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Spiritual Robots

Examining Technology with Artists Jamie Zigelbaum and Kal Spelletich

San Francisco’s Kal Spelletich began building robots for the now worldwide famous Burning Man in the early Nineties. He’s been working to connect humans and machines ever since. New York’s Jamie Zigelbaum started out at MIT’s famed Media Lab and now dedicates his art to turning standard communication upside down. Both artists, by subverting standard, capitalistic applications of technology from different sides of the US, help form a portrait of what it means to be alive today.

Here, both answer questions from Science Sparks Art writer, Heather Sparks.

Doorway to the Soul, 2015 Zigelbaum paid Mechanical Turks to stare into their webcam for one minute. The recording is played back at human scale to viewers who can look directly into the worker’s unseeing eyes.

How can art impact the course of technology?

KS. By critiquing the promise that new ‘advances’ in information and communication technologies will solve our problems and fulfill our dreams. I think that all just shows that if you’re just chasing capitalism, it doesn’t leave much room for play, or poetry or magic.

JZ. The arts are the only refuge of the unknown question. Technology yields many, many unknown questions to ask.

How does your pursuit of the singularity differ from that of say, Amazon’s Alexa?

KS. The real singularity is between humans and between hymns and nature. The singularity that corporations are talking about is stealing your data, money and time.

Describe your perfect technology.

JZ. Trustless, decentralized, scalable, secure, usable, autonomous organizations that smash entrenched power.

KS. Hybrid human machine systems subverting the role of technology; A new way to instill consciousness; Sensors that respond to one’s individuality; Robots that convey their audience’s personality and/or emotions, making consciousness manifest physically.

In Supplicatio Praying Hands, 2014 One of Spelletich’s Intention Machines at San Francisco’s Catherine Clark Gallery in which the artist’s robotic sculptures interacted spiritually with the audience.

What are the gravest problems technology is creating?

KS. Slavery. Privacy is the next currency.

JZ. The continued centralization of media control and refinement of data understanding and message control, enabled by artificial intelligence being wielded by the powerful to enslave the masses.

What can your art help solve?

KS. I keep all of my art interactive to keep people from being passive in life, to give them a real-life experience, not a virtual one, to help them realize that people have power.

How can art help us navigate the future?

JZ. I’ll tell you what doesn’t help as much as we think it does: painting vivid pictures of possible future darkness. I think artists should give us better options. Where are all the utopian futures?

KS. I try and propose answers, not just critique. It’s easy to just look at the dark side. So, I have worked hard to have my work explore the positive sides as well.

Split Brian Robotics, 2017 At The Lab in San Francisco, Spelletich (standing right) challenged audience members to control two robots using brain scan equipment. Achieving a meditative state made the machines kiss.

What’s your favorite piece of science fiction?

JZ. Charles Stross’s Accelerando depicts digital humans in the most nuanced way I’ve yet to read.

KS. JG Ballard is a huge influence on me, and local science fiction writer Rudy Rucker. He’s part of the cyberpunk genre, and he based one of his novels out of my workshop.

What’s in your future?

KS. Creating artificial organs; Spiritual robots; Harvesting data from live audiences to trigger my art. I have my first solo museum show coming up in 2019 at St. Mary’s College of California.

JZ. I’m working on a bust of a future human.

What’s your ultimate directive?

JZ. To build a positive future.

KS. To leave the planet a little weirder.

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