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TED Fellows Retreat 2013

Aparna Rao: Art that craves your attention

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In this charming talk, artist Aparna Rao shows us her latest work: cool, cartoony sculptures (with neat robotic tricks underneath them) that play with your perception -- and crave your attention. Take a few minutes to simply be delighted.

- Artist
A part of the Bangalore-based artist duo Pors & Rao, TED Senior Fellow Aparna Rao works with electro-mechanical systems and interactive installations. Full bio

Hi. So today, I'd like to share
some works in progress.
00:12
Since we are still realizing these works,
00:15
we are largely working within the realm
00:18
of intuition and mystery, still.
00:19
So I'm going to try and describe
00:22
some of the experiences that we're looking for
00:23
through each of the works.
00:25
So the first work is called the Imperial Monochromes.
00:27
A viewer sort of unsuspectingly walks into the room,
00:30
and catches a glimpse of these panels
00:33
in a messy composition on the wall.
00:36
Within seconds, as if the panels have noticed
00:38
the presence of the viewer,
00:41
they appear to panic and sort of get into
00:42
a strict symmetry.
00:45
(Laughter)
00:47
So this is the sketch of the two states.
00:48
One is total chaos. The other is absolute order.
00:51
And we were interested in seeing how little change
00:53
it takes to move from one state to the other state.
00:56
This also reminded us of two
very different pictorial traditions.
00:59
One is the altar tablets of the 15th century,
01:03
and the other is about 100 years ago,
01:06
Malevich's abstract compositions.
01:08
So I'm just going to take you to a video.
01:11
To give you a sense of scale,
01:13
the largest panel is about two meters high.
01:14
That's about this much.
And the smallest one is an A4.
01:16
So a viewer enters the space,
01:19
and they snap to attention.
01:21
And after a while, if the viewer continues
01:24
to remain in the space,
01:25
the panels will sort of become immune
01:27
to the presence of the viewer
01:29
and become lax and autonomous again,
01:31
until they sort of sense a presence
in the room or a movement,
01:34
when they will again snap to attention.
01:37
(Laughter)
01:40
So here it appears as if it's the viewer
01:42
that's sort of instigating the sense
of order among the panels,
01:44
but it could also be the other way around,
01:47
that the panels are so stuck within
01:49
their preconditioned behaviors
01:52
that they sort of thrust the
viewer with the role of a tyrant.
01:54
So this brings me to a quieter, small work
01:59
called Handheld.
02:02
The viewer sees a piece of paper
02:03
that's mounted on the far end of the wall,
02:05
but when you go closer, you see that it's a blank
02:07
A4, or a letter-sized piece of paper,
02:10
that's held on either side
02:12
by two small hands
02:14
that appear to be carved with a great deal
02:15
of attention and care from a small block of wood.
02:18
The viewer also sees that this entire sculpture
02:21
is sort of moving very slightly,
02:24
as if these two hands are trying
02:27
to hold the paper very still
02:29
for a long period of time,
02:30
and somehow are not managing to.
02:32
So this instability in the movement
02:35
very closely resembles the unsteady nature
02:37
of images seen through a handheld camera.
02:41
So here I'm going to show you two tandem clips.
02:43
One is through a still camera
02:46
and the other is through a handheld camera.
02:47
And you immediately see how the unsteady nature
02:49
of the video suggests the presence
02:52
of an observer and a subjective point of view.
02:55
So we've just removed the camera
02:58
and transferred that movement onto the panel.
02:59
So here's a video.
03:02
You have to imagine the other hand.
It's not there yet.
03:03
But to us, we're sort of trying to evoke
03:06
a self-effacing gesture, as if there's a little person
03:08
with outstretched arms
03:12
behind this enormous piece of paper.
03:13
That sort of likens it to the amount of strain
03:16
to be at the service of the observer and present
03:19
this piece of paper very delicately to the viewer
03:21
in front of them.
03:24
The next work is Decoy.
03:27
This is a cardboard model, so the object
03:29
is about as tall as I am.
03:31
It has a rounded body, two arms,
03:33
and a very tall, head-like antenna,
03:35
and its sole purpose is to
attract attention towards itself.
03:37
So when a viewer passes by,
03:41
it sort of tilts from side to side,
03:43
and moves its arms more and more frantically
03:45
as the person gets closer.
03:48
So here is the first test scenario.
03:51
You see the two movements integrated,
03:53
and the object seems to be employing
03:55
its entire being in this expression of desperation.
03:57
But the idea is that once it's
got the person's attention,
04:02
it's no longer interested, and it looks for the next person whose attention to get.
04:05
(Laughter)
04:09
So this is the final fabricated body of the Decoy.
04:12
It appears to be mass-manufactured
04:15
like it came out of a factory
04:17
like vacuum cleaners and washing machines.
04:19
Because we are always working
04:21
from a very personal space,
04:23
we like how this consumer aesthetic
04:24
sort of depersonalizes the object
04:27
and gives us a bit of distance
04:29
in its appearance, at least.
04:30
And so to us this is a kind of sinister being
04:32
which is trying to distract you from the things
04:35
that actually need your attention,
04:37
but it could also be a figure that needs a lot of help.
04:38
The next work is an object,
04:43
that's also a kind of sound instrument.
04:45
In the shape of an amphitheater
04:48
that's scaled to the size of an audience
04:50
as perceived from somebody from the stage.
04:52
So from where I'm standing,
04:54
each of you appears to be this big,
04:55
and the audience sort of takes the entire
04:57
field of my vision.
04:59
Seated in this audience are 996 small figures.
05:01
They're mechanically enabled to clap
05:05
of their own free will.
05:07
This means that each of them can decide
05:09
if and when they want to clap,
05:11
how hard, for how long,
05:12
how they want to be influenced by
those around them or influence others,
05:14
and if they want to contribute to innovation.
05:18
So when the viewer steps in front of the audience,
05:22
there will be a response.
05:24
It could be a few claps or a strong applause,
05:26
and then nothing happens until the viewer
05:29
leaves the stage, and again
the audience will respond.
05:31
It could be anything from a few feeble claps
05:34
from members in the audience,
05:36
or it could be a very loud ovation.
05:38
So to us, I think we're really looking
05:42
at an audience as its own object
05:44
or its own organism
05:46
that's also got a sort of musical-like quality to it,
05:48
an instrument.
05:52
So the viewer can play it
05:53
by eliciting quite complex and varied,
05:55
nuanced musical or sound patterns,
05:57
but cannot really provoke the audience
06:00
into any particular kind of response.
06:02
So there's a sense of judgment and capriciousness
06:05
and uneasiness involved.
06:08
It also has an alluring and trap-like quality to it.
06:10
So here if you see we're quite excited about
06:14
the image of the head splitting
to form the two hands.
06:16
So here's a small visual animation,
06:20
as if the two sides of the brain are sort of clashing
06:22
against each other to kind of make sense
06:26
of the duality and the tension.
06:28
And here is a prototype.
06:31
So we can't wait to be engulfed by 996 of them.
06:33
Okay, this is the last work.
It's called the Framerunners.
06:38
It comes out of the idea of a window.
06:41
This is an actual window in our studio,
06:44
and as you can see, it's made up of three
06:46
different thicknesses of wooden sections.
06:48
So we used the same window vocabulary
06:50
to construct our own frame or grid
06:52
that's suspended in the room and that can
06:55
be viewed from two sides.
06:57
This grid is inhabited by a tribe of small figures.
06:59
They're also made up of three different sizes,
07:02
as if to suggest a kind of perspective
07:04
or landscape on the single plain.
07:07
Each of these figures can also run backward
07:10
and forward in the track
07:12
and hide behind two adjacent tracks.
07:14
So in contrast to this very tight grid,
07:17
we wanted to give these figures a very comical
07:19
and slapstick-like quality,
07:22
as if a puppeteer has taken them
07:24
and physically animated them down the path.
07:26
So we like the idea of these figures
07:28
sort of skipping along
07:31
like they're oblivious and carefree
07:32
and happy-go-lucky and content,
07:34
until they sort of sense a movement from the viewer
07:37
and they will hide behind the fastest wall.
07:40
So to us, this work also presents
its own contradiction.
07:44
These figures are sort of entrapped
07:48
within this very strong grid,
07:50
which is like a prison, but also a fortress,
07:52
because it allows them to be oblivious
07:55
and naive and carefree and quite oblivious
07:57
of the external world.
07:59
So all these real life qualities that I talk about
08:02
are sort of translated to a very specific
08:05
technical configuration,
08:07
and we were very lucky to collaborate
08:09
with ETH Zurich to develop the first prototype.
08:11
So you see they extracted the motion cogs
08:14
from our animations and created a wiggle
08:16
that integrated the head-bobbing movement
08:18
and the back-and-forth movement.
08:20
So it's really quite small.
08:22
You can see it can fit into the palm of my hand.
08:24
So imagine our excitement when we saw it
08:26
really working in the studio, and here it is.
08:28
(Laughter)
08:33
Thank you.
08:37
(Applause)
08:38

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About the speaker:

Aparna Rao - Artist
A part of the Bangalore-based artist duo Pors & Rao, TED Senior Fellow Aparna Rao works with electro-mechanical systems and interactive installations.

Why you should listen

With the clever use of technology, TED Fellow Aparna Rao creates art installations that let people experience familiar objects and interactions in refreshingly humorous ways. From her sound-sensative "Pygmies" to her 2-person "Uncle Phone," Rao's work encourages participation rather than spectatorship. By combining high-tech and high-art, she imbues her creations with playful expression and quirky behaviors.

Rao studied at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, India, and at Interaction Design Institute in Italy. In 2005 she partnered with Soren Pors and they've worked in collaboration ever since as Pors & Rao.

More profile about the speaker
Aparna Rao | Speaker | TED.com