So in Watch, Rokeby created an overtly voyeuristic experience. Video projectors shine two images side-by-side, each a processed version of a surveillance camera’s view of a nearby public space. In Very Nervous System, the computer extracts motion from a video signal by comparing one frame with the last and determining which pixels have changed, but that whole procedure is invisible to the viewer. The image-processing techniques used in Watch are a dissection of VNS’s internal workings. On one side only the things that are moving show up, white ghosts gliding through a black void; the other side shows only what’s still, a seemingly normal but frozen black-and-white video image.
To these images, Rokeby adds a soundtrack: The occasional noise of a camera shutter or electronic beeping interrupts soft hypnotic sounds of breathing, a heartbeat and a ticking clock. It’s a reminder, Rokeby says, that there might be something wrong with spying on people in this way.
Watch also serves as a reminder of how different the world can look when seen through varying technological lenses. In the early days of developing the piece, Rokeby aimed the camera out his studio window at a busy intersection. The two different video filters-one catching motion, the other stasis-became socioeconomic filters: In one image, members of a vibrant crowd moved swiftly about their business, in the other, panhandlers appeared to be sitting quietly alone on a deserted sidewalk.
Rokeby again draws from art a lesson about the impact of technology on our perceptions. The image-filtering techniques he employs in Watch are very similar to those used to compress video for storage or transmission. (Programmers save digital space by recording or sending only the changing pixels in successive frames of a moving image.) The more we use such techniques in daily life, he says, the more we wear inherently biased lenses. Rokeby says he is particularly concerned by the large number of design decisions being made “by programmers in startup companies working on intense deadlines, with very little experience of philosophy and politics.”
Though the insights Rokeby has gained through his art may put him in a better position to make such programming decisions, he has no desire to tie himself to his own startup company. He builds and sells only a few VNS units a year, though many more people would like to get their hands on one, according to Todd Winkler, a music professor at Brown University. “In the computer music world, his system is very well known and people talk about it, want to learn about it all the time,” says Winkler, who has used his own VNS setup for more than three years in installations, performances and demonstrations. Still, Winkler understands Rokeby’s decision to focus primarily on art rather than commerce. “Getting into the business of making little metal boxes that everybody in the world wants could really consume you completely,” Winkler says.
On the contrary, what is consuming Rokeby these days is his latest project, The Giver of Names. It’s a concept that came to the artist almost instantaneously on the day after his birthday in 1990. “The idea was there would be a computer and objects and you could present the objects to the computer and it would talk about them,” he recounts. Realizing this seemingly straightforward notion, however, has taken the better part of the decade.