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See Your Reflection in Robotic Penguins at a Darwin-Inspired Exhibition

Stuffed animals and theories about genetic drift go hand-in-hand at Daniel Rozin's new 'Descent with Modification' show at bitforms gallery.

by Matthew Levine
21 May 2015, 3:00pm

Daniel Rozin, Penguins Mirror; 2015; 450 stuffed animals, motors, control electronics, video camera, custom software, microcontroller, tin bases; dimensions variable; Unique, 1 AP. Photo courtesy: bitforms gallery, New York. Photo by John Berens 

In 1999, Daniel Rozin presented Wooden Mirrors, the first collection in what would become a series of mirror-centric interactive art sculptures and installations. Within each of these works, a camera captures the image of the viewer and its surroundings. The sculptures' various materials that comprise the figure then respond by shifting and rearranging in order to create a replicated image in an extremely similar likeness to that seen by the camera.

It must be noted that through mirrors, Rozin explores different facets of nature and science in ways that are approachable to both the art world and the general public; this is perhaps most apparent at Descent with Modification, the artist's new and ongoing exhibition at bitforms gallery. One would think that the consistent use of mirrors might exhaust the medium, but his new penguin-based, and pom-pom-based kinetic sculptures prove otherwise. The exhibition puts Charles Darwin's universally renowned theory of evolution under the microscope, exploring the concepts of genetic drift and survival of the fittest through algorithms and interfaces. Inside the bitforms gallery, The Creators Project caught up with Rozin to talk about working with mirrors and the processes behind Descent with Modification.

"PomPom Mirror" (2015) by Daniel Rozin from bitforms gallery on Vimeo.

The Creators Project: First off, why are mirrors a consistent theme in your work? 

The mirror as a metaphor or paradigm of interaction is useful for me. Some art is about delivering content but in my case the content is the media itself. I'm interested at how we view images about physicality. For me, using you as content is a useful way for [you to] understand the piece is not about content. Sometimes you go and see interactive art and you have to click buttons. I find that to be a bit troubling because people associate that kind of navigation with other things they do. Everyone comes at it from a different point of view. I try not to have that.

Another thing is that mirrors are full of mystery and myth. Also, there's this huge tension: when I think of myself, the way I experience the world from the inside and the way that you're seeing me right now from the outside are such different things that they can't even touch each other. But the mirror actually negotiates that. When I see myself in the mirror that is one-to-one.

So what led you to On the Origin of Species?

A few years ago, I became curious about intelligent design and evolutionary design. I mostly have scientific inspiration. The power of a mind coming up with such a simple concept that explains almost everything around us is very different from the kind of complexity that we know now. For me, that was really amazing to think we can do that kind of complexity. We talk into our phone and understand that behind it is amazing complexity of software. We look at our world around us, which is super complex, and it's interesting to think that behind it is actually a super simple mechanism that's just repeating itself forever. I started thinking that we can probably create images like that so I created this simple method of doing something, or algorithm. In one piece it's like lines of different angles, and brightnesses, and locations, just splattered on the screen and selected like Darwin's natural selection, and within a few seconds—on a computer many generations can pass within a few seconds—our image in a is created in a way that if you were trying to design ahead of time would be very difficult.

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Daniel Rozin, Origin of Species, 2014. Book, video camera, custom software, projector, dimensions variable. Edition of 6, 1 AP. Photo courtesy: bitforms gallery, New York. Photo by John Berens 

Eventually I made four pieces, and the last one is dedicated to Darwin's book—On the Origin of Species. I wanted to call the whole show that, but it was taken. Another term Darwin's contemporaries used to describe evolution at the time was "descent with modification," which I like because some of my pieces, like the penguins, do the descent where they change from generation to generation with modification. With the mechanical pieces—Penguins and PomPoms—their materials are close to nature. I think that connects [them], so I bunched them all together. 

"Darwinian Straw Mirror" (2010) by Daniel Rozin from bitforms gallery on Vimeo.

Can you explain how the algorithm works?

It's a random repetition of doing something random. For example, throwing a random pixel onto the screen and then comparing that with the pixel coming in from the camera. If you're looking at a particular pixel and it says that [the pixel] needs to be whatever shade of blue, and then it sees that pixel it generated randomly and says "if I put my new pixel on the screen, will that make it look a little bit more like what needs to be seen?" If the answer is yes, then it sticks. If it's not, it never even reaches the screen. By doing that probably tens of millions of times, eventually an almost perfect image appears. 

These are pretty much the mutations? 

Exactly. The mutations in my software happen all the time and at the same pace, and they're completely random. Some people who are critical at theories of Darwin evolution say that something that's completely random couldn't create anything we do. I think there are schools of thought maybe that the amount of random and the amount of mutation happens more when there are times where a species is not adapted to its surroundings. Maybe we do have more. Maybe these mutations in a way have direction. That would introduce God, because what would be that direction? I'm not going in that direction though. I don't know enough about that.

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Daniel Rozin, PomPom Mirror, 2015. 928 faux fur pom poms, 464 motors, control electronics, video camera, custom software, microcontroller, wooden armature. 48 x 48 x 18 in / 121.9 x 121.9 x 45.7 cm. Edition of 6, 1 AP. Photo courtesy: bitforms gallery, New York. Photo by John Berens 

The concept of interactive art seems to rely on the audience, so what happens when there's no audience member? Is it important?

Like if the tree falls in the forest and no one's there, did it really make a sound, or is it important? Yeah, it is. Even though they're interactive and there's a viewer engaging it, sometimes there are also more viewers who are just watching from a distance, or not engaging it, or not understanding it. If people are interacting in a way that's not correct, they'll see a bunch of penguins and start coming up with a lot of complex theories about what I'm trying to say; they're not even seeing that it's a connected piece. Maybe they aren't standing where it needs to happen. I try to make it so that it's engaging for all people on all levels, but you can't hit them all.

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Daniel Rozin, Penguins Mirror, 2015. 450 plush penguin stuffed animals, motors, control electronics, tin bases, video camera, custom software, microcontroller. Dimensions variable. Unique, 1 AP. Photo courtesy: bitforms gallery, New York. Photo by John Berens 

The Penguin and the PomPom mirrors both seem to have a failsafe?

Yes, they do have a secondary behavior: a pre-rendered animation. With the penguins and the pom-poms, I took this to the Darwinian idea of these two populations—these pieces are black and white—and these are like two cultures or two subspecies or two generations that are battling, and between them actually, what's happening is something that's similar to that algorithm in that they're sharing an ecosystem and you can see how they're infringing on each other and creating some sort of equilibrium or not. 

It's kind of like you make the viewer God?

Completely. Usually in my pieces you stand in front of the piece, but here you're standing over them and commanding. But they always have this meta-behavior. Sometimes they rub their beaks, sometimes they "high-five" each other, sometimes they diss each other. It's cool that they have these two levels. I think under all circumstances, individuality is always there. You see it in countries where people have a very strict wardrobe, where they can't show anything. They show their individualities by the kind of purse they carry. So here's a pretty strict regime, controlled by a computer and you, but the penguins still find a way to be themselves. 

Descent with Modifciation is on display at biforms gallery through July 1, 2015. Click here to learn more.

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