On Tele-Absence

I am not a religious man. Once a year, however, I try to attend a seder, the dinner celebrated during the Jewish holiday of Passover that is set to an ancient script, the Haggadah, which dictates, in rather precise order, not just the recitation of prayer and song but the consumption of various gastronomic exotica along with many choreographed sips of wine. I find the seder such a compelling mix of lighthearted merriment and earnest symbolic narrative that if there were any question of my Jewish-ness I most certainly play the part for that one night.

I remember as a child the way the traditions of the seder captivated my natural melding of the real and the imagined. At most seders, there is an empty table setting reserved for the prophet Elijah (Eliyahu Hanavi in Hebrew) who, it is said, may materialize out of the spiritual ether and join us for dinner, for what symbolic reason I cannot tell you. But we keep his wine glass full and leave the front door ajar, so he doesn’t have to knock. As most seders seem to be crammed into dining rooms designed to accommodate small nuclear families, the empty table setting gives Elijah a very prominent physical presence at the table. I suppose if I were religious enough I would actually believe he was there.

The idea that someone may be present in a space without actually being present is the foundation of current work in the field of telepresence. While the struggle to break the barriers of space and time was once primarily metaphysical, technologies are now purported to actually transport human presence – and it seems that the commercial applications of this technology are generally expressed with the pathos of an AT&T commercial (whereby displaced children are brought into contact with their stationary mothers.) Current work at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, for example, consistently involves the creation of human surrogates that “bring people together.” Bells jingle in San Francisco when a girlfriend returns to her apartment in Manhattan. A commuter walks across a plaza in London and leaves a trail of lights in a plaza in Tokyo. Or, predictably, the surrogate comes in the form of an anthropomorphic tele-robot that walks and talks in the place of its owner. Whatever their differences, the intent behind all of these projects is to negate a human absence by replicating or extending a physical presence, amounting to a sort of social pseudo-contact.

In 1969 writer Georges Perec, member of the French formalist literary group Oulipo, wrote the novel A Void in which he did not use the letter e. (This proved an incredible feat of translation as it was written in French, beyond the original feat of its production.) What one experiences when reading this novel, above and beyond its content, is what the title references: a void. And what I find fascinating is how a work of art can circumscribe that which is not present. A void cannot consciously exist unless it is designated. And in this way the artist fashions an interesting back flip: the absence becomes a presence. Or in other words, the artist designates a present absence. This forms the basis of tele-absence.

By incorporating tele-absence into the conception of work that relies on the transmission of human presence, one may enhance the functionality of such projects. For example, my partner’s bell could chime only when I am gone, creating a comfortable silence when I am present. Or my necklace may glow only when my partner exits the vicinity, broadcasting the message that while I might be alone, I am in fact taken. In these cases, presence negates activity, rather than enabling it. And even further it calls into question the widespread notion (at least in technological circles) that human contact is uniformly desirable. Absence may not need to be filled; it may need to be embraced.

Interior of cube as seen on the video stream.

In this vein, I recently, along with Anees Assali, created a large black cube that sits motionless and visually impenetrable in a gallery space. Beyond its simple physical structure, the cube is also a web server with a fixed address. When viewers choose to visit the web site broadcast from the cube, they see a live video stream of its interior, which is empty. The cube does nothing other than serve up an empty space. When the cube was recently exhibited in a gallery context, viewers consistently asked, “How do I know the video is real?” It is true that Anees and I could have easily broadcast a pre-recorded version of an empty cubic interior. My answer to this is that the authenticity of the video cannot be verified but that the more important question is, as Tom Igoe says, whether the video is “real enough.”

This issue is perhaps even more germane when considered in the context of social telepresence. How do I know that the person I am talking to at the other end of the line is not in fact a machine? Back in 1950, Alan Turing devised a test for determining the existence of machine intelligence not by directly measuring the supposed intelligence of the machine but by asking a real human participant if he or she could distinguish the machine from a person after talking to both over teletype. If the participant could not distinguish between the two, then the computer was deemed intelligent. The implication here is that the outcome of this test varies across participants depending upon a variety of human factors. And again, the realness, or humanity, of the system all depends on whether it is “real enough” for the participant.

This psychological basis of human telepresence makes sense to me when I think about Elijah, precisely because the reality of religious phenomena for any one person is predicated upon their own belief. When I look around the crammed dinner table at Passover, that invariably motley assemblage of card tables and folding chairs, I look into the eyes of those seated across from me and I wonder what they make of Elijah’s absence. All I know for sure is that the more wine I drink, the less real his “real enough” needs to be for me. And by the time we get to the part where we sing Eliyahu Hanavi I look over to his table setting and I focus my eyes on the point in front of the wall where I imagine his head to be. And I tip my glass to him.

May 16, 2004

Ken Goldberg’s Dislocation of Intimacy