Museum library is home to a ‘witch’s familiar’ this week

Museum library is home to a ‘witch’s familiar’ this week

We are really pleased to have Rob Sherman’s innovative interactive project with us in the Museum library this week.  Here Rob writes about his first day: 

“There’s a cloying, candlelit darkness up in the Museum’s Library this week, made all the thicker by a very large, and very hot, computer merrily puntering away all day. Despite the heat, I’m delighted that many visitors have been drawn up the narrow stairs to see what is going on: enticed by the strange grunts, barks and guttural calls drifting down through the open windows. 

For the middle three days of this week, a pilot version of my PhD project is visiting the Library, with free entry for anybody visiting the Museum’s main exhibits downstairs. The work consists of a digital interactive installation, an artificially-intelligent simulation of a familiar spirit: the supernatural animal companion of a fictional Yorkshire cunning woman. With this piece, I’m trying to understand how complex computer systems, used to create fictional characters in this way, combine with an audience’s own imaginative powers to create a personal, and sometimes very visceral, experience. The opportunity kindly afforded me here in Boscastle allows me to show off my work so far to a receptive audience, and see how they respond. There are some very interesting parallels to be drawn between such imaginative relationships with computer programs and the relationships that cunning folk had with the supernatural in earlier centuries: their own powerful imaginations interacting with the world around them to conjure devils, demons, witches and sprites from thin air. 

The first day of the exhibition yesterday was a great success: nearly fifty visitors passed through, meeting the familiar spirit and attempting to commune with it in a variety of surprising ways. Using motion detection, emotion recognition and voice recognition, the spirit responds and reacts to the actions of the visitor: from a gentle stroke of its nose using a touchscreen, to an imperious command to ‘BEGONE!’, banishing it into the darkness. One man sat in front of it and meditated, timing his breathing with that of the spirit. Some felt sorry for the creature, and spoke to it in hushed tones: others became annoyed when it refused to do what it was told. People ascribed all sorts of emotions, desires and thoughts to it: some of which were actually present in the underlying code, and many of which were entirely in their own minds, but none the less powerful for it. Some merely stood and watched, or read the fictional documents that I have written to help frame the life and times of Anne Latch, the cunning woman who originally discovered, and used, this little demon.

As with any pilot study for a piece of interactive art, there is no ‘wrong response’ to the work: every visitor is instrumental in pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of the piece. It’s a testament to the diversity of the museum’s visitors that the feedback has been so varied. I already have reams of notes, and spent most of the last hour of the day sat cross-legged in front of the creature myself, updating the underlying code to implement the tips, recommendations and critiques of visitors. I’m looking forward to seeing what today’s new batch of curious attendees will bring to bear.   

The project is only in Boscastle until tomorrow, and today promises to be slightly cooler, with even a hint of rain. A perfect opportunity perhaps to come and meet the spirit for yourself, and bring your own imaginations to bear upon it.”

These photos (taken with the permission of the visitors involved) show people interacting with the familiar.


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