"Chickens Are Us" and Other Observations of Robotic Art

Release Date: November 17, 2003 This content is archived.


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In a project by conceptual artist Marc Bohlen, a robot cohabitated in a kind and friendly manner with two chickens, who were unperturbed by its presence.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Hundreds of artists in all corners of the world -- a number of them at the University at Buffalo -- use emerging technologies as a tool for material and cultural analysis.

One of them is conceptual artist Marc Bohlen, UB assistant professor of media study. His medium is not oil or bronze, but robotics and site-specific data, and his practice combines the structured approach of scientific investigation with artistic intuition, spiced with a deliberate and effective dash of good or bad taste.

Visit his online archives at http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~mrbohlen/ and you will find hungry chickens chasing a motorized food supply, digital video cameras that monitor rare plant species and a conceptual electronic device that would measure the bad breath of carnivorous humans.

Bohlen considers the media arts in the context of the history of automation technologies. They were invented with the hope of improving everyday life, he notes, and in some ways they have.

"Our unquestioned pursuit of efficiency, however, has made us slaves of automation," he says, a point made by artists from the mid-19th century on. "Through our very inventiveness and persistence we have separated ourselves from the constraints of our natural surroundings. In my work, I attempt to contradict preconceptions of what technical mediation is, by a practice that is poetically inspired, radical and technically competent."

To this end, Bohlen builds machines whose functions contradict their assumed utilitarian purpose. They may or may not "do" anything particularly useful, but in either case they engage our curiosity about the terms on which they function in our environment.

"I believe it is time to reclaim from the realm of the purely utilitarian, automation processes that have come to define the fabric of our lives.

"Where and when should a radical reformulation of the role of 'machinic' mediation take place?" he asks, and answers, "Everywhere. Right now."

As a self-described "tracker of obscure mysteries that exist between the cracks," Bohlen's business is to raise questions most people don't raise, and then answer them with conceptual installation that traverse disciplinary boundaries.

For instance, he recently undertook to construct with architect Natalie Tan a woodlands project titled "Unseen," which he calls "a nature interpretation center with second thoughts." It was set in the Reford Gardens of Grand-Metis on Quebec's Gaspe Peninsula during the entire summer of 2003.

"'Unseen' involves a multi-camera, real-time, machine-vision system that continually observes selected plants indigenous to that region. The machine as 'patient observer' was designed for visitors as an automated means of helping them become familiar with, and perhaps preserve, fragile native plants," Bohlen says.

"Using data analysis and classification techniques, the system searched the natural site for new instances of selected plants," Bohlen says. "Short texts offered factual knowledge on those plants in an infinite loop. As the initially sparse garden became luscious, the system altered the nature of the texts from descriptive to conjectural and hypothetical."

Another recent project is "Keeper of Keys" (KK), an access-granting machine and data management system with implications for what Bohlen calls "decontamination, surveillance and ready-made martial law in the Anthrax Age."

He says KK is designed to re-imagine -- beyond issues of security and repression -- how machines that use biometric technology are able to control our identities and validate our right to gain access to any space.

Like similar machines, KK uses new industry-standard finger-scanning and pattern-matching techniques to assess a person's presumed right to enter a restricted site. It differs from other machines, however, in its interpretation of the information it collects. KK not only grants or restricts access, but after hours it transforms and enhances insipid raw data so that it becomes interesting, and then, by design, destroys sensitive data so it cannot be exploited inappropriately. Thus, KK expands the notion of how a computer system can be used in this age of large-scale information collection and population control.

Bohlen's "Advanced Perception" is a project that looks at the unquestioned bias toward the eye and the integrative act of multi-modal perception.

The piece involved the "performance" of two cohabiting chickens and a robot. The robot, programmed by Bohlen with advanced visual recognition, movement-planning skills and knowledge of chicken biology was able to make itself "chicken friendly" and cohabitate in a kind and friendly manner with the animals, who were unperturbed by its presence.

"Humans are expected to be able to share the world with intelligent machines. So it made sense to me to test this idea with creatures that are neurologically less complex," Bohlen said.

"I picked chickens for this 'kind' experiment because of their sad history as 'experts' in living under miserable automation systems used by the industrial food industry," he said.

Bohlen experimented for months with the project, adding programming to the machine so that it became less and less frightening to the chickens (it respected their eating area, it notified them with sound as to when it would move, it never hit a chicken when moving forward). The birds finally let it approach within an inch of them before getting out of its way.

"The chickens adapted to the robot once they got the point," Bohlen says. He left it to the audience as to what "advanced perception" refers -- the machine's ability to "see" and behave in consideration of the chickens' psyche, the visual abilities of the chickens (which are more advanced than those of humans) and their ability to adapt to an invasive "being," or to the idea of an advanced-alternate mode of perception necessary to contemplate solutions for a future in which technologies could intertwine kindly with natural processes.

"I learned so much about these animals," Bohlen says. "They sing beautiful songs in the early evening. They can kill a weak member of the breed at the spur of the moment. They can distinguish red from green. This I know because the robot had a set of colored LED lights that flickered as it approached the animals."

The piece was comprised of three parts: a performance of robot-chicken cohabitation with an application of "kind" surveillance, a set of experiments pondering the intricacies of the human visual system and a tasting of omelets prepared by a chef using eggs produced by the chickens during the experiment.

Bohlen has the unusual distinction of holding three master's degrees: a master of fine arts degree in art history, archaeology and literature from the University of Zurich, and a master of science degree in robotics and a master of fine arts degree in art from Carnegie Mellon University. He also has a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and, while in Switzerland, he completed an apprenticeship in stone masonry and stone sculpture.

His early works include such items as the "Petty Philosopher" -- a portable collection of odd and curious sounds recorded on digital ICs, the memory spaces of which are randomly selected by the user at the push of a button.

Another work is "Office Plant I," a technological artifact "adapted" by Bohlen to the office environment to fill the same emotional and social niche of an actual plant. The "plant" monitors ambient sound and light levels and uses text classification techniques to monitor its owner's email activity. By slowly and rhythmically moving its "stems" around and making a low, ambient sound, the machine makes its presence known, as well as its current level of knowledge about its environment and those who share it.

"Halitosis Sensor" was a 1996 concept piece -- the proposed design was for a device that would properly measure the amount of bad breath in humans who are carnivores. "Carnivoric" breath is a real phenomenon, by the way, and can be distinguished easily by those in societies in which meat is rarely consumed.

"I conducted extensive research to demonstrate the feasibility of the device," says Bohlen, "and found that it could be implemented in a MEMS-like process (a process similar to one using Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems technology), and could be reusable and reliable." He says this piece is an exercise in using powerful tools to document an intimate physical/social sphere and manipulate the "socially sensitive limits of bad breath."

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