When you imagine a great work of art, paintings, sculptures, or photography typically come to mind. Yet as digital technologies become increasingly a part of our daily lives, so they become integrated into our conceptions of artwork. No artist illustrates the seamless combination of new technologies with art better than Alan Rath, a pioneer who’s been working with electronics, machines, and robots since the 1980s. Technology is no longer just a facet of our lives; it has become part of us — as Rath puts it, “To be human is to be a technological animal.”
You weren’t originally interested in artwork or electrical engineering but were instead drawn to electronic music. Did you experiment with a musical career?
I enjoyed listening to music at a very early age in the early 1960s. That was before there were any synthesizers in pop music. When they appeared, I was entranced by the sound and the concept of electronic machinery that could be used for sound generation. As a preteen, it became obvious to me that I had no musical talent but I was still amazed by the way electronics could be used to create music. That is when I started to teach myself electronics.
You’re obviously a mixed-media artist, with most of your works featuring advanced electronics. What’s the relationship between technology and art?
Most of the time, I see artists using lots of technology to execute their ideas. Up to a few centuries ago, artists were probably the leading technologists of their communities. If you try hard enough, you might be able to make an artwork without technology such as using your finger to paint on your body with your body fluids. But, as soon as you don't want to use your finger as the brush or don't want to use a body as the substrate, or don't want to use body fluids as the medium, you become a technologist.
Given that we’re living in the technological era, where social media, AI, and VR seem to be unstoppable, how do you think art will continue to evolve to incorporate digital mediums and other technological advances?
VR is unstoppable because living in VR is what it means to be human. We've been doing it for millennia with language. We all live in an abstract realm of things that aren't really there.
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Some of your more recent works reflect electronics in a human form. How does this humanize robotics and technology to the public? Are there any dangers in doing this? With technology in general?
I tend to think of electronics and all machinery as extensions of the body. Literacy is fairly uncontroversial at this point but there was probably a time when many people viewed reading and writing with skepticism. Likewise, there currently seem to be some people who are alienated from technology, which is probably not an adaptive response. One doesn't refer to the danger of humanizing music or literature because these things are rightly seen as components of human culture. To be human is to be a technological animal. Technology is another component of human culture.
In an interview of yours, you said,  “At the base of technology is a very primal search for a warm, secure place to sleep.” I perceive that most people view technology and science as a very cold, empirical field. Why do you disagree with the majority? How can we find comfort in technology?
From what I see, most people seem to find immense comfort in technology. The list is long but some of my personal favourites are shoes, eyeglasses, flush toilets, and electric light. For some reason, the term ‘technology’ is often applied only to things invented after one's birth. But more recent technological fruits like cell phones seem to be almost universally enjoyed. They are optional, yet I don't know anyone who doesn't have one. Those who dislike technology are free to sleep naked in the forest and seek comfort in religion.
You frequently feature close-ups of eyeballs. What do they symbolize for you? How do they fit into the context of your other works?
I started using the eye imagery in the 1980s and still continue to use it. I was interested in the evolution of machinery from an extension of muscle power to an extension of brainpower. I thought that machines would soon gain consciousness and I wanted a way of representing a conscious machine. I wanted to be able to look at the machine and have the machine look back. So the eye became an indicator not just of intelligence but also of awareness.
“To be human is to be a technological animal. Technology is another component of human culture.”
Another recurring theme of yours is the Running Man series. What inspired you to create such an extensive collection of running men figures? How does each piece differ from the others?
I started the Running Man series in the year 2000. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, I noticed that a lot of people who saw my Eye sculptures thought the animated eye was the playback of a recording. But in fact, the motions of those eyes were generated by computer programs and would never repeat. It was important to me that the behaviour of the eye was entirely the result of mathematical computations.
With the Running Man, most of the time you see a running figure. But tomorrow, maybe he is running a little faster or slower. Maybe you don't notice. But he is a different colour – you probably notice that. And occasionally, he is running in the other direction. And then, one day, the running man is gone and is replaced by a flower or a butterfly. Is there a pattern?
A photograph shows only one instant in time of the sculpture and a video records only a short duration of the sculpture. The only person who can actually experience it is the one who lives day in and day out with the sculpture and can possibly notice patterns that take decades to be revealed.
I keep making Running Men in different sizes, with different numbers of men, and using different materials. Some hang on the wall and others are free standing. Over the years, the patterns of change and the number of different images and behaviours in each piece have tended to increase. 
Do you have a favourite piece or series that you’ve created? What makes it stand out to you?
One of my favourites is Rover, from 1998. A lot of sculptures are inert objects. I thought they should be active and kinetic, like a lot of the more modern objects that surround us. As the objects around us were becoming intelligent and autonomous, I thought I'd like to make an intelligent autonomous sculpture.
Rover is a sculpture that explores whatever gallery space it occupies. It moves around the space and uses an array of sensors to avoid hitting the walls or running over gallery visitors. If no one is around, it finds its way to its charging station and recharges its batteries. It has poor ‘vision’, so as long as the entrance door to the gallery is small enough, it won't leave. Lately, we've begun to hear about autonomous vehicles, but it was twenty years ago that I built my own autonomous mobile sculpture.
Should we ever expect to see robots similar to yours in the future?
My robots are useless, so I wouldn't expect anyone to build many of them in the future. I do think we will be surrounded by a lot of intelligent, non-anthropomorphic machines in the future. For me, the key attribute for a 'robot' is autonomy. But I see that for a lot of people 'robot' refers to an anthropomorphic machine, even if it lacks autonomy or even rudimentary sensing and processing ability.
Are you working on anything at the moment? Do you have any upcoming exhibitions? What does the future hold for you as an artist?
I'm always working on new sculptures. I have more ideas for Running Men that I want to see and there are computerized kinetic sculptures that I want to build, too. For the last decade, I've been designing electronic music modules for my own amusement. Maybe I'll finally assemble them into a large modular synthesizer that can autonomously perform the soundtrack to an exhibition of my sculptures. I'm currently in the planning stage for a solo exhibition of my work to be held next year in California.
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