At these Montreal festivals, it's the robots' art world — we're just living in it

How machines perceive and create art is one of the questions raised at two festivals at expansive Montreal gallery Arsenal Contemporary Art. The 17th International Digital Arts Festival, Elektra (http://bianmontreal.ca/elektra) presents machines in performance mode, June 1-5, while a concomitant show, the International Digital Art Biennial (BIAN) (http://bianmontreal.ca/en/bian) offers some 30 digitally created exhibits, June 3-July 3.

Sibling festivals Elektra and BIAN showcase digital art by machines, and for them

Louis-Philippe Demers and Bill Vorn's Inferno, where spectators wear exoskeletons on their upper body, controlled by computers making them dance involuntarily. (Photo: Gregory Bohnenblust)

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but what if the beholder is a machine?

How machines perceive and create art is one of the questions raised at two festivals beginning this week at expansive Montreal gallery Arsenal Contemporary Art. The 17th International Digital Arts Festival, Elektra presents machines in performance mode, while a concomitant show, the International Digital Art Biennial (BIAN) offers some 30 digitally created exhibits.

 "In 'dreaming,'  the machine tries to predict itself."- Ben Bogart, artist

"BIAN's theme this year is 'Art made by machines, for machines,'" said Elektra-BIAN founder, Alain Thibault, an electronic music artist. "The visual arts world is going through a transition to a generation of artists that isn't afraid of using digital means to make art. The shock of digital art is fading."

Fading, perhaps, but Elektra and BIAN still have surprises.

Watching and Dreaming (2001: A Space Odyssey), 2014. Installation overview. (Ben Bogart)

In Watching and Dreaming (2001: A Space Odyssey), Ben Bogart, a Vancouver computational artist, has designed a machine that observes Stanley Kubrick's classic 1968 movie about astronauts confronting an out-of-control computer. On a screen, spectators see successive still frames from the movie, while on an adjoining screen, they see how the machine perceives the same frame.

Using complex software algorithms, the machine not only sees the frame image, but starts to restructure it in a way analogous to how people choose to focus on different parts of the same picture.
Watching and Dreaming (2001: A Space Odyssey), 2014. Detail of frame #7714. (Ben Bogart)

"There are some moments of synchronicity when both images are the same.  But some subtle movements (in the frame image) lead the machine's mind to wander," said Bogart. "The machine breaks every frame into separate pieces, where each piece has uniform colour features, which it tries to group by their similarity. These become a form of syntax with which images can be made. Finally, in 'dreaming,'  the machine tries to predict itself. It asks, 'This is what I'm seeing — what can I expect to happen next?' "

Over the course of the two-hour presentation, the machine creates its own movie. Observing the computer-generated images for a while can induce something like a trance, said Bogart.

"It's difficult to focus on individual features. You just let the images wash over you."

A trance of a different kind overwhelms participants in Bill Vorn's Inferno, one of Elektra's main attractions. Just before each hour-long show, about 20 volunteer spectators don 12-kilogram aluminum exoskeletons over their upper bodies. A long, flexible pneumatic tube pumps compressed air into the suit. When the techno music starts, participants are able to move their legs freely, but the suits control their arm movements.

Louis-Philippe Demers and Bill Vorn's Inferno. (Photo: Gregory Bohnenblust)

"Previously, people would look at what a robot was doing. Now that the robot is installed on the viewer's body, the viewer becomes the machine. It creates a totally different dynamic," said Vorn, a Montreal media artist who created Inferno with his long-time collaborator in robotic, interactive installations, Louis-Philippe Demers.

Sometimes the techno music has a strict rhythm, sometimes the rhythm is syncopated. At the computer controls, Vorn can make the group perform the same gestures or program gestures individually.

"It's interesting for the participants to be dancing while at the same time being controlled."

Vorn expected his Inferno, like Dante's, to be an uncomfortable experience.

"It didn't turn out to be so hellish. People seem to enjoy being part of the show. Most say that they went into a sort of trance being controlled by something outside, which becomes something inside."

Thibault insists that BIAN and Elektra exhibiters are artists, not simply techno-wizards.

"We distinguish digital creativity from digital creation. Digital creativity makes entertainment. Digital creation uses digital means as seriously as any contemporary artist, and questions those means. It questions our very relation to digital activity."

Elektra: 17th International Digital Art Festival. Wed, June 1-Sun, June 5. Montreal, various venues.

Automata: 3rd Edition of the International Digital Art Biennial (BIAN). Fri, June 3-Wed, July 6. Arsenal Contemporary Art, 2020 rue William, Montreal. (514) 931-9978.

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