Discovering CyberAntarctic: A Conversation with Knowbotics Research

The world presents itself to us, effectively.
- J. Baudrillard

Which worlds?
- Knowbotics Research

Knowbotic Research (KR+cF) develops hybrid models of knowledge generation. These models are complex dynamic fields which produce an exchange between virtual agents, poetic machines and interactive visitors. They enable an observer to participate in the physical exploration and construction of networked rules and strategies of the new public spheres. KR+cF outlines technoid events parallel in real and virtual spaces to investigate the experience of the multiple layers of reality. These extensions of the cultural environment provoke new cultural and aesthetic parameters in order to prevent an ideological closed circuit in an information based society. KR+cF - Yvonne Wilhelm, Alexander Tuchacek, Christian Huebler - is based in Koln, at the Academy for Media Arts. In partnership with Westbank Industries and Tactile Technology, KR+cF has founded Mem_brane, a laboratory for media strategies. KR+cF has won several major international Media Art Awards, including: Prix Ars Electronica 93, Golden Nica for Interactive Art; German Media Art Award, and ZKM Karlsruhe 95.

CTHEORY: Last November in Hamburg during "Interface3" you finally installed your new work, "Dialogue with the Knowbotic South." What is the topic of your discourse?

Christian Huebler: Our approach is to focus on the scientific world in reference to the South Pole and to study the codes used by scientists of the Antarctic who make computer simulations. We intend to offer a model for a discourse between different fields of the communications world. From an artistic point of view, our project formalizes the problem of a missing language.

CTHEORY: A dialogue beginning from the state of a missing language... Is this the starting point for your new artistic activity or a hypothetical limit?

Christian Huebler: One has to discard one's own old language. How shall we discuss what we are doing? We don't debate with journalists and critics only but also exchange ideas with the scientists. It really becomes a problem if we don't have a language.

Yvonne Wilhelm: It's a development of our own history as artists, as aesthetic beings; you have to log in into your own history...

CTHEORY: How do you formulate the discourse about nature between the different artistic and scientific dimensions?

Christian Huebler: We work with hypotheses since natural scientists are dealing with hypothetical issues, as they have throughout the century. When they simulate nature on their computers they project systems into the future, pushing forward the meaning of time. For the first time, scientists not only prove the laws of nature, they also formulate conditions of possible systems. In our project we treat an actual state of nature corresponding to our information culture: the scientific definition of nature through communication systems and powerful computers. This way of working changes the meaning of nature itself because nature has always been culturally defined.

Yvonne Wilhelm: Reality is culturally defined too. We investigate nature but at the same time question reality.

CTHEORY: A concept that changes with time. Do you want to point out an idea of reality more fitting to our contemporary times?

Christian Huebler: Our bigger concern is the topic of ~Wirklichkeitskonzept~. With the term "virtual reality" you can define a dimension that belongs to the computer. This is just play, but I think we play in accordance with rules of games dealing with phenomena which really have an effect on our personal life. The question is no longer what nature is, rather, what kind of nature do we want. We are embodied in the process of how nature merges, with the ability to go into the system and to change and manipulate it. We have to include in our research the term "real" (~das Reale~), what comes out from the reality conception. We don't know if we really can discuss about ~Das Reale~. It is a very delicate thing; in our work dealing with nature we must also deal with the economy and politics.

CTHEORY: We can say that Knowbotic Research is searching for an artistic definition of nature, a possible reality, in the Information Age through models and data that come directly from the world of scientific research. How would you describe your intellectual experience with the scientists? Did you find that your ideas corresponded with theirs?

Christian Huebler: Most of the scientists still think in accordance with the mechanistic world view - for instance their theory of chaos is deterministic. They want just to prove their laws confirming the construction of science. If is there anything they cannot put in the body of science they think the question is wrong. They don't think their work methods are wrong. Here's an example: if they have a simulation model running on a computer and get actual data from a satellite that do not fit into the simulation, they conclude that the satellite has committed an error. Few people would argue that perhaps the simulation is wrong. We believe scientists should venture forward even at the risk of leaving the academic domain of science behind.

CTHEORY: Don't you think too many scientists are affected by heavy political/economic demands?

Christian Huebler: Last summer in Hamburg when we joined some scientists at the German polar research institute of Bremerhaven (AWI), we realized how powerful the connections between science and politics and economics are. Many scientists do visual simulation only to legitimize their work to the politicians and secure funding for more projects, not because they want to find something new with the visual simulation language. Most of the scientists saw visualization in this context, and this is disappointing. As I explained earlier we started our project with natural scientists because we thought they deal with hypothetical questions involving all the new concepts of science like the theory of the inner observer, complex dynamics and self organization. We were mostly interested in the research of dynamic processes. We wanted to find out how they determined the way in which the results of this research changes their knowledge of Antarctica.

CTHEORY: There is a kind of synthesis of scientific knowledge applied to a special environment in an interactive form where one can observe the work of scientists giving an interpretation and a simulation of natural processes. At the same time some scientists are developing new ways of representating the scientific methodology too. Do you want to provide the scientists with a free platform where they can exchange and debate their research?

Christian Huebler: We want to create a field of discourse freed from the rules of the specialists' disciplines. It is a field not only for natural scientists but also for scholars and philosophers who are discussing current ideas of reality. We start from the scientific material because Knowbotic Research is interested in hybrid knowledge, in the integration of facts in fiction.

CTHEORY: The cybernetics of Norbert Wiener, was the first attempt to initiate a new sense of science arising out of the epistemological meeting of research from different disciplines in order to break the borders of isolation. We are living again in a time where everything is always more and more specialized, and everybody follows his method like a dogma that can hardly be discussed. Do you consider cybernetics a good background for your ideas?

Yvonne Wilhelm: Our world view is based on what we see in the future, a worldwide data space induced by the communication technologies, filled with tons of information coming from all different disciplines of knowledge. I think it is very important to create models which focus on the needs and possibilities of the person who tries to receive this information. We are dealing with questions of strategies that support human perception. Furthermore, the concept of nature in our work does not come from the scientists; we only use their data. Our work is also a liberation from science. We create an environment where, initially, we fabricate actual phenomena of scientific thinking. But we emancipate these phenomena from their reference (science) by a self-organization model.

CTHEORY: Let's speak more specifically about your work...

Christian Huebler: Our installation "Dialogue with the Knowbotic South" is unlike our previous work "Simulationspace Mosaic of Mobile Datasounds" (SMDK), a functional work. The new concept is based on knowbots, which generate a vision in a data-network. They originate a hypothetical nature, a Computer Aided Nature (CAN). The main problem for the knowledge robots is that we are dealing with two bigger entities, the so called reference nature that is still very powerful in the Antarctic, one of the few almost intact ecological systems, and the related scientific institutions. The knowbots act with completely different kinds of inputs, originating a tension so you can't bring these two worlds really together. This produces an aesthetic field for artists. Virtual reality means that you are inside the computer box closed to the outside. Knowbotic reality means you are in a zone of different worlds, totally aware of the dynamic processes in different worlds. We are interested in finding a form for this concept. Each knowbot carries information about several Antarctic research projects that are running at the moment. It is not a scientific knowbot because we incorporate very different phenomena related to different research programs. This incorporation of phenomena of actual research in a Computer Aided Nature shapes the knowbot. We have designed a visual form for every knowbot's algorithm corresponding to the data sets. The agents (knowbots) work as connectors of processes. This point represents a new idea for the artwork. We do not have an interface anymore, a mechanical interface, in the real world, we have interfaces in the network, the dynamic network. If the processes associated with the knowbots and/or the research projects change, the knowbots will change too, following the modification of ideas in the world of research. This leads to forms of artificial creativity implemented in these agents. The agent should be open to other ways of thinking. For instance, we outline interfaces for philosophers allowing the possibility of reaching them and determining other outlines for the knowbot.

CTHEORY: Is the shape of the agents strictly related to some kind of processes? Are there different categories of agents, each with a specific architecture at both levels, algorithmic and visual?

Yvonne Wilhelm: The shape is only a metaphor for a model. We define borders for our model. The borders we are investigating and developing imply a kind of representation, not specialized but interactive.

CTHEORY: So there is no symbolism, no allegory?

Christian Huebler: Maybe some new things emerge. In the work represented here all the agents are autogenerative. They are connected to processes on the Internet which change continuously. These agents always modify themselves. They also offer points of interest which can be activated by the observer of the installation. Thus the knowbot will also mutate and react according to the interest of the visitor.

CTHEORY: What is the logic you follow to develop the agents? Where do you find the first input to design them?

Christian Huebler: The first outlines of the knowbot relate to visual material that is used in the research fields mixed with our creativity... For example one agent refers to the computer simulation of the tide of the Antarctic sea; we develop a model and write an interface for data from satellite observation. The interesting thing is that we deal with processes you can't see in reality. Hidden processes, sometimes extremely small or extremely big, and very complex. Furthermore you can't live in the Antarctic, which means you can't experience its reality directly or empirically without the help of technology. Actually, for the scientists it no longer makes sense to work directly in contact with nature. They need data, intelligent data for their terminals in the institutes. And intelligent data means that you install robots and automata which live there year-round, periodically sending raw data. Only a few scientists need to go there to maintain the functionality of these robots. Sometimes they put sensors on the animals living in the Antarctic continent. These sensors are directly connected to computers. They ex-territorialize their nature in the networks. Maybe our artistic work is a kind of re-territorialization.

Yvonne Wilhelm: The important point is not to discuss the meaning of measures, but rather how can we visualize and handle this complexity of information. That's a problem for the scientists too. There are so many data: how can we turn it into information and knowledge, how can we handle this with the knowledge we have?

CTHEORY: You said about this new work that it maintains the state of process, not only for the interactivity but also because it keeps itself constantly updated. Since we cannot follow the whole information processing you make a selection of the information displayed inside the simulation space otherwise it would be a completely chaotic system since the information that comes in almost in real time. How do you make this kind of classification?

Christian Huebler: It is necessary to define a strategy about order and the generation of new things. With computers we analyze fragments of the reality and at the same time we build and initiate complex processes. This is what the work is about. You can't deal directly with data fields and databases to make a model only by analysis; you get millions of data the human brain is unable to perceive. To outline a model that simulates one year of a certain natural process you need "giga-tons" of data to keep the simulation running. You really have to find new criteria, new formulations or maybe new bodies (we call them "incorporations") to construct, visualize and perceive such models.

CTHEORY: Your previous installation "Simulations Mosaic Raum" was a self-organized system consisting of elements of communication, data sounds, collected through the Internet. This work induces a new insight dimension where one misses the usual feeling for orientation: the visitor/actor can navigate a "datascape," the composition of the information in the darkness reveals new clues of perception, new sense of space, the space/process of information. At the same time another level of perception is involved using the data coming from the visitor's interaction converted by a motion-tracking system in an algorithm and transferred in real time to the "reality" of the computer. In another room another program visualizes the floating entity of the agents with 3D computer graphics displayed by a video-beamer on a large surface. I am very interested in your concept of space where you can implement this information organized by the knowbots...

Yvonne Wilhelm: Rethinking space is the main topic of the new project too. It's not a question of finding one aesthetic or a language everybody can understand but of defining nature and its information output, between reality and virtual space. To the define the differences between discussion and discourse. To define the differences among the various concepts of nature is itself a process.

Christian Huebler: It is not efficient to use sculptural terminology but we are investigating new concepts of "bodies." It is not the body idea in the common, psychological meaning. Our concept of bodies comes from these kinds of entities which generate the different layers of our reality and we look for these generators mostly in data spaces. For us knowbots are means for incorporations of ideas, and also of reality concepts. This is somewhat similar to our earlier project where we had a "sound space," a space consisting of ideas formulated with sounds, connected by the interactive visitor. In the simulation room one could only connect two ideas at once. We were interested in the tensions originated between two ideas, the gap between two sounds and not in the idea itself. In this new project we have "bodies," complex connectors, which link complex fields of ideas. We touch on one of the biggest problem for science: to gain a more complex simulation it is necessary to simulate several organisms/processes together in one program, to compare at the same time different kinds of data. This leads to our next question: "What can you encode and what you cannot encode?"

CTHEORY: Your idea of "bodies" could be interpreted as a model for artificial life, because the knowbots are able to change themselves according to the changes in the ideas. It's an endless process. Once it has started, it can go on independently.

Christian Huebler: Yes, but as a vision, a wish...

Yvonne Wilhelm: In fact it does not work like artificial life. Artificial life is one-to-one translation. We, on the other hand, take reality and the simulation together, a kind of new function with its own borders to reality or to cyberspace. From a scientific point of view the knowledge that you can achieve from artificial life is a fake connection to reality. For the scientist it is just a value from which it is possible to make some forecasts and statements. For the artist there is value if it goes out of control.

CTHEORY: Many "media-works" which are supposed to be artistic follow the Aristotelian principle of mimesis: the work is just imitating nature with a new technology. Here you deal with the nature without any "naturalistic" reproduction. We experience a complex of processes that are going on and define a new dimension of communication. Could we define it as a model of a digital environment?

Christian Huebler: Yes, we are in environments where the senses of the body are connected via interfaces to dynamic architectures. Sometimes these knowbots also have the "mimetic" potential for dynamic processes. They represent real "data fluids" which you can contact and transform. Mimetic not in the meaning of traditional art: mimetic potential means the agent incorporating the process. We can't use the term representation any longer because you are included now as an observer of reconstructed representations. I would like to consider this phenomenon further.

CTHEORY: In your installations one feels a massive use of technology. Formally the only material one can see are computers and communication hi-tech equipment. As artists using this technology what is your critical position regarding the economic/political process which operates in parallel with the information world?

Christian Huebler: We are inside a technological system whose direction and speed are defined by industry and science. Politics and arts have to follow and it is nearly impossible to do anything without being inside. It is a confrontation which can't work if you play with the traditional ways of art. You have to be inside so that you can really see the consistency of the new technology, not only to say: "OK this is their world." This is our world and becomes bigger and bigger. We all depend on computers. I try to keep my vision free to understand what is outside and deal with both of these worlds. There are still many parts of our life which the technological system can't incorporate. Therefore, I define myself as an artist who can fight inside this self-regulating order. Though I know everything I do could be good for the system because everything is connected, I fight and surrender my respect for the big machines I am working with.

CTHEORY: The industrial revolution has produced one of the biggest concerns of our time: the pollution of the environment. The South Pole is an environment almost untouched by the man, where it is possible to make important observation about the environmental problem. Many scientists are able to visualize the effects of pollution, but it seems they have much more difficulty uncovering its origins. For an artist it should be more important to fight the causes and not the effects of industrial pollution.

Yvonne Wilhelm: Yes, a real solution is not fighting against the effects or against the people who destroy the ecosystems. It's necessary to struggle against the thinking of the people who make these strategies, against the scientists and politicians who think they can predict reality by computing nature. It's an old artist's strategy to make politics and scientists aware of the consequences of their concepts of reality.

CTHEORY: What's your feeling about the time you need to produce this kind of work?

Christian Huebler: It always takes too long to realize a project when you work with technologies. It is a kind of paradox, not only for the technical complexity, but also for economic support. The production's process of art takes longer than you want. You can't produce ten pieces a year. This is perhaps not understandable in the traditional view of art.

CTHEORY: As we can speak of cyberspace, virtual space, we may think of a different notion of time. Past, future and present exist together in your installation: the past is the work of the scientist; the present is the interaction in your installation; and the future is the potential information going to be updated by the knowbots. How would you define the implicit time of this work?

Yvonne Wilhelm: We are familiar with the notion of cyberspace, how can we modify space, compress space, extend space. I think you can do the same with time and the way you experience it. We make a concept for the practice of vision. The time we try to realize it is the present.

Christian Huebler: Maybe the work succeeds when somebody gets into our installation and realizes that there is a complex of different and new aesthetic and cognitive structures to deal with. We can't offer results in our work, everybody can experiment in his own way. We offer a model which is still in discussion, which offers different layers of nature concepts simultaneously: a traditional physical model with light and temperature zones, a scientific simulation with the illusion of linear references and a networked info-aesthetic model generated by knowbots.