The first cybernetic sculpture was created by an artist from Poland. Initially greeted with enthusiasm, it disappeared without a trace
Edward Ihnatowicz, an English artist of Polish origin, lives in London in a garage he’s turned into a workshop. He’s at a low ebb. His marriage is on the rocks. He’s making cybernetic and sound sculptures.
He comes from old eastern borderlands of Poland. He went to school in Lvov but his education was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War. His father, a Polish officer, died in Kharkiv. His mother and himself were lucky and managed to escape from Poland. After the war and years of wandering they finally settled in the UK. There, in the Ruskin School of Art, Edward studied painting, sculpture, filming and photography. He had a knack for technology. He was passionate about electronics although he was self-taught in this domain. Years later, his son, Richard, would relate that there was no such things his father couldn’t do: after reading up on a problem, he was able to construct any machine on his own.
Edward is an outsider. He’s not a part of the London artistic society. In the black and white picture we can see him sitting in his workshop among the elements of partially constructed electronic devices, wearing a shirt, jumper and tie. He looks like a Polish engineer from 1960s and not like a member of the English bohemia wrapped up in niche cybernetic art.
“In 1960s cybernetics was widely discussed by the café societies of London and New York,” says Anna Olszewska, PhD, Faculty of Humanities, AGH University of Science and Technology. “Artists were developing the art of intermedia, they were creating kinetic sculptures and experimenting with movement as an additional element of a work of art. While some were pursuing career as pop artists, others were exploring a relationship between arts and science in the spirit of pre-war constructivism. Talents and interests of Ihnatowicz fitted that context perfectly.”
His original ideas started to attract art curators’ attention. Jasia Reinhardt, assistant director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, invited him to participate in the Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition, where she presented the works of over 130 composers, engineers, artists, mathematicians and poets: computer-generated pictures and texts, painting machines and cybernetic robots. The exhibition was a true success; in London it was visited by almost 60 thousand visitors, from where it was moved to New York For the first time in history the art based on new technologies was presented to such a big audience.
“Where in London could you take a hippy, a computer programmer, a ten-year-old schoolboy and guarantee that each would be perfectly happy for an hour without you having to lift a finger to entertain them?” asked London tabloid Evening Standard in August 1968 referring to the exhibition.
At Cybernetic Serendipity Ihnatowicz presented his electronic sculpture called SAM or Sound Activated Mobile. It was a mobile structure which responded with gestures to external stimuli. Sounds reaching the SAM’s microphones made it move towards where they came from.
Where in London could you take a hippy, a computer programmer, a ten-year-old schoolboy and guarantee that each would be perfectly happy for an hour without you having to lift a finger to entertain them?
In the past the artist had been creating small-scale sculptures but that was about to change.
“Unexpectedly, a big order came from James Gardner, a curator cooperating with Philips,” explains Anna Olszewska. “He was asked to create a work of art that would lure the crowds. In exchange, the company offered a huge budget and support of its engineers. At the time, in the headquarters of the company in Eindhoven, Gardner was establishing a museum of science.”
In his garage, Ihnatowicz first built a smaller version of his work. He used hydraulic systems; he knew them inside out. Rumor had it he had studied the structure of a lobster to model the framework of the machine and to figure out the way it would move. He fitted the device with sensors and digital control.
After some time, he was offered the support of engineers from University College London. As it was impossible to fit a full-scale cybernetic sculpture into his garage, he continued working on his project at the university. It would soon become his natural environment: his interests and competences would allow him to establish excellent relations with roboticists. Over the next years he would teach a great number of engineers how to design robots.
It was like a steel skeleton of a fantasy-like creature. Despite the height of five meters, it was very agile. It was swinging its long neck and turning its robotic eyes to where sudden movement or louder sound were coming from. It was SENSTER, a sculpture whose name was derived from the words sensual monster. It was greeted with enthusiasm at Evoluon Science Museum, where visitors were crowding around the display area to see and interact with it. People were clapping hands, thumping out a beat on the barriers, trying to attract machine’s attention. They were somewhat frightened, yet fascinated at the same time. No one had ever seen anything like that before!
The museum in Eindhoven resembled a landed flying saucer. The shape of the building reflected architectural visions based on engineering innovations and drawing from orbital space station models. That concept of modernity helped to create the image of Philips, the patron of the project, which used the museum to present technologies implemented by the company. SENSTER, similarly to previous artistic projects sponsored by Philips, was part of the plan. The company’s ambition was to present the first kinetic, computer-controlled sculpture. The agility of movements was possible due to eight synchronized power servos controlled by a computer program. The machine was reading environment signals sent from microphones and Doppler sensors. The interaction sequence is controlled by a program coded in P9201, a prototype Philips computer having the dimensions of a fridge.
SENSTER worked in a performance mode so it required day-to-day maintenance.
“Taking into account the quality of then computers, it must have been hard,” says Anna Olszewska.
The presence of the giant was becoming burdensome too; the structure prevented other items to be showcased. People were constantly clapping their hands to win SENSTER’s attention. But there was another problem; cybernetics was getting less trendy. Intellectual fads come and go. The sculpture was not as interesting as it once had been. Modern art critics are capricious.
“Cybernetics was not all the rage anymore,” says Olszewska. “Neither were other disciplines. In 1970s the first winter came for artificial intelligence. Voices saying that art and science should be separated were getting louder. And there was a war going on in Vietnam: public opinion accused engineers and computer scientists of being too submissive to big corporations and the army. At that point, Philps decided to discontinue the exhibition and to remove the sculpture from the museum in 1974.”
The SENSTER’s fate became a mystery and the sculpture itself was considered a lost work of art.
Its creator was forgotten too. Computer art was to be neglected by curators and art critics for a very long time. But Ihnatowicz didn’t care about it.
The idea of bringing back SENSTER to life was born at the Faculty of Humanities, AGH University of Science and Technology in Kraków.
“We’re the youngest faculty of the university,” says Anna Olszewska. We – cultural experts, philosophers and sociologists – wanted to implement a project that would bring us closer to our technical university. My proposition was SENSTER. I read about it in a 1997 article by Eduardo Kac, who had found SENSTER one of the precursors of cybernetic art, others being Robot K¬456 by Shuya Abe and Nam June Paik (1964) and Squaw by Tom Shannon (1966). The idea was rather abstract as the sculpture had been taken to pieces. But I thought we might be able to reconstruct it at our university. After all, we have so many apt and skillful engineers. It would be a perfect opportunity to finally get to meet each other.”
She started looking for information and documents about SENSTER. On the Internet she stumbled upon some pictures taken in Zeeland, one of the provinces in the Netherlands, which had been uploaded by a random tourist. One of the pictures showed a strange metal construction standing on a meadow in the town of Colijnsplaat. As it turned out, it was a rusty frame of SENSTER.
How on earth has a pioneer work of art ended up on a Dutch field?
The previous owner of the plot of land where SENSTER used to stand, the late Piet Verburg, was an engineer working for Philips.
In 1974, when Philips decided to disassemble SENSTER, Verburg asked if he could take it. “We’re gonna keep the computer, but you can take the frame,” he heard from his supervisors. He transported the construction to his town. On a side note, Verburg also was dealing in electric installations on bridges in Zeeland and electrofishing. He was even an innovator in the latter domain. He discovered a method of generating specific impulses to separate young fish from the old ones in a shoal. SENSTER stood on his field for almost 40 years.
In April 2017 the original frame of the Ihnatowicz’s sculpture was bought by AGH University of Science and Technology in Kraków. The process of reconstruction involved the whole university community. Jerzy Stojek, PhD, a specialist in servomechanisms (a type of closed control systems), and his student Kamil Sikora designed hydraulic systems, i.e. all parts that made it possible for the construction to move. Marek Długosz, PhD, a roboticist, and Rafał Bieszczad were responsible for controlling. The project also involved the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, for example professor Grzegorz Biliński, professor Marek Chołoniewski, Sonia Milewska and Piotrek Madej. Some works, supervised by Jacek Żakowski and Jarosław Mamcarczyk, were carried out in external workshops.
“We’ve preserved 90 percent of the original frame,” says Olszewska. “The sculpture found in Colijnsplaat had no head, so we were forced to reconstruct it basing on whatever visual materials we could find. After some time, one of the former Verburg’s employees sent us a package containing some pieces of the original. We tried to save as much historic material as we could: hydraulic actuators, valves, oil filter casings. However, all “soft parts”, such as control system elements, sensors, and the controller unit itself, are brand new. The original sculpture reacted to sounds and motion in its environment. Our version responds to sounds only. It is fitted with a modern programmable controller.
Today, all those different prostheses and implants make SENSTER look like an old man
Specific models of technological subassemblies go out of use at different paces. Modern microphones differ little from those used by Ihnatowicz; others, such as sensors using the Doppler effect, are constructed these days in an entirely different manner.
“Today, all those various prostheses and implants make SENSTER look like an old man,” says Anna Olszewska.
Indeed, 50 years is a lot for a robot. The sculpture is usually kept in an old industrial hall of the campus.
“For now, it is available to anyone who’s heard about it and wants to see it,” says Olszewska. “It reminds me a bit of visiting ancient pyramids at the end of the 18th century, when Napoleon’s soldiers discovered Egypt covered with the sand of the Sahara. It’s definitely not mass tourism.”
But that’s slowly changing, too. SENSTER will soon appear at the exhibition called “Sculpture in Search of a Place” at the Zachęta Gallery in Warsaw. It will be showcased together with other contemporary art sculptures, hopefully attracting a large turnout.
Its revival wouldn’t have been possible without a growing interest in cybernetics and without cooperation between artists and scientists. Technological universities are investing in interdisciplinary projects. Today, SENSTER is considered to be one of the most valuable works of new media art, a classic example of the implementation of the assumptions of cybernetic art, the essence of which is to create an active work that would interact with the spectators. Critics mention Ihnatowicz as one of the forefront artists who have proved that dialogue between art and science is possible. The groundbreaking exhibition of cybernetic art by Jasia Reinhardt was referred to in 2015 at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw.
The exhibition entitled “Sculpture in search of a place” at the Zachęta Galery in Warsaw, where SENSTER will be presented, is scheduled to open on 28th December.
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