Phantasmal Media/ Subjective Computing – the ICE Lab (MIT)



Focusing on interactive, verbal narrative and poetry and constructing social meaning with computer software.

Here at The Creativity Post we are watching closely any and all developments related to the intriguing and multidisciplinary research conducted in the ICE Lab (the Imagination, Computation, and Expression Laboratory, MIT).
Professor D. Fox Harrell, a director of the ICE MIT Lab explains the basics of his research program in his article, "Introducing the Imagination, Computation, and Expression Lab," which appeared in the following CMS publication (pg. 22-23):
We quote his words below:

“My work is at the intersection of cognitive science, computer science, and digital media arts. Fantastic stories, rich metaphors, social relationships, and even our senses of self are all rooted in the imagination. At the same time, many social ills such as prejudice, stereotyping, and social inequity also are products of the mind. As a cognitive scientist, I am interested in better understanding the mental processes underlying these imaginative phenomena. As a computer scientist, I am interested in developing technologies to help in that understanding, and to empower and challenge users to reflect upon and improve the human condition. As an artist, I work to develop an untapped potential of computer based art to express the imagination. Seeking new ways to address social ills, shared values, notions of beauty and other concerns are the hallmarks of traditional art forms - my medium just happens to be the computer. I combine visual and literary arts with artificial intelligence technologies to develop new forms of games, interactive narratives, social media and art on the computer. These new forms require new designations altogether. I call my expressive computer systems “phantasmal media” because of their ability to evoke mental imagery and transform ideas. Mental imagery and ideas, like ghosts/phantasms, are intangible, but can wreak havoc (or invoke love in some cases) when they appear. The systems I’ve developed primarily focus on narrative, poetry and identity. The types of works I have built include:

• computer games where stories dynamically change based on aspects of user input like emotional tone,

• computer games that can model, and help us to better understand, phenomena such as sexism, racism and stereotyping,

• digital poetry where user input can result in generating many versions of a poem with the same theme but different metaphors each time,

• social networking profiles (e.g., Facebook accounts) that can be customized based on how a user wants to present herself to a particular community or who is viewing it, and

• interactive video art and computer animation that tell stories from different perspectives each time.

The key to all of this is the computer’s ability to display media information and to change it around to create new meanings. I use this ability of the computer as the basis for my work. The end result is the form of subjective computing, phantasmal media, that highlights the power of the human imagination”. 

The Video provided by MIT Comparative Media Studies: 



Here are the fragments of the article/interview conducted  by Annie Khaminwa for the International Review of African American Art, 
"How An Artist-Scientist Conjurer Thinks, Works and Lives" (PDF).

(…) One question underlies and unifies pursuits of D. Fox Harrell. “How,” Harrell wonders, “can I take advantage of what computers do well — such as representing and transforming information — to help us to better understand, and improve, the human condition?” (…).

Harrell is interested in how computation can create powerful new forms of phantasmal media — interactive narratives, computer games, social media, AI-based art, and “new forms unanticipated by any of those.” He believes that digital media can transform users’ ideas, improvise new aesthetic meanings, and critique society and culture. At the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, Harrell focuses on interactive, verbal narrative and poetry and constructing social meaning with computer software. Some of his colleagues in the Writing Program create traditional media such as novels and documentaries. Others work in experimental writing and interactive media. At the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory he investigates how to represent and generate meaning — the intricate, inexhaustible work of a lifetime. A testament to this commitment is his lifetime membership in the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. Combining AI with his arts and humanities concerns, he explores and challenges common phantasms. Loss Undersea is an interactive narrative game- like project. Unlike typical video games, this one is not about combat and jam- packed action adventure. Rather it aims to be a poetic reflection on the state of contemporary life.The game consists of a tableau — the character awaking and evocative lines of poetry. The user selects what the character does next. The user can make choices that are peaceful, active, aggressive or apathetic. The artificial intelligence that underlies the system then provides the next tableaux and generates poetry in response to the emotional weight of the user’s choice. Was the computer writing poetry? No, says Harrell. Rather the artificial intelligence system is improvising, generating a poetic text based on an algorithm he created to combine concepts. The system uses logic to describing thematic locations and emotional states. In the game, Harrell uses conceptual blending, an idea from cognitive science about how the mind brings together multiple ideas. In “Loss Undersea,” he is investigating the “apathy,” “aggression,” “laziness or “peace” that a contemporary “office worker” may experience, hence, the narrator is represented by an avatar who drowns under the weight of aquatic imagery. Emotion guides the game. The appearance of the character changes in response to the player’s choices. An accumulation of emotions continuously transforms it into a grotesque hybrid marine animal. Harrell has observed that a player who consistently selects the aggressive choice, for example, changes the mood of the game to the point that the characters unexpectedly and independently generate aggressive actions. The mood is like a computational, psychoses. (…)

Art before science? Vice versa? Both at the same time?

 D. Fox Harrell has introduced three ideas that his idea of phantasmal media builds upon:

• Subjective computing that explores technical aspects of improvisation, meaning and ambiguity.

• Cultural computing that explores using a broader range of cultural sources for developing artificial intelligence and technology. For example, Harrell notes that the literary theory at the basis of many interactive narrative systems is often defined from the worldview of continental Europe. He is inspired by Kenyan theorist and author Ngugi wa Thiong’o who has suggested that traditions of orature (oral literature) might be more relevant to cyberspace. The aforementioned “Visual Renku” project took advantage of cognitive science research by Masako Hiraga exploring how Chinese characters can be image-based and metaphorical.

• Critical computing in which one uses computing to say something about the world.

In discussing his work, D. Fox Harrell is equally interested in the aesthetic/poetic issues and the technological challenges. Ultimately, he does put the art first, but says that programming itself is a form of expression.

Tags: art, cognitive science, computer games, computer science, digital media, expressive computer systems, imagination, interactivity, phantasmal media, technology

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