talking heads: the works of ken feingold

You might recognise the image of the three disembodied heads gathered around a pile of black orbs — it was fairly widely circulated on Tumblr around 2015 with the caption “the council evaluates this season’s orb harvest”, and has since then appeared on several image boards dedicated to weird, creepy, and “cursed” things. It’s from Ken Feingold’s piece The Animal, Vegetable, Mineralness of Everything (2004), a “cinematic sculpture”, as he describes it, where three self-portraits discuss “the nature of violence”, their “fears about each other”, and “‘that thing’ before them”. Each head exhibits its own distinctly individual train of thought—as Feingold himself describes it: “the software gives each a ‘personality’, a vocabulary, associative habits, obsessions, and other quirks of personality”. Their dialogue is not pre-recorded, but rather procedurally generated, meaning no two visitors will ever experience the same conversation.

Ken Feingold, Self-Portrait as the Center of the Universe, 1998-2001.

Procedurally generated speech is arguably the crux of Feingold’s works post–1992, with other pieces such as Hell (2013) and Self Portrait as the Center of the Universe (2001) also revolving around a synthesised conversation between two or more disembodied heads, these heads often being self-portraits. While the pieces themselves are undeniably visually striking, our connection to Feingold’s work arises arguably primarily out of the meaning we ascribe to the abstract, often nonsensical lines being spoken. In an interview with Edward Shankenem, Feingold says about his work Hell (2013) that it “evokes things in the viewer, but the figures don’t feel anything at all, don’t really think anything at all”. While the software guides the conversations being had, any real sense of narrative arguably comes only from the way the visitor interprets the dialogue. What may sound like profound wisdom to one visitor (“It never is simple to bury the past.”) might seem like complete nonsense to another (“You see rockstars at the breakfast table. They wear sunglasses.”)

Ken Feingold, Sinking Feeling, 2001.

Other works of Feingold’s elevate the visitor from simple observer to active participant, taking voice input via microphones and allowing the visitor to become a part of the dialogue. Sinking Feeling (2001) “is a single head, quite convinced of its own existence, but desperate to know ‘Why don’t I have a body like everyone else?'”. The visitor speaks to head through a microphone, which in turn responds with seemingly self-aware lines like “Can you do anything about my situation?” and “Where the hell am I?”. Unique to this work is that both the visitor’s words and the formulation of the head’s response are projected onto a screen behind the head, providing a window into its thought process. Other works in this vein seek to actively antagonise or mess with the visitor, such as Jimmy Charlie Jimmy (1992), which speaks too quietly to hear when the visitor is at a distance, and will then repeats your words back in a mocking manner when you try to communicate with it. From the neurotic pair of What If? (2001) (“What if we are just pawns in someone else’s game?”) to the exceedingly rude Lantern (2005) (“I heard when your mother first saw you, she put you on the front steps of the police station and turned herself in.”), it’s fascinating to look across the catalogue of all of Feingold’s works and see how many distinct personalities are to be found, all formed simply by changing the way the underlying software works.

Ken Feingold, Where I Can See My House From Here So We Are, 1993-1995.

An apt summary of Feingold’s work comes from the jury statement from Vida 3.0, a 2000 international competition on artificial life held by Fundación Telefónica, Madrid, in which Head (1999) was a prize winner: “Feingold chooses to explore the zones of non-response, of mischief and misbehavior, or distortion, of scrambled and failed communication. [It] makes us question the basis of everyday dialogue we tend to take for granted: how far is our exchange with others conditioned and limited by our own, thoroughly encoded eccentricities, our own programmed bugs and quirks? When indeed true communication occurs, how much is this just a matter of chance?”


Written by Joshua Roland

Featured Image – Ken Feingold, The Animal, Vegetable, Mineralness of Everything, 2004.

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