Norman T. White

Posted by Rhizome | Sat Oct 7th 2006 10:37 a.m.

This summer we visited with a Dutch camera crew robotic and machine
artist Norman White. I wrote an article about White for the Dutch
Paper NRC-Handelsblad, published on 1 october 2006. This is the
English translation, with thanks to Sam Nemeth & Norm White. Ine Poppe

NORMAN T.WHITE

The Normill is an old watermill in Durham (Ontario, Canada), a village
80 miles Northwest of Toronto. The big concrete and brick building
next to a stunningly beautiful pond, was bought years ago by artist
Norman T White (San Antonio, Texas, 1938) The mill smells like old
flour, animal carcasses and bat shit and harbours the soul of Norman
White. His personal history is visible in the old photos of the
Dutch island children once owned by his grandmother. The building is
littered with the material his work is made of: machine parts and a
bunch of old computers. The raw architecture of the construction seems hardly altered in the years White lived in it. He sleeps over the gas
stove in the kitchen in a small attic. The reason why he lodges here
lies in the cold winters, when snow piles up and the temperature drops
below zero. The building is spacious: it has a clean working spot; a
big storage space, a cellar, actually a steel workshop; a room full
of closets and drawers stacked with electronics; enough room for a
large bat colony that lives in the cracks in the impressive walls.
You can walk around for hours, investigate the archives, the boxes
with machine parts and printed circuit boards, wired art pieces in
themselves. In the corner of the cellar leans a big raft made of
plastic bottles against the wall.

Norman White, almost seventy years, looks young: more a boy then a
man. His friends say that his looks never changed, he is the same as
thirty years ago. White is a myth in and outside of Canada. He is one
of the godfathers of electronic-, machine- and robotic art and taught
for more then twenty five years at the Ontario College of Art and
Design in Toronto. His offspring is well known in the electronic art
world, Doug Back, Peter Flemming, Jeff Man, Graham Smith and David
Rokeby are his former students. And they all visit his annual parties
at the Normill, to celebrate their friendship with fires, swimming,
music and art. Regularly artists from all over the world join and
camps at the mill. White and his friends organised robot fights,
machine wrestling: 'Rawbotics & Sumo robots' long before it became
fashionable.

White won several international awards and his art is shown all over
the world. On his website you can find descriptions of his works. It
starts with the motto: 'We fix toasters!' The explanation: 'we don't
really fix toasters, although I'd be proud if I could. Almost nobody
fixes toasters. This is because a modern toaster is nearly impossible
to fix, held together with little bendy tabs that break off if you
bend them more than twice. The toaster manufacturer naturally expects
that you do the Right Thing -- toss that dysfunctional item in the
dump and buy a new one! All in all, the working toaster is a perfect
symbol for modern utility in general... glamorous and efficient!
Nevertheless, staring at this glamorous efficient high-resolution
computer screen for hours at a time, you and I are both wrecking our
eyes, not to mention our social lives. But, hey, I don't mind... do
you?' In the Normill White designs and constructs appliances which,
unlike toasters, are clearly pointless and useless, according to his
own motto. A few years ago, White gave a lecture in Amsterdam (still
visible online, see below). Supported with visual evidence White
talked about the clumsiness of machines: 'we try to imitate life with
raw materials; artists make flesh out of clay, fruit out of canvas.
Why should I make an artificial creature? Not to improve nature.'

A work still in development, typical for White who works for years
on projects trying out different versions of an idea, is The Helpless
Robot. The work is never finished. White says he presents phases of
his research. The helpless robot looks a bit like a ship. An earlier
machine Facing out Low (1977) that reacts on the audience make noises
like the R2D2 robot in Starwars and White seemed to have to try out
another robot idea. The helpless robot is made of steel, wood and
has handles to move him. There is no motor in the construction, but
it has sensors and a synthetic voice that asks you to touch and move
it about. Based on the movements that it remembers, it tries to
predict human behaviour. White sees this as an exercise in modelling
an artificial personality. The robot says things like: 'I appreciate
your help but you are turning me to far, I said: go to the right! Go
back I said, uh
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