Ken Goldberg at De Young Museum

24 Nov, 2015

Ken Goldberg at De Young Museum

Kate Mattingly is a PhD candidate in Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies and a DE in New Media. Here, she reports on BCNM faculty Ken Goldberg's exhibition at the De Young Museum in San Francisco:

On November 20th Ken Goldberg and Kevin Chen presented a “Long Conversation,” a two-hour continuous dialogue among 11 guest speakers, at the de Young Museum. It was a fascinating and multifaceted event that brought together artists, writers, engineers, programmers, and gallery owners. The format was simple: two speakers started, one left after 10 minutes and a new one joined, and this continued until the first speaker who had exited returned. The roles were fluid: more like a conversation than an interview, and the topics flowed from robotics to politics to economics to a rapidly changing San Francisco.

What made the format so compelling was the complex and contingent perspective of each person who joined the conversation: from the artist, Kal Spelletich, who refused to participate in DARPA projects, to the gallery owner, Catharine Clark, who described the lack of interest among Google executives in contemporary art. A through-line of the event was the tremendously fertile landscape of the Bay Area for artists and technology, and a few groups and places were continually referenced, from Survival Research Laboratories to U.C. Berkeley as a home and school for many of these innovators.

One of the speakers was writer David Pescovitz, who received his master’s degree in Journalism from UC Berkeley, and BCNM and EECS Professor Eric Paulos was referenced frequently. Also acknowledged was the wide spectrum of UC Berkeley departments that foster creativity in the arts: from the projects of Billy Klüver (he received a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley in 1957), and is well known for his “9 Evenings” of 1966, to the 2014 Kimchi Poetry Machine byMargaret Rhee, who received her Ph.D. from the University of California Berkeley in Ethnic Studies with a designated emphasis in New Media Studies.

Although he didn’t participate as a speaker, Ken Goldberg introduced the evening and remained visible in many speakers’ anecdotes: from Pieter Abbeel’s acknowledgement that Goldberg was an artist who inspired him to think about intersections of technology and the arts, to Catharine Clark’s support of Goldberg’s work in her gallery. If some questions remained unasked, for example why does Clark think New Media Art or Art-Technology hybrids have a hard time selling in her gallery?, the insights that were generated were thought-provoking and capacious.

A topic of the event was the curious etymologies of terms like “robotics” and “technology.” Several speakers offered insights like the word “robot” first appeared in a 1921 play called “R.U.R,” and was defined as “a machine controlled by a set of instructions,” said author John Markoff. Josette Melchor, executive director and founder of Gray Area, shared insights about her work in applying art and technology to create positive social impact through education, civic engagement, and public programs. “Technology” was described as “driving the future,” to which Terry Winograd added, “the question is, who’s steering?”

At one point, David Pescovitz was asked, “What’s your favorite subculture today?” and he answered by describing the “real space” events where people gather to experiment, converse, and create, such as happens within the Maker movement. Pescovitz and Karen Marcelo, founder of dorkbotSF, highlighted the importance of counter-culture movements as pocket universes seeking to exist autonomously without being commodified or commercialized. Another speaker was asked to envision a time when machines controlled human activities, and he responded, “If we’re lucky they’ll keep us as pets.”

Depending on the position of the speaker (artist, gallery owner, writer, scientist) insights into technology and the arts shifted dramatically. The conversations evoked a richly woven fabric with every participant offering ideas like threads that crossed and contributed depth and texture. As the evening continued there was also a sense of a kaleidoscope’s changing patterns as each speaker’s view shifted the components being discussed, moving the politics of the arts and technology into different relations with economics and innovation.

Below the auditorium where the Long Conversation took place, the de Young is hosting an exhibition that honors the 100th anniversary of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. The resonances between these events were striking: artists, 100 years ago and today, have been and continue to be at the forefront of creating projects that offer both a glimpse and a critique of our relationships with contemporary technologies.

When the event ended and I left the museum, it was one of those foggy San Francisco nights that shrouded the evening in mist and felt conducive to a scene in a movie when the menacing robot or fantastical machine took over a community. Yet within the museum’s auditorium, the Long Conversation avoided the pendulum-like swings between technology as dystopian or utopian. One of the many insights from John Markoff was, “never mistake a clear view for a short distance.” It was a guiding concept that lets us appreciate the entwined and ongoing intersections of the arts and technology.