An Exercise in Irony

An interview with Norman White about Telephonic Arm Wrestling.

In January 2022 Dutch artist Marnix de Nijs interviewed Norman White as part of his research into art and networked touch. In the 1980s Norman White developed Telephonic Arm Wrestling together with Douglas Back. This was an installation that enabled two people in different places to play a game of arm wrestling using two robot arms connected over a telephone connection. It is one of the earliest examples of transmitting touch over a network. The interview took place online, and V2_’s archive editor Arie Altena was also present to ask questions. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation. A much shorter video excerpt is part of Marnix de Nijs’ exhibition Transnational Activation of Simultaneous Touch from 19 – 22 May 2022 at V2_ in Rotterdam.

Marnix de Nijs: How did the project Telephonic Arm Wrestling start? Where did the idea come from?

Norman White: It wasn’t my idea originally. It’s was a fellow artist, Doug Back, who came up with it. He was having a beer with his friend Carl Hamfelt, throwing ideas around. There was an arms race going on at the time between the United States and the Sovjet Union. They said, wouldn’t it be great if there was a arm wrestling machine. One in Gorbachev’s office – I think it was Gorbachev who was presiding over a Russia at the time – and one in Ronald Reagan’s office. Instead of fighting with rockets or threatening to do so, they could arm wrestle with each of other, and solve their differences that way. They told me about the idea and I said, let’s do it! It seemed a doable project at the time. We knew it was possible to send force information back and forth across a telephone network. The whole thing, when it was built, would be largely analog. The two robot arms would be identical and each one would measure the position and force that it exerted on the arm at the other end. That data was then sent out, after being averaged with the information coming from the other arm. A servo-motor put the arm in the appropriate position according to the force and the position dictated by the averaging out. The only digital part of the installation was that the information had to be digitized to send and receive via a modem.

Originally Doug and I had lots of discussions about how to actually send the information. At first, he suggested we should only send a wavering tone that would represent position and force, but I thought that the resolution wouldn’t be good enough. Therefore I wanted to send the information digitally, using modems. These would be 1200 baud modems, relatively slow but adequate for the job. In those days, the information for international calls was usually sent up to a satellite and then back down to the receiver. So we needed to take satellite delays into account too. We were using dedicated phone lines back then; we weren't using the Internet. We would be sending these 1200 baud signals, basically sounding like sssssshhhhhh, across dedicated phone lines.

We agreed that I would work on the electronics and Doug on the mechanics. Doug settled upon torque wrenches that mechanics use to tighten bolts that are set for a certain torque. There is a little slider that moves up and down as the force is applied to the wrench. This enabled us to put a linear potentiometer on the slider and determine the force that was being applied. We also had a potentiometer at the pivot point where the elbow would be that, along with the force sensor, determined the position of a servo-motor shaft. These two factors were digitized, sent back and forth over the telephone lines after averaging. This created the illusion of the two arms being in sync.

Now, of course the delays that were inherent in sending the information back and forth were quite large. There could be even a one-second delay before one signal would reach the other end. This meant that both arms could win simultaneously because in a second you can push the arm to the limit. We already realized that this work was to be more an exercise in irony than an exercise in scientific accuracy.

At the time, we didn’t have a place to show the piece. We mentioned it to Professor Derrick de Kerckhove who presided over the McLuhan program at the University of Toronto. He loved the idea. There was a show coming up as part of a conference on telecommunication,  the original Strategic Arts Initiative (a pun on Reagan's “Strategic Arms Initiative”), happening between Salerno in Italy, and the Artculture Resource Center in Toronto. He thought our idea would be perfect for this show with different artists all working with telecommunications projects. He had good connections with the engineering department at the University of Toronto and predicted that they could build the whole thing for us. We said: go for it! So Professor De Kerkhove got in touch with the engineers who replied, yes, we can do it, but it'll cost you $75,000. Of course we did not have that kind of money, and it was far beyond what we could get from the Canadian Council.

Therefore Doug and I went back to our original idea of building it from junk and stuff we could get from surplus electronics stores. With that we put the installation together. The only problem was that Doug, who is a very laid back kind of guy, took his time building the mechanics. When I was getting on the airplane to leave for Italy, the piece had not been tested yet. It was very stressful. And when we were doing our communications tests by telephone with Toronto from Salerno, I could hardly hear the voice at the other end, whereas if someone made a slight noise in the same room, it would be deafening. In other words, the telephones were somehow hooked up incorrectly so that local noises were highly amplified, and noises coming from the end of the phone were barely audible. Needless to say, when the time came to demonstrate the installation, it didn’t work. In Toronto there was a large number of people assembled at ARC (Artculture Resource Centre) to see it happen. That was very disappointing.

It wasn’t the end of the story, because the show had to move to the Canadian consulate in Paris. I set up the arm again, and this time the phone connection was good. But Doug did not want to do it again. ‘Norm, it doesn't work,’ he said. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘it works. There was a problem with the telephone. You’ve got to get down to ARC and set this thing up.’ ‘No, no, it's not gonna work, and I'm too busy.’ I finally persuaded him to go down to the ARC and hook up the arm. Lots of people were watching at the Canadian consulate in Paris but noone in Toronto except Doug. Fortunately this time around we demonstrated that the arm worked. Doug could feel me pushing on the arm the other way, and you could see the robot arm in Paris moving when he was pushing. It was uncanny, because I could almost feel his blood pulsing, in the way the arm behaved. Of course, as I mentioned, the delays in sending the signal back and forth meant that that both people could win simultaneously. It wasn't really a competition, as we had first envisioned it, but an ironic display of technology. That’s basically the story of Telephonic Arm Wrestling.

Marnix de Nijs: You did a remake much later, in 2011. That’s when I saw it installed at V2_ in Rotterdam. Why did you update the work , was the old work lost, or did you want to improve it?

Norman White: First of all, we realized that we could go faster than 1200 baud! We used 9600 baud modems, and we planned to use voice telephone lines between Toronto and Rotterdam, as before. However, it turned out that the voice lines had become digital; there were no analog voice lines anymore. The technicians at V2_ thought this was not going to be a problem, and that the piece would function as before. However, this proved not to be the case. For some reason, the digitalization of the tones, or something else, caused the system not to work. We struggled with the technology. We had a few days to try to convert everything form analog voice lines to Ethernet. I was a novice at working with Ethernet, and David Rokeby, Jeff Mann, and three or four other tech-savvy artists were helping me out. I was getting contradictory information about how to pull the thing off. The result was finally that we couldn’t get it to work, which was a big disappointment. But I haven’t given up on the piece. I’m still in the process of improving the motors, the sensors and the software, and I hope to get it working using ethernet connections. In the meantime, we have made a few videos in which we faked the interaction. Unfortunately nobody videotaped the original working system in Paris.

Marnix de Nijs: What were the reactions on the work?

Norman White: We had a Toronto-based critic covering the V2_show, who was very disappointed that the arm wasn’t working. But generally people liked it in 1986. We didn’t get much positive press from the 2011 fiasco.

Arie Altena: Do you think that it matters that the context for your work has changed at lot? In the 1980s your work was amongst the first wave of telematic art. Now we live amongst all these technologies that once were new…

Norman White: The Internet is still dominated by sound and visuals. There is still almost no work that concentrates on the kinetic aspect or on touch. In that respect it doesn’t feel that different from 1986.Telephonic Arm Wrestling still feels like a pioneering project. I’d like to take it even further to include smell and taste. Even while I was teaching at the Ontario college, I was constantly fighting the mainstream that was concentrating on computer graphics. I kept saying that we were ignoring a whole dimension of human interaction. It has been a longstanding battle for me to try to bring other human levels of interaction to the internet.

Marnix de Nijs: During my research, I found quite a few examples of interaction with touch over the internet, but most of these were from science. Even then, the list is not much longer than twenty, and many are very small scale experiments. I would really like to build a functioning prototype, and share that with people to trigger the imagination of what a tactile internet could be. So far the functioning proposals I have seen are quite primitive, like the Apple watch, that you can tap and then your partner can feel the tapping on his or her watch. What I like about the arm wrestling is that you really have to get physically engaged. For me that’s way more interesting then tapping somebody’s phone. There is a lot of haptic feedback research in robotics, and there are very advanced force feedback systems, for instance for nuclear reactors, that you might be able to use for human communication.

Norman White: In 1986 David Rokeby built a piece that was demonstrated at the Paris where a dancer would move in front of a homemade digital camera. The movements were translated to sounds that were sent across the internet, and on the other end a dancer would respond to those sounds. Also there would be a camera on that dancer. The two dancers could dance together purely by sound. There was no a visual connection. In 2011 Doug Back built a piece where one person would blow into a tube at the Toronto end to create bubbles inside of an aquarium in Rotterdam. Carl Hamfelt and Laura Kikauka built a piece that simulated prisoners communicating by banging on the pipes.

Arie Altena: How important is the humor for you?

Norman White: Extremely important. Mine are all very lo-tech projects. The idea is to take lo-tech and push it to its limit. I like to bring out the irony and give a new dimension to even the lowest possible piece of technology.

Marnix de Nijs: I recognize that. Using high tech is often a trap. Often all your effort is going into developing complicated technology, and that doesn’t leave mind space for the irony and the humor.

Norman White: In a way that goes back to EAT, Experiments in Art and Technology, with Billy Klüver and friends in New York City, in the 1970s. In EAT the artist would come up with a concept and then EAT would match that artist a with an engineer who would actually have to pull off the concept. In EAT often the engineer would be doing all the creative work, and the artist had the easy part of just coming up with an idea. They were often asking for the impossible. ‘Let me levitate’. This rubbed me the wrong way. I always felt that I had to learn the technology myself. I never took a course in electronics, I just started working with electronics while I was living in England in 1962. Mostly I got smoke and sparks, and things were burning out, but I’m a very persistent kind of guy. That way I gradually learned electronics. I always felt that it was important that the artist does his or her own technology because you make mistakes. Quite often, those mistakes lead you to discoveries that improve your work and a bring a new dimension to it. Even if you only learn a few basics. It’s amazing what you can already do with a few basics.

I’m sure you are familiar with the 555, a little eight pin chip that can control lights and make sounds, and can act as a sensor. There are all sorts of interesting things you can do with this little chip. All you have to learn is how to work with a 555 and you have years and years of possible artworks lined up. Learn basic electronics, some math, probably not much more than just high school math, and you have a tremendous resource that you can work with. Don’t depend on some sophisticated scientists or engineers to do your work for you, do it yourself.

Arie Altena: That’s also because artistic vision and the technique are basically one thing. It’s not that technology is put on top of the concept or the other way around.

Norman White: For me, making a work, developing a project, has always been a bottom up process. You start with bits and pieces, look at what they can do, and that will suggest to you an artwork.

Marnix de Nijs: I’m educated as a sculptor and I think there is indeed an intelligence in using your hands. At the same time I’m capable of having a relevant discussion with the technicians with whom I work. I understand enough of the technologies that I know what I have to ask from them. But if you’d like to apply really complex, contemporary technologies, it becomes different, I think.

Norman White: I started as a painter. A lot of what inspires me goes back to my painting days when the drips, the accidents that occur while you’re painting become part of the the expression that remains. I first started working with computers in 1976. My first computer, a ‘Motorola D-1 Evaluation Kit’ had 1 K of memory. Actually the entire memory was less than 1 K. . You had to write a program in machine
code, because there was no Basic that would fit into such a small memory and allow you room for the program itself.  So you wrote everything in machine code. I got to the point where I started visualizing these ones and zeros moving around as little sculptural blocks. Writing a code that would control motors and sensors, fitting into 1 K and already have interesting behavior, that was a very satisfying activity. Sculpture, in that sense, helped me learn machine code.

Marnix de Nijs: Are you still painting? 

Norman White: I often talk about going back to it. My problem with painting is that I love the activity. I still love the smell of the paints. I loved the priming and the stretching of the canvas, the whole mechanical background to painting. But I didn’t have any ideas of what to paint. I did a series of pipe paintings, based on electric wireways that I encountered while working as a shipyard technician. But after about six of those paintings, I had more or less exhausted the subject. Everything that I wanted to express was there. I didn’t want to paint still life, portraits, or make pictures of scenery. I hit a wall. That’s when I went traveling and encountered Islamic decoration, and discovered how it captures organic dimensions and the logic of nature. That made me realize that you can work with logic and still create art instead of throwing paint at a canvas. It set me on a new exploration, which ended up in my getting involved in electronics.

Marnix de Nijs: I got into electronics through building radios. At art school my interest in engineering and mechanics somehow got integrated in my artworks. I made little spaces where you could experience very basic tactile feelings, like heat or steam. Halfway the 1990’s I started making interactive works. The first ones were very basic, but gradually I became involved into creating technological more complex works. Our world is dominated by technology. If you’d like to say something about this highly technological developed world as an artist, I think you have to use these technologies too. To me it seems absurd to make a painting about our contemporary life. Because the important things all happen in the system, in the technology, in the electronics. In a documentary made about your work,  you stated that you didn't care much whether they considered your work to be art. But as far as I understood you always considered it to be art. You just didn’t care that they thought about it.

Norman White: I never wasted energy worrying whether my work was art or not, because art is such a moving target. To me it was always an exercise to satisfy my curiosity. What happens if you make a robot that you insert in a shopping mall and responds to people? That led to my building the Helpless Robot. To me, one of the jobs of art is to reintroduce mystery into our existence. We live in an increasingly rational world where everything is dictated by some algorithm or formula. Something is art, I think, when it inserts a level of mystery into our existence and an ability to deal with chaos. Art is a way of escaping from all the formulas, all that structure that dominates the contemporary world. Something is art if it inspires mystery, if it inspires wonder, if it takes you to a place where you’ve never been before, if it makes your day different than the day before.

Marnix de Nijs: What intrigues me though that when you’re working with technologies, you’re exactly very aware of the structures and formulas embedded in them…

Norman White: That’s the irony. You’re using all this logic, all this structure, all this definition against itself, coming up with phenomena that are anti-structural. I like the irony of using structured definitions to turn against themselves. It’s absurd to write a program to try to emulate the human spirit and the human psyche. You know it can’t be done, but the attempt to do it is worth while because it makes you all that more aware of the impossibility of the project. Efficiency is a chimera. What appears to be more efficient in one dimension may be totally inefficient and dangerous in another. The internet is getting ever more efficient, but where is it leading us? It’s leading us into a a horrible way of looking at each other. It, it was supposed to originally help us understand the other, but it turns out that it is doing quite the opposite.

Marnix de Nijs: Are you considering to remake Telephonic Arm Wrestling?

Norman White: It’s sitting upstairs, about to get updated yet again. Right now I’m working on a new brain for the Helpless Robot. The old one used to run under Windows 3.1, 30 year old technology. The owner of the piece, the Agnes Etherington gallery in Kingston, Ontario, is a bit worried that if the computer crashes, they won’t be able to fix it and anymore. I’m building the new brain around a Raspberry Pi. I had to learn Python in order to program it. For a guy who’s 83 years old that’s not easy, but I have managed to do it. I’ve got a couple of side projects involving solar energy and tracking the sun. But I'm doing very little new work. Most of days are filled with fixing old work and updating old work. Repair and renovations.

Marnix de Nijs: That’s true for my work too. It always takes a couple of weeks to revive and old work. Sometimes I have to decide whether I should update them or go to the flea market and buy for instance a couple of specific old graphics cards for a few dollars. That’s a the trap of being a media artist.

Norman White: Sometimes it’s a moral issue too. Should you should use new technology to update an old work or say that the old technology is part and parcel of what the old work was about. I’m still struggling with that question. One of my works uses an old eight track tape recorder. I love eight track tape recorders, but they do break down. I can replace it easily with a Raspberry Pi that won’t break down. Will it be a different work?

Marnix de Nijs: I have works for which I actually did not do proper timing, but relied on the slowness of the computer I used. At the moment that I’m running it on a faster computer, the whole timing is gone. 

Norman White: That’s good. Yeah. That’s good.

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