Article categories: Issue 56
March 16th, 2010

The multifaceted and whimsical collaborative art and science project Fish-bird created by Dr Mari Velonaki, an interactive media artist, and her three colleagues at The Australian Centre for Field Robotics, Drs David Rye, Steve Scheding and Stefan Williams – all three are roboticists- is a fine testament to the fact that art and science can engage with each other in a highly creative, poetic and democratic manner.

Image courtesy Mari Velonaki and ACFR

Fish-bird, in a critical sense, also points to C.P.Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’ debate of forty odd years ago: that despite our popular views concerning the many differences that they may be between art and science, both subjects of the creative human imagination, have many conceptual, epistemological and methodological similarities.

Not only does Fish-bird ‘s hybrid title refers, metaphorically speaking, to the – often misunderstood -  grand master-narrative of art and science that haunts today’s new media arts, but it also refers, to the underlying surreal character of this engaging and imaginative project.

For the three roboticists involved, their invaluable and energetic collaborative input, suggests a great opportunity to work on a project that is not traditionally an engineering and/or a science project. At the centre itself, working on Fish-bird, is a welcome change from working in the more orthodox areas of robotics, decentralised and distributed systems and related human/machine interaction.

Therefore, for Rye, Scheding and Williams, all three have agreed that working with a media artist like Velonaki, is a rare chance to explore mutual interests in man/machine interactivity, push robotics into new areas of application and create something for a wider popular audience.

By the same token, for Velonaki herself, Fish-bird represents the dynamic empowering possibilities to work with roboticists who are redefining the boundaries of kinetic art and are, at the same time, most importantly, engaged in an exciting “two-way street ” scenario of postmodern techno-creativity.  All four are working in a mutually enhancing creative endeavour and, given the right kind of chance, the dialogue between art and science does not necessarily have to be seen as to be “fated”.

Artists and scientists, irrespective of their own discipline specialisations and work methods, etc., do share many points of “border-crossing” commonality.

This is the first time that the centre itself is collaborating with an artist and the project (which will take three years to complete) is exhibited – at Sydney’s Artspace – at several stages during this period of time.

Fish-bird consists of two robotic wheelchairs that will be able to interact with a given audience and write letters to each other. (This will be done by having pens attached to their extended arms for the purpose of writing onto the floor.)  Not only will these two corresponding wheelchairs communicate to each other – but it is hoped that they will be – thanks to the use of certain artificial vision and sensor systems – see colour, texture, form and space! Here we have a surreal spectacle of interactive wheelchairs worthy of a
Buster Keaton or a Jacques Tati film: human/machine technology that will illuminate the more captivating absurd poetry of human creativity in the modern world. The wheelchairs themselves are quite minimalist in structure and their simple form belie the complex imaginative art and science thinking that has gone into their creation.

The wheelchairs – with their (thankfully) non- human form – are robots that will be capable of engaging in interactive acts of absurdity and wonderment suggesting a more surreal application of Michel Serres’s non-binary “Northwest passage” aesthetics between the arts and the sciences. Or, if you prefer, Gilles Deleuze’s apt “unpredictable encounters ” between these disciplines that are so tiresomely often portrayed in our official culture as being totally ignorant of each other’s mutually enhancing intertextual concepts, forms and motifs. The history of avant-garde art, cinema, video and new media in terms of their respective histories and genres are full of many instances where the arts and the sciences coalesce to create extraordinary artworks.

Fish-bird’s robotic wheelchairs are characters like in a surreal sci-fi film or play and as kinetic objects they represent intricate aesthetic and scientific decisions over the three years of their making.  The project is inspired, according to Velonaki, by a contemporary Greek fairy tale and the artist herself has been waiting for a long period of time to do it. The fairy tale itself deals with a bird and a fish and they fall in love with each other but, unfortunately, they can’t get together and so they learn to co-exist with each other. (A morality tale apropos of the often unfortunate missed chances of creative collaboration between art and science.)

Fish-bird’s interface is quite minimalist in its design values and the two wheelchairs will be sharing their space with many other real objects. It is interesting to note, true to Fish-bird’s whimsical surrealism, that the two wheelchairs are capable of expressing human emotions like the blues, happiness, exhaustion, etc. It is hoped that the wheelchairs will be able to communicate/interact with their audiences.

Also, Fish-bird, will be “road-tested” every time it will be exhibited at Artspace in terms of its interactive design and audience responses. In other words, the gallery exhibition part of the project will, in real pragmatic terms, constitute a working situation scenario of testing or tweaking its overall aesthetic and technological configurations.

Fish-bird is a joint funded project – the (aptly named) Synapse art/science research collaboration program – between the Australia Council and the Australian Research Council. For Velonaki, Fish-bird represents the opportunity to make new interactive work that signifies a welcome move into a new direction: from projected characters to three-dimensional kinetic objects. And for Rye, Scheding and Williams, judging from their brief project statements, the project is a wonderful opportunity to work with an artist and utilise their own creativity and specialist knowledge in an exciting collaborative situation of cross-disciplinary art and research.

All in all, Velonaki, Rye, Scheding and Williams, working on Fish-bird potently suggests that art and science, contrary to popular myth, can be a creative, democratic and imaginative dialogue of poetic possibilities. Fish-bird’s sophisticated aesthetic, interactive and robotic design values and, equally significant, its underlying surrealistic spirit is a substantial testament to the utopian moments of creativity that can be easily attained in our everyday lives once we learn to see, hear and create beyond our own discipline ghettos.

John Conomos
John Conomos is a media artist, critic and theorist who teaches at Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney and has recently finished two major video works “Cyborg Ned” and “Aura” for his New Media Fellowship (Australia Council) and will release later this year.

Fish-Bird was a three-year artist in residency program involving Sydney based new media artist Mari Velonaki and the University of Sydney, Australian Centre for Field Robotics (Dr David Rye, Steve Scheding and Stefan Williams).  Fish-bird was part of the Australia Council for the Arts and Australian Research Council Synapse art/science collaboration program. Additional partners were the Australian Network for Art and Technology, Artspace Visual Arts Centre, Museum of Contemporary Art and Patrick Systems & Technology.



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