Reading Assignment – Information Arts, Intersections of Art Science and Technology

Stephen Wilson’s Information Arts, Intersections of Art Science and Technology is an expansive books that covers many topics, and this essay is devoted to chapter 5, titled “Kinetics, Sound Installations, and Robots”.

Robots in Contemporary Society

In our modern technologically advanced societies, robots have slowly become prevalent. They are mostly invisible; in our transportation systems, computer systems, art, movies and industries. Robots entail many forms, both physical and digital. The rise of these machines raise intriguing cultural questions engaging practitioners from many fields; philosophers, artists, scientists, and technologists.

The Robot Institute of America defines robots as “programmable, multifunctional manipulators designed to move material parts, tools, or specialized devices through variable programmed motions or for the performance of a variety of tasks.”

The world today is filled with many non-robotic machines, using state-of-the-art technology. The chapter details how artists explore the possibilities of these machines with kinetics and experimental sound.

In tandem with Moore’s Law, the development of miniaturized, affordable microcomputers, sensors and actuators have accelerated robot research and development in recent years. Concepts such as intelligence, agency, artificial evolution and communication are being actively developed. Robot construction has also become much more accessible; hobbyist robots have become widely available, encouraging more public interest and experimentation.

The rising popularity of robots resembled the development of early microcomputers. Toys like Capsella and Lego Mindstorm enable children to experiment and construct with sophistication. Robot races and wars attract non-professional tinkerers and wide audiences. Artists and researchers attend hybrid art show/technical meetings like Robotronika; both as presenters and audience.

Conceptual Kinetics and Electronics

‘Art research’ of robotics and machine-based motion have been ongoing amongst artists since the last decades. They share similar agendas with typical technological research; investigating the limits of machine “intelligence”, machine motion agility, artificial life and emergent behavior.

A wide variety of interests were pursued by artists. Some create devices that comment on social issues and machine-human relationships. Others used robots and machine environments to explore the human psyche; similar to artists working in conventional media like painting and sculpture.

These artistic activities highlight the differences in how artists and scientists approach research. Scientists and technologists tend to adhere rigidly to research agendas, while artists chose to explore latent cultural contexts.

Faraday’s Garden 001″ by Perry Hoberman

In early twentieth century, artists pioneered kinetic art to address issues in contemporary culture. At that time, kinetic art was considered radical as paintings and sculptures were deeply prevalent. Conceptual kinetic artists used motors, gears and levers for philosophical and artistic explorations, conceptual investigations and cultural commentary.

Kinetic Instruments, Sound Sculpture
and Industrial Music

Sound artists explored the combination of electricity, recording technology, synthesis, sound editing, radio, and electronics. Modern sound artists utilised tools and materials of industrial technological culture in sound making, creating a myriad of forms integrating the visual and sonic arts. They strived to create new sounds, build alternative instruments, explore sounds of natural vs human-built worlds, create kinetic sculptures and interactive installations. 

The human ear offers not just another hole in the body, but a hole in the head. Moreover, the absence of obstructive anatomical features such as earlids would seem to assure a direct and unmediated pathway for acoustic phenomena, with sonic vibrations heading straight into the central nervous system.

– D. Kahn and G. Whitehead, Wireless Imagination (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992), p. ii.

Bart Hopkin

Of special note, instrument-making artists studied materials and physical principles, took risks and experimented to achieve their visions, exemplifying the way artists carry out their research process. Artists dabbling in kinetic sound installations involved complex integrations of research and art as well.


From the start, robotics has been explored from an artistic angle through a variety of lens, including: theater and dance, autonomy, destruction, social metaphor and robot motion etc.

Robot Wars

Mark Thorpe founded a revolutionary recurring event called Robot Wars. In these competitions, engineers and artists build robots that are pit against one another. Robot Wars can be considered a unique blend of art, technology, sport and theater, highlighting issues of survival and destruction.

Bill Vorn and Louis-Philippe Demers, La Cour des Miracles, 1997

Robots have also been used as a stand-in for commentary on human society.

Louis-Philippe Demers and Bill Vorn’s ‘Scavengers’ installation, filled with robotic devices, allows visitors to directly experience a kind of machine life, society and ecosystem. Deployed in dark hazy spaces, the robots themselves are filled with metaphors of natural societies: parasites, scavengers, overpopulation; a reality filled with “pain” and “sadness”. It aims to induce the viewer’s empathy towards these “beings.”


Is the nature of a robot’s behavior autonomous, responsive, adaptive, organic, adaptable or otherwise? The interplay that occurs between robots and humans is in a state of constant flux.

Robots belong to a new category of objects and situations disruptive to the traditional taxonomy of art.

The chapter has been hugely illuminating, covering a wide gamut of history and knowledge. The evolution and persistent development of robotic applications over the years have been largely due to the availability and cost-effectiveness of components. The Internet has also been instrumental in promoting knowledge sharing over the last few decades. Open source software and hardware, international collaboration over the Internet and rapid globalisation are just some of the underlying factors pushing robotics in media art forward. The lines between art, technology and exploration of the human condition will become increasingly vague, as science and art clash, under the thoughtful hands of media practitioners, researchers and hobbyists.

Reflections on Future Worlds Exhibit Field-trip

The Future Worlds exhibit is an ongoing affair at the ArtScience Museum, located within Singapore’s world famous Marina Bay Sands.

The exhibit is thematically separated into 3 main parts, namely City in A Garden, Park and Space. These are all loosely linked to the tiny nation’s goal of building a first-world ‘garden’ city, integrating nature and concrete in a seamless, harmonious manner. Space can be interpreted as the nation’s aspirations to be on the forefront of technology and progress, on a continuous and relentless march towards the space-age of tomorrow.

Here is a selection of notable installations within the exhibit.


City in A Garden

 A Table Where Little People Live

This is a cute little piece where participants get to interact with the projected elements shown on the round table. The little people interact by walking on the contour of the provided props or your hands. The rain gets occluded as well in the same manner. There are little design details that I have observed within this simple yet fun installation. The objects are only ‘considered’ for interaction if they are sufficiently close to the table. My guess is that it is to avoid the problem of participants reaching over the table while playing, thereby affecting the interactions. A Kinect is most probably utilised to provide a depth map to enable such a consideration.

Suspected Kinect in operation!


Inverted Globe, Giant Connecting Block Town

This section was great fun for the kids, as they move blocks around and see the projections change accordingly; roadways shifting positions and traffic getting redirected. I feel the success of this installation lies with its use of physical space and big objects! We, adults might not feel it. But picture yourself as a four-year old kid, carrying a ‘house’ around and deciding whether to place it. It’s pure fun with maximum physical exertion. Its equivalent to an avid sportsman having a great workout! And not to mention the crazy placement of some of those blocks on the walls… (see above image, top left)


Sketch Aquarium

Shark i have never seen before

This was a good one! Basically participants draw their renditions of a predefined sea creature, shark in this case, and place it into a custom scanner. And their artwork gets added to the digital aquarium.

Scanning station

Aquatic life galore!

There were additional little details that pushed the interactivity further. There were food bags periodically placed in the bottom middle of the screen, and anyone who touched it will ‘open’ the bag, resulting in all the fishes swarming towards the food bag. And tapping on any creature makes it wiggle.. 🙂



Create! Hopscotch for Geniuses

Create your hopscotch!

I enjoyed this the most, as hopscotch IS equally fun for adults as it is for kids… You are given an interface to create a sequence with different shapes. Being me, I created one where I placed each shape on opposite ends for every consecutive row. I didn’t take a picture, but you can see me playing below! Awesome childlike fun!

(thanks to Man Wei for videographing!)

Sketch Town

Conceptually identical to Sketch Aquarium above, just in 3d I guess.. Perhaps an excuse to include a Merlion somewhere… 🙂



Crystal Universe

Definitely one of the visual highlights of the whole exhibit. Thousands of LED strips, combined with clever placement of mirrors, create infinite planes of countless LEDs. The software that controls the LEDs are definitely non-trivial, as these lights display images and patterns that require a great deal of synchrony. They are more than your typical blend of chasing lights or flashing patterns commonly seen on christmas trees. As an added bonus, at the end of the exhibit, you get to access a webpage that allows you to control the image or animation that is projected onto the LEDs. A very satisfying end to a pretty impressive exhibition!


Final thoughts

In essence, as interactive students, we can tell that a lot of the installations were basically a bunch of projectors, motion sensors, meticulously-written software and a generous serving of lights. Thereby, the main takeaway for me was that with simple ingredients, an infinite amount of results can be achieved. And not to mention that the element of play is critical/integral for exhibitions designed to engage younger audiences!

Inspiring installations from :: Better Future Factory ::

Better Future Factory is a sustainable product design studio specialised in innovative solutions for plastic recycling – Better Future Factory mission statement


Installation: Plastic Reflectic

There is an urgent need to start addressing sustainability issues moving forward. That said, projects that encourage contemplation and propose novel solutions are few and far between. There are two projects that I would like to highlight from this incredible studio.

As an idea it is simple and straightforward. Our actions have a direct impact on the planet, and we need to start taking responsibility for them. The silhouette of the participant is captured as he/she stands in front of the pool of black water. This is visualised using all manner of sorts of plastic trash that were sourced from plastic islands around the planet.

The visual design of the installation is minimal, effective and poetic all at once. The clever use of black water serves both technical and artistic purposes. It hides the plastic objects as they submerge below the water surface, and black water subconsciously evokes a sombre and reflective mood. Coincidentally the participant is able to catch a glimpse of his/her own reflection in the water, providing a quick reminder that every individual has a role to play.

Needless to say, the technical accomplishments are impressive. The mechanics are simple in nature, but well executed and completely invisible to the audience, a hallmark of exceptional work.

As the participant walks away from the installation, the re-submerging of the plastic objects results in a pool of clear black water. This is a reminder to the audience that irresponsible actions will lead to an undesirable outcome for generations to come.

On a side note, as an additional touch, an enclosed layer of clear water can be positioned on top of the black water layer, and shown when the installation is in ‘idle’ mode. The clear water can be ‘flushed’ in/out via the sides on demand.


Landal educative installation

Installation overview

Feed plastic and press!

Your shiny ‘new’ name tag


The above experiential installation is a great example of how message can be delivered through experience.

The installation was first introduced in a park, where the young and old get to learn more about the recycling process while having a little bit of fun, as well as bring something home.

The end product might be considered trivial, but the impact is real. Participants get to see first-hand the possibilities of recycling plastic. Humans are highly visual creatures, so it helps to be able to ‘see’ the possibility in a very tangible way. And being able to bring away a keepsake can serve as a constant reminder; long after we return to our fast-paced, consumerist lives.

On another level, makers, innovators and change-makers will be inspired. If a recycling process can be achieved via an installation as shown, with minimal facilities and manpower, imagine the possibility of small localised and organised efforts.

After many years of inaction, it is evident that we as global citizens, have to organise at the grassroots’ level to effect positive change. Governments and corporations are not going to magically start placing their other priorities below the climate change issue for the foreseeable future. This installation can serve as one of the many first steps we can take to start a responsible, sensible cycle of producing, consuming and recycling; to ensure there is a better tomorrow ahead.



Better Future Factory
Plastic Reflectic
Landal educative installation

“Disappearance, Bar in the Gallery” reflection

Performance info for reference

A “happening” refers to an event in which the concept of ordinary things is revisited or a work in which the viewer may intervene. – Sue Kim


Inter-mission‘s Disappearance is based on Lee Kang-So’s Disappearance(1970s), performed at the National Gallery of Singapore.

Earlier in the same month, a similarly-themed performance was carried out by a group of four Korean artistes, curated by Sue Kim.

During that performance, the artistes interacted with their environment through various means; Jaehoon Kim coordinated the music and played a piece at the end, Junbo captured whatever thoughts came to her mind through her encounters on post-its and pasted it all over the venue, Ji Hye Chung snapped photos of body parts of the audience and projected them on screen while Soodung Jung used his body to convey symbols; rice wine being poured or a cup swaying on table.

Inter-mission’s Disappearance

Bird’s eye view of the installation premises


The performance by Inter-mission, in comparison, was far more technological in nature. The artistes, Urich Lau and Teow Yue Han, utilised a host of modern gadgets(webcams, projections.etc), as well as fashioned novel futuristic versions. The performance entailed a metaphorical transposition of another city’s landscape(urban Tokyo, I am guessing) onto the sterile confines of the gallery.



Midway through the show, Yue Han donned his self-projecting device(term coined by me) and started projecting himself onto his ‘surroundings’ everywhere. I can only interpret it as an attempt to ‘merge’ himself into urban Tokyo or the live feed from within the gallery. The expression of indifference Yue Han exhibited could represent how one’s identity/uniqueness has become subservient in an increasingly ‘noisy’ society.


Apparatus for self self-projection

Self-projecting in action


The performance concluded with the introduction of Urich’s incredibly novel eye/face mask. Here we see him donning a device with two screens that display the live feeds from Tokyo and the National Gallery simultaneously. At the end of show, the artistes did mention something about the respiratory mask symbolising the ‘toxic’ nature of the modern environment and the individual’s need for it to ensure ‘survival’.



Thoughts and reflection

To be honest, on a personal level, I would consider the performance rather avant-garde in nature. There is quite a lot of interpretation and imagination required for appreciation. That said, it was definitely refreshing and enlightening!

In terms of execution, I did have several thoughts in mind.

  • The equipment: audio equipment, workstations and others are unnecessarily visible. I felt that these added mental clutter and distracted the audience from focusing on the experiential aspects of the performance. From the snippets of video, one can probably tell that whenever the audience is trying to figure out what’s happening, they would default to looking/observing the workstations or what the crew is up to.
  • The setting, though Korean-centric, for obvious reasons, could have been better re-adapted to the Singaporean context; again, for obvious reasons. It could have added more authenticity to the whole ‘street’ experience. (Disclosure: this comment came up from Man Wei and I thought it was very pertinent to the discussion on hand)
  • I think the lights were way too bright; the success of the experience depends heavily on the projections and various other light-related phenomena to create an immersive experience. But sadly, the gallery’s lights were overpowering; the projections are severely washed out, lessening their intended effect on the audience’s visual and possibly tactile experience as a whole.



“Disappearance”: Lee Kang-So’s 1970s works at Gallery Hyundai, Seoul – original interview extract

Happenings at disappearance – Bar in the gallery at NGS