Playing with Yourself

Photo by Jack GouldJames Rouvelle wants you to feel his art. Go ahead: poke it, stroke it, prod it, pinch it and play with it. You're supposed to. And it'll throb, thrum, whir and squeal right back. His "Play," assembled during his residency at Santa Ana's Grand Central Art Gallery, isn't an art installation so much as a petting zoo, a modest collection of paramecium-primitive robots designed to imitate organic animal behavior. It's life—artificial life—as art, the Furby school of interactive sculpture. But is it really alive? Not in any biological sense: it's just a bunch of balloons, balls and blobs, the most basic forms in an object vocabulary. Yet people still get down on their knees and cuddle and coo. It's hard to tell whether we're playing with Rouvelle's pseudo-organisms ("bots") or really just playing with ourselves.

Rouvelle's bots are designed to stimulate creative, childlike play impulses in the viewer, and they succeed because they're almost childlike themselves. It's surprising how little it takes to create that illusion—a few microchips, a few motors, a surge-protected power strip and voila: let there be life. They're imbued Pinocchio-style with a tiny glimmer of animation, allowed as much independence as their tiny microprocessors will allow, programmed to react to how we're interacting with them.

Have a conversation with "Balloon Life," a flock of silvery Mylar balloons (you can see yourself reflected in them) suspending a set of tiny speakers wired into a feedback loop that depends on your body to complete the circuit: rub, tap, scratch and otherwise disturb a little piezo nipple, and the balloons squeal to noisy life. Then stand back while the balloons take whatever you tapped out, distort it, mutate it and trumpet something new back to you. Maybe it's just a more aesthetically sophisticated version of the maddening Simon machine of my youth, but it sounds like baby talk.

"Colony" is the cuddliest piece by far: clutch these nondescript balls of foam and tape tightly to your bosom and if they haven't run out of battery power, they'll shudder into motion. It's nothing more than a motor and counterweight, a less garish variant of the raccoon-tailed balls that frolic in bargain bins outside mall toy stores, but it feels like a heartbeat. Set them down, and they wobble cheerfully across the room like baby ducks—so cheerfully, in fact, that museum docents keep the door closed, lest any other exhibits become colonized. The degree to which these little balls recall life is uncanny. Walk in when they're at full thrum all over the floor and you feel like you're interrupting something.

It's simple animism, that most primitive and powerful manifestation of the human imagination, and Rouvelle has managed to harness it by making an installation that interacts with us even as we interact with it. And when it doesn't work, it's because it won't interact: the third and last exhibit, a propeller-studded, foam tumor-blob called "Psy-Props," seems dead to the world, though it does recall the archetypal play experience of breaking when picked up—good thing they keep the doors closed for "Colony," so you can slide the propeller blades back on without getting yelled at by anybody. Without that semblance of life, "Psy-Props" is just no fun.

But the rest of "Play" is fun. Archetypically childish pleasure swells quickly for Rouvelle's bots—they're imaginary friends made flesh (or more correctly, foam, Mylar and tape). They invite the metaphors of life, the extension of fantasy and the suspension of disbelief so naturally that it's almost unsettling—is the line becoming that blurred? Maybe it's troubling that we're so fickle, that a wobbling ball of basic machinery can elicit such human sentiment. Maybe it's one more symptom of technology's slow usurpation of the most primal, natural things.

I don't think so. I think it says something comforting about the human capacity for imagination, for empathy and for simple, innocent play, even if it's with artificial playmates. And when I next see a Furby, I'll try to feel the same.


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