Artists focus on the future

By Nick Atkinson

Animated artistry narrows gap between art and science, writes Nick Atkinson.
Comfortable and Alive by Elena Knox.
Comfortable and Alive by Elena Knox.

Deborah Lawler-Dormer's colleagues describe her as a very real and considerate person, yet this artist has a keen eye trained on the future as she explores our relationship with technology.

Her latest work, Leah, is sure to haunt, amuse and disturb those who attend ALTER: Between Human and Non-Human, a group show curated by Lawler-Dormer. Leah is an elaborate computer-generated avatar of the artist.

"Having it exhibited publicly for the first time will be quite confrontational," says Lawler-Dormer. "I'm a kind of ageing, old female and I've got plenty of wrinkles in my skin and it's very unusual to see these features in computer animation."

Lawler-Dormer has worked closely with Oscar-winning animator Mark Sagar, formerly the Special Projects Supervisor at Weta Digital and now head of the Laboratory for Animate Technologies at the University of Auckland's Bioengineering Institute.

Sagar has been recognised worldwide for his work creating life-like digital faces for films like Avatar and King Kong.

"Leah's deliberately not done as a glamour model," says Sagar. "We're trying to make something that has a feeling of being real with lots of detail, it's not really hiding anything. We're not trying to fabricate or force any stereotypes on people. We've basically made a digital replica of Deborah.

"We've made it sense, so it can actually see and hear you. It's literally like a living portrait. Deborah's trying to explore what happens when technology and biology start becoming more intertwined in the future."

The animate technologies team works tirelessly on intricate facial features.

"The eye is one thing on the face that you look at the most," Sagar says. "It's giving away so much, the slightest changes in the contours of the eyelid are strong emotional cues. The pupil is telling you about arousal; where the eye is looking tells you where a person's attention is focused.

"It's sometimes called the visible part of the brain and the eye has an incredible, gem-like structure with extremely beautiful patterns. If you don't have all of that detail it won't look real. My artists put an extraordinary amount of detail into an eye."

Leah is only one of the extraordinary works that make up the futuristic ALTER roll call. Sydney-based artist Dr Elena Knox has two pieces in the show that form part of a dialogue about our paths going hand-in-hand with technology.

Canny by Elizabeth Knox.
Canny by Elizabeth Knox.

"The imagination can fly so fast. This work is important because we're trying to collaborate with scientists. Science can be necessarily quite binary, whereas artists are slippery and tricky and they think very laterally.

"From my recent work what I'm trying to bring is an awareness of identity politics," says Knox, who shares the concerns of many of the participating artists that the future of robotics may perpetuate many of our current prejudices.

"One of the works in the show is a critique of the gender stereotypes of a sex object. The work is called Canny, a play on the idea of the uncanny, neutered character of a robot," says Knox, who has been researching with the co-operation of robotics labs in Japan.

"It's a tricky area. It's led by finance in a way. I'm not so confident in arts ability to triumph. It's actually sex doll manufacturers that have developed the skin that they're using.

"There are a lot of problematic ethical areas that will eventuate when robots are used for prostitution, but art can guide us not to replicate the same mistakes. That's very important in the drive to develop military robots."

Knox has another work in the show, Comfortable and Alive, where a multilingual avatar can hypnotise you into a state of feeling "comfortable and alive" via one of six different languages.

While Lawler-Dormer and Knox's work is virtual, ALTER also features someone exploring physical modifications to his own body. Perth-based performance artist Stelarc has recently had a third ear surgically implanted on his arm that will soon be able to beam audio to the internet. It's part of the artist's mantra that in time we'll all be "meat, metal and code."

A professor at Curtin University, Stelarc exhibits his work Prosthetic Head.

"It's a 3D computational model that was built in 2002, but it's still sophisticated in the way it's holding conversation," says Stelarc who is giving a talk today.

"I'll be presenting my performances, my projects with images and videos and I'll also demonstrate the ear on my arm. I'm presently surgically constructing and stem cell growing the ear. I'm particularly interested in how technology extends and enables the body to perform."

Exhibition

What: ALTER: Between Human and Non-Human
Where and when: Gus Fisher Gallery until May 21; programme includes weekly talks and performances each Saturday, beginning with Stelarc today, Kenneth Myers Centre, 1pm.

- Weekend magazine

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