Norman White is a pioneer in electronic and robotic art. He created his first electronic work in 1969 at the exhibition Some More Beginnings, organised by E.A.T. at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. He has developed outstanding work in robotic and telecommunications art and mentored a generation of Canadian artists.
Website of Norman White:
In this work, White uses a painting he did in the early 1960s as the concealment of a machine equipped with a mechanical eye that pops out from a hole in the middle of the canvas. The eye gazes at its surroundings and then disappears inside the hole again. This process takes place at random intervals, surprising the viewer, who finds that the artwork stares back. This piece was first exhibited at the Paul Petro art gallery in 2001.
OCAD Robot Sumo Challenge (1992-2003)
Norman White initiated the annual Sumo Robot Challenge at at OCAD University (Toronto, Canada) in 1992 and was its driving force until 2003. Inspired by Mark Tilden’s Robot Olympics, the event featured homemade robots in a variety of competitions: tug of war, dancer/painter, autonomous and full out, head to head combat. The SUMO Robot Challenge was open to OCAD artists, designers, local high school students and the general public. All proceeds raised from the event went towards scholarships for OCAD students.
The robots competed in five different classes:
- “Classic” was the first class introduced in 1992. The robot had to fit into a milk crate measuring 1 x 1 x 1 ft (30 x 30 x 30 cm.), with no weight limit.
- “Clever” limited the robot weight to 75 pounds (34 kg.) but allowed a much larger size (almost one half of the playing field).
- “Dancer”and “Painter” were assigned to robots that had three minutes to perform a dance or create a painting.
- “Autonomous” was a class played on a smaller playing field, with robot dimensions and weights reduced, and controlled without human guidance.
The playing field was first circular, then octagonal, and measured 8 feet (2.4 m.) in diameter. However, to make things more
difficult for the “Clever” robots, a pole was mounted in the middle of the playing field that they had to maneuver around. The “Classic” and “Clever” robots were controlled by signal cables, rather than by radio control. This was required to keep the price of construction down to a level that most artists could afford.
Them Fuckin’ Robots (1988)
White and fellow artist Laura Kikauka each built an electro-mechanical sex machine (hers, female; his, male) without consulting each other on the particulars, apart from the dimensions of the engaging organs. They then brought these two machines together for a public performance. The male machine, “the first and last anthropomorphic robot I’ve ever built”, according to White, responds to the magnetic fields generated by the female organ, thereby increasing its rate of breathing and moving its limbs, simultaneously charging a capacitor to strobing “orgasm.” The female machine, on the other hand, is a diverse assemblage including a boiling kettle, a squirting oil pump, a twitching sewing machine treadle, and huge solenoid on a fur-covered board — all hanging from an old bedspring and energized by an electronic power sequencer.
Materials: various found objects, aluminum, steel, motors, springs, solenoids, and custom electronics.
The Helpless Robot (1987-96)
An interactive robot that has no motors, but instead must depend upon its synthesized voice to encourage people to move it as it would “like.” Described by White as “essentially an unfinishable work,” the machine attemps to assess and predict human behavior by asking visitor to move it, first in a soft, pleading voice, later on adopting harsher tones that indicate discomfort and impatience. The robot can communicate in English, Spanish, and French.
Materials: plywood, angle-iron, proximity sensors, modified 80386 computer, and custom electronics.
Telephonic Arm Wrestling(1986)
A collaborative telecommunications project undertaken by White and fellow artist, Doug Back. The idea was to allow contestants in two different cities to arm-wrestle, using motorized force-transmitting systems interconnected by a telephone data link. First succcessfully exhibited during a 1986 link-up between the Canadian Cultural Centre, Paris, and the Artculture Resource Centre, Toronto. Sponsored by the McLuhan Programme (Director: Prof. Derrick DeKerkhove), University of Toronto.
Materials: Steel, Plexiglas, motors, custom electronics.
A telecommunications event based upon the children’s game whereby a secret message is whispered from person to person till it arrives back at its originator. In this case a message was sent around the world in 24 hours, roughly following the sun, via a global computer network (I. P. Sharp Associates). Each of the eight participating centres was charged with translating the message into a different language before sending it on.
The Music Lesson (1984)
This kinetic sculpture is made of a wooden box in which White placed recordings of children practicing music, alongside his own voice. These sounds are not heard but cause several “motorized moths” (representing grade school students) to beat scotch tape wings against the cyclone fence that covers the front, in response to angst caused by an insensitive and oppressive piano teacher.
Reenacting a scene from Michelangelo’s frescoes at the Sistine Chapel, this artwork consists of a machine in which the viewer must put seven pennies into a coin slot. The machine opens two black curtains which reveal Adam’s arm resting, then moving towards a light and meeting God’s arm. Where the arms meet, a spark goes out, then the light goes off and the curtains close. Owned by Medtronic, an artificial pacemaker manufacturing company in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Facing Out Laying Low (1977)
A microcomputer-controlled, interactive robot. It surveys its surroundings from a fixed point, and responds to activity it finds “interesting” with a variety of audio responses.
Materials: Plexiglas, motors, custom electronics.
Sweet Nothings (1976)
Privately commissioned by the artist’s friend Joseph Colucci, and never exhibited in a public exhibition, Sweet Nothings is a game for two players. Each player is faced with a dilemma whether to push a button that would cause one of them, randomly selected, to receive a mild electric shock. If neither pushes their button, the voltage increases and both of them are eventually shocked.
Splish Splash Two (1975)
A large light mural (2.5 x 12 m.) that simulates raindrops falling randomly on the surface of a pond. The piece was commisioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for the foyer of its Vancouver offices.
Materials: aluminum, polycarbonate plastic, incandescent bulbs, and custom electronics.
This installation consists of five robots, four of them placed on the ceiling, crawling back and forth along separate tracks, and a fifth located on the floor. Each robot is equipped with a scanner, designed to point itself towards any light source, and a spotlight. The robots therefore tend to point towards each other, developing a complex group behavior as the move along the ceiling. This piece was built in homage to W. Grey Walter, an early pioneer in brain research and the artificial modelling of organic behavior. Depicted is the fifth robot, “Ishmael,” which documented the movements of the four robots overhead by drawing on a circular sheet of paper. It got its name from the fictional documentor of Herman Melville’s novel “Moby Dick”. It also became the inspiration for Facing Out Laying Low (1977).
Materials: Plexiglas, stepping motors, and custom electronics.
Shaped like a minimalist sculpture, this artwork is composed on an acrylic glass cube and two stainless stell arches, through which two small aluminium rings jump from one end to the other. Four electromagnetic fields, actived at irregular intervals by an electronic program devised by White, propel the rings across the arches. As the rings hit the base of the arches, they emit a loud metallic sound. The sculpture is therefore immersed in a continuous, and somewhat absurd, activity that is, in addition, unpredictable.
Matrix One (1970)
Similarly to other artworks from this period, such as Blue-Green-Machine (1967) or First Tighten on the Drums (1969), this piece generates light patterns using a series of light bulbs controlled by an electronic circuit. In this case, one bulb is on at a time, moving in Lissajous patterns controlled by the user.
First Tighten Up on the Drums (1969)
White’s first major electronic project, built specifically for the 1969 E.A.T. group exhibition entitled “Some More Beginnings”, in New York City. Using several hundred early-vintage digital integrated circuits donated by the Sprague Electric Company, the artist set about creating a machine which would autonomously generate shimmering light patterns similar to those seen at the bottoms of swimming pools. When it was finally done, the patterns generated turned out to be more reminiscent of clouds swirling past an airplane porthole, or rain dripping down a window-pane. This artwork is an early Cellular Automata experiment.
Blue-Green-Machine is part of a series of works that generate patterns and sequences, visualized by means of light bulbs. A rectangular field of 8 x 8 small neon light bulbs are connected to two drums rotating at different speeds and activating each light bulb following simple patterns, that nevertheless become complex as they overlap and vary due to their different rhythms. White explores in his work his interest in Gestalt perception, which he studied in London from 1964 to 1966.
A short autobiography and credo
Norman T. White
Arte No Seculo XXI Symposium, Sao Paolo, Brasil, 1997.
Here are my central art-beliefs:
1. Art should concern itself as much with behavior as it does with appearance.
2. Some of the best art happens when behavior and appearance are completely at odds with each other.
3. Economy of means is a critical part of aesthetics.
4. Art functions best, and is most needed, outside of galleries and museums.
Art as pure self-expression doesn’t interest me very much. Self-expression inevitably creeps into art, but I would prefer that it sneak in through some back-door. For me, Art comes alive only when it provides a framework for asking questions. Science provides that framework too, but ‘good science’ is too constrained for me. I would rather ask questions that simultaneously address a multitude of worlds… from living organisms to culture to confusion and rust. Only art can give me that generality.
I remember, in my student days, discovering the notebook drawings — studies of clouds and faces — by Leonardo DaVinci . Though powerful as visual compositions, these obviously had for Leonardo a more central purpose. They were really inquiries into invisible shaping forces. Here truly was art-as-question, rooted in human ignorance, yet struggling magnificently toward understanding fundamental principles of existence.
Artistic inquiries often come down to a search for pattern, both pattern which can be seen and recorded directly through graphics, and pattern which can not. Like most artists, I began my studies with the former, absorbed in the dynamics of juxtaposed colour and form. Passionately curious about the fact that my mechanisms of seeing were a critical part of those dynamics, I found myself continually returning to studies involved with perception. An extended period of traveling in the Middle East brought me in contact with Islamic Art, which had a huge influence on me. Using interlocking visual pattern, Islamic Art talks about the logical interaction and geometry which lies at the heart of everything around us, be it visible or non-visible, energy or substance, organic or inorganic. It brought me back to thinking about invisible forces: Is it possible that all the seemingly random phenomena of the universe really derived from surprisingly few constant, basic principles interacting in a complex and out-of-phase way? Of course the “seemingly” played a big part in the question. How much does our perceptual make-up help us, or hinder us, in understanding those principles?
Only I wanted to explore invisible forces using those same invisible forces. Beginning in 1966, I began to build kinetic electronic devices, which I referred to loosely as “machines”, deliberately contrived to have minimal visual appeal, yet a strong behavioral dimension. I was fascinated by the idea of a device which had an unpredictable “life of its own”, a set of internal rules and cycles which gave it a characteristic behavior somehow accessible to onlookers. In various works up to 1976, this fascination found expression as moving light patterns on large grids of light bulbs. The generating system inevitably consisted of digital logic circuits, interconnected in a way which presented a logical question. These circuits would then go about answering that question, but the answer would be unpredictable and never complete. Individual light patterns might repeat, and the texture of pattern might be a constant, but the actual sequence of patterns would be non-repeating… as least as far as the human eye or brain could tell. I liked the fact that no photograph or video could record the full essence of the piece; one had to be present with the work to fully appreciate its behavior. By varying the logic circuits, I was able, from 1966 to 1975, to create ten or twelve machines which all generated complex behavior from simple principles. Then, in 1976, prompted perhaps by momentous events in my life (work on a major art commission, and the birth of my daughter, Laura), I suddenly became tired of generating disorder from order, and decided to attempt something much more difficult: artificially finding order within disorder!
The day my daughter was born, I celebrated by buying my first computer, a “Motorola D-1”. It wasn’t much of a computer (a little over 200 bytes of memory, no high- level language, and a slow, unreliable interface to an audio cassette recorder for program storage), but for me it presented a formidable tool for my new direction of exploration. Whereas before my questions were phrased in a permanent “hard-wired” way, I could now create situations where the machine could modify itself, since the old circuits were now expressed as inherently mutable software.
My first major project with the little D-1 computer was a perception machine, called “Facing Out Laying Low”, or “FOLL” for short. The thing was a kind of robot, since it had a limited capacity for self-determined motion. It couldn’t, however, move about in a room, but simply rotate itself on a vertical axis, and move a light-sensing scanner on a horizontal axis. The machine was programmed to learn the ambient light patterns of the space in which it was placed, and to look for significant deviations in those patterns. By remembering the coordinates of such deviations, it was able to learn the traffic patterns of passers-by within the space. Because it could only look in one direction at a time, it had to constantly re-scan the areas where it found activity in the past, occasionally checking inactive areas, “just in case”. If a formerly active area ceased to live up to expectation, it was gradually forgotten. FOLL’s only mode of output, other than motion, was its non-verbal voice. It expressed its “surprise” with a fluctuating trill, whose tonal patterns reflected its level of stimulation and excitement. Internally, the computer was continuously adjusting thresholds of sensory significance; it would just as easily tune out areas of constant high activity as low ones. Although the machine’s behavior was generated by a fairly simple program, the combination of its present and past experience was inevitably unique in some subtle way, and FOLL’s responses were seldom predictable.
I continued to work on Facing Out Laying Low, on and off, for a number of years, gradually expanding its memory and updating its internal computer. In that process, I switched from light bulbs to motors, pulleys, and gears, as principal output devices. I knew this would shorten the life expectancy of my creations, since mechanical parts wear out faster than light bulbs, and are much harder to replace. The fact was, I was discovering the beauty of wear and break-down. It was another aspect of loosening control.
I also decided I liked the sound of gnashing gears and clanking parts! I suppose it was a reaction to the way computer technology was developing around me at the time. There was this fascination with dematerialism, all in the name of speed and efficiency. As the 70’s came to an end, artists were starting to use computers in a big way. But there was a boring aspect to this otherwise exciting invasion in that 99.9% of the art-work done on computers was limited to graphics! The essential aspect of the computer was forgotten in a rush to make the pixilated computer screen work as well as paint and paper. Rarely did artists realize that a computer’s unique strength was its ability to play with such existentially-crucial forces as logic, neg-entropy, probability, introspection, and paradox. To my dismay, the standard saying among artists became: “Oh, the computer… it’s just another tool.”
Even to this day, twenty years later, very few artists have discovered that the computer is far more than a tool. A tool is a device designed to perform a set of very particular functions. On the other hand, the functionality of a computer is open ended. Its full scope is not, and can never be, fully understood, even by its designers. The entire notion of information processing is a cipher, expanding as consciousness expands, its fullest significance always remaining beyond our grasp. It is as though we have accidentally hooked ourselves onto the tip of a horn of the beast at the heart of the existential labyrinth. Part of the problem lies in the word, “computer”, itself. The name implies willfulness and constrained result. It would be far better to call it “fun-house mirror”, so that we are reminded how it can take our intention and throw it back to us as a surprising metamorphosis. Potentially, that metamorphosis provides a conceptual bridge to a wholly new pattern of thought and investigation.
Thanks to the “fun-house mirror” effect, my work has been able to liberate itself from tight human control and expectation. Another part of that liberation is a liberation of context. I believe that for too long, society has clung to the idea that art galleries are integral to art practice. The result has been the alienation of large sectors of a society who feel intimidated by the highly controlled, self-conscious aura of the average art gallery. My projects in the last ten years have therefore included strategies to bring art to all people of a given place, especially those people who would never enter a gallery willingly. Often, the most effective way to do this is by presenting the work in non-gallery settings, anonymously, without labels or explanations. In this way, the work, itself already released from strict control, is set loose into a social situation which is further open-ended. Hopefully, some form of the question at the heart of the work rubs off on the people which encounter it.
San Antonio, TX (USA), 1938
Norman White studied Biology at Harvard University from 1955 to 1959, and Fine Arts at the Art Students League in New York and the San Francisco Art Institute, from 1959 to 1963. In 1964 he moved to London and carried out his first experiments in electronically based art, and in 1966 he moved to Toronto, where he created his first electro-kinetic artworks. A few years later, he presented his first electronic work, First Tighten Up on the Drums (1969) in the landmark exhibition Some More Beginnings, organised by Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The piece was an early Cellular Automata experiment, which comprised a machine that autonomously generated light patterns. His work progressively moved to robotics, with installations such as Menage (1974), which explored the group behaviour of five autonomous robots, or Facing Out Lying Low (1977), an interactive robot that responds to its environment emitting a variety of sounds, and The Helpless Robot (1987-1996), an interactive robot that must ask people via a synthesised voice to move it as it would like. He has also created sound installations and explored telecommunications art in projects such as Hearsay (1985) and Telephonic Arm Wrestling (1986, with Doug Back). From 1978 to 2003, he was a lecturer in the Integrated Media Program at the Ontario College of Art and Design, and then from 2003 to 2008 he taught at Ryerson University in Toronto. He is an influential figure in the digital art community in Canada, having been the recipient of numerous awards, such as the Award for a Lifetime of Innovation in Art at the Digifest Media Pioneer Award in 2018, the d.velop digital art award [ddaa] in 2008, the 1995 Petro Canada Award, and the Award of Distinction in the Interactive Art category at the Prix Ars Electronica 1990 for The Helpless Robot.
White has shown his work in many exhibitions worldwide, including Les machines sentimentales (Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1986), Net@Works (Centro Nacional de las Artes, Mexico, 1995), Electrohype (Malmo Konsthall, Sweden, 2004), Resonance/Electromagnetic Bodies (ZKM, Karlsruhe, 2005-06), and Enchanting Times (ISEA, Museum of Vancouver, 2015). In 2018, a retrospective of his work took place at the Corus Centre in Toronto. White’s artworks have been acquired by the public collections of the Agnes Etherington Art Centre (Queens University), the Art Gallery of Ontario, Art Bank (Canada Council), Erindale College (University of Toronto), National Gallery of Canada, and Vancouver Art Gallery. He is the 2008 recipient of the d.velop digital art award [ddaa] (later renamed DAM Digital Art Award), which honours the most important artists in the area of digital art for their life’s work or for an important group of works. Other recipients of the award are Lynn Hershman Leeson, Manfred Mohr, and Vera Molnar.
Klein, M. (2008). Jury’s Statement. DAM Digital Art Award 2008: Norman White. DAM Digital Art Award. [EN/DE]
Langill, C. (2006). Shifting Polarities. Interview with Norman White. La Fondation Daniel Langlois pour l’art, la science et la technologie. [EN]
–– (2009). Shifting Polarities. Exemplary Works of Canadian Electronic Media Art Produced Between 1970 and 1991. La Fondation Daniel Langlois pour l’art, la science et la technologie. [EN]
Damith Herath, Christian Kroos, and Stelarc (eds.). Robots and Art: Exploring an Unlikely Synthesis. Springer Press.
Ine Poppe and Sam Nemeth, “Them Fuckin’ Robots”, a video biography of Norman White, featuring interviews with Michelle Kasprzak, Laura Kikauka, Jeff Mann, and Graham Smith.
Eduardo Kac.Telepresence & Bio Art. University of Michigan Press.
Ursula Huws. Nature, Technology, and Art: The Emergence of a New Relationship?. Leonardo, Vol.33, No.1.
Eduardo Kac. Foundation and Development of Robotic Art. Art Journal, Vol.56, No.3.
Annette Hünnekens. Der Bewegte Betrachter. Theorien der interaktiven Medienkunst. Wienand Medien.
Ursula Huws. Beast in the Machine. Guardian (On-Line Section), April 3rd.
Brian Reffin Smith. Soft Computing: Art & Design. Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.
Joe Bodolai. Artscanada, May issue.
John Turnbull. Vanguard, September issue.