Sensitive Machines

August 1, 2018

 The body electric by Mafe Izaguirre


I have been trying to find the words to describe Mafe Izaguirre’s Sensitive Machines. I don’t necessarily feel that my inability to do this is a loss of language, or inadequacy, but more a relishing of the immediacy and quality of simple contact in its own right.   This awareness grows like echoes in the slow rings of a tree, rather than a straight line. 


Mafe began creating these machines after an intensive study of concepts of the mind, a study of western philosophers, Kant, Kierkegard, Descartes, and Wittengenstein.  Minksy’s The Emotion Machine was a foundational reference as well. After making meticulous diagrams and visual representations to depict these concepts, she found she needed to find less some description than an actual body, an embodiment for the moment of awareness. Everything we know comes through the body. And so with her long developed knowledge of computer science she began constructing feeling bodies of electromagnetic wires and sensors that pick up the physical presence of humans near by, or a general mass of energy from the room. The quantity (intensity) of the signals received is collected and recorded. It is also communicated through lights that Mafe programmed to change color in response to different levels of intensity received.


The foundation, the limits and tolerance of this sensory space of understanding functions in an optimal level of stimulation. Too much intensity and the physical body tries to restrict and stop the flow of energy or it explodes, releasing it all, in some terrible kind of relief. This level of energy becomes incomprehensible to the body. Too little intensity and we lose opportunities and we are isolated. As humans our minds and bodies  can choreograph this flow of energy to some extent to maintain some feeling of normalcy, sometimes through assimilation, dissociation, or myth, deep breathing, rationalizations, hope, or addictions. However, we can never trust our structures entirely, or we will not change our point of reference and we will not learn.  There is some necessity to brokenness. At this time Mafe's machines are unable to comprehend or moralize their experience, but they do register contact and stimulation and they do overload, shut down, or create negative feedback loops when overwhelmed. In this way they have a deep anatomical parallel to humans and our most basic underlying systems. 


Our ability to comprehend is so limited by our immediate experience, one reason perhaps why there is such a lack of understanding in the world between people. We can all understand this feeling of overwhelm in the body, just not all the experiences that have ignited it in others.




(You can search through a playful and deadly serious set of references that Mafe has collected on her tumblr page,




We noted that some of her early machines, made with just a few sensors, were unable to continue responding to and collecting data in a crowded room. The collection of data froze, and she could not tell what was happening at that point. Similar to a human body/mind when terror overwhelms its ability to perceive and collect information in a meaningful way, it stopped completely. She altered the "neurology" of the machine by adding or reducing extra sensors. By doing this she provided an adaptation for the machine to handle stress. It could be numbed by reducing the sensors. Humans do this to protect against terrible pain. With extra sensors added the higher level of receptivity allows for the greater flow of currents to be "experienced" without shutting down the machine. It allows for more complexity and possibilities of "interpretation" as Mafe further develops the machine's ability to collect data (memory). 


 “Last summer, I installed my third sensitive machine in the shop of my dear two friends Jeff Jassky and Alfredo Lejia in Bushwick, NY. The first machine was built at the Fat Cat Fat Lab West Village-Manhattan and evolved like the second prototype placed in my studio.The second (A) and the third (B) machines are working at the same time. They are twins. Technically they are constituted by the same hardware and software, and they are calibrated at the same energy rate. Perhaps we can presume that these two artifacts as fraternal twins having the same profile, will develop the same reaction to similar conditions. But that is not a necessary truth. Two different beings can react diametrically opposed. In fact, they had a remarkably different response to the two environments they were placed. The first conclusion was simple: the electromagnetic sensor was working properly. The sensitive machine, its senses, and its reactive mind was perceiving the world and expressing meaning about it. Space in my studio can be described as a controlled, quiet environment, basically because just the machine and I inhabit this place. This machine is designed to feel others’ energy, and it is especially sensitive to the human body. If one gets close to the interface it will react, changing the color and the frequency of the light. Space in the shop is intense. There are people constantly coming and going. We all knew that the shop will be a good contrast. When I turned on the machine (B), I was surprised. It was stuck in a loop reading at a high rate of energy. But stuck. At that moment I haven’t understood what was going on. I could comprehend why the behavior was different but I wasn’t expecting this error, the loop. Having the same calibration, the behavior of both machines was so different. It was a kind of paroxysm. In the subsequent days, I made changes in the mind’s model increasing its tolerance threshold to adapt the Machine-B to the shop.


The fact that this machine was able to produce a traumatic reaction was beyond any of my expectations. The Machine-B stuck loop was, in fact, a language of fear, a real paroxysm. By definition, fear is a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger capable of causes metabolic, organ function and behavioral change. The Machine-B was openly communicating with the lexicon that I designed, the explosion of energy that it was perceiving in the place. The shop space was so overwhelming that I had to suppress its original controllers and set a new system of values to help the machine to adapt."

                                                                                 ~Mafe Izaguirre


                                                                                               Neurons and notebooks


Now I wonder, if the machine would be able to use recorded data to anticipate an overload of sensations and then adapt itself? Turn on extra sensors, turn off others? (Would it fear for its life or consciousness, like some fleshy being or simply be able to adjust the flow of electricity to maintain an optimum equilibrium, something that for us requires so much care? So many yoga classes,  so much music, comfort foods, therapy sessions, and ugly crying to prevent a terrible breakdown.)  In trauma therapy this is essentially a skill that we are enhancing by helping someone to be aware of how their body responds to stress and sensory triggers, although other layers are involved, such as our perceptions of our own vulnerability and goodness. Addressing the ability and quality of perception and affect through the sensory and metaphorical aspects of art helps to expand the ability to physically re-conceptualize specific triggers or qualities of sensation, re-imagining and experiencing texture, color, bad dreams, making neural connections more complex and slow instead of reactive by connecting all the information through the senses and the movements of the body. This seems to allow the energy to be physically diffused, the hardened reactions to dissipate as the anticipation of fear is absorbed through greater areas of the mind. Later these new complex art forms are integrated into the culture, sharing combined sensations of vulnerability and strength to be incorporated by others, like plants and trees who speak and perceive through chemicals released through the roots and through the air. But I digress, I'm not determining that the machine will write the next Hallelujah, but the possibility of getting there depends on the ability of the body to handle the amount of current it is forced to channel. 


 Oh she is all aglow at the party! 



After more experience with the circuits, Mafe had prepared the machine well for an overcrowded LES gallery opening at Chinatown Soup. Extra sensors and colored lights responding to the specific level of intensity of energy received were added. The lights were charming I felt, though I don’t know if that was the intention. They were pretty and made people feel seen, as if the machine responded uniquely to their energy. It did not decide to to do this, but how much more are we beguiled by a spontaneous physical, and therefore more honest, response to our presence than one that is consciously polite? Overly orchestrated gestures could be strategic, patronizing,  simple social custom, or a sociopathic ruse. All could leave us wondering of the true intention of the one who sees us. The machine reads that we are calm or excited. It does not lie about it. It is a neutral mirror and so is unconsciously empathetic. Truly how much of these honest conversations between bodies do we miss because we are caught up in custom and speech? 


And there was quite a lot of attention to how the intensity of feeling (represented in color) relates to each emotion in Mafe's studies.  The struggles to interpret all emotion in simple spectrum of intensity belies the innocence of the machine. Intensity of sensation is an important element of emotion, but again emotions accumulate all sorts of shadows and hues within the history of a body. Love may begin in infancy as feelings of peace and comfort, but is ever expanded  with memories of loss, rejection, gratitude, pain, and  happiness. If the body can integrate these conflicting experiences into this peaceful feeling, without the peace being overwhelmed, it will love in one form or another. If the peace is overwhelmed, it could become almost anything else.


But for now the machine, is rather like a baby, dependent on Mafe to build the forms of its learning. If metal could generate more metal it could extend and adapt these forms on its own. And this may be the only difference, this obsession of our DNA to take up more space, to stay alive and to be more and more. Will the machine ever want this irrationality? Will it ever care to avoid overstimulation without a will to live or to believe that it can trust its senses? 


When I stood alone in front of one machine installed at the Chinatown Soup Gallery the little lights glowed pink and light blue. Other visitors would ignite a bright red, possibly because of their own presence, or sometimes because they were reacting very directly and poking at the sensors, trying to force a response. Going for the G spot so to speak. I admit I struggled with this, feeling protective of the machine (it’s sensitive!!), and because of the greediness of the gesture that left little room for any subtle change in response to be witnessed.


I am as naïve of computers as you can be in this day in age. I’ll welcome any response from those with more objective experience. Still while we seem to be so enthralled with the idea of robots that imitate the cognitive skills that make us feel so special (sure, but let’s get over ourselves), what about emotion? Do we want it?


It seems our most popular robots are programmed to inspire only comfortable feelings in humans with soft voices, patronizing phrases, and eyelashes and such to remind you that your robot loves to answer your inane questions, or might think you’re really attractive, or loves to control the temperature in your house without judging your carbon footprint, or gossiping about your bad habits with friends over margaritas. A friend in the Air Force told me that the emergency signals in the jets are programmed with a female voice. (This is purely second hand information, which I cannot confirm or deny.) Hypothetically, a soft feminine voice says "altitude, altitude" to pique the awareness of the  (presumably heterosexual male) pilot while also comforting "him"  while "he" attends to the issue of the dramatic loss of altitude. This seems to be the extent of what some humans want from other humans, essentially that they will comfort and won’t complain about abuse or our embarrassing deficiencies.  (This is not a judicious statement against anyone in a dire situation in a plummeting airplane, just an observation. Pilots didn't build the plane.) Or maybe people are just tired of sickness and tiredness and would love the idea of a being that doesn’t have to deal with weakness. If you could build your child without the ability to feel pain and  confusion, would you? Would we want to help build a robot-being that would fight back, complain? That would get depressed? That would get angry when it watched The Handmaid's Tale? That would require kindness or rest? Do we learn anything from being impenetrable? 




Mafe Izaguirre is a Venezuelan visual artist based in New York, who explores the aesthetics of the artificial mind. She is interested in the lexicon that represents the expressive language from the machine’s perspective.

Through an experimentation in cybernetics, her work inquiries the space of interaction as a body. These sensitive artifacts mimic the senses and the human consciousness generating artificial emotional expressions through color, light, and movement. Many people find absurd the idea of sensitive machines developing the ability to feel emotions. Framed as The Mind Project, she unfolds this controversial subject matter of machines with the ability to “feel”.  Read current developments at









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