In 2006, Katherine Isbister and Kia Höök developed the Sensual Evaluation Instrument (SEI), a tool that evaluates affect and aids in nonverbal communication. Created with artist Rainey Straus while the professors of human-machine interaction were working on a European Union project on emotion and technology, the ‘blobjects’ were tested with a goal of enabling conversations with designers and computer scientists about emotion.
The instruments provoked an unexpected outcome of universality during testing: subjects kindredly selected the same objects to express similar emotions (e.g., a spiky object to express anger or fear). We spoke with Katherine and Rainey over Skype about how these objects came into being, their emotional resonance, and how they’ve developed a life of their own over the years.
Katherine Isbister: What happened for us was Kia and I, we got interested in doing this nonverbal reporting of emotion; like empowering people to convey how they felt without having to use words. This is when I was working with her at her lab in Sweden; we first did some primitive experiments with things like color. So anyway, it didn’t work at all because people had really culturally specific associations with color and a lot of times they would come up with narratives about things that were more real object based—there’s a lot of sort of socio-cultural overlay people do onto objects all the time. That was slightly discouraging. But at the time, I knew Rainey had done her MFA project on these incredible I don’t know what to call them, Rainey, nubbins?
Rainey Straus: Blobjects. And actually there was a whole show [on them] down in San Jose. I think the show was called Blobjects which happened. A lot of it focused on product design but it’s definitely a kind of aesthetic that’s in the visual vocabulary currently.
Jon Kessler, The Blue Period at Salon 94, 2012
Where are you? Jon Kessler's The Blue Period involves surveillance cameras, cardboard figures, collaged portraits, and video monitors to answer that establishing question in different ways. In his exhibit, viewers are located via camera capture, then turn to find themselves on video screens. They become spectators and a part of the spectacle (Kessler has an acknowledged affinity for Debord), pinpointing their actual and metaphorical whereabouts by viewing themselves in a loop of mediated images.
Jon Kessler, The Blue Period at Salon 94, 2012
If one of the cameras in Kessler's piece had localization functionality, it could infer position based on a current view of the scene like a QR code can. In scanning a QR code for embedded information, an individual effectively informs on himself, firing a flare in space. A sort of inverse to The Blue Period's accumulation of intermediary images with unlocatable sources, QR codes create an augmented reality where a mediated physical environment gains content through revealing position.
Eric Mika, überbeamer mapping, 2011
The überbeamer, a hand-held, spatially-aware projection system reminiscent of Ghostbuster weaponry by artist Eric Mika, expands on augmented reality by using a projector to draw content directly onto surfaces. The device knows where you are relative to where you've been, storing a three-dimensional model of its environment. Comprehending the geometry of a scene, and your location in it, the überbeamer has the same functionality as a QR code to overlay digital information and track location. And it does so without covering the world with robot barf.
Jim Sanborn's cryptographic sculptures, pieces on atomic energy, and large-scale projections might already seem familiar. Installed in front of the CIA headquarters, the ciphers in his sculpture Kryptos have puzzled many a code-cracker (three out of four of the coded sections have been solved), and he has been the subject of several museum shows. The artist answered a few questions we had on his work via email:
There's often something hidden in plain sight in your work. In public installations like Kryptos (at the CIA plaza) and A Comma, A in Houston, among others (I'm thinking also of the Covert Obsolescence andArcheotranscription pieces), it's letters/word/code. How does written communication affect your work? Is there a background story that drives these pieces?
Prior to the Kryptos commission my work documented hidden or invisible natural forces, Earth’s magnetic field etc. For the Kryptos piece and for the 20 years since, the hidden forces/content in text and language have taken over.
For most of my life both of my parents worked at the Library of Congress, My father as the Director of Exhibitions and my mother as a photo researcher, this privileged access to the historic record was tremendously enabling. The texts I chose for my public projects were heavily researched at the L.C. and in these works in particular the International, Classical, and Native American texts were used to encourage collaboration among cultures to fully decipher. Like Kryptos, the other public works are designed to exude their information slowly.
The “background story” is either above, or resides in the following: The Archeological record offers us a frustratingly fragmented view of the past. Though fragmentary, this archeoview is pregnant with secrets yet to be discovered and is thrilling in its potential. Secrecy is power even if it is just a little something kept from view, buried, so to speak, in the matrix of everyday life...