Artist Robert Twomey explores the intersection of humans and machines

Trained as both a painter and an engineer, Seattle artist Robert Twomey creates work that lives in the crossroads of human desire and machine perception. His installation, performance, and interactive pieces are a thoughtful, surreal mix of automation and empathy, inviting viewers to explore identity, cognition and their interaction with machines.

His pieces form a body of self-portraiture, with tools like speech recognition software and computer vision systems as the medium. Twomey folds in personal subjects, from his grandmother’s Alzheimer’s disease to his admiration of certain painters, to build threads of optimism, dystopia and critique in his work.

“I’m incredibly enthusiastic about new technologies, but I feel we need to approach them in self-reflective ways,” says Twomey, a Ph.D. candidate with the Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media at the University of Washington.

“While we’re celebrating or exploring the possibilities of technology, we need to do the critical appraisal on what the limits are,” he says. “What are the values? What are we asking these technologies to do?”

As a kid, he liked to draw and build things, from an electric spaghetti fork to security systems for his room. He went to a high school for science and technology, and to Yale University, where he majored in art and engineering.

Although he worked as a biomedical engineer after college, he pursued art as a grad student, attracted to its potential for intellectual and emotional engagement.

To address his grandmother’s Alzheimer’s disease, Twomey created and spoke to a chatbot program that stood as her surrogate. The bot’s limitations and his dysfunctional dialogue with it “functioned as a cathartic unpacking, a rehearsal for loss,” he wrote. It was his first foray into computer art.

He’s since created “Face Swap,” a video piece that uses computer visioning to layer a different face over the viewer’s face. The result is a spooky, disjointed collage, a study of identity erased and replaced.

His piece, “Solipsist,” uses a speech recognition program Twomey trained and connected to an old-fashioned receipt printer, set on a lonely, walled-in desk. Participants speak into the program, but it only prints what it knows.

“It’s the feeling of being misheard by the system,” Twomey says. “It’s taking your words and reducing them to a cheap, throw-away thing.”

Twomey is now working on his dissertation, a look at the intersection of traditional homes and smart homes equipped with computerized systems. With the help of Windows 8 and a Kinect sensor for 3D modeling and measurements, he’s building machines in his home and planning a synthetic version of it in a gallery, based on data captured by his systems.

It’s a reflection of our increasing interaction with technology.

“What are the poetic narrative implications of living within these machines or this system?” Twomey says of his project, “A Machine for Living In.” “What are the possibly dystopian aspects of living in and through our technology?”

To learn more about Robert Twomey, go to Microsoft’s Instagram page, a celebration of people who break boundaries, achieve goals and #DoMore.

Vanessa Ho
Microsoft News Center Staff