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Robots and Culture, an interview with Matthew Connell

by Deborah Turnbull on 07 OCT 2015

A Transcript for On Curating: Robots as Culture  | Powerhouse Museum, MAAS, 11 September 2015 | 10:00-11:04am

DTT: We are talking today about robotics and its influence on our culture for the IEEE publication contribution we’ve been offered through Springer…can you please state your role and where you work?

MC: Yes. I’m the Principle Curator at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney, Australia.

DTT: Ok so I’m going to ask you a series of questions on this topic and from this I hope to extract our book chapter.

MC: Good onya.

DTT: Q1 | What do you think of when I ask you about robots in general?

MC: Well robots in general [are] tough...and defining them is difficult. You ask me what I think, but I think...what’s the definition of a robot and I think that it’s poorly defined. Because we often think of robots as being objects with human form/shape that have agency, that can sense their environment, that can make decisions and then act on those decisions. Although, we do know that some robots are just machines that can be driven by human beings, sometimes at a distance, sometimes on site. Of course we have a vast array of robots in the <Powerhouse> collection that nobody would deny are robots, but they are tin representations of TV characters. But those characters presumably had agency and had the capacity to mimic aspects of human behavior including thinking or the ability to respond to their environment. Of course I often wonder when I’m flying in an airplane whether the modern passenger airplane flying/landing/taking off using auto-pilot is also a robot. Is a washing machine that senses its' load and adjusts the water accordingly, washes and then dries the clothes, is that a robot? I don’t know. I can’t remember the name of the person in question, but one of the early pioneers of robotics is quoted as having said, “I’m not sure what a robot is, but I know one when I see one.” [origin of quote unkown]

DTT: but that definition can be applied across disciplines, right? For example, “I don’t really know how to define art, but I know it when I see it.” "I don’t know how to define literature but I know it when I see it."

MC: True, that’s a true statement. And robots certainly cross boundaries.

DTT: So how would one define at what point a machine might be considered a robot?

MC: Usually by virtue of its' ability to sense aspects of its environment for the purposes of making decisions and then acting within that environment. So there’s an element in the way a lot of machines mimic or amplify or have the capacity to extend what we would consider capabilities of the human body, or perhaps even the animal body. But robotics to me include the ability for that machine to act autonomously. But then you can ask the question, is a house with a thermostat a robot? And some would say yes.

DTT: Q2 | So how do robots relate to your life?

You’ve given examples where you immediately went inside the Museum collection and then you went into more domestic or popular applications of robotics, so how do you feel like they affect your life? Are they separate or is there overlap between your personal, your professional and [the way you encounter] robotic experiences?

MC: Well my robotic experiences tend to relate to my tendency, which is both an occupation and a pre-occupation, to think about the nature of the world. So, I’m inclined to think of robots as philosophical toys and speculative objects. But they’re also practical items in the world. I don’t have a robotic vacuum cleaner, but I do have a washing machine that is pretty smart, but I don’t know if it’s robotic smart. When I fly in an airplane, I’ve been told that the very bumpy landings are the pilot doing the obligatory mandatory landings that they have to do once/month to stay in check; and the smooth ones are the auto-pilot.

DTT: Who told you that?

MC: I can’t remember. [DTT laughs] I might even have made it up, as is my want. I’ve never been that interested [in wanting] a companion robot...but I do marvel at robotic systems that do make their way into the world. [T]he UTS library down the road now has a robotic system, or stack, basically. I’ve been shown that and I know that there are hospitals now with robotic delivery systems to deliver equipment (not babies, relax) and supplies for rooms. You can order something up and these 'things' will come along in the corridor. The other thing with regards to robots are discussions with my son Clarrie, who sent me fantastic little animation on YouTube which was a discussion about the implication of robotics, but it was done from the perspective of horses in the 19th-century. These horses are having a conversation and one of them is saying to the other, “no, it’ll be great! We’ll just be able to hang out in the paddock, we won’t have to do all our dreary work, we’ll just be able to sort of enjoy ourselves.” ...I think the suggestion there is that we are doing ourselves and workers of the world a big disservice…

DTT:...in removing ourselves from the actual doing process?

MC: We shouldn’t kid ourselves that robots and technology aren’t actually just taking our jobs and then what will happen to us? What happened to horses?

DTT: they’re put out to pasture…

MC:…or [sent to] the glue factory.

DTT: Ok, when I asked you to write this chapter with me and we started thinking about previous exhibitions involving robotics, I actually didn’t feel like we had really curated robotics, more what I would consider art, or objects that start with art in mind and the implication of those materials [used] might be engineering or might be some sort of other interactive engagement. But for me, it always starts and ends with art. I know that with you, your mind would go across disciplines immediately, right away, because of the nature of your work and the nature of my approach to your work. So, you mentioned a few things to me and I just wondered if you could talk to them a little bit. I guess the question is:

Q3 | what [past] exhibitions come to mind when I asked you about this chapter?

MC: As I recall, I reminded you about Stelarc’s Articulated Head and I would add to that the other installation he did with the rhumbas [DTT: and Erin Gee?] no, with the ipad screens with his face on it and there was a little bit of social robotic interaction so the robots would talk to each other or talk to the kids in some sort of weird, mumbly Stelarc voice <Swarming Heads>. And I also mentioned and reminded you that you had curated the Experimenta exhibition that had gone into ISEA2013 here at the Museum and that included Wade Marynowsky’s … Acconci Robot, which was one of the hightlights despite [it's appearance] as a robot. Essentially it was a box, a packing crate on it’s own floor. In contrast to his quite elaborately decorated crinolines that were so sort of overtly spectacular. [DTT: yes they were quite overly feminine and spectacular…quite different to Acconci Robot…]

…it was just a packing crate [but] it did beg the question and was intriguing in and of itself. And of course every now and then there would be a scream of delighted amazement and sometimes fear when people approached the robot and tried to look in the little holes and work out what it was, and then turned around to walk away and that’s when the packing crate would then follow the participant [DTT: on wheels, that’s right].  It was sort of like something out of Dr. Who, but beautifully done and a lovely piece of art, particularly from the viewpoint of this Museum. It’s appeal was in the experience. It was contemplative in the experience, it was intriguing. It didn’t require art appreciation or an art history degree to understand it, approach it or engage with it as a piece of work.

DTT: …and it was also a recogniseable object, we’ve got lots of packing crates around the Museum.

MC: Yes, for us it was very accessible, delightful and appealing across the board. I think it did provoke a sense of wonder. Those were the two I mentioned.

DTT: With the Stelarc one I was particularly interested because Stelarc is a sort of cybernetic wonder of an artist, isn’t he? I think I saw something recently on Facebook where he considers himself a cyborg. There’s an article written about him and another [artist] who has a microphone/camera attached to his brain. And they both consider themselves cyborgs.

MC: Well I think Stelarc would consider us all to be cyborgs…

DTT: because of the extension of our electronics.

MC: Well that, and you’ve got your glasses on and our entire identities are made up of us + technology.

DTT: [Our reality] is augmented.

MC: Yes, right. So when he was doing that particular work [The Articulated Head] and he was very interested in cyborgs and cyborg-ism. He’s clearly still hoping to wire up the ear he’s had implanted in his arm. But go on, you were telling me about Stelarc.

DTT: Well the reason I brought this up and I was happy you mentioned these two examples is because the way they came to the Museum was different. [T]hey came to a similar platform but Stelarc’s Articulated Head came through the Engineering Excellence Award and Wade Marynowsky’s Acconci Robot came through an arts festival, so I just wondered if you could talk a little bit about that in terms of the Museum’s interest across platforms.

MC: It was interesting...in fact I was interested when [Stelarc] just had the projection of The Thinking Head. That was a beautiful work, and one of the best chatbots you’ll see...because somebody with Stelarc’s imagination and sensibility comes in and makes what would otherwise be a research chatbot that’s interesting and curious into something magnificent. This is because Stelarc managed to invest the character with his own personality and load the knowledge base of the chatbot with interesting things that Stelarc likes to think about.

I was very interested in that work and I remember speaking to someone who was acting as an agent for him and basically it was too expensive for us to take at the time. But I would have loved that work, but it: a) wasn’t available to us at the time and: b) I knew that I would have had a job at that particular time to convince the Museum to take it [early 2000s]. Actually the reason I wanted it [The Thinking Head] was because it was spectacular, it would have had a huge presence, it would have helped my cause.

DTT: was it digital?

MC: it was digital and it was just a projection, but it would have been an easy sell into an environment where there was a certain level of antipathy towards artworks because of the historical split between what we do and what the galleries do. And yet, as a sort of comment on artificial intelligence, which is a subject we were willing to talk about, it was more interesting than any of the things we could stick in showcases and have the curator [me] write a label about. So I looked at the possibility of getting it but it was too expensive for what I was allowed to buy at the time.

So, basically Engineering Excellence is a program we run every year, the Institution of Engineers, or Engineers Australia as they are now known, do their annual award program in Sydney and we would take 5 or 6 of the best projects that we are easily able to display. Every year we put them on, and one year, in 2009/10, the MARCs Auditory Labs/Institute was doing this work with Stelarc...which was a natural language work. There were 2 tasks, one was improving the natural language processes of the chatbot, the other one was looking at the way in which a robot can interact with a crowd of people by basically speaking with the crowd and then picking a particular person to concentrate on in that crowd to speak to.

Stelarc had been complaining for some time that what his Thinking Head lacked was any embodiment.  So this beautiful big projection of his head on any wall, depending on how good your projector was, was a fantastic piece, but he was particularly disturbed by the lack of embodiment. He thought that something was missing. So his idea was to provide that body for his Thinking Head, so what he did was mount a screen on the end of an industrial robot, so it was a bizarre looking thing, it was beautiful in its own Stelarc-ian way. And it was part of a much bigger international collaboration of works around artificial intelligence interface design and robotics. They had the funding, they did the research and they entered into the Engineering Excellence awards and it won the Research category and we were more than delighted to bring it in [to the Museum].

Furthermore, without asking them, in fact they asked us, if they could use the audience as candidates for research as part of the exhibition. Essentially [they] would like to monitor the interaction between [our] visitors and the robot and use the data gathered that way to iterate the robot.

DTT: this is starting to sound familiar…

MC: yes, and of course we were delighted to say yes because it supported and came out of idea we had put forward in the Beta_space project. It had been done before in Beta_Space and that it was a working model that somebody was bringing it to us without us having to propose it to them. So that robot coming in was kind of the highlight of the Engineering Excellence awards.

DTT: did it win that year?

MC: it didn’t win the main award, the Bradfield Award, but it won the Research Award...They award the prizes a year before they go on display and we choose the top 5 or 6 and we always show the Bradfield Award. This one winning the Research Award just added a much richer and more exciting element to the Engineering Excellence Awards which could, depending on what had happened, be a little bit didactic in its realisation and expression. This was a chance for it to be more expressive and it was great. Furthermore, MARCs Lab found that they were able to utilise it in a public space to further their research, so they asked to extend it, which we were happy to do so it spent another year in here, which had never happened before in the Engineering Excellence Awards.

DTT: fantastic.

MC: and it was a lovely example in which an engineering project, which is also an art project is operating in a public space as a public spectacle, but then it’s actually a research project and our visitors who are here, essentially become participants in engineering research. And in that respect they are also helping us to prototype our model for how a Museum of this nature might operate in the Future, or from now.

DTT: and we’ve written about this before, haven’t we?

MC: yes. So we’ve got Wade’s and we’ve got Stelarc’s as examples of [transdisciplinary practice], of course there’s many others we didn’t take because of the expense or suitability of the space to set them up…for example Mari Velonaki’s work [Diamandini] didn’t fit in [for ISEA2013] because we didn’t have a suitable space and that’s a shame.

DTT: Q4 |Are there any future exhibitions on the MAAS roster including robots or elements of robotics?

MC: yes there are. So MAAS is a participant in a successful research application with the University of NSW Art and Design and the Singapore Art and Science Museum. And the subject of that research is looking at the benefits of art/science collaborations in Museum Spaces…the 3rd space [we call it]. And Lizzie Muller is a principle…or is it Jill Bennett is the principle on the project, but Lizzie is driving it. We are participants, so we are hoping to do an exhibition that starts in Singapore and comes to this Musuem [MAAS] after that.

DTT: That’s a bit of a trend actually, bringing something from China to exhibit in Sydney, I know people who are doing that for VIVID [MAB’16].

MC: And that’s about robotics and we’ve been thinking about what we want to say about robotics on the side, but it is about art and science. Primarily the work of artists that we will be concerned with.

DTT: so it’s works of art realised in robotics?

MC: yes.

DTT: all of them?

MC: I think so. There might be things that aren’t realised in robotics, but rather comment on robotics. I saw a number of things at ISEA2015 as things to watch. It’ll be a few years until we get them in, but there was some lovely stuff there. 

DTT: how would that be realised as an exhibition here? So it would start in Singapore and then it would tour here?

MC: they want to do an exhibition about robotics in Singapore, but it is about art. It’s at an art/science museum and it’s an exhibition about robotics. It might be about artists and scientists working in the same space. But it’s being evaluated by this research group for the benefits associated with both acting together [humans and robots] in the 3rd space, the Beta_space, so it’s around creating a space in which the public participate.

DTT: And again it’s Lizzie, that’s fantastic. Anything else?

MC: Well in fact we’re about to replace ISAAC after all these years. SO we’ve bought a robot by the name of BAXTER.

DTT: And what does he do?

MC: BAXTER has 2 arms and he has a face on a screen, but it’s a fake face, it’s really just screen eyes to provide communication and familiarity. He has a 360-degree camera on his head that sits above the screen. He has 2 arms that can be programmed to be positioned…

DTT: so he can be touched? That’s different from ISAAC because ISAAC was always behind glass…

MC: ISAAC was behind a glass showcase that when unlocked shut ISAAC down, because you didn’t want to be in the showcase when ISAAC was alive.

DTT: so he was more unpredictable?

MC: That’s right. This one was made more human friendly, able to detect a person and not knock it for a six. And part of the programming, if you want to program an arm, you can grab the arms and move them where you like, and these actions will become part of the programming.

DTT: How is that recorded? Through the camera? Or is it a Kinect or something similar..? Are the gestures recorded by image recognition?

MC: No, the gestures are recorded by movement, so you take the arms and say, I want these to move from here to here, and then you have to hit a button and tell it to record and then you can sequence. So you can introduce into your programming and sequencing gestures that you actually take the arm through and record.

DTT: so you become a choreographer in a way…

MC: it could be considered choreographic, I think idea is that your dance could also be a production line, packaging or producing your vision through pattern recognition to notice when a particular piece of product is a turkey.

DTT: Oh so you can interfere then in the machine’s process where you couldn’t before.

MC: Also, you don’t have to program with code, you can program with movement. It’s got code as well, but has an easier interface. So BAXTER will go in where ISAAC has gone, and BAXTER will perform the same sort of role that ISAAC did. ISAAC was an industrial robot that danced, played a game with you, that purported to demonstrate some of the things that robots bring to the table to make them valuable as machines, or brings their utilitarian advantage to the table. So robots are strong, robots are fast, robots can be very accurate, robots don’t get bored, robots aren’t disobedient, robots are adaptable [DTT: they don’t tire out], that’s right…what else can they do?

DTT: What do you think about [coming] exhibitions like 'Out of Hand', which have robotic elements but they’re used in a design functionality? It touches on what you were saying before about robots replacing humans in the making function.

MC: The 'Out of Hand' story is an interesting one because it’s about digital manufacturing. In digital manufacturing you have an extrusive head…you have an additive and a subtractive function. So robots are a subtractive manufacture because you can put a tool on the head of a robot and then you can define where your object is using a CAD program , and then the robot uses the tool that cuts away everything that isn’t a part of the CAD design. Of course it’s slightly more complicated than that…somebody had to decide exactly where to cut from at an additive level. And robots just become the apparatus that places the head of your printer where it needs to be so that you don’t have to build a big [construction] plant.

At the moment, 3D-printers are structures that have an ability to move a head through X,Y,Z co-ordinates but you have to build a structure to build the 'thing'…which is fine for little things. But if you want to build a house, you have to build as structure bigger than a house [to realise it] and there’s something impractical about that.

DTT: But it’s happening isn’t it? In China?

MC: Well yes, I think its in the early stages of not very good. There’s a design error in there. And robots will replace those big structures because robots are smaller, can be collapsed and taken to a site, and then once you’ve learned how to locate accurately in space, you can have your robot take your extrusion head to the point in space where it needs to be. So robots will replace huge bits of plant [the building structure to house the house building]. And in fact, even on a desktop level that’s happening because robots give you beautiful X,Y,Z co-ordinates.

DTT: everytime?

MC: Well the problem at the moment is the structure holds the head perfectly in space. Robots do have slight location issues, but they’re working on those. [DTT: it’s kind of beautiful in a way [the errors].

MC: So, it’s establishing your origin and making sure you are returning to your virtual Cartesian plane, right? You stick to it and don’t get pulled off course. Large 3D structures do that more easily. Robots are operating in the world and you have to make sure that world is calibrated to your virtual structure. Does that all make sense?

DTT: It does. Q5 | So how do you or how have you seen robotics affecting our culture?

You’ve said a few things to me before in answer to this question…you see them as generators of culture, as participants, as automata, and then you talked a little bit about their predecessors this morning.

MC: Well, when people define robots, they tend to think of them as industrial tools and they go: they’re strong, they’re accurate, they’re fast, they’ve got incredible repeatability, they don’t get bored, they don’t get tired, they’re not disobedient [DTT: they don’t call in sick]. Right, those are the benefits. There are also other things that robots do and I think that relates specifically to their ability to enhance our culture, or pose questions about our culture and our humanity, and the nature of humanity.

The predecessor to robots are automata…records in ancient Greece and in various mythologies there’s various stories of human-created life being so technologically advanced that they are essentially a life form. There’s the story of the Nightengale, and of Pinocchio, who was invested with life by some kind of magical means, and then there’s the Golum, where you can take clay and imbue it with life. All of these suggest some sort of creation complex that exists in us somewhere.

DTT: Can I just ask you a really specific question in terms of that comment? [MC: Mm-hmm] Do you see authenticity as a factor in terms of a creation complex? So sometimes robots come out as machines and they’re very industrial, almost, they’re very different then humanoid robots. Humanoid robots tend to err on the side of the female. There’s a servitude aspect, whether it’s sexual, or customer service or companionship, for example. I don’t know how many women are ordering male robots for example…whereas that authenticity factor within your creation complex comment is an interesting point to me.

MC: well, I mean there’s definitely a sort of desire to sort of create things that are obedient and do your bidding and clearly there’s some interesting and strange and not so wonderful stuff happening where men who appear to be struggling in this department create machines with female forms.

DTT: well I am thinking specifically of a professor in Japan who Mari [Velonaki] works with, Professor Ishiguro who created a robot that looks exactly like him and then he also made Gemenoid F who works in museums and who’s also a prototype for the sex industry as well. SO he’s looking at himself as a platform for contemplation, as you are suggesting, and then he’s looking at what appears to me to be the role of females as an Other. And they are so specifically authentic to human form.

MC: Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro is fantastic and he’s definitely going for an authentic human form. I’ve struggled with robots that are exactly like humans because in a way, robots that show their workings and show their roboticness, I think we’re at a stage where those 'things' are more intriguing and more interesting. His forms become interesting on another level because of the problem that he’s attempting to deal with. When he came out here and spoke at the Museum quite recently I had quite a long conversation with him. And he said that, “my task now is that I made a replica robot of my daughter as a news reader.” Now we know here that news readers in Japan are highly sexualised [DTT: well women are in general] Yes, but the newsreader occupies a special place, and he produced one of their most famous news readers. But where he’s working with in attempting authenticity are taking him into the Uncanny Valley. So when I spoke to him, he was saying that his research agenda had now been set by his wife. So that after he produced a robot copy of his daughter with skin and expression and everything, his wife told him that his job was to rescue their daughter from the creepy Uncanny Valley. I mean he’s a very interesting person who’s playing with everyone’s [idea of robotics], very much an artist as well as an engineer and roboticist. And he’s done that great robot of himself and there are beautiful pictures of him, you can tell when you look closely which is which, but you can also ask people which is which and then go, are you sure? And they go ummmmm…and second guess themselves. [DTT: they have to check.] It’s still creepy, it’s still uncanny.

DTT: But it’s not creepy to everyone. Do you think it’s uncanny to most people?

MC: Yes. I think the Uncanny Valley, identified some time ago, still exists. The closer you get to mimicking actual lifeforms the creepier it is. But Ishiguro insists that it’s because we’re not close enough and because of the discrepancy that still exists between the machine and the real person. And he says he thinks we’re really close. And there’s a famous curve for the Uncanny Valley, and things are more interesting and cute and familiar when they are quite distinct from us. You can tell it’s a fake, even if it does quite amazing things. But the closer you get, as you get very near [to replicating a more human machine], you’re confused into thinking that it’s real. And then tiny little glitches in the matrix make you go…whaaaa? But he reckons you can get to the other side.

DTT: So you don’t think that authentic experience is here yet?

MC: Um, well no. And it goes to a question, do we need them to be authentic? [DTT: that is my question.] And why do we make them authentic? So I mentioned before that I’m interested in the development of technology, and the idea that anything that is an extension of ourselves is an aspect of our utility of human beings. So a hammer is an extension of our arm [DTT: and force and strength] that’s right and glasses are an extension of our eyes [DTT note: and perception and depth], and a telescope is an extension of our eye and all that sort of stuff.

Charles Babbage for instance was interested in extending other aspects of our capacity. He wanted our ability to perform arithmetic extended. He wanted to extended it out of the space where we get bored and tired doing it and make mistakes, and that’s what he found was happening in the production of algorithmic tables. So he wanted a machine to do it. But he didn’t build a machine that looked like a human being that took a piece of paper and a pencil and set up a table to do the method of finite differences and added along the diagonals to produce the next value of the function that you were working on, the way I would use the method of finite differences to generate successive values of a polynomial function. He conceived of a machine that abstracted that bit out of the human being, the bit that he needed, and designed that...not the bit that could sit at a table and use pattern recognition to determine pencil marks on paper.

DTT: so this want [to replicate humans] came later, or again?

MC: he worked out and abstracted what he needed and didn’t build a complete replica of himself. He knew what he needed to extract and as we’ve gone on, in fact that was the nature of [the development of] technology. Part of what we know how to do is extract the essential bit [that is missing] and take it out. It’s interesting when you think of researchers over time and how they look at how animals move and if you look at the automata builders, they didn’t build those as machines, they built them as marvels. They built them as philosophical toys, as they were sometimes known. They were speculative and robots are speculative too.

There are a couple of streams of robotic thought and some of them are very speculative. Some are testing ideas and even in Australia there are some great ideas. Now, in Australia we’re looking at Bio-mimicry and there are whole areas of research for all kinds of animals, snakes, flies, crabs, fish, eels, birds…because we’re interested in understanding the movement and understanding they have with the possibility/potential to use them, to apply them in the world to our own advantage. I understand that a roboticist worked out how flies fly, where it was previously not understood how the wing-shape to body ratio wasn’t feasible in normal aerodynamic terms. But roboticists worked out what the movement is because they wanted to build a fly. So they built dragonflies and flies. Why do they build them? Who funds research into funding robotic bugs?

DTT: the military?

MC: [Yes]...for the intelligence side of things. Because they’re literally interested in putting flies on walls. [DTT: that’s fantastic {the connection}] In Australia though, we had our own researcher working with animals in the late 19th-century producing a lot of models of motion. And he was looking at animals for forms of locomotion. He probably wouldn’t have said this himself, but what he was reasoning over many millennia of evolution had produced designs in animals that gave incredible capability in the world. He thought perhaps we should study them in order to think about alternative forms of locomotion for our machines. I think if you look at the Industrial Revolution there is this ability to abstract what you need to do to get a particular task done. But this guy was wondering if there are other ways to explore different ways to move. He was interested in birds…this was Lawrence Hargrave. He wanted to fly because he loved birds, but was also interested in fish and eels because of trachoidal motion. And he thought there might be ships that moved through the ocean more like giant eels. He was sort of ridiculed for that. And a lot of design and science based on animism was poo-pooed in the early 20th-c because of some of the spectacular and hilarious fails of people trying to build planes with flapping wings and stuff.

DTT: Isn’t there still a festival in Australia that still encourages that?

MC: Probably. But basically they just didn’t have enough insight. Modern robotics now is looking at everything because they want to know that stuff. Where are we?

DTT:  I just wanted to end with this thing you said this morning which is that robots are extremely transdisciplinary things, they don’t fit neatly anywhere… Q6 | how do we decide what to build and how to extract?

MC: I think right back at the beginning is that we think of robots in advanced engineering terms but we forget that automata were produced by people who were genius clock mechanists, not because they did anything purposeful, other then provide objects of wonder. The speculation is really what does it mean to be alive? What does it mean to have agency? And to be human…and to be all of those things? And now with robotics, think of Mari’s work with the chairs [DTT: FishBird]…what does it mean to watch 2 wheelchairs fall in love? Robotics is becoming social so it is becoming cultural. Robotics is a fantastic and fascinating art form to me. [It is] often mistaken by traditionalists and assessed for their sculptural merit, when in fact that’s not the medium. They are more performative then aesthetic.

DTT: so in that way it’s more the idea over the aesthetic.

MC: Yes it’s about the performance, and asks, what does the performance mean? And it’s the interchange and the exchange and a performance is about an exchange with the audience.

DTT: That’s fantastic. Thank you. We are now closing the interview at 11:04am.


MC: That gives us a fair bit.








Rhythm & Reason

by Deborah Turnbull on 30 NOV 2012

How does the role of a traditional curator intersect with that of a producer operating in a public realm?  The traditional role of a curator is to collect, to archive, to preserve and to make available a specific collection to be engaged with and enjoyed by the public.  With the advent of technology, this role has had to evolve to deal with what industry professionals term “born digital” materials, things like design schematics, packages of code representing artworks instead of objects, and an expectation by the public to have digital access to objects.

Two people with insights into the practice of curating digital art in public are Matthew Connell, Principle Curator at the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney [PHM] and Natasha Smith, Senior Curatorial Lead, Urban Art Projects [UAP], Brisbane.  Connell and I have collaborated on several projects together, predominantly Beta_space, an experimental exhibition space featuring prototype interactive artworks in the Cyberworlds Gallery of the Powerhouse. Smith and I recently collaborated on a public art project for Ausgrid, a static work to replace the Grid Gallery screen of 2009/10.  Excerpts from my interviews with them are contained below:

Deborah Turnbull (DT): What is your understanding of public art, and by extension digital public art?

Matthew Connell [MC]: When you say public art I tend to think of installations that councils might pay for or developers might have installed in a public space. I might think outside, the sort of thing a developer might be prevailed upon to put in a space as a new development as part of their commitment to community spirit above and beyond or in addition to the basic utility of a site. So, it’s something in a public space to provide the various things that art purports; some questionings, some ponderings, something to perhaps marvel at regarding the mind of the artist from various perspectives. Acknowledging the notion of art being the reason for and the category under which this thing exists and its category of being artistic and the context of viewing it being appreciation of that art.

Natasha Smith {NS}: My understanding of public art extends from experience in the public realm for the past 3 years and then before that working more in the gallery and institutional scene here in Brisbane and also in the south island of New Zealand. I see successful public art as something that really draws from or creates connections to its environment. We [at UAP] often talk about connecting to or creating that sense of place.  Obviously sense of place is something that different people see in different ways and it’s very open to an artist’s interpretation. It’s really exciting for me when public art connects with its location and also with the community and forms that place. From that I see a really exciting potential for digital public art, and I think that’s really blossoming at the moment as a medium because digital public art has this ability to evolve and change as a platform and react to a community or to a place. So I really see the digital medium as something very exciting in that sense.

DT: Is there any sort of fear associated with the digital medium [in commercial practice]?

{NS}: Yes definitely. From our experience, particularly working with Urban Art Projects, we work on a range of projects that can be small sort of temporary installations that only last for a week or 2 months, to really large city renewal art programs and that sort of thing that need to be in place for 20 years. Our experience with different clients really ranges, in particular government or sort of council clients can be really nervous about new media, but I have seen a shift in that since I’ve been in this field.

There is definitely a growing interest in the medium because it’s all around us and the way we communicate is completely different. We’re hooked into our smart phones and it’s a way of life. Urban environments need to keep up with that culture.  There’s a trend towards it, but at the same time there is a nervousness to it. Councils in particular are very concerned about maintenance requirements. It’s just about being considerate, first of all, about the types of technology you’re using and looking at materials that have longevity, and also considering planning and process for how materials can be upgraded over time.

We also need to look at the duration of the artwork and just being really honest, is this a 5 year artwork or is a 20 year artwork? It’s ok to work towards a smaller lifespan if it’s going to be really effective and then it potentially can be re-commissioned in a new way later down the line. The benefit of new media art is that the work can evolve and change so it is a really interesting platform to work on

DT: How do you think curating artworks for a public space, say a cityscape, differs from curating them for an institution, say an art gallery or museum?

{NS}: Well it’s interesting because on the one hand I would sort of say that it’s actually very similar in that you go through a process in a gallery just like you do in a public art project.

As a curator, often your skill set can be quite similar. A lot of curators that work in public or art gallery setting have done one or the other in their professional experience; but I guess I still draw from my skills from the gallery side of things in the sense that you need to work with artists very closely. You’re procuring artists and you need to commission and contract them, so in those senses there’s a lot of overlap. I think the biggest difference is when it comes to thinking about the type of art that is appropriate in the public realm and that can affect a range of things.

When you’re talking about a public space rather than a gallery or museum you don’t have that construct of clean space you can walk into, a white room or a focused space where an audience’s visions is immediately framed in relation to the space that they’re in. In the public realm you are engaging with people’s homes or their hang out zones, so it’s completely different…it’s a chaotic environment that’s already got a rich palatte of colours, textures, and different kinds of media already advertising….they’re really saturated with information and with content.

[MC]: There’s not a significant difference and there’s no more reason why a piece of work on display at the Powerhouse is more akin to a piece of work on display in a public space than it is to the work being shown in an art gallery.

My suspicion is that there is a closer tie between a public piece of artwork that is clearly artwork and the art work that hangs in a gallery…a closer contextual connection between those two that there is with an artwork like Stelarc’s Articulated Head which is on display in the museum. The Beta_space is almost a different thing again because we name it. But, Stelarc’s work is the work of an artist that’s being used to drive a scientific research program into Human Computer Interaction and computational linguistics and that sort of study.

I think the thing that makes a difference there is that unless you already know Stelarc as an artist, you would walk up to that work and you might marvel at it and you might do all the things that you hope an artwork might inspire in a person, but you may walk away without ever thinking of it as an artwork. You are therefore imposing upon yourself, the viewer, that context which mediates your experience and approach to it.

Most of us recognise public art when we see it, a large sculpture in a public space, like, “ah, a piece of art!”, or “a bit of art is there…”.  We like it or hate it, depending. Outside an institution, you might be more inclined to be dismissive of a work. But once you’re in an art gallery, if you decide to go to an art gallery, there’s more likelihood that you acknowledge the artistic form and the discourses around art and the license you might give to an artist to have said something. But here [in the museum], with Stelarc, there’s nothing that says: this is a work of art.

Very few people would curate for movement, they are still curating with a view to the fact that people are going to stare at the work and so they’re managing a relationship between the artist, the artwork, the audience and creating a phenomenon in time. I’ve known artists who have done that. I knew an artist in Melbourne named Natalia Spatoyavich who would make scones and put them out on the road and watch as the cars ran over the scones. She didn’t record it. She told nobody.  It was just for her.  She baked the scones, carried them down to Fitzroy Street, placed them in the street and stood back and watched the cars run over the scones.

DT: Do you believe there is a dichotomy between public art [for the masses] and private art [for a privileged elite]? How so?

{NS}: I think the real challenge with artists working in the public realm is how to work against that in an interesting way or work with it or harness it and so different media can work with that in different ways.

Quite traditionally a lot of public art is sculptural, working with the 3-dimensionality of public spaces, being really engaging and perhaps providing interaction in some way. But the really exciting thing with digital art is that ability to the way it can evolve to engage directly with an audience, to react to its environment. And look, the medium in public art is a real challenge in many ways and it can be successful in what it has to contend with in terms of its environment. But at the same time there are a lot of artists out there who have very strong gallery practices and very strong public commissions out there and a lot of really high profile artists who have developed pieces for the public realm have very strong gallery practices. There are overlaps in the practices and in the processes as well.

There are different artists that enjoy different things about working in the public realm and then some artists just won’t touch it, it’s not of interest to their practise. But I think there are unique challenges in it, but it can be really rewarding. Really strong public art is really memorable because people engage with it; they enjoy it, they carry that experience with them and they want to go back to it and it becomes destination-making as well as an ephemeral experience.

I think it takes a really special artist to be able to bridge that divide. I think there are some artists out there that bring a very contemporary and global conversation about contemporary art out into the public realm through public commissions.

I think Anish Kapour is an amazing example of an artist who is probably the most famous artist in terms of public commissions but with an incredibly rigorously strong gallery practice behind him and a really strong voice as a contemporary artist bringing awareness to the public about contemporary art practice. I think the artists that bridge it, do it really very successfully.  But then there are different levels and facets to public art. There are smaller community public art projects which can be quite regional and quite local and really draw on a community and come out of a community-based process and there are also larger scale pieces that may fit in more global city centres that can capture a really vast and broad audience and they have a different role to play. So that idea of community can be really large or really intimate.

 [MC]:  When you invite and artist into the museum, particularly Stelarc, he mightn’t be treated with the reverence he receives in other institutions. He nevertheless, is ultimately provided with the respect due to his designs, He might not always be treated with the grace that he has received previously, but whatever he has done here, his artistic ownership of the project, if you’d like, has been owned by all parties.

While there may be some compromises, by and large we [the PHM] are trying to work within the constraints of his artistic vision…and we acknowledge that there’s certainly a bit of both ‘artist’ and ‘museum’ vision represented; but it’s going to be the same with any project he goes into that is being curated somewhere within an institution so it fits within their strategic plan. I find he’s very happy to accommodate that, and it’s actually so much easier because he says what he thinks and explains why he thinks it.

With Beta_space, we at least had a notice on the door which explained that these were new media artworks and experimental works of art, so that our museum visitors knew more what to expect. But as you probably recall a number of our museum visitors raced into the space, didn’t read the sign, if something didn’t happen immediately, they weren’t about to hang around, slow down, adjust the rhythm of their exploration of the museum, of which this was just a part, to accommodate an artwork. So we had to take extra steps to cause people to pause or to attract their attention as soon as they made it into the space.

DT: What role do you think the audience plays in engaging public art?

[MC]: When we display a work by an artist in the museum, that artwork fulfils the role that a curator has here which is not to display artwork…but to engage the public with some idea or a set of ideas and the artwork becomes a particularly effective way to get engagement with that idea…or interrogation of an idea, or to set up a circumstance to contemplate an idea.

I think one of the most important thing you’re asking someone to do in a large institution like this when there is a lot of choice and there are too many things to see and to my mind, its part of the nature of a museum visit. If you do a media analysis of an exhibition visit, people are passing through without specific intent. They’re actually waiting to be captured. They are looking for a reason to pause…I should say there are variations of people and there are certainly people who go from one showcase to the next looking at everything , but most people wander through waiting for something to capture their attention and imagination and say, “It’s time for you to pause now.” For us we work with the exhibition designers to create pause rhythms within a space to narrate a space….

We are asking our visitors to pause, and when we are doing an exhibition we have to think about the fact there will be a rhythm associated with a museum exhibition experience. I’m inclined to believe this isn’t a new idea…I’ve heard it expressed very articulately before by Ross Gibson.

He suggested this some years ago, somewhere. He was doing one of his things, I remember him suggesting or proffering the idea that to the museum visitor, I think it was about a younger audience, that rhythm was more important than significance; that a contemporary museum needed to pay attention to they rhythm of the experience because it had more meaning for a younger audience than did traditional significance. And I think he’s right.

{NS}: I think a crucial role is the ultimate answer. The great thing about public art is that it’s for the public, so it’s not alive without its audience. Talking about digital art, it’s just incredibly exciting because there is this potential for so many ways to engage people; across time, across the world. The amazing thing about digital art is that it can connect with people who may not even be in that location.  You can connect with people potentially in the future, depending on the vision of the work and the way it’s developed. Audience is critical to public art because it gives it its life, and without it there wouldn’t be any reason for making it. For me the ultimate is when public art fosters and builds on a community or a place, no matter how small or large that community might be, however diverse or how intimate that might be; it’s really important that that work helps to build that community.


These interviews were performed on 17 August 2012 [MC] and 30 August 2012 {NS} and edited for attendance at the Public Art, HCI and Evaluation Workshop held at Murramurang NSW by the Creativity and Cognition Studios, UTS.

In Conversations - Transcript for "Prototyping Places: The Museum"

by Deborah Turnbull on 22 MAY 2011

A recorded interview on Prototyping Places
Matthew Connell and Deborah Turnbull
Friday 10 December 2010 @ 11:16am
Transcribed 13 December 2010 @ 10:30am
Edited Transcript © New Media Curation 2010

Deborah Turnbull (DT): In the context of the book chapter that we’re writing [it] has suggested that we...dialogue or conversation around our chapter theme, that it might help flush out the more interesting parts of our task which is curating Beta_space inside the museum.

The first question I want to ask you is how your task as a curator of computers is different or unique to curators of other objects?

Matthew Connell (MC): ...It became apparent to me when I came into the museum and became a curator of computers and mathematics (my official title)...I had to come to terms with the notion of material culture, the museum being an objects-centred culture, and the notion of material culture being at the basis of a lot of what we do. Now that idea is that material culture or objects represent the values of the culture that produced and used these objects and that we can then provide access to those values and beliefs through exhibition or our interpretation of those objects.

When I looked at the artefacts that I was then going to be the custodian of, I was immediately conscious that…there was something missing. Now most of the objects in our collection were the boxes of computers, some had screens, some had teletypes, but they were essentially central processing units, memory devices, peripherals that go with a computing system, that’s if they were bigger systems. These were what I inherited when I got here and then we brought in smaller machines like personal computers and devices that had computers embedded in them. In all cases, I knew that I really only had half a computer in each case...

DT: Because it’s [the object that is] collectable.

MC: That’s right, so we were collecting the hardware and when people talk about the inside of a computer...this I also inherited, there was a discussion about looking into the inside of the computer, people were looking in the back of the electronics and taking the casing off and thinking that this was the inside of the machine. I was conscious that there is an extent to which the hardware of the computers is sort of arbitrary; the real essence of a computer isn’t an object. In fact, I’m not even sure what it is, what’s a programme, and where is it? …Because we had media that contained software; there were discs, there were tapes, there were cards, there were even printouts of source code, but are they the software? They were sort of…

DT: They were the materials…

MC: The material representation of it, yes. So I had this problem in being a curator of computing that the 'stuff' and the object of my collecting was half stuff, half something else…

DT: As yet unidentifiable to you…

MC: That’s right, and providing access to the box I didn’t feel was right either...

DT: Perhaps we should go on to the second question which is how was this problem, the problem of showing the whole computer, met by becoming involved with Beta_space?

MC: The issue came up before we came to Beta_space, because we did a big exhibition called Universal Machines: Computers and Connections where we took down an exhibition where we had defined computers as electronic programmable calculating devices...which was intensely unsatisfying to me, and yet very much of its time [the 1980s]. There was also a lot of stuff about showing the insides of computers as a machine, where I knew that the inside of a computer was really in through the screen, particularly by that time as most of them had screens by then. And, to understand computing you didn’t really get much from looking at the box...not [entirely] devoid of cultural signifiers, but the real stuff of computing is around the interaction [with] the machine. By then it was, and it’s always really been about the interaction with the machine.

DT: It’s a design quandary as well, isn’t it? Interaction with the machine?

MC: Yes, so the other thing is when we did the [new] exhibition, there was an imperative within the museum to talk about this new technology which was redefining who we were in effect. Living as we are in an information age, we’re saying that this technology, this information technology is emblematic of who we are in this particular time….[the] information age. And I was very interested in how going back to the basics of material culture, how this technology reflected the values and beliefs of the producing and using culture.

DT: Did you want people to be able to touch [the objects]…?

MC: I wanted people to be able to play…

DT: …and experience?

MC: …and experience; people wanted to do new things too. The rapid rate of change within information technology and the extreme rapid rate of obsolescence made it very difficult for us. The traditional exhibition medium, is a slow medium. It takes 2 years to conceive and build a big new long term gallery.

DT: [Before we] lead into the third question...which is how has the way that the BSpace project evolved… let’s just focus back on how Bspace helped you to address this problem of showing the stuff [within a museum context that is typically slow moving, when obsolescence is an issue]?

MC: We wanted to show ‘the stuff,’ we wanted to bring in new material, we wanted to rise above the rapid obsolescence problem without having to buy in new technologies and set them up, try to make them available, and [make them] work. Our strategy for that was to try and find partnerships in universities…where we would have access to late prototype research equipment.

MC: … we went to a number of places, found people who were interested, and brought in examples of works in virtual 3D environments, 3D television, robotics, artificial intelligence-based chat-bot machines. The…idea was that as [researchers] progressed their research, we would get the next version of what they produced. But, there were issues there. [Of] all of those projects...a number of them done for the opening exhibition...none of them ultimately delivered the next generation of research... and for a number of reasons.  One thing [that became] know[n] is that there is actually a mis-match between the museum’s objectives and a research environment’s objectives...Part of the problem is that researchers build things out of sticky tape and love it when things go wrong because then they can all leap in…

DT: <laughs>…and fix it!

MC:…and analyse what went wrong and there’s half a dozen PhD students who can’t wait for something to go wrong. In a museum environment, the general public, by and large, don’t accept…and can’t work with...a system [that] breaks down…

DT: This is an interesting point because the point where it’s ok to fail or it’s ok for something to break because we learn something...is a big part of Beta_space, it’s a big part of any experimental space, but Beta_Space in particular inside the museum because it’s managed to function now in its capacity for 6 years… [So] you’re saying then that when these two environments came together, they’re opposite, but they are coming together in terms of  Beta_space. How did it [this evlove]…?

MC: What Beta_space had to offer more than previous [research initiatives], which broke down because ultimately they lacked value for their university department…and they lacked value because what they originally wanted from the partnership was to have their work in public, and that worked,  but it only worked for about 6 months…

DT: Yes…and then it became…

MC: …there. It became just [present] and it became a maintenance issue. And research departments aren’t always spectacularly stable <laughing> it’s often based on grant money, people graduate and leave…too, government grants are subject to shifting research agendas from the research councils.

So all that buys into it and [this preliminary research model] came undone. But at the most basic level, there wasn’t enough value in what we had on display in the museum for those people [the researchers] to keep returning…and that was because in a lot of instances they had hoped to start doing some evaluation of their work in a public space. But none of them, ...physicists or scientists or engineers...understood the move within the research field towards evaluation as a means of judging the value of a piece of research rather than peer review. None of them really had any evaluation techniques, none of them really knew how to set up evaluation criteria for their research let alone how to then somehow extract that from the public. Some of them tried to do a little bit of it, but they were not used to it.

When Beta_space was conceived with Ernest Edmonds, I was initially uncertain. Basically I alerted Ernest to... what I know to be the problems. And he said, well let’s go through them one at a time and see how we can address them. And that’s what we did.

DT: Can you name them…?

MC: Yes.
1) The works that come in have to be far enough along in their development that they’re not broken…and don’t need constant supervision.
2) They have to be fairly simple, there can’t be a huge amount of instruction required for their operation [or] engagement with the program.
3) The people who bring them in, the researchers, need to recognize that the museum is not a research laboratory. They need to understand the culture …and the environment in which they were operating. So there was a need for them to know that we had to do a certain kind of presentation, and they had to understand that there were rules we needed to abide by, safety standards we needed to abide by…

DT: …but also operational standards…

MC:...yes and operational standards because we were doing a huge number of other projects…For instance, it was difficult for some people to realize that if something did break down, the museum workshop were not ready to put down their tools and run and fix an artist’s work up.

DT: So those were the issues that you [two] identified?

MC:…that was [some] of the issues, also
4) I knew and Ernest agreed, that the museum might need to bend as well, that internally how research is conducted and… [it’s] imperatives are not something that was recognized internally within the museum.  So that was something that we had to establish; [each] organization had to show and demonstrate an understanding of the other.  Internally we had to bend a bit to know that we were dealing with experimental works that might [require]…a bit of leeway. We couldn’t schedule things 6-12 months in advance, which is what people like to do in the museum. There needed to be flexibility in our ability to work, but we designed the space and the operation to work that way.

Also, the security demands normally placed on visitors needed to be relaxed in some way to accommodate the Beta_space people. This didn’t happen overnight.  It had to be something we started [a] process on. [Initially] I had to field complaints and issues and smooth things out until people got used to you guys…

DT: And how long do you think that took…[did it happen] within the first 2 years?

MC:… I noticed early that security people…knew about the Beta_space people and all you had to do [to come into the museum] was say that you were with Beta_space…there was a level of accommodation that this was a program within the museum, it was maverick, in some respects it was a nuisance, [again largely because] the schedule wasn’t set a year in advance <laughs>…

DT: …well, we tried <laughs>, but it was ever-evolving. So you’ve already started answering the 3rd question which is how Beta_space started to change the culture in the museum, but what about how it might have changed the way you approach your own practice? In terms of how you’re talking about the objects and what’s inside them or what they inherently embody, how did Beta_space…interrupt what you were doing, present a new method or possibility, an answer to this problem you were already having? So that it changed your own practice…has this happened yet?

MC: Yes and no, it’s certainly happening and has happened. There’s 2 things [that have influenced my practice], there’s the influence of [programs like] Beta_space and there’s the influence of information technology.

DT: Right, on who?

MC: …In a way, I believe that the issues that I encountered as a new curator, because I was dealing directly with information technology, has spread from the boundaries of my curatorial jurisdiction into everybody’s field…these are issues that we face the world over, that … digital technologies are so pervasive, that the same things that are happening to me and my field are happening to everything; it’s just changed the way we understand museums.

It’s changed people’s literacy, its changed people’s expectations; we were once a museum that was renowned for it’s interactives, [based on] the Exploratorium model. But we didn’t just use them for science, we used them everywhere…as a major component in every exhibition there were interactive forms in there to help you to engage with whatever was being delivered through that exhibition. It tended to be touch-screen and button-based. A lot of them were quite didactic…and there is still a sort of residue of that…

DT: …so they still had the nature of the museum?

MC: Yes, but of course today we don’t need to go to a museum to press buttons. So the interaction, that sort of interactive is sort of, is almost quaint and dated…

DT: It could almost be in a museum.

MC: Yes, and some of our pieces are [indeed] almost museum pieces. So the nature of interaction has changed: 1) because it’s interacting with new technologies and new literacies; and 2) people don’t need to come here to do button-pressing.

Now, though, we’re interested in what interaction means in the context of a museum and where it sits in relation to the viewing of artefacts within showcases, which is an old form, some say it’s a dead form.

DT: I prefer to say it’s one form [of showcasing objects].

MC: Yes, but it’s a traditional form and one that had validity in certain cases. But we have the new audiences… that have different expectations, different literacies and they come tooled up with different devices as well.  So the museum is interested in seeing how we can respond to expectations around interaction, around learning…

DT: so the museum culture has changed in response to their audience and what their audience is demanding.  How has Beta_space … assisted with that?

MC: Well the question is: has the museum changed?

DT: Well, they’re trying to, but as you say, it’s slow.

MC: The museum sees the imperative to change. The museum is, as other commentators have said, like an ocean liner. As you know, ocean liners take a bit of time and space to turn around, or turn in.

DT: <laughs> that’s right…

MC: So when Dawn Casey got here, the new director, I think there were…plenty of internal discussions about where we were going and how we should respond and there were some contested areas in the museum about how we do our exhibitions, questions about how we collect and questions about curatorship generally. When Dawn came in, she was adamant that this needed to be discussed openly and with a broader community.

So we invited a number of stakeholders in from across the community, academics, government…

DT: and this was the Future Forums?

MC: Yes, people form various audience groups, and staff…came in to talk about what they thought were imperatives for the museum in light of all of these changes that not many people were refuting.  The outcome of that discussion is that there was belief that the museum needed to recognize the change in our approach to interaction, that interaction needed to move away from button pressing…

DT:…and toward?

MC: …and toward conversation and communication and activity.

DT: …and collaborative? Or singularly?

MC: Both are valid. There are people who, we’re happy to encourage, we’re happy for people to do things on their own and explore things on there own, but we know that some people come to the  museum as a sort of social experience. We also know that people are very keen to not just receive ideas, but also to pro-offer their own thoughts and ideas; and that if new awarenesses take them or they disagree with things that are in the museum, they like the opportunity to stake a claim to their own ideas.

In many ways, as I look at it now, we’re now attempting to re-build the museum, if you like, as a place where we evoke the espoused ethos of social media. I say espoused because I’m not sure that social media…

DT: …is esteemed?

MC: …the thing [is], there’s more to social media then what it claims to offer. In some ways it delivers it, in some ways it doesn’t, and [in other ways it] delivers… things outside of what it offers; but nevertheless, what social media might offer a museum is an [openness], with an opportunity for an audience to say what they think…so that there’s less distinction between the real exhibitions and the virtual exhibitions, or what happens online and what happens on the floor here.

But we do want people to come here, we still have a floor, we still have a space, and we still have our artefacts in our collection, we have a great deal of engagement with our collection through our website and we would like to integrate that activity and allow it to extend to direct engagement with the artefacts, but also to engage in the activities that are involved with artefacts. We are a museum whose collection is sort of based around the idea of making things.  We are a museum that says people are at their most human when they’re making things.

DT: That’s a marvelous way to look at things because if you [consider] design, technology, fashion and science it’s all creative.

MC: That’s right, so in the simplest ways, I think you could define us as being a museum along those lines…all museums are trying to say [this] to people…

DT: …[trying to say] we do this?

MC: …[Museums] are a place where people go to find out about how to be a human being, every museum …every art gallery has their own take on that.  My own view comes from [the writings of] Neil Postman who is a Professor of Communication in the United States… it’s a compelling idea and one that I think is true. And when people come here and…look at the artefacts and objects we are, at a very, very simple level, [asking] what does it mean to be a human being? And as I said before, each museum has it’s own take on that, so…a Natural History museum tends to say we are at our most human when we tend to fit into the sort of cycle of life and taxonomy of living things, that we are essentially and expression of biology. And, I think an example that Postman uses is with a Holocaust Museum we are saying we are at our most human when we are devising ways of exterminating races or when we’re endeavoring to struggle against that.

DT: So preservation versus eradication?

MC: Yes, hmmm, but here; as a Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, our [old] moniker our older title, we’re really a museum that says we are at our most human when we’re making things.

DT: How does this relate to Beta_space do you think? [Because] Beta_space in some ways embodies what you’re trying to say, [but] in a microscopic way…

MC: The beautiful thing about Beta_space, to me, is that it is a place of experimentation. We’re a museum of design and this is a prototyping space; we’re a museum of science and this is an experimental space, it’s also a place where we invite our visitors to comment on what they see, and not everybody gets to comment at great length, but some visitors get the opportunity to say what they think and maybe in new rounds of Beta_space we’ll extend that capacity for comment.

But, [for now] it’s an experiment and our visitors get to participate in that experiment. I also think it’s a great way of re-contextualizing a museum visit because people have tended to come here with a view to pressing buttons.  If their expectation of technology is that it should work flawlessly and not be difficult to use, but it’s worn out or it breaks down because it’s a fallible technological device…[we are] bringing the visitor into the experimental fold and saying “this is a prototype, we’re testing to see, to judge it’s quality and find its faults.” Then we’re hopefully creating a context in which the visitors’ expectations of perfection are lowered, but not in the sense that they become accustomed to things not working, but in a sense that its still a valuable experience, but it has a different approach to a different valuable experience.  I have this hope that this change of expectations might even be a valuable lesson for their own lives.

DT: But not everybody’s going to come to the table with that approach.

MC: No, they’re not.

DT: …and in essence when something fails or something doesn’t work how somebody expected it to [and as a result they] then learn something new or something different, this might prove very challenging or frustrating for them; but that might be interesting to the researcher in terms of how they might change or grow their system.  So can you think of a time or an example when this approach that we’ve just been talking about, was challenging for you or challenged you as a curator, in terms of your practice?...Because the way I was thinking about it…the heart of the matter is how Beta_space [might] provide an answer to some of the challenges that you’re facing….Can you think of a time when you were faced with one of these challenges and Beta_space assisted in providing an answer on a microscopic level? [A study] perhaps, that might assist] in terms of the museum [processes] as a whole?

MC: At a very basic level , Beta_space provided the answer to the conundrum, it was the problem for every previous research relationship; we had found out where the value lay within the museum for a research group. As long as [the researchers sought] data from [their exhibitions]…you have to have a process for getting it and it has to be valuable data. And Beta_space has had this evaluation program attached to [most] installations…a lot of it was extremely elaborate, and challenging…

DT: ....programmatic evaluation.

MC: That’s right, hence people’s PhD’s [associated with the space] were largely based on results that they got from Beta_space…It demonstrated that the proposed model for partnership, which had always been very problematic, was possible. That the potential for having a model of partnership that worked for all parties was possible. It certainly worked between the museum and UTS, and I would say for a large number of the works, it also worked for the general public. For some it didn’t, but our research results, some of them were very interesting. A lot of it was based around the fact that these were artworks and the artist’s expectation is that they were showing artworks to the general public in the same way you might do it in an art gallery, where the context for a visit to the museum at the moment isn’t the same as a visit to the art gallery.

DT: So there was that need to educate [the audience] that even though this was an artwork, we were looking at the systems, the processes, the machines, the interactivity, as well as the content.

MC: That’s right, but we were also looking at audience interaction. So when a visitor walks into the space, the phenomenology of their visit is that they’re walking from one thing to another to see what it is that’s going to grab their attention because there’s way too much to visit in a day here at the museum, so they’re tasting little bits. So what is it when they step into Beta_space? Is it a taste that they’re going to pause long enough to engage with the whole process? In a number of instances, the artists started the interaction slowly, almost imperceptibly;…[this was] a big mistake because if it wasn’t perceived quickly they would turn around and walk out again. If something didn’t happen right away our audience was inclined not to wait.

[Now] if they’d gone into an art gallery and they’d been set up to walk into an interactive environment, there was an imperative on them to work out what it was; but not here. With the exception of [the gaming works] it was very interesting [because] they had the signifier of gaming about them.  [They] grabbed a particular audience, younger people in particular, who felt they knew what to do straight away and they were prepared to explore.  But some things were too abstract for our [larger] audience.

DT: So they needed a recognizable attractor or … signifier to spend the time?

MC: I think at this point that in terms of understanding interaction, we need to let people know they’re interacting with something quickly because the works in Beta_space are competing with a lot of [louder] exhibitions.

DT: …You [also] recently went on a trip through North America and Europe to visit other museums to sort of “trade notes” as you said on things like collections management and exhibition processes. Now did any of these institutions stand out to you in terms of practice based research? Were any of them doing anything along the same lines?

MC: Well, they were doing things that had elements of what we had been attempting to do with Beta_space.  I was [also] interested in the broader related processes which included having real science on display, [featuring] scientists, designers, and artists working in public spaces and artists interacting directly with the public, as well as the artists’ processes; so I was looking at a broader range of activities [as well]. Beta_space encompasses elements of all of those things. [There were] not many scientists on display, but there were certainly scientific practices, scientific knowledge and scientific ideas involved in the works.

I was interested in how they catered to…more informed visitors who have a direct connection to elevated levels of discussion. A bit like our Beta_space launches where the new media arts community come in and participate, listen to what the artist has to say, participate in an ongoing discussion, [and] possibly participate in an evaluation forum. So I was looking at those examples as well.

At the Science Museum in London and at the V&A [Victoria & Albert Museum] across Exhibition Road from the Science Museum; both places have approached activity-based programs in a slightly different way…In the Science museum they had the DANA centre where people would largely come along in the evening and participate…[but] in the V&A they had the Sackler Centre…a really great space where they ran workshops; curators did more in-depth studies of the work they were dealing with, and computer workshops. It was more workshop [oriented] and less show and tell, but they did have an artist-in-residence space and they had exhibitions of the artist-in-residence works and there were times when you could go and talk to the artists in residence and that was an interesting approach.  The artist-in-residence program was supported through funding and the work that I saw looked interesting and the only [issue] from my perspective was that [this experimental space] was separate from the museum. The gallery was one thing and this centre was another.

DT: So the experimentation and learning took place separately from the galleries?

MC: Yes. They even acknowledged…that taking the programs out of the galleries was something that they were concerned about…and that they were looking at ways of taking the programs back into the galleries. But it did offer them a chance to do it [run programs] at night without opening up the whole museum, which they really liked.

When I went to the DANA centre, again [it] was separate from the museum. It was an alterative approach to discussing scientific issues and direct engagement with scientists but it was done outside of the museum. So it wasn’t changing the exhibition format in any way.  Again they’ve had some successful programs and I’ve spoken to people who have participated and they say it’s a great program, with an opportunity to go much further than you often get to go in a museum based discussion. But, it was sitting around, talking.

Each [institution] had a centre that was separate. It was a great space, and a great program and very well conceived and very well built and they had really thought about the design well when they did it. And I think they have a successful program. I think they also benefit from just having thousands of people turn up to Exhibition Road every morning to get into the Science Museum and the V&A and the Natural History Museum because it’s London.

DT: So this is [quite] different [to Beta_space]. The next question is how is what you saw [different from] what we, what you and I, are trying to accomplish with Cyberworlds and Beta_space?

MC: I’m trying to enrich and enliven the galleries and look at an alternative form for a gallery space. We’re actually looking to make interaction a sort of primary mode of engagement in the space, rather than a support role playing second fiddle to the objects. …We’re still committed to our collection and to artefacts, and to material culture…but I would like to see more. We already have the Thinkspace here, which is like a classroom, an [educational] experience, and a workshop space that is separate from our galleries. I would rather see it brought to the middle of the galleries [and made] more public. There’s a public [following for it].

DT: Do you think that works? From what you’ve seen and what you saw on your trip, you seem determined to bring that mode of engagement with the pure data or the pure research, into the public space.

MC: Certainly in moving away…from a mode audience engagement which is…of observation and having information delivered to them through their perusal of showcases, towards one of them engaging in conversations and activities with the option of turning to a narrative-based displays which are also there.

DT: Do you want them to be user-generated?

MC: Certainly, I would like…aspects to be user generated.

DT: That’s fantastic.

MC: In London where I saw these situations…there was this connection made by scientists by separately devised spaces and programs…they were successful, there was certainly lots of people there, but I am interested in what the next phase is. So when I was at Linz at the Ars Electronica centre, it’s much more of a laboratory-type space in which there are real scientists at work, employed by the Future Lab, but there’s a museum program that takes place with scientists and artists doing their work…They can go off and do it in their labs and offices if they’re writing code, but if they want to use the rapid prototyping machines then they’re doing it in public and then they will explain what they’re doing if they’ve got the time to do it.

DT: Is it expected of them to do that as part of their research or is it just if [their work] carries them that way?

MC: I think its part of the deal, I’ll have to check next Thursday when I see Matthew Gardiner again, who was the Australian artist…

DT: He’s in my show, at the Australia Council…[genart_sys | a window on digital culture]

MC: Is he?

DT: Yes, he does this amazing robotic origami.

MC: Yes [they’re] beautiful…he was doing the robotic origami [there] and using the rapid prototyping machine to create all the little bones for his flowers and taking the opportunity to explain in his fairly new German to a lot of visitors, school kids, what he was doing with the rapid prototyping machine. They had learned the context in which it was displayed, which was in what direction rapid prototyping was taking us, while waiting for his items to be created, while waiting for his little flower bones to be created…but they also had a data visualization space, they had a big 3d visualization space…that wasn’t working [wasn’t running] that day; there was a bit of experimentation going on, but it wasn’t open to the public. There’s a bio-tech lab where people bring in plants, and they clone their plants, and then … come back and see them as they grown. They’ve got their original plant and then they’ve got a genetically identical plant that they’ve created themselves. Through that process they also discuss the fact that if it wasn’t a plant, they might have [also] brought in a few cells from their pet, or if they couldn’t catch a pet, they might take something from a little brother or sister…but then in fact…in principle they could bring in some of their own cells, and this was an intro[duction] to a broader discussion of cloning.

DT: Well and the ethics of that other person [they are creating]

MC: [Yes].

DT: Amazing. So a really different kind of research, but still research that was open to the public.

MC: [In terms of Beta_space] the Ars Electronica centre was to me the closest to a living laboratory, and Ars Electronica is possibly the best known electronic arts festival in the world. They built this laboratory captialising on that particular brand or that particular event being associated with Linz.  They were starting to build relationships, they were funded to do their own science but they were building closer relationships to the universities in the area; and they still have their electronic arts festival.

The director [mentioned] that when they were bringing school kids through they can’t expect the school kids to participate [with] and understand the higher level artworks that are brought in by artists from all over the world…so they work at a more fundamental level [with the kids], just with the science. And there are artworks in there; so they deal with robotics, biotechnology, rapid prototyping, and data visualization. And they’ve chosen those topics as most important for the next 5 years and then they’ll be choosing new ones.

DT: Fantastic.

MC: They have the one advantage that they’ve started from scratch, there’s not legacy [in place].

DT: Right, so it can develop as they go, because that’s kind of similar to Beta_space as well, it was conceived of by Lizzie, Ernest and you…

MC: But in terms of changing a museum [it’s more like] 100+ years of tradition within this museum and collections based museums all over the world…

DT: So then its different, so the concept of a living laboratory as introduced to a museum, this is how Beta_space stands out from the other exhibitions [that you visited in Europe].

MC: In a way, yes it does. So it’s an example…to change the museum overnight is to…

DT: sink the ocean liner?

MC: yes, [well] to turn the ocean liner on a dime. Whereas [with] the Beta_space…we need to actually prototype these activities and know that we can do them and establish from a small one how much resource we need and how feasible some of our ideas are. And it means that if we need to resource these activities through partnership, then we need to have an effective model for partnership. Again, that’s what the Beta_space has been used for.

DT: That’s been its greatest value to the museum?

MC: Yes.

DT: That sort of touches on the next question, how it stands out in terms of reaching its goals in terms of other international practice and sustaining our research queries in line with other places. So do you think we keep in line with our research practice at Beta_space? That being here’s a prototype, it’s robust enough, we’re going to evaluate it, we’re going to invite people to have a look, and then we’re going to produce a tangible outcome from that [based on evaluation], be it a published paper, a masters, a phd, a launch, a public talk…

MC: Oh I think we’ve been very consistent in that there has been quite a lot of people curating it, we’ve been very lucky with personnel; lucky with relationships between people. So it’s been based on real human relationships and there is plenty of opportunity for things like that to go pear-shaped, but it’s worked well, and it’s been remarkably consistent in that respect and it’s delivered what it’s proposed to deliver, and so for that reason it is a model for what we can do.

DT: But it’s been up and down, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing, has it? Because we were saying it’s almost more interesting when things don’t go exactly as planned…

MC: Well, we’ve learned things from those who have failed. We’ve tried to put things that are too complicated in, we’ve strained relationships by making things too complicated…

DT: …So you also went to Canada and America on your trip, and you went to the Toronto Science Centre where they have a specific interest in Beta_space. So the next question is what does Beta_space do well that makes it interesting to other institutions?

MC: One of the most ambitious projects that’s aiming in the same directions, and there’s a direct response to exactly that, engendered the need for the Future Forums here, was by the science centre in Toronto. So Kevin Von Appen is an Assoc. Director there who lead the project to do the Innovations Lab.  So they are a traditional science centre, not an objects based institution, and there’s a significant difference. Nevertheless, he was not convinced that the standard array of science centre interactives, of which there’s a fairly grand suite of things, …were really engaging the public and they were really doing their job in relation to innovation. Most of them are demonstration exploration of basic scientific principle, and perhaps if you’re pulling yourself up with a pulley or you’re making waves in water, the basics are valuable and interesting, but it’s too far away from end product of innovation now to actually be encouraging innovative behavior, which is where they needed to get from their science centre; and certainly how they needed to respond to their stakeholders and people who were giving them money to exist within government policy.

So he was interested in creating a space where visitors might have the opportunity to display for themselves, if you like, innovative behavior. That was his goal. He wanted them to have an experience of creating something, and finding their own innovative capacities, ok? And so they did out a whole floor and … set it up with lots of different activities where…you could run workshops, and you could work in groups where you could do tasks that involved solving problems. There was a lot of problem solving in there. And he came and spoke to us about what he did, but while he was here, he also came and visited Ernest and came and visited Beta_space. And the reason that he was desperate to see Beta_space was that he had heard how much we were spending to run it and he wanted to know if our budget was true. He eye-balled me and said, “is this the real spend or are there hidden costs here. Are you paying staff to participate here that aren’t part of what you claim to be your budget?” and we were able to show, we were able to point to the starving curator… I think it was Lizzie at this point <laughs> to demonstrate. And the fact that the evaluation was done by students, supervised by students, and the fact that the curator was independent and a student, in fact, and that there weren’t artist fees. In fact, the time when I showed him, the artwork wasn’t working.

Beta_space was a modest arrangement which looked more so with a broken interactive installation in it and I was trying to compensate for what I thought were its obvious flaws; and he was dismissive of the need for it because he saw what it did straight away; and was particularly interested. And then [he] confessed to me that the Innovation Lab that he had built, while it was incredibly successful and had huge numbers, huge building numbers, and people really loved it, it was straining the institution because of the resource requirements; with a lot of tedious work that needed to be done in the evening to ensure it worked the next morning.

DT: Right.

MC: So when I went to visit him they had actually closed some places because they just couldn’t….

DT: …sustain it?

MC: …they can’t sustain it, it’s unsustainable. So sustaining these spaces is an issue.

DT: It’s as important as presenting the ideas..?

MC: Yes. But there were a couple of amazing things that were in there [at the Toronto Science Centre]. They were starting to engage with artists as well and they were looking at a space because they did find that the experimental artists work was….

DT: …engaging for people? In terms….

MC: …[of] attracting people’s interest and people were interested in commenting and participating.

DT: In terms of design? And in terms of the work? And the materials?

MC: Yes, in terms of design and innovation…the works I saw were on screen, so they were still…there was an interest in the [Beta_space] model and how to frame the work, where to bring it in, how to provide context for it and how to resource its installation, its explanation and an ongoing program. And with that…

DT: We will conclude.

People do strange things with electricity?

by Deborah Turnbull on 11 MAR 2011

Dorkbot @ Serial Space, Sydney
23-26 February 2011

Click, click...click...click...BWAAAAAAMMMMMMM<this is meant to be a very loud, very sudden organ sound accompanied by a florescent pink light...both only last for 10 seconds> click, click....click, basement space, ceilings are high for a basement, oops I tripped over the near invisible ledge there <embarrassed>, and what the heck is that over there...<squinting>?

These are my first impressions of the newest Dorkbot exhibition at Sydney's Serial Space, an Artist Run Initiative sponsored by the Australia Council and run by one Ms. Pia van Gelder. Afterwards came, I'm cold, I'm wet, and it's pouring out, don't I live in Australia?...where's the bar?...ooh there it is...

Beer in hand, I asked for a room brochure. No dice. But I was directed with a wry smile towards "the human room brochure, over there, dressed all in black" whereupon I met van Gelder, the curator and manager of the space, and heard all about the exhibition and its creative process. The gist of this conversation is that Serial Space is largely a workshop space where emergent artists come together and experiment, often on themselves, with electricity. There was no particular curatorial vein past the invite to do something strange with this medium, and the artists were selected based on a call that is put out by and then culled by van Gelder.

Encouraged to have a look around, I spied a very raw space, uncluttered,  dimly lit, and host to 6 distinct works and a spot-lit ruck-sack with extension  cords running out of it. Intrigued I started off to the right, where I was met  with a copper construct atop a plinth hosting various light sources emanating  from small tubes. I was reminded of a model for an apartment building, the  white lights signifying the inhabitant's televisions (computer screens?). A  small white box that looked electrical protruded from the front of the plinth. I  cast my hand around it thinking it was a sensor, but it wasn't. I wasn't sure  what to do next, so I looked to the back of the plinth, squinted at the  minute  label, and finally gave up (after about 30 seconds). Hmmm <squint>, David KirkPatrick, you've stumped me.

I moved on <click, click...click; what the?> to the spot-lit rucksack sporting  extension cables and the documentary footage by Luke Calarco. Without  touching much, I examined the cables more closely, and watched a bit of the footage which consisted of the artist wearing the rucksack and folks running  their hands over him. He was grinning quite widely, but otherwise, I couldn't  really relate to what was happening. Hoping for a performance later on, I was blasted once again with a very loud BWAAAAAAMMMMM! and florescent pink light...

...another tiny label told me this next work was Wade Marynowski's "Death by Stereo". Apart from it's quite obvious attractor, I was curious about the composition. Here was a 90s boombox, bubbling with pink paint; bubbling due to the apparent vibrations emanating from it; there was also a dolphin lamp, covered in the same pink paint, but smoothly, neatly, and serenely. This juxtaposition of calmness and discord is only emphasised when the organ and lamp perform their duet of <BWAAAAAAAMMMMMMM! FLORO FLAAAAAAAASH>. Upon closer inspection, both the boombox and the lamp were plugged into the organ, which was placed on its side. I wanted to look further, see if there was a computer driving the sound and the light, but I couldn't without ripping the back off of the organ. Plus the <BWAAAAAAAMMMMMMM! FLORO FLAAAAAAAASH> but a combination of attractive/repellant, so I moved on <click, click...click; huh?>

After tripping on the ledge again, this time in a downwards trajectory, I was lured to a pleather pillow in front of a softly glowing computer monitor. Happy to cover my stumble, I sunk all the way to the floor, and, taking refuge in the pillow, I started to examine the components of Ross Manning's "Trapped Universe". A simple plasma screen was covered in two sheaths of plastic, one that distorted your vision, and one to frame the distortion. However, it wasn't until you closely examine the screen that you realise what you're looking at is a built construct, not a digital one. I must admit I was impressed at the simplicity with which this trompe l'orielle took place and stayed for a while examining and photographing the layers <click, click...click; oh COME ON!>.








Intrigued by a woman who was placing a boxer's heavy weight trophy belt and protective padding on attendees, I left my pleather perch, and tried to eavesdrop on what was going on. The woman turned out to be the artist, Jiann Hughes, and she was encouraging folks to try out her interactive work, "Below the Belt". While I waited my turn, I noticed she had her laptop open and upped my eavesdropping on her conversations to spying on her code. A MaxMSP patch drove the interactivity, and I could see that it was reading an inward/outward motion, likely fed to the laptop via sensors in the belt or headgear. When it came to be my turn, I fired a bunch of questions at the artist, to which she smiled and said, "give it a go, and then we can chat afterwards, yea?"...but, but...!

After gripping the headgear fitted with headphones to my ears to hear the instructions, I found that, as monitored by the boxing title belt, I could perform different breathing techniques to match the different breath techniques that boxers use depending on their weight division. Whimsically thinking about a tinned announcers voice echoing "float like a feather, sting like a bee" I tried out different breath rates. Once I was declared a feather weight (likely for the first time in my life...), I was encouraged by the film avatar, the boxing coach at a local gym who was in fact the user before me, that I could do it, I could win the title! Victory was mine! I pulled off the headgear and reported my winnings, and then true to her word, Hughes answered my rapid fire questions and we quite a geeky conversation about video timing and the software that supports it...<click, click....click; seriously what is that NOISE?!>. Having the artist there to explain the work was pinnacle to my seeing it through, though, as I tried to take off the headgear more than once. Had Hughes not been there to encourage me through it, I would have moved on as I was having trouble hearing the instructions and wanted to have a closer look at the art system. To her credit, she was never short of humans to interact with her computer.

After I thanked Hughes, I moved on to the last work, the presentation of which stole the show. An older style laptop hung on the central cement pillar in the room. It was mounted via two d-hooks, drilled into the screen casing of the laptop, which then hung off two screws drilled into the pillar. The laptop hung long, displaying colourful imagery on it's screen, and dating itself by still containing a DVD drive and sunken keyboard. Below it, a plinth displayed the guts of such a computer, artfully layered so as to create a sort of history of artefacts. This placement created quite a balanced tension between the software and the hardware of a computer, with links to the traditional arrangement of both paintings and sculpture. Not only did this trigger the art history geek in me, but the media stream was quite beautiful in its compilation, even in its name "Infomadream". I wasn't able to meet the artist, Michael Petchovsky, but if I could, I would shake his hand and clap him on the back. This is a stunning work, both conceptually and in execution <click, click...click; alright now...this was getting STRANGE. Could only I hear it?>

Having come full circle, I found myself back at the KirkPatrick work. There were a couple of guys milling around it, drinking beer, laughing, talking. I watched one of them reach over the white box that had stumped me and manually press the wide, flat, almost imperceptible button of a doorbell switch. Guess what? It emitted a loud CLICK, and the light sequence in the structure changed. A HA! That was my noise problem for the evening solved. I performed a quiet facepalm, reminding myself that if something does not respond to my movement, don't forget about simple mechanics. Sigh.

Lesson learned, I settled in to watch Calerco turn off the footage of him performing, strap on the cable ridden rucksack, and weave some conducting wire under his left armpit and around his shoulder. Seems like we were going to be getting a performance after all....

Stop by Pia van Gelder's Serial Space to talk about the next iteration of Dorkbot, she is the 'Overlord' after all...





White Rabbit's Opening Up: Big Bang, Indeed

by Deborah Turnbull on 10 NOV 2010

A Draft Review by Deborah Turnbull
© New Media Curation 2010

In a world so distracted by the GFC (Global Financial Crisis) how is it that Sydney seems so unaffected by it; especially in our somewhat decorous field, the arts?

According to Twitter account @theartmarket, written by Sydney Arts aficionado Vasili Kaliman, the Bank of Ireland is considering the sale of its art collection, valued at 64millionGBP, and the Saatchi Gallery in London is reconsidering its donation of works totalling 25millionGBP. Despite these aesthetic upheavals, Sydney's art wealth still seems vibrant, our major collections, in tact. I haven't, as yet, heard of any back door sales, and when you hear whispers of a commercial gallery closing, the artists represented are quietly re-homed into adjacent stockrooms with little, if any, negative press.

I still couldn't help contemplating the financial when spurred on by my social media to attend the re-opening of the White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney's city suburb of Chippendale. It seems that despite the GFC last year, this space has been beautifully converted from an old 3-storey knitting factory, costing more than any government start-up grant I'm aware of. Now a privately owned and operated gallery specialising in the collection and exhibition of contemporary Chinese Art, White Rabbit Gallery has received more than a lick of paint. Indeed, the collection is owned by billionaire financier Kerr Nielson, operated by his wife, Judith Neilson, and managed by their daughter Paris. Ah, having billions explains the amazing decor then, but it's not only their fortune on display here.


The yin and yang themes of fortune & waste, opulence & the mundane occur at every level in the new hang. Amidst the ground floor full of National Art School hipsters, each more artfully dishevelled then the next, there were politicians from the higher echelons of both China and Australia. Upon entry one is greeted by a very elongated, very bald, nude, leering Chinese man cast monochromatically in bright red. Beside this exaggerated icon is a pig dancing on its hind legs. This is Chen Wenling's Red Memory (2007) and Happy Life series (2006-7). It is simultaneously meek and overwhelming, existing both off the grid (the man) and within scale (the pig).

In opposition, the far side of the gallery is taken up with a 3-story sculpture made up entirely of discarded containers. Standing as a rainbow of rubbish tapering from the ground up, it is visible at every level. Its base is surrounded by both cast-off containers and photographs of the dumps in China where the containers were collected. Drawings abstracted exactly what stares you in the face. The apex stops suddenly at the 3rd floor, a bloom of discarded lids. It was literally the multi-coloured elephant in the room, and constructed by Judith Neilson's own art tutor, Wang Zhiyuan, and is titled Thrown to the Wind (2010).

If the ground floor was the well-coiffed intellectual beard for the evening, the upper floors contained the entertainment. From neon rimmed basketball hoops to paintings emulating neon bars, there seemed something for everyone on the 2nd floor. Ai Wei Wei's hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds lay in a well-lit mound, reminding us that not everything is as it appears. This seemed a recurrent theme in Han Jinpeng's Mona Lisa from Clear Sky to Rain (2009) and The Milkmaid in a Sandstorm (2009). These gilt-framed flatscreens show the artist starring in the da Vinci and Vermeer classics as an agent attacked by the weather. Over 7 and 5 minutes respectively, very damp and very windswept portraits of each protagonist emerge as a clear link to the trouble the weather is causing in our otherwise civilised society. Each time the subject battles the elements, intent on holding the portrait together, but in the end, each painting ends up radically different from where it started. They are absolutely fantastic.

Trompe l'oeil seemed the theme of the 3rd and 4th floors, from amorphously shaped alien beings swooping about the room, to be-spoked wheels of plastic emulating dream catchers, to hand painted bottles featuring major internal organs, to larvae-like lampshades and paper xylophone clones. Though they seem the remains of a popular culture trying not to identify with any one medium, they are recognisable enough so as to be plausible remnants. Together these works mark the essence of the show, lauded on the White Rabbit website as emulating the common theme of change, the common perspective of ziwo, "I, myself".

One of the most intelligent juxta-position of works is a series of digital film clips and a triptych of ceramic sculpture. Before entering the screening, there is a sign marked: WARNING! Course Language and Lewd Content! The videos screened within may offend some viewers. Granted, there was some animated prostitution, parent-approved adultery, crime, and monkeys doing violence to monkeys in the digital; but, ironically enough, right outside that exhibition is a triptych of 3 ceramic cast urinals featuring smooth hairless female genitalia. By the time you realise where the plug is situated and why a tap might replace a flushing mechanism, you understand the subtext; fetishism. If I'm correct, these works certainly are an intriguing match, as one medium portrays repressed sexuality and pack behaviour quite violently, where the other accepts the detrius of sex quite innocuously, almost in the form of sanitised navel gazing. Note the position of the sculpture.

Whatever your predilections, take in the new hang at the White Rabbit Gallery.

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