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January 17 – February 16, 2002
Conceptual Artist Kelly Heaton Redefines the Idea of the Reflected Image in a Sculpture Built from 400 Reprogrammed Furbies™
NEW YORK, NY – January 2002 – The Furby. Where millions of American children saw the latest must-have toy, artist Kelly Heaton saw two things: a pixel (the element that constitutes an image, as in a mosaic) and a symbol of artificial intelligence in everyday life. Those ideas led to the creation of “Reflection Loop,” a ground breaking reactive sculpture in which viewers see themselves reflected in a seven-foot wall of blinking, chattering Furbies. On January 17, 2002, Reflection Loop will make its New York debut at bitforms (529 W. 20th Street, New York City).
Heaton began the piece in 2000 while studying at the world-renowned MIT Media Laboratory. A trained artist among computer engineers and programmers (Heaton studied Fine Arts at Yale), she leveraged her unique perspective and the resources available to her at MIT to realize a creative vision that demanded the most advanced digital technology.
“I was going for a reciprocal relationship in my art, a mirror image that only a reflecting pool can give. At the same time, I wanted to understand machine intelligence and the ways it’s inextricably bound up with contemporary culture,” explains Heaton. “When I look at Reflection Loop, the art actually looks back at me. I am no longer completely in charge of my reflection; the power structure changes when you are seeing yourself in 400 reprogrammed Furbies.”
Allusions to the classic reflecting pool are numerous and intentional. The piece is slightly convex, evoking the meniscus on the surface of a pool or even a glass of water. And the face of the Furby itself, with its three circles for eyes and mouth, is structured like a water molecule (H2O). Visitors to bitforms will find themselves staring at their own reflection in a pool of machine intelligence. This reference is one of many in the work. Heaton conducted rigorous research before beginning the piece and has exhaustively documented her process. In order for viewers to get a sense of the complex influences involved in the production of the work, a large bound book filled with documents, sketches, and photographs will be included in the exhibit. These documents are like a biography for Reflection Loop – a new form of “living” art.
How It Works
Like an unscathed Furby, the 400 pixels can move their eyes and mouths by motor control. But that’s where the similarity ends. These Furbies have been retrofitted with an infrared detection system and a microcontroller that forces them to behave like reactive pixels. And this retrofitting was no small task: it took more than $20,000 of electronic parts, a mile of wire and approximately 100,000 solder joints to create Reflection Loop.
Heaton worked with MIT engineer Steven Gray to re-engineer all 400 Furbies in an incredibly complex and time-consuming process. Out of the box, a Furby comes with sensors that respond to physical interaction, such as tummy tickling and back rubbing, but Heaton modified the Furbies in Reflection Loop to live in a purely virtual world. Her pixels “think” that they are receiving external stimuli, but in actuality, the sensory events are fully simulated by custom software (think “Furby Matrix”). The only input that they receive from the physical world is infrared reflection off of a viewer’s body, which let’s them know that someone is “out there.”Reflection Loop deprives the Furby –once an emblem of artificial intelligence–of its ability to act independently. In the name of art, these poor creatures can only react to the physical presence of another body.
“Reflection Loop is one of the most innovative and thought-provoking works I’ve ever experienced,” said Sacks. “It’s the ideal bitforms piece since Kelly’s artistic vision could not have been achieved without the use of digital technology.”
Furby™ is a trademark of Tiger Electronics, Ltd. Neither the artist nor bitforms gallery have any relationship with Tiger Electronics and the trademark is used without permission.