt might at least be implied by Turkle’s oeuvre of critical research, perhaps even the more important and deeper meaning behind the surface of the kind of psychological self-analysis we’re all conducting now through the things we use to think with that are now the things we also feel with

i just put in an order for one of those robotic seals, should be coming in the mail any day now

i might just have a more empathic conversation with it than i did with Sherry Turkle

i heard it only takes less than a week to really get properly bonded with my new pet

seal

a box full of music, rose petals and seaShells

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last night i found a box in the basement, a treasure

as much as Marco and i buckled under the legal pressures brought on by our contractual relationship to XeXeX | OBLiViON back in the ’90s and stopped recording our beware the haberdash material on carefully planned, sequential schedule — we did move forward in our secret underground recording studio to capture that haberdash magic on tape to create a veritable bucketful of bootleggy sounds

only select tracks made it to any official releases over the years, however, as litigation got rather nasty and we both chose to focus on the positive experience of making music over fighting against ‘The Man’ every step of the way to merely preserve this rather eclectic and strange post-deathmen project we both still treasure to this day

so here you have it — the visually-designed artifactual remains of the overarching master gameplan for every pre-Sewingbox beware the haberdash release as envisioned and begun back in the late 1990s / early 2000s

curatorial reflections: exhibition-event as sociopsychological laboratory

an excerpt from Provocative Objects: debriefed

And with the passage of time we can re-open the mind like a delicate oystershell and mine the lobular cortexes for the remaining little pearls of wit and wisdom.

Its been a while now. November 12, 2010 seems like a distant, milky dream to me now.

My co-curatorial partner in cyberSurreal investigations David Tamés asks in his earlier passages to this exhibition catalog — and its a bit of a meta-conversation between us now — about the success of Provocative Objects: the extradition as an art exhibition. Anyone that really got to know me through our time and collaborations together at Dynamic Media Institute knows that I pretty much laugh at the very concept of ‘success’. Of course, at this point I’ve been known to laugh at / for just about any reason. But I wanted to take a few minutes to discuss ‘success’ and define for the world:

  1. what it was we set out to do with Provocative Objects
  2. what we accomplished by using Doran Gallery as our sociological art laboratory for a subconscious streaming cycle of art shows

By looking back, using these simple criteria, we can certainly transpire well above the coinflip follies of failure and success and really get down to some storytelling artifactual proof that helps the reader better understand the invaluable psychological underpinnings behind the makings of this kind of show.

 

To best understand Provocative Objects — to really know what it was all about — we need to take a quick trip back to my first attempt to put on gallery exhibition. In late Autumn of 2009 I scrambled to email out an invitation to the graduate students here at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. This call for work aimed to get DMI and SIM together, collaborating on a themed show in Doran Gallery — and the show theme I stitched together from my critical research in humor and new media loosely hung on the title concept ‘American Cheese: an introspection’ and a quote from the famous stand-up comedian, playwright, author and moviestar Steve Martin:

You know, a lot of people come to me and they say, “Steve, how can you be so fucking funny?” There’s a secret to it, it’s no big deal. Before I go out, I put a slice of bologna in each of my shoes. So when I’m on stage, I feel funny.

But seriously, folks — I thought an email alone could be the catalyst, or at least the inspirational nudge, to put on a really amazing show. And more importantly, I think I trusted that this email along with my vague wish to bring SIM and DMI together in the same exhibition space would help build new and amazing social connections between these 2 like-minded but politically dispersed academic schools on campus.

I ran around like a circus rodeo jackass for a bit, trying to get all the procedures, policies, rules and regulations down and did all the administrative busywork needed to get the show set up, but with the fast passage of time and very few submissions to the show, my original social purposes fell a bit to the wayside. American Cheese, while successful on many levels regarding general gallery attendance, quality of exhibited work and DMI colleague participation, fell short on my personal goal of creating new social ties to SIM.

 

In the Summer of 2010 I put out a new call for work. This time, instead of a quaint email to DMI and SIM, I actually made the request for submissions very public, reaching out beyond the MassArt Graduate community pool by placing my first copy-paste post out to Rhizome. I think this better set the stage in many ways.

Firstly, Rhizome would help provide a far broader context and larger vision for what this next show could become. The organization, based in New York City, garners the attention of artists, designers, performers and technologists from around the world. The Rhizome online community started in 1996 and continues to grow and evolve. As stated on their web site mission page:

Rhizome is dedicated to the creation, presentation, preservation, and critique of emerging artistic practices that engage technology.

and this mission seemed perfectly aligned with the kind of future-forward design thinking we see in the project work and research done through Dynamic Media Institute.

Then, inspired by the ingenious marketing suggestions of Don Lapre ( http://www.hollywoodmemoir.com/don-lapre ), I took my post to Rhizome as a ‘tiny classified ad’ and copy-pasted it into several other local ( and not so local ) online community sites. I emailed directly to artists I know out at Mobius. Similar personal emails went out to anyone and everyone that I thought might be interested participating. This time around, I was determined to put on a show that started with the core group of my colleagues at DMI but branched out to include other work, providing a greater context for all the work at the exhibition. This was going to go beyond the SIM to DMI collaborative concept originally set forth with American Cheese. Forget SIM. With that initial failed attempt under my belt, I wanted to bust out and not even begin to consider MassArt as my little box of crayons. I no longer needed to color inside the lines. And I needed to reach out, outside the box, not with my thinking ( as we’re all so aptly encouraged to do as creative people, through the most sickening set of corporate clichés and hillbilly mantras ) but with my actions. I also wanted to expand the notion of what a new media exhibit can be by including artwork created in any mediatype, not just onscreen or electronics-based project work. Video, music, performance art, new media and traditional art and design works: why not show it all in the same place? Under one roof? At the same show? Crazytalk, right?

The original call for work to our ‘cyberSurreal, interdisciplinary and immersive exhibit-event & experience’ included the following paragraph:

We are looking for pieces that instigate the viewer-participant-gallerygoer or blur the line and leave the audience wondering. Physical traditional art objects — dynamic prototypes — video, performative and conceptual work — we’re looking to collect an eclectic body of work to provoke viewer-participant exploration, thought, discussion and interaction. There will be a vaguely-defined ‘stageSpace’ for certain event-related ‘performances’ throughout the evening as well as numerous ‘objects’ or installations.

Here we have the beginning collection of measurable criteria for us to properly assess the outcome of the show. Qualitative though they may be, we can see that there were some definite, clear goals in mind. The ulterior motives of building out our creative context and creating new social extensions for DMI were all cleverly hidden in the messaging mix, but the surface setup for Provocative Objects began to elicit proposals almost immediately.

I remember talking to David early on, I think it was with the very first batch of email proposals I received. I was baffled by the fact that, unlike American Cheese ( with submissions from colleagues at DMI and me ), this show was beginning to feel a lot more international. Literally.

My first submission came in from Albert Negredo in Barcelona. My second submission came in via mobile phonecall while I was out at The Apple Store — this time from Anthony Murray in Brooklyn, New York. I got emails from Tokyo, Rome, San Francisco and Argentina. This show and these submissions really fascinated me and I need to talk to someone about how crazy it was getting. And David, of course, understood the general consequences of my actions and why I might be getting these international submissions, ‘Lou, you put the call for work out on Rhizome,’ he explained with some comedic emphasis, implying that that detail alone stretched my cry for work out to the more global level.

I can’t remember the location of this conversation at this late date, but I am assuming we were in the cozy confines of Penguin Pizza up on Mission Hill. David and I joined forces at that point, making The Penguin our first official ‘office’ and meeting place for the eventual and very fictional Bureau of cyberSurreal investigation. David graciously offered to collaborate on this rapidly expanding exhibit-event, and I humbly accepted this opportunity to work together and build out the show using our mutually-aligned talents and resources.

 

I scheduled the show to take place in November. Luckily this time I had built in adequate time for David and I to really dig in and put on a larger, more inclusive show. With 3+ months we could properly square away all the granular detail and logistics need for Provocative Objects. This was turning out to be a far more complicated gallery event. We were lucky to enlist the assistance of many of our colleagues at MassArt to help make the night smooth and fun for all the artists involved.

 

But could it work? Underneath the surface of this exhibit-event — a little below the notion of traditional artwork, performance, music and new media all peaceably living together in sin — was the playful, provocative notion of bringing together the people behind these amazing pieces, all in one space at the same time. Provocative Objects was a social mixing experiment and Doran Gallery became our laboratory.

The answer, for me, although not truly measurable by any qualitative or quantitative stretch of the imagination, is a resounding yes. It can work, this idea of putting on a cross-disciplinary and inclusive show to end all shows. Provocative Objects now serves the Bureau as a happy and distinct model to follow for future-such show-building activities. And the idea of using the show, this ‘exhibit-event’ as we called it, as an interesting excuse to pull together so many disparate but spiritually like-minded creative people and cliques together on one night under one roof, well, that idea proved, to me, to be extremely fruitful and rewarding.

We enjoyed a full house of gallerygoers at Doran Gallery on November 10, 2011, ebbing and flowing throughout our time-based evening of interdisciplinary arts, for sure, but nonetheless rather packed with wonderful artists, musicians, performers and participants. The work on display covered the full spectrum of art, the entire continuum of creative expression. And the conversation, the participation, the wandering and exploration of the space, pieces, people and performances, all attest, via personal memories and stories, to the truly provocative night we had out at the show.

Somewhere buried deep inside the thematic grumblings of the show I had this notion about the title and ideas behind Provocative Objects. I had inadvertently stolen the title from Sherry Turkle’s book Evocative Objects — I guess I sort of repurposed the title of her book as a way to brand a series of my own object-based micro-electronic prototypic experiments at DMI. These objects, my Provocative Objects, were ‘machines gone wild‘ — an expression of this truly cartoonish Freudian fear of our technology — whereby I dreamt up and created devices that would aggressively attack the user. I think that we’re only slowly beginning to understand some of the undercurrent negative social ( or unsocial ) side-effects our technologies introduce into  our technohumanic ecosystem. Anyhow, this was the original concept behind the name of my project series. The concept and name evolved to become the theme of the show.

Somewhere along my thoughtstreams I began to ask myself ‘Which medium is the most dynamic medium?’ A bit of an asinine question to ask, I’m sure, but I really started to wonder about dynamic media and performance art, and to then wonder about this term ‘dynamic’. Can machines be more dynamic than people? Which of the 2 performs in a more dynamic way: people or machines?

Anyhow, I’m going to totally skip over the definition of the word dynamic, not a lot of time here in this essay to redesign the wheel or the brand of an academic program. Its just not my thing. But, I do want to let you in on a little secret, dear reader. The idea of collecting together all of this amazing international artwork for display at Doran Gallery was more about luring the people to the room than about putting on an incredible artshow. The ‘objects’ in the title Provocative Objects are the people, not the art ( vision of Solient Green come to mind, the final scenes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, To Serve Man, its a cook book, that sort of science fiction flip of the brain on a skillet ). David and I, as the fictional Bureau of cyberSurreal investigation, put on a wildly successful, highly attended artists’ reception and performance spectacle, indeed — but we also got to see so many different social circles wonderfully coming together in the fascinating ripples created by our clever little box. Our first person, eye witness report on Provocative Objects proves the indelible value of putting on this kind of show. And the value resides not in the objects on the wall, the sculpture and performance art and installations. These are the subtly-planted cool excuse to get people together, the beautiful seeds planted around room to provoke interesting conversations. The most dynamic medium, I would argue, resides on the side of the human element. People perform in far less predictable ways than machines. And people, for me, are the Provocative Objects. We create our art and our technology as a way to better understand ourselves as individuals, as a society and as a culture. We are the Provocative Objects.