Thiago Hersan and Radamés Ajna are the recipients of the first Telefónica I+D Incentive, awarded last year at VIDA 15.0 for their project MEMEMEME, an installation in which four smartphones mounted on robotic arms
can recognize each other using computer vision and communicate as people would do in a face to face conversation. In addition to receiving the financial incentive, the artists were invited to a month-long residency at the Telefónica I+D headquarters in Barcelona last summer, where they were able to develop their project and benefit from the resources of the company and the interaction with researchers. During this process, Hersan and Ajna published the results of their work on a blog, including detailed information about the software and libraries they used. MEMEMEME now being in its final stage, the artists comment on the concept behind the project and their experience at Telefónica’s research and development lab.
In your work you question our relationship with technology, and particularly how our human communication is mediated by this technology. What have you learned from your artistic research?
Up until the beginning of the 2000’s, many social psychologists and anthropologists were optimistic about potential benefits brought by mobile communication technologies. In Evolution, Alienation and Gossip, Kate Fox talks about the importance of gossiping; from its role in language evolution to its social and psychological benefits, and links it to mobile text messaging. There was some evidence that suggested that the use of mobile texting was actually strengthening and promoting tighter social interactions in the “fast-paced modern world.”
And then came Facebook… and Twitter… and other interfaces that seem to promote incessant, unilateral broadcasting instead of the “social cultivation” that was seen as positive in Fox’s article. These kinds of interactions may indeed have their benefits (as a generic birthday greeting is arguably better than no greeting at all), but as we keep developing faster, better, harder, stronger technologies, and delegating our communications to a few commercial interfaces, it becomes more important to understand their biases.
According to Sherry Turkle, we are “alone together”, sharing a lot more of our personal life while keeping the distances with others. What is your opinion about this? Does MEMEMEME reflect on this situation?
When we first started using the internet (in the mid 90s), it was very disorganized and ugly, but it had a sense of infinite possibilities. Not just for communication, but also for creative and personal expression. Now, using the internet consists mostly of filling out little boxes in readymade interfaces. In some instances we don’t even need to use full sentences to communicate anymore, we can just reuse a particular hashtag or metatag to express a sentiment. Even though it has become a more pervasive and frequent activity, it also feels a lot more passive. So much so that sometimes it’s hard to imagine the people behind these interfaces and on the other side of our communications, which can contribute to this feeling of being “alone together”.
MEMEMEME exists in a very extreme end of this spectrum. In a future where our interactions and inputs have been optimized away, and the machines that we use to communicate are the ones having all the fun.
MEMEMEME seems to be based on Fofoque-me, what does it take from that previous project and what does it introduce?
Fofoque-me was our initial study of how to make cell phones move in emotive ways, but it only consisted of a couple of pre-programmed movements. MEMEMEME will be smarter; the phones will be able to detect each other and communicate using their own kind of body language that is unpredictable and hopefully more expressive.
Part of your work (Thiago) has been developed inside Facebook. How is it to work inside this social network? Which are the limitations and difficulties presented both by the code and the legal agreements inside this network?
Pretty much all of the projects that I’ve done inside Facebook have gotten me kicked out of Facebook!! They always let me back in; they want me there, but they want the “real” me. They don’t like when you create too much fake data, or use their service in a way that they didn’t anticipate. But that’s sort of the motivation behind these projects anyway; to point out some of the limitations in these interfaces and show that we don’t have a lot of control over them.
Over the last two decades, technology has become increasingly widespread, as well as more accessible and affordable. As artists, how do you see the fact that it is now easier to work with devices and resources that were limited to high tech research labs only a decade ago? Is it easier to produce an artwork today or does it still present considerable challenges?
Being able to work with technology that was not very accessible a decade ago definitely opens up many interesting opportunities for creating new works and experiences, but more importantly it enables new ways to learn and to teach about technology. We hope that by sharing our process and by teaching workshops that demystify some of this technology, we can show people that some of this is not that hard, and hopefully encourage them to build their own interfaces, apps and gadgets.
How has the Telefónica R+D Incentive helped in the development of your work, besides the economic incentive?
The economic incentive is very nice, but the real value of residencies and these kinds of partnerships are the different exchanges, and cross-pollination, that can happen. Because our work deals with certain social and political aspects of technology, it’s been interesting to see how a big company like Telefónica thinks about these issues.
How was it working at the Telefónica R+D Department? Did you receive advice or assistance from experts or had access to specific equipment that is not usually available?
While we haven’t really taken advantage of the technical expertise at R+D, it’s been nice to have access to people that are working on different kinds of social technologies. It’s been great to chat with the Trends Team that works on the Global Trends Report, and the people working on the RADIO ME project. People in both of these groups have a lot of experience in Human-Computer Interaction practice and theory, and they’ve been able to give us some advice and references about the relationship between technology and sociocultural trends.
According to the information on your blog, you started working on the physical aspect of the installation (the Stewart Platforms) and then moved onto the recognition software. Why did you decide to follow this order, was it a practical decision?
There was a sort of physical constraint to this. We started working on the project in San Francisco, where we had access to cheaper materials and machines for cutting metal and 3d-printing support structures. It was also important to get the hardware figured out while we were together, because once that is done, it’s easier to continue developing the software remotely.
In your latest post, you indicate that you are training the program to recognize smartphones with their screen turned off. Does it mean that in the final project the smartphones won’t display anything on their screens?
The plan is to have some kind of visualization on their screens; something that expresses something about their internal state, and that makes sense for them, but not for humans. What that means is that we’ll probably have to rerun the training and generate new files, which should be a lot easier now that we have a workflow in place.
You have used open source software and research papers in the development of your work, and you provide detailed information about the tools you’ve used and your own findings that may help others work on similar projects. What is, in your opinion, the role of open source software in the current development of artistic and R+D projects? How can an open source philosophy be made compatible with the patents and confidentiality requirements of private research centers and small companies developing their own products?
TH: While I’m a huge proponent of open source software (about 90% of all code I write ends up on github), I think some of the value in open source projects come from the communities that they promote and cultivate. Which isn’t something completely unique of open source projects, because there are some healthy communities built around some non-open projects too, but an open source project definitely enables a different kind of engagement and participation.
Another benefit of open source projects is that they allow for extensions and improvements of the technology, while allowing other people to contribute different kinds of inputs and opinions during its development. I think this is very important when working with any kind of social technology, because it’s hard to take into account different ways in which your project might be biased towards a certain culture or ideology, and opening it up allows other people to adapt it to their own needs.
I think the question about patents and confidentiality really depends on the kinds of projects and products that one is working on. There are instances of commercially successful open source products, and there are instances where parts of a technology project might be kept closed, but not so much because of the technology used. I don’t think the idea of patents is inherently bad, but how they are enforced, the kinds of things that get patented and why, has become a little exaggerated and absurd. Instead of promoting development, by giving people incentives to create new things, they are now mostly used by companies as some kind of monetary asset. But, it really depends.
RA: The open-source movement for me is quite correlated to the boom of the art and technology scene, just because of the amount of information being created and shared by communities end up helping artists with non-technical backgrounds develop their ideas. At the same time it seems to drive innovation in many other ways. Today, I think the patent issue can be bypassed with different legal protections through licenses, and we have many examples of companies with an open source business model.
You work in Sao Paulo and San Francisco. From your perspective, what is your opinion about the current level of research and access to technology (in medialabs, etc.) in Spain? Do you think that the Telefonica R+D Incentive can be particularly helpful for artists working in Latin America?
TH: My opinion is limited to the small amount of time I’ve spent here, but it seems like Spain falls somewhere in between the United States and Brazil in terms of access to technology and materials. We just came from a residency in San Francisco, and, compared with Brazil, where most technology has to be imported at high levels of taxation, it was shocking to see how easy and cheap we could have materials delivered to us in 2 days. But, there are drawbacks to this sort of abundance. Due to the fact that materials are scarcer in Brazil, people there tend to be very creative and very critical about how they use their resources.
And, again, I’m generalizing this based on my limited experience here, but it seems like the projects I’ve seen in Barcelona at the IAAC Fab Lab, Pompeu Fabra and Telefónica, seem to fall somewhere in between the two extremes. I think there are important historical, political and economical aspects that explain the differences in access to resources, and if we see value in understanding these different kinds of environments, with different kinds of constraints and priorities, then I think the incentive is helpful for artists everywhere, not just Latin America.
RA: In my short experience there, I felt like Spain is a very good place for making and developing things, the digital fabrication movement is very intense, seems easier to get materials, tools and technology, and it’s close to other big technology centers, like France, Germany, Netherlands and UK. The experience of making in the United States was very impressive, with almost infinite resources. At the same time, the lack of resources in Brazil makes everything slow, but as Thiago points out, people tend to be more creative about the resources.
How would you define artificial life?
TH: Very broadly. I think it’s any process that enables or prolongs the life of an organism outside its stable habitat.
RA: Artificial life is a very broad concept. To me all attempts to explain and recreate the complexity of a natural process can be considered artificial life.