Dancing with Telematic Partners Embodied in Artificial Life-Like Entities: Penny's Robotic Madness
Ricardo Miranda Zuniga, 2000

Throughout the globe, governments have spent billions attempting to construct the ultimate surveillance system: from public video cameras that output to a spacial satellite net to the on-line big brother that keeps track of every IP number moving through each router. A few weeks ago, I mentioned Falconview, the National Imagery and Mapping Ageny's mapping system that displays various types of maps and geographically referenced overlays. "Falconview is an integral part of the Personal Flight Planning Software (PFPS). This software suite includes Falconview, Combat Flight Planning Software (CFPS), Combat Weapon Delivery Software (CWDS), Combat Air Drop Planning Software (CAPS) and several other software packages built by various software contractors." In case you're interested in setting up your won personal little war room in your basement that makes new use of your old radio control airplanes, you can Contact the Software Support Facility at Hill Air Force Base (800-773-7739) to be placed on the distribution list.

Via any number of sources -- whether it's the latest Hollywood action-packed block bluster, or a new edition of essays by electronic culture theorists, or the last real time car chase broadcast on CNN, most of us realize that we live in a new age of electronic surveillance, well not really so new. However it takes a special sort of artist to come along and subvert this technology to create a play pen slash dance studio. One of a small number of fine artists that can claim the title Electronic and Robotic Artist and Theorist is Australian artist Simon Penny. Penny is a jovial man whom I had the pleasure of interviewing at the Performative Sites: Intersecting Art, Technology and the Body conference a couple of weeks ago. He was one of the invited speakers at the conference and amongst the most stirring speakers who made a point of blasting Cartesian dualism. This is a theoretical battle that Penny has fought for years now, striking against the popular notion of disembodiment through technology amongst roboticists, electronic artists and theorists alike. The body/mind division is a notion well rooted in Western philosophy from early Gnosticism to Descartes to the present. As Australian performance artist, Stelarc has put it, "the body is obsolete." But Penny will argue: No! We do exist within and through our bodies and we should use new technologies to greater enjoy our bodies. In fact, why not make technology a celebration of out bodies. And that is just what Penny has done with his latest works.

Amongst his latest projects is a work titled Traces that makes use of a new vision system developed by Penny in collaboration with Andre Bernhardt. Traces was first exhibited at Ars Electronica in September of 1999. Imagine walking into a rectangular room to discover a digital reflection of yourself as you move through the room. A reflection composed of small cubic bits that reconstruct themselves in real time to reflect your every movement within the room. What would be your first reaction? Perhaps, to dance with your projected virtual self just to test whether or not it's really you being monitored and reconstructed in real time. As the digital reflection remains consistent you become captivated with your own movements. Now imaging taking this interaction a step further. Rather than simply you and your digital reflection dancing about the room, imagine three such rooms in three distant locations networked to one another, so that you find yourself interacting with the real time digital projections of other distant users. Such is the work of Simon Penny.

Traces at once revisits early stroboscopic photography and makes interactivity implicit through the use of an original vision system that makes a frame by frame capture of the user's movements. Through this technology, Penny establishes a recognitive art that makes use of a data interface that relieves the viewer of the usual computer interface: the keyboard and mouse. Instead, the user's body becomes the interface. With his head bobbing above the swirling water of the conference's hotel whirl pool, Penny stated to me that "electronic and computer systems currently force us to encode data in a mode acceptable to the machine. Data encoding that filters out human sensibility." Penny "aims to build interfaces that relieve the user of the requirement of encoding their behavior to suit the machine." By deconstructing the militarized rhetoric of interactivity, Penny seeks to establish new modes of user recognition and interface that relieve the uninformed user from encoding their desires into a series of keyboards and mouse clicks. Instead, users are able to act as they would in the world, and no tutorial is needed. Penny's systems are configured to be sensitive to the user' normal human behavior.

In Traces the multi-camera vision system becomes the sense organ of the synthetic entity that moves with the user. The technology mirrors your dynamic movement. This is not a militaristic watching element, but rather a dynamic digital mirror of the user in real time. In this way, high-end surveillance technology is effectively subverted into a playful embodied experience for the user.

For a more in depth discussion and technical description of Traces as well as other works by Simon Penny please use the link below that will direct your browser to his personal site.