Challenge: How do you describe this sensation of being watched?

“Zeugen” consists of thirty-two human-cast robotic faces and a face tracking system, which together follow the movements of viewers in a gallery space. When a viewer approaches the work, the artificial eye lids suddenly open to reveal a grid of thirty-two watching faces. The viewer has access to the front (face side) of the work where the faces are installed, and the back (tech side) of the work where the robotic technology driving the faces is exposed. I consider both the tech side and the face side to be important visual elements. The polished presentation of the face side’s ‘plastic’ surfaces is contrasted with the high-tech, kinetic, and complex presentation of the tech side.

Interactivity on the face side is driven by the tech side of the work, which consists of mechatronic elements. Thirty-two individual robotic contraptions, microcontrollers, and a computer are exposed. On the computer screen, the viewer can see a video stream taken from the front of the work, and a ‘face tracking box’ that frames the faces of viewers interacting on the face side of the work.

At first glance, the faces look uniform because I used a casting process that removes most recognizable features contributing to race, age, and even gender. Upon closer inspection, the viewer may realize that the faces have unique features. Their individual characteristics give them different ‘personalities’; these features include eye colour, face shape, motion gestures made by the robotic eyes etc.

 “Zeugen” has one primary technical function: the work uses face tracking software to locate and follow faces so that the robotic eyes make ‘eye contact’ with the viewer. If the viewer’s face is recognizable to the face tracking software, then all of the robotic eyes will follow their movements.  “Zeugen” can track multiple faces, meaning that several participants can interact with the work at the same time. If a viewer moves from side to side quickly, then the eyes instantly find the viewer’s new position and move to re-establish eye contact in a sudden sweeping movement. 

The role of the participant in “Zeugen” is twofold: the viewer is meant to look at the work, while also being ‘seen’ by the work. When the viewer is looking at the tech side of the work, their interactivity role is removed. The work is only responsive to people standing on the face side. On the tech side, the viewer becomes the ‘examiner’ without any expectations of interactivity.

Results: Successful defence and publication of a Masters of Applied Arts thesis under Emily Carr University of Art + Design.

Skills Needed: human body casting, sculpting, custom robotics, custom microcontroller design and production, rapid material prototyping, custom software and hardware interface programming, research, writing.
Location(s): Vancouver, British Columbia
Budget Range: 80K+
Date / Duration: 2008-2010
Team: Morgan Rauscher, Dr. Ron Burnett, Dr. Maria Lantin, Julie Andreyev and CNC technician Steven Hall.
Partners: Emily Carr University, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

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