After having earned a BFA form the Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago, USA) and an MFA from the University of California at San Diego (San Diego, USA), Chris Csikszentmihályi (1)
(pronounced CHEEK-sent-me-HIGH-ee) taught electronic arts at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, USA). He is now associate professor in media arts and science at MIT (Cambridge, USA), where he heads the Media Lab research group Computing Culture. (2)
This group brings together researchers who work at the crossroads of art, politics, ethics and technology. He has himself worked at the crossroads of new technologies, media, and the arts for over 10 years, lecturing, showing new media work, and presenting installations in both Europe and North America. Along with participating in numerous festivals, he won the 2002 special new media prize for his work DJ I Robot
at the Split International Film Festival
, in Croatia; in 2001, the same work received the price for the best artistic software at the Berlin Transmediale. The Kiasma museum in Helsinki, Finland commissioned the work Natural Language Processor
from him. He recently presented DJ I Robot
in the exhibition Robot,
organized by Eyebeam in New York from July 12 to 15, 2003.
Developed at MIT as part of a project that explores the impact that new media are having on contemporary culture, DJ I Robot
is the first random-access robotic and analog system that would make the role of the human DJ obsolete, Csikszentmihályi wryly observes. Though he does not really believe this, the creator of the robot can't help but laugh at DJs who take their activities far too seriously. The machine uses a PC, several micro-controllers, and an advanced "motion control" system to automatically mix, scratch, and search the vinyl records sitting on its three turntables. The computer can tell the system to go anywhere in the records. According to the developer: "We essentially built a motion-capture system that hooks up to a regular DJ's turntable that allows us to capture whatever sort of scratches or motions that they do." (3)
The information is then saved to files, which can then also be manipulated by the robot. As you could expect, DJs' opinion on the matter is split. According to Paolo: "A computer is not going to know how to do that. It's missing the inspiration. There's only so much you can program." Whereas Qmaxx420 states: "I think that can be fun and entertaining. It was inevitable that this was going to happen anyway. This is the future." (4)
He continues by saying that it might have some unexpected benefits. Since some DJs don't like to spin first or last at clubs, the robot might be a good opening DJ. Let us not forget that DJ I Robot
is a prototype that still needs some fine tuning, for so far it has lost all DJ competitions that it took part in. Among others, Csikszentmihályi is now working with the well-known DJ Spooky to refine the robot.
Csikszentmihályi’s recent work touches on a pressing contemporary issue: free access to information. He is opposed to any form of control and defends this freedom by developing devices that can bypass obstacles designed to curb it. This adds a layer of ideological critique to the critical point of view that permeates his work. This critical stance in no way stops the artist-technologist from using humor to get his message across, as is made clear by the many interviews in which he explains his projects. This mocking, at times ambiguous, humor does not diminish the seriousness of his proposal: to guarantee certain fundamental principles in the exercise of a healthy democracy.
"I think all technologies have a political component, whether they’re mindfully designed that way or not," says Csikszentmihályi. "I’m very interested in ... conflicts with constitutionally guaranteed rights. I’m developing technologies that secure those rights." (5)
The aim is clear: Csikszentmihályi defends the right to information that is not disinformation, in other words information that is not controlled by the mass media or censured by the Pentagon. What actually happens on the ground level of a country that is at war? How can you understand the conflict from the point of view of those that experience it daily? How many times while watching the news do we say to ourselves: if I could be in direct contact with these people, my perception of the event would surely be transformed. As he himself emphasizes: "What I’m really curious about is what the war is like to people up close to it." (6)
To counter the surgical version of the war in Afghanistan that the Pentagon transmits and imposes, Csikszentmihályi developed a robot-journalist programmed to report from the ground. He began with the following idea: if the military can send drones over the mountains of Afghanistan, why can't citizens or the media send journalists in the form of drones? This robot-journalist is called Afghan Explorer,
and it resembles a space exploration vehicle since it was modeled after the NASA Mars Explorer. It is powered by two solar panels and moves on the ground thanks to a four-wheel drive system. It can cover 40 to 50 kilometers a day. It measures one meter in length and 70 cm across with a 130 cm high pole "neck". The insides of a laptop computer make up its brain. The vehicle is equipped with a video camera for the purpose of interviewing people that it will cross on its path. It also has a small video monitor that allows the people interviewed to see who it is that they are speaking with. The two speaking parties communicate through a microphone and a speaker. The interview is transmitted via satellite. The Afghan Reporter
is remote controlled and finds its way about thanks to a GPS system and an electronic compass. According to its creator, the Afghan Reporter
is a teleconference device on wheels that costs only $US 10,000 to build: the motors are taken from old Xerox machines;the 14 inch diameter wheels belong to a lawnmower; all parts are available on the market...
This project does not in any way represent an act of civil disobedience; no government can, hopefully, impose a law forbidding the dispatching of such a device in a war zone. It is, however, an imaginative alternative, comprised both of technological research and political protest, that calls upon eventual users — those who do not subscribe to the established powers — to test its effectiveness and success.
Journalists who believe that their profession is about to become obsolete have loudly criticized this initiative. In fact, the French journalist Emmanuel Poncet has described the Afghan Reporter
as "a little wonder that is the last cry of US media and politics cynicism." (7)
Nevertheless, as Natalie Jeremijenko, an artist and engineering professor at Yale, states: "Whether Chris succeeds or not, he’s making a great point — that for most Americans, Afghanistan might as well be Mars. (...) What could be interesting is if the Afghan people take an interest in Chris’ machine. If they repair it. Send it on its way." (8)
Developed and designed by Ryan McKinley under Csikszentmihályi's supervision, as part of a joint program between the MIT Media Lab and Computing Culture research group, the Government Information Awareness (9)
(GIA) is a website that acts as an information organization to help American citizens understand the complexity of their government. The GIA is inspired by the Total Information Awareness (TIA) set up by the Defence Advanced Research Program Administration (DARPA) and which was renamed the Terrorism Information Awareness after it became known that the TIA's function was to scrutinize the activities of million of Americans in the hope of finding potential terrorists. What is certain is that the project was developed to keep a close eye on every American. Faced with the outcry from human rights and civil liberties groups, the US congress decided to limit the scope of the project. The GIA's objective is similar, except that the equation is inverted: it seeks to offer the ordinary citizen the possibility of consulting information files on government employees, politicians and organizations and corporations that do business with the American government. Citizens can also get involved by anonymously contributing information to the site. This strategic inversion aims to reduce the growing gap between a citizen's (limited) potential to watch over his or her government and the (unlimited) potential that the government has to watch over the citizen. According to McKinley "total information" should flow in both directions, between the government and citizens: a healthy democracy is based on shared responsibility.