April 20, 2018No Comments

A discussion with Sougwen Chung about human-robotic collaborations

This post was originally published by NEW INC on April 20, 2018 and is based on an interview between Lindsay Howard and Sougwen Chung.

Recently NEW INC, the New Museum’s cultural incubator, and Nokia Bell Labs presented their first exhibition entitled “Only Human” at the Mana Contemporary in Jersey City, New Jersey. The exhibition showcases the work of NEW INC artistsSougwen ChungLisa Park and Hammerstep (Jason Oremus and Garrett Coleman) participating in the artist-in-residence program at Bell Labs and their collaboration with Bell Labs researchers to produce new artistic projects inspired or enabled by Bell Labs technologies.

“Only Human” is available to visit Tuesdays - Saturdays at 3PM through June 2nd as part of the Mana Contemporary’s gallery tours. No RSVP is necessary.

On Saturday, May 12th there is a day-long symposium at the Mana Contemporary for a deeper dive into some of the ideas, themes, and technological research that are being explored in the works on view. It will also reflect on the legacy of the Experiments in Art & Technology program (1967–2001), founded by artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman, and Bell Labs engineers Billy Klüver and Fred Waldhauer. Please RSVP here.

Image: Courtesy Jesse Untracht-Oakner/NEW INC.

The interview below with Sougwen Chung provides additional insight into her practice and how her work with Bell Labs researchers has enriched her artistic experience during her year long tenure as an artist-in-residence.

Lindsay Howard: What are some themes you’ve been exploring, and some past projects that relate to the research you’ve been doing at Bell Labs?

Sougwen Chung: I’ve been evolving the theme of human-robot collaboration through the past year at Bell Labs. My work has always centered around the marks made by hand and the marks made by machines—and the machines are constantly evolving. In particular, I’ve been exploring the fields of collaborative robotics, computer vision, and biometrics during my residency. It’s been able to observe how the role of connected machines are expanding in scale and scope through advances in artificial intelligence and the proliferation of mechanical agencies in IOT and in workplace automation. Sometimes it seems like these systems are imbued with a kind of predictive ability that can seem prescient, or at least much higher in intelligence and ability. I have been meditating on some words by Adrienne Rich during my residency: 

“We are living in a time of unprecedented complexity, our senses are currently whip-driven by a feverish new pace of technological change. The activities that mark us as human, though, don’t begin, exist in, or end by such a calculus.”

They were written in 2002, when then the activities that mark us as human were much clearer. Now, in 2018, it’s likely more of a space to define, to demarcate. These speculations have driven my curiosity about working with machines—and co-evolving my artistic practice alongside expanding technological complexity. At Bell Labs, I'm exploring computer vision work and the robotic interface as a creative collaborator, from single mechanical unit to robotic swarm.

LH: What is your day-to-day experience like at Bell Labs? Are you in a science laboratory? Are you in a research space? Are you working daily with an engineer or researcher? How do you balance all of that?

SC: I have the privilege of being able to work with a diverse array of collaborators in my practice. This past year at Bell Labs has been the place where it's all come together. I’ve been able to take the divergent influences, ideas, and prototypes that I’ve been working on, and sit and reflect on them in the quiet space of my studio. I’m currently working on the formal prototypes for the robotic units that will make up my commission project. I’ve been working with artists and designers Andy Cavatorta and Scott Peterman, as well as a fabrication studio named Young Buk on the final iteration of the robotic system past the prototype. It’s been a joy to go from making decisions about the design, behavior, and hardware—the organs of this robotic swarm system—to the finished product with this incredible team. I’ve started calling one of the prototypes DOUGLAS because it’s the continuation of my previous drawing collaborations, or drawing with DOUG.

LH: What does DOUG stand for?

SC: It stands for Drawing Operations Unit Generation [1, 2, 3, etc.]. I think we’re on generation four now. ‘LAS’ stands for “Live Autonomous System.” It's definitely a bit of a mouthful and DOUGLAS is a lot friendlier. We’ve been working on design, programming, and fabrication simultaneously, while integrating it with feedback from my collaborator at Bell Labs, Larry O’Gorman, and getting a sense of how it’s starting to move and shape up at Bell Lab’s research facility.

Image: Courtesy Jesse Untracht-Oakner/NEW INC.

LH: What interested you in Bell Labs Researcher Larry O’Gorman’s work?

SC: Larry started out in the privacy sector. Turns out that he was one of the major contributors to the fingerprinting technology that is ubiquitous in the world now. I thought he was such an interesting person to have a conversation with. From our conversations, I learned more about his career. Currently, he works on designing visual algorithms for public cameras that extract optical flow data from surveillance footage.

LH: When did you decide to formalize this collaboration and partnership?

SC: I think I always knew I would be working in some form with Larry’s research, in part because of the aesthetic qualities that his system could extract from a camera. There were visual features that shared similarities with my work—my gestural abstract work. I felt like there was a lot of harmony there. He actually sent me a paper after our first meeting about his work, and the paper was titled "Towards A Kinder Camera," which I thought was such an unusual sentiment to come from a research facility.

LH: Sounds like he was anticipating, whether or not he knew [it], some sort of ethical responsibility.

SC: In general, the willingness for Larry and for Bell Labs to be a part of that conversation is something I found to be really inspiring and compelling. They have this future human idea which, I think, on some level, is central to the contemporary artistic imagination as well.

LH: What is the future human idea?

SC: It’s not complicated. Very universal, and, again, a privileged dialogue to have. It concerns itself with questions like: What do people want society to look like in ten years? Our generation and the generation before ours have seen the internet turn into what it is today, from dial-up to Uber. We’ve been able to see the internet evolve, and we’re only just starting to reflect back on the past twenty years of this invention and how it’s influenced how we interact with each other, how we communicate, how we move around. Facilities like Bell Labs have an inside view into how digital technologies have shaped our culture, so the awareness that the decisions we make today can have a significant impact on society ten years from now comes naturally to their legacy and vision moving forward. The same can be said for artistic institutions—the idea of shaping the future through community and artistic artifacts while maintaining a cultural archive, a record of what was.

LH: What have you learned about yourself, or what has most shaped your practice by collaborating with robots, and by collaborating with the technologies that you are describing?

SC: Drawing, I think is one of the most humble art forms. Being able to engage with mark-making in collaboration with a robot means not always knowing what I’m doing—and that has been really enlightening. It’s helped me work through and question what narratives we tell when we engage in collaboration with mechanical agents, and technologies in general. In the conversation of AI, that gets really broad—dystopian, utopian, occasionally fraught with controversy. When people think about AI there is a tendency to ascribe, or imagine, considerable agency. Something like an artificial consciousness, however far-reaching that might be. I’m compelled by the human capacity to anthropomorphize our relationship to machines, particularly to robots, and how that can end up being a mirror for how we view ourselves and our own interactions with others. There are didactic models that are encouraged by developments in IOT and voice interfaces. But the collaborative models are more interesting to me. It’s a new stage for examining authorship and agency. It starts to question, who is in control? Who do we want to be in control? Is that the point?


February 11, 2018No Comments

PropsPaper

Vermilion Sands: Interview with Sougwen Chung

VORTEX

PROPS: What is the role of images in your research?

Sougwen Chung: The role of images in my research is linked to ways in which interface design shapes image-making. For years I've had an interest in exploring how an interface operates as a layer of mediation in creative process.

My practice is motivated by a curiosity regarding this layer of mediation, of “being on the boundary”.1 This approach is part of a philosophy of making that speaks to the aesthetics of the near-future, inherently and by extension. It does so through the mediums of performance, installation, and moving image.

The fields of human-computer interaction, artificial intelligence, and machine learning are complex, involving layers of computational abstractions and a technical lexicon often inaccessible to people outside of their respective research areas. As such, the fields benefit from a narrative context to communicate their significance to a wider audience.

One such context has been in the arena of competitive game-play. The narrative of games provides cultural reach as well as defined parameters of success. Watson, AlphaGo, and Libratus are centerpieces around which computational abstractions of human computer interaction, artificial intelligence, and machine learning can assemble.2 However, the easy communicability of competition reinforces the adversarial dynamic of human vs machine already prevalent in popular cultural discourse.

My recent project, Drawing Operations, presents an alternative. In Drawing Operations, I engage in a drawing performance with a robotic arm as an exploration of human and machine collaboration.

The co-creation of an image between human and machine reframes the conventional narrative assigned to artificial intelligence. It sets the stage for a broader cultural understanding of the field and posits a different set of research goals. Conceptually, collaboration extends the interaction of human and machine to that of a creative partnership (however aspirationally). Additionally, it invites the subjective assessment of an audience as well as inspiring research goals defined by aesthetics, interaction, and craft. The role of images, in this case, creates space for comprehensive exploratory narratives to emerge. (Sometimes counterpoint, sometimes polyphony.)

AI Researcher Fei-Fei Li says that if we want machines to think, we need to teach them to see.3 In addition to teaching machines how to see, as we speculate upon modes of vision and cognition dissimilar to our own, we are also teaching them what to see.

Drawing Operations
In Drawing Operations, the role of images is two-fold. As input, they are firing the synapses of the machine which cause it to move. As output, they are objects of aesthetic inquiry.

Input: Behaviour & Process
The behavior of the machine is driven by learning algorithms trained on images from a variety of sources. These images are derived from art historical archives as well as the works of contemporary artists. By using computer vision, video analytics, and machine learning, I interpret contemporary and historical image sets to glean meaningful gestural behavior. From there, these behaviors are taken into the context of a collaborative performance. Within this collaboration, Drawing Operations aims to showcase a confluence of biological and mechanical modes of sensing, cognizing, interpreting, and mark-making.

Output: Aesthetics
“When the image is new, the world is new.” 4
The speculative nature of the project is advanced by the interoperability of visual artifacts as concrete representations of research, sites of aesthetic comprehension, and objects within themselves. (The wreck and not the story of the wreck, the thing itself and not the myth.)5

As aesthetic inquiry: what forms emerge as a result of human and machine collaboration? What new types of information can be encoded in a single image? How do unfamiliar aesthetics stimulate new ways of seeing, sensing and decoding in the viewer?

Conclusion
Today, the interface is not simply a mediating apparatus for creation but a speculative agent of co-creation. As a result, in projects like Drawing Operations, the role of the image is multifaceted. The image functions not only as an aesthetic object, but a visual artifact showcasing the intersection of artistic practice and machine learning.

For me, the project's continued evolution teases at some creative possibilities of the near-future. Beyond traditional anthropocentrism, and towards a promiscuously inclusive array of cognizing agents — mechanical and biological, singular and composite, discovered and soon-to-be discovered.

1 Galloway, Alexander R. The Interface Effect. Oxford: Wiley, 2013. Print.
2 Metz, Cade. "Inside Libratus, the Poker AI That Out-Bluffed the Best Humans." Wired. Conde Nast, 01 Feb. 2017. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.
3 McNeal, Marguerite. "Fei-Fei Li: If We Want Machines to Think, We Need to Teach Them to See." Wired. Conde Nast, 06 Aug. 2015. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.
4 Bachelard, Gaston, Maria Jolas, Mark Z. Danielewski, and Richard Kearney. The Poetics of Space. New York: Penguin, 2014. Print.
5 Rich, Adrienne. Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971/1972. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013. Print.

February 11, 2017No Comments

Sougwen Chung in Art Asia Pacific

Interview by Mimi Wong

http://artasiapacific.com/Magazine/104

I love the point you bring up in your discussion about "image-making," specifically teaching machines how and what to see. In many ways, I feel that's often the role of the visual artist for people, as well—to show us what to "see" or how to look at something in a new way. Is that something that motivates you?

In some ways, yes. I’m curious about what is unique about image-making today, and why? 

How can it be taken apart?

These concerns are not new, and have precedents in the history of visual art. However, our methods of producing and disseminating images have changed pretty significantly, even over the past 15 years. Our generation has a relationship with images quite different to previous generations, and it continues to evolve quite rapidly. 

One example is that images today are captured en masse, and filtered in a way to become part of a collective visual memory, which shapes our collective thinking and behaviour. 

This cycle of sensing, capturing, and mediating is implicitly addressed in the collaboration with the robotic arm. 

The drawing process is recorded, algorithmically parsed, and then reintroduced as behaviour for a collaborative performance.  The experiment is ongoing. I’ve found that the project is generating a curious set of visual experiments that also facilitate my deeper understanding of images, creative process, and self-directed tools. 

I’ve found that by evolving this workflow, I’m starting to understand drawing in new ways. 

Do you see yourself or technology leading your work? Does the prospect of new technology encourage you to try new things or do ideas formulate and then you find the means to create them?

I’m sensitive to the mediating effect of technology; I try to be very aware of the framework which is presented by whatever technology I am engaging with at the time. 

My process is about finding ways to understand the tools available more deeply but also break them apart a bit. Maybe it started from a reaction to perceived constraints and questioning preconceptions of interfaces. 

In some earlier works, my leading the form has been a central tenet of my interest in it — but in more recent explorations, I’ve been loosening my grip on that idea of control, so to speak. 

The question of control in technology today deeper than simple determinism.

Often the frustration of technology is that we expect it to do one thing and then it inexplicably does another. Either out of human error or some internal problem. Does that ever complicate your work? Does it ever elevate it?

Projects that challenge what is expected of that dynamic — the false binary of intuition and computation, excite me. 

As technology advances through machine learning, what keeps the artist and machine separate? The computational and algorithmic nature of technology “learning” new modes means that, at some point possibly in the near future, it could create something functionally no different than “organic” work. Is there a line you draw between what the machine can do on its own and what has to be manipulated?

Our definitions are becoming more elastic, some would say gradually and others too rapidly. As with most things, its a matter of perpspective. Imaging technologies are already pretty advanced, so the authenticity of the form is no longer defined by the perfection of the representation. Put another way, a computer can already replicate a painting, and its already difficult to distinguish a photo of an object from the “real thing”. This is pretty established ground.

What I’m curious about is how these new ways of seeing and learning evolves a creative process. To your question — does the artist and machine need to be separate? What does a composite creative process look like — and what precedents does this evolving hybridity have in art history? In this space, there is a strain of speculation that leads to real invention. We’re living in an unprecedented time, the interplay between speculation and invention is sparking like a live wire. My curiosities are driven by that energy.

愫君

愫君

愫君

— Sougwen 愫君 Chung is a

Chinese-born, Canadian-raised 

artist & (re)searcher 

based in New York.

— Sougwen 愫君 Chung is a Chinese-born, Canadian-raised artist & (re)searcher based in New York.

— Sougwen 愫君 Chung is a Chinese-born, Canadian-raised artist & (re)searcher based in New York.

— Sougwen 愫君 Chung is a Chinese-born, Canadian-raised artist & (re)searcher based in New York.

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