An artist at RPI who draws on the future

An artist at RPI who draws on the future

Date posted: 2006-07-06 14:43:00

TROY Last February, Boryana Rossa and her colleagues sent a decree of robot rights by e-mail to the Pope's people at the Vatican. And the staff of the Bulgarian Orthodox patriarch.
It should be considered a sin, the decree said, to kill an artificially created, sentient being (that is, a robot). Robots have the right to chose their own religion, it continued. An entity or creature created by humans must be considered equal to humans.

Rossa, a Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute student, and the members of her artistic collective, Ultrafuturo, weren't being funny when they sent the e-mail.

"In terms of artificial intelligence, you can't have an intelligent entity without the possibility of free will," she said. "It has to have choices and intentions, otherwise it is like a toaster."

The 33-year-old has a young angular face and she wears her short hair pushed up into a rough Mohawk. On a warm spring day, Rossa, who is a visiting student from Bulgaria, wears jeans shortened with safety pins, a black pullover and high, lace-up boots.

She's in the midst of earning an electronic arts graduate degree at RPI, but her works reach beyond Troy and her native city, Sofia, Bulgaria. Her videos, the group's Web site says, have been shown internationally at galleries in Moscow, Vienna, Liverpool and Montreal.

Her collective is intertwined with larger, international projects such as MEART, subtitled "the semi-living artist." In that collaboration, electrodes read electric impulses from a petri dish of mouse neurons at Georgia Tech and express the output through a pair of large metal arms that draw with Crayola markers somewhere else in the world.

The group, which works collaboratively on most projects, frequently works in bio art, where biological materials or organisms are employed. The art form is relatively new and has its share of critics that question the ethics of using living things to make artistic statements.

Ultrafuturo critiques science, specifically the uses of artificial intelligence and the responsibilities that come with that. But Rossa said statements Ultrafuturo makes about robots can often be applied to the marginalized in society, such as women, homosexuals, minorities and animals.

She made a gender commentary during her master of fine arts exhibit May 7 in a men's bathroom on campus. A projector showed a fidgety boy standing above and behind a girl. The girl was still and expressionless. A close-up video of Rossa's finger melting an ice cube serves as a backdrop.

"I just want to provoke people to think about these roles, that they can change," she said.

She projected the footage in the bathroom, she said between pulls on a cigarette, because of the relationship between the urinals (male) and the bathroom stalls (female).

It was Rossa's work in bio art that drew Kathy High, chair of the RPI arts department, to her.

"One of the key things Boryana is interested in, and I am as well, is encouraging public debate around scientific practices," High said.

Frequently, bio art is used to do just that, but Rossa also employs the art form to speak about other issues such as gender division.

"You need to overcome differences. Think about what if we didn't have this physical separation (between men and women) maybe we would happier to live together, or collaborate together," she said.

Even if she's demanding rights for robots, Rossa said being over-the-top is important because provocative acts are more likely to get people thinking about societal issues.
Suzanne Thorpe, curator of special events at the Suits-Bueche Planetarium at the Schenectady Museum, said that method was proven by Rossa at a recent planetarium event.

Several people displayed projects meant to explore the ethics of robotic design, but Rossa's created the most discussion. She and fellow Ultrafuturo member Oleg Mavromatti bought a dead carp from a market, gutted the fish, cut off its tail and replaced the missing parts with electronics. The fish swam around a pool, Thorpe said, and it stood out from the rest of the projects.

"The responses that I got to the exhibit perhaps were more instinctual, they were more on the level of 'eew gross or wow cool.' I think those instinctual responses were a spark of a thought process," she said. "It was probably the most provocative piece on the floor. It was definitely the most provocative piece on the floor, not probably, it elicited the most responses."

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