(mis)adventures of a technology artist in Paris
I should clarify that I don’t consider myself by any means a practicing connaisseur of business and politics in France, or elsewhere for that matter. To be fair, I don’t believe that those who have made it their profession to pursue these subjects can justifiably boast to be a connaisseur of my trade either. We all have our role to fulfill in society. No one can be expected to know everything. Both French administration and the art of computer science, each in their own respect, are admittedly complicated. Each requires years of education and experience to master. To expect someone of my own dedicated profession to fully understand and conform to the intricacies of a bureaucratic process by which one may possibly gain support is like asking a politician to troubleshoot a malfunctioning circuit board.
During my time as a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago I learned about many contemporary artists using technology in their work. I was fascinated by the idea of using the machine as a means for artistic expression. I seized the prospect of learning to control technology with the goal of manipulating it for one's expressive will, much like a painter masters pigment and the use of a brush on canvas before fluently communicating via the medium. Considering the general consensus that requires that technology serve functions deemed 'useful,' the idea of an arbitrary or seemingly useless machine was always an intriguing concept to me. The very idea of functionality and its' popular definition in terms of expectations of what machines should do was for me an abstract concept. This gave me a conceptual foundation on which to build my own explorations. Among many different artists who had inspired me by achieving some sense of poetic expression using technology and machinery as a medium, the works of Rebecca Horn and Laetitia Sonami made lasting impressions.
Like many artists, I've always been fascinated by hands. To draw or sculpt a convincing hand is for most people a considerable challenge in itself. Hands are complex in their form and function, and can likewise be very expressive, overall difficult to reproduce. The results of replicating hands in any medium, their form, gesture, movement, is generally very satisfying when successful. This said, after visiting many arts and innovation events my first year in Paris I observed what I found to be a common disconnect between the work presented and the visitors attending. Divisions existing between spectator and spectacle had always been a subject of interest for me. With time I wished to bypass this barrier, to participate simultaneously in both the social rituals and the work presented. I used inspiration from many different sources, much of which returns to my experiences while living in New Orleans, ceremonies of masquerade, voodoo, bacchanal festivities, and in particular histories of political seduction rumored in the early 2Oth century brothels of Storyville. The name of my resulting project Lulu White refers specifically to a queen hostess, an infamous octoroon who owned one of these brothels. Employing a similar aesthetic to that of cabaret, I decided finally that I wanted to use the familiar concept of a hand, to physically touch distant spectators with the work I presented while also remaining myself immersed in the crowd. Technically speaking, the prospect of programming and designing an autonomous robot to act naturally (i.e. artificial intelligence) would imply an insane amount of work and investment. I decided it was more economical to make a robotic device that would follow my commands in real-time, like a marionette.
After prior research in radio communications and controlling motors with gyroscopic sensors I had developed a wireless glove to control robotics at long distance. I did this initially with a budget of about €300 for materials. This was enough to make it through a few days of my first presentation at the annual Paris innovation salon Futur-en-Seine. I will briefly attempt to clarify how I managed to do such work at low cost. First I know how to use a search engine, and most importantly I avoid using proprietary technology as much as possible. I generally prefer using open-source hardware and software. GNU licensing and other practices of shared knowledge are truly a godsend for artisans like myself. I recognize however that this is often difficult to communicate in a world where intellectual property rights have achieved domination in the common understanding of our relationship with technology. I usually get shrugged off as being a total geek when I talk about this stuff. But considering that so many of us consistently buy into the consumer glory of owning the next best gadget, I consider this to be a simple defense mechanism of the common user.
Technical details aside, this work went on to achieve considerable success. I was invited to present the piece at numerous exhibitions across France. The festival Scopitone in Nantes alone hosted 40,000 visitors, for which I was a welcoming act. At the opening night of the show I was invited to dine with the mayor of the city and the famed Audrey Pulvar, chief editor of the magazine Les Inrocks. As usual I could understand little about what everyone was talking about while we ate. There were cameras everywhere and possibly the fanciest food I've ever eaten. As much as I was experiencing an incredible sense of achievement by finally creating something that worked so well with the public, I was both humbled and surprised by the discoveries that came along with this experience. Interactions with children and families brought to me something I never expected. I truly enjoyed the possibility of inspiring the public to think differently about their relationship with the machine. I myself was never convinced by the brave new wonders promised by industrial progress in my youth. I was encouraged again by these shows to help change the common perspective of what the machine should mean for others, myself included. For me this is the most pertinent responsibility of an artist working with technology today. I understand however that this sort of ambition is often conflicting for those brandishing popular interests of capital gain.
Returning to my position at the artlab, I allowed the company I assisted Digital Art International to use my project for promotional content, as long as I agreed to the given subject. They were positioned almost like an agent for me in this case. During a brief period they offered management of communication and contacts for shows. They however held no claims nor responsibility for the creation of the work itself. As with any project that crossed their path, they would continue to insist that a co-production agreement be signed for it. They were already receiving a lot from me being the Artlab® director. I didn't wish to grant them control of my personal work as well. Signing the project to the company would have brought me more support for funding and shows while in return giving them the right to sell the work for use in contexts that I didn't entirely understand or approve of. Judging from what I had observed up to that point, I wasn't comfortable with the idea and ultimately refused.
Meanwhile as productions and activities continued at the lab, I remained frequently solicited to welcome special interest groups ushered in by the company. One of the more prominent of these visits was with a dozen representatives from the Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission of Grenoble (CEA). We spent time together in a board room talking about their initiative to start a fablab. We discussed the importance of artist residencies and using open source techniques for accessibility and economic feasibility in developments and prototyping. As with so many others I gave these CEA reps a tour of the lab, my own work included in presentations. It was explained to me that they were proposing an artist residency with a local beatboxer who goes by the name of Ezra. I had met the guy on several occasions while exhibiting my work. I allowed him to wear my glove as a favor to Digital Art International and affiliates. It was evident to me that the company had a particular interest in him. I had seen his act when invited by representatives of City Hall. He would sample sounds and mix them live before the audience. I congratulated his prowess as a performer but criticized his use of a smartphone for controlling the sounds in the room. His act was young and hip, accessible for mixed audiences, but I was unimpressed by the fact that he had a glowing Apple following him around on-stage. I expressed to him my opinion that doing this devalued his performance. He listened to me while visibly star-struck by my glove. Unless he had requested direct collaboration with me, I would not have suggested that he use my own work to correct his errors.
At that time community-based DIY initiatives and practices of hardware hacking were gaining a lot of interest for those engaged directly in political and business affairs in Paris. After the arrival of the Minister of Culture Fleur Pellerin in 2011, the fablab/maker movement was put front and center for claims of potential in economic growth and opportunities for young artisans. This was an exciting proposal when initially announced. Millions in public funds were granted to push the movement ahead. Hackerspaces suddenly became a hot thing in politics, a desired resource of young enthusiasts attempting to create a new model for fabrication. What I witnessed as these initiatives continued to take effect in Paris however was a sort of compromise, a new economic model being boasted for the public interest while likewise inviting private interest groups to intervene for guidance in final-phase harvesting. After some time it seemed to me that a sort of canalizing method of cultural growth was being put in place. I get the impression that there is a general mistrust regarding the capacity of the people to create their own models without the need of inviting formerly established models of business as a security measure for success. Suggestions of achieving mass "industrialization" of a given creation are encouraged as being the most worthwhile goal (if not the only goal) in all these efforts. To claim that this sort of operation is truly beneficial in the long run for public and community interests remains doubtful for me. Despite attempts of political figures like Fleur Pellerin to find a meeting point between the two camps (public and private), the resulting initiatives resemble putting fish and sharks into the same tank (or incubator if you prefer). We already know who will dominate in this scenario. I mention this to provide context of the general atmosphere of the arts & innovation sector in Paris at that time, and because I don't believe that my story is an isolated incident, albeit exceptional.
Shortly after my forced departure as director of the Artlab® in 2014 I discovered that the Atomic Energy Commission, with resident beatboxer Ezra, had teamed up with engineers in Grenoble to develop and recreate the glove that I had shown them during our meetings. They mounted a crowd-funding campaign for the project in 2013 citing Digitalarti, Echosciences Grenoble and La Banque Postale (another group for which I hosted workshops at the lab) as mentors in the project. None of this information was communicated to me, and no proof of the project's developments exist before 2013, nearly a year after I began presenting my work. I should be clear in stating that I don't mind the fact of providing inspiration to the people involved, that's generally what I strive to do for anyone who sees my work. But something about this transaction felt wrong. At the time that I learned these details I had lost the lab, my job and my investments while concurrently receiving orders from police headquarters to leave the territory after refusing my request to obtain a working visa. At the same time the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission is boasting their redesign of the work I presented them as a sort of proposal for new industry and innovation start-up, co-working whatever. When I asked for answers from those I considered directly responsible for this and other mishaps it was during an awkward champagne celebration. The response was a crude laugh and three words, "business is business."
Basically I lost in a game that I didn't know I was playing, nor did I entirely understand. I was required to compete when I was in no position to do so. I felt as if those who requested control of the results of my work couldn't convince me to agree to their terms, so they pawned it anyway. My enthusiasm and generosity was in rapid decline at this point, as I'm sure it would be for most anyone undergoing similar experiences.
This article ends with a video published in 2014 by Marie-Morgane Teirlynck, project manager in service design at the CEA "Ideas Laboratory." Here the work has been entirely redefined to propose a product corresponding with the classic dedication of technology for consumer dream leisure, a total aberration of my own intentions when presenting the work to the CEA. I should note that recently others have arrived in the start-up market to present similar products. And here I wish to re-clarify that I am not concerned about fighting about property rights, or who had the idea first. I'm not the first and certainly not the last to create an interactive glove. Suggesting that I might be a venture capitalist at heart myself, defeated in my own competitive endeavors, would entirely trivialize my efforts in writing this article. The source of my concern and perturbation above all remains a simple question of human relations in the field of arts & innovation in France.