We tend to think of art as a distinctly human instinct—the tortured artist, Van Gogh, Young Werther, etc. etc. But Blind Self Portrait, a machine designed by artist and programmer Kyle McDonald that uses a computer to "help" you draw a self-portrait, challenges that perception, or at least adds a complicating factor. The system was designed and built this spring in a collaboration between McDonald and Matt Mets, a programmer who works for MakerBot.
McDonald explains that he and Mets—both based in Brooklyn—started trading ideas about pen plotters, drawing, and 3-D printing earlier this year. Computer drawing has been around for decades, but the duo imagined a system where human and computer worked together to draw. "We realized that we already had the parts we needed to build a device that would guide your hand: the bottom half of a MakerBot 3-D printer," the artist tells Co.Design. But what, exactly, did their the system draw? Signatures? A vision from your future? Finally, they settled on self-portraits—"mostly for the irony."
Using input from his laptop’s camera, McDonald built a computer vision algorithm that draws facial contours. Meanwhile, Mets designed and coded a special table that moves underneath the subject’s hand, guiding their pen to the computer-generated lines.
Sit down at their laptop, pick up a pen, and rest your hand against the board. Make sure your arm is relaxed. Smile (or don’t, whatever), then close your eyes when the board starts to move. That part’s crucial, explain the duo. "Keeping your eyes closed turned out to be really important both as a mode of interaction, and for helping you focus on the haptic experience of the platform movement."
So is it tough to learn to trust the movement of the computer? When the project debuted last week at Slapdash, a monthly exhibition in Crown Heights, testers ranged from artists to small children. "Artists who are used to drawing tend to have the most difficult time," comments McDonald. "Some people have trouble relaxing their arms and letting the platform guide them, or they will try to guess which way the platform will move."
McDonald has been described as a "hacker artist." His work is a rare mixture of technical know-how and social insight, ranging from a year-long project that tweeted every 140 characters he typed, to Subpixel, a device that cuts useable "pixel" stickers out of subway advertisements. He made national news last year when the Secret Service took an interest in him, after he installed a program on Apple store display computers that transmitted images of the visitors testing them. People Staring At Computers became a sensation, and to a certain extent, McDonald became a passive spectator to his own art.
Like that project, Blind Self Portrait asks humans to accept non-living entities—computers, programs—as participants in the art-making process. In a way, the subject isn’t doing much except being an empty vessel through which the computer draws. As McDonald says on his Vimeo page, "when the drawing is complete, it’s unclear who should be signing the work."