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PAPER FOR MIT 2001 TALK
INTERACTIVE MACHINE ART AS INTERFACE FOR RITES OF PASSAGE using FEAR, EROTICISM, VIOLENCE, TRANSCENDENCE &TECHNOLOGY
Or "Machines for Saving and Taking Lives" BY Kal Spelletich

-Synopsis of a conversation -

"I wanted something ephemeral,., that would be impossible for museums to absorb." 1

I build machines and robots that audiences are allowed to operate. All of my pieces are kinetic. Most are extremely dangerous and incorporate fire.

Fire is the ultimate medium and the original paint. It warms, cooks and protects, but it can also burn down your home and kill you; An essential double-edged sword. These are hand-made machines, robots, inventions, and crazy contraptions. They are industrial and Rube Goldberg like. Primarily made of steel, found objects, pneumatics, hydraulics, valves, organic matter and pyrotechnic apparatus. I fabricate everything in my shop in San Francisco.

I give each of them names like: Good Student Chair, FIRESHOWER, Ring-O-Fire, 3-Headed Dog, Flaming Bed, Fire Walker, CREEP, APHRODITE machine, Kali Throne, Good Student Chair, Bright Idea Helmet, 0-Gravity Chair, Whiskey Pourer, Harley Davidson Throat Singhas.

I re-appropriate technology, improvising with what I can obtain, for there is enough "stuff" in the world. This re-appropriation of materials and technology for application-less engineering attaches a political comment to my process, rejecting traditional economic systems and aesthetic values. In addition, the work gains symbolic and metaphoric depth by drawing on the previous histories of the materials.

American culture and society is becoming increasingly passive and risk free (partly because of technology). I use technology to put people back in touch with intense real life experiences. There is nothing virtual here. Fear of death brings about social change. As man conquers Everest and disease, he searches for other things, extreme sports, extreme lifestyles (i.e.: sex, drugs), extreme scholarship and extreme entertainment to challenge his mortality, to make him feel alive. This is euphoric, addictive, cathartic, therapeutic, fun and quite sexual. In my performances, volunteers are willingly strapped onto moving beds gripped by flaming steel jaws, they volunteer to interact with some machines naked and that requires submission. I have been repeatedly told the machines gave them an experience like an intense sexual encounter.

I am not trying to humble my volunteers with technology but rather empower them by putting the machines in their hands, the one-on-one scale, the positive context during the exhibition, my introductory explanation of each piece and a sharing of the spotlight.

I never operate my own work. I have already tested and experienced what the machines can do and am interested only in giving my audience a real life experience, not a passive one, especially women.2 They are given the opportunity to operate and interact with the machines. They get the experience and THEY become the hero/star of the show, like an instant superhero/daredevil/Yogi. For they are the ones who conquer there fear and perform acts of superhuman endurance and fearlessness in front of a live audience. This approach shatters the barrier between passive audience and art (ist). This is my own form of telepresence. But there is a thin line between scaring off the audience and winning them over. By utilizing this technology and provoking their fear, a realization of something more important than this fear can occur. Thus the event validates and affirms their very existence enabling them to get in touch with their own mythic reality.3

The intense nature of the experience illicit a response akin and not unlike the Chinese Proverb, "Tell me, I'll forget, show me and I may remember. But involve me and I will understand." 4

Participation in a piece becomes a rite of passage and theatrical. Much like a walkabout, Homers Odessy, Confirmation, Bar Mitzvahs, hazing, drinking and sex as a teenager, play in a public arena, the journey into the long dark valley (as Johnny Cash calls it), when children are sent into the jungle alone unarmed and return adults. This ritualized experience siphons off aggressive energies, combating the collective response of fear, hatred and intolerance expressed in war, bigotry and other forms of mass psychosis thus becoming a form of therapy. I use Fear as a medium.

"We find that so-called pleasure centers in the brain do not react equally to any pleasurable substance, but instead react more strongly when the pleasures are unexpected," Berns said. "This means that the brain finds unexpected pleasures more rewarding than expected ones, and it may have little to do with what people say they like." 5

I think of myself as a connoisseur of fear, looking for the "right" kinds of fear, what kind of fear do you like?? ..A fear that leads to transcendence. 6

So far I have conducted over a thousand such experiments. Ninety-nine percent of the time the audience is clamoring to volunteer. People are quite ecstatic to operate the machines, sometimes running to be first; it is always a celebratory experience. The pieces become a form of interpersonal communication through touch and force-feedback technology, a project to explore intimacy and social interaction. In a fun, conceptual way my work attempts to generate the kind of enlightenment gained by some after near death experiences.

In the future I hope to create machines that lure you to a spot, then send you off on a journey i.e.: Withdrawal and startle response. Example: Build a machine (installation) with an infinite learning curve (adaptive user-response model), and to keep building experimental systems to test out these ideas.

As Marcel Duchamp said to Brancusi and Fernand Leger at the Paris Aviation Salon in 1912, "Painting is finished. Who can do anything better than this propeller? Can you?" 6

My hope is to participate in and help shape the Inevitable goal of building machines with emotions that feedback from their volunteers (audience), engineer systems that exhibit intelligence, problem-solving skills, cunning, empathy, soul, and a genuine interest in one's human condition. They will listen and watch, converse and interact in other complex ways.



Footnotes
1. Jean Tinguely. Jean Tinguely Life and Work, Prestel Books,1995, pg. 36.

2. Mark Pauline, "I encourage women to come down," Pauline continued. They get access to intense equipment without weird attitudes. Everyone is welcome to learn new skills. Walls are down. I hate when people say this is a 'guy thing.' It's scary for people to acknowledge that women aren't that different than men."
From an interview by Arline Klatte, 6/6/98.
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/technology/archive/1998/07/06/srl.dtl

3.Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, Doubleday Books, 1988 pg. 5.

4. Chinese Proverb

5. Human Brain Loves Surprises -18 April 2001
http://www.scienceagogo.com/news/20010318040720data_trunc_sys.shtml
Most people love surprises. Scientists at Emory University and Baylor College of Medicine may have discovered why some people actually crave the unexpected.

Through a unique collaboration between Emory's Functional Neuroimaging Group, led by Gregory S. Berns, M.D., Ph.D., and ReadMontague, M.D., Ph.D., at Baylor'sCenter for Theoretical Neuroscience, scientists are beginning to reveal the biological basis of the human attraction to surprising events. Sam McClure, a Baylor doctoral candidate, also contributed to the study published in the April 15 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.

The Emory and Baylor scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure changes in human brain activity in response to a sequence of pleasurable stimuli, in this case, fruit juice and water. In the study, a computer-controlled device squirted fruit juice and water into the mouths of research participants. The patterns of juice and water squirts were either predictable or completely unpredictable.
"Until recently, scientists assumed that the neural reward pathways, which act as high-speed Internet connections to the pleasure centers of the brain, responded to what people like," said Montague. "However, when we tested this idea in brain scanning experiments, we found the reward pathways responded much more strongly to the unexpectedness of stimuli instead of their pleasurable effects." Study subjects were told nothing about what would take place. As a result, the brain was a clean slate, allowing scientists to clearly see what area of the brain was registering activity.

Contrary to the scientists' expectations, the human reward pathways in the brain responded most strongly to the unpredictable sequence of squirts. The area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, which scientists previously have identified as a pleasure center of the brain, recorded a particularly strong response to the unexpectedness of a sequence of stimuli.

"We find that so-called pleasure centers in the brain do not react equally to any pleasurable substance, but instead react more strongly when the pleasures are unexpected," Berns said. "This means that the brain finds unexpected pleasures more rewarding than expected ones, and it may have little to do with what people say they like."

Both Berns and Montague think their work may provide a better understanding of addictive diseases and disorders of decision making in humans. They believe that the new findings may help clarify the pathways involved in addiction to drugs such as heroin and cocaine, which are known to disrupt the normal function of the nucleus accumbens Other addictive disorders such as gambling also appear to influence this same brain pathway.

6. Kathy Acker, From what I understand, a rite of passage means a real change; you go through intense trauma or intense modification. We don't have anything in our society that allows us to do a rite of passage communally; we do everything individually. Our own search is all done individually; now and then we might tell each other about it, but we always have the feeling we're being a bit "outside" the society when we tell each other. I mean ecstasy-be it sexual (or some other kind of orgy) should be taking place somehow in our "community"-and it's not. Our society gives us nothing. We have no rites of passage-we have nothing-nothing that gives us any wisdom, that gives us any way of dealing with death, that gives us any way of going from one stage of life to another, or even telling us what a stage in our life is. We just grow up, earn money and have babies! And work! A holiday is degenerated from what should be ecstasy into sort of Club Med! We don't have any language with which to talk about these things. From Angry Women, ReSearch Books. 1991, Pg. 184.

7. Calvin Tompkins, Duchamp A Biography, Owl Books. 1996, pg. 137.