DETROIT — Remember the last time you called Siri into action, and instantly large, Venus of Willendorf-like figures rotated gracefully around with graphic, black-and-white mobiles, attempting to win a dance by signaling them with flashlights? No? That’s because artist Gordon Pask’s 1968 vision, “The Colloquy of Mobiles,” did not turn out to be literally prescient in terms of the physicality of machine-machine and machine-human interaction. However, Pask’s immersive and semi-interactive installation, originally created for the groundbreaking Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, was remarkably oracular in terms of modeling a human environment containing conversational machines — now such a quotidian part of life in developed countries that we rarely notice it.
Maybe that is why the playfully physical nature of Pask’s forms and the somewhat analogue vibe of the installation powerfully draws the viewer’s awareness to this omnipresent conversation between machines and people. The opportunity to experience this awareness has been recreated at the College for Creative Studies, which debuted a full-scale replica of Pask’s installation, titled “Colloquy of Mobiles 2018,” at last month’s student exhibition. The piece is the cumulative presentation of the MFA cohort in Interaction Design, under the direction of Associate Professor and Chair of MFA Interaction Design Paul Pangaro. Two Interaction Design studios have worked since January to create first a scale model, and then a full-sized replica, based on original designs by Pask and Yolanda Sonnabend. The project logistics and execution was overseen and largely implemented by CCS Adjunct and MIT grad TJ McLeish, who designed, constructed, and fabricated all of the full-scale replica’s components, including the 3D forms, and the configuration of their animating motors, electronics, and software.
Essentially, Pask’s original vision was to create a non-language-based form of interaction between two different types of “machines,” which emulate a gender binary. The receptive forms are large, vaguely humanoid figures in pinkish molded fiberglass — these are coded “female,” and each has a mirror embedded at her body-center. The “male” machines — black-and-white sub-mobiles (as the entire hanging installation is also technically a mobile) that would more or less be at home above the crib of an infant with extremely modish taste — are equipped with flashlights, and their loose intention is to capture the interest of a female form by flashing her mirror. Let’s face it, online dating is the same whether you’re machine or human, but it looks way classier when machines do it.
Unlike structured algorithms that direct machines to execute specific functions, the components of “Colloquy” have been given only certain parameters within which they are free to learn and operate. Their randomized movements are potentially made even more random by the possibility of human interference with the forms; among the supplemental materials surrounding the installation are a set of flashlights, which visitors can use to attempt to instigate a reaction among the machines, in surely the most sophisticated and educational version of catfishing currently on record.
“Machines are everywhere, and machines are talking to machines everywhere,” Pangaro told Hyperallergic. “And we don’t know what they’re doing, and we don’t have a lot of control over them. They’re all digital, and behind glass, or in the cloud. Well here, Pask was saying, ‘No, they don’t have to be far away. They can be in our midst, they can be interactive and conversational in a sophisticated way.’ And isn’t that the world we want?”
Pangaro took the opportunity to underscore a finer point about Pask’s relationship to the field of cybernetics, which is usually interpreted as regarding robotics or artificial intelligence. “Cybernetics comes from the words meaning ‘to steer toward a goal,’” said Pangaro, “and not just in general, but artfully. So it’s the art of steering, about systems that have a purpose.” Having a purpose is distinct, in Pangaro’s mind, from artificial intelligence, which he defined, informally, as “trying to make a machine smarter.”
It would be difficult to characterize the machines rotating amid the opening night crowd at CCS as being very focused in their purpose — over the course of an hour or so, I was unable to observe the culmination of a successful flashing sequence. But then again, life holds few guarantees for machines and humans, and if the objective is to somehow find oneself in meaningful connection with another like-minded creation, I cannot say that I can demonstrate a better track record than “Colloquy.” Perhaps, as Pask suggested, technology need not always seek to be state of the art, but just needs to spend a little more time processing the state of art.
“Colloquy of Mobiles 2018“ is on display at the Taubman Center at College for Creative Studies (460 West Baltimore, Detroit, Michigan) for the foreseeable — but ultimately unknowable — future.