Norman White

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Norman White
Norm White.jpg
Norman White
Born Norman T. White
January 7, 1938
San Antonio, Texas
Nationality Canadian
Education Harvard University
Known for Electronic Media Artist, sculptor, Educator
Movement New Media

Norman White is a Texas-born Canadian New Media artist considered to be a pioneer in the use of electronic technology and robotics in art.


White was born in San Antonio Texas in 1938.[1] He grew up in and around Boston, Massachusetts, and obtained his B.A. in Biology from Harvard University in 1959.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4]

A retrospective of his work and influence, called Norm’s Robots and Machine Life, with works by both White and several Canadian artists he has influenced, was shown at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston, Ontario in 2004.[5]

Currently, White teaches at Ryerson University in Toronto. He was the prize winner of the d.velop digital art award [ddaa] 2008.[6] Since 1992, White has also been an essential force behind the OCAD Sumo Robot Challenge, an annual competition akin to an automaton Olympics.


Early Light Works[edit]

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),[7][8] generated shimmering light patterns through the unpredictable interaction of many interconnected circuits computing simple logical questions independently. The work illustrated how complex behaviours - for example, patterns akin to swirling clouds or rain on a window pane - can emerge from simple principles. In retrospect, White recognizes this first project as an early cellular automata experiment.[9] 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.[10]

Computer-Based and Robotic Works[edit]

Following the purchase of his first computer, a Motorola D-1, in 1976,[1] 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.[11] 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.[12]

The Helpless Robot

Subsequent robotic projects have included: "Facing Out Laying Low" (1977),[13][14][15] 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. His early networked art piece "Telephonic Arm Wrestling" (1986) used telephone data links to enable patrons to arm wrestle each other at a great distance. The work was performed in real time between the Canadian Cultural Centre in Paris, France and the Artculture Resource Centre in Toronto, Canada.[16] Some critics consider this piece to be a pioneering work in networked and long distance kinesthetic art.[17] A later work, "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. [18]


  1. ^ a b Parker, Judith. "Artists in Canada listing for"White, Norman"". Canadian Heritage Information Network. Government of Canada. Retrieved 2 September 2015. 
  2. ^ "Norman T. White Biography". The Banff Centre for the Arts. The Banff Centre for the Arts. Retrieved 2 September 2015. 
  3. ^ Langill, Caroline. "Please wait... Caroline Langill: Interview with Norman White". Daniel Langlois Foundation. The Daniel Langlois Foundation. Retrieved 2 September 2015. 
  4. ^ Langill, Caroline. "Caroline Langill, Shifting Polarities". Daniel Langlois Foundation. Daniel Langlois Foundation. Retrieved 2 September 2015. 
  5. ^ Jan Allen; Caroline Langill; Ihor Holubizky; Lois Andison, Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Doug Beck, Koffler Gallery, Peter Flemming, Simone Jones, Lance Winn, Norman White, Jeff Mann, David Rokeby (March 2004). Machine life: Lois Andison, Doug Back, Peter Fleming, Simone Jones and Lance Winn, Jeff Mann, David Rokeby, Norman White. Agnes Etherington Art Centre. 
  6. ^ "d.velop digital art award - Prize winner of the [ddaa] 2008". 
  7. ^ "First Tighten Up the Drums". The Daniel Langlois Foundation. The Daniel Langlois Foundation. Retrieved 2 September 2015. 
  8. ^ "First Tighten Up the Drums". National Gallery of Canada. National gallery of Canada. Retrieved 2 September 2015. 
  9. ^ "Dam Digital Art Award". Dam Digital Art Award. Dam Digital Art Award. Retrieved 2 September 2015. 
  10. ^ "Audience Lounge". CBC. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 2 September 2015. 
  11. ^ "Norman White, Ménage, 1974". The Daniel Langlois Foundation. The Daniel Langlois Foundation. Retrieved 2 September 2015. 
  12. ^ Sean Cubitt; Paul Thomas (8 November 2013). Relive: Media Art Histories. MIT Press. pp. 263–. ISBN 978-0-262-01942-2. 
  13. ^ Simon Penny (4 May 1995). Critical Issues in Electronic Media. SUNY Press. pp. 152–. ISBN 978-0-7914-2318-9. 
  14. ^ Walker, Kathleen. "Motion changes gallery ambience". Ottawa Citizen. p. 37. Retrieved 2 September 2015. 
  15. ^ "Norman T. White, Facing Out, Laying Low". Daniel Langlois Foundation. Daniel Langlois Foundation. Retrieved 2 September 2015. 
  16. ^ "Telephonic Arm Wrestling". V2_ The INstitute for Unstable Media. V2_. Retrieved 2 September 2015. 
  17. ^ Louise Poissant; Pierre Tremblay (1 January 2010). Ensemble Ailleurs / Together Elsewhere. PUQ. pp. 141–. ISBN 978-2-7605-2486-6. 
  18. ^ "Prix Ars Electronica 1990 Distinction The Helpless Robot". Ars Electronica ARCHIVE. Ars Electronica. Retrieved 2 September 2015. 

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