Interactive Installation, 2010/11

by Sibylle Hauert and Daniel Reichmuth

in collaboration with Volker Böhm and Suzanne Zahnd

A project for the exhibition «Roboterträume» at Museum Tinguely and Kunsthaus Graz.

SHIFT Festival Basel 27. – 30.Oktober 2011

Museum Tinguely 9.6 – 12.9.2010

Kunsthaus Graz 9.10.2010 – 09.01.2011

V.O.C.A.L. [ 2 ]
Shedhalle Zürich 6.6.2011 – 19.6.2011


Three stands are set up in a room, holding three oversized futuristic-looking headsets that conspicuously promise a listening experience. They seem to harbour life: they move, detecting the presence of a human intruder and turning towards him. These are the visual coordinates of a field experiment with which Sibylle Hauert and Daniel Reichmuth attempt to set us to thinking about artificial intelligence.

Their artistic collaboration in the area of computer-generated art centres on sensual, performative installations that are often designed as interactive environments whose complexity and impact relies on the active participation and creative potential of the exhibition visitor. While the electronic works created by the artist duo, such as Instant City (2003–2006) and Trickstr (2007), are based on auditory as well as optical parameters, V.O.C.A.L., as a linguistic interaction between human and machine, is conceived as a purely acoustic thought experiment. Starting from the premise that humanoid robots, constructed after mechanistic models of human life, are already a thing of the past, and that the future belongs to disembodied information networks and communication systems – in the form of mega-machines that seem to be animated with soul – V.O.C.A.L. serves to visualise these new modes of communication.

What the viewer first perceives as mere technical equipment reveals itself at the moment of personal address to be, in fact, the physical expression of a technological being. For, although the synthetic quality of the headset voices leaves no doubt as to their artificial origin, Hauert and Reichmuth very deliberately rely on the emotional component of verbal communication, thus extending the functional spectrum of text-based dialogue systems, so-called chatbots, which operate through written language. The artists manage to draw the visitor into this machine-controlled dialogue by means of a simple question-and-answer game. Confronting a logical string of elementary questions on the (putative) fundamental differences between man and machine, the visitor is increasingly forced to rely on his own wits. Meanwhile, the lines of reasoning deployed by V.O.C.A.L. revolve around philosophically charged concepts such as consciousness, self, knowledge, thought, feeling, imagination, memory, soul and faith, which prove to be highly problematic when applied to automatons. While the visitor consequently struggles to come up with answers, the machine calls into question its own nature as a technological construct – serving to upgrade its own status: Do automatons equipped with artificial intelligence have a soul? Or are you perhaps afraid of being exposed as a machine? – In the face of such provocative questions, our conventional patterns of thought and attitudes are ultimately invalidated.

In their artistic experiment, inspired by the Turing Test (the first psychological imitation game based on the central question “Are machines able to think?”) Hauert and Reichmuth thus take a quite pragmatic approach to prompting us to reflect on our relationship to technology from new and unaccustomed perspectives. Moreover, this incidence of interaction within the realm of an electronic sensory experience, which is defined in the installation by the wireless range of the headphones, also makes tangible the current limits of artificial intelligence. And finally the visitor has a chance to witness how the linguistic exchange between human and machine still poses an unresolved problem, realising that speaking doesn’t necessarily mean understanding.

Manuela Kraft

Volker Böhm (conzept, Software) • Suzanne Zahnd (Text) • Michael Egger (technics) • David Johnson (Englisch Translation)

Jan Voellmy (Grafic) • Haimo Ganz (Woodworks) • Vera Bruggmann (Internship) • Conradin Döbeli (Mechanics)

Thanks to: Uwe Schüler • Christoph Frick • Kristin Vodusek • company Sigg • company ConZept • company Precide SA • V2_Lab – Artm Baguinski • Interinar Electronics – Miroslaw Wiater

Supported by:

Kunstkredit Basel-Stadt, Sitemapping/Mediaprojects – Bundesamt für Kultur, Museum Tinguely, Kunsthaus Graz