Discovering CyberAntarctic: A Conversation with Knowbotics Research
The world presents itself to us, effectively.
- J. Baudrillard
- Knowbotics Research
Knowbotic Research (KR+cF) develops hybrid models of knowledge
generation. These models are complex dynamic fields which produce an exchange
between virtual agents, poetic machines and interactive visitors. They enable an
observer to participate in the physical exploration and construction of
networked rules and strategies of the new public spheres. KR+cF outlines
technoid events parallel in real and virtual spaces to investigate the
experience of the multiple layers of reality. These extensions of the cultural
environment provoke new cultural and aesthetic parameters in order to prevent an
ideological closed circuit in an information based society. KR+cF - Yvonne
Wilhelm, Alexander Tuchacek, Christian Huebler - is based in Koln, at the
Academy for Media Arts. In partnership with Westbank Industries and Tactile
Technology, KR+cF has founded Mem_brane, a laboratory for media strategies.
KR+cF has won several major international Media Art Awards, including: Prix Ars
Electronica 93, Golden Nica for Interactive Art; German Media Art Award, and ZKM
CTHEORY: Last November in Hamburg during "Interface3" you finally
installed your new work, "Dialogue with the Knowbotic South." What is the topic
of your discourse?
Christian Huebler: Our approach is to focus on the scientific world in
reference to the South Pole and to study the codes used by scientists of the
Antarctic who make computer simulations. We intend to offer a model for a
discourse between different fields of the communications world. From an artistic
point of view, our project formalizes the problem of a missing language.
CTHEORY: A dialogue beginning from the state of a missing language...
Is this the starting point for your new artistic activity or a hypothetical
Christian Huebler: One has to discard one's own old language. How
shall we discuss what we are doing? We don't debate with journalists and critics
only but also exchange ideas with the scientists. It really becomes a problem if
we don't have a language.
Yvonne Wilhelm: It's a development of our own history as artists, as
aesthetic beings; you have to log in into your own history...
CTHEORY: How do you formulate the discourse about nature between the
different artistic and scientific dimensions?
Christian Huebler: We work with hypotheses since natural scientists
are dealing with hypothetical issues, as they have throughout the century. When
they simulate nature on their computers they project systems into the future,
pushing forward the meaning of time. For the first time, scientists not only
prove the laws of nature, they also formulate conditions of possible systems. In
our project we treat an actual state of nature corresponding to our information
culture: the scientific definition of nature through communication systems and
powerful computers. This way of working changes the meaning of nature itself
because nature has always been culturally defined.
Yvonne Wilhelm: Reality is culturally defined too. We investigate
nature but at the same time question reality.
CTHEORY: A concept that changes with time. Do you want to point out an
idea of reality more fitting to our contemporary times?
Christian Huebler: Our bigger concern is the topic of
~Wirklichkeitskonzept~. With the term "virtual reality" you can define a
dimension that belongs to the computer. This is just play, but I think we play
in accordance with rules of games dealing with phenomena which really have an
effect on our personal life. The question is no longer what nature is, rather,
what kind of nature do we want. We are embodied in the process of how nature
merges, with the ability to go into the system and to change and manipulate it.
We have to include in our research the term "real" (~das Reale~), what comes out
from the reality conception. We don't know if we really can discuss about ~Das
Reale~. It is a very delicate thing; in our work dealing with nature we must
also deal with the economy and politics.
CTHEORY: We can say that Knowbotic Research is searching for an
artistic definition of nature, a possible reality, in the Information Age
through models and data that come directly from the world of scientific
research. How would you describe your intellectual experience with the
scientists? Did you find that your ideas corresponded with theirs?
Christian Huebler: Most of the scientists still think in accordance
with the mechanistic world view - for instance their theory of chaos is
deterministic. They want just to prove their laws confirming the construction of
science. If is there anything they cannot put in the body of science they think
the question is wrong. They don't think their work methods are wrong. Here's an
example: if they have a simulation model running on a computer and get actual
data from a satellite that do not fit into the simulation, they conclude that
the satellite has committed an error. Few people would argue that perhaps the
simulation is wrong. We believe scientists should venture forward even at the
risk of leaving the academic domain of science behind.
CTHEORY: Don't you think too many scientists are affected by heavy
Christian Huebler: Last summer in Hamburg when we joined some
scientists at the German polar research institute of Bremerhaven (AWI), we
realized how powerful the connections between science and politics and economics
are. Many scientists do visual simulation only to legitimize their work to the
politicians and secure funding for more projects, not because they want to find
something new with the visual simulation language. Most of the scientists saw
visualization in this context, and this is disappointing. As I explained earlier
we started our project with natural scientists because we thought they deal with
hypothetical questions involving all the new concepts of science like the theory
of the inner observer, complex dynamics and self organization. We were mostly
interested in the research of dynamic processes. We wanted to find out how they
determined the way in which the results of this research changes their knowledge
CTHEORY: There is a kind of synthesis of scientific knowledge applied
to a special environment in an interactive form where one can observe the work
of scientists giving an interpretation and a simulation of natural processes. At
the same time some scientists are developing new ways of representating the
scientific methodology too. Do you want to provide the scientists with a free
platform where they can exchange and debate their research?
Christian Huebler: We want to create a field of discourse freed from
the rules of the specialists' disciplines. It is a field not only for natural
scientists but also for scholars and philosophers who are discussing current
ideas of reality. We start from the scientific material because Knowbotic
Research is interested in hybrid knowledge, in the integration of facts in
CTHEORY: The cybernetics of Norbert Wiener, was the first attempt to
initiate a new sense of science arising out of the epistemological meeting of
research from different disciplines in order to break the borders of isolation.
We are living again in a time where everything is always more and more
specialized, and everybody follows his method like a dogma that can hardly be
discussed. Do you consider cybernetics a good background for your ideas?
Yvonne Wilhelm: Our world view is based on what we see in the future,
a worldwide data space induced by the communication technologies, filled with
tons of information coming from all different disciplines of knowledge. I think
it is very important to create models which focus on the needs and possibilities
of the person who tries to receive this information. We are dealing with
questions of strategies that support human perception. Furthermore, the concept
of nature in our work does not come from the scientists; we only use their data.
Our work is also a liberation from science. We create an environment where,
initially, we fabricate actual phenomena of scientific thinking. But we
emancipate these phenomena from their reference (science) by a self-organization
CTHEORY: Let's speak more specifically about your work...
Christian Huebler: Our installation "Dialogue with the Knowbotic
South" is unlike our previous work "Simulationspace Mosaic of Mobile Datasounds"
(SMDK), a functional work. The new concept is based on knowbots, which generate
a vision in a data-network. They originate a hypothetical nature, a Computer
Aided Nature (CAN). The main problem for the knowledge robots is that we are
dealing with two bigger entities, the so called reference nature that is still
very powerful in the Antarctic, one of the few almost intact ecological systems,
and the related scientific institutions. The knowbots act with completely
different kinds of inputs, originating a tension so you can't bring these two
worlds really together. This produces an aesthetic field for artists. Virtual
reality means that you are inside the computer box closed to the outside.
Knowbotic reality means you are in a zone of different worlds, totally aware of
the dynamic processes in different worlds. We are interested in finding a form
for this concept. Each knowbot carries information about several Antarctic
research projects that are running at the moment. It is not a scientific knowbot
because we incorporate very different phenomena related to different research
programs. This incorporation of phenomena of actual research in a Computer Aided
Nature shapes the knowbot. We have designed a visual form for every knowbot's
algorithm corresponding to the data sets. The agents (knowbots) work as
connectors of processes. This point represents a new idea for the artwork. We do
not have an interface anymore, a mechanical interface, in the real world, we
have interfaces in the network, the dynamic network. If the processes associated
with the knowbots and/or the research projects change, the knowbots will change
too, following the modification of ideas in the world of research. This leads to
forms of artificial creativity implemented in these agents. The agent should be
open to other ways of thinking. For instance, we outline interfaces for
philosophers allowing the possibility of reaching them and determining other
outlines for the knowbot.
CTHEORY: Is the shape of the agents strictly related to some kind of
processes? Are there different categories of agents, each with a specific
architecture at both levels, algorithmic and visual?
Yvonne Wilhelm: The shape is only a metaphor for a model. We define
borders for our model. The borders we are investigating and developing imply a
kind of representation, not specialized but interactive.
CTHEORY: So there is no symbolism, no allegory?
Christian Huebler: Maybe some new things emerge. In the work
represented here all the agents are autogenerative. They are connected to
processes on the Internet which change continuously. These agents always modify
themselves. They also offer points of interest which can be activated by the
observer of the installation. Thus the knowbot will also mutate and react
according to the interest of the visitor.
CTHEORY: What is the logic you follow to develop the agents? Where do
you find the first input to design them?
Christian Huebler: The first outlines of the knowbot relate to visual
material that is used in the research fields mixed with our creativity... For
example one agent refers to the computer simulation of the tide of the Antarctic
sea; we develop a model and write an interface for data from satellite
observation. The interesting thing is that we deal with processes you can't see
in reality. Hidden processes, sometimes extremely small or extremely big, and
very complex. Furthermore you can't live in the Antarctic, which means you can't
experience its reality directly or empirically without the help of technology.
Actually, for the scientists it no longer makes sense to work directly in
contact with nature. They need data, intelligent data for their terminals in the
institutes. And intelligent data means that you install robots and automata
which live there year-round, periodically sending raw data. Only a few
scientists need to go there to maintain the functionality of these robots.
Sometimes they put sensors on the animals living in the Antarctic continent.
These sensors are directly connected to computers. They ex-territorialize their
nature in the networks. Maybe our artistic work is a kind of
Yvonne Wilhelm: The important point is not to discuss the meaning of
measures, but rather how can we visualize and handle this complexity of
information. That's a problem for the scientists too. There are so many data:
how can we turn it into information and knowledge, how can we handle this with
the knowledge we have?
CTHEORY: You said about this new work that it maintains the state of
process, not only for the interactivity but also because it keeps itself
constantly updated. Since we cannot follow the whole information processing you
make a selection of the information displayed inside the simulation space
otherwise it would be a completely chaotic system since the information that
comes in almost in real time. How do you make this kind of classification?
Christian Huebler: It is necessary to define a strategy about order
and the generation of new things. With computers we analyze fragments of the
reality and at the same time we build and initiate complex processes. This is
what the work is about. You can't deal directly with data fields and databases
to make a model only by analysis; you get millions of data the human brain is
unable to perceive. To outline a model that simulates one year of a certain
natural process you need "giga-tons" of data to keep the simulation running. You
really have to find new criteria, new formulations or maybe new bodies (we call
them "incorporations") to construct, visualize and perceive such models.
CTHEORY: Your previous installation "Simulations Mosaic Raum" was a
self-organized system consisting of elements of communication, data sounds,
collected through the Internet. This work induces a new insight dimension where
one misses the usual feeling for orientation: the visitor/actor can navigate a
"datascape," the composition of the information in the darkness reveals new
clues of perception, new sense of space, the space/process of information. At
the same time another level of perception is involved using the data coming from
the visitor's interaction converted by a motion-tracking system in an algorithm
and transferred in real time to the "reality" of the computer. In another room
another program visualizes the floating entity of the agents with 3D computer
graphics displayed by a video-beamer on a large surface. I am very interested in
your concept of space where you can implement this information organized by the
Yvonne Wilhelm: Rethinking space is the main topic of the new project
too. It's not a question of finding one aesthetic or a language everybody can
understand but of defining nature and its information output, between reality
and virtual space. To the define the differences between discussion and
discourse. To define the differences among the various concepts of nature is
itself a process.
Christian Huebler: It is not efficient to use sculptural terminology
but we are investigating new concepts of "bodies." It is not the body idea in
the common, psychological meaning. Our concept of bodies comes from these kinds
of entities which generate the different layers of our reality and we look for
these generators mostly in data spaces. For us knowbots are means for
incorporations of ideas, and also of reality concepts. This is somewhat similar
to our earlier project where we had a "sound space," a space consisting of ideas
formulated with sounds, connected by the interactive visitor. In the simulation
room one could only connect two ideas at once. We were interested in the
tensions originated between two ideas, the gap between two sounds and not in the
idea itself. In this new project we have "bodies," complex connectors, which
link complex fields of ideas. We touch on one of the biggest problem for
science: to gain a more complex simulation it is necessary to simulate several
organisms/processes together in one program, to compare at the same time
different kinds of data. This leads to our next question: "What can you encode
and what you cannot encode?"
CTHEORY: Your idea of "bodies" could be interpreted as a model for
artificial life, because the knowbots are able to change themselves according to
the changes in the ideas. It's an endless process. Once it has started, it can
go on independently.
Christian Huebler: Yes, but as a vision, a wish...
Yvonne Wilhelm: In fact it does not work like artificial life.
Artificial life is one-to-one translation. We, on the other hand, take reality
and the simulation together, a kind of new function with its own borders to
reality or to cyberspace. From a scientific point of view the knowledge that you
can achieve from artificial life is a fake connection to reality. For the
scientist it is just a value from which it is possible to make some forecasts
and statements. For the artist there is value if it goes out of control.
CTHEORY: Many "media-works" which are supposed to be artistic follow
the Aristotelian principle of mimesis: the work is just imitating nature with a
new technology. Here you deal with the nature without any "naturalistic"
reproduction. We experience a complex of processes that are going on and define
a new dimension of communication. Could we define it as a model of a digital
Christian Huebler: Yes, we are in environments where the senses of the
body are connected via interfaces to dynamic architectures. Sometimes these
knowbots also have the "mimetic" potential for dynamic processes. They represent
real "data fluids" which you can contact and transform. Mimetic not in the
meaning of traditional art: mimetic potential means the agent incorporating the
process. We can't use the term representation any longer because you are
included now as an observer of reconstructed representations. I would like to
consider this phenomenon further.
CTHEORY: In your installations one feels a massive use of technology.
Formally the only material one can see are computers and communication hi-tech
equipment. As artists using this technology what is your critical position
regarding the economic/political process which operates in parallel with the
Christian Huebler: We are inside a technological system whose
direction and speed are defined by industry and science. Politics and arts have
to follow and it is nearly impossible to do anything without being inside. It is
a confrontation which can't work if you play with the traditional ways of art.
You have to be inside so that you can really see the consistency of the new
technology, not only to say: "OK this is their world." This is our world and
becomes bigger and bigger. We all depend on computers. I try to keep my vision
free to understand what is outside and deal with both of these worlds. There are
still many parts of our life which the technological system can't incorporate.
Therefore, I define myself as an artist who can fight inside this
self-regulating order. Though I know everything I do could be good for the
system because everything is connected, I fight and surrender my respect for the
big machines I am working with.
CTHEORY: The industrial revolution has produced one of the biggest
concerns of our time: the pollution of the environment. The South Pole is an
environment almost untouched by the man, where it is possible to make important
observation about the environmental problem. Many scientists are able to
visualize the effects of pollution, but it seems they have much more difficulty
uncovering its origins. For an artist it should be more important to fight the
causes and not the effects of industrial pollution.
Yvonne Wilhelm: Yes, a real solution is not fighting against the
effects or against the people who destroy the ecosystems. It's necessary to
struggle against the thinking of the people who make these strategies, against
the scientists and politicians who think they can predict reality by computing
nature. It's an old artist's strategy to make politics and scientists aware of
the consequences of their concepts of reality.
CTHEORY: What's your feeling about the time you need to produce this
kind of work?
Christian Huebler: It always takes too long to realize a project when
you work with technologies. It is a kind of paradox, not only for the technical
complexity, but also for economic support. The production's process of art takes
longer than you want. You can't produce ten pieces a year. This is perhaps not
understandable in the traditional view of art.
CTHEORY: As we can speak of cyberspace, virtual space, we may think of
a different notion of time. Past, future and present exist together in your
installation: the past is the work of the scientist; the present is the
interaction in your installation; and the future is the potential information
going to be updated by the knowbots. How would you define the implicit time of
Yvonne Wilhelm: We are familiar with the notion of cyberspace, how can
we modify space, compress space, extend space. I think you can do the same with
time and the way you experience it. We make a concept for the practice of
vision. The time we try to realize it is the present.
Christian Huebler: Maybe the work succeeds when somebody gets into our
installation and realizes that there is a complex of different and new aesthetic
and cognitive structures to deal with. We can't offer results in our work,
everybody can experiment in his own way. We offer a model which is still in
discussion, which offers different layers of nature concepts simultaneously: a
traditional physical model with light and temperature zones, a scientific
simulation with the illusion of linear references and a networked info-aesthetic
model generated by knowbots.
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