'telepresence art can offer new cognitive and perceptual models' (Kac in Goldberg, 2000: 182)

Uploaded Image

The Telegarden (1995-ongoing). Co-directors: Ken Goldberg and Joseph Santarromana. Image courtesy of Ken Goldberg

The word TELEPRESENCE was coined by Marvin Minsky to designate:

teleoperation systems used in remote object-manipulation applications (Goldberg, 2000: 27)

Does telepresence consist of a doubling or a fragmentation of presence?
What happens to presence in the process of its (re-)mediation?
Is there a rupture between presence and its effect in telepresence?
What is the relationship between telepresence and VR?
Does telepresence imply the end of distance?

Uploaded Image

HEADROOM (2006), courtesy of Paul Sermon

Telepresence defines:

Telepresence is reciprocal (involving both observer and observed) (Ibid.)

'We call telepresence, presence in real time, or almost real, mediated by technology, be it video or computer.' (http://www.corpos.org/papers/perfotele.html)

Telepresence is 'the ability to act on the perceived environment from a distance, not only perceive it. This is the sense in which many researchers use the term: presence has no chance of being achieved unless one can act on the environment, for example, via a surrogate robotic arm. Telepresence researchers (...) are exploring sophisticated VR-like arrangements to orchestrate a person's perception of a distance space (e.g., head-movement-controlled diplays), and the execution of acts in a distant place by moving their local body (e.g., local hand-movements being translated into equivalent motions of the distant robotic hand).' (Wilson, 2002: 527)

Telepresence is particularly useful in medicine (telesurgery), education and in hazardous military, subacqueous and aereonautic operations. For some superlative research in this area explore Tim Lenoir's publications at [link]

Marvin Minsky defines telepresence as 'feeling that you are actually "there" at the remote site of operation' while presence in VR is 'feeling like you are present in the environment generated by the computer' (1980: 120)

Does telepresence facilitate communitas?
Where is the viewer located in telematic art?
Does telepresence render images alive?
Can telepresence effect real exchanges?

Beneath are some examples from interesting telepresence art works:

The Telegarden

Uploaded Image

The Telegarden (1995-ongoing, networked robot installation at Ars Electronica Museum, Austria, [link] and [link]). Co-directors: Ken Goldberg [link] and Joseph Santarromana. Project team: George Bekey, Steven Gentner, Rosemary Morris Carl Sutter, Jeff Wiegley, Erich Berger. (Photo by Robert Wedemeyer). Images courtesy of Ken Goldberg

Uploaded Image

The Telegarden consists of a portable garden at the Ars Electronica Centre at Linz containing an industrial robotic arm that is controlled by the web and allows remote participants to plant seeds and water the plants created in the garden.

Uploaded Image

'What is the feeling of owning a flower or a vegetable in a garden that one has never visited, and will never visit, yet taking care of it telerobotically and watching it grow?' (Kusahara in Goldberg, 2000: 205)

Uploaded Image

For further readings see the above sites, Goldberg's 'The Robot in the Garden' [link], and at [link]. See also [link]

Uploaded Image

'Telepresence allows the subject to control not just the simulation but reality itself. Telepresence provides the ability to remotely manipulate physical reality in real time through its image. (...) Thus the essence of telepresence is that it is antipresence. I don't have to be physically present in a location to affect reality at this location.' (Manovich in Goldberg, 2000: 175)

Paul Sermon experiments with telepresence in his telematic installations. The Presence Project has been documenting Paul Sermon's work Headroom at [link].

Among his works experimenting with telepresence are

Telematic Seance

Uploaded Image

Paul Sermon comments on telepresence:

'The basic principle used in all the telematic installations I have produced since the beginning of the nineties involves a form of video-conferencing telepresence. By using systems of cameras, video mixers and projectors, two remote participants are combined and framed within the same screen/image. With the help of virtual studio chroma-key effects (the video mix of two identical scenes) the geographically distant users/performers appear in the same room, sitting at either the same table, on the same sofa, or on the same bed. All these works embody open systems of interaction, involving two or more remote locations and participants, linked together via computer data net-works.' (Sermon in Rieser and Zapp, 2002: 78-9).

Uploaded Image

'All technology is a development of language - a means of construction and interpretation of an environment. The definition of the virtual and real are all part of the same linguistic construct.' (Ibid.)

Uploaded Image

'Technology/language is not an apparatus or attachment of the body, but rather an extension of it. The marriage of the terms 'tele' and 'information' (informatic) encompasses many fields of research, including telepresence - the ability to be in more than one place at one time - ultimately a quantum physics model of teleportation.' (Ibid.).

Uploaded Image

The above images are from Telematic Seance (1993), courtesy of Paul Sermon

'What are the effects of physical distance on aestehtic perception? Physical distance is at once erased and reaffirmed by new technologies.' (Kac in Goldberg, 2000: 181)

Lynn Hershman Leeson has also explored this technology in her work with dolls

Tillie, the Telerobotic Doll

Uploaded Image

Lynn Hershman Leeson's Tillie, the Telerobotic Doll (1995-8)

'By looking at the world through the eyes of Tilie, viewers become not only voyeurs but also virtual cyborgs, because they use her eyes as a vehicle for their own remote and extended vision' (Hershman Leeson in Tromble, 2005: 87)

Uploaded ImageUploaded ImageUploaded Image

'Tillie, a tpical feminine-looking doll, stares at you from the web site of the San Francisco based artist Lynn Hershman Leeson. Each of Tillie's eyeballs moves slightly as you move the cursor on it. Click on her eye and an image of a gallery wall appears in a window below. The dolls eyeballs have been replaced with cameras that send images to the Internet. Through Tillie's eyes you can look around the gallery, turning her head to get the view you want. You can also visit the gallery itself and watch the physical Tillie in front of you. You will see your own image physically reflected in Tillie's eyes, but you are also being watched by countless unknown Internet users behind her, who are using Tillie's face as a mask and watching you through her eyes.' (Kusahara in Goldberg, 2000: 203)

Does telepresence fragment or augment the viewer's sense of self?
What are the ethics and aesthetics of representation of this (re-)mediated spect-actor?

Other interesting telepresence works were developed by Eduardo Kac.

In 1986 Eduardo Kac worked with radio-controlled telerobotics in the context of the exhibition "Brasil High Tech". He used a 7-feet tall anthropomorphic robot (beneath) as 'a host who conversed with exhibition visitors in real time. The robot's voice was that of a human being transmitted via radio. Exhibition visitors did not see the telerobot operator, who was telepresent on the RC Robot's body.'

Uploaded Image

The robot was built by Cristovão Batista da Silva. Further details from [link]

Eduardo Kac defines telepresence as a ‘union of telematics and remote physical action’ (Kac in Goldberg, 2000: 181) that allows for the creation of artworks in which ‘immediate perceptual encounters are expanded by a heightened awareness of what is absent, remote.’ (Kac in Goldberg, 2000: 182).

Telematic art, has, according to Kac, a ‘desire to convert electronic space from a medium of representation to a medium for remote agency’ (Kac, 2002) so that ‘actions carried out by Internet participants have direct physical manifestation in a remote gallery space.’ (Kac, 2002).

As suggested by Kac, telepresence art shows that from a social, political, and philosophical point of view, what cannot be seen is equally relevant to what meets the eye (Kac in Goldberg, 2000: 182).


The distortion of human perception as produced by the machine is at the heart of Kac’s project Ornitorrinco. This piece consists of a series of works experimenting with telepresence which were developed between 1989 and 1996 in collaboration with Ed Bennett. The word ornitorrinco means platypus in Portuguese and was chosen due to the fact that the platypus is meant to be a hybrid of bird and mammal (Kac, 2002).

Uploaded Image

'Ornitorrinco, the Webot, travels around the world in eighty nanoseconds going from Turkey to Peru and back'. Courtesy of E. Kac

Kac suggests, ‘I propose to unite three areas of aesthetic investigation that so far have been explored as separate artistic realms: robotics, telecommunications and interactivity.’ (Kac, 2002). Thus ‘Ornitorinco in Eden’ (1994) took place between Seattle, Chicago and Lexington which represented three points of active participation although there were also a number of points of observation. The point of view of the Ornitorrinco, as experienced by the viewers, was guided in real time by viewers in Lexington and Seattle.

Uploaded Image

The telerobot Ornitorrinco by Eduardo Kac and Ed Bennett. Photo: David Yox. Courtesy of E. Kac.

Kac explains, ‘the remote participants shared the body of Ornitorrinco simultaneously’ (Kac, 2002) and the animal represented the human point of view as perceived from two separate locations. The robot of Ornittorrinco was controlled by telephone or the net, and thereby became ‘a substitute-body shared and “inhabited” by the participating public.’ (Bureaud in Kostic and Dobrila, 2000: 8).

‘The objective’, Kac suggests, was to imply kinship between the organic (animal) and the inorganic (telerobot)’ (Kac, 2002) and, via telepresence, ‘to metaphorically ask the viewer to look at the world from someone else’s point of view. It’s a nonmetaphysical out-of-body experience’ (Kac in Wilson, 2002: 535).

Uploaded Image

Detail of the telepresence installation "Ornitorrinco on the Moon" by Eduardo Kac and Ed Bennett. 1992 Courtesy of E. Kac

'Ornitorrinco in Eden creates a context in which anonymous participants perceive that it is only through their shared experience and non-hierarchical collaboration that little by little, or almost frame by frame, a new reality is constructed. In this new reality, spatiotemporal distances become irrelevant, virtual and real spaces become equivalent, and linguistic barriers may be temporarily removed in favour of a common empowering experience.' (Kac, 2002)

Reflecting on this work, Kac suggests ‘The artist in no longer someone that creates a closed structure to be pondered on, or gazed at.’ (Kac in Wilson, 2002: 535).

The telepresent work of art is dispersed, its ethics and ontology ineffable and fragmented.

Kac's writings on Ornitorrinco are at [link], [link] and [link]

Rara Avis

Uploaded Image

Rara Avis (1996), a networked telepresence installation by Eduardo Kac linking Nexus Contemporary Art, in Atlanta, to the Internet through three protocols: CU-SeeMe, the Web, and the MBone (June 28-August 24, 1996). In this work local and remote participants experienced a large aviary from the point of view of a telerobotic macaw.

In Rara Avis a telerobotic bird-machine was enclosed in a gallery aviary with real birds. Spectators could assume the perspective of the bird-machine by using the internet or data glasses and observe themselves, or the other real birds in the aviary, from the bird’s point of view (Stocker in Kostic and Dobrila, 2000: 82).

The piece, which was an interactive networked telepresence installation, also, through the internet, allowed for remote viewers to experience the gallery from the point of view of the bird as activated locally by each viewer. Remote viewers could also use their own microphones to trigger the bird’s vocal apparatus hence affecting the other birds in the aviary and subsequently probably also the viewers in the room. As suggested by Kac, in Rara Avis ‘network ecology and local ecology mutually affected one another’. (Kac in Goldberg, 2000: 187).

Uploaded Image

Rara Avis (1996) linked the gallery to the Internet with interactive conferences and cybercasts via CU-SeeMe, the Web, and the MBone.

‘The identity of the viewer and its position is trapped in an endless loop involving inside and outside, freedom and captivity, seeing and being seen, to manipulate and to be manipulated’ (Kusahara in Kac, 2002) in that ‘from an epistemological point of view, telerobotic technology places the viewer both inside and outside the cage.’ (Kusahara in Kac, 2002).

For more information see Kac's writings at [link]. For Kac's writings on telepresence see [link]. For further links, artworks exploring telepresence and publications see also his website at [link].

'Telepresence combines the contents of three archetypal areas of thought: automation, virtual illusion, and a nonphysical view of the self. These notions collide in the concept of telepresence, which enables the user to be present in three different places at the same time: a) in the spatio-temporal location determined by the user's body; b) by means of teleperception in the simulated, virtual image space (the point to which attempts in art history have led so far to obtain Virtual Reality), and c) by means of teleaction in the place where for example a robot is situatd, directed by one's own movement and providing orientation through its sensors.' (Grau in Goldberg, 2000: 239)

Lev Manovich indicates that telepresence can indicate two different situations:

‘If we look at the word itself, telepresence means presence at a distance. (…) Brenda Laurel defines telepresence as “a medium that allows you to take your body with you into some other environment” (…) According to this definition, telepresence encompasses two different situations - being “present” in a synthetic computer-generated environment (what is commonly referred to as “virtual reality”) and being “present” in a real remote physical location via a live video image.’ (Manovich, 2001: 165)

‘The body of the teleoperator is transmitted, in real time, to another location where it can act on the subject’s behalf (…).’ (Manovich, 2001: 166f)

‘(…) in contrast to photography and film, electronic telecommunication can function as two-way communication. Not only can the user immediately obtain images of various locations, bringing them together within a single electronic screen, but, via telepresence, she can also be “present” in these locations. In other words, she can affect change on material reality over physical distance in real time.’ (Manovich, 2001: 174)

For further iformation on telepresence and VR see also CAVE

Some of the above abstracts are from Gabriella Giannachi's Virtual Theatres: an Introduction (Routledge, 2004) [link].