A research & creation axis for the Reflective Interaction group of EnsadLab

Why and how might we search for and use new materials that are active, reactive, controllable or alive, which allow for interaction? And at the same time, how do we take into account their symbolic power and in some cases, their ability to produce representations (image, sound, light)?

Unspecified Clay, experimental robotic fabrication system, 2016, Ianis Lallemand (EnsadLab / Reflective Interaction)

Designing new relationships between matter, form and information should not only allow us to develop new materials that are sensitive to their environment, but also to understand our relationship to matter itself. Thus, we are no longer thinking of matter as an inert entity that should be formed or informed, but rather as a kind of partner whose agency is important. With this twofold approach — practical and prospective, as well as reflexive and fundamental, even ecological — we seek to work with new materials and consider their operating processes according to their physical, aesthetic and symbolic dimensions. When it comes to developing new conditions for interaction, we can now create interactive “dispositifs” [apparatus] that are not mediated by a digital system and, if not possible, we can rethink the place and role of information. Can the chemistry and/or the microstructure of materials take the place of in-formation, especially when they have the potential to transform these materials according to their environment? In this way, we approach the shift from 3D to 4D printing. We aim to produce materials that are composed and/or structured in such a way that they have potential processes, capacities for action and reaction after printing. Most importantly, we want to consider the “natural intelligence” of matter in relation to the so-called “artificial intelligence”. How can we take into account and cooperate with materials that are able to adapt (thus are close to the living if not part of it), when the boundaries of the living are so imprecise today, especially on a very small scale?

Therefore, integrating, adapting or designing new materials for interactive dispositifs forces us to rethink our relationship to matter and to the environment. We also create a dialogue between two paradigms: on the one hand, programming as a way for humans to impose their will through words and symbols. For instance, our computerized world is a good illustration of this top-down vision. On the other hand, an embodied perspective should be considered in a bottom-up dynamic, starting from bodies, from matter and its agency.

The Responsive Matter axis is thus based on a multidisciplinary approach including artistic creation in art and design, life and material sciences, computer and electronic technologies as well as cognitive sciences and humanities.


A research & creation axis for the Reflective Interaction group of EnsadLab

Publishing is primarily about making ideas public. How do we, operating across arts and sciences, and research and creation, envision new ways of publicizing research-creation in art and design based on practice (research-creation), while taking into consideration academic needs and artistic requirements? What means and media can we resort to or develop that are better adapted to non-textual or at least non-text-based publication? How to disseminate active and interactive formats and media? We endeavour to use new formats of demos, of poster-sessions, data visualization, data materialization, and data physicalization, engage in debates with objects, or explore hybrid multimedia communication systems.

“Responsive Matter”, an experimental poster session as part of the event “We are not the number we think we are”, at Cité internationale des arts, Paris, February 2018. Photo: Francesca Cozzolino.

Unlike researchers from the sciences (hard, natural and social), artists and designers best express their ideas in non-textual formats. The latter are resourceful and often trained to use powerful “media” that can also be used to publicize their work: exhibitions, live performances, visualization, editing, broadcasting, etc. However, academic publication is for the most part in the form of written papers published in specialized journals or presented at peer gatherings (conferences and symposia). We ask how can we open new paths to meet the needs of both academic research and the creative disciplines? How can we combine sensitive experience and transmission of knowledge crossing art, design and science? Could hybrid forms of publicization address both experts and wider audiences?

In the face of the upsurge of programs of research in art and design and interdisciplinary arenas of study and practice, it seems relevant to explore new paths for academic publishing to renew the outdated or poorly evaluated ones. Our projects are conducted with multidisciplinary teams associating artists, designers, engineers, researchers in anthropology, ethnography, cognitive sciences, physics, chemistry and biology. To prevent these forms of publicization from being reduced to the illustration of text, we emphasize the non-textual character of the media. This can be done by reinventing existing formats that already echo artistic practices such as demos, workshops, posters and poster sessions, and tutorials. It can also be explored in more radical ways, exploring existing art productions techniques (from those used in large immersive environments, to smaller media such as photofiction or photonovels, or picture books). The integration of image may also draw from visual methods of research such as those used in visual anthropology or, more recently, the digital humanities.

A research & creation axis for the Reflective Interaction group of EnsadLab

How and why might we experiment and make non-figurative robotic objects, or networks of objects (IoT) that show forms of behaviour, perhaps even personality, based on the way they move or interact with their environment?

Toasters, Olivain Porry (EnsadLab / Reflective Interaction), “Behavioral Objects” exhibition, as part of the event “We are not the number we think we are”, at Cité internationale des arts, Paris, February 2018. Photo: Amélie Caron

Objects can be robotized, thereby becoming able to move, act, and react to their environment, and seemingly acquiring degrees of autonomy, leading us to assign to them – even to non-figurative objects – traits of personality and behaviour that induce sensitive or affective responses (emotion, empathy, etc.) as opposed to merely utilitarian ones. Non-anthropomorphic, non-zoomorphic and, more generally, non-biomorphic objects are particularly not expressive from their appearance, but they gain a form of vitality from their kinetic attributes and performances. These qualities ought to be investigated, define, formalized, implemented and experimented using a practical, reflective and multidisciplinary iterative methodology combining art, design, engineering (robotics), cognitive sciences and anthropology.

The robotic objects we create invite a perspective shift, compelling us to perceive the world through their “eyes” and “sensitivity”. Would it be possible for the object to change its status? To become a subject, or perhaps an agent, a quasi-object or quasi-subject? Beyond its utilitarian dimension, how can an object also be operative, symbolic and aesthetic? How to promote a dialogue between humans and objects initiated by the object? And if the object is to initiate a more affective than effective relationship, how can this connection be maintained and reiterated?

Robotics has been primarily about the integration of software and hardware; two technological fronts that are now undergoing considerable developments and innovation. While deep learning and other forms of artificial intelligence are profoundly changing the software used in robotics, the materiality of robots is equally rapidly changing, increasingly integrating soft materials (“soft robotics”) which can be combined with hard materials (tensegrity structures), thus generating new material qualities, movements and behaviours. By taking these advances into account, as well as by contributing to them, our research group investigates and reports on robotic objects’ possible ways of being and acting. Furthermore, these issues and approaches are not only considered in relation to individual objects; we also investigate the potentials for behaviour in the networks of objects (IoT) that configure our social and natural environment.

To create the conceptual and practical conditions for prototyping, producing and studying behavioural objects, we brought together an interdisciplinary group of researcher-practitioners, where empirical and reflexive approaches come together, along six types of actions:

1 • Construction of a “design space”: in close relation with our theoretical work, we propose a set of criteria and constraints along which to define and design behavioral objects;
2 • Development of a modular robotics toolkit: the MisB KITis an open-source hardware and software kit available to different practitioners from expert developers to artists, designers, “makers”, to groups with no programming skills, including children;
3 • Organization of workshops to implement, test, and create with both our “design space” and toolkit;
4 • From the actions above, our approaches include the creation of behavioural objects of art and design, tested in public events with the public;
5 • Study of movements and objects’ expressive qualities;
6 • Organization of meetings and debates involving experts from several disciplines and, sometimes, the created objects;
7 • Publication, including of a series of books on this topic of research: “Behavioral Objects” (year, Steinberg Press)

A research & creation axis for the Reflective Interaction group of Ensadlab

Why and how may we experiment and create interactive dispositifs [apparatus] for a large number of people sharing a space, equipped with mobile, personal networked technologies (smartphones, tags, wearable computing, etc.) in ways that will instigate in situ collective interactions or emerging forms of cooperation?

Discontrol Party #3, interactive festive device, 2009 – 2018. Production: Samuel Bianchini (EnsadLab / Reflective Interaction), as part of the event “We are not the number we think we are”, at Cité internationale des arts, Paris, February 2018. Photo: Christian Mamoun.

Until the end of the 20th century, interactive installations were generally intended for individuals, and less frequently for groups of spectators. It was in the 90s that networked projects were developed focusing to a greater extent on collectives. The distributed communication system advanced in these projects investigated for the most part remote forms of cooperation through personal computers (PCs) or other devices. The same approach to collective relationships prevails in the “social networks” of today, however, now mediated in individualized interfaces through personal mobile devices.

How may we conceive then, experiment and create physically and geographically situated humans with their devices that stimulate collective interactions and cooperations, and generate active and shared aesthetic experiences? How can we promote co-presence (here and now) as well as joint action by deploying shared installations and exploiting personal mobile devices (smartphones, RFID, IoT, etc.)? Such complex relational configurations entwine different types of mediations at the same time as direct relationships between members of an audience — often spontaneously and possibly varied types of interactions between up to hundreds or even thousands of participants. How can each and every one be a constituent part of such a structure all the while navigating through it? How should the interaction be designed as to be deployed both in relation to the technological device and the human participants? How can we think emerging processes or forms of control as distributed and centralized? How to design such devices that necessarily combine artistic, media, technical and socio-political dimensions?

Still uncommon today, such complex relational configurations are likely to emerge, especially in public or semi-public spaces, such as museums, auditoriums, halls of large institutions, public squares, railway stations, airports, stadiums and even cafés, restaurants, markets or other shopping centres.

To produce and experiment such devices, the Reflective Interaction group developed Mobilizing.js, a programming environment for mobile screens intended for artists and designers: mobilizing-js.net.