Interview with Char Stiles about their collaboration with slowdanger on ‘empathy machine’.

Jennifer Nagle Myers
Jan 16 · 7 min read

As part of the series of responses I made over the course of one year for ‘empathy machine’ by slowdanger. In this interview, I speak with Char Stiles, a computational artist, researcher and performer based in Pittsburgh. Char brought her creative expression to the project and we spoke about this over email in December 2019.

My portrait of Char based on some thoughts she shared with me

What do you feel like today?

Today I feel like a bunch of rats in a trench coat successfully doing okay and sometimes thriving as a human being!

Explain your background as an artist/collaborator, what skills/vision did you bring to this collaboration with slowdanger? What is your history as a creative artist?

I am a computational artist, researcher and performer. I exist as a hybrid in my work-life, art practice, and education. Last year I graduated from Carnegie Mellon University where I studied fine art and computer science. The past year I was a researcher at the CMU Robotics Institute working on a project that incorporates artificial intelligence, augmented reality and storytelling. I am an avid livecoder; on the fly I code a graphics program on-stage where everyone can see the process (e.g. what’s going on on my screen, my body language as I program etc.), in the context of a rave. I make the pixels dance to the music. The interoperability makes my practice a functional bridge between between disciplines. It can provide context for empathy.

What was your involvement with slowdanger on ‘empathy machine’? What were some of the main objectives that guided the project? Some of the main questions you were asking as you began?

I was a creative technologist on the project. I wrote software and developed and adapted it alongside the hardware. Though, my most pertinent contribution was a guide on theory of empathy machine. Slowdanger extended an offer for me to lead some discussions about the world that empathy machine exists in. One where the line between technology and humanity is blurred. I printed out a packet for all the participants of short readings to guide the conversation; including excerpts from “Decolonizing Sound: Experimenting Otherness” by Sharmi Basu, “You are not a gadget” by Jaron Lanier, “A Cyborg Manifesto” by Donna Haraway, and “poeticComputation.info” by Taeyoon Choi. A main goal of mine was how can I be honest and transparent in my work. I wanted to bring the functionality that my type of programming allows, but not alienate myself, or the dancers, in the process. I am always striving to democratize my language when speaking about the technicalities. I strive to accurately convey the information that needs to come through to be productive in the project. It takes intuition and awareness to know when you’re barfing up too much tech-speak, sometimes when I’m lazy I’ll just have at it and go off on some nerd-rant but those moments are fleeting. Sometimes technologists in art contexts are called geniuses but I want to take space here to reject the notion that a genius can exist in the first place, or, actually even better: we are all situationally geniuses (intelligence is relative), and we are here to just mutually marvel at that. Some main questions I had were: how can I bring my best work the the project? How can I enrich the lives of my collaborators? Why is this subject matter important? What context are we coming from and where will we go? How can we bring to light stifled voices?

What were some of the challenges you faced in bringing to light these objectives? What changed during the process that you were not anticipating?

I think the reason I found the project to be very smooth in large was because slowdanger had a clear vision of what they wanted to bring into this world. It made everything else come easier. There were times when we would overwork ourselves and my brain would turn into mush, or there would be some miscommunication just because we’ve been working very hard to get some feature off the ground, but I found everyone to be patient with each other even when it was very difficult. Humor throughout the crew was essential to traveling and long work sessions. I wasn’t there for a lot of the traveling and shows, which was difficult for me personally sometimes, but I learned to not take everything personally. We are all out here trying our best.

Sometimes the biggest challenge was an interpersonal relationship. Through and through the process gave me a new-found respect for slowdanger as they have been working closely together as well as dating for about 7 years!

Did you meet your objectives, or how did it end in the final production and what are your thoughts on how it all came together?

I am very proud to have worked on this project, I am so grateful to have met everyone that was involved in its genesis & growth. I feel very happy with the final production. I mostly am thrilled for slowdanger that they built this from the ground up. I hope that it takes them where they want to go.

If you were to keep working on this collaboration, what new things could you imagine bringing to it as the next iterations?

We started using a simple machine learning algorithm in the piece to grant the ring an even more nuanced understanding of the dancers. It was working during practice, but during a preview show it failed us. It is very much a poster child for AI in the art world right now. It promises a lot, brings up good conversations, but alas, it doesn’t work! I was an advocate for keeping it in the show and embracing any mishaps that come along with it, but the team found it to be unfeasible. In the future I would love to work on it more, develop it, to make it more trustworthy, to reduce uncertainties during a show. I would love to bring up the theory of AI and also contribute to the greater conversation about AI that is being created right before our eyes. There is so much news coverage about art and AI right now, it would be good to take some time to be contemplative with it. In this case we are using the AI as a tool to solve a problem we couldn’t without it, instead of making it a spectacle in itself. I am also very open to disclose and explain the underlying math behind the algorithm not only because it interests me but also because it is my personal preference for anyone who is interested in machine learning to have access to this doorway.

What are your feelings about technology and creativity, what do you see the usefulness of interactive technologies and how can they help us navigate the landscape we are in? Any specific theories or concepts you adhere to that help guide your work?

I love to misuse technology, I love to maintain old technology, to say “fuck your planed obsolescence!”. Being creative with technology can mean biting the big-tech hand that feeds it to us, but it’s worth it! A dream of mine is to have Elon Musk subtweet me.

Interactive technology is at its embryonic phase! That comes with its own unique frustrations and epiphanies. We are really making it up as we go along here and I love that!

Technology is what mediates the physical condition. With that definition technology is ubiquitous. Just like the ubiquity of conciseness we must consider it deeply.

Other thoughts that come to mind from this collaboration? New ideas that formed? Things that you would like to elaborate on? Specific images that came from this, other things?

I guess I can take some time to write technically about what I did. Feel free to skip this part, it’s not super important. I created a C++ application that would take in the input from the camera in the center of the ring. Using a wrapper for C++ called OpenFrameworks I created a graphical output that would then feed into Mad Mapper through Syphon (UDP wrapper) and then the graphics would translate directly onto the ring using a DMX protocol that comes with Mad Mapper. The different algorithms I used were mostly based from the open source library OpenCV which stands for open computer vision. I used the blob detection algorithm as well as the frame difference to process the image so that it would show up on the pixels in the ring. I uploaded the code here: https://github.com/CharStiles/empathy_machine . In development with slowdanger at the Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry we worked out specifically how the ring would respond to motions where. For example dancing in the center of the ring would create a different response than dancing at the edge. The machine learning part of it that never came to fruition, was made with Wekinator and the Gesture Recognition Toolkit, again all in one OpenFrameworks application. To loosely quote one of my favorite artists Memo Akten (who actually came and saw VLX, which was a predecessor of empathy machine (I’m still freaking out about that even though it was over a year ago)), most of the work was tweaking tiny parameters until it felt right.

What would a portrait of you look like?

Lots of my focus in my work comes down to my fingers. I interface with computers through a keyboard, and my smartphone by tapping on some glass. I think some fingers would fit well in a portrait of me.

What are you up to now, creatively? What are you reading and listening to? What other artists/writers are you looking at for inspiration?

Right now I am reading Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La frontera: Cultural Studies. I just started diving into it, and I have to be careful to not reappropriate Anzaldúa’s words, but what I can say now is that I am so excited to research more into what exists at different types of borders, physical figurative, and imagined. An artist that always inspires me is Everest Pipkin! They recently started teaching and have been releasing so much wonderful thoughts and resources around teaching. I have also started diving into live coding music (I normally do visuals), some inspiration to that has been lots of artists I know personally, like Natalie.computer, Nohri, slowdanger (of course), {arsonist}, and lots of folks in the live code PGH and NYC scene.


Jennifer Nagle Myers

Written by

Visual artist. Art as the Antidote. Collaboration. Writing. Heartbreak and Devotion. Muse. Intuition. Awareness. The whole, holy body.

Recital

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Performance/Music/Art/Film. If you would like to submit an article, contact David here: http://www.davidbernabo.info/contactdave/

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