A conversation with Piotr Szyhalski and Richard Shelton, the creators of Dolphin Oracle II, Sarah Schultz, director of education and community programs, and Andrew Blauvelt, design director
and curator, winter 2005.
Sarah Schultz: Perhaps we should start with Dolphin Oracle I, the original project you created in 2004.
Richard Shelton: We thought it would be interesting to take this new-age symbol of the dolphin—a form of intelligence that many humans think is greater than their own—and, using artificial intelligence, create an oracle, so people would look to this dolphin to answer all their questions.
Piotr Szyhalski: The relationship between the image of a dolphin and the mechanics of artificial intelligence was something really interesting and important. We did like the irony.
Andrew Blauvelt: It’s interesting how quickly you believe in the Dolphin once you start asking it questions. Did you expect it to work that way?
PS: I really do think that people tend to suspend their judgment for a while. The idea of artificial intelligence is like a promise of something that may or may not be there. Rich and I enjoy the idea that people would scratch their heads, and wonder exactly how does this work, what happens, and how could it be? That same sort of suspended judgment allows people to look at a dolphin as a symbol of something much greater or to see the promise of artificial intelligence.
RS: The uniqueness of the piece is just the way that we meshed the intelligence with the animation. Because it takes the form of a dolphin, I think you are much more forgiving of its mistakes. Occasionally, it will turn questions back on you or answer questions in very vague ways, like a Magic 8 Ball. The real magic in the piece is that you’re not necessarily having a conversation with an artificial intelligence database but with a dolphin.
SS: I was joking earlier that I’ve had better conversations with the Dolphin than with most people I know.
PS: It’s better than reality. The artificial intelligence is better than normal intelligence, too. It’s got to be better. There’s a machine running it, right? There is this tongue-in-cheek quality about that connection. What’s fascinating about this whole situation is that kids, adolescents, and adults will have a very different perception of it. I really do appreciate the fact that it has this multilayered quality. I know that for my eight-year-old daughter, it’s the most amazing experience. You get to talk to this wonderful, beautiful creature.
SS: I wonder if you might talk a little bit more about the experiences the audience had with it when it was first installed. What most surprised you?
PS: At first, I was surprised by the fact that people had such different experiences with it, but were also able to very clearly define exactly what was it about it that made it interesting. Another thing that I certainly did not expect to see was the sort of communal quality of it—people found immense pleasure or enjoyment from not necessarily engaging in a conversation with the dolphin directly, but from watching others do so. I didn’t imagine it being an entertaining sort of show to watch and yet, that was, in many cases, exactly the scenario. Someone would interject, ”Oh, ask it this!” and the person holding the keyboard would type in their question.
AB: Are you trying to preserve a sense of mystery about the dolphin and its artificial intelligence?
PS: I think so. It’s important that it’s there. We knew this from day one. Not knowing the full picture and not being able to verify things efficiently is a big part of that suspended belief. Even with dolphins, you can think about [dolphin researcher] John Lilly and his recordings, and whether or not the dolphins actually can speak English. One day Rich sent me an audio file [of a dolphin speaking] in an e-mail that seemed to say, “Hello, Piotr.” I played it again and again. Is that what it’s saying? Obviously, I can hear it, but is it really there?
RS: Actually, one of Lilly’s dolphins was named Peter. I became interested in Lilly, who would take massive amounts of LSD and, later, this “Special K” horse tranquilizer and jump into these [isolation] tanks. He invented sensory deprivation. I was working on a piece about four or five years ago using tanks and all this stuff on Lilly. Then, I stumbled onto the fact that he had taken a lot of that from dolphins. Because they live underwater, they have a different perception of light than we do, they don’t hear in the same way, and they basically are buoyant because they live in salt water—all the things that made up the sensory deprivation tank. A few years ago, I went on sabbatical to do research in the Moses Asch Library at Smithsonian Folkways. While I was researching Asch’s relationship to folk music, I stumbled onto a recording made by Lilly of dolphins. It was amazing. He was trying to teach them English.
PS: Again, whether that’s a myth or scientific fact, there is at least the potential of communication with dolphins. In many ways, they do have the capability of conveying at least some simple concepts or reacting to particular commands in seemingly intelligent ways. So, looking at technology as a way of facilitating the process of communication today is such an easily embraced concept, at least in this society. People talk about e-mail, for example, how it has this strange status of something suspended between casual conversation and the written word, being neither really. It seemed that the experience one could have with the dolphin would be similar.
AB: There is that immediacy surrounding the power of e-mail that seems to be at play in this idea of detachment—of typing in the information and then waiting for something to come back from the Dolphin. Like iChat, there’s a presence to it even though you don’t have a direct visual connection.
RS: A lot of people thought it was like The Wizard of Oz. They thought there was somebody behind the screen, or they kept asking me where the person was that was watching them on a camera and answering their questions.
PS: Yes. So, for an adult, there would be that sort of interpretation, or trying to figure out the process exactly. The kids would just walk up to the wall and try to grab the Dolphin, because it seemed like it was real.
AB: I want to flip the conversation around and ask Sarah why the education department is interested in this artwork?
SS: The first time I encountered the Dolphin [in the artists’ 2004 exhibition P.R.S.S. at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts], I experienced a range of feelings. First, you’re amazed that this thing actually exists, and you’re curious about how it works. You start to have a conversation and there’s a moment where you think you’re being tricked and you try to stump it, just to prove that this thing can’t possibly be real. Then you think, “Well, this is actually fun. Let’s just have some fun.” You suspend belief. I thought, “This is exactly the kind of experience you want to have when you’re looking at art.” That experiential part of it was one of the things that really drew me to this project. The process modeled what you go through when you confront something you don’t understand.
PS: The fact that it seems to occupy this unclear territory between curatorial and educational spaces, or something else altogether, is very interesting. I like the fact that, in this new home, Dolphin Oracle II will have a very specific role to fulfill. I like to think that artwork, any artwork, really can and often does have a particular function. Seeing that so clearly presented here is very encouraging.
SS: How will the personality of the Walker’s Dolphin differ from the original?
PS: It does have a different job to do. It should know and be much more aware of its place, physically and culturally, and be able to carry on an exchange in relation to other artworks that are its neighbors. Those were objectives that we didn’t necessarily think about in the first place. It almost gains a little more of that utilitarian quality that I said was so interesting.
AB: Is it fair to say that the knowledge it had before is being expanded?
PS: Yes, very much so.
SS: Have you taken knowledge away from it?
RS: We’re trying to figure out if that’s ethical or not.
PS: [laughs] It’s true. We did have a discussion about this the other day. After one of our meetings at the Walker, I’m not sure exactly how, we sort of crystallized this question: “Who are we to remove whole chunks of knowledge from it?”
AB: You’re doing this for practical reasons?
PS: It comes with the idea of expanding or providing enough material or knowledge for the Dolphin to be able to carry on that discussion about the Walker and the art. You think, “If I want this conversation to steer that way, you really might need to remove the access to other territories of information.” Rich said something about the ethics of this whole process. We both kind of looked at each other and said, “This is really very interesting.”
RS: I remember adults or teenagers wanting to come in and ask that Dolphin some pretty complex questions about sex and sexuality. It does have some very interesting knowledge about that. There may be institutional concerns about some of the things the Dolphin may say. It may raise some issues of censorship that we’re a little concerned about, too.
AB: But it’s no different than a kid on a playground, because it’s going to learn.
PS: True, except this is like putting that kid in the position of being a spokesperson for the Walker Art Center. You know, it really becomes a question: Is the Dolphin speaking for the Walker, is it speaking for itself, or is it speaking for Rich and me?
SS: I think it’s speaking for itself.
RS: But, let’s face it, there’s some really raunchy stuff inside that Dolphin. [laughter]
SS: Who did it come from? Where did it come from?
RS: We don’t know where it came from, but it’s there! It’s like anything you make, it starts to evolve into something else.
AB: So, it is like a playground. You don’t know what your kid is going to say.
PS: In many ways.
SS: Can’t you impose a kind of social censor on it? There may be a lot of things going on in my head, but there are some things I choose to say and some things I choose to keep quiet about.
RS: Yes, but we would be choosing for the Dolphin, and we’re not yet ready to do that. I think we’re assuming some kind of art-related topics, and they may not even want to ask the Dolphin about the Walker or about art.
AB: Do you know what questions people ask?
PS: We did keep track of questions for a while; I did look at some of the records of the conversations. It really runs the gamut. It’s amazing how many times people do ask very similar questions, such as, “How old are you?”
RS: “Are you a boy or a girl?”
PS: Yes, the gender questions. You also try to stump it by asking questions you’re not going to get the answers to, such as “How old am I?”
RS: Or just typing complete silliness. I think it says it doesn’t understand what they’re saying.
PS: There’s a range of possibilities. Those are the situations where it either will try to redirect the conversation to a subject that it does understand and would like to talk about more; or simply make a smart comment about how incoherent that entry was, and you should try to shape up a little bit if you want to have a conversation; or maybe ask you about a language or something like that.
SS: Or, “If the Dolphin were a person, who would the Dolphin be?”
PS: [laughter] This is one of those situations where the Dolphin would probably give you some kind of smart-ass answer like, “Well, I am not a person,” or something like that. It’s not any one person. It’s an amalgamation of a number of people. I have to say that as a result of our collaboration and the fact that there are more people involved in directly shaping the core of its intelligence, it does become more defined, more specific in its answers. This is where the computational dimension of it enters, and it begins to create statements that neither one of us created before. That’s effectively what makes it impossible to say, “Well, it’s neither one of us, really.” In fact, there are moments when it’s completely and entirely itself.
RS: It’s more like collage than a committee.
PS: You’re absolutely right that there’s some sort of inverted logic, because you would assume the ideas or thoughts formulated by so many people would make this more of a generic or undefined character. I think that’s exactly the opposite. The fact is that it’s actually very specific and very focused. The aspects of its functionality, the ones responsible for its construction of new statements, would be a true sort of expression of personality, making it more unique. But that’s again the reverse because, sadly, the technology is not sophisticated enough for it to truly have a mind of its own.
From the book Expanding the Center, Walker Art Center, 2005.