Fusiform Polyphony (Face Music)
For as long as Science Fiction has been posing questions of the future, robots have been a key trope which transcends all mediums. With the help of Futurist Lab, Ken Rinaldo’s Fusiform Polyphony aims to start conversations about how robots and humans interact with one another. This piece is comprised of six robotic figures, displayed in public, which use cameras to look at the faces of humans and translate what they see into music. These figures resemble arms or tentacles which hang from a grid and swivel around to face people. Based on the expressions of the people, the robots distort and change the audio. They also display a pixelated version of what they see on projected screens which stand alongside the interaction area. By covering the figures in a variety of human hair, this piece incorporates notions of soft robotics. They don’t appear to be metal, soulless structures. Rather, they each seem to be their own creature. The robotics are cute and clearly have an effect on how willing people are to interact with these figures.
As much as these figures are the focus of the installation, the experience comes from the visuals and audio, as well. Depending on what audio noises are produced, people feel and act differently. For the most part those who interact are playful and the soundscapes are akin to science fiction arcade game sound effects.
While machine vision is a large part of this installation, the biggest emphasis is on how the soft robotics can change the way people feel about metal machines. They are more inviting and real than a cold metal structure.
Paparazzi is a really good term for this piece. They are interested in the people and use a camera to capture their moments of expression. The inherent curiosities of those interacting are mirrored in the robots' movements as they try and get close to people’s faces. They both seem to want to know about one another and it produces a slew of emotions and expressions from the audience. They are inviting yet also feel a bit creepy. Their one-eyed tenticular form is not native to this earth and when covered in hair that was not originally grown on it, the result is reminiscent of the trash monster from Star Wars. The work reflects a fascination with the weird and unknown.
Unlike a popular Science Fiction trope, these robots are playful. They are not built to be used for violence or product production. They are designed to be interactive, approachable and welcoming. Many of those who interacted with the robots seemed to be playing with the installation and were often seen laughing at their situation. The atmosphere is happy and contradicts what one might expect from a robot.
Fusiform Polyphony is, at its core, about the interaction between humans and soft robotics. The curiosity of human engagement is mirrored by the engagement of the robots back at the humans. Golan Levin’s Opto-isolator also interacts with the viewer in a similar way. Opto-isolator is a wall mounted robotic unit, with an eye that makes visual contact with the person looking at it. It even blinks one second after the viewer does. Just as humans look at paintings, this piece looks at people. Like Fusiform Polyphony, this piece uses a camera to look into the face of the viewer and challenges the concept of who is the subject and who is the onlooker. Opto-isolator can also be considered a soft robot because it’s camera is disguised as a realistic eyeball. Even the machine's encasing is shiny black, to look more like a body rather than a set of machine components. Both Opto-isolator and Fusiform Polyphony are soft robots which look back at the viewer and express curiosity at what they are seeing. They are also both characterized as their own entities; more than machines. However, Fusiform Polyphony takes it one step further. Rather than just looking back at the viewer, it produces music from what it is seeing.
Created by Edward Ihnatowicz, The Senster was a 15-foot robotic structure which uses microphones to react to the sounds around it. It is commonly known as the first piece of cybernetic sculpture, created in 1970. The Senster's appearance wasn’t disguised to adhere to notions of soft robotics like Opto-isolator and Fusiform Polyphony. Its reactions were similar to that of a human as it would shy away from loud noises and follow the source of others. Being located in a concert hall led to some interesting results once echoes were introduced. Like Fusiform Polyphony, this piece works as a sculpture and gives more lively characteristics to something thought to be just the opposite.
Fusiform Polyphony’s interactivity and playful nature stem from the work done by The Senster but the notion of soft robotics and robotic vision mirror what was done in Opto-isolator. All together they challenge how audiences interact with robots. As technology progresses, the next robotic interaction piece could push these notions even further. Maybe it does not look like a robot at all. Maybe it plays with people rather than the other way around. Fusiform Polyphony’s impact on people will resonate and it is exciting to think of how far its ideas have come and, from here, where they will go with future artworks.
Fusiform Polyphony was shown at:
NUIT BLANCHE in Toronto, Canada in October of 2011
ITAU CULTURAL in Sao Paulo, Brazil in 2012