MisB Workshop with Simon Penny

“Code, Morphology and Behavior” - April 2014 - EnsadLab
A workshop organized in the framework of an international research chair of the Labex Arts-H2H. cf. : http://www.labex-arts-h2h.fr/en/simon-penny-366.html

The workshop began with an introduction to the general purpose MisB Kit for Robotic developed by the Reflective Interaction team [Cf. : http://diip.ensadlab.fr/en/projects/article/misb-kit ], along with theoretical discussion around themes of robotics, behavior and misbehavior.
The kit as developed so far, was found to have some limitations for the topic of the workshop, which brought us back to theoretical issues. The kit seems to have been conceived “software first”, adhering to the generally accepted notions of platform independence and general-purpose machines. The problem with this approach is that robots, experimental robots are not general purpose computing platforms with standardized operating systems etc. They are specific and particular. Adherence to or aspiration for generality in fact works against the research direction.
The second and related issue in the system is that it implements a paradigm of unidirectional control. A person inputs values via a midi slider pad, which are then recorded for playback or enacted by the robot. This is a paradigm of puppetry and brought into question the idea of ‘behavior’.
On this subject we reviewed themes of emergence and self-organisation in cybernetics and artificial life, especially the reactive and bottom-up robotics of Brooks, Steels, et al. We also drew in the sociology of Pickering, discussing his distinction between ‘representational’ and ‘performative’ modes. On the basis of this discussion, the distinction between enacted behavior and autonomous behavior became clear.
Autonomous behavior requires that a robot be a quasi-biological agent, able to respond to its environment in real time. This demands sensors, which were notably absent in the kit, and it requires a computationally reactive environment so that the data from sensors can be usefully deployed in establishing feedback loops.
This led us in to discussion of the need to develop a user friendly (graphical programming) environment for designing behaviors. This led us in to discussion of reactive programming strategies and state machines in particular. Benoit introduced a potentially useful model (software tool called…?).
A robot is a situated machine, and its physical structure and the qualities of its environment are as important as its code – the two should be unified and mutually co-specifiying. The construction of the experimental robots reinforced the sense that the physical form and ranges of movement should dictate the form of the code, rather than the reverse. That is, we should start with structure, then add motors, then add sensors, then add code.
All participants and staff in the workshop experienced a steep learning curve over the duration of the workshop, and in the end some novel an thought-provoking projects were realized, and everyone went away with a rich sense of possibilities, as well as a more sophisticated understanding of theoretical and practical dimensions of the practice of robotic art.
Simon Penny, Summer 2014



Simon Penny
Simon Penny is an Australian practitioner in the fields of Digital Cultural Practices, Embodied Interaction and Interactive Art. His practice has included artistic practice, technical research, theoretical writing, pedagogy and institution building, addressing critical issues arising at the intersection of culture and technology, informed by traditions of practice in the arts including sculpture, video-art, installation and performance; and by theoretical research in enactive and embodied cognition, ethology, neurology, phenomenology, human-computer interaction, ubiquitous computing, robotics, critical theory, and science and technology studies (STS).

Informed by these sources, over the last twenty-five years, he has made interactive and robotic installations utilising custom sensor and effector technologies, including the autonomous robotic artwork Petit Mal (1995), the machine vision based interactive Fugitive (ZKM 1997); Traces, a 3D machine vision driven CAVE immersive interactive, (Ars Electronica 1999); Fugitive Two (Australian Center for the Moving Image, 2004) and his current project Phatus.

Penny is professor of Art at UCI and was architect and founding director of the interdisciplinary graduate program in Arts, Computation and Engineering (ACE). He was Associate Professor of Art and Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University (a joint appointment between the College of Fine Arts and the Robotics Institute) 1993-2001. He was a guest professor in the Interdisciplinary Master in Cognitive Systems and Interactive Media at Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona 2007-2013 and ran the Synergies workshop on interdisciplinary research at Hangar.org 2013 [http://hangar.org]. He was Labex International Professor at University Paris 8 and EnsAD in spring 2014.

Penny was director of Digital Arts and Culture conference 2009 (DAC09). He curated Machine Culture (arguably the first international survey of interactive art) at SIGGRAPH 93 and edited the associated catalog and anthology. He edited the anthology Critical Issues in Electronic Media (SUNY Press 1995. He has spoken widely internationally and published over 75 papers and essays and chapters on digital cultural practices, in several languages. He has served on juries, boards and review committees for the National Research Council of the National Academies, the Rockefeller Foundation, Daniel Langlois Foundation for Science and Art, the VIDA Art and Artificial Life Award (Telefonica Foundation), the Banff New Media Institute, the international board of ISEA and other bodies.