Tim Gruchy’s ‘SCOUT’: Putting the Art into Artificial Intelligence

It’s one of the most powerful scenes in sci-fi cinema: a giant black monolith appears outside a den of man-apes and, by mysteriously inspiring the first use of tools, triggers a radical leap in evolution.

The movie is ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, and the monolith is a device sent out by an unfathomably advanced alien race to seek intelligent life across the galaxy. It was a fascination with these devices and their enigmatic, quasi-intelligent presence that first inspired Britomart’s newest artwork, ‘SCOUT’. SCOUT, now resident in Takutai Square, is an 8m-tall interactive installation by multimedia artist Tim Gruchy. It is designed to respond to its environment – changes in light, temperature, weather, sound, movement and touch – and communicate back via active screen and sound systems.

Sophisticated mathematical programming allows SCOUT to ‘interpret’ stimuli from built-in sensors and determine seemingly logical responses. For humans, naturally given to anthropomorphism, it is irresistible to interpret these non-random behaviours as a form of sentience.

“Behaviour is regarded as a strong indicator of intelligence,” says Tim. “We often imbue technology with the quality of intelligence. SCOUT both monitors behaviour and exhibits behaviour of its own.”

Benevolent presence

Tim has long been interested in ideas of artificial intelligence, and was intrigued by the monoliths in Arthur C. Clarke’s 1948 story ‘The Sentinel’. It was this story that was later reworked as the novel ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, written in parallel with Kubrick’s cult film.

When approached by Cooper and Company Chairman Peter Cooper to design something for Takutai Square, Tim knew he wanted to introduce a responsive presence into the space.

“‘SCOUT’ stands for ‘Sentient Co-relator of Urban Transaction’,” he says. “I see it as a benevolent, non-human intelligent entity that engages with its environment and the people within it, transacting in the urban space. Though at times demonstrative, its intrinsic mode is as a calming presence within the urban-scape.”

Tim says the work learns from what is going on around it and gives back, contributing to the Square in a positive way – “feeling the pulse and setting the tone”.

In keeping with the idea of intelligence as something that evolves, SCOUT will appear to gain in intelligence over time.

“The pursuit of artificial intelligence has long been a driver in the evolution of computing,” says Tim. “The growing complexity of computers and software leads inevitably to the notion of the ‘singularity’, a point somewhere in the future where computer intelligence surpasses the capacity of the human mind.”

Sounds and visuals

SCOUT’s sculptural form consists of a heavily engineered metal frame, covered on three sides by a dark, subtly reflective ‘skin’. The fourth side comprises a video wall that generates ever-changing abstract visuals in response to data gathered by its sensors.

SCOUT also responsively generates sounds, ranging from sci-fi sound effects to emotional musical soundscapes. Tim, himself a composer, worked with musician James Pinker and vocalists including Ngāti Whātua performer Precious Clark to compose SCOUT’s soundtrack.

The work’s behaviours are driven by a rack of networked computers, programmed by the artist to generate complex algorithmic responses to sensory information.

Sensors include microphones, a camera and a touch panel mounted at human arm height. Temperature, humidity, brightness and rainfall are also monitored by a set of environmental sensors. A clock and calendar give SCOUT an understanding of the time of day, day of the week, month, year and seasons.

With an infinitely changing set of stimuli, SCOUT’s own behaviour is perpetually changing, ensuring it is never experienced the same way twice.

Unique scale and complexity

“SCOUT is unique in the New Zealand art and cultural context,” says Tim. “There’s never been an undertaking on this scale of such conceptual and technical complexity.”

The project brought together skill sets across interactive technologies, computer programming and architecture, and required specialist technical support from New Zealand, Australia and China.

SCOUT’s physical form was developed in close collaboration with architects Richard Johnson and Mat Howard of Sydney firm Johnson Pilton Walker. JPW has been responsible for the design of the adjacent EY and Westpac on Takutai Square buildings and for the master planning of the Britomart precinct.

“I started out studying architecture, so I’m acutely aware of the built environment,” says Tim. “Conceptually, SCOUT’s form is designed to cohabit gently with the existing architecture. Considerations of locale, structural form, scale, textures and detailing are all apparent in the work.”

As well as architecture, Tim studied electronic music in the 1970s at the University of Queensland. His main interest, however, was the emerging audiovisual technologies and the interaction of sound and vision. Audio synthesisers had just come on the market and pre-VHS video was black and white reel-to-reel.

Breaking down barriers

“I’ve always been interested in synaesthesia, where things cross over and you bring separate areas of the arts together,” says Tim. “I’m interested in breaking down barriers.”

Voracious for information, the self-described autodidact taught himself the intricacies of the technology, including computer programming, because there was nowhere to learn what he wanted to know.

His early performative work was with musicians and dancers. At that time ‘art’ was an unfashionable concept, rejected as elitist by the “weird milieu” of the counter-cultural punk era. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Tim began to consider himself an artist, though his work still didn’t fit within the gallery world.

The analogue-to-digital shift radically changed the way he worked. Visuals were increasingly created on the computer rather than being hand-painted or scratched onto film. The changes in the audio field were similarly revolutionary.

The subsequent explosion on the international electronic media arts scene saw the development of a vibrant self-contained movement outside the realmof visual arts.

“Eventually in the 1990s the visual arts scene caught up and electronic media were integrated into the world of ‘mainstream’ art,” says Tim. “Which is great – it should all be seen together as part of creative practice. As artists, our motivations are very similar, whether we’re working with paint or pixels or audio.”

Genuinely accessible

Today Tim’s unique brand of “complex multimedia art” has been exhibited at major international festivals and art institutions all over the world.

He has never been interested in boundaries or categories, and his body of work clearly reflects that.

Alongside commissions for museums and corporations, he has designed large-scale projects for fashion shows and dance parties. He has a string of opera and theatre credits to his name and has been extensively involved in museum design and other projects at the intersection of art and architecture.

For Tim, SCOUT is a perfect summation of what multi media art can be, integrating many diverse forms and practices.

“It’s what art should be in this day and age. The whole idea of preciousness is on the way out. SCOUT is a genuinely accessible part of Britomart – it’s part of the urban community experience.”

Tim Gruchy, 2012

Compressed fibreboard and steel shell, LD video display, LED strip light, touch screen, speakers, microphone, video camera, environmental sensors, networked computers, audio and media servers, generative computer programme in glass

Permanent installation

Takutai Square, Britomart