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Elusive Variables of Machine Art - Liat Segal in an Interview

December 1, 2016
Eli Anapur is a pseudonym of Biljana Puric. A staff writer and editor at Widewalls, Biljana holds Master’s Degrees in Film Aesthetics from the University of Oxford, and Gender Studies from the Central European University. She has published academic articles as well as art and film reviews and criticism in New Eastern Europe, ARTMargins, the Journal of Curatorial Studies, and Short Film Studies; she has also contributed illustrations for Argus Magazine.

Combining technology and art has been a part of artistic experiment for many decades now. Artists often use new technological advances in their works, or simply experiment with forms taken from mechanical world, but not so many dare to base their practice in artistic creation where novel machines are constructed into art forms. Liat Segal belongs to the latter group. This young artist from Israel impresses with her knowledge of technology, but even more so amazes with her art.

Starting out in the fields of computer science and biology, Liat Segal soon ventured in art with her complex pieces where machine and technology are fused with conceptual investigations of the effects of information on, in her own words, “our self identities, personal communication, choices and intimacy.”Exploring information network and contemporary interactions between individuals, Segal creates artworks that provoke deeper reflections on our contemporary predicament. An important element of her work is a machine, divested of its utilitarian purpose of a narrow, industrial sense, and is instead a generator of emotional engagement with the world. Machine’s purpose is not just the production of images or messages, but sometimes it comes out as the sculptural element of her work, as in Stone Machine. Art and technology in Segal’s art are united in explorations of issues such as privacy, alienation, identity, over-exposure, intimacy, and originality.

Liat Segal’s works has been exhibited in Israel and abroad, and two exhibitions mark the end of the year for the artist. The first one is held in Berlin, and is Segal’s solo show titled This is Not a Typewriter, refereeing to an error code used by early days Unix operating systems, while the other is the group exhibition in Bonn where she displays her People You May Know installation. For the interview with Widewalls we asked Liat Segal to elaborate more on her forthcoming shows, to explain her creative process, reflect on her academic and artistic development, and to describe some of the conceptual issues she addresses with her art.

Liat Segal - This Is Not A Type Writer. Image courtesy of the artist.
Liat Segal – This Is Not A Type Writer. Image courtesy of the artist.

Mechanized Calligraphy at Berlin Exhibition

Widewalls: We can start with your solo exhibition in Berlin – This is Not a Typewriter – as it seems to offer all the elements your art is known for – a machine, information overflow, and interaction with the observer. Can you elaborate on each of these elements and their significance in your work?

Liat Segal: Technology is my medium – I use electronics, mechanics, software, chemistry and information as my materials. I create with technologies, whether traditional and commonly used or state-of-the-art. I use them out of their original contexts and give them new purposes. My creation domains are both digital and analogphysical and many times the works take form of machines.

I am intrigued by the ways we consume and analyze information and the effects information stream has on our self identities, personal communication, memory, choices and intimacy. The daily exposure people nowadays have to vast amounts of input and the focus span we can give to ephemeral details in this stream. I explore social and psychological changes that occur with the inflation of online private data, data that is continually supplied and collected by and on us. My works are not necessarily interactive. An interactive object depends on and changes according to its immediate environment, that is, the engaged audience. I feel that I need very good reasons for choosing to use interaction, as many times this takes the attention and does not serve the work. Instead I choose to make active works, acting on the observers, or even manipulating the observer.

Widewalls: Can you tell us more about the This is Not a Typewriter concept and the exhibited art?

LS: The coming solo exhibition This Is Not a Typewriter questions observation capacity at times of information overflow. The exhibition has two installations – two machines that use texts through complementary human perception systems.

At the centre of the exhibition stands the installation Not A Typewriter. During the exhibition a large painting machine paints encrypted codes with ink on paper from digital texts. The mechanical calligraphic brushstrokes draw the textual information in a two-dimensional visual encryption. The encoded images are unreadable, but contain all the textual information summed into permanent images that are then hanged for display.

A second machine, Typewriter 2.0, shows temporary glimpses of texts that appear and disappear in front of the observers’ eyes. The machine prints the texts using a material that reacts to UV exposure by changing its colour. This machine invoked change is temporary and the texts fade in less than a minute, allowing new texts to come. While this machine shows the text in a readable manner, one must have the patience to observe it along time in order to actually read and absorb it.

The title of the exhibition is drawn from the technical term “Not a typewriter” – an error code used by early days Unix operating systems to indicate an invalid inputoutput. Unlike the algorithm, a human observer is likely to seek patterns and meanings within an “invalid input”, a representation or, in this case, a visual code. On the other hand, when skimming massive amounts of data and representations, how much of these inputs pass one’s attention filter to begin with?

Widewalls: It seems that you question the relationship between aesthetics and data here. What is the link between the two – is information today sometimes lost to its aesthetics?

LS: I think that the feeling of aesthetics is an evolutionary side effect of meaningful data representations. We are evolutionarily programed to find patterns. This is so strong that many times we overshoot and find patterns even if they are not significant. Such patterns can also trigger emotions, such as pleasure and even love, or for example, fear and discomfort at the sight of great ‘unhuman’ order. I often look for the places where information in the digital age, and living in this technological era in general, affect our feelings of connection, communication and intimacy. My observation is that information, also through aesthetics, trigger such feelings. The other side of that is that we are easily manipulated through information too, as we witness lately when fake news is becoming more and more prominent. I wonder if at some level, as long as a fake post looks and feels ‘real’ or matches one’s data aesthetics patterns, it might as well be an integral part of the data entertainment one consumes, aka social networks feeds.

Liat Segal - People You May Know, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist.
Liat Segal – People You May Know, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist.

Unifying Identities – People You May Know at the Exhibition in Bonn

Widewalls: This month you will also participate at A Brief History of Humankind exhibition in Bonn with People You May Know installation. Can you tell us more about this artwork?

LS: People You May Know is a sound installation consists of 46 audio speakers hanging in the gallery space, playing monologues taken from personal Facebook profiles of my friends. The voice moves in space in a way which is determined by an algorithm generating the movement course in real time, creating a feeling of a speaker walking in the gallery. In order to listen to the texts, the visitor has to walk along with it.

The texts are read by a text-to-speech software, employing the female human-mechanical voice of ‘Sharon Premium’. This creates a dissonance as the texts are personal and revealing. By selecting and combining this collection of identities I tried to create a new unified identity. A non-existent fake character that can still makes us feel compassion and is, in fact, the evolution of numerous ‘true’ digital personalities.

Widewalls: What was the reaction of your friends when you told them that you will use their Facebook posts in this piece?

LS: I took the texts from my Facebook friends, people with whom I share various levels of personal connection. The unanimous reaction was positive. As part of this vast flow that the work is dealing with, people really do want to be heard and to be meaningful. Like in the physical life, when our signal exceeds the noise and breaches the filter of one’s genuine attention we feel less lonely.

Liat Segal – Attending Machine

A Complex Fusion of Art and Technology

Widewalls: Let us now talk about your career and art in more general terms. Can you tell us about your beginnings at Tel Aviv University? Your work is focused on fusion of art and technology. When your interest in bringing these two disciplines together started, and what were the first experiments and artworks you did?

LS: Since childhood I’ve had these two sides, the arts and the techscience, but until a few years ago these were parallel trajectories. When I needed to choose what to focus on during my studies, I chose computer science and biology and focused on data science and Machine Learning. Today I am still very much influenced by academic background. I guess it is especially visible when thinking of my interest with information, as at my masters’ thesis I applied methods of artificial intelligence and computational natural language processing on sequences of DNA, searching for meaningful patterns…

Yet, only about six years ago, while working in the hi-tech industry, I started playing with electronics and made projects that got more complex with time. At this point I very quickly understood that I found my medium as an artist.

The first work I made that was exhibited in an ‘official’ art event at 2010, was done in collaboration with two talented people: musician Assaf Talmudi, and the computational neuroscientist and physical hacker Jonathan Rubin. We built a cluster of eighteen robotic drums and created a real-time control tool for composing beats for 36 channels of live robotic percussion. This was one of the first events that encouraged me to feel that I was perusing something significant.

Widewalls: How difficult it is to bring those disciplines together?

LS: Technologies are my media and materials. It’s important to remember in this sense that paint tubes and brushes were once new technologies too. New technologies require adjustments but also open new lines of sight and potential action spaces. The act of personally building the machines and activating them is significant to me. I feel that the technical choices I make affect the final artwork just as much as the touch of a painter affects a painting.

Widewalls: Devising a machine for each of your works, which does not have a utilitarian purpose in the usual sense of the term, probably requires a significant amount of time. Can you walk us through your creative process? For example, can you give us a step-by-step explanation of how Stone Machine came to be?

LS: Making art with technological materials demand planning. Yet, throughout the work, in oppose to a technological product development, such planning many times change, especially since the elusive variable I eventually try to maximize involves emotions.

Stone Machine is an extreme example for such process. The work is literally a Sisyphean machine that repeatedly separates a pile of pebbles by their colors, from darkest to lightest. The machine makes a persistent effort to control and structure the un-structured. This effort may be considered pointless and it goes against the forces of nature. Despite the enduring attempt, as time goes by the stones diffuse and the order is broken. The machine mechanically controls the movement of individual stones, separating them from the large and heavy pile, moving them along conveyors and through a sensor that detects their colors. This process is not trivial technically due to the variation in the stones’ sizes, shapes and textures.

While working on this machine I understood that, in contrast to many of my previous works, I saw this one as a more sculptured object, making the final result looking completely different from my original sketch. Weirdly enough, the stone machine is one of my most personal works. While building it I encountered a continuous series of technical challenges and changes of plans and many times struggled with the contemporary Sisyphean emotions this process arose in me. Stones got stuck, motors burned and parts broke. This work made me face my personal attempts to control the uncontrollable and to reverse the nature of time.

Liat Segal - Stone Machine. Image courtesy of the author.
Liat Segal – Stone Machine. Image courtesy of the author.

Art Machines as Reflections of States of Mind

Widewalls: Confession Machine is another of your fascinating art pieces. It seems that today confession lost some of its meaning as it is easily declared on social media. How do you select what will go into your work from social media?

LS: Confession Machine prints online texts that fade away as time passes. The machine prints on a surface painted with a UV sensitive pigment. While passing over the surface, it turns on and off 16 UV LEDs in a carefully timed sequence, temporarily creating dots and dashes on the surface. Those are added into letters, words and sentences. Once a confession is printed, the machine turns and prints a new one on it fading memory.

The confessions were hand-picked from social networks. The general guidance was that all texts were personal, written in first form, were revealing, and most likely took some emotional effort to express. The contents and seriousness of the confessions were opened and varied from deep to shallow. This collection of intimate and revealing texts observed the lightness of confessions via online channels today on one side, and the human wish to be heard on the other.

Widewalls: Constant appearing of new data before the old one is processed and overflow of information seem to be recurring motifs in your practice, from Confession Machine, Attending Machine to People You May Know, to mention a few. Can you tell us more about the theoretical and conceptual interest behind the use of such motifs?

LS: The passing time is one of humans’ biggest existential fears. Yet we are becoming a society with very little present. Looking at our digital present, this takes a further extremity. Our digital present is composed of a past that is logged and saved on databases (or otherwise forgotten). Inputs are contributed by our digital friends and other information suppliers and curated by algorithms that choose what we get exposed to. This is spiced with a growing amount of FOMO (fear-of-missing-out) regarding future events or events that happen now, just without us. We are so flooded with streams of information, that we many times cannot even see the one ephemeral detail that is just in front of us. We wish to be heard, but we cannot really give attention to the vast amount of voices heard in the background.

Widewalls: Would you agree that machines in your work instead of having an alienating character, invite viewers to reflect more deeply on their contemporary condition? Machines in a way create a more intimate relation between the observers and their inner selves?

LS: I sure hope so. As a creator I am not an outsider to the processes I deal with. While I wish to look at situations critically, I’m usually part of those exact same processes. At the end of the day the machines I make are reflections of my own states of mind.

Liat Segal - Confession Machine. Image via sweet-tech-studio.com
Liat Segal – Confession Machine. Image via sweet-tech-studio.com

Future Plans and Projects

Widewalls: Finally, can you tell us something about  your plans for the 2017? Could you share with us some projects you are currently working on?

LS: I am currently working on two ongoing projects, which will be exhibited during spring-summer 2017 in Israel, dealing with time, chance and the concept of serendipity. Serendipity is a fortunate discovery that is made unintentionally, without searching an answer to a specific question, rather than by being perceptive to the occurrence and development of events. This, of course, is well connected to the ability to observe and be present, which engages me a lot.

I have recently started studying for a second master’s degree in the field of Complex Systems. These studies are well connected to my educational background and focus on complex systems in a theoretical manner. Today, I come to such studies from my current perspective and motivations and digest these new-old inputs through my current works. I am curious to see how this will affect my future works.

Liat Segal -This Is Not A Type Writer. Image courtesy of the artist
Liat Segal -This Is Not A Type Writer. Image courtesy of the artist.
Liat Segal -This Is Not A Type Writer. Image courtesy of the artist
Liat Segal -This Is Not A Type Writer. Image courtesy of the artist.
Liat Segal - Writing Machine, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist. (2)
Liat Segal – Writing Machine, detail, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist. 
Liat Segal - Writing Machine, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist.
Liat Segal – Writing Machine, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist.
Liat Segal -Placeholder, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist.
Liat Segal -Placeholder, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist.

Featured images: Liat Segal – Attending Machine. Image via Widewalls archive;Liat Segal. image courtesy of the author; Liat Segal – Stone Machine. Image via sweet-tech-studio.com;All images used for illustrative purposes only.