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cat's cradle 2020

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mixed media installation, dimensions variable

In this installation we reconstituted some of the ideology behind a well known sculpture, Hiram Powers’ The Greek Slave, using a self-portrait of myself, Lilla, as a stringed marionette. Powers’ sculpture, from 1844, was appropriated by the abolitionists as a symbol of their struggle and became part of the dialogue addressing the political/ethical issues of the time. In a number of ways that conversation continues today and this project seeks to address that. We were interested in provoking the public in a similar, although contemporized way, through their interaction with an atypical, imperfect woman, bound in her environment with the inability to escape. For this installation I was three-dimensionally scanned in a position similar to Powers’ statue and we developed and 3D printed a marionette figure the approximate height of the statue from that scan. In contrast to the 19th century issue of black slavery, this marionette reflects on contemporary gender injustice as well as age bias, her less-than-perfect nudity contrasting with the idealized beauty of the statue.


We are increasingly surrounded by devices that not only can see and sense, but soon, reason and our marionette encapsulates these issues by interpreting the world around it. It’s strings are operated using motors controlled through a micro-controller and a computer. Cameras detect motion and analyze features and gestures from visitors in the gallery, allowing the marionette to, almost imperceptibly at times, engage with viewers in response to their movements, age and gender. The marionette’s responses are rather subtle, quiet and have a quality of stillness that relates to the original statue. Included in the marionette’s software is a simple artificial intelligence using curious learning agents that are an evolutionary step towards a conscious machine. With this addition, the marionette is able to generate unique responses or patterns of responses by learning from a viewer’s engagement rather than responding with a simple, set pattern. The marionette is able to elicit responses from viewers and to create an exchange focusing on the frailty and insecurities of the human participant in their interaction with a machine intelligence. Psychologically, this marionette, an intelligent machine provoking a mute yet human-like dialogue with viewers, bridges a gap between a static statue, such as The Greek Slave, and an interactive experience, allowing the marionette and the viewer to engage in unpredictable ways as well as provoke a dialogue on contemporary issues.

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