Samek Museum hopes to combine art and technology through speaker series

Danielle Agostini, Contributing Writer

Have you ever wondered if art and technology could coexist? The Samek Art Museum wants to find out. On Sept. 17, the museum hosted a lecture as a part of the new Culture and Technology Intersections Lecture Series, which brings internationally renowned speakers to campus to present works that cross disciplines. The lecturer this time was Ken Goldberg, a professor at UC Berkeley who runs a robotics research lab as well as an art studio.

Goldberg presented “Cultivating the Uncanny: Art, Fear, and Fascination with Technology” to an audience of University students, faculty, and even children. Right away, it became evident that the works shown demonstrated an intersection of art and technology.

This aesthetic interest in mechanical devices has existed and expanded since the “age of automata” during the 17th and 18th centuries. The growing innovation in technology brings up some important questions. How close is too close to reality? Can a robot act like a human, or do lifelike creations start to cross boundaries? This idea of the “uncanny valley” questions how far is too far when seemingly lifelike things become uncomfortable for people. Goldberg explains how some artists consciously push these boundaries to trigger a reaction, through means such as creating forms that are lifelike to a fault. When the familiar becomes strange, it can have a disturbing effect.

An example can be made from computer graphics, which portray practically lifelike characters in video-games and movies. Goldberg mentioned an example with the film “The Polar Express,” which was deemed to portray animated characters too close to reality. This caused the production to receive many complaints from viewers who found the animated Christmas movie to be uncomfortable to watch.

While Goldberg is an engineer who thrives upon invention, his artistic side allows him to see through multiple lenses.

“I work with technology every day for my job, but I’m also very critical of it,” Goldberg said. 

Goldberg has conducted his own types of projects and experiments that delve into the uncanny valley. His project Telegarden used a constructed robot that could be remotely operated on the web to create a beautiful garden. Instead of human hands planting seeds, the Telegarden would do the work for you; all someone has to do is control it behind the scenes. A student asked Goldberg if the garden was actually real.

This question brings up the fakeness that one comes across over the Internet, and how virtual reality can be contested with distal reality.

Another project of automata by Goldberg is the Tele-Actor, which trains a human to operate a set of equipment he or she wears. This device allows people, or Tele-Directors, to see and hear what the Tele-Actor sees or hears. Again, this raises interesting issues of how one responds to something robotic yet humanistic.

This lecture shed light on issues relevant in a modern society where technology is constantly becoming a larger presence, thereby integrating itself into other areas like the art realm.

“It was fascinating to learn about the impact of technology on today’s artistic culture,” Kate Miller ’16 said.

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