October 28, 2008

My Life Between Man and Machine

The Animatronic Andy Warhol...
To me, the ideal symbolic merging of creative imagination and technological processes.
It has just occurred to me: I've spent a great deal of my life caught between man and machine.

My father was an electronics technician for many years. My mother was a performer, an artist. Each of them and their tendencies and backgrounds have influenced me. Although it sounds like a sexist stereotype, my father was usually the calm, rational one - the authority, the controller of my family. My mother suffered from depression - possibly bipolar disorder- alcohol addiction. She could have small bursts of creativity, and be spontaneous, energetic and fun. Dad was the responsible one who kept things running as they needed to. I'm sure that this is where my man-machine dichotomy was formed.

Growing up, I always wanted to know how things worked, and so I would would take things apart to see, only to be unable to put them back together again, and get chastised for "breaking my toys".

All my life, I also loved creativity and imagination. I loved to draw, to colour, and to read picture books or newspaper strips, and to have someone's images and words transport me to another world where my imagination could run free.

Early Ideas of Man and Machine

Since I was old enough to recall, images of human-shaped robots have been a source of fascination to me. When I was four or five, my Dad bought me a fascinating metal walking robot toy. It required four D cells and weighed a ton. Most amazing of all, it walked upright, shuffling forward by sliding its feet one at a time, kind of like a hospital patient in thin slippers. After a few steps, it would stop and doors on its chest would swing open, revealing little guns that would blaze ("rat-a-tat-a-tat!"). After strafing the living room in a 360 degree pivot, it would close its chest and begin striding forward again.

As a kid, I was fascinated by the excellent mechanics of it, and the light-up excitement and cool sound effects. My Dad said he bought it for me at the Rosetown Fair. (Looking back, I figure that it must have been some kind of import from Japan or somewhere. They always make the coolest robot-shaped toys.)

Pre-teen Robot Boy

As a pre-teen, I became a huge fan of the TV show "Six Million Dollar Man". Many of the plots were dumb or a bit predictable, but I was really watching the show to see the electronic stuff that was implanted inside Steve Austin. I wanted to see them roll up his fake skin on that bionic arm and show me the wires and circuits inside. He was a man, but also a machine - a CYBORG ("CYBernetic ORGanism"). I didn't know what Cybernetics was, but I knew that he was a step beyond a human-shaped machine - he was a blend of man and machine under the skin.

The late 1970s and early 1980s were a great time to be a science fiction fan. Many science fiction TV shows and movies (most of all "Star Wars") featured at least one android or robot, and usually in a humanistic shape.

My Mom, as a Cybernetic System

In 1981, my mother was admitted for long-term care to the Riverview Psychiatric Hospital. She had suffered permanent brain damage as a result of kidney failure after extreme alcohol abuse. I understood that she had almost died, and that her brain had been irreparably altered. Her memory was altered - memories from most of the past five years were apparently wiped out - and her personality was also different. She seemed a bit more simplistic and direct in her wants and how she expressed them.

By 1984, I had begun to see her as "a broken system" - a burned-out circuit. It was painful and difficult to picture her as a person first and foremost. I loved her in a child's longing, loyal way, but she had never connected with me very well, and I could never recall her speaking more than a few words to me at a time over the years. We never had a discussion in any way. So, in a way, she was probably not humanized enough in my heart and mind, and this remote objectivity and de-personification of her probably served as a convenient screen for me to hide behind. It was probably easier to think of my mother as a broken system than a hurt, scared and lonely woman whom I knew had trouble remembering me and whom I was supposed to love.

The Image of Animatronic Andy

Around 1984 or 1985, American pop artist Andy Warhol was recreated as an animatronic puppet in order to portray him in a "no man show". The image of the robot's pale eyeless rubber face mask layered over the bare steel skeleton stuck with me. It reminded me of my mother's pale, scarred skin, her pure white, short-cropped hair, and her impassable, sometimes blank facial expression. Sometimes, I couldn't read her at all. Occasionally, a prolonged, direct eye contact would be my reward for persevering through a visit with her. It was rare to know if she recognized me at all.

I began to draw images of her face with empty, black holes where living eyes should have been. It has been a recurring image in my head - my internal image of her.

Art School Cyberneticist

In 1985, during my Foundation (first) year of studies at the Emily Carr College of Art, I learned how to use graphics software to create images, and I became a fan of the pixels that made up the images on the computer screen, and a fan of the electronics (or the ideas behind them) that painted the pixels in the first place. I started teaching myself a little programming, and then studying how computers and electronics had been used to create art and interactive, shared experiences.

As I continued to take more of an interest in computers, electronics and artificial intelligence (or "artificial rationale", as my instructor Gary Lee Nova called it, insightfully), I appreciated more about how far A.I. still had to progress, and also how over time, as A.I., robotics, and other technologies progress and converge, we will get closer to building a useful human-shaped helper. This is a big reason why Honda and other major manufacturers have spent so much time and effort developing Aibo and other anthropomorphic, walking robots: they are developing the synthetic Butler's and nursemaids of the future, for an age of Japanese baby boomers.

Throughout my senior years in art school, I studied cybernetics (essentially, the study of systems), and with the help of my classmates and instructors, I developed ways to connect myself even closer to computer graphics by mounting joystick parts on my hands and arms and wiring them into the game ports on Atari 800 and Amiga computers. I wanted to get closer than a keyboard and a mouse, and connect in a more direct way.

And Today...? What Will These Robots Think of Us?

One piece of art that expresses the issues in the "evolving" (hee hee!) of a synthetic race, is "AI - Artificial Intelligence", developed by Stanley Kubrick and directed by Steven Spielberg.

I still think it might be really cool to have a bionic hand, and even cooler to make friends with a robot. Maybe one that's just as interested in me as I am in it. Then, perhaps the "man-machine interface" would be the relationship itself.

October 13, 2008

About Plucking Old Strings

As I slowly evolve my second novel, a question that has come up in my mind:

For how long can you mine old emotional veins - pluck old strings - in the service of creating compelling stories?

This question stumps and almost staggers me. When will I run out of gas, and have nothing interesting left to say? Without that, I'm dead as an artist.

I can't see the future, and by myself, I can't answer this question, but the prospect is scary as hell.

Ironically, why would I worry about this when I still haven't even begun the career as a writer? The first story is yet to be published, and I have little idea how good or bad it is as a work. Maybe it's premature to even worry about this... Maybe. All the same, I've got to go there.

What Strings Can I Pluck?

There are a number of themes I can harvest for telling stories of fiction:
  • A life's potential lost because of manic-depression and alcoholism. What is a person worth? What are they obligated to accomplish?
  • A father's/leader's loss of control - loss of power and leadership - because of bad choices, age, depression and chronic guilt. Can he redeem himself and his integrity?
  • A young girl's sense of betrayal because of physical abuse; the horror of the loss of family security. Can she find security and strength?
  • A child torn between loyalty towards one parent or the other, and fear and insecurity towards each of them. Is the child trapped?
  • The joy of finding surrogate parents in friends and relatives...
  • What do you do when your hero becomes a villain right before your eyes? How can you love someone close to you and hate them at the same time?
  • Why do people carry childish jealousy, envy and pain within them throughout their life? How does it affect the people around them?
...okay, so there is some meat on those bones, I admit, as long as I do a good job of it. But still... there's some insecurity.

However, a recent biography gives me some hope for my creative process in the long-term.

The Life of Cartoonist Charles Schulz

Schulz is the creator of "Peanuts", Snoopy and "good ol' Charlie Brown". He's probably the most famous cartoonist of the post-war era. In the book "Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography", author David Michaelis illustrates how a man can mine insecurities, painful losses, and personal defeats, and weave them into character traits, phrases and attitudes that can fuel a small world that people in countries all over theworld have visited for over50 years.

Schulz' Peanuts characters looked like children, living in a world of invisible (or at least off-screen) adults, and yet as a kid, I knew that his kids were telling truths in a sophisticated, grown up kind of way. I didn't understand all of it, but looking back, I think there was angst, cruelty, power issues, depression, love, fate, philosophical pondering, and flights of fantasy, all played out with subtlety and intelligence. There was depth and heartfelt emotion.

I think that Charles Schulz built a world for himself in which he could say the things that he needed to say, to express his truths, through the personas of the little people he created. The fact that he was still expressing these feelings dozens of years after the fact, tells me that he had resonant, meaningful things, unresolved meaningful things, to say. That they resonated with such a large audience for so many years tells me that he was very talented and committed to his art.

There are a lot of crappy, shallow daily comic strips being published today - the three panel equivalent of cheap, rim shot jokes. Schulz and other significant artists, were able to get beyond that, and extend what is a very limiting medium into something better.

I think that if Schulz' material hadn't come from a powerful reservoir of personal experience, it wouldn't have been so good for so long. This gives me some hope for my own efforts.