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The movements of the lanky man on the videotape mesh perfectly with the undulating rhythms and cascading tones that accompany his dance. As the music swells, his gestures grow pronounced and emphatic; as the sound dwindles to the pulse of a synthesized bass or the flutter of an electronic clarinet, his motions diminish to the twitch of a hand or the slow sweep of an arm. The choreographer, it seems, must have worked closely with the dancer and the composer to make such a seamless piece. The reality is more complex: This dancer is, in fact, also choreographer and composer, choosing his moves on the fly while simultaneously making the music to match in an intimate collaboration with a video camera and a homemade computer system.

Sprawled shoeless on the living room floor in his Toronto home, 38-year-old David Rokeby watches the 28-year-old version of himself on a small TV set. Though his worn jeans, wire-rimmed glasses and only slightly scruffy hair make him look like the math professor his parents wanted him to be, Rokeby has instead become an internationally known interactive artist-his multimedia installations invite gallery goers and exhibition attendees to become active participants in the artistic process.

In language that shifts easily between the professorial and the poetic, Rokeby explains both the technology and the artistic intentions behind his work. In many ways, his career sounds like that of a researcher. Rokeby thinks of each of his installations as an experiment; observing the hundreds of thousands of people who have participated with his pieces has given him an invaluable opportunity to learn about humans, machines and the very complicated relationships between them.

Through these artistic explorations, Rokeby has begun to understand how people’s interactions with computers change as technogadgetry becomes more and more common. And he has uncovered some ways that machines can subtly distort human perceptions. After years of investigating such ideas, Rokeby worries that our increasing interaction with the Internet and “intelligent” technologies might cause us to devalue some of the attributes that make us human. So while others work toward a transparent interface between person and machine, Rokeby aims to expose the quirks, foibles and rough edges of that relationship. “Because I’ve programmed a lot, because I’ve built computers, I know what it’s like to write a program and then watch people deal with it, and watch how my decisions change people’s experiences,” says Rokeby. “For me, it’s important that I somehow articulate the importance of that act.”

Rokeby played the videotape of his dance on a sunny January afternoon to demonstrate his best-known project: Very Nervous System. The name is an umbrella term for an ongoing series of installations-the project’s technological roots date back to some fiddling around with light sensors and a synthesizer that Rokeby did in the early 1980s. Over the years, Rokeby has used the technology behind Very Nervous System not only in his artistic endeavors, but also to support them; reduced to its initials, VNS is an image-processing device he builds and sells to performers, composers, researchers and other artists.

What VNS does, essentially, is translate the motion captured in a live video image into a digital signal. That signal can, via a Macintosh computer, drive electronic equipment such as synthesizers, video players and lights-all in real time. In a typical Very Nervous System installation, a body moving in the camera’s field of vision becomes an integral part of the work, triggering and modulating sounds or other effects.

Rokeby develops software and hardware for projects such as Very Nervous System with little outside help, and no formal technical training. As a teenager growing up in southern Ontario in the 1970s, he taught himself programming in order to indulge a fascination with electronic music and computer graphics. At 19, with an offer on the table for a lucrative but uninspiring job in data processing, Rokeby instead embarked on a “five-year plan”-he would focus on the things that interested him and avoid those that “smacked of career.” If it didn’t work out, he figured, he could always go back to school and get a computer science degree.


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