Man Machine


Björn Norberg


In the autumn of 2006 the Interactive Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, asked me to curate a workshop and an exhibition. The form of the project was very open, in fact I had very much a carte blanch with just a few simple instructions. The idea was to get some artists and engineers together and try out some new ideas. There were some interesting parameters to play with: the number of artists (number), the length of the workshops (time) and the theme chosen (theme). I will below discuss the different parameters, what they meant for the Man Machine project and how this model can be varied. I will also discuss how artists and engineers can work together and what different methods here will give. I will then turn over to the actual productions of the project and discuss the installations regarding their concepts and technological solutions and compare them to other similar pieces and other pieces made by the same artists.

The model: the EAT concept

The model for the project was simple. We wanted to let engineers and artists meet in a workshop and let them start working out some ideas together. This is of course something that has been done a number of times before and when we were planning the project we often discussed the way EAT and Billy Klüver worked. The history behind Billy Klüver and EAT is quiet well known, our time has just rediscovered the importance of their efforts, so I won’t give the full history of it here, just a brief background. It started when the engineer Klüver was asked by his friend Jean Tingueley if he could help him with a project he was planning for MOMA in NYC. The project became the famous happening Hommage a New York, a large sculpture made of different found material, especially old bicycles. During one evening outside MOMA the sculpture destroyed itself in clouds of smoke. After the event other artists asked Klüver for help, such as Robert Rauschemberg. Klüver started to get help from other engineers at Bell where he was employed. After a number of projects an artist and engineer pool was opened, which connected artists and engineers: artists and engineers could simply come in with ideas to EAT and they would match people and projects together.

I have always dreamt of starting this type of a pool since I heard about EAT for the first time about 10 years ago. The idea seemed so simple and brilliant and in the Man Machine project I had a chance to really try out the model for the first time. In this model there was one big difference. We didn’t expect the invited artists and engineers to bring ideas to the workshop. Instead we wanted the ideas to come up during the collaboration. This fact also meant that the frames of the curation and the parameters of the project became more important.

The process will be analyzed and given in detail below but let me just shortly describe what happened. First we had an introduction of the theme, a small lecture of the history of man and machine. Then a couple of hours of an association workshop where different images were discussed. During the discussion a number of ideas for projects came up and those were then discussed and evaluated until each artist had an idea to start to plan together with the engineers. We then had five days of production when all technological problems were solved and computers were programmed etc and on the fifth day five different pieces were pretty much finished to be shown.

One or two of the ideas were brought to the workshops by the artists but the other ones came up during the workshop. In one case the idea was a total collaboration between the artist and one of the engineers. This model was totally new to the Interactive Institute where most works had been a true collaboration between a group of people and single artists seldom owned the project in the end. In the case of the Man Machine project it was stated from the beginning that the artists would own the concepts after the project and the different roles between the engineers and artists were very sharply divided. For the engineers at the institute this was very unusual and some of them thought it was a little bit tough as they were reduced to being "only engineers". The artists on the other hand said that they for the first time in their activity had met engineers who could really understand an artistic approach and experienced, also for the first time, that they could communicate with engineers without misunderstandings.

Man Machine exhibition at the National Museum of Science and Technology, Stockholm, 2006

Comparing the pieces made during the Man Machine project to others made by Interactive Institute many people have told me that they felt that the Man Machine reached a much warmer approach and they felt they were far more artistic. They were far more about art than engineering. This is of course something you often here from people looking at the media art from the outside: that it is "almost art" and more about technology than artistic thoughts and performing. Of course I totally disagree with this division between fine art and media art since the media art of course is a part of the fine art. Still I really understand what they mean and I think this warmth is thanks to the artist’s independence in the project, that s/he came up with the ideas and that they, and only they, had the rights to the concepts after the projects.

This discussion of the roles and how much of one piece the artist actually has to control her/himself to maintain quality is large and important but I also think it is very much due to individuals. I have worked with artists who trust the engineers too much and their art becomes boring because too much of the concept is in the hands of technicians and technology. And I have met artists and engineers in whose collaboration the artistic idea is not lost even though their art involves advanced technology. In the same manner, I have also worked with artists who have decided not to give anything away to the engineers but to learn programming and engineering themselves and the result has been that they have lost their artistic ideas and their art has become too much about the technology. And I have worked with artists taking care of the engineering and still maintaining, and even gaining, artistic effort.


In the beginning of this essay I wrote that the frames I was given by the Interactive Institute were very open. This meant that I had to identify the parameters of the project and tune them in myself. In the evaluation of the project I discussed with the participants what this meant and what it would have meant to the project if we had changed this tuning. Below I will discuss the parameters, how I tuned them and what difference another tuning had meant.

i) Number
The number of artists and engineers would of course have an immediate effect on the size and cost of the project, but there are some other effects that are not that obvious. We looked for a discussion on the topic man meets the machine and with a fewer number of participants we would have risked a less vivid debate. With too many involved we would have risked a situation where not everyone in the project took part.

ii) Time
Time is an interesting parameter. Does more time necessarily bring better ideas and better art? The best ideas in the Man Machine project came up the first or the second day, and the rest of the project, regarding time, was more or less production and a fight against the clock. It is like the seminar situation, where you often think that 20 minutes would have been enough for most speakers. They wouldn’t have needed more time to give their core thoughts and the rest of their notes seem to be more some sort of a decoration, filling the time up.

iii) Theme
Another core parameter. Here you give the frames intellectually. Man and machine is a very broad one. Here any idea dealing with some sort of technology would have fit in. We could have chosen a much tighter set up, deciding technology and deciding that the project should deal with transformation of data from one media to another. For example we could have chosen to work with surveillance technology and a "Big Brother" theme.

Artists and engineers in collaboration

How much should an engineer be an artist and how much should an artist be engineer? This question is discussed a lot within the media art field and as I see it there is no simple answer. Looking at my own experience I have met a number of artists really skilled in programming and engineering and some of them has been making the most fragile things while others have definitively been working more on the technique than necessary healthy for them and their pieces have become a little bit cold and lacked of artistic intelligence. It is hard to describe the feeling:You see a perfect engineering work but it certainly lacks something, hard to put your finger on what, it isn’t just breathing. On the other hand I have been in so many situation, so many projects, in which both the artist and the engineer have been totally frustrated since they have felt that there is no chance for them to understand each other, where the artist seems to have an idea that is just not possible to match with a technical solution and the engineer seems to have difficulties in describing the problems. There are more explanations to theses situations than just lack of communication. One is that the artists often have had an idea which is more like a vision and to realize it the engineer should have had to invent a number of new and probably important patents. This is of course nice if you have the skill and the money, but most projects are on a more basic level. Also artists are used to work any time of a day, and when the engineers might have day routines and also might be given just a few hours for the project, this is a start for misunderstandings. When the engineers start working it might take them a couple of days on their own programming to solve problems and this time can be frustrating for both parts.

It is interesting to compare these experiences to Billy Klüver's when he was working with EAT. For him it was important that both engineers and artists had the deepest respect for the knowledge each of them carries and also that they stick to what they are good at. Engineers should not work as artists and the artists should not think they are engineers. Still they should trust and respect each other as professionals.

In general I agree with that, but again I would stress that it is up to individuals. Looking at the Interactive Institute the engineers had earlier often taken a quite large part in the creation and conceptual processes. I am not so sure that was the wisest way to work, but one thing struck me; those people really had started to think like artists and they had started to understand the creativity process and the value of the artists work in a way I hadn’t seen before. And all artists also told me after the project that this time was the first they had worked with people that really understood what they were talking about.

The projects

We invited five artists, Johan Thurfjell, Sachiko Hayashi, Drott Johan Löfgren, Tina Finnäs and Christine Ödlund, and within the project each of them created one new installation with the help from the engineers at Interactive Institute. The result was then shown at the Man Machine exhibition at the Museum of Science and Technology in Stockholm.

The theme suggested interactions between man and machine, and this also became the main experience of the exhibition, even if it was about other machines than you normally find at the museum where the collections are mainly focused on automobiles, steam engines and aircrafts. In the Man Machine show the machines, computers, were hardly visible, which is also significant for our society where we interact with different machines every minute of our daily lives without even noticing. The machines have become invisible, not only because they are made smaller and smaller but also because we are so used to them we hardly reflect over them. A general primal fright of technology might slowly be exchanged to at least an acceptance.

The installations became very different from each other which of course is due to the relatively open theme but also due to the individuality of the artists. Drott Johan Löfgren’s piece Rumble Fish (Ink Abyss) was the one that ended up most far from the central theme as it was rather an interaction between a fish and the machine instead of the man machine. He had a rumble fish in an aquarium and let the motions of the fish trigger a digital drawing on a screen placed next to the aquarium. Löfgren has for a long time been genuinely interested in automatic drawings and worked out a method where he documents "natural drawings" he finds in nature or in the city and documents them with his camera. What he is looking for is the "right rhythm of the line", which he can find in the branches of a tree, in the waterline, in dirt on a rock, in the foot prints birds leaves in the snow, in slightly disappearing graffiti and so on. He uses the photo documentation as a ground material and inspiration for a number of colorful digital drawings and paintings where he borrowed the aesthetics from old computers and used the windows paint as a main tool.

When he in Rumble Fish (Ink Abyss) chose to work with a fish and transferred the swimming to a random drawing it was more or less just skipping one moment in his normal moment – his own interpretation of the nature. Of course Drott Johan Löfgren is not the first one to work with "drawing machines". Already 1912 the French writer Raymond Roussel wrote the strange play "Impressions d’Afrique" in which he described a painting machine that would replace the artist. Roussel was a part of the dada-movement and close to them were ideas of randomness, automatic creations and a cult of the machine. Jean Tinguely would later realize Roussel’s ideas in his Metamatic series of painting and drawing machines. Here, like in many other examples of painting machines, for example the one of Rosemarie Trockel, lies a questioning of authorship but also the surrealistic ideas of the automatic drawing play a large role. For Löfgren this is of course important, but his concern about the rhythm and the line in the painting/drawings he finds or those made by the Rumble Fish installation tells us that he is maybe even more interested in the result, the actual drawing/painting.

Drott Johan Löfgren: Rumble Fish (Ink Abyss)

Technically the Rumble Fish (Ink Abyss) was far from complicated. We had a simple web-camera filming the aquarium and the tracking of the fish was made through eyes-web and then there were some Java-programming for the transformation to the drawing. A rumble fish was a good choice since the set up required that there was only one fish in the aquarium and rumble fishes are supposed to live alone, otherwise they will try to kill each other. Also it collected oxygen from the surface which meant we didn’t need any disturbing plants in the water, just a heater and a oxygen pump that ran during the nighttime.

Tina Finnäs: Estraden


Also Tina Finnäs installation Estraden had a quite basic technical solution. The idea was to create a walk in which you triggered a spotlight wherever you went along with a cut from Frank Sinatra’s New York New York under the spotlight. Finnäs built 15 big flat switchers of tin foil and foam plastic and covered them with a large rubber carpet. When you walked on the switchers you triggered the light and the music. It was possible to play the whole song, but for that you had to find the certain way to walk and you hade to find the exact tempo so each part of the song would bridge over to another. The music cuts and the spotlights was steered by a basic stamp programming.

The installation had something very rare in the art since it communicated happiness. Hate, fear and pain have through history been a larger inspiration to the arts than anything else and pain and suffering is also deeply connected to the cliché of the artist. Finnäs hasn’t made it easy for her since happiness is some sort of a key word in Finnäs works. She has shown a great love to colorful and kitschy installations with a lot of plastic and colored diodes and lamps that all together create some sort of vision of what happiness looks like. In Estraden the format was larger than in Finnäs earlier work; gone were the colors since the floor was black and the spotlights had no color filters. Sinatras singing rather gave the installation a touch of glamour and the big stages than the colored surface. You felt happy after a walk in it and it was amazing to watch the audience trying to find the right way to play the full song.

Christine Ödlunds created a large scale of a microscopic world, Fungus & Bacteria. She had collected a number of hospital images of bacteria and fungus and edited them in Director so that they seemed to be moving, waving in the wind like a field with a very strange flora. Looking after similar landscapes in the art history one has to think of the jungles of Henri Rousseau or what Max Ernst painted in the 1940’s. Using four different projectors on four different and figure shaped screens placed in front of each other, Ödlund manages to create a strange mix between two and three dimensions and this adds on the peculiar feeling you get when you entered Fungus & Bacteria.

As a twist to the piece she added a suggestive sound on a low volume and a small camera recording anyone that stepped into the installation. Suddenly they would find their own faces in one of the projections. This effect was made using Max/MSP.

Christine Ödlund: Fungus & Bacteria

Sachiko Hayashi named her installation Flurry. Here animated snow was projected on a huge screen. Standing in front of it your shadow appeared on the screen and when one of the flakes hit the shadow a sound was released. Hayashi had recorded a number of interviews where different people told memories of or reflections on snow. She had also asked a number of sound artists to create a sound that illustrated snow. Acting in front of the screen you could choose to let a single flake melt on your shadow and concentrate on one sound, try to catch them so that you created a certain rhythm and then make the piece to your own or try to catch all flakes to release all sounds at the same time creating a buzz.

Sachiko Hayashi: Flurry

Hayashi has worked in similar ways in a number of web based pieces. Here you have used the mouse and the marker to interact with the piece and to release different effects to create narration. Many of them are quite typical for the type of fine web art that has been created when computers and band width have permitted larger files and more pictures. In many ways Flurry is a translation from the web based pieces to the physical room where you use your own body as a mouse and your shadow as a marker. The web based art has a special context, a special room; this in combination with the computer screen and the surrounding context might differ from an office space or your own home which create an intimacy. That of course is gone with the large projection and the step into the gallery room. This is made in a different scale and this changes the way the piece is perceived and understood radically. Everything you did with your hands you now do with your whole body. The sound that was very much related to the computer speakers (if you are not connecting your computer to a hi-fi equipment) is here in the whole room. And the biggest change is of course the space, you perceive and experience the piece in a physical space. Instead of letting only a part of your body interact on a two dimensional level you here acted with your whole body in a three dimensional space.

The different stories about snow together with the fragile sounds the different sound artists had composed gave the piece a very poetical touch. Since the installation had a very tempting interactive aspect this was probably a great part of the success of the piece. Inviting the audience to interact with the piece, especially in large installations where you use your whole body, also invite people to make moves that they normally won’t do in a gallery space. They will jump up and down, wave with their arms, try to trigger everything possible at the same time, running around etc. The poetry and the fragility of Flurry however asked people to investigate the piece slowly and carefully and this with a great benefit to the art.

The fifth piece was The Dream by Johan Thurfjell. This piece continued themes and methods Thurfjell has been working with in a number of pieces before. He has for a long time tried to write down as much as he can of his dreams. If you try this yourself, you will discover how difficult it is. When you wake up you feel quite sure what it was all about, the dream has been your reality for let’s say the last twenty minutes and you should be able to describe it in detail. But when you start, everything cracks up and disappears. Thurfjell has used this in some pieces but here he for the first time had a chance to complete the idea. He built a corridor and at the end of it he placed a plasma screen. On the screen was a text, one of Thurfjell’s dreams, written with very tiny letters. To read it you start to walk towards it, but at the same time you start to walk nearer, the text starts to dissolve and when you are close enough to distinguish the letters, they have disappeared totally.

Johan Thurfjell:The Dream


Thurfjell illustrates the functions of the dreams but also plays with the idea of interactive art since this is a rather dysfunctional interaction. Instead of creating something, you destroy it. The idea reminds me of Julian Bleecker and Marina Zurkows Pussy Weevil where an animated little figure was calling on your attention in the most obscene ways. But when you approached him and came closer to the monitor he got scared and got off. The technical solution, and the concept, of The Dream installation were much more elegant. Technically we used ultrasonic sensors to measure the distance to the spectator and then just some simple basic stamp programming to steer an animation made in Director. This gave a very smooth disappearance of the text.

Communication as gravity

I will hear try to summarize some of the experiences of the Man Machine project. First of all it was a practical experiment where we played with the parameters of an art production and tried to see if the process could indicate what the parameters meant. Also it was an experiment to see how the engineers at the Interactive Institute would work together with external artists. We looked carefully of different models, mainly those developed by Billy Klüver and E.A.T. (if that could be described as models) and at several artist-in-residence programs.

The project was also an investigation of man’s interactions with machines, a core topic for the research within the Interactive Institute. I have always had problems with the "interactive art" since all kind of art interacts in some way. Even painting is interactive, since my interpretation seems to interact with the surroundings of the piece and the context it is put into. If we look at what we in general think of as "interactive art" I still always have some doubts. For example, if I interact with an interactive video installation, does it really change? I mean it is not with a very few and rare exceptions, it is just showing what it is programmed, predestined, to do. I find this limiting. I would like the piece to interact back, start to really act on it’s own, taking to whole room, the universe and the full context into it’s calculations. Still I have to admit something happens when you step into Sachiko Hayashi’s Flurry or Johan Thurfjell’s The Dream. Something hard to put your finger on, but your own actions and movements really strengthen the experience of the piece. In short I would explain this phenomenon as a combination between intellectual and physic activity which multiplies your experience. On top of that a complex interaction feeds back to interpretation from interaction system which creates a chain reaction of intellectual interpretations.

During the work with this exhibition and a couple of other projects I was producing at the same time, it struck me how intense the communication is when we involve technology, especially mobile technology. We are interacting with each other, with communities, with technology all the time and we hardly reflect on it since most of the interaction is hidden and the result of it invisible. And we are communicating on so many dimensions, locally, global and virtually, at the same time. We are in a way lost, floating in between the dimensions where physical gravity is not enough and we have invented some new form of it – a gravity of communication. Maybe it is that kind of gravity that becomes visible and strikes you when entering an art exhibition like the Man Machine.



Björn Norberg is a curator working in Stockholm. In January 2006 he opened up Mejan Labs together with the Royal University College of Fine Arts and the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm, a space for experiments in art.











- © 2006 all rights reserved -