Alex Taylor and Kyle McDonald: Intersections Between Two Practitioners on the Boundaries between Art, Research and Technology.

In light of our upcoming Art and Tech Social with Kyle McDonald and Alex Taylor, we consider some of the connections between the work of these two practitioners. Kyle is a digital artist based in LA and Alex, formerly of Microsoft Research Lab, is currently based at University of London’s Centre for Human Computer Interaction Design (HCID).

Serendipity, Chance and Randomness

Both Alex and Kyle have attempted to design digital interfaces that re-create the randomness and surprise of chance occurrences, encounters and memories. Alex has thus explored how devices might be developed to create chance and serendipitous access to media content (photos and videos) that the creator is likely to have forgotten about. In collaboration with others, he developed Meerkat and Tuba. Meerkat and Tuba are devices which do not allow ‘goal driven access [to] materials’ (such as photos and videos stored on the device), but defer ‘responsibility for choice […] to a system that randomly accesses and presents content for consumption’. Kyle, too, has produced a number of artwork’s that also foster chance and randomness. His Sharing Faces project, tracks the facial expressions of visitors to galleries in Japan and Korea, matching them with their international (Japanese or Korean) counterpart. Visitors to either gallery thus see ‘themselves reflected in the face of another person’. Another of Kyle’s projects, Serendipity, displays a map which shows the ‘ephemeral connections created by simultaneous listens […] every second a few people hit “play” on the same song, at the same time’. Mediated as these chance occurrences are through digital interfaces, these works and devices aim to challenge our perception of computers and digital interfaces as merely “goal-driven”.

DIYbio

DIYbio, or Do It Yourself Biology, is ‘a movement that embraces biology […] outside of professional settings’. Both Alex and Kyle’s work/research explores this movement. Kyle’s Augmented Hand Series is a real-time interactive software system that creates a simulated alternative biology. Audiences thus place their hand inside a box and the software re-imagines the hand presenting it on a screen for audiences to see – sometimes displaying an extra few fingers, sometimes depicting fingers that wave autonomously of their owner’s actions! Alex, along with others, has organised a series of DIYbio workshops in order to foster collaboration between bioartists and scientists. Alex has also created a tool, known as the Bio Model Analyser, which is ‘a sketching tool that enables users to draw out a biological system of interest […] by dragging and dropping cells, […] their contents […] and relationships onto a simple canvas’. Both Alex and Kyle’s work considers the way biology and technology might interact and prove productive outside of the formal constraints of the academy.

Human-Robot Interaction

Based as he is at the HCID, Alex’s research is driven by an interest in human and non-human interaction. However, both Alex and Kyle have created robots that attempt to foster interaction between human and non-human subjects, challenging the divide between “inanimate”, “unfeeling” machines and humans. Kyle’s previous creations include an interactive robot (affectionately called “Noodle”) who has the ‘I/O of a machine but the thoughts and feelings of a human’. Noodle responds to his environment in a multitude of ways: words, images, sounds and decisions. If Noodle feels threatened or scared, he’ll call for help! Similarly, Alex’s creations aim to ‘question the limits placed on machine intelligence and autonomy’ and encourage people to consider robots not merely as ‘entities […] defined by presumed limits’. His creations, like Noodle, encourage humans to view robots as caring companions. His creations include: Mimi, a curious robot who takes pictures of her environment offering commentary and interpretation; and Pobel, a robot who is potted with a plant and plays music when the plant needs watering, ‘reminding us to take care and bring [the plant] back to life’.

Software-led Design and Art

Both Kyle and Alex’s Design and Art attempts to challenge software “black-boxing” (when a technology is made invisible by its own success). For example, Kyle’s previous work ‘Blind Self Portrait’ involves a human participant closing their eyes and allowing their hand to be guided by a machine, which tracks their facial features using facial recognition software. The images produced are a product of both the software, the machine’s hardware and the human hand. Another of Kyle’s works, in collaboration with Lisa Kori Chung, called Open Fit Lab utilizes a piece of open source software ‘that investigates several approaches to generating custom tailored [trouser] patterns’. The Lab thus attempts to use software for ‘on-the-spot generation of custom clothes’. Similarly, Alex’s work considers how the ‘distinctive material properties [of a new technology] open up […] design space’. His experiments with digital materials involve a gamified version of Bluetooth software called BTScores, where the user scores points for connecting with other “players” in their vicinity.