Keynote Title: The Machine as Alien Ethnographer: Advanced Computation, Open Source Systems and Art

Keynote Abstract: The last decade or so of development in open source hardware, software and data has brought an astonishing richness of resources for artists: Python and C++ libraries for natural language processing, biological simulation, data programming and machine learning – such as TensorFlow, NLTK, openFrameworks and project Gutenberg.  As well as continually expanding functionality, increased accessibility has drastically brought down the barriers to entry and exploration.

In this talk I describe how it is to be an artist working in this field. My particular take is from a scientific/technology background, with many years in academic research and commercial R&D, before becoming an artist.  I explore some of the unique expressive capacities of computation, transforming from one mode and medium to another, taking input signals from the physical world, generating output, provoking the human viewer-participant to action.  In all these artworks there is a sense of the machine probing the audience – the machine as ethnographer.

The artworks are manifested as physical objects, projection, sound, words, machines.  ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights, or The Right To Be Forgotten’ is a large interactive projected piece, examining willing and unwitting exposure of personal data online.  ‘Some Small Robots Perform Recent New Media Output Concerning AI’ presents five small robots, designed and programmed each to act out a recent headline from popular news coverage of the hype and fears surrounding AI.  ‘The Psychotropic Lounge’, with interactive sofa and wallpaper, takes as its starting point a short story from J G Ballard, anticipating the technological singularity. ‘Salty, Bitter, Sweet’ presents a primitive raw machine, as it constructs itself, explores its world and begins to express itself.

While the tools of making, media of execution and the subject matter revolve around computation, these things do not operate in isolation.  This statement is intended in two senses.  In a material sense, it’s not just about hardware, software and data: it’s about people, performativity; live, organic and decaying matter.  In a social-cultural sense, if an artist’s job is to create or present meaning, this implies that it’s impossible not to take a critical position: technology is not neutral.


Laura decided to become an artist after many years working in academic research in the Computer Science department at UCL and in commercial R&D. She went on to study Fine Art at Central Saint Martins and at Goldsmiths, University of London.

In her art practice she considers the reciprocal roles of technologies in how we experience, cope with, make sense of, and construct ourselves and our world.  She explores these ideas through interactive installations, which combine physical materials, video, audio, robotics, rotting organic matter, live data streams and machine learning.  She aims to engage the viewer-participant with a sensorially rich and provocative experience.  Virtual objects can intrude into the ‘actual’ world, and objects are activated with a kind of primitive consciousness.  

Her work is often collaborative, created for unusual sites and contexts.  She co-curates and organises projects and exhibitions with the London-based art collective XAP.

Since being selected for the Lumen Prize world tour in 2014-5, Laura has taken part in many projects with them, amongst which, she has been commissioned to create an interactive installation for the Eureka children’s discovery museum in Halifax, to be installed later in 2018. She was recently invited to join pioneering digital women artists in ‘Technology Is Not Neutral’ (2016) and ‘V&A Digital Futures’ (2017).

Laura Dekker