35
years
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The Normill

A text (2012) about Norman White, by 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 – once owned by his grand­moth­er – of the chil­dren of the myth­ical Dutch fish­ing vil­lage is­land Marken. The build­ing is lit­tered with ma­te­ri­al his work is made of: ma­chine parts, a bunch of old com­put­ers and the prover­bial “pile of junk”. 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; and enough room for a large bat colony that lives in the cracks of the im­pres­sive walls. You can walk around for hours in­ves­ti­gat­ing the archives, the box­es with ma­chine parts and print­ed cir­cuit boards, wired art pieces in them­selves. In the cor­ner of the cel­lar a big raft made of plas­tic bot­tles leans 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 are well known in the elec­tron­ic art world: Doug Back, Pe­ter Flem­ming, Jeff Mann, 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 camp at the mill.

White and his friends or­gan­ised robot fights, ma­chine wrestling: “Raw­botics & Sumo robots” long be­fore it be­came fash­ion­able. He won sev­er­al in­ter­na­tion­al awards and his art is shown all over the world. On his web­site there are de­scrip­tions of his works. It starts with the mot­to: “We fix toast­ers!” The ex­pla­na­tion: “we 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?”

At 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 by vi­su­al ev­idence White talked about the clum­si­ness of ma­chines: “we 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.”

A work still in de­vel­op­ment, typ­ical for White who works for years on projects try­ing out dif­fer­ent ver­sions of an idea, 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 Ly­ing Low (1977), that re­acts to the au­di­ence, makes nois­es like the R2D2 robot in Star Wars. 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 mod­el­ing an ar­ti­fi­cial per­son­al­ity. The robot says things like: “I ap­pre­ci­ate your help but you are turn­ing me too far, I said: go to the right! Go back I said, ‘you can turn me now to the left.’” The per­son­al­ity does not in­struct the au­di­ence at ran­dom, 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, it takes you for grant­ed, and los­es in­ter­est.

White ex­plains: “I fall asleep look­ing at video. I need smell, taste, some­thing tac­tile: typ­ical el­ements for a 3 di­men­sion­al sys­tem that can break down. That in­ter­ests me: things that can break down.” For White’s work break­ing down is not typ­ical, he is proud that one of the first art pieces he made for the Cana­di­an Broad­cast­ing Com­pa­ny in Van­cou­ver (1975), ex­ist­ing of hun­dreds of lamps, still works af­ter more than thir­ty years. The bulbs in a large (8 ft.x 40 ft.) mu­ral sim­ulate rain­drops falling ran­dom­ly on the sur­face of a qui­et pond. Of course ma­chine parts break down, dur­ing trans­port, for in­stance. When we were vis­it­ing, White was re­pair­ing the brain of The Help­less Robot for an ex­hi­bi­tion in Eu­rope.

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

White taught him­self elec­tron­ics in the six­ties: “In the 25 years that I taught I made clear to my stu­dents that I didn’t 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: “To get to can­dy I, and you, must first eat through a moun­tain of rice – je 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 math­emat­ics.”

White has trav­eled a lot in his life. He got his 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 in­clud­ing 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 in­to more than 20 lan­guages. White refers to McLuhan a few times dur­ing our talks. Like many artists of his gen­er­ation White trav­eled through North Africa. He be­came fas­ci­nat­ed by Is­lam­ic art: pat­terns that lat­er in­flu­enced his de­sign of print­ed cir­cuit boards and the log­ical pro­cess­es they gen­er­at­ed.

The time we are at the mill, we en­joy White’s sto­ries about the failed tam­ing of a skunk; a project in the vil­lage with girls from the sec­ondary school build­ing a “danc­ing foun­tain”; how he found the mill and how he shared it with oth­er artists; about Them Fuck­ing Robots, a project with artist Lau­ra Kikau­ka with whom he agreed to make a breath­ing and mov­ing sex ma­chine. They both made a male and a fe­male robot, with­out con­sult­ing 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’t 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: “Art 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.” In the Normill I found out this is not hum­bug. To use one of White’s fa­vorite quotes: “If I’m go­ing to work for an id­iot, it might as well be me.”

Web­site: http://www.normill.ca

Lec­ture: http://con­nect­media.waag.org/me­dia/031001nor­man.mov

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