Joint research project fuses art and science

In an innovative fusion of artistic and scientific domains, two York University professors – interdisciplinary artist and theoretician Nell Tenhaaf and computer scientist Melanie Baljko – along with some of their students, are engaged in a creative, cross-disciplinary research project with a distinctive York University flavour.

Titled Lo-Fi Collaborative Agent Populations, their project is an interactive installation which invites the viewer to become a member of an agent population that collectively performs a task. Through projected images and sound, participants can watch the behaviour of the agent population. Tenhaaf and Baljko see this project as a way of offering scientific evaluation of hypotheses, while pushing the envelope of artistic interactivity. Kim Sawchuk, a professor in Communication Studies at Concordia University in Montreal, is also contributing evaluative expertise from an interdisciplinary artistic/social science perspective.

“The population is mixed, composed of both human-representatives and virtual agents,” explained Tenhaaf. “The human interactants can control the behaviour of their own agent in the population, and then have to devise a way of collaborating with the virtual agents, which emit sounds that express their actions and movements. An interactive structure emerges from the collective activity of the human interactants and the virtual agents. So, they each function as a co-creator of a dynamic artwork.”

Right: Nell Tehhaaf

The graduate students involved with the project are Niknaz Tavakolian, who recently completed her first year in the visual arts MFA program, and Michael Kaftarian, a first-year student in the MSc program in computer science. The undergraduate students engaged in the project are visual arts majors Eng Chuen Chuah and Heather Phillips, who are graduating this spring, and Miki Rubin, who has just completed her third year of studies in the BFA program.

Tavakolian and Chuah programmed in MAX/MSP (a graphical development environment for music and interactive art) for the project, while Phillips and Rubin worked on its sculptural construction. Kaftarian built on Java programming (an object-oriented applications programming language developed by Sun Microsystems) that was begun last year by David Jacob, a masters student in computer science. Sound artist John Kamevaar created the sound.

Left: Melanie Baljko

On May 5 and 6, the project was spotlighted at Fusion 2007, an annual event presented by the Ontario Science Centre which brings together art and science in new and unexpected ways. The event is open to young artists, designers, inventors and scientists from Toronto high schools, undergraduate and postgraduate programs.

Fusion 2007 showcased a wide range of exhibitions, performances and creations, all blurring the boundaries between art, science, design and technology. This year there were about 20 projects on display. For more information about Fusion 2007 and the projects presented, visit (

Lo-Fi Collaborative Agent Populations is a prototype of Tenhaaf’s and Baljko’s multi-year collaborative research project, A-Life Sculpture: Eliciting Complex Interaction, which is funded by the New Media Initiative, a joint program of the Canada Council for the Arts and NSERC ( In the project, Tenhaaf and Baljko are using art and science to create interactive scenarios in which humans interact with "low-fidelity" artificial agents, embodied in LED displays. This will provide an innovative structure for eliciting and analyzing communicative modes, such as conversational turn-taking, which link human participants with the artificial agents.

Both the agent and the human interactant adapt to one another. In the process, the human interactant becomes aware of those adaptive processes through the kind of feedback they get from the agent(s). A key hypothesis of the project is that the behaviour of an agent, and not its embodiment, serves to trigger the attribution of communicative intention by human users to artificial agents – a finding that is highly relevant to human-computer interaction research.

This will all have a novel artistic form, in which the science is fully embedded, and that is engaging to both look at and play with. With Kamevaar as sound artist, Tenhaaf and Baljko will jointly develop all aspects of the project: algorithms, agent architecture, visual and audio components.

This article was submitted to YFile by Mary-Lou Schagena, publicist, Faculty of Fine Arts.