Enrica Beccalli (supported by Roula Gholmieh)
The day I chose to take part in the contest I was in Brooklyn, where I currently live. When I saw the Open Call the first thing I did was to check out who was in the jury. I always do this, even for tech and design events I want to understand what idea of value and future the panelists have. If there are few women, little diversity and little value, I am not going to get a positive sense out of it. In this case, however, I was impressed by the high competence of the jury. Moreover, I was very impressed by the the topic the contest zeroed in on: a discourse going beyond the technical aspects of technology to move towards a more humanistic point of view. I believe that questioning the impact of AI on our future is very admirable and coherent with my idea of innovation. Last but not least, it was the first time I saw an art prize within the tech environment in my home country and definitely wanted to participate.
First off, thanks for saying it’s amazing, it excites me to know that my artwork leaves a sign in the viewers.
How did I give birth to Complexity? One autumn day, I was entranced observing a flock of birds, when I asked myself: “They’re thousands, but it looks like there’s only one mind guiding them. Who decides? What are they after?” From that moment I started my research on emergent properties. At that time, I was in the midst of my studies on design in complex systems, hence I could easily access the answers to my flock question. That beauty didn’t have a choreography. There wasn’t a single element in the group deciding where to go. That kind of beauty is the result of all the interactions between the members of the group, and this exact particular struck me because although we, as humans, believe to be superior to everything and everyone, we strive to organise ourselves without a leader. Sure, we are extremely complex beings and this increases the difficulty to organise autonomously, but we could learn a thing or two if we looked closely at the nature surrounding and governing us, without putting us in the centre, – or worse, above all.
Thanks to the then director of my university, Giordano Bruno, who was also my professor of mathematics for design, I could deepen my studies on scholars as Bertalanffy and Capra. I got to understand that in our educational model we lack a very important piece: Complexity. We live in a society the complexity of which exponentially increased after the adoption of information technologies, but still we face a notable cultural gap regarding the dynamics governing life, economics, ecosystems, society, and even traffic. My artwork was born exactly from my will to show our role within the system that surrounds us, a role which is neither at the centre nor at the top, since both these concepts crumble in a complex system of nodes and relations. The goal is to tell how our lives and bodies are inextricably tied to what encloses us and how our behaviour causes events which in turn affect us in a loop of feedback we cannot control directly.
To tell all of this in a dance performance, I needed to find a way to make the human figure a part of the whole and not its centre – the recipient, not the operator. We are accustomed to a kind of human-computer interaction where it is the human being to always start the interaction, while the machine is simply the agent carrying out its orders. But what happens when it’s the machine to give commands to humans? What happens to the body and the movements of a performer if the perception of balance is manipulated by an algorithm, if it is the algorithm to impose her what direction to take? Complexity is an attempt to encourage a debate about these thematics. We live in the era of artificial intelligence and it is necessary to start considering technology as a tool able to take decisions autonomously. In this way, it becomes crucial to question ourselves on this to avoid facing gigantic tools of mass discrimination – as it already happened.
Roula and I met during our Master’s at the Parsons School of Design in New York, we were both in the department of Design and Technology. She is Lebanese, I am Italian, we have the Mediterranean in common. It looked like we came from the same educational model, we had the same vision of art and of creativity, the same research of feelings in the design, the same repulsion to shallowness, and the same will to experiment and have fun with technology. We partnered on different artworks during the two years of Master’s, mainly on speculative artworks aimed at the reflection on the use of new technologies and the relation between humans and robots. Even during our solo projects we had long debates and exchanges on philosophical and technical matters.
We have new ideas we would love to work on and projects started in the past we would love to carry on. Even if we live in two different countries now, we will find a way to keep cooperating and, who knows, maybe we’ll work with new artists as well (you who are reading this, don’t hesitate to write to me).
Nice question. I like to see myself designing things which improve the livelihood of people, which are fun and spark reflections, in a research lab at the intersection between art, design, and politics with no budget limits, where I can envision a future less scary than the one we envision today.
To apply the Human Centered Design to a project means to lay the foundations of its success, since it means to centre on the needs of the people. Sure, you should never forget that if you put people at the centre you should also evaluate the ecosystem we are in. For a long time, people’s needs have been put aside to make space for companies’ needs and for a standardisation that, as a matter of fact, excluded whole categories: women, old people, disabled people, children. So, we created a world made of objects, environments, services, and systems suitable only for one kind of standard person (which wasn’t standard at all) while the remainder had to adapt.
Today, especially in the USA, thanks to the work of activists for the rights of women, black people, and the LGBTQI community, creative teams tend to be more diverse and inclusive and a new awareness on the role of empathy in the phase of design has spread.
This is a nice question, gratitude is often underestimated, but it is in the moment you express it that you notice you took a step forward, it’s a fundamental moment of awareness. I would like to thank, besides my grandparents who are watching me from high above (I love the fact that you mentioned them), my numerous family that has never stopped to support me and to buy me plane tickets to attend exhibitions, always in the first row. I would like to thank every single member of the two Fulbright commissions, the Italian and the American one, since they prompted me to shake my life, get out of my comfort zone, continue my studies in one of the greatest universities of the world and kick-start the career I dreamt about in the USA (although I really hope to do this in Italy one day).
I would like to thank the jury of Re:Humanism for the award to my project. In particular, I’d like to thank Alberto Adamo and Daniela Cotimbo for the opportunity to represent Re:Humanism to the RomaEuropa Festival, it’s been an honour.
I would like to thank Anouk Froidevaux for having provided her experience, her talent, and her body to my research, trusting and dancing with a home-made GVS, at her own risk.
I don’t know what future goals are awaiting me and who will be by my side, but I want to thank him/her from this moment and I hope to be as fundamental.
Thanks to those of you who are reading this and have spent your time checking through this window on my world.
Enrica Beccalli - "Complessità" - ReHumanism Art Prize
Enrica is an interaction designer and Fulbright scholar. Fascinated by the interaction between humans and new technologies, between individual and collectivity her projects are all about complexity, emotions and behavior. Selected by the Italian Fulbright Commission and financed by the department for International Affairs of the Italian Ministry of Education to earn a MFA in Design and Technology in Parsons which awarded her further Scholarships for demonstrating ability in combining design and new technologies. Her teaching career began in ISIA Roma Design (Italy) and has continued in Parsons where she taught the course the Design of the everyday Technology. Alongside her academic career she worked for multiple design research Labs and for ESPN+NYC Media Lab on the future of live sport consumption. Her work Complessità has been showcased at the NYC Media Lab annual Summit, Tribeca Film Festival, NYC Creative Tech Week e Digital Design Days. Enrica’s work has been featured on The Creators Project, Agenda Culturelle, Loves by Domus. Awarded of the “Extraodinary Abilities in the Arts” American visa, she has been working for three years as Interaction Design Lead for a tech company specialized in online Identity verification, computer vision and machine learning and she recently joined Johnson&Johnson Design studio
Roula is a Lebanese Brooklyn based digital artist, designer and architect. Her work is at the intersection of arts and technology ranging from installations for physical spaces to interactive objects and digital experiences. She focuses on the playful and unexpected; always pushing the boundaries of traditional narratives through the melding physical and digital. Roula holds an MFA in design and technology from Parsons NY and a BA of Architecture from the American University of Beirut. Her work has been exhibited at the Tribeca Film Festival Interactive, Creative Tech Week, SXSW and NYC Media Lab
Description of the work
Complessità is a performance that reverses the traditional human-machine interaction to reveal the beauty of complexity and our role within it. At the crossroads of arts, technology, science, and biohacking Complessità brings us into a new dimension where technology collaborates with a moving human body as the operator and not just the executor.
Our role within complexity is explored through a transposition of data from virtual to biological, using a Galvanic Vestibular Stimulator (GVS) that ties the performer’s body direction to the direction of a flocking algorithm projected as a particle display. The dancer is forced to sway according to the flock’s movements, thanks to GVS that sends electric messages to the nerve in the ear which maintains balance. By altering the performer’s vestibular sense, their perception of how they are oriented in space changes to align with the flock. This performance represents the continuity of humans and the natural world. Contrary to the presumptions of anthropocentrism, we are all at the mercy of complexity; we are part of a whole, with no center to which we are fundamentally tied. The ultimate goal of this piece is a cultural shift from egocentrism to ecocentrism, and the use of technology plays a symbolic role in changing the paradigm from self-assertion to integration with a whole greater than the sum of its parts. This piece questions authority, power, and human behavior. Computer science and sensing technologies have introduced multiple ways to transfer data from physical to digital contexts, but rarely the opposite.Therefore, we see interactive performances where A/V components are manipulated in a one-way type of interaction. In Complessità, the machine loses its unilateral position as a receiver of human instruction and instead participates (finally) in an expressive, mutual work of art. Singularity and collectivity operate across both biological and computational contexts, resulting in symbiotic human-technology relations. GVS Device