Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Phenomenology, smart materials and ambient robotics

Jill Coffin was another Digital Media PhD student I met at GA Tech, and I had the pleasure of talking with her about phenomenology in art and design practice (pdf), as well as the opportunities and challenges of collaborative work.

Although I'm not much of a Rorty fan--I prefer the work of Merleau-Ponty and especially the ethics that arise from Alphonso Lingis' phenomenology--I was impressed by Jill's desire to find common ground with HCI researchers by focussing on embodied interaction - especially since such collaborations with artists affect notions of scientific validity.

People who keep up on ambient computing might also recall Breeze, a cyborg tree project that was exhibited at ZeroOne in 2006. Like XS Labs' Kukkia and Vilkas dresses, Breeze uses the shape memory alloy Nitinol to guide its movements.

YouTube: Breeze

Robotany is a collaborative of Jill Coffin, John Taylor, and Daniel Bauen to combine nature and robotics. At the Robotany blog, you will find "documentation and tips on how to build ambient robots using smart materials."

We talked a bit about totems and talismans as participants in embodied interaction--and all without claiming anthropomorphism--but I think that's a topic that deserves far more attention than we were able to give it over tea.

Now, if I could just remember the name of the conference she was telling me about...

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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

"Holding theorems in their hands": The Hyberbolic Crochet Coral Reef Project

"For Ms. Wertheim...the project embodies the 'beauty and creativity that comes out of scientific thinking,' what she refers to as 'conceptual enchantment.' As it turns out, the gorgeously crenellated, warped and undulating corals, anemones, kelps, sponges, nudibranchs, flatworms and slugs that live in the reef have what are known as hyperbolic geometric structures: shapes that mathematicians, until recently, thought did not exist outside of the human imagination ... It wasn’t until 1997 that Daina Taimina, a mathematics researcher at Cornell who had learned to crochet as a child in Latvia, realized that by continually adding stitches in a precise repeating pattern she could create three-dimensional models of hyperbolic geometry. For the first time mathematicians could, as Ms. Wertheim said, 'hold the theorems in their hands'."

-- NY Times: Want to Save a Coral Reef? Bring Along Your Crochet Needles (Um, that would be crochet hooks and knitting needles.)

"Every person who takes up this craft creates new species of crochet organisms and we have come to see the project as a collective experiment in textile-based evolution. Just as all living creatures result from variations in an underlying DNA code, so the species in these handi-crafted reefs arise from deviations in a single simple algorithm. Slight variations in the kind of yarn, changes in the rate of increasing stitches, even shifts in crochet tension make significant differences to the morphology of the finished form ... Ways of constructing once perceived as 'merely' women’s craft, and dismissed from the cannon of scientific practice, now emerge as revelatory forms of a more complex, embodied way of thinking about the world both mathematically and physically."

-- The Crochet Coral Reef At The Chicago Cultural Center

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Friday, February 29, 2008

Of materials and bodies

If I had $500 that I didn't need to, say, pay rent or eat then I'd subscribe to Princeton Architectural Press' Materials Monthly. After reading Dan's positive review, I checked out the current issue (pdf) and longed to touch the sample materials with my own hands. As he says, "the ability to pick up, touch, rub and generally explore the tactility of materials is surprisingly affecting." See also: Transmaterial and Transmaterial 2


I never regret my decision to stop practicing archaeology, but not a day goes by that I don't miss feeling what I do. Having an aching back from sitting at the desk too long is not the same as feeling a burn in my thighs from squatting in an excavation pit, or climbing up mountains. I no longer put unknown objects in my mouth and use my tongue to identify them. (Bone sticks, ceramic grits and stone is just really hard.) And it's been far too long since my hands have touched something that hasn't been touched in centuries, or traced grooves in an object made by hundreds of other fingers doing the same. When I touch certain stones I can still hear the sound of water running over them, and when I run my hands over old Peruvian textiles that I've collected, I can remember the scent of wet alpacas and the relative coarseness of llama wool. I recall how mineral and vegetable dyes feel different as a pestle grinds them against a mortar, and smell different when cooked.


A couple of years ago I worked with a bunch of 13-14 year olds to come up with new mobile phone ideas. Granted we were limited to creating quick-and-dirty prototypes out of paper and textiles, but everyone was already interested in making phones softer and more flexible.

Now there's Nokia's Morph concept and Qian Jiang's Softphone concept. While not as cool as Schulze & Webb's metal phone, or as hardcore as this electronic tattoo display that runs on blood, there is something intensely beautiful--and maybe even more convincing--about this kind of design thinking. All soft computing and tangible interaction.


Embodiment studies - because my interest in materials is never separate from my interest in bodily experience.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Mobile Nation 1: Halos

Last night in Toronto, the Mobile Nation Conference wrapped up three days of really interesting presentations, workshops and discussions on research and design methodologies for mobile devices and applications. I'll break my reflections into three parts, each of which will cover a particular theme, starting with halos.

An absolute joy for me was Nigel Thrift's opening keynote, Halos: new apprehensions of political time and space, on what new political forms of togetherness might be possible in a mobile nation. I had the pleasure of being the respondent to his presentation, and only wish we could have spoken longer. I'd been aware he'd been working on the spaces of political feeling, and I was looking forward to see what this had to do with halos.

Nigel started by suggesting that one of the problems with politics today is that it's too limited in its understanding of what political activism might be. And to borrow the phrase he most often used as a response to my comments, I don't disagree. In the West, he explained, political activism is very normative, and martial--the single feature that most puts off large numbers of people and thus limits both individual and collective agency. He then asked how we can move to become different kinds of political subjects, and introduced the notion and process of affective flows.

Nigel described the halo in early Christian art in terms of its ability to create affective empathy, to signify infectuous relationships and chains of imitation. Take these paintings by Giotto:

In Meeting at the Golden Gate, Joachim and Anna seem to melt into each other's embrace and kiss, signifying great intimacy and passion. In The Kiss of Judas, Christ and Judas are almost as close physically but without the shared halo their distance and lack of shared affect is plain.

Nigel stressed that the important bit is that halos signify affective contagion, or the bringing together of people around shared affects or passions. The notion of affect is most often associated with Deleuze, but this also reminds me of the kind of politics I borrow from Latour, Marres, Stengers and Maffesoli.

He went on to explain that affective contagion is a largely biological, semi-conscious (also following Tarde) but definitely embodied process. I was reminded of how yawns are contagious. Animal behavourists have explained this as an evolutionary adaptation amongst pack animals in which the alpha male signals the pack to sleep when he is ready. I also remember reading somewhere that amongst people, yawns are only contagious if you like, or are neutral towards, the person yawning. This also suggests that refusing to catch a yawn, or share an affect, is a form of social resistance.

Nigel, again mobilising historical examples, pointed out that in the 17th century there was a common sense of activism rooted in passivity. Now this isn't a hippie kind of passive resistance, but rather the rejection of autonomous agency in favour of being one who acts for another, or is licensed to act by another authority. He pointed out that at the time this other authority was God, but reminded us that it doesn't need to be. He argued that the idea that acted upon, we act is still a powerful politics. In other words, there is still hope that we can be moved.

The second kind of halo he described was related to the videogame. Talking about environments as affective objects enabled by new kinds of material culture, he focussed on the ability to trap affect, to produce a world for objects--not just the objects themselves--and inscribe users in the process. By generating decisive moments and creating suggestable environments, with non-linear arrangements, dispositions and narratives, these spaces bring people together in order to produce particular affective moments and move people in particular ways.

In the 17th century, Nigel explained, public communication mostly involved non-discursive writing and in Victorian times there was still the notion that things like flowers had voices. I was reminded of Elizabethan writing rings, but his point was about allowing objects and surfaces to speak, and this led him to a third, and final, kind of halo involving fugitive knowledges. When he spoke of producing such spaces, he wasn't talking about bounded places but rather about embodied relations within space. This involves performativity, improvisation, producing, modulating and pushing affective flows. These kinds of knowledge, he explained, will probably be a bit ephemeral and a bit fugitive, and we may have to finally admit that we don't have the words to explain the social processes in play. I think that I really like this idea.

For me, the most useful and hopeful bit I got from all this is that there can be powerful and passionate forms of agency without autonomy. The relationship between agency and autonomy is a difficult one, but what I most appreciate about Nigel's perspective is that he brings this all back to the realm of the everyday and our relations with others. The notion that we can be--and indeed are--moved to defend or oppose certain values is really at the core of public relations and political action. But the notion of affect, or emotion, becomes really interesting in terms of how we do this. It raises the possibility that what one person considers respectful intervention is emotionally and bodily resisted by another person who sees those same actions as unbearably rude. I'm imagining a game called Share-the-Halo, in which we come together and perform our passions and then either embrace or distance ourselves from each other.

If I had been more on the ball, I would have spent some time discussing what all this has to do with the background image on my presentation slides:

In Bruegel's The Battle Between Carnival and Lent, I see the space of most hope for these kinds of political and ethical action, and the space of greatest potential conflict. I see people moved by divergent passions, arranged into temporary publics, a messy space that is not well-suited to clean explanations of networked sociality. In any case, I think that Nigel managed to move us closer to an idea of mobile politics and ethics than any other presentation at the conference and it set a great stage for what followed.

Next: Mobile Nation 2: Relentless Empiricism

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