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Gizmodo Gallery: Sabrina Raaf

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"Translator II: Grower" (Raaf, 2004-5)

Interview/Article by Jonah Brucker-Cohen

With an ever-increasing amount of technology intended to "improve", "augment", and/or "add convenience" to our busy lives, there seems to be less of an emphasis on creating devices to reflect or comment on our natural or built environments. Taking this challenge as a starting point with her work, Chicago-based artist, Sabrina Raaf, examines the seemingly "invisible" elements of modernized and technologically equipped spaces by re-interpreting this covert data through mechanized objects that create feedback in the form of sound or other visual outputs. From exploring live data sets in the immediate gallery space with "Translator II: Grower", a robot that measures carbon dioxide levels and draws corresponding blades of grass on the wall, to exploring the tension between humans and adaptive or automated systems with "Dry Translator", Raaf's work exposes the unspoken conflicts between society's push for technological autonomy and the struggle to retain human emotion and sensibility. Her most current work, "Icelandic Rift" comments on the almost "alien" nature of future forms of agriculture that could exist in zero-gravity environments. Gizmodo recently caught up with Raaf to discuss her unique and calculated artistic approach to creating work that not only challenges common perceptions of technological utopia, but also examines just how deeply we've become entrenched in high-tech fetishism.

Interview, images, and video after the jump...

Name: Sabrina Raaf
Education: MFA, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Art and Technology, 1999
Affiliation: Assistant Professor, Electronic Visualization, School of Art and Design, UIC, Chicago, IL, USA
Exhibitions: Sabrina Raaf is a Chicago-based artist working in experimental sculptural media and photography. Her work has been presented in solo and group exhibitions in 2005-6 at the Wendy Cooper Gallery (Chicago), Mejan Labs (Stockholm), Espace Landowski (Paris), Ars Electronica (Linz), Opel Villas Foundation Art Center (Rüsselsheim), Artbots 2005 (Dublin), Stefan Stux Gallery (NYC), San Jose Museum of Art, and the Museum Tinguely (Basel). She is the recipient of a Creative Capital Grant in Emerging Fields (2002) and an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship (2005 & 2001). Reviews of her work have appeared in Art in America, Contemporary, Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine, Leonardo,, The Washington Post, and New Art Examiner. She received an MFA in Art and Technology from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is currently Assistant Professor in the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago.


"Translator II: Grower", Video, (Raaf, 2004-5)

GIZMODO: Your project, "Translator II: Grower", connects a Carbon Dioxide (CO2) sensor to a mechanical robot that draws lines representing blades of grass on a wall according to how much CO2 is in the space. Why did you choose this form of representation and how does the output reflect back on the visitors to the exhibition?


SR: Much of my work in the last several years has focused on creating interactive sculptures that monitor their environment and generate sound or imagery in real time. This output is programmed to be data that is eminently readable by humans as useful as well as aesthetic. In other words, the output of the sculptures is a translation of invisible phenomena occurring in the environment into phenomena detectable by it's inhabitants. In the case of the Grower installation, the carbon dioxide exhaled by all the inhabitants of a space was made visible as blades of grass drawn in ink by the robot. The metaphoric relation posed by Grower is that grass needs CO2 in nature to grow. Here, my simulated grass needs the breath of human visitors in order to thrive. The height of the 'grass' directly reflects on the momentary density of humans in the space. In other words, the fields of drawn grass represent the history of the flow of people through the space. People can read the relative heights of grass not just as indications of how many people passed through, but also as how well that space is thriving. If the space is thriving, then it likely will be better able to support new "a-life" and/or new art forms such as the Grower itself.

"The Unstoppable Hum" (Raaf, 2000)

GIZMODO: "The Unstoppable Hum" (TUH) examines the proliferation of electronic and electrical devices pervading our daily lives at home or at work. The project monitors electrical activity in a space and attempts to find patterns within these inputs to compose a musical score. The project also detects people in the space and emits a "sniffing" sound when they are close. What is TUH saying about technological infiltration in our environments how does the design of the project reflect this concern?


SR: I was inspired to create "The Unstoppable Hum" after I began researching the advances in and popular expectations of "smart architecture€". I became very aware of the hum of the building systems around me systems that were already responsive and self-regulating even if they weren't yet "smart". In a large office building, the activity of the many systems installed to regulate the environment is generally already highly complex if you look at them as a whole network. In fact,
the activity is complex enough to form seemingly natural life patterns via their cumulative array of on/off states. This is because the systems are often directly responding to our various natural life patterns as dynamic inhabitants of the space as well as the external patterns of weather outside.

The systems I concentrated on for this piece were the ones that are there to make us feel physically comfortable, secure, and connected to the other inhabitants of the building. For example, I tapped into internal phone systems, ventilation systems, automatic doors and elevators, security and safety systems, and so on. Again, these systems aren't smart, but they do directly serve humans and are automated to shut themselves off or turn themselves on in the pursuit of fulfilling the parameters we set for them. Together they create that hum in a building that we so expertly tend to tune out. TUH makes tuning the hum out impossible by generating complex musical scores on the fly in response to the cumulative activity of the building. The scores are never identical and are always changing as long as the building is activating and deactivating systems according to our needs. The piece is meant to raise people's awareness to the complex set of sensory-based activity behind the hum.


"Dry Translator" (Raaf, 2002)

GIZMODO: "Dry Translator" responds to trends in "smart architecture" where local environments are increasingly adapting to our presence and actions. Instead of merely reading or recording these movements, the project amplifies them back onto the body of the participant. How concerned are you that we might lose control of our natural environments as more and more systems are built to adapt directly to us?


SR: I have to say that the environments that I was concentrating on when constructing this work have little that could be called "natural" about them as they were predominately man-made urban structures. For me it is hard to fathom how, in making our already wired homes and offices more uniquely responsive, interaction designers could catalyze individuals into further losing control of natural environments. One of my goals with Dry Translator is to bring the viewer/participant into a state of extreme heightened sensitivity towards their environment with the suggestion that every surface could be "alive". This installation is about turning the banal material of drywall found in most any contemporary home or business into a highly sensitive communication device that could be used to pass "touch" messages between visitors. Sound vests worn by visitors received live or pre-recorded messages that were generated by second person via scratching, smoothing, drumming, or talking into a wall. The sound then output to the vest pans and vibrates over and around the visitor's torso and up and down their spine (via a series of small speakers embedded in the vest). Call me an optimist, but I hope that the type of sensitivity generated by smart/responsive systems could help raise peoples€ awareness of their environments (e.g., in my case the materials it is made of) and that this phenomenon might trickle down into an enhanced sensitivity towards all their environments including natural ones.


"(Breath V) Pink Bliss" (Raaf, 2001)

GIZMODO:"(Breath V) Pink Bliss" re-examines the "fetishistic" side of technology where a prosthetic finger rubs the liquid crystal display of a common calculator as someone approaches, while "breathing" sounds play through speakers. Why is this relationship between "user and device" important to you? Do you envision a future where technological progress could eclipse or replace human intimacy?


SR: This is a more lighthearted piece that is meant to play off of the relationships the "Digirati" have with their [Personal Digital Assistants] PDAs ranging in nature from dependent to obsessive to even fetishistic. The piece illustrates (in a slightly naughty way) how good pushing the buttons of a PDA could make its user feel. Pink Bliss includes a pocket calculator I found at Office Depot with a display that (just by chance) emanates hot pink waves of liquid crystal when pressed. It was just too good to resist€. Despite this, I can't imagine a future where even the most biomorphically PDAs would serve as a satisfying replacement for human intimacy. (However I'm sure that at least on a sexual level we will continue to witness a proliferation of gizmos and interface designs that will attempt to do so "wirelessly" up to and beyond Woody Allen's "Orgasmitron") But, whatever simulations, stimulations, and artificially intelligent personalities may be put on a virtual store shelf in the future, they will only temporarily appease the user's appetite. They are part of an eternal product market based on novelty and disposability and not long-term satisfaction. As humans we are born programmed with a desire for real intimacy and it is unlikely that we will ever lose the ability to distinguish between fact or fantasy of it. We will always crave it with all its powerful emotional textures and triggers. The real question is whether or not people will choose to believe that human intimacy is an optional experience that offers more or less the same value as the artificially mediated experiences available to them.


"Saturday" (Raaf, 2002)

GIZMODO: With "Saturday", you examined "communication leaks" between mobile devices in public spaces by using consumer "spy" devices such as CB radios and walkie-talkies to eavesdrop on private conversations on Saturdays in Humbolt Park, Chicago and recorded them for later playback. Users can listen to the clips through custom made gloves with integrated bone-conductance technology where they must hold their fingertips to their forehead. Why did you choose this type of interface to access the recorded conversations and what did you discover about the way people use portable electronic communication devices in public space? Were you surprised by the audio content you captured at the park?


SR: Similar to the "Dry Translator" piece, I wanted to make an interface that was intuitive to use and that played on natural human gesture for its activation. Also, I really wanted to give the participant the same sense of "listening in" that I had when making the piece. After much research, I decided to present Saturday in the form of an interactive audio glove. In order to hear my recordings of conversations, participants simply press their gloved fingertips to their foreheads and they are able to, via small bone transducers embedded in the glove fingertips, hear the sound without the use of their ears. This is possible because these particular transducers transmit sound by translating it into vibration patterns that are meant to resonate through bone of the user (and thereby bypass the inner ear and transmit sound directly to the auditory nerve). So, even if a user covers their ears and then places their fingers to their temples, they still "hear" the sound.

Gesturally, this piece permits a new way of listening. The user places their fingers to their forehead in a gesture of a clairvoyant or akin to Rodin's "The Thinker" in order to tap into the lives of strangers. Pressing different combinations of fingers to the temple yield plural viewpoints and group conversations. These sounds are literally mixed in the bones of the listener. My surprises with the conversations I culled over the span of a month were how diverse the backgrounds of the individuals were yet how similar their concerns and frustrations. In economic issues, people regularly singled out the same reasons to lose faith in local politics. I also listened to quite a lot of gang communication (comprised mostly of hours of seriously bad rapping being called back and forth) and actually witnessed the start of a couple of inter-gang fights over the use of radio frequency channels. That was quite unexpected!


"Icelandic Rift" (Raaf, 2006)

GIZMODO: What projects are you currently working on? How are they similar or different than your past projects?


SR:"Icelandic Rift" is a series of structures assembled from industrial materials, stark yet organic forms, and automated systems. These sculptures come together in each work to form a modular system of organic architecture which plays on the viewer's senses of scale and gravity. The Icelandic Rift sculptures are electronically powered works that include mechanical systems which function to automate lights and fluids within the sculpture body. Materials in the series include aluminum, cast acrylic, eurothene, ferrofluid, and custom kinetics and electronics. In all, the structures in the Icelandic Rift series represent a future vision of agriculture and growth in a zero-g environment. It is a composition of artificial islands supported and connected by steel and aluminum struts so that they can be assembled as part of a greater mechanical system that hovers above the floor. Together the architecture formed by these structures is designed to be perceived as both vaguely familiar and also austerely alien.

On the larger aluminum islands in the series sit smaller island forms cut from cast acrylic and/or aluminum. The island centers are hollowed out to function as reservoirs to hold Ferrofluid - a type of liquid magnet. This is a dense black liquid which spikes up when an earth magnet is placed in its proximity. Under some of these islands I have automated hard magnets and electromagnets that, in turn, automate the standing Ferrofluid liquid in the reservoirs so that the liquid is made to spin, rise, twitch, or travel. These symbolize the energy sources for the systems. I was in part inspired to create this work by the landscapes that I explored in Iceland. There, I saw breathtakingly monumental glaciers, which seemed to float atop fields smooth black lava rock. In other parts of the country, there were endless stains of acid green sulfur on the earth as well as steaming blue pools of heat-loving algae which defied one's sense of "the natural"€�. The landscape in Iceland is famous for its lunar feel but its elements seemed to trump gravity and logic in ways that were utterly unexpected. I am also drawing inspiration for this work from the multi-tiered design of staged, hillside agricultural systems such as those seen in Asian rice terraces. Last, I am drawing inspiration from the soft design forms found in domed space observatories, water droplets, and BioSpheres.



- New Public Commission work starting now for McCormick Place West (completion date is approximately December 2007):
see attached description,…