Please wait a few moments while we process your request
Please wait...

Simon Penny

(Melbourne, Victoria, Australia)

Simon Penny, Big Father, 1991-1992
Born in 1955, Simon Penny is an Australian artist, theorist and professor in the field of robotic and interactive art. He obtained a diploma in fine art from the South Australian School of Art (Sydney, Australia) in 1979 and a graduate diploma in sculpture from the Sydney College of the Arts in 1982. He has taught at many academic institutions around the world including Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States), the University of Florida (Gainesville, Florida, United States) and the University of Karlsruhe, Germany. He was the European Professor of Interactive Environments at the University of Portsmouth in England and at the Merz Akademie in Stuttgart, Germany until 2001. Penny recently accepted a position at the University of California, Irvine.

Among his numerous editorial and curatorial projects, he edited the anthology Critical Issues in Electronic Media (1995) (1) and organized the exhibition Machine Culture for Siggraph 1993 (Anaheim, California, United States). He has also published in such journals as Leonardo Electronic Almanac and Art Journal and has lectured and given conferences at such events as ISEA and Siggraph, at many centres around the globe including the ZKM, and at several American, Canadian, Australian and European universities.

Penny began creating sculptural as well as electronically complex installations and objects in the late 1980s, such as Stupid Robot (1987), Lo Yo Yo (1988), Ceci n'est pas un oiseau (1989-1990) and Pride of Our Young Nation (1990-1991), some referencing particular human behavioural characteristics, others playing on the history of machines. For example, in Pride of Our Young Nation, Penny created a robotic sculpture that mimics early artillery design, using the same heat-detecting sensors and other technology employed by today's military. This artwork confronts the visitor with the fact that this technology has a history teeming with military references.(2)

Penny's next work, Big Father (1991-1992), pursues the theme of Pride of Our Young Nation, highlighting the origins of technology while emphasizing its abstract, metaphorical qualities. Penny set up five somewhat anthropomorphic computer stations that, as he states, breathe. The stations can sense a visitor's presence and consequently transmit particular audio and video data on the station screen.

"Over the past 20 years, an entirely new global system of digital communication has come into being, comprised of satellite relays, optical fibre and coaxial cables, and computer networks. [...] Information is transmitted and received between millions of sensor and effector "nodes" via a distributed "rhizomatic" network. Viewed in this way, any electronic information gathering device which is hooked into this system becomes a sense organ of it. These sense organs operate on a vast range of scales, from the galactic (outward-looking satellites and ground-based observatories), to the global (earth watching satellites), the local (video surveillance systems), the personal (medical imaging technologies) and the microscopic (scanning tunneling electron microscopes). One might even postulate an imagination or dreaming in the form of synthetic computer imagery. The installation is an attempt to represent this system by simulating it." (3)

More recently, Penny has attempted to turn away from human or organic representation in his robots. While some robotics artists have played on evoking human qualities and forms in their work, Penny has elected to avoid man's anthropomorphic desire. Stressing the machine, its functions and specific qualities, Penny has looked to affect the participant through means other than projecting characteristics of living organisms onto robotic entities. Petit Mal (conceived in 1989 but first shown publicly in 1995) is an example of this departure from anthropomorphism.

"A key aspect of the project was to build a device which gave the impression of sentience while avoiding anthropomorphism, zoomorphism or biomorphism. It seemed all too easy to imply sentience by capitalizing on the suggestive potential of biomorphic elements such as eyes, ears, legs, arms, etc. I did not want this "free ride" on the experience of the viewer. I wanted to present the viewer with a phenomenon which was clearly sentient, while also being itself, a machine, not masquerading as a dog or a president." (4)

This robotic artwork is a sculptural object composed of two bicycle wheels, pendulums, a processor, body heat sensors and a power supply. In the installation, the robot reacts autonomously to visitors' presence, approaching and moving around them for long periods of time without having to be recharged. Penny's goal was to create something that could interact for an extended period and could demonstrate intelligence without exhibiting the characteristics of humans or animals.

In the late 1990s, Penny constructed two more major interactive installations. The first is titled Fugitive (1995-1997), a work that, thanks to a complex machine system, interprets human movement as mood. The results of the data processing are translated into video images that are projected onto the circular walls of the installation. The interactive relation between visitor and artwork is apparent, yet not so obvious that users feel they can control the experience. Margaret Morse notes that:

"What is interesting about this project is that it transforms projected imagery from a scene of representation into a creature-like animation. The image does not aim at invoking a feeling of immersion in a virtual world, nor does it offer the cinematic experience of identification with a fictional world. Penny has criticized realistic, anthropomorphic and hierarchical models in robotic and interactive art. Thus, this project embraces the more disorienting effects of "virtualization" or the computer-enhancement of physical space that not only animates objects with behaviours associated with living creatures, but lends space itself perceived capacities associated with sentience or subjectivity." (5)

In his next artwork, Traces (1998-1999), Penny delves deeper into the realm of virtual reality and interaction. (6) Traces, a project designed for CAVEs, (7) premiered at the Ars Electronica Festival in 1999. Visitors are invited to enter the CAVE, a rectangular room in which they are confronted with a digital image of their own body. As the visitors move, so do their digital counterparts. This piece references the military use of surveillance technology but subverts this technology given that the bodies the visitors survey are their own. The results of the surveillance are visualized, and the data is reappropriated. Author Ricardo Miranda Zuniga refers to the technology as a "dynamic digital mirror." (8)

Besides his book Making Culture Machines to be published by MIT Press, Penny is working on a new interactive robotic installation with artist Bill Vorn. Titled bedlam, this work will also have telematic components. As in many of Penny's works, this installation will challenge accepted and traditional notions of interaction, this time questioning conventional perceptions of robot behaviour.

Angela Plohman © 2001 FDL

(1) Simon Penny, ed., Critical Issues in Electronic Media (Albany : State University of New York Press, 1995).

(2) For a more in depth discussion of these ideas, please see Simon Penny and K.D. Davis, "Dystopic Topics," World Art Volume 1 (1996): 30-33.

(3) Simon Penny, "Big Father," Simon Penny.

(4) "Simon Penny," Technology in the 1990s: The Human/Machine Interface (New York: äda`web, 1996), (accessed July 3, 2001):

(5) Margaret Morse in Hardware Software Artware : Confluence of Art and Technology. Art Practice at the ZKM Institute for Visual Media 1992-1997 (Ostfildern: Cantz Verlag ; Karlsruhe: ZKM/Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie Karlsruhe, 1997) : 143-144.

(6) For more information about Traces, please see Simon Penny, Jeffrey Smith and Andre Bernhardt, "Traces: Wireless full body tracking in the CAVE," Paper accepted to ICAT virtual reality conference, The Virtual Reality Society of Japan, December 1999.

(7) For more information about the CAVE virtual reality system, please see Dave Pape, Dave's CAVE pages, (accessed July 6, 2001):

(8) Ricardo Miranda Zuniga, "Penny's Robotic Madness," The Spleen (November 13, 2000).