NORMAL TO AN ABNORMAL DEGREE

28 02 2009

By MIKE PHILLIPS

This paper discusses interventions made by the author and collaborators into the extreme territories that lie outside ‘normal’ human frames of reference. In the space-between the speed of a building, the collective archetypal view from space and the frame-by-frame memory of a catastrophe, lies a new perspective that relocates us from the foreground to the vanishing point. The view through the Albertian window has lost its relevance, it is no longer reassuring, it just doesn’t look ‘normal’ anymore.

THE VIEW FROM HERE

In his postfix to the “The Future in Space” circa 1958, Eisenhower frames the global clarion call to break free from the confines of the planet to “take Man where no human has ever gone before.” The pamphlet also identifies the nature of these brave explorers; the ‘Ideal Spaceman’ must be “Normal to an Abnormal Degree.” And further specifies a fundamental requirement that defines this ‘normality’ – they “must want to come back”! The future looked far simpler back then. The work discussed in this paper provides a number of different perspectives for time and space, they suggest that we may have already gone to far, that it is perfectly normal now, Humanity just doesn’t want to, or is simply unable to come back! There is clearly a massive trauma to the human psyche caused by the need to explore the space around us (inner and outer) and the desire to come back. It is hard to shake of the centuries held assumption that we are the centre of the Universe and accept the fact that we are a peripheral accident in a minor galaxy. The electron microscope and the radio telescope opened up new dimensions, but saturated with old ideologies we approached the vistas they provided with obsolete value systems and failed to translate our newly gained experiences into a cultural reality. More dimensions are unveiled, more realities are modelled, more truths envisioned and still our preoccupation with the ‘image’ framed through the Albertian window leaves us unable to articulate them.

In many ways the S.T.I. Project (1) exposes the ‘image’ as the primary reason for this cultural aphasia. Perhaps, through the technologies of remote sensing and robotic exploration, we are effectively turning away from the ‘other’ and the ‘outside’ and focusing on the ‘us’, the within, and the visions that we carry ‘inside’. S.T.I. revealed the process by which these images are generated through a collaborative process that relies on the collective psyche. The view of our planet from space provides a unique and critical perspective. Attempts to envision the macro and micro levels of our existence are here placed firmly in context, it remains, however, unclear whose context this is. The S.T.I. Consortium brought together artists, scientists and technologists from a number disciplines and international research Centres to collaboratively develop software agents that analyse satellite images (the product of digitally captured dynamic data). In this way the project turns the technologies that have previously been looking into deep space for evidence of Alien Intelligence back on to our space in a search Terrestrial Intelligence.

Scientific and artistic endeavour for truth and knowledge has been dominated by a methodology that is primarily reliant on ‘vision’. Increasingly the dominance of the human eye is being challenged by a new generation of technologies that do our seeing for us. These technologies raise critical questions about the nature of the truth and knowledge they elicit, and the way in which we interpret them. The S.T.I. Project went beyond the irony of the search for terrestrial intelligence on Earth by engaging with our understanding of the ‘real world’ through our senses, whether real or artificially enhanced. Will these autonomous systems ‘know’ the ‘truth’ when they ‘see’ it? Do we recognise ourselves when seen through our artificial eyes.

1 Figure 1. S.T.I. Database Image (‘human head worm’).

In the days before the Googleverse S.T.I. used the distributed intelligence of the public to collaborate with the agent software to agree what intelligence might look like (as in Figure 1, ‘human head worm’). The S.T.I. database expanded rapidly producing new data that may one day prove the existence of terrestrial intelligence.

THE OVERVIEW

‘Constellation Columbia’ (2) was a working prototype for an autonomous monument for ‘Dead Astronauts / Cosmonauts’. Constellation Columbia’ was commissioned for the zero gravity Parabolic flights from the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre, Russia, by The Arts Catalyst MIR Campaign 2003 (figure 2). Designed to operate as an autonomous space monument ‘Constellation Columbia’ was inspired by the writing s of J.G. Ballard. Designed to reflect our dysfunctionality when placed in alien environments the robot incorporated simple audio/radio recording and transmission, gyroscopes, gravity switches and light sequencers. When entering Zero G ‘Constellation Columbia’ would panic, having lost its only reference to reality, the force of gravity, all of its sensors and stabilisers would be activated in a frenzied attempt to find a new sense of certainty. Design as an experiment to explore the potential psychosis of autonomous systems ‘Constellation Columbia’ was forced to levels of uncertainty and paranoia that might make its owners question the data retrieved through its frantic signalling.

2 Figure 2. Constellation Columbia’. Courtesy of The Arts Catalyst. Video: Marko Peljhan.

In some ways ‘Constellation Columbia’ mimics the work of animal behaviorists, such as Garner, J. P. (2005) (3), which suggests that research into animal behavior, much of which is extrapolated to build models of human behavior, should be reexamined on the grounds that many lab animals are clinically insane. The result of boredom, lack of social interaction, forced behavior and possibly an unappreciative audience may invalidate assumptions and results drawn from experiments on abnormal animals. The Home Office Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 code of practice) (4) recommends that breeders and suppliers of lab rodents provide 200sq cm of cage space for a single mouse, and 500-800sq cm to a a single rat. The same document suggests cages are enhanced to provide “environmental complexity”. It is reasonable to enquire about the environmental complexity of infinite space and its impact on the sanity of autonomous sensing technologies such as the Viking explorer, is it any wonder that it sees faces on Mars.

After some evaluation through the Arts Catalyst MIR Campaign in 2003 the ‘Constellation Columbia’ project has been upgraded with a level of intelligence and emotional stability. Whilst ‘Constellation Columbia’ was developed to provoke paranoia in itself ‘Constellation Columbia 2’ has been designed to reassure itself by embracing the ‘Overview Effect’. As a ‘Zero G’ robot its primary aim is to seek ‘normality’ and orient itself in absence of gravity in relation to the Planet Earth. Like many an Astronaut before it, ‘Constellation Columbia 2’ experiences the need to gaze down on the planet Earth and feel, as Edgar Mitchell described after his return to Earth in 1971 as a “spontaneous epiphany experience”. Like Adams ‘Total Perspective Vortex’ and Vonnegut’s Chronosynclastic Infindibulum ‘Constellation Columbia 2’ has an inbuilt appreciation of the oneness of everything when experiencing the ‘Overview’.

Developed by Guido Bugmann, Sarang Deshmukh and the author, ‘Constellation Columbia 2’ incorporates a three dimensional stabiliser controlled by a vision system. When fixated on its target the stabilisers maintain a constant visual relationship. Should the Earth move or ‘Constellation Columbia 2’ drift the stabilisers cause the body of the robot to rotate in three dimensions to seek out the planet. Once located the relative sanity of ‘Constellation Columbia 2’ can be assured.

SLOW ZOOM

3 Figure 3: Sloth-bot v1.

The Sloth-bot v1 (figure 3), in contrast to the ‘Constellation Columbia’ monuments is a large autonomous robot, totally dependant on gravity to maintain its sense of direction and place in the world. Sloth-bot v1 is a large autonomous robot that moves incredibly slowly. Sloth-bot v1 feeds on data from the Arch-OS (http://www.arch-os.com) vision tool and slowly reconfigures the architecture of the space it occupies. Influenced by the flow of the buildings occupants and their interaction with the environment the Sloth-bot v1 will anticipate the temporal dynamics of the space, slowly and strategically positioning itself in the right place at the right time. Sloth-bot v1 use additional technology to link between the Arch-OS vision tool and the autonomous architectural form. It recognizes a level of temporality that most users of the space are ignorant of. Operating at a speed somewhere between the ‘frozen-time’ of the buildings structure and the second by second ‘real-time’ of the buildings inhabitants, Sloth-bot v1 anticipates human behavior and their response to its interactions in space. Sloth-bot v1 enables a building’s occupants to reflect on the complexity of their own interactions as they move through time and space. In response occupants are able to better understand the complex relationships that exist between each other and their environment. In doing so the Sloth-bot v1 has the ability to enter into a direct, if slightly out of sync, dialogue with its inhabitants. It senses their presence and makes its awareness known, if only slowly.

ESCAPE VELOCITY

The extreme territories of space and social interaction with buildings should provide useful tools for reflection on our human condition. In the space-between the speed of a building, the collective archetypal view from space lies a new perspective that relocates us from the foreground to the vanishing point. We become a peripheral stimuli for slowly moving architectures, we see ourselves reflected in our own technologies but don’t recognise our own faces, and we are transfixed by an overview of the world but in doing so reduce the complex system of a planet to a simple image. Eisenhower, in defining the ‘Ideal Spaceman’ as “Normal to an Abnormal Degree”, assumes that his spacemen would be ‘human’. It is clear the majority of information we have about the rest of the Universe has been gathered by probes, robots and technological interfaces. In asserting that the additional characteristic would be the need to “come back” he also assumed that we actually left in the first place.

Notes:

1) The S.T.I. Consortium was initially funded through a research and development grant provided by SciArt organisation (founded by the Wellcome Trust, The Arts Council of England, The British Council, NESTA, The Scottish Arts Council and Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation).

2) Constellation Columbia, model/prototype, 2003. Zerogravity, A Cultural User’s Guide. The Arts Catalyst. 2005. Page 84-85 ISBN 0-9534546-4-9.

3) Garner, J. P. (2005). “Stereotypies and other Abnormal Repetitive Behaviors: potential impact on validity, reliability, and replicability of scientific outcomes.” ILAR Journal 46(2): 106-117.

4) Home Office Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 (http://scienceandresearch.homeoffice.gov.uk/animal-research/publications-and-reference/publications/licences/certificate-designation/guidance-notes?view=Binary)

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