[24 August 2007]
Ken Goldberg, a pioneer of telerobotic art projects on the Internet, has just become the Director of the Berkeley Center for New Media. I’ve been following, and writing about, his projects for over ten years now, since we first met at one of Peter Lunenfeld’s Mediawork gatherings at Art Center in Los Angeles. He’d been a professor with the Industrial Engineering and Operations Research department at Berkeley and had a dual identity: as a scientist he invented new tools, and as an artist he found cultural applications for them and critiqued them. His branch of robotics is telepresence, which grew out of the second world war atomic bomb project’s need to work with dangerous objects at a distance. Telepresence was brought into the popular realm when Dr. Robert Ballard’s remotely operated robots discovered and explored the wreck of the Titanic. Ken developed a theory, ‘telepistemology’, to explore what we can know from a distance, and he’s wary of how people unquestioningly accept the veracity of what they find on the internet. “I’m trying to facilitate the resumption of disbelief,” he says.
The Telegarden. Image courtesy of Ken Goldberg.
Among his projects are The Telegarden, where people planted and tended a community garden in a large flowerbox, by controlling a robot arm over the internet; Dislocation of Intimacy, a meditation on how both Plato’s Cave Parable, and Duchamp’s surrealist art translate to the internet; recent explorations of surveillance technologies in an anonymous monitoring system after John Baldessari’s ‘bubbles’ project, that obscured the faces of the people he photographed; and Ballet Mori, where San Francisco Ballet principal Muriel Maffre improvised a dance to a live feed of activity from the Hayward earthquake fault—translated into sound—on the 100th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
His first release as Director of the Berkeley Center for New Media reminds us just how crucial scientific innovation is in shaping the direction and content of media.
A medium, from the Latin for “middle element”, acts as a lens between observer and object, or between subjects. New Media refers to media that are discovered, invented, or adopted during a particular point or period in history. The alphabet was a new medium in 1800 BCE; subsequent new media include the printing press, telescope, camera, X-Ray, and the electric light. Contemporary new media range from Wifi to Wii to Wikipedia. Lenses both transmit and distort. As Sophocles observed, “nothing vast enters the life of motals without a curse.” One goal of the BCNM is to highlight and critically examine the opportunities and risks associated with new media, and to consider how they can constructively benefit education, political engagement, privacy and aesthetic experience.
Organizations such as the Berkeley Center for New Media help compensate for the way that the mainstream media is failing us through its lack of understanding and involvement with the process of the invention of new tools and lack of engagement with the artists and critics who link the new storytelling methods with ancient traditions and put timeless symbols and parables, that guide and sustain us, into context for the time were living in. There’s just a restless anxiety, a fear exhibited by media organizations, that by not grasping what’s happening they’ll be bumped off the gravy train as it hurtles down the information highway. Wired reports in it’s August issue that marketing and advertising executives are rushing to be a part of the synthetic environment “Second Life”, afraid to miss out on the hot new phenomenon, even though it’s becoming apparent that it’s not living up to its hype. “It’s as if the moon suddenly had oxygen. Nobody wants to miss out,” wrote Frank Rose. “Ever since BusinessWeek ran a breathless cover story titled “My Virtual Life” more than a year ago, reporters have been heralding Second Life as the here-and-now incarnation of the fictional Metaverse that Neal Stephenson conjured up 15 years ago in Snow Crash. (Wired created a 12-page “Travel Guide” last fall.) Unfortunately, the reality doesn’t justify the excitement.” In the same issue it was Martha Stewart who proved to be the tech savvy one, with hints on making a digital sound system disappear in the home, and how to manage banks of battery charging devices, by showing an awareness that technology is for communications. “I think we are insane,” she said. “I used to get 120 to 140 phone calls a day. And now rarely does the phone ring — other than a few archaic friends who call me — because of the BlackBerry…. I think it’s awful. My daughter emails me. When your daughter starts to email you instead of talk to you… It’s horrible. You cannot forget human communication.”
“New media can transform how we perceive, learn, communicate and experience the world,” says Ken Goldberg. “What is ‘new’ is accelerating rapidly with emerging technologies, yet remains deeply rooted in powerful aesthetic, cultural and political forces.”