Professor, Electronic Art and Design
Department of Art, University of California, Irvine
Simon Penny is an Australian artist, researcher, scholar and teacher whose work over 40 years has focused on the intersection between electronic/digital systems and embodied and materially engaged practices. This work has manifested as technical research programs, interactive installations, historical and critical writing, organising conferences, exhibitions and publications, and establishing educational progams. Trained as a sculptor, Penny gravitated quickly toward installation, performance, kinetic sculpture and art+technology. This drew him into mechatronics, robotics, artificial life and the design of custom interactive technologies.
His technical/aesthetic work has taken the form of R+D for innovative systems directed at embodied interactive experiences, culminating in new interactive art forms. Through the 1990s, his work centered on VR, robotics and interactive installation. These works address the issues arising around enactive and embodied interaction, informed by traditions of practice in the arts including sculpture, video-art, installation and performance; and by theoretical research in ethology, neurology, ethnology, situated cognition, phenomenology, human-computer interaction, ubiquitous computing, robotics, critical theory, cultural and media studies. Informed by these sources, he designed and built custom technologies with custom code, electronic, electro-mechanical and structural components.
He built the Autonomous robotic artwork Petit Mal in the early 1990s. In 2009, an exhibition entitled Petit Mal and celebrating its legacy in the arts was held at the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City. Petit Mal was exhibited internationally from 1995-2007. Through the later 90s he focused on design and development of custom volumetric machine vision systems for embodied interaction. His machine-vision-based interactive digital video project Fugitive was included in the opening exhibition of the ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany in 1997. In 1998, Traces (3D machine vision driven CAVE immersive interactive) was developed at the GMD Sankt Augustin, Germany. It was presented in the CAVE at Ars Electronica in 1998 and received a Prix Ars Electronica Honorable Mention. Fugitive Two was commissioned by the Australian Center for the Moving Image (ACMI), Melbourne Australia, in 2000, and premiered there in 2004. Body Electric was commissioned by CalTech under an NSF grant with the center for Neuromorphic Systems Engineering and shown in the Neuro exhibition at Art Center Pasadena in 2003. Bedlam was a collaborative robotic/telematic/immersive project with Bill Vorn (Montreal Canada, 2001-2005).
His critical analysis of computer culture and AI has engaged phenomenology, cognitive science and philosophy of mind, anthropology and cognitive archeology. His current theoretical focus is on application of post-cognitivist theories of cognition to theorisation of art, design and cultural practices. This work culminated in the publication of Making Sense – Cognition, Computing, Art and Embodiment (MIT press 2017). He has published over 80 papers on interactive and media art. He curated and produced Machine Culture - the first international survey of interactive installation- at SIGGRAPH 93 in Anaheim, CA - and edited the associated catalog and anthology. He edited the anthology Critical Issues in Electronic Media (SUNY Press 1995). He has spoken widely on Digital Cultural Practices around the world. He directed and produced Digital Art and Culture 2009 (DAC09) conference (subtitled Beyond Media – Embodiment and Context; A Body of Knowledge – Embodied Cognition and the Arts conference UCI 2016; and An Ocean of Knowledge - Pacific Seafaring, Sustainability and Cultural Survival, UCI 2107. His essays have been published in seven languages.
Penny was Professor of Art and Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University (a joint appointment between the College of Fine Arts and the Robotics Institute) 1993-2001. During 2000-01 he was European Professor of Interactive Environments at the University of Portsmouth and the Merz Akademie, Stuttgart, and a member of the central committee of the EU ESPRIT project CIRCUS.
He was appointed Professor of Arts and Engineering at University of California Irvine (a specially-created joint appointment between the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and the Claire Trevor School of Arts) in 2001 (with an appointment in Information and Computer Science). From 2001-2011 he designed, established, and for the first years, directed, the Arts Computation Engineering (ACE) interdisciplinary graduate program at UCI. www.ace.uci.edu. He was Layer Leader for the Arts in the California Institute for Telecommunications and information Technology, UCI division, 2001-5.
He was a guest professor for the Interdisciplinary Master in Cognitive Systems and Interactive Media (CSIM), Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, 2008-13 ,and was director of the Synergies project on Interdisciplinary Research, based at Hangar Barcelona Spain (part of the EU Softcontrol project). He was Labex Arts-H2H International Chair, Université Paris 8 and Ecole National Superieur des Artes Decoratifs (ENSAD) Paris, Spring 2014. He has received funding and/or residencies from the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Science and Art, ZKM, GMD, WDR, the National Science Foundation and other sources. He has served on juries, boards and review committees for the Rockefeller Foundation, the Research Advisory Board for Banff New Media Institute, the National Research Council of the National Academies, ISEA, and other bodies.
He teaches (and has taught) in a wide range of modalities, from studio/shop/lab classes (Gizmology and Kinetics, Mechatronic Art) to STS-oriented historical classes (From Steam to Steampunk – 200 years of Technoculture) to graduate seminars in Embodied Cognition and the Arts. How to be Clever with Stuff is a hybrid studio/theory class which attempts a high level of integration between shop practice and academic engagement with theories of embodied cognition.
In 2014, he began a new major project Orthogonal – the construction of an experimental 30’ (10m) asymmetrical outrigger sailcraft based in the design and dynamics of Micronesian voyaging canoes. The slogan of Orthogonal is design, build, sail, with a dash of anthropology.