White grew up in and around Boston, Massachusetts, and obtained his B.A. in Biology from Harvard University in 1959. Originally planning to become a fisheries biologist, White changed his mind and decided to travel to places like New York City, San Francisco, London, and the Middle East during the 1960s.
While living in San Francisco, he worked as an electrician at Hunter's Point Naval Shipyard, and developed a fascination for electrical switching systems. In 1967, White moved to Toronto, Canada, where he began to build and experiment with kinetic electronics. He taught classes such as "Mechanics for Real Time Sculpture" as part of the Integrated Media Program of the Ontario College of Art & Design from 1978 to 2003.
White's early electronic art consisted mostly of gridded installations of light bulbs controlled by contemporary-vintage digital logic circuits. Like most of his art, these displays were concerned more with communicating internal rules and behaviours than simple visual appeal. For example, White's first major electronic work, "First Tighten Up on the Drums" (1969), generated shimmering light patterns through the unpredictable interaction of many interconnected circuits computing simple logical questions independently. Complex behaviours - for example, patterns akin to swirling clouds or rain on a window pane - emerged from simple principles. In retrospect, White recognizes this first project as an early cellular automata experiment. He constructed approximately a dozen similar light machines during the early 1970s, culminating in "Splish Splash 2" (1975), a large light mural commissioned for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Vancouver offices.
Following the purchase of his first computer in 1976, White refocused his attention on the emerging field of robotics, and during the mid- to late-1970s began making interactive machines whose internal logic expressed itself primarily through motion. "Menage" (1974) was White's first robotic work, and again demonstrated his interest in exploring complex behaviours generated from simple principles. Four robots mounted upon ceiling tracks were fitted with photo-sensitive scanners and programmed to recognize and react to light sources mounted on the other robots. The machines competed for one another's attention as they moved automatically along the overhead tracks.
Subsequent robotic projects have included: "Facing Out Laying Low" (1977), a stationary interactive robot designed to react to "interesting" behaviour in the gallery space surrounding it, and "Funny Weather" (1983), a robotic artificial weather system with interacting wind generators and sensors. "Telephonic Arm Wrestling" (1986) enabled patrons to arm wrestle each other in two galleries in real time. Many consider this piece to be a pioneering work in networked and long distance kinesthetic art. An early networked art piece that used telephone data links to transmit data between Canadian Cultural Centre in Paris, France and the Artculture Resource Centre, Toronto, Canada. "Them Fuckin' Robots" (1988), a collaboration with Laura Kikauka, investigated simulated sex.
In "The Helpless Robot" (1987-96), an electronically synthesized voice asks for the physical assistance of passers-by with a persuasive tone then slowly changes to a more forceful, commanding tone, complaining when the interaction is not being completed properly. Since 1992, White has also been an essential force behind the OCAD Sumo Robot Challenge, an annual competition akin to an automaton Olympics in which robotic entries dance, paint, and bash each other to smithereens.
Currently, White teaches at Ryerson University in Toronto. A recent retrospective of his work and influence, called Norm’s Robots and Machine Life, with works by White and artists he has influenced including Lois Andison, Doug Back, Peter Flemming, Simone Jones & Lance Winn, Jeff Mann, and David Rokeby, was shown at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston, Ontario in 2004.
White is the prize winner of the d.velop digital art award [ddaa] 2008.
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