A fusion of art and technology

New media artist Nell Tenhaaf and computer scientist Melanie Baljko will work together to create interactive installations as part of a federal New Media Initiative.

The project will result in one or more installations in which humans interact with “low-fidelity” artificial agents. Tenhaaf and Baljko will jointly develop all aspects of the project: algorithms, agent architecture, visual and audio components.

Their three-year project has received $148,150 – $60,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and $88,150 from the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council.

It’s in the field of artificial life – an interdisciplinary area of work at the intersection of art, technology and biology which Tenhaaf, a visual arts professor, has been engaged in for some years.

For instance, in her 2005 sculpture, Flo’nGlo (right), two-metre tall “characters” converse with each other through electronically-manipulated sound and very low-resolution, light-emitting (LED) video displays. Flo emits a relentless flow of abstract sound, while Glo responds with a chorus of voices. This work combines video and sound playback with behaviours, programmed by Tenhaaf, that determine how Flo’nGlo will look and sound.

The viewer does not interact directly with Flo’nGlo; the primary exchange is between the two sculptural characters. In the new collaborative work that professors Tenhaaf and Baljko will build, viewers will be actively involved in the conversations. They will interact with one or more artificial agents that are displayed in LED arrays, and that also emit sound. Participants in the scenarios will discover that one of the artificial agents in a population of agents actually is representative of him- or herself. The interactive structure that emerges will be the product of the collective activity of the human and artificial interactants, so that they each function as co-creator of a dynamic artwork.

“These scenarios are a true merging of our interests because they are both opportunities for scientific evaluation of hypotheses and for pushing the envelope of artistic interactivity,” says Tenhaaf.

Baljko’s research focuses on computational models of human-human communicative processes, especially those that involve individuals who have communication disorders, that are computationally mediated, and/or that entail the use of multiple modes of sensory-perception and articulation (aka “multimodal communication”).