"PongMechanik" (Roy, 2003/2004)
Interview/Article by Jonah Brucker-Cohen
In the fast-paced world of computer graphics, interactive experiences, and video games, there is often a need within the industry to provide the most sophisticated systems to maintain consumer appeal and deliver high entertainment value. Examining the tensions between the strive for high-tech dominance in the marketplace and low-tech realizations of digital devices is the work of Berlin-based artist Niklas Roy. From re-creating the classic Nolan Bushnell game "Pong" as a mechanical apparatus with "PongMechanik" to producing an optimal art viewing experience with the upcoming collaboration - "Gallery Drive", Roy's work is an astonishing glimpse into innovative ways of imparting a sense of history onto today's technological objects and experiences. Gizmodo recently caught up with Roy to discuss his approach to creating ironic objects and projects that challenge existing relationships to devices we engage with daily.
Images and Interview after the jump.
Education: Worked as a 3D animator, as a visual effect supervisor, and as director. Currently studying visual communications at the UdK, Berlin, working as an independent artist.
Affiliation: Independent artist.
Gameworld / Laboral Arts Centre / Gijon, Spain, 2007
Cosmic Zoom Filmfestival / Copenhagen, Denmark, 2007
Todays Art / The Hague, Netherlands, 2006
Gästeliste +1 / Generalpublic / Club Transmediale / Berlin, Germany, 2006
RE/ACT / Heidelberg, Germany, 2005
Microwavefest / Hong Kong, 2005
Festival Emergences / Paris, France, 2005
VIPER / Basel, Switzerland, 2004
Festival Garage / Stralsund, Germany, 2004
GIZMODO: "PongMechanik" is a mechanical variation of the classic arcade game "Pong," designed by Nolan Bushnell in the 1970s. Why did you decide to create a "physical" version of this game? Why was it important to you to use relays as the control mechanism (brain) behind the game, and not a computer or microcontroller?
NR: PongMechanik was one of three works, which all deal with the real world and their digital representations and vice versa. "Grafikdemo" is another work of this series, "Teleflipper" is the third work dealing with that theme. Unfortunately, I didn't document Teleflipper properly on my webpage. I did those works, because I am somehow fascinated by computer technology and the possibilities that those techniques offer, but at the same time, this virtual stuff bores me. Before I started to build machines, I worked as a 3D animator and later as a visual effect supervisor in the film business. After spending so many years behind a monitor and creating virtual objects and worlds, I simply wanted to touch the things that I am building all the time. So I started to create physical works. Pongmechanik obviously deals with that desire. I wanted to create a digital world—the tennis court of Pong—in a physical way. And I have chosen Pong for several reasons. The most important reason is maybe, that the simplicity of Pong makes it very easy to adapt it for an electro mechanical version.
Your second question is quite interesting. In fact, my first idea was just to build an electromechanical Pong display, which should have been controlled by a computer or by a microcontroller. During that time, I had absolutely no experience with microcontrollers, so I've bought one to find out how they work. The first thing that I learned was that this controller wouldn't have enough I/O ports to control the mechanical device. So my next thoughts were about how I could expand those I/O ports by a relay circuit. And the more I thought about this, the more it became obvious that I don't even need a microcontroller to get this machine running. So, the decision of using telephone relays was a very practical one: They just had so many switches and were so cheap that I thought they would be perfect for what I'd like to do. Of course, I recognized at the end that those relays fit much better to the work than a microcontroller would have done. It allows another view on the object: Now, it is also a video game, which could technically have been built in the 1930's—or earlier.
All those thoughts happened when I already started to build the mechanical part of Pongmechanik. And it is a good example for how I work. I usually don't start with strong concepts. My decisions are very intuitive and if I like an idea then I just start to work. During that process, I usually find out what I am doing and why I am doing this. Then the idea develops more and more and my machines are not only one-way for me to express something—they also tell me something about myself.
"Grafikdemo" (Roy, 2004)
GIZMODO: "Grafikdemo" inserts a uv-green painted teapot constructed out of glowing copper wire and integrated black lights into an old Commodore CBM 3032 computer. The teapot resembles a 3D mesh skeleton and can rotate in space when the user presses a key on the keyboard. What was your intent with combining a physical and virtual object, and did you think the project succeeded in achieving this goal?
NR: This piece was also one of the series of three, that I mentioned above. My intent was simply to create a physical copy of a digital object and look what happens. It was an experiment. And I did what I've done all the years before as a 3D animator: I've built a 3D wireframe model. When I started to build it, it was funny to recognizebthat I did everything in the same way and order, like if I would have done it with a 3D modeling software. The lighting was also an experiment: I wanted to let the wireframe model glow, but I don't really like the look of UV light, because It always has this cheap disco touch. So, I've put a green gel (maybe the better word is filter?) behind the monitor glass, which blocks the UV light. The result was that you only see the green wires but no blacklight. At the end, the piece worked much better than I had expected. Many people who play with it don't understand at the beginning what they see and how it is done. They first think is that it is a very sophisticated 3D display in an old computer. But when they start to wonder about the strange motor noises, which happen when they push the buttons, they start to recognize that this is a simple mechanical device.
"Leg Saw Chair" (Roy, 2004)
GIZMODO: "Leg Saw Chair" examines the office tension of trying to move up the corporate hierarchy and plays off the German proverb "To saw someone's chair leg" in order to get the job of someone else who is more senior. Your version is a battery-powered saw that can be attached to the leg of any chair and when it detects someone seated, it begins to saw through the leg and cut the chair. Why did you choose to materialize this "saying" and how effective has it been to those seated? What types of reactions did you get?
NR: The chair-leg saw and the workaholic chair are both things that I've done at the university. It was a project with a short development time: At the beginning of the semester everyone in our class had one week to modify "Herman," an IKEA chair, and to give it some additional functionality. It took me about three days to build this workaholic chair, for which I used the microcontroller that I've originally bought to control the Pongmechanik. I've written about this above. And after those three days, the week was not over yet, and because I am a workaholic as well (the chair is obviously my alter ego), I decided to build another device, this chair-leg saw. There isn't much to say about it. I've just built a machine that takes a proverb literally. And I only put those devices on my webpage, so that the projects section doesn't look too empty. Otherwise, I thought that people might think that I am a lazy person. Which I am not. But to answer your last question: The reactions were very positive. People liked it and understood it at once. Even people who don't speak German think that it is funny to sit on the chair when the device is attached to it. Maybe it adds some tension to their everyday life: Would the chair break or not, while I am sitting on it? Well, of course it will never break. Or at least, it will take some weeks and some dozen sets of batteries until the leg is sawn. Who knows. I never tried it out till the end.
"Workaholic Chair" (Roy, 2004)
GIZMODO: With "Workaholic Chair" you imparted a personality into the chair so that if no one sits in it, it begins to get "nervous" and "restless" by vibrating and moving like a "washing machine." The chair also has "eyes" that begin to move frantically if it gets nervous, and they move slowly if it gets restless. How important is the personality of a "chair" in the modern office environment? Is the project a larger comment on the fact that people are working too hard and much in offices?
NR: Nice interpretations. I don't know what to answer. Somehow, I think that this is quite a stupid and unimportant project. And that I should remove it from my webpage. But the owner of the house where I have my workshop had visited my webpage one day. And he told me that he thinks that this is the best machine that I've ever built. He also asked me how much it would cost if he bought it. So I offered him that he can have it for free, if I don't have to pay the rent for two months. At the moment, I have enough money for the rent, but if my bank account is empty, I'll ask him if he still wants it.
"Dokumat 500" (Roy, 2006)
GIZMODO: "Dokumat 500" is a motorized robotic camera platform that is meant to create documentaries, but always falls short of its actual goal. The robot drives around with a mounted VHS camera and shoots random takes of different lengths without the intent of editing the footage afterwards. Why did you decide to integrate a video camera with a roving robot? Was the ironic intent obvious to people around the machine when it was out in public space? What sorts of reactions did you receive from it?
NR: The robot works well and it films fantastic documentaries. It also edits them directly, so this is the perfect machine for any wedding or holiday or theater performance of your children! I've let it make quite a lot of documentaries up to now and they're all very, ... well, ... let's say, ... interesting! The reactions on the machine are very different, depending on where it drives around. I had it one time at a power boat race in Stralsund, Germany. And the public there thought that it would be some promotional thing. People are used to promotional actions in public space. So at once, they went close to it and waved their hands in front of the lens. Maybe, they thought that they can win something, when they're on the video. A lot of people also think that the camera is remote controlled. After a while, they usually recognize that I am always somewhere next to the machine. And then they start to ask me where I have the RC. And when I start to explain them what it is, they're usually very curious about the result of the filming and they also find it quite a useful invention.
"Gallerydrive" (//////////FUR////, Roy, 2007)
GIZMODO: "Gallerydrive" (a collaboration with //////////FUR//// who I profiled for Gizmodo in September 2005) is a new interactive experience for art gallery visitors where they board an electric wheelchair and are driven around the space along a track on the gallery's floor. This configuration allows for the artists and curators to specify the exact amount of time and exposure the work will receive as well as the angle of view and order in which the visitor sees the work. Why did you decide on a wheelchair for the viewing vehicle and how do you ensure that people will not try to subvert the system? When do you intend to show the piece and what is your ideal type of art gallery / work for visitors to see this way?
NR: Well, there are several approaches to think about Gallerydrive. You already mentioned one: The total control of the artist or curator about the perception of the art viewer in terms of time and space. So it is one thing, that a Gallerydrive setup brings parameters into the exhibition space, which only existed before in the cinema (or in a minor comprehensive way—in the theatre as well). I assume that it is possible to produce some quite interesting and new artworks for such a setup. And this is exactly what we are working on and what we try to find out. At the beginning I thought about using an "old dark ride" for the hole setup and to renew it and to transform it into a gallery space. But there were some practical reasons why I cancelled this plan. Buying an old dark ride was simply too expensive, I wouldn't have had the space to set it up and I also didn't want to spend years in renewing a dark ride in order to put art into it afterwards. And if it would have been finished once it would have been quite complicated to extend it. So I thought about a more modular system, which can be easily set up at any place. And I also wanted to build it in a way that other artists can participate and enlarge it without the need to work at the same place.
This is how the thing with the electric wheelchairs started: They offer already a very good physical structure to transport single people, because they are exactly constructed for that purpose. They are also cheap. We have already bought three of them on eBay and they were all less than 100 euros. The next step was to develop a track system for those vehicles. The simplest way, was of course, to attach some electronics and a scanner to the wheelchairs' control board and turn them into line-following robots. Now, we can set up the Gallerydrive in any existing gallery space, just by adhering a track with adhesive tape on the floor. And we are using RFID-tags on the track to program the vehicles speed, and other functions of the car. All the plans, circuits and codes are published on my webpage. And any other artist or tinkerer is now invited to build his own "Gallerydrive" car. This is an easy way to let the whole system grow.
Well, there are different ways to subvert it. One could be, to use the technology, that we have developed, to make other things with it. Things, that we don't know yet. That's fine for me. But maybe your question is more about how we will keep the people in the vehicle during the drive. This is easy: We just make the drive very exciting and entertaining. So they will stay on their seats, because they want to know what will happen next. And if your question is about hacking an existing "Gallerydrive"—I simply don't know why someone should do that. Hacking art usually only happens if the viewer is confronted with boring art pieces that don't really work, or that work in a way that is hardly understandable. But this is nothing that we intend to exhibit.
At the moment, we have one working vehicle (which I have built) and the second one (which is built by //////////FUR////) is almost finished. I am working currently on the first exhibition item—or let's call it "station." It will be a huge machine, which will transform itself into a white cube, surrounding the visitor when he drives into it. I already wrote about how I develop my pieces—it is quite intuitive—and at the beginning I usually don't know what it will be at the end. Here, it is the same: I don't know yet what I will show inside this white cube. Maybe simply nothing, as the machine itself is already very impressive, and it produces quite an agoraphobic feeling when it closes around you. Maybe I will show some pictures inside—I have some funny ideas, what I could do there. But I simply didn't make any decision yet. When this white cube machine (at the moment, I call it robotik room) is finished, we can think about the first exhibitions. They will happen in the most minimal way at the beginning: One car, one artwork—that's it. And we don't know yet where to show it first. So curators—if you are reading that and if you are interested—send me an email! But to come back to your original question: My favorite type of art gallery would be the MOMA. Or the Guggenheim. Or maybe the Tate would also be alright. Let's see, what happens.