Artist Feature: Bryan Cera and Critical Machining

Bryan Cera is a former student of mine (he did both his BFA and MFA with me at UW-Milwaukee), and I couldn’t be prouder. Not that I can honestly take any responsibility for the person and artist Bryan has become – one who far surpassed his teacher long ago; but rather, I am proud to call him a friend and colleague, proud of the hard work he has done, and what he has achieved with it.

Cera was the featured artist at Maker Faire Milwaukee last weekend – the largest Maker Faire in the country – showing off his custom-designed 3D/ceramic printer, and some Daft Punk cosplay, among other things. The former’s main innovations are a vertical shaft worm gear box in order to seriously increase torque, so as to work with standard clay (rather than the over-watery liquid that often doesn’t hold form in most models), and real-time, manual  controls to similarly adjust speed and viscosity as needed. The latter (which gets heaps of Interweb hits), he happily told us, uses an Arduino Nano and addressable RGB LEDs.

But it is not Bryan’s technical innovation nor his open source attitude alone that make me proud. He was always this way, generous and smart, able to figure things out and willing to help others understand them. (See some of Cera’s best tutorial shares here.)

What continues to intrigue and impress me is Cera’s ability to smoothly move between cool pop culture fun, and important questions about how we perform and understand technology, ourselves, and the worlds they together make and change. For him, and for anyone who spends any time with him, art and craft, technology and culture, philosophy and fun, are never far apart – and the stakes in that distance – or the lack thereof – always have consequences.

When I met him, Bryan was making traditional art and going through school on the one hand, playing with technology and his sense of humor on the other. He didn’t see these two lives as connected until he was pushed to explore his fun and geeky side in his (home) work. What initially came out was various versions of Supercontroller – a full-body, interactive interface for Super Mario Brothers. Delightfully fun, we grab coins and jump over (or on top of) turtles to rack up points; this piece’s various iterations also begin to show how digital realms do not enhance our behaviors: they actually limit them in how we must face the screen and interact. Pung – the title a cross between the 80s game Pong and the word sung (like singing) – sees us control the up/down paddles of the classic table tennis arcade game with our voices. Here microphones stick out like robot arms from the screen, and gallery-goers sing and scream into their controllers in order to make it go. It’s a hilarious amplification (literally!) of the weird things we do to make our technologies function (watch the video!), between play, performance, and habit.

These two works embarked Cera on a journey around precisely the tensions between such things. One breakthrough open-source piece that got a lot of attention was Glove One: a fully functional phone you wear on your hand. Though a lot of folks really loved it – you dial on your fingers, do the classic “call me” gesture to speak and listen with your thumb and pinky, hang up by slamming your fist – there was a much funnier, and more critical, joke to the entire gesture. You see, there’s this great hand-phone you can use with natural movements and that looks super cool… and all you have to do is give up all other uses of your hand. You can’t do anything else. Pick things up, hold hands with your partner, wipe – none of it is a go. And Cera’s argument is that we often give up just so much when we adopt our new tech toys. Even when our phones are not there, for example, when we try to shut down and shut off, we feel the phantoms ringing in our pockets, pulling away our attention and our time…

ARAI: Arm For Artistic Inquiry (pronounced array) goes in another direction, but explores similar concepts. We constantly hear how robots are going to outperform us, steal our jobs, become more human. One core argument for this future is so that we humans can spend more time doing important things… What if, Cera asks, we made a robot more human, by having it do the things that humans would actually do in that free time? So… he made a robot that procrastinates. I kid you not. ARAI constantly opens the fridge, peers in, then closes it. It surfs Facebook for pictures of cats. It stares at magazines but does not read them. Ironically, says Cera, the more human the robot becomes, the more useless it is to us. Scary, funny, something to think with… He talks about it brilliantly in the TEDx talk above.

I’m super excited to see what’s next from Bryan Cera. Now an Assistant Professor of Craft and Emerging Media in the Media Arts Department at the Alberta College of Art and Design (that’s a mouthful of awesome right there), he seems to be playing out how more general materials think and act, and how they may change our media, alongside and within them. His beautiful Video Crystals, for example, shape moving images into moving sculptures, and he is in the process of imagining ceramic robots.

Good job, Bryan. Thank you for your work.

implicit art… restart (on Mo Gawdat’s Solve for Happy)

With the pending release of my new book (Ecological Aesthetics: artful tactics for humans, nature, and politics) in June or July of next year, and all the goings-on of the last couple of years in my life / the world, I’ve decided it might be time to reboot the blog I began back in Johannesburg circa 2002, and which teetered off and eventually died after two continental moves. Whereas that site began with my writings on art and politics, moved into regional discussions of aesthetics and culture and back again, here…. um, well… yeh, it will similarly be on whatever I feel like posting about, that I think is interesting.

For now, the new tagline is “art and ecology, fiction and geek stuff, culture and philosophy, parenting and life, etc”.

Forthcoming: a bit on my new book, some interesting tidbits from students in the classes I am teaching this semester (two Digital Studio courses, and one in Mechanical Engineering, plus some extra-curriculars), and thoughts on some great new art and books I’ve seen and read this Summer. You can expect to hear from me about once per week from now.

For now, a briefiew (yeh, I just made that up, a “brief review” portmanteau.  Tho I’m sure someone else has used it before, and it may not have gone down well. I decided against googling it, and ruining it for myself….) on Mo Gawdat’s Solve for Happy.

There are some lovely, and funny, and sad moments in this book, about a Google engineer’s quest for contentment, where he found and lost and found happiness before and after the death of his son. Gawdat hopes to share, simply, how to live with ourselves, and others, in the moment. He has an actual equation and formula, with numbers and lists and drawings (I’m actually listening to the audiobook, so I just imagine them, tho it comes with a PDF; his voice is very soothing). Honestly, Gawdat’s outlook mostly feels like a contemporary (and geeky) take on Eckhart Tolle’s Power of Now (which my mom likes way more than I do).

In the end, overall, it’s worth your time (even if, like me, there are few self-help books you are into – non-fiction is, of course, much broader than this!). The author is likable, his stories moving, his personality generous and relatable. And I’d like to share my favorite bit, which more or less goes as follows: the voice in your head is not you.

That person, who you think is you, who criticizes the way you eat, or move, or work out? The one who replays conversations in your head (or in my case, out loud), or wonders why that person at work is being that way towards you? That voice, which questions you, or the world, or the ones you care about? Overall, your inner monologue… That person is not you. That’s a construct of a person, the one who got praise or punishment from parents and teachers, and followed suit; he or she is the one who performs for others. That is not the real you. YOU are the one observing that criticizer. And you do not have to listen to the voice.

I’ve named the voice in my head Ferdinand. He is a bit of a dick, and I like to roll my eyes at, and make fun of, him. It has seriously changed things around here. So… thanks for that, Mo Gawdat’s Solve for Happy.