"Cockroach Controlled Mobile Robot" (Hertz, 2005)
Interview/Article by Jonah Brucker-Cohen
In today's rapidly changing digital world, the need for human (or animal) intervention to control technological devices and machines is becoming outdated. With advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automated sensor systems, we are approaching a future that might literally be "out of our control" or "autonomous." Examining this impending phenomenon through the eyes of the planet's most complex and abundant creatures: insects and amphibians, is Irvine, California-based, Canadian artist, Garnet Hertz. Hertz's work explores the belief that despite technology's increasing independence from human or animal intervention, there is still a part of us that wants some control. From implanting a web server into a dead frog whose limbs can be stimulated to "move" by participants over the Internet in "Experiments in Galvanism", to putting a live Madagascan hissing Cockroach atop a modified trackball to control a three wheeled robot in "Cockroach Controlled Mobile Robot", Hertz creates projects that attempt to challenge and deconstruct these notions of technological progress over-stepping human jurisdiction. Gizmodo spoke to Hertz about his intricate animal-machine-hybrids and his overall view on whether or not technological determinism may be influencing the not-so-distant future.
Interview, images, and video after the jump ...
Name: Garnet Hertz
Education: MFA, Arts Computation Engineering - University of California Irvine, Critical Theory Emphasis - University of California Irvine, In progress: PhD, Visual Studies (Media Theory / History) - University of California Irvine.
Affiliation: Research Fellow, California Institute of Telecommunications and
Exhibitions: Ars Electronica (Linz), Siggraph (Los Angeles), ArtBots (Dublin), STRP (Eindhoven), Walter Phillips Gallery (Banff), Istanbul Contemporary Art Museum (Istanbul), La Biennale de Montreal (Montreal)
GIZMODO: Your project "Cockroach Controlled Mobile Robot" puts a Madagascan hissing cockroach atop a modified trackball to control a three wheeled robot. Why is this transference of control from digital / human automaton to insect power important to you?
GH: This project was inspired by a number of different things, including thinking about biologically inspired ("biomimetic") technologies and also seeing and thinking about scientific and artistic experiments in bio-hybrid/robotic systems. In response to biomimetic technologies, putting a literal insect at the control of a robot is meant to be a little bit of a joke or perhaps the logical conclusion of biomimetics. Biomimetic technology looks toward biological systems as things that solve complex real-world problems. Within the field of robotics, the cockroach is a good model for a mobile robot because it is robust, has no centralized brain, has relatively low "megahertz," and is physically well engineered to navigate difficult terrain. Because of this, the cockroach and other insects inspire research in robotics: there are at least a dozen published robotics-related projects that are inspired by cockroaches. (An example can be seen at http://www.abc.net.au/science/news/s…) Placing a literal cockroach at the center of a robot, then, is sort of like saying: "If the cockroach (and biology) is so great, why not literally use the real thing?"
However, when literally using biology, you soon discover the difference between biology and a model of biology: biology is unpredictable, lazy, and temperamental. Using biology as a substitute for a computer can highlight some key differences between the two realms. I had also seen the work of Ken Rinaldo a while ago, and really liked his projects using Betta fighting fish to control mechanisms. Similar to this, I like Stelarc's work, but don't agree with his basic thesis that the body is obsolete. I had seen science-oriented works, like Holzer and Shimoyama's "Robo-Roach" project, in which they implanted stimulators into the antennae and cerci of cockroaches to allow them to be remotely controlled. However, instead of having technology control a cockroach, I thought it would be more interesting to invert the system and try to have the cockroach control the technology... more along the lines of Ken Rinaldo.
"Posthuman System #1: Cockroach with Wireless Video" (Hertz, 2003)
GIZMODO: The "Posthuman System #1:Cockroach with Wireless Video" attaches a video camera to the back of a cockroach in an attempt to examine the concept of "Posthumanism" (or the transference of human form through technological means). What was your ultimate goal with this project and why did you choose a cockroach as the carrier agent?
GH: This was a fairly simple project that began by thinking about the term "posthumanism." Quite literally, my thoughts were that insects, especially cockroaches, were good post-humans: after we've killed each other in the war on terrorism (or some other holy crusade) organisms like cockroaches would make good successors to humans. The project was essentially just making a small link between humans, non-humans, and the term posthuman. Cockroaches are also something that people apparently like to watch: a foreign species. Putting an insect in control of technology is, generally speaking, quite interesting to observe. In the case of the "Cockroach Controlled Mobile Robot" I think people are interested in watching the robot because it — like Natalie Jeremijenko's "Feral Robotic Dogs," perhaps — makes something legible that usually isn't legible. In Jerimijenko's work, toxic waste in public spaces is made legible through the mobility of a robot. In my project, the intentions of an insect that people usually want to immediately crush is made legible through a robot. Although Jerimijenko's work is much more socially engaged, I think physical mobility of an object through real space is a good format to work with: it's a format that's understood by children and grandparents. People flock to the damn thing and seem to be interested in figuring out whether the cockroach is in conscious control of the robot, whether it understands its technological feedback/VR system, or whether it's being controlled by the technology. It's a mini-diorama of the debates of technological determinism, perhaps.
"Experiments in Galvanism: Frog with Implanted Webserver" (Hertz, 2003)
GIZMODO: The "Experiments in Galvanism: Frog with Implanted Webserver" project examines the tension when biology meets technological imperialism, as online visitors can trigger movements in the dead frog's legs by clicking on them through a website. Why is this connection important to you and what was the intended control metaphor for online visitor interaction?
GH: This project started by looking at two things in parallel: the emergence of electricity and the emergence of the Internet. The hype and mystery of electricity, as explored by Luigi Galvani and his experiments with jumping frog legs, led to speculation about electricity being the "fluid of life." This uncertainty about the medium of electricity led to various forms of speculation, leading to works like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein with electricity going as far as re-animating the dead. I see new media forms in a similar fashion, including the Internet hype of the 90s and ubiquitous computing hype of this decade. In an attempt to bring some of this stuff together, I brought the Galvanic frog together with the Internet in a "ubiquitous" form factor. The result — hopefully — is something that plays up and downgrades technological hype simultaneously while stacking Galvani in a layered context of information technology, i.e. the cyborg and biotechnology. An aside theme in this project relates to my longstanding interest in playing with a dual audience: online and in-gallery. In this project, online users physically activate the in-gallery work, which is a theme I've been working in since 1995.
"Fly with Implanted Webserver" (Hertz, 2001)
GIZMODO: "Fly With Implanted Webserver" re-examines the commonalities of the daily housefly through integrating a network interface into its body. By adding communications capabilities to this pervasive insect and allowing online visitors to control LEDs on the fly's body, you are putting a new spin on the age-old "fly on the wall" anecdote. What was your ultimate goal with this project and how important is the fly as disembodied messenger in the equation?
GH: This project began as a technical exploration into very small-scale web servers. After some searching, I found a thread of developers that were trying to build "the world's smallest web server," and the supposed winner was Fredric White, who built a web server using a matchead-sized chip from Fairchild. He had also built a potato-powered web server, and this stream of development began my thoughts into the potential of a web server as a physical object within a gallery installation. After a lot of headache, I finally got one of my own "world's smallest" web servers running, and since it was so tiny, I thought a household fly would be a suitable symbol to carry this minuscule technology: it was a small, ubiquitous pest. In many of my projects, I'm not trying to present "useful" technology to humans, [instead] I'm more interested in exploring how new technology could be fictionally coupled with underdogs of the animal kingdom: flies, worms, cockroaches, frogs, etc. Building fictional technologies for animal underdogs is a way to momentarily sidestep the human-based perspective that permeates technological development. Although there are obvious slippages of control between the animal, human, and technological, the underdog — at least — provides an alternate perspective for viewing sociotechnical change.
GIZMODO: What projects are you currently working on? How are they similar or different than your past projects?
GH: I have been working on doing more writing lately: artwork is the best at making forceful metaphoric statements and simultaneously exploring diverse fields of history, experience and emotion. On the other hand, I see writing more like doing surgery: you can carve up a page into an argument that can be more precise, positioned and articulated. I also see huge and interesting caverns of history, theory and art that lack a published voice. Toward this end, I'm considering tackling the "Dead Media Project" — a project manifesto'd by Bruce Sterling in 1995 in response to the hype and historical ignorance of the "new media" frenzy of that age, especially press coverage of CD-ROMs, the Internet, and multimedia. The basic idea is to [examine] failed or dead forms of communication as a tool to look at sociotechnological change and hype, i.e. to view "new" media as a constant process. Looking at forgotten forms of media is a way to step around the usual media-suspects (film, gramophone, telephone, television, Internet) and to enter a zone that is not usually explored. [This approach] has the potential to say a lot about social aspirations, communication and technology. This is a long-term project, and I don't expect anything that I do on this front will be visible for a number of years. In the meantime, I'm showing my Cockroach Controlled Mobile Robot and rolling out incremental improvements to it. I don't have any big plans for a new hardware-based project right now: I'm planning on starting work on something this fall.