July 5, 2018

Interview with Ravelin Magazine

Originally published in Ravelin Magazine
Interview by Jillian Billard

Hi Sougwen!

Hi, Jillian ~

I always like to start with talking about an artist’s background. Can you talk a bit about your early life and how you came to visual art?

I grew up in an immigrant family in Canada, my parents are originally from Hong Kong. Hong Kong is a place that I fantasize about -- feel this deeply unearned nostalgia and longing for; I wonder if that’s typical for children born into the east asian diaspora.

My father was a classically trained opera singer and my mother a computer programmer, so those influences were always in the background. I always considered my upbringing to be quite normal, growing up with rigorous musical training and access to technology before everyone else, but I recognize it now as a very distinct privilege.

I grew up playing several instruments. I didn’t know it at the time, but learning to communicate through music, through the apparatus of an instrument, probably shaped my outlook on everything. Playing the violin was what resonated me the most. 

I look back and think of my time as a violinist as one of my first experiences of artistic escapism -- learning a feedback loop of internalization and externalization through gesture that was at once improvisational and abstract. At the same time, it wasn’t really subjective. You either had the skill and intent to communicate the emotion or you were asleep at the wheel. Or in my case, the bridge.

In tandem, we were among the first to have computers and access to the internet. As a child I was very active in the building of online culture and digital identity, which as a result still fascinates me. Nostalgia is overrated, but I indulge in it a bit when I think about those early internet days. I like what Andre Nusselder says about digital space as a projection of one's desire and fantasy -- especially back then before online spaces were so regulated and before communication became so reliant on platforms. The fantasy before the deep fake. When talking to someone from another continent still felt like magic -- it probably still is, we just forget that it is. 

My early life was mostly about learning how to communicating through instruments, musical and technological. Growing with that practice, sharing through performance. In that sense, nothing much has changed.

What’s different is that now these instruments, these tools, are part of much more complex systems. So there’s a feedback loop, a cycle of learning and adaptation through the promise of AI and an evolution of the digital object. In that sense, everything has changed. 

How long have you been interested in exploring the relationship between robots and humans? What led you to explore this relationship through visual art?

I’ve been exploring this space for almost 5 years now...  Maybe more? It seems like a long time and also a split second in the scheme of things. 

I’ve always considered the relationship between robots and humans as a proxy for exploring the broader scope of technology’s influence on our lives. One specific influence is that of AI systems in the world today. My robots bring AI generated behaviours into physical space -- out of the digital simulation. You could say that it’s about bodies, as well as bytes. 

I work alongside the AI system to make drawings, creating a feedback loop on a single canvas in real time. I was surprised that by translating these behaviours physically and working alongside them it changed what drawing meant for me. Working with prototypes and behavioral experiments; it’s a reminder of the vitality and fallibility of the process at the same time -- I guess that’s what I’m drawn to. The uncertainty, the unlearning, the unknowing of it all. 

When I think of robot production, I think of functionality, and not so much artistic expression and collaboration between robots and humans. What do you believe about the future of human and robot communication? How do technological advancement and artistry intersect?

That’s such a big question. It could go so many different ways, really. I will say that working with robots has contributed to my own thinking and fluency with deep learning systems, rapid prototyping, physical computing. It’s intimidating at first, but rife with aesthetic and conceptual inspiration. 

Its further affirmed that technology in general isn’t inherently good or bad, but it isn’t exactly neutral either. However, the stories we tell about technology, especially in pop culture and tech media tends to be pretty reductive and sensationalized. It’s not all Terminator, Tesla, or Twitter. 

We probably think of functionality when we think about robots as they were a prominent icon of the industrial revolution -- we associate them with assembly lines and factories. It lends itself to a didactic perception of the role between human and machine, with humans in control.

What if it wasn’t about control? What if it could that be another way?  I wonder what would that look like. I think control is interesting only when its incomplete -- and most of the time it is.

On the same vein, the future of human and robotic communication is pretty porous. It’s not so linear or one-way. It’s not really clear who’s at the wheel, sometimes literally. It raises some interesting questions about agency. 

At the risk of sounding like a foghorning media theorist, I’ve been thinking of the parallels between technological and artistic processes, in that they both foreground human bias. One process translates the bias of the dataset and the human engineer into the AI system and the other the visual bias of the artist and her visual style onto a canvas.

By intersecting artistic and technological processes, I’ve been working towards discovering particularities about both. They’re just ways of seeing and shaping the world at the end of the day, after all. 

In Omnia per Omnia, you reframe the idea of a landscape as a documentation of movement throughout a space––particularly the ebb and flow of bodies throughout a city. This data is gathered through the interplay of technology or surveillance with the organic and improvisational movement of life. How are these robots taught to move––i.e. Is their movement improvisational? What does it mean to reverse the documentation––by having the human hand follow the robot, as opposed to the other way around?

The movements of the robots are linked to urban flow as captured through public cameras. They move according to motion vectors extracted from pre-existing surveillance feeds in New York City. The movements are improvisational in the way that how we move through cities is improvisational… sometimes chaos, sometimes flow. The mechanical units, which I call D.O.U.G._L.A.S. (Drawing Operations Unit Generation 4, Live Autonomous System) start on predictable paths which, by translating the data through physical space, eventually veer off course, creating space for emergent, random behaviours as the composition unfolds on the canvas. When performing with these units, they resemble to me, a swathe, a broad stroke of the brush on by a multi-agent robotic body. 

It’s interesting that you describe it as a reversal, I’m not sure if I see it that way. I think culturally we’re moving beyond the linearity of human following machine or vice versa, to something more cyclical.

As the initial movements of the robots in Omnia follow human movement, and I in turn am creating alongside these translated positions, the marks made between human and machine function as a feedback loop. It’s been described as it’s a rhythmic duet, evoking a sense of push and pull; of coexistence. Alternatively it could be seen as meditative, and sometimes disturbing and chaotic. For me, the performance demands a vital focus on the movements of my robotic collaborators. It requires a kind of ego dissociation. Like being part of a collective. 

You ask “are we on the onset of a new, collaborative imagination––of radical new intersubjectivities?” What does this mean? What do you foresee this world, in which humans and technology collaborate, looking like?

The promise of some of these new technologies, like computer vision and deep learning, offers an alternative way of seeing. In my work I explore the particularities of that vision by turning it on my drawings, my environment, myself, to see from another perspective. 

Seeing can be an act of self reflection, but self-reflection is a closed loop. Learning to see as a machine sees is a vantage point that requires mediation between symbolism and data. In deep there is the concept of ground truth, that which is objective and not derived from inference.

There is a lot of conversation about biases evident in AI systems and that is absolutely true within AI systems trained on art. In that vein, you could describe visual language as a kind of visual bias, a foregrounding of the subjective view of the artist, like I said before. Bias is another form of subjective view. For my part, by translating visual style as bias as subjectivity into machine behavior, and collaborating with machines as an aspiration, I am attempting ask certain questions. What might the ground truth of an artistic practice be? Is that something we want? What might a shared intersubjectivity between human and machine look like? 

For my project, Omnia per Omnia, I elaborated on this “intersubjectivity” and expanded it to the idea of a collective. In the work, I painted alongside a system of painting robots whose movements were linked to the flow of New York City. The movement was extracted using an optical flow algorithm trained on surveillance cameras around New York City. The performance is a trio of sorts between myself as a performer, the 20 multi-robotic units and the collective movement of the city, improvising a hybrid choreography. It’s a performance of human and machine and city, an emergent creative process. 

With Omnia, the act of improvisational painting takes place through a heightened sense of awareness of the machines. It’s flow is site-specific. The movements are linked to the movements of a crowd, who aren’t aware of their position as catalysts of the robotic swarm. 

But what if the crowd were aware of being all watched over by these machines? That’s what I mean by being at the onset of this collective imagination and intersubjectivity. It’s inspired the idea of a collaborative space between multiple bodies that is physical, digital, telepresent, and most importantly, shared. It’s a representation that isn’t about control, but something else.

The project really stemmed from a curiosity -- a willingness to de-privilege the western conception of the individual towards an entangled, intersubjective, radical ecosystem.  I’ve been inspired by this reconfiguration of the “I”, through theorists like Yuk Hui’s who explore a new cosmotechnics, and the philosophies of media centred around eastern concepts of relation. 

The act of painting in Omnia per Omnia appears as a meditative practice, in which the lines between the maker and the final product are blurred––that is to say, the act of making seems to be more important than the actual outcome. It reminds me of Allan Kaprow’s “Happenings” in that way. Would you say that the making is more about the act than the product?

Yes, I think I would. Perhaps it’s my upbringing in music. The performance vs the recording of the performance, for instance. My approach to making is grounded in my background as a musical performer, as an instrumentalist. Making through collaboration as folie a deux; a shared hallucination between collaborators. Sometimes harmonious, and sometimes discordant, but always intertwined, and relational. Counterpoint.

You speak about the Japanese Gutai art movement, in which “matter never compromises itself with the spirit; (and) the spirit never dominates matter.” Can you talk a bit about this movement’s influence on your work, and how your work builds upon these theories of making?

I love that particular excerpt of the Gutai manifesto. “matter never compromises itself with the spirit; (and) the spirit never dominates matter.” Its deceptively complex and.. Beautiful and provocative.

In my view, Gutai’s theories of making reframed the human’s relationship with the matter of the day. It sought to recentre the human body (as a channel to spirit) as their artists engaged with painting and sculpture (matter) towards freedom of expression. It stemmed from Jiro Yoshihara’s rejection of contemporary propagandistic trends of art, which were supportive of the political contexts that supported the Japanese involvement in WW2. 

For me, their group shows represented a collective action in a time of uncertainty. Gutai artists engaged in radical artistic gestures, through a range of media, performances, and sculptures. Their approach to making was focused on a liberation from the past -- an uncoupling from the cognitive patterns derived from a post-war social order. They worked towards creating new meaning and pathways through these artistic gestures, towards “engaging with the uncompromising spirit of matter itself”. 

I’m quite inspired by this approach, though the Matter I’m working with today, you could say, differs from the Matter used by Gutai artists in the 60s. 

Technology as matter is interactive; it can be linked, sensate, responsive, interactive, intelligent, interconnected in a way which has never existed in human history. The technology of media art like cameras, sensors, computers, for instance. Technology can serve a propagandistic function all the same and work against our best interests all the same, and our relationship to it must be reframed. 

While Gutai emerged from the political and psychic disillusionment of war, it’s important to note that it wasn’t a movement that ended on a sense of nihilism. In the face of uncertainty, the movement demonstrated artistic strategies for uncoupling and unlearning, in service of cultural extension, collective action, and hope in the dark. My work builds on, and is inspired by, these Gutai traditions.

June 1, 2018

Omnia per Omnia Film

We made a film for #OmniaPerOmnia and it was a wild ride. (This is the teaser ~) .
Thank you to @mynameiscutter for sharing the vision, lending your talents to the project, and assembling the star team for our film. @tshung @cleggm @arianne_alizio .
Original score by @aquarianyes and Mickey Partlow @v3rysaid .
Omnia per Omnia pays homage to the flow of cities. This first chapter begins in NYC, my home of a decade and birthplace of the Experiments in Art and Technology initiative.

The full film is screening@manacontemporary this weekend ~ .

May 30, 2018

Omnia per Omnia Featured in White Hot Magazine

 Sougwen Chung, Omnia Per Omnia Performance. Photo by Irina Abraham. 

"In Omnia Per Omnia Sougwen Chung explores collaborating with robots as opposed to using them as a tool.  As I enter the room, the artist and the engineer Andy Cavatorta are fussing around little machines with exposed hardware, which seem to roam free around a white platform. Sougwen and Andy look like two caretakers with the little robots being their wards.

When Sougwen first contacted Andy about the project, he jokingly asked if she wanted him to build her an army of painting robots. To his surprise it was exactly what Sougwen who had    designed, coded and engineered the prototypes, intended. The robots are using surveillance footage and have the collective movement of the city power the movement of their swarm.  Sougwen is painting the portrait of the city together with the robots. When asked what the difference is between collaborating with humans and robots, Andy and Sougwen laugh and say that humans cooperate. Their hope is that the robotic swarm will keep learning and evolving.

On the day of the performance, Sougwen is surrounded with audience and journalists. Once the robots start moving and the music fades in, everyone turns quiet. The slow and seemingly purposeful movement of the robots, the traces of the blue paint they leave behind, the motion of Sougwen's brush and the expression of total concentration on her face create an atmosphere of a ritual, a spiritual action. The audience is affected by the magic happening in front of them. Watching the artist paint with the robotic swarm creates a true emotion, the way only art can. "

Article by Irina Abraham

Read the full piece at White Hot Magazine here

May 23, 2018

“Only Human” at Mana Contemporary

Where does the time go? This weekend is the last weekend to see Omnia per Omnia at Mana Contemporary. Thank you to all who have supported the project for this first run. .
What an experience to bring these 20 new robots into the world with my collaborators @andycavatorta @thepetermania@mynameiscutter @youngbukllc and the support of the team @newinc @belllabsnokia @newmuseum.

Photo by Rain Embuscado

April 20, 2018

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?

March 5, 2018

Myths of Human and Machine

By Sougwen Chung

In response to The Architect is Dead
Published by Architectural Association in London

The proliferation of computation is bringing about a paradigm shift. From marks made by hand toward marks made by machine, we invite the question: if machines are able to execute actions traditionally performed by humans, will the human hand be replaced?

Contemporary artists with a forward-thinking approach are responding to this question by imagining new pluralities, rejecting the simplistic binary of human or machine. Through explorations of machine automation as an artistic medium, artists are defining paradigms of human and machine as intertwined agencies informing each other. Through co-authorship of organic and computational intelligence, an expanded notion of collaboration sets the stage for vital new inter-subjectivities[1]. Thus, we investigate how might the conception of human agency need to evolve.

Allegories of Human & Machine in Art

Art, by necessity, provokes speculation. Artistic movements have long helped shape a cultural understanding of historical epochs through allegorical lineage, linking the role of the artist to conceptions of agency — from Michelangelo’s hand setting an angel free from marble,[2] to omniscient arm of SEEK that shape the environment of its citizens,[3] to the works of today, exploring the emergent possibilities of human and machine.

During the renaissance, the artist’s hand was considered God’s vessel by  religious institutions. Michelangelo's Angel of Arca di San Domenico[4] was a valorized motif, an idealized form waiting to emerge from its captivity in stone – he artist’s skill was secondary. Michaelangelo’s role as an artist was that of a facilitator of religious wonder – an intermediary between the commonality of man and the sublime.

In the case of SEEK,[5] the machine’s hand was omniscient. The machine’s prescient use of computer vision technology introduced a synthetic mode of sensing that contrasted the organic sensory apparatus of its gerbil subjects. The project simulated computational sovereignty via a robotic entity that was responsible for maintaining order in an environment based on a predetermined set of rules that determined environmental changes informed by its population’s response to previous iterations. SEEK was an early example of automation and computational governance provided by a simulation of a self-organizing and self-referential system. SEEK provided  a metaphor for how technological systems could potentially govern behavior.

Allegories in art reflect and shape the social values of their historical context. Michelangelo's works in the renaissance can be seen as glorifying religious iconography with the scope of supporting the church’s governing dogma. SEEK and comparable works in media art effectively simulated the regulating influence of systems, a prescient concept in 1969 and a precursor to the networked systems of today. On one side of the spectrum, the fictive machines as a consummate offspring of humankind (combining the tendency towards pareidolia with imaginative delusions of grandeur). On the other, machines that render humankind obsolete affirm a fatalistic mindset. While such ideas might satisfy the tendency towards utopian and dystopian fantasies about technology, they emphasize a reductive binary of human or machine.

Man or Machine

Throughout time, we have witnessed the ways in which cultural shifts provoke anxiety and how, beneath the tectonic plates of the establishment, they dismantle structures. With that in mind, it can be tempting to mythologize the utopian belief in a hypothetical emergent intelligence within the computational operations of the machine as a seraph enclosed within the substrate of bits and bytes. To seek sublime within sublimation. These myths provide comfort and a stabilizing, yet perhaps naive, optimism. But if we operate under this assumption, what becomes of human agency, as embodied by the artist’s hand? Is it no longer required?

The reality of today’s technological landscape is more complex. What is a representative microcosm of the overall megastructure? As alluded to in prescient works like SEEK, the effect of computational governance is at once non-neutral,[6] ubiquitous and invisible. Systems link to form an interconnected network that sees and yet is unseen. The anatomy of the network, its sensors, its data collection and influence, are rarely in the frames of mind of the users it governs. It is these conditions that have contributed to the intractable effect of technology in the ebb and flow of modern life. It is “an accidental megastructure, one that we are building both deliberately and unwittingly and is in turn building us in its own image.”[7]

Man and Machine

Today, artists are caught in a cacophonous feedback loop as they ricochet between the tradition of art (manifesting social consciousness and reflecting on human experience) and the increased presence of machine automation (proliferated in tools, software, sensors, and robots). The modern psyche is on a transitional edge. We are charged with constructing intellectual and philosophical frameworks alongside the technologies that are simultaneously shifting perceptions of human agency.  

AARON: Extension

Take AARON, a computer program designed in 1973 by artist Harold Cohen, as an example. Trained as a painter long before AARON began, Cohen’s project translated singular artistic intention through computers. In this project, the machine operated as an extension of the artist’s vision. Cohen defined the system according to his own aesthetic sensibility. The machine’s rule-based system used familiar motifs within the genre of painting such as people and plants, which eventually shifted towards abstraction in later years.[8] In this project, Cohen programed the machine to paint a series of novel images and acted as the overseer of the work – absolving him from contributing physically to the painting and privileging didactic over dialogical methodology. Cohen prefered to extend his agency through a machine by translating his artistic vision into computational language. AARON executed permeations on a style, but did not invent its own original style beyond Cohen’s predefined set of rules. Thus, the limitations of the output were predetermined. The artist, for Cohen, was a designer of systems and an interrogator of authorship.

The creativity described in Cohen’s work is linear, as it begins with the artist and ends with the machine. The human  and machine gestures remain separate because the mechanical operations are executional. Cohen creates the rules for AARON to follow and they never occupy the same space in time. With this approach, Cohen occupies a privileged space in the interaction with the machine because his vision is absolute, perfect, unchallenged, non culpable. While the authorship may be in question, the roles occupied by human and machine are not. Now, Cohen is able to produce posthumously through automated agency. In questioning authorship, we challenge the definition of creativity. But what of collective authorship?

Drawing Operations: Towards Collaboration

Since 1969, it could be said that we are all living in a Blockworld described by SEEK, overseen by an accidental megastructure fed by memes, gps data, satellite imaging, reddit threads, remix culture, and unfortunate flash mobs. The “landscape” of human extension through networked devices has contributed to the widespread digitization and regurgitation of culture.

Ambiguous authorship has introduced incredible complexity into  the network. Inspired by Cohen’s AARON, artists have continued to create  visual systems that can produce infinite permutations upon a theme. The linearity of Cohen’s human and machine has extended to form a loop. Now, the conversation has grown to explore what happens to agency, originality, and authorship after we extend ourselves through machines, spawning a new generation of artistic inquiry. Notably, the Hong Kong international exhibition Ubiquitous Humanity explored the boundary between human and the mechanical through collaborative and interactive pieces, such as D.O.U.G.[9]

Drawing Operations Unit: Generation 1 (D.O.U.G.)

"Drawing Operations Unit: Generation_1 (D.O.U.G)" an installation by Sougwen Chung for NewHive (with Yotam Mann), part of NEW INC Showcase 2015 at Red Bull Studios in Manhattan, NY, USA on 8 July 2015. Processed with VSCOcam with hb2 preset

I introduced Drawing Operations Unit: Generation 1 (D.O.U.G.) as a performance piece investigating automation, autonomy, and collaboration in 2015. In Generation 1, the robot (D.O.U.G_1) and I draw together. The machine mimics my gestures in real time via computer vision, which results  in a synchronous collaboration between human and machine. Set as a 20 minute performance, the demonstration of co-creation builds upon the mechanical extension proposed by Harold Cohen’s AARON and suggests a metaphor for human machine symbiosis through behavioral empathy. 

In Generation 1: Mimicry, both human and robotic agent are creatively implicated through the act of performance. As D.O.U.G._1 mimics my movements, we create a visual language and cohesion manifested through a sustained awareness of mechanical and human marks. The project is primarily concerned with  ambiguity and interoperability in a machine and computer mediated creative process. We create a feedback loop within the performance that allows for a fluid dialog between the mark made by a human hand and a mark made by machine.

Through this work, I suggest that separation between collaborators is inconsequential. The producer and the impersonator are indistinguishable, and there is no leader or follower as they endlessly follow each other.  Ultimately, the authorship of the resulting artwork is un-ascribable. The folie-a-deux’s[10] binding creation may only be attributed by compulsory collaboration, a shared (polycentric) improvisation. In Generation 1, my improvised gesture is an extension of experience, emotion, subjective, moment, impulse control, dexterity, and rhythm translation over time. The robot’s movements are circuitry and servos, with its vision in pixels and coordinates, and electricity driving its movement, but also sight, interpretation, “understanding”, “parsing”, “learning”, and “data sets”.[11]

In an evolutionary progression, Generation 2 of Drawing Operations matures the interaction model of artist and machine from mimicry to memory via machine learning.[12] Gestural data extracted from my archives are fed into training models, simulating a neural network. The training models interpret archives of images, which provide a foundation of a rudimentary understanding of style. Effectively, the robotic arm begins to learn from the style of the artist’s hand throughout time. The system learns the stylistic patterns of its human counterpart, and, in a sense, interprets the history of the artist’s archives, learning to “independently” produce its own conclusions. The performance can be thought of as a collaborative simulation between an artist and her own mechanical doppelgänger. By doing so, Drawing Operations embraces indeterminacy in the age of mechanical production by implicating the machine as artistic collaborator, or possibly, originator. Not only does this place the authorship of the artwork in question, but it also speculates on the necessary evolution of our existing conception of collaboration.

Generation 2 teases at future applications of machine learning intertwined with artistic production – not limited to a single artist, but inclusive of a wider breadth of artistic sources. The machine as collaborator may invent a range of styles beyond the imagination of the human artist, as digitized archives of drawing take on a new life. By cataloguing art history as training data, the machine may be able to forecast, produce and thus originate future movements and styles by tracing and speculating the provocation of artistic development over time.

Overall, the pursuit of multi-threaded agency is poised to stimulate new ways of seeing, sensing and decoding the artistic process. In this framework, the process of creation is as much a part of the artwork as the visual outcome, if not more so. In a sense, the artistic agency questioned within the Drawing Operations project is a composited interoperation. It embraces creative ambiguity in the work, rendering full credit beyond the grasp of human or machine, suggesting the obsolescence of the distinction. In exploring a continuously blurring of distinction between self and machine, Drawing Operations fuels speculation upon inclusive models of radical inter-subjectivities.[13]

What’s to come

Beyond the adversarial binary of human versus machine lies a spectrum of intertwined conceptions of biological and mechanical agencies. In this pursuit, emerging themes will be  shaped by emergent interconnectivity. Developments in brain computer interfaces are heralding a generation of responsive prosthetics as cognitive extensions of the mind.[14][15] In competitive gaming through online communities, human players are competing with learning systems inspired by their own playing styles. By doing so, players are evolving new strategies for competing with machines,[16] as well as extending notions of beauty within gameplay.[17] In tandem, by capitalizing on recent advances in audio codecs and digital signal processing, researchers are exploring ways that haptic feedback can be used to restore perceptions, and perhaps create new ones.[18] Multi-player virtual reality may eventually lead to the normalization of post-geographic communal spaces and extend the idea of co-presence within an abstracted space.[19] Works that are manifold and cooperative, inspired by shared sensorial and spatial experiences, will espouse  the imagining of complex new inter-subjectivities.

By examining the co-authorship of human and machine in the context of building, artworks offer allegories for how we can potentially navigate  technological change, providing models for how the multi-sensorial data collected from humans, machines and the environment applies to the human experience. Beyond adversarial binaries, towards a promiscuously inclusive, multi-species array of cognizing agents — mechanical and biological, singular and composite, discovered and soon-to-be discovered. We are moving from a mark made by hand and a mark made by machine toward a mark made of something else entirely. 

[1] Harari, Yuval N. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Toronto, Ontario: Signal, McClelland & Stewart, 2016. Print.

[2] “Io intendo scultura quella che si fa per forza di levare: quella che si fa per via di porre è simile alla pittura.” a basis for the interpretive translation "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set it free."  "Lettera a Messer Benedetto Varchi." Lettera a Messer Benedetto Varchi - Wikisource. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 June 2017.

[3] Vardouli, Theodora. "Nicholas Negroponte: An Interview." Open|architectures. N.p., 26 Oct. 2011. Web. 20 June 2017.

[4] "Angel (Michelangelo)." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 11 June 2017. Web. 20 June 2017.

[5] Vardouli, Theodora. "Nicholas Negroponte: An Interview." Open|architectures. N.p., 26 Oct. 2011. Web. 20 June 2017.

[6]  Kranzberg, Melvin. "Technology and History: "Kranzberg's Laws"." Technology and Culture27.3 (1986): 544. Web.

[7]  Bratton, Benjamin H. The Stack - On Software and Sovereignty. Massachusetts: MIT, 2016. Print.

[8] "The Further Exploits of AARON, Painter." The Further Exploits of AARON, Painter. Stanford, 22 July 1995. Web. 23 June 2017. SEHR, volume 4, issue 2: Constructions of the Mind

[9] The 2016 Hong Kong group exhibition Ubiquitous Humanity comprised of a selection of works curated by Takahashi Mizuki addressing the role of technology in expanding human sensitivity (physical, emotional and behavioral), examining the boundaries between the human and mechanical through visual, collaborative, and interactive experiments.

[10] Metaphorically, “shared psychosis”, is a psychiatric syndrome whereby its symptoms are shared by more than two people by transmission. Berrios, G. E. & Marková, I. S.. “Shared Pathologies”. In Bhugra D & Malhi G (eds) Troublesome disguises. Managing challenging Disorders in Psychiatry. 2nd Edition, London, Wiley, 2015. pp.3-15.

[11] DOUG’s mechanical mode of production becomes the same tool as the artist’s tool for expression.

[12] The readability of massive quantities of data is the focus of the field of machine learning, which has been thriving on the mass data sets generated by humans, and the advancement of processing speeds. Machine learning algorithms are being trained on this data, and the techniques are improving in sophistication. The machine learning of today utilizes neural networks to glean behavioral patterns from the collected data of humans through images and text, which, en masse, form encoded impressions of the collective as a whole.

[13] DOUG heeds an imagining of machine and human that transitions beyond the conventional species-specific binary of human vs machine, by presenting a ulterior model of interaction derived of multiple artists.

[14] Xu, Zhe, and Emanuel Todorov. "Design of a Highly Biomimetic Anthropomorphic Robotic Hand towards Artificial Limb Regeneration." 2016 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) (2016): n. pag. Web.

[15] Clark, Andy, and David J. Chalmers. "The Extended Mind." The Extended Mind (2010): 26-42. Web.

[16] Metz, Cade. "The Rise of Artificial Intelligence and the End of Code." Wired. Conde Nast, 01 May 2017. Web. 20 June 2017.

[17] Metz, Cade. "The Sadness and Beauty of Watching Google's AI Play Go." Wired. Conde Nast, 03 June 2017. Web. 20 June 2017.

[18] Novich, S.D. & Eagleman, D.M. Exp Brain Res (2015) 233: 2777. doi:10.1007/s00221-015-4346-1

[19] Sudoscript. "When Pixels Collide." Sudoscript. Sudoscript, 16 Apr. 2017. Web. 20 June 2017.

February 11, 2018


Vermilion Sands: Interview with Sougwen Chung


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?

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.

October 26, 2017

Inventing the Future of Art & Technology

by Lindsay Howard | Oct 26, 2017

Humans have an innate need to adapt and improve what surrounds them. The strong desire to create a better, more meaningful future can be seen through each culture’s artistic and technological developments. Though we as a species are programmed to aspire, grow, and create, the invention of something truly novel—whether it takes the shape of a groundbreaking artwork or a new technology that revolutionizes daily life—is rare. One, therefore, has to wonder: what are the circumstances that enable creativity and invention?

In the 1950s, Mervin Kelly became the president of Bell Labs, the New Jersey research facility, and set out to transform it into an “institute of creative technology,” an initiative that ultimately led to the invention of the laser, transistor, and solar cell, to name a few.1 He enacted social and architectural strategies to empower researchers, including a mandatory open-door policy that encouraged interactions between engineers, chemists, and mathematicians in a collaborative, interdisciplinary environment. Kelly also offered researchers the latitude to delve into self-directed inquiries for years at a time without a specific result in mind. He even designed some of the hallways at Bell Labs to be exceptionally long so that, in walking from one place to another, one would come across acquaintances, who might inspire fresh ideas or diversions. This synergistic, go-for-broke mindset became firmly embedded in the Bell Labs culture and laid the groundwork for radical breakthroughs and collaborations across disciplines between employees and others beyond the walls of Bell Labs.

Billy Klüver talking about E.A.T. and 9 Evenings to group of artists and engineers in Toronto. Artists requests to the engineers for their 9 Evenings performances are projected on the wall behind him. Photographer Unknown. All rights reserved. Courtesy of E.A.T. and Broadway 1602.A SENSE OF POSSIBILITY EXPANDED ON BOTH SIDES, AND THE ARTISTS GAVE KLÜVER WISH LISTS FOR NEWLY AVAILABLE OR NOT YET IMAGINED TECHNOLOGIES

Billy Klüver joined Bell Labs as an electrical engineer during Kelly’s tenure. He was encouraged to follow his passion for cinema and regularly attended film screenings and exhibitions in New York. Before long, Klüver met Robert Rauschenberg at the Museum of Modern Art, followed by John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Jasper Johns, Yvonne Rainer, and Andy Warhol. Over the course of their conversations, Klüver and the artists realized that their combined skills and resources could lead to the creation of works that merge artistic vision with cutting-edge research at Bell Labs. A sense of possibility expanded on both sides, and the artists gave Klüver wish lists for newly available or not yet imagined technologies. Klüver and the engineers at Bell Labs went into production mode, developing inventions such as modified TV sets and projectors that displayed abstract images in response to a musical tone, a Doppler sonar that translated movement into sound, and FM transmitters that relayed sounds from the human body to loudspeakers. The resulting artworks were not only ambitious but also the first of their kind, pushing both sets of collaborators to consider the creative possibilities and implications of emerging technologies. In October 1966, they were introduced to the public in a performance series, called 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering, at the 69th Regiment Armory. A few months later, Klüver and Rauschenberg, in collaboration with Fred Waldhauer and Robert Whitman, launched Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), a nonprofit organization established to support collaborations between artists and engineers.

Through these seminal collaborations and the decades of partnerships that followed, both artists and engineers experienced the advantages of multidisciplinary collaboration. While engineers tend to address challenges in a reductive, linear way, artists generally create artworks using a broader, more divergent approach that can also inspire tangible contributions to a technologist’s research. The engineer will often take a general or universal question and break it down into small components while an artist can observe something that’s seemingly simple and create a whole universe froman  it. Though different, the approaches are complementary because both parties are working in an abstract way toward new discoveries. The goal of ascertaining some new or deeper understanding of the world is a commonality between them.

Early in 2017, Bell Labs partnered with NEW INC, the art, technology, and design incubator founded by the New Museum, to reinstate the E.A.T. program with a year-long artist residency. The artists are granted traditional Bell Labs privileges: access to the company’s research, tools, resources, and fabrication studios as well as the freedom to explore countless avenues of research in order to identify relationships and areas of interest, open collaboration with researchers who are exploring everything from machine learning to multi-touch sensors, and a long-term scope to try, perhaps fail, learn, and try again.IN ORDER TO REACH OUR GREATEST POTENTIAL, IT’S IMPERATIVE THAT WE SUPPORT THOSE WHO ARE OPERATING AT THE EDGE OF POSSIBILITY

Two artists and one artistic collaboration—Sougwen Chung, Lisa Park, and the dance duo Hammerstep—are working with engineers to propel their practices forward. Chung began the residency after years of participating in a drawing collaboration with a robotic arm; through her discussions at Bell Labs, she is increasing the robot’s intelligence and multiplying it in order to study crowd behavior, influence, and empathy. Park is building upon her past work with brainwave sensors and heart-rate monitors to create a holographic installation that responds to human touch. Hammerstep is turning their futuristic dystopian written narrative into an immersive theater experience using interactive projections, motion- and biometric sensing, and low-latency locational technology. While these alternative and often poetic interpretations diverge from the engineer’s initial intentions, they have the ability to reveal aspects of technology—and our relationship to it—that wouldn’t have existed any other way.

On a daily basis, artists and engineers seek original ideas, processes, and devices for the benefit of humankind. Through close examination of past successes, we learn that the ability to take creative or intellectual risks without fear of failure, to participate in multidisciplinary collaborations, and to have freedom to develop seeds of ideas over a long period of time are essential for nurturing invention. Art and technology will define the future of humanity. In order to reach our greatest potential, it’s imperative that we support those who are operating at the edge of possibility.

1. Jon Gertner, “True Innovation,” New York Times, February 25, 2012.

February 11, 2017

Sougwen Chung in Art Asia Pacific

Interview by Mimi Wong


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.




— 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.




Copyright Sougwen Chung