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<nettime> Norman T. White

This summer we visited with a Dutch camera crew robotic and machine
artist Norman White. I wrote an article about White for the Dutch
Paper NRC-Handelsblad, published on 1 october 2006. This is the
English translation, with thanks to Sam Nemeth & Norm White. Ine Poppe


The Normill is an old watermill in Durham (Ontario, Canada), a village
80 miles Northwest of Toronto. The big concrete and brick building
next to a stunningly beautiful pond, was bought years ago by artist
Norman T White (San Antonio, Texas, 1938) The mill smells like old
flour, animal carcasses and bat shit and harbours the soul of Norman
White. His personal history is visible in the old photos of the
Dutch island children once owned by his grandmother. The building is
littered with the material his work is made of: machine parts and a
bunch of old computers. The raw architecture of the construction seems
hardly altered in the years White lived in it. He sleeps over the gas
stove in the kitchen in a small attic. The reason why he lodges here
lies in the cold winters, when snow piles up and the temperature drops
below zero. The building is spacious: it has a clean working spot; a
big storage space, a cellar, actually a steel workshop; a room full
of closets and drawers stacked with electronics; enough room for a
large bat colony that lives in the cracks in the impressive walls.
You can walk around for hours, investigate the archives, the boxes
with machine parts and printed circuit boards, wired art pieces in
themselves. In the corner of the cellar leans a big raft made of
plastic bottles against the wall.

Norman White, almost seventy years, looks young: more a boy then a
man. His friends say that his looks never changed, he is the same as
thirty years ago. White is a myth in and outside of Canada. He is one
of the godfathers of electronic-, machine- and robotic art and taught
for more then twenty five years at the Ontario College of Art and
Design in Toronto. His offspring is well known in the electronic art
world, Doug Back, Peter Flemming, Jeff Man, Graham Smith and David
Rokeby are his former students. And they all visit his annual parties
at the Normill, to celebrate their friendship with fires, swimming,
music and art. Regularly artists from all over the world join and
camps at the mill. White and his friends organised robot fights,
machine wrestling: =91Rawbotics & Sumo robots=92 long before it became

White won several international awards and his art is shown all over
the world. On his website you can find descriptions of his works. It
starts with the motto: =93We fix toasters!=92 The explanation: =91I don't
really fix toasters, although I'd be proud if I could. Almost nobody
fixes toasters. This is because a modern toaster is nearly impossible
to fix, held together with little bendy tabs that break off if you
bend them more than twice. The toaster manufacturer naturally expects
that you do the Right Thing -- toss that dysfunctional item in the
dump and buy a new one! All in all, the working toaster is a perfect
symbol for modern utility in general... glamorous and efficient!
Nevertheless, staring at this glamorous efficient high-resolution
computer screen for hours at a time, you and I are both wrecking our
eyes, not to mention our social lives. But, hey, I don't mind... do
you?=92 In the Normill White designs and constructs appliances which,
unlike toasters, are clearly pointless and useless, according to his
own motto. A few years ago, White gave a lecture in Amsterdam (still
visible online, see below). Supported with visual evidence White
talked about the clumsiness of machines: =91we try to imitate life with
raw materials; artists make flesh out of clay, fruit out of canvas.
Why should I make an artificial creature? Not to improve nature.=92

A work still in development =96 typical for White, who works for years
on projects trying out different versions of an idea =96 is The Helpless
Robot. The work is never finished. White says he presents phases of
his research. The helpless robot looks a bit like a ship. An earlier
machine Facing out Low (1977) that reacts on the audience make noises
like the R2D2 robot in Starwars and White seemed to have to try out
another robot idea. The helpless robot is made of steel, wood and
has handles to move him. There is no motor in the construction, but
it has sensors and a synthetic voice that asks you to touch and move
it about. Based on the movements that it remembers, it tries to
predict human behaviour. White sees this as an exercise in modelling
an artificial personality. The robot says things like: =91I appreciate
your help but you are turning me to far, I said: go to the right! Go
back I said, uh=85 you can turn me now to the left.=92 The personality
does not instruct the audience at random, that would be useless, but
goes through different phases, from friendliness to grumpiness. If you
leave the robot alone long enough, it mumbles that nobody visits a
gallery anymore nowadays. It becomes depressed when it is left alone,
not touched anymore and if you work enthusiastically with it he takes
you for granted, and looses interest.

White explains: =91I fall asleep of video. I need smell, taste, =20
something tactile: typical elements for a 3 dimensional system that =20
can break. That interests me: things that can break.=92 For Whites work =20
breaking is not typical, he is proud that one of his first art pieces =20
he made for the Canadian Broadcast Company in Vancouver (1975), =20
existing off hundred of lamps, still works after more then thirty =20
years. The bulbs in a large (8 ft.x 40 ft.) logic/light mural =20
simulate raindrops falling randomly on the surface of a quiet pond. =20
Of course machine parts break down, for instance during transport. =20
When we were visiting, White was repairing the brain of the helpless =20
robot for an exhibition in Europe.

White has a modest personality, speaks slowly and laughs a lot. =91Of =20
great influence was the Comedia dell=92 arte show I saw years ago in =20
San Francisco. If a plane flew by or a woman pushing a baby carriage =20
came along, it was used in the performance: it became part of the =20
show. That is fantastic because you never know what will happen. You =20
see this sort of sensibility also with some Dutch artists like Willem =20
de Ridder and Theo Janssen, the sensibility to integrate. I use =20
electronics not to maintain control but to loose control. An example: =20
a former student of mine worked without deep knowledge with motors =20
invented a fascinating chaotic system by accidentally omitting =20
certain essential components called capactors. In so doing, he =20
created something he could impossibly have designed otherwise and =20
that surprised engineers.=92

White taught himself electronics in the 60-ies: =91In the 25 years that
I taught I made clear to my students that I didn=92t want artists to
hire engineers to do the electronic work for them but to get involved
themselves. It sounds maybe threatening or too complicated. My Dutch
mother had an expression: =91To get to Candy Land, you must first eat
through a mountain of rice =96 door een berg rijstebrij heen eten- that
was electronics for me, it became candy: I got interested, involved
and started to study magazines and built all sorts of stuff. Over
the years I found that electronics is more about patterns than about

White traveled a lot in his life. He got is BA in biology at Harvard
University in 1959, left for New York and San Francisco where he
enrolled in art classes. Too young for the beatnik-generation and
later too old to be a hippie, White grew up in a period when art and
technology went through a golden era: exhibitions about Cybernetic
Serendipity (ICA, London 1968), The Machine (MOMA, New York 1968),
Software (Jewish Museum NYC, 1970), worldwide kinetic art pieces and
to top it off the first moon landing on 20 July 1969. Influential
was the Canadian professor Marshall McLuhan who wrote Understanding
Media (1964), a bestseller, translated in more then 20 languages.
White refers to Mc Luhan a few times during our talks. Like more
artists of his generation White traveled through North Africa. He
became fascinated by Islamic patterns; which years later influenced
his design of printed circuit boards and the logical processes they

The time we are at the mill, we enjoy White=92 s stories about the
failed taming of a skunk; a project in the village with girls from
secondary school building a =91dancing fountain=92; how he found the
mill and how he shared it with other artists; about Them Fucking
Robots a project with artist Laura Kikakau with whom he agreed to
make a breathing and moving sex machine. They both made a male and
a female robot, without consultation each other, only about the
format of the genitals. The robots performed publicly making a lot
of noise, but first White had to file its penis because its rough
edges made penetration difficult. And then I haven=92t even mentioned
the stories about the first online communication projects before the
Internet as we know it even existed, in which White with other artists
experimented with interactive storytelling, ascii-drawings; or the
telecommunication project together with artist Doug Back, Telephonic
Arm Wrestling (1986), where contestants in two different cities were
allowed to arm-wrestle, using motorized force-transmitting systems
interconnected by a telephone data link. You can find all this and
more on his website, and comments like: =91Art as pure self-expression
doesn't interest me very much. Self- expression inevitably creeps
into art, but I would prefer that it sneaks in through some back
door. For me, Art comes alive only when it provides a framework for
asking questions. Science provides that framework too, but 'good
science' is too constrained for me. I would rather ask questions
that simultaneously address a multitude of worlds... from living
organisms to culture to confusion and rust. Only art can give me that
generality.=92 After being a while in the Normill I found out this is no
humbug. To use one of Whites favorite quotes: =91If I'm going to work
for an idiot, it might as well be me.=92

The Helpless Robot of Norman White is on show from 12 October till 12 =20
November in the Trondelag Centre for Contemporary Art in Trondheim, =20
Lecture: =13

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