Behind the Curtain [part 2]

(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.

Laetitia Sonami's Lady's Glove no.4. Collaboration Bert Bongers in Holland in 1994

Laetitia Sonami's Lady's Glove no.4. Collaboration Bert Bongers in Holland in 1994

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.

Rebecca Horn's Finger Gloves, 1971

Rebecca Horn's Finger Gloves, 1971

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.

Opening day of Scopitone Festival at Stereolux Arts Center at Nantes (FR). Publication Presse Océan 2012

Opening day of Scopitone Festival at Stereolux Arts Center at Nantes (FR). Publication Presse Océan 2012

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.

2012 French beatboxer Ezra photoshopped for dynamic effect as he samples sick beats on an iPhone

2012 French beatboxer Ezra photoshopped for dynamic effect as he samples sick beats on an iPhone

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.

Fleur Pellerin and other politicians in a photo-shoot for the promotion of fablabs in France. The magical autonomy of 3D printers served as a frequent selling point

Fleur Pellerin and other politicians in a photo-shoot for the promotion of fablabs in France. The magical autonomy of 3D printers served as a frequent selling point

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.

Beatboxer Ezra and his interactive glove, 2017 publication of CEA associated Atelier Arts Sciences.

Beatboxer Ezra and his interactive glove, 2017 publication of CEA associated Atelier Arts Sciences.

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.

Scenario of interactive glove proposed by the CEA "Ideas Laboratory" (2014)

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.

End of Part 2. To be continued...

Behind the Curtain [part 1]

(mis)adventures of a technology artist in Paris

I can't think of a better image to start with than the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo visiting my lab in 2014. I was the director and creator of the first fablab dedicated to artist creation in Paris. The following photo is an example of the many tours that I was obliged to host for the company who claimed responsibility for my work at that time, Digitalarti (Digital Art International). Shortly after the time of this photo I received a letter from the French government demanding that I leave the territory in a minimum of 30 days or else they would come looking for me.

Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo and City Hall of Paris 10th district visiting the Artlab in 2014

Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo and City Hall of Paris 10th district visiting the Artlab in 2014

The space was granted to me personally by representatives of Paris City Hall after recognizing my talents and willingness to share my knowledge with others. For the record these representatives of City Hall helped me a lot in my struggles as an immigrant in France. I am still grateful to them for their support at that time. I sought to please these people, however they were not the ones I mostly had to answer to.

For the sake of context, I am American and I have lived in France since 2011. Until late 2016 I was without papers. That's 5 1/2 years total having lived without rights in France. No right to work, no right to rent an apartment, no right to safely leave and return to the country, no rights. The correct word I suppose is clandestine. Sometimes I called it purgatory. With the bureaucracy in particular I still call it quicksand; the more you struggle the quicker you sink; best thing to do is lay down and drink a bottle of wine with some bread and cheese (which is fine if you have no ambitions in life). It was incredibly challenging, and remains so today.

When arriving in France I desperately needed help. I consciously decided that a better approach to meeting people would be to offer help instead of asking for it. This approach worked for the most part, however I can say now that I was naive in assuming that the people I assisted, especially those with money and power, would eventually do the math and understand my urgency to obtain a visa. Despite the odds, and the indifference of many of those surrounding me at the time, I believe I managed to keep a pretty good attitude for about 2 years. The third year however was all downhill.

workshops.jpg

As the director of the Artlab I was quite occupied with many things. I installed and maintained the space myself for the first year before being granted an intern for assistance. I conducted all the necessary research for materials and tool orders while keeping open source alternatives in technology at the forefront for purposes of keeping a low budget (no Apple, no Windows = no need to answer for exorbitant expenses). I conducted private and public workshops in electronics and programming at low cost. I initiated and structured a program for artist residencies, despite objections from shareholders of the trademarked Artlab®. I launched community efforts to invite curious enthusiasts into the space. I invited schools. I provided personal assistance to local artists and designers developing projects with custom electronics. I gave tours of the lab and my work to visitor groups on a daily basis. I attended weekly meetings with board members of Digital Art International, a company run by bankers and aristocrats holding no more than a voyeur's education in art and technology. Since I myself couldn't legally receive monetary reimbursements in exchange for the time and service I granted them, a friend of mine would sign contracts in my place and was paid minimum wage for my role as the director of the trademarked Artlab®. How and why did I do all this? I was deeply passionate about my work, and I was desperate for someone to help me with my immigration. In this particular story I never achieved my final goal.

Stelarc with a surgically implanted ear in his arm.

Stelarc with a surgically implanted ear in his arm.

To contextualize a little bit more, I received my education at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Like many prestigious schools in the U.S. mine cost me an arm and a leg. This means nothing in France. Hardly worth mentioning it. The reaction is generally, "sucks for you." A university here costs about €500 a year. I finished my last 2 years of studies in the art & technology department at my school. I also worked for the department assisting professors, maintaining the labs, even teaching courses as an undergraduate. I assumed a lot of responsibility and in return I had access to everything, keys to all the rooms. The director of this department at the time was the famed genetics artist Eduardo Kac. He was never there. I understood after finishing my studies that the guy was just a marketing ploy for the school. I personally was sold on his legend myself when entering the school. He was famous for allegedly modifying the genes of a rabbit so it would glow in the dark. After my experiences I can attest that the story of making glowing rabbits is entirely blown out of proportion for marketing purposes, to which I like many others fell for. Even renowned Australian artist Stelarc explained to me when we met that they were good friends but that this story of him making glowing rabbits was a steaming load of promotional b̶a̶g̶e̶l̶e̶a̶t̶e̶r̶.

Photo of artist Eduardo Kac purportedly understanding stuff growing in a poetry dish.

Photo of artist Eduardo Kac purportedly understanding stuff growing in a poetry dish.

I met Eduardo several times while working as a student in his department. Met his kids, etc, whatever. Long story short, 5 years later I am directing a fablab in Paris. While at work I receive a call from a friend asking me if I know the artist Eduardo Kac, if I would like to join them for dinner. Of course I accept. On my way out I cross paths with local curator Julie Miguirditchian. She never has time for me. She's bragging to me that she's gonna meet with the glorious Eduardo Kac on Skype. I tell her that's great, nothing else. I wasn't going to insist. I understood it was worth nothing. On the table next to her is a magazine published by Digitalarti, the company she works for and who pays my friend minimum wage to have me as their lab director. A story about Eduardo Kac is on the cover. Again I say nothing. Later that evening I am dining with him. He thinks I'm some random French guy. I eventually tell him I graduated from his department in Chicago. No response. No congratulations, no questions, nothing. Considering my efforts and the massive student debt I accumulated by following his lead I will admit that this kinda hurt, but whatever. I understood quickly that he preferred to talk about himself, so I told him I cleaned his office once. Suddenly I had his attention. He asked me who gave me the authorization to do so. He seemed upset. I then changed the subject. I told him I saw an article about him in a magazine published by the people I was working with. He responded by brushing me off and telling the woman next to him that the company didn't have enough money to be of any interest. This exchange was a painful awakening for me, but educational nonetheless. I finished by telling myself I never want to be like this guy.

Myself and artist Antonin Fourneau in attendance as cultural entrepeneur Anne-Cécile Worms regurgitates keywords pertaining to artist creation and innovation with the Mayor of Paris.

Myself and artist Antonin Fourneau in attendance as cultural entrepeneur Anne-Cécile Worms regurgitates keywords pertaining to artist creation and innovation with the Mayor of Paris.

Returning to life as director of a fablab in Paris, the tours for which I was to perform became quite draining after the first 2 years. Getting real work done became a struggle. Representatives from the company I worked with would demand ceaselessly that I present myself and my work for investors, political affiliates, clients, god knows who. For myself it all became a blur of faces of all kinds of important people. The reality was that I didn't understand half of what they were talking about or what function they served. I found myself obliged to talk more about what I did instead of actually doing it. The visitors would smile, take pictures and talk to me like I was some sort of exotic animal. Funny at first, but not so funny after a couple years fulfilling this function. The visitors rarely asked meaningful questions. Often we'd say something cliché to make the others laugh. With time I developed a feeling of being in a zoo. I understood that I was a sort of tourist attraction, a selling point. The details of what exactly was being sold were not shared with me.

Water Light Graffiti by Antonin Fourneau. First major success resulting from the artist residency programat the Artlab

Water Light Graffiti by Antonin Fourneau. First major success resulting from the artist residency programat the Artlab

Despite the difficulties and continual distractions of political and business interests invading the space, some good things came out of the struggle. The project Water Light Graffiti was a proof of success for the residency program that I fought to put in place. This work continues to tour the world receiving international acclaim and the artist remains a friend to this day. This was perhaps my first experience being involved in a success story of considerable magnitude. I can now say that people change when there is success like this happening in their immediate vicinity. After the first exhibition a video for the project was published on the internet and went viral. 500,000 views in the first week alone. The phone was ringing off the hook with requests for more shows. Those who didn't care, or simply didn't see the value in the project beforehand suddenly changed their tune. I observed this behavior with distaste but didn't want to fight too much about it. Everyone wanted to reclaim a piece of the success. I was pleased, sure, but personally just wanted to move on to the next residency.

During the development of this project I was equally required to welcome furniture designer Pascal Bauer, an aging man desperate to become an art star, ready to take his clothes off and put his face and his penis on important stuff, like a church, whatever could possibly make him a star.

Before my arrival in France this guy had signed a contract with the company at an advance of avg €80,000. When I was presented the proposal of the project I quickly understood it was a suicide mission. After searching a cheap engineer in all the schools, squats and hacker-spaces of Paris, the company couldn't find anybody to accept the responsibility, so I became an easy target, given my skills and my desperate situation. I did my best to help but the project was asking for a disaster. The fact that the designer was disrespectful with those assisting him (a diplomatic understatement) certainly didn't help matters. They wanted to develop in 4 months a large flexible interactive high-definition LED screen, capable even of walking or laying on it. Some very important French organization called Cap-Digital was investing the €80,000, but evidently oblivious to what they signed up for. Despite my best efforts to scale down the project to something reasonable, they insisted to continue their suicide mission. The day the project was presented it blew out the electricity in the convention center where it was exhibited. The thing was a €80,000 piece of garbage. Of course I became the scapegoat. According to the designer I was the reason for the failure. Easy to blame the immigrant. This guy didn't even know I was working for him at minimum wage without legal rights to do so, and he didn't care. After screaming at me the 3rd time on the phone I made it clear that he was never welcome to return to the lab. Despite possible consequences resulting from my personal vulnerabilities in the story, I was not going to stomach the abuse anymore.

Advertisement on cover page of the program for Paris Arts Festival Nemo. I had become the poster-boy for Digitalarti's trademarked Artlab.

Advertisement on cover page of the program for Paris Arts Festival Nemo. I had become the poster-boy for Digitalarti's trademarked Artlab.

At this point I still had the support of the person who invited me to create the Artlab and be it's director, Anne-Cécile Worms (to paraphrase her words when she granted me my position: "all your worries are over"). Closing the year 2013 I began correspondences for a project with renowned kinetic installation artist Zimoun. The company Digitalarti was boasting a lot on their website that they were in touch with literally "thousands" of engineers and artists internationally. I understood that this was entirely untrue. I was essentially their only technical support, me and my intern. I thus began negotiations for a project with artist Zimoun as an offer to the company to help validate their public claims of helping international artists. The deal was simple, the company loses no money on the project, the artist pays all the fees, the artist gets his project, the company finally can publish a true story of their achievements assisting an internationally acclaimed artist, and they get a free exhibition of his work for a chosen event to boot. But no, of course they couldn't have their cake without eating it too.

Zimoun, 157 prepared dc-motors, cotton balls, cardboard boxes 60x20x20cm 2014

Zimoun, 157 prepared dc-motors, cotton balls, cardboard boxes 60x20x20cm 2014

In this experience I learned a few things about business affairs and opportunist techniques. I recognized that the project in this case was desired. I had what I believed to be a golden ticket and I was pushing it forward. However the response from the company and it's associates was a sort of quicksand technique. Sometimes I wish they had just refused and said no. They never said no, but as long as the project and communication with the artist were not within their full control, it was gradually devalued with feigned ignorance and disinterest. Negotiations slowed to a snail's pace and dragged on for months. Instead weekly meetings were often dominated by discussions of a student kickstarter campaign of a keychain audio mixer for smartphones. I couldn't believe it.

Zimoun, 198 prepared dc-motors, wire isolated, cardboard boxes 30x30x6cm

Zimoun, 198 prepared dc-motors, wire isolated, cardboard boxes 30x30x6cm

The fact was that the company wanted proprietary rights to the project proposed to me by Zimoun. In as far as I can understand, their audacity in expecting so much was backed by self-induced hallucinations of world domination in the international arts. Granting the company proprietary rights in this case may have led the artist to find himself obliged to accept unexpected marketing use of his work somewhere down the road. This sort of thing of course can prove devastating for an artist's career if poorly managed. I was already witnessing legal battles resulting from other artists signing "co-production" contracts with the company. Who wants that? I certainly did not wish to lead this artist into what I perceived as a possible trap. I sincerely felt like this would have been an act of betrayal on my behalf.

After months of exhausting negotiations, I was fed up and finally wrote a letter to the artist, putting all associates of the company in copy. When I pushed the enter key it felt a lot like detonating a bomb. After this, I was finally granted the possibility to move forward with the project. My understanding was that I had to make a difficult decision, betray the company, betray the artist, or just give up entirely. I chose the artist. The production was executed during the summer while everyone was away for holidays. By that time I was homeless, sleeping in the attic at the lab.

Fire Desk

Playing around with sound response and cascading LED strips (TM1809). Install behind a work desk at the studio. The result is an animation of fire that grows with sound in the space. Used an Arduino and a decent sound sensor to control the thing. Took about a day to prepare. No big production, just fooling around with stock materials lying around.

Spinning Screens

Results of experiments with the artist Laurent Bolognini. A Raspberry Pi B+ is used for generation of openGL graphics. Two amazon purchase GPS screens are fixed back-to-back on a spinning axis. RCA Analog Video was used for it's minimal need of electric contacts, thus facilitating the use of a slip ring to allow both power and video to pass a point of 360° continuous rotation. The project works by simply plugging it in. Different animations can be chosen by the use of a push button. OpenGLSL Shaders used were lifted from the beautiful and generous site glslsandbox.com The best graphics for this medium were those that lent themselves to the form factor of spinning screen on a single axis. Any centered spherical graphics seems to work best.