Cybersight: Responsive Art in a Postdigital Age

In The Reenchantment of Art, Suzi Gablik proposes: “We need an art that transcends the distanced formality of aesthetics and dares to respond to the cries of the world.”  Cybersight @ tikunolam is an artwork-in-progress that is attempting to respond to the cries of the world by transforming kabbalistic perspective into halakhic perspective through digital technologies.  It extends the concept of hidur mitzvah, beautifying a deed, from deeds between human beings and God (bein adam v’makom) to deeds between people (bein adam v’havero).   It a responsive artwork that transforms the sephirah of Beauty, a pulsating heart linked to Compassion, Strength, Success, and Gracefulness, into righteousness and goodness expressed through activities that engender life enhancement and creative renewal.  It reaches out to human beings lacking the primary sense required to encounter art as defined by Western culture. Cybersight @ tikunolam offers blind people opportunities to experience imagery through their sense of touch using unique digital technologies being developed in Jerusalem.  They can gain tactile access to those things they would most like to see and to images from their everyday life.  Through the Internet, access is extended globally to the blind as websurfers contribute images that generate funds for research to fight blindness.

Cybersight @ tikunolam is the embodiment of the next historical and evolutionary stage of consciousness, in which the capacity to be compassionate will be central not only to our ideas of success, but also to the recovery of both a meaningful society and a meaningful art. This next stage is the postmodern transition from Hellenistic to Hebraic consciousness.  When art is rooted in the responsive heart, rather than the disembodied eye, it may even come to be seen, not as a solitary process it has been since the Renaissance, but as something we do with other others. 

Cybersight @ tikunolam is responsive art that gives eyes to the blind and systems art that gives hands to art.  Art of the past may have expressed social and humanitarian concerns, but it hangs insularly on a museum wall disengaged from the issues that define it.  In a sense, that art is handicapped.  It possesses no hands to help the cause it is advocating.  Responsive systems art plugs art into the real world transforming its audience into active participants.  It has hands to reach out and invite people to collaborate in fixing the world, tikun olam.  When art has hands for receiving and giving, art gains a soul.

The genesis of cybersight @ tikunolam was a discussion with my son, Ari, about extending into the social realm the human-machine interaction in our bioimaging artwork, “Inside/Outside: P’nim/Panim,” that we had created at MIT.  Our work at MIT led us to see how art of the future will explore interfaces between real space and cyberspace.  We began brainstorming about how actions in cyberspace could effect changes in people’s lives in real space, how the Internet can bring people together to help one another, how digital technologies can be used for tikun olam, fixing the world by filling it with loving kindness, and how web art could actually generate charity.  We were not interested in making a painting depicting one person giving a coin to another or designing a beautiful silver coin collection canister to aesthetically enhance the experience of giving charity, we sought ways to moving beyond making art about compassion and charity, beyond illustration and decoration, to creating art in which actually performing acts of compassion and charity provide the aesthetic experience

Ari suggested that he could build a website in which people worldwide would be invited to contribute pictures to the site.  Like the funding of walkers in a walkathon, we could get corporate sponsors to donate money to a charity each time an image is contributed.  We ended our discussion at his home in New Hampshire not knowing what kinds of images we would request, what charities would benefit, what corporations would be appropriate sponsors, and in what venues would the completed artwork be presented to the public. 

On my returning home to Israel, the artist Miriam Benjamin, my wife and often my artistic collaborator, suggested that a solution to our questions could be found by adding a second mitzvah to the mitzvah of giving charity.  She turned the negative mitzvah from the Torah, “You shall not put a stumbling block before the blind,” (Leviticus 19:14) into a positive one:  “Restore sight to the blind so they will not stumble.”  Her suggestion came from the heart since she has retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic defect that has made her legally blind.  The artistic team had expanded to three – my wife and me and our son.  As the artwork evolves, our collaboration is expanding to include many more people.  The Third Hand: Collaboration in Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism argues that collaboration in art is the crucial element in the transition from modernism to postmodernism.  The redefinition of art and artistic collaboration intersected during this transition. 

We began by asking people who were born blind or became blind at a young age: “What are four things that you would most like to see if you had vision?”  We interviewed blind people in Israel, the Czech Republic, and United States and sent questionnaires worldwide to associations and schools for the blind.   We have received responses from countries as disparate as Australia, Ethiopia, Fiji, India, Korea, Lebanon, Lithuania, Niger, Poland, Slovenia, Zambia, and United Kingdom.  The similarity of responses from such diverse cultures teaches us about the common vision of humanity.  Ari created the website on which we posted the results of our cross-cultural research.  Web surfers will be invited to contribute pictures of things that blind people most want to see.  In response to these contributed images, corporate sponsors will contribute funds for scientific research to prevent and cure blindness.  We are creating a cyberpushka, a digital age coin-collection box of global dimensions, an artwork through which actions in cyberspace rectify defects in real space, tikun olam.

The next stage is to link the Internet to innovative digital technologies that enable blind people to “see” pictures through the sense of touch.  A special computer mouse has been developed in Jerusalem that gives blind people direct access to pictures on a computer monitor.  Beneath fingers placed in indentations in this specially designed mouse, there is a grid of pin-like protrusions that move up and down independently to trace the image on the computer monitor onto the blind person’s fingertips.  I drove up to Jerusalem to meet with Dr. Roman Guzman who is the inventor of this digital system and founder and chief scientist of the VirTouch, the company that is manufacturing it.  Dr. Guzman and I have begun a dialog on ways to use the VirTouch technology in developing aesthetic experiences for blind people.  With this new technology, blind people worldwide will be able to access pictures from the image bank at our website. 

Complementing the cyberpushka part of the artwork, we are giving blind people cameras to take pictures of their environments and experiences.  Instead of framing a picture through the viewfinder, they point the cameras in response to sounds, smells, touch, movement, and intuition.  In pilot trials in Tel Aviv, Prague, and Miami, we are finding that the images created by blind people present fresh and original viewpoints.  Sighted photographers, from rank amateurs to seasoned professionals, frame their images through a viewfinder.  Unframed images shot by blind people are less stereotypic.  They provide alternative perceptual approaches that are often found to be aesthetically powerful by sighted viewers.

When the film is processed, we discuss the images with the blind photographers and choose and digitize the most conceptually and visually interesting photographs.  Using a computer graphics program, I transform the photographs into line drawings that are rendered as tactile hard copy.  The computer images are transferred to a swell paper imbedded with a chemical that makes a raised line appear when heated.  The blind photographers can then perceive their pictures by running their fingers over lines that protrude.  They can also access their photographs directly from the computer using the VirTouch mouse.  It is an act of hesed, compassion and lovingkindness, to facilitate a blind person’s “seeing” images of her own world through her fingertips.

To reach out to the wider community both locally and globally, we are planning to compliment the website exhibition in cyberspace with museum exhibitions in real space.  In 010101: Art in Technological Times, David Ross writes: “We recognize that there are at least two very distinct kinds of exhibition space available to artists today and that, while we recognize and respect their differences, clearly they can be deployed in parallel in service of a single project.”  Cybersight @ tikunolam will take different forms when exhibited on the Internet and in spaces bounded by museum walls.  In museum settings, sighted visitors can see photographs taken by blind people and their line-drawing versions generated by computer graphics.  Both blind and sighted visitors can run their fingers over relief hard-copy versions of these same images as if to “see” them through their sense of touch.  This tactile experience is not available in the virtual exhibition.  There will also be consoles at which both blind and sighted museum visitors can sit in front of a computer monitor and actively participate in using the VirTouch mouse that traces the computer images on their fingertips.

Art actively responding to the cries of the world is most exalted in Jewish tradition. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov teaches: “The key to the workings of the entire universe is charity.  The entire flow of spiritual and physical blessing into the world can be seen as God’s ‘charity’ to His creatures, to bring them to know Him.  When we ourselves give charity, we are participating in this process, which is why charity is such an exalted mitzvah.” Judaism teaches that the four-letters of the divine name YHVH, yud, hei, vav, hei, contain the mystery of charity.  Yud is the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet that symbolizes a coin.  Since hei is the fifth letter of the alphabet with the numerical value of five, it alludes to the five fingers of the hand.  The first hei is the hand that gives.  The letter vav is shaped like an outstretched arm. When used as a prefix, vav is the conjunction “and,” the connecting word.  Vav connects the one who gives to the one who receives. The final hei, is the hand of the one who receives.  Indeed, the very name of God teaches about the centrality of charity in Jewish life.  The Internet greatly expands the connective power of the vav, an outstretched arm reaching out to people across the global network and linking them to one another while generating charitable contributions to fund research efforts to fight blindness.

The Lubavicher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, teaches that the sweeping technological changes we are experiencing today were predicted some two thousand years ago in the Zohar, a classical text of Jewish mysticism.  It describes how the outburst in scientific knowledge and technological advancement would be paralleled by an increase in sublime wisdom or spirituality.  Integrating the wisdom of the mind and the wisdom of the soul, which is the role of the artist, can begin to usher true unity into the world.

"The divine purpose of the present information revolution, which gives an individual unprecedented power and opportunity, is to allow us to share knowledge – spiritual knowledge – with each other, empowering and unifying individuals everywhere.  We need to use today’s interactive technology not just for business or leisure but to interlink as people – to create a welcome environment for the interaction of our souls, our hearts, our visions."

From Mel Alexenberg, The Future of Art in a Digital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press), pp. 169-172.