27 February 2007

Responsive Compassion

Giving Eyes to the Blind and Hands to Art

I returned to Israel in 2000 to accept a professorship at the College of Judea and Samaria in Ariel where I taught the courses, “Space-Time Systems in Nature and Culture,” to architecture students and “Art in Jewish Thought” to students of humanities, sciences, and engineering. I also headed the studio arts programs in fine arts and graphic design at Emunah College of the Arts in Jerusalem and was appointed by the President of Israel to the Council of the Wolf Foundation which grants the prestigious Wolf Prizes in the arts and sciences.

I created a responsive artwork Cybersight linking Internet technology with a digital device that provides haptic opportunities for blind people to “see” computer images through their fingers. It attempts to create art that transcends the distanced formality of aesthetics and responds to the cries of the world. It creates art rooted in the responsive heart, rather than the disembodied eye, not as a solitary process it has been since the Renaissance, but as something we do with others.

Cybersight responds to these cries by reaching out to human beings lacking the primary sense required to encounter art as defined by Western culture. Cybersight offers blind people opportunities to experience imagery through their sense of touch using unique digital technologies developed in Jerusalem. They can gain tactile access to those things they would most like to see. Through the Internet, access is extended globally to the blind as websurfers contribute images that generate funds for research to fight blindness. In the words of Suzi Gablik, Cybersight is 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.”

Cybersight 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. When art has hands for receiving and giving, art gains a soul.

The genesis of Cybersight 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 more deeply 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 fixing the world by filling it with loving kindness, and how web art could actually generate charity. We sought ways to move beyond making art about compassion and charity, 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 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 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 to invite web surfers to contribute pictures of things that blind people most want to see.

The next stage was to link the Internet to innovative digital technologies that enable blind people to “see” pictures through the sense of touch. A special computer mouse was 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, inventor of this digital system, to discuss how his innovative technology could facilitate developing aesthetic experiences for blind people. With this new technology, blind people worldwide could access pictures from the image bank at our website.

In my years of dialogue on art and technology with the Lubavicher Rebbe, the 20th century’s foremost leader of Hasidic Jewry, I learned that the sweeping technological changes we are experiencing today are described in ancient kabbalistic texts. They relate how the outburst in scientific knowledge and technological advancement would be paralleled by an increase in sublime wisdom and 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 Rebbe teaches:

"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."

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