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Thomas Edwards dreams of the day when he’ll have bionic hands. For now, however, he has to settle for a loose jumble of sensors, adaptors, and chips scattered on a work table in his basement in Fredericksburg, Va. If Edwards squeezes a little black wafer here, a little piece of metal wire over there moves—bzzzt—a few inches to the left. The machinery could hardly flick a fly off a piece of stale bread, let alone perform more-expected bionic-hands tasks—bending an iron bar, say, or subduing humanity.
Nevertheless, Edwards, a 36-year-old broadcast engineer who spends his days tending to troublesome geosynchronous satellites, has a grand artistic vision for his tiny piece of twitching wire. Over the next six months, he’ll build up the device, which has roots in NASA technology, until it actually resembles two human hands. Then he’ll mount one hand in a gallery in one city and its twin far away in another. The hands will be digitally linked, so if a person pushes down on the index finger of one, the corresponding finger on the other will curl under the pressure.
In this way, says Edwards, two strangers anywhere in the world would be able to “touch each other back and forth.” The couple will grasp “a newfound concept of what humanity is.”
No, it’s not about sex—it’s about intimacy. “I’m a global optimist,” Edwards explains. “I think the world is coming together, and I think that’s a good thing.” And because he just happened to have been on the forefront of the digital-interactivity revolution, pumping streaming video from his popular (and now defunct) Web site TheSync.com, he’s got the know-how to accelerate that interconnected society. “I’m interested in exploring ways to enhance interactions between people using technology,” he says.
Edwards’ past experiments with inter-activity are lined up like a dysfunctional parade on the cement floor of his basement, which is where his wife, painter Carla Cole, makes him keep his “mad-scientist stuff.” These darkly funny, anthropomorphic sculptures are equipped with proximity sensors, and they jerk around and talk whenever somebody enters their space. “Usually in new-media work, it’s the viewer who has to go to the projection or the screen and punch some buttons or something,” says Claudia Vess, a 56-year-old artist from Northwest who’s collaborating with Edwards on a video piece. “These pieces really do come to you—initiate a conversation, even.”
There’s Sycophant, a mannequin head on wheels that follows people with ass-kissing compliments. And then there’s Blame, a fake hand that swings on a pivot to point at people and accuse them of crimes against fashion or morality.
These are strange odes to technology, and Edwards says he works under an equally strange artistic philosophy: the Uncanny Valley. The term belongs to Masahiro Mori, a Japanese roboticist, who in 1970 postulated that people will accept robots that look human only to a certain point of verisimilitude. After that, they become confused and repulsed.
“I’d like a lot of my work to be there,” says Edwards. “Almost-human.”
Edwards’ inner artist has slumbered for most of his life, but his inner nerd has been thriving since childhood. That’s hardly surprising for the son of a chemist and a biologist. Edwards, who grew up in Silver Spring, used to watch his mother’s slime molds as they stewed in their petri-dish pens. “They were the closest thing I had to a pet,” he remembers.
The boy eventually moved up to an equally nonanimalistic Commodore Pet and then, in the early ’80s, to an Atari 800, which he used to code games. Some of these were published by Antic magazine; some, such as Crystal Caves—in which the brave captain of a blocky spaceship dodges flying bars of color—are still available online. Later, as an electrical-engineering student at the University of Maryland, College Park, he designed laser-light shows for Washington-area raves. He put such projects on hold during the tech boom of the ’90s, when he joined an Internet service provider. “I went to work at a company called Digex,” he says, “which eventually became eaten up by Intermedia Communications, and then UUNet, MCI—I guess now they’re part of Verizon.”
It was at his own Net company that Edwards unwittingly stumbled into the art world. The Sync featured video from the original 24/7 human-focused webcam, JenniCam, and footage Edwards helped edit for a JenniCam sequel, JenniShow, somehow found its way into an exhibition about fame at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
“It was kind of an eye-opener for me,” Edwards says, “because I didn’t think of some of the technological things I’ve been doing really as art before.”
But seeing your work on a museum wall has a way of changing one’s perspective. Edwards wanted his own JenniCam, so he mounted a camera in a messenger-bag strap and had his wife wear it all day, every day, for a year. The footage went up on the Sync, garnering Cole a following of well-wishers and, because it was on the Internet, a diaper-fetishist stalker.
From there, Edwards’ training as engineer took control. One day, he was sitting in a cabin in West Virginia, hunkered over an amateur robot kit with a friend. The ’bot turned out to be lame—it bumbled across the floor like an infant—so later he jokingly took a doll’s head and placed it on top of the little machine. Robo Baby, with an unsettling appearance that suggests a residence in the Uncanny Valley, pleased him.
“As art,” he says, “it worked fine.”
Because Edwards was now making art, he had to learn what it is—a challenge for a guy who eschews Art in America for Circuit Cellar. He plopped himself in front of his computer and read about Belgian conceptualist Wim Delvoye’s poo-making machine, Cloaca, at Artnet.com. He moved on to Eduardo Kac, the man who bioengineered a fluorescent-green bunny, at EKac.org. Edwards linked to every artist he deemed worthy on his own tech-art Web site, T11s.com. For the benefit of his friends and virtual passers-by, he also detailed advances in his own work, describing how the movable base on one sculpture is actually a rejiggered remote-controlled car body, or posting a video of seven Big Mouth Billy Basses that he altered to cry out in agony: “This is torture!” “It hurts to be dry!” “They’re eating my eggsss!”
School of Fish Pain, as Edwards dubbed that piece, was shown at 2004’s Artomatic alongside Sycophant, which the artist created after studying a friend trawl for dates at parties. The head on wheels scoots along a track and uses infrared sensors to nail bystanders with cheesy lines like “Hey there, you look really hot!” and “Don’t be a drag, baby—it’s time to party!” “I just found it interesting,” Edwards says, “because I’m kind of a shyer person, so that’s not something I would generally do.”
The piece succeeded beyond Edwards’ imagination. “There was a certain age of woman who would come up to this thing and just stand there in front of it with it complimenting them for like 10, 15 minutes,” he says. “I think they would take this home just to give them self-actualization on a daily basis.”
Sycophant also succeeded in shaking other Washington-area tech artists out of the woodwork. “I laughed out loud when I saw his stuff at Artomatic,” says Philip Kohn, a 46-year-old video artist and computer scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health. “He has an enormous sense of play and of fun. We never talk about it, but I think we’re all in it for that.” After the exhibition ended, Kohn, Vess, and software designer Brian Judy organized what is perhaps D.C.’s first tech-art salon—albeit a sparsely populated one. “I’d like to see more people,” complains Judy, 45, “just because it would be nice to have a community. I don’t think a lot of people are aware of [tech art].”
For Edwards, at least, enough people are aware of it to allow him some real shows. School of Fish Pain and Sycophant went up at Bethesda’s Fraser Gallery in 2005 as part of owner Catriona Fraser’s “Artomatic Top 10.” Edwards was back in the gallery in January for “Interface,” a group exhibition of multimedia art that Fraser says was a “direct result” of his work.
That show yielded Edwards’ single sale to date: Blame, the one that hunts people with a menacingly ticking ultrasound sensor and then judges them. “I blame you!” it yells, pointing a plaster cast of the artist’s own paw. Then it delivers one of 50 accusations, from responsibility for low-rise jeans to participation in a corporate-accounting scandal.
The piece went for $2,000 to a private collector, who must have agreed with Fraser that “it’s funny when a fat guy gets blamed for low-rise jeans.”
To satisfy his tech-head following, Edwards wrote up Blame’s construction process for Make magazine’s blog. Naturally, he also maintains his own blog, on which he revealed:
The EDTP Easy Ethernet AVR board has an ATmega16 AVR risc microcontroller with 8 channels of 10-bit A/D. It looks like you only get access to port A (8 pins) and port C (8 pins). Port A is the A/D port, but the Easy Ethernet AVR says there is a 4HCT573 Octal Transparent Latch on port A. I’ll have to ask them if they can do analog input on Port A, or else is it a non-starter.
Posts like that make Edwards’ bionic hands seem like a real possibility. “This was just something that came to me through thinking about what kind of telematic art one could do,” he says in what passes for layman’s language among tech artists. Telematics—the science of data transmission over telecommunications networks—has a distinct, if not well-known, place in art history. “Even going back to the 1950s, there was artwork involving telephones,” Edwards says. “In the ’60s and ’70s, [there was] artwork involving low-scan television with satellite connections. Then later, terrestrial connections.”
“A number of artists have explored the idea that even though you’re remote and at a distance, there’s a certain intimacy,” says Randall Packer, assistant professor of multimedia at American University. Packer cites Paul Sermon: In the early ’90s, the conceptualist linked two remote sofas via ISDN. Through some digital manipulation, people on one sofa were able to see themselves on a TV screen sitting with people on the other sofa. Edwards’ hands project explores similar themes, Packer says: “You’re in a shared electronic space.”
The finished mitts will no doubt provoke the same is-it-or-isn’t-it-art Internet discussions that marked Blame’s debut. “I raise my left hand and extend my middle finger in salute to this ‘art,’” somebody posted on Digg.com. “It’s a big friggin rotating hand with an ultrasonic proximity sensor that points at people,” countered a second poster. “Have YOU ever seen a big friggin rotating hand with ultrasonic proximity sensor that points at people before?”
Edwards says he tries to aim his artwork at people like that second guy. “I think that was the kind of person, maybe they’re not moved by going to a gallery and seeing paintings, because they’re a tech person and maybe they’ve got some blinders on them,” he says. “But this—this means something to them.” CP