Searching for the Soul of Elmo

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November 30, 2002

 

Kelly Heaton

What kind of artist would skin a Tickle Me Elmo? Someone who thinks items of popular culture could challenge an audience into rethinking what constitutes a living being. Someone fascinated by mechanical intelligence and how technology can fit into art. Someone with a wicked sense of humor.

That's Kelly Heaton, a Raleigh native who gained a lot of attention in the New York art scene and is back in North Carolina as an artist-in-residence at Duke, through the computer science department and the Information Science Information Studies (ISIS) program. The conjunction between art and technology is a comfortable place for Heaton, who spent several years doing art at MIT's renowned Media Lab. In her East Campus art studio, she continues to work on projects such as "Immaterial Studio," which explores how computer-generated pixels can recreate the painterly experience.

Her other project involves Tickle Me Elmo, the doll that has become a part of popular culture. A microchip inside allows the toy to respond to a child's squeeze on select tickle spots with a giggle of "Don't tickle me!" In October, sixty-four Elmos, all purchased over online auction service eBay, were skinned and Heaton turned their pelts into a fur coat. Woven into the coat was some of Elmo's electronics, so when the pelts are touched, the coat will giggle and quiver.

The coat will be the center of a sculpture installation, tentatively set for exhibit next year at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in New York. Plans include a video documentary of the skinning, display of the Elmo "guts" in plastic bags, a yearbook of information about the young children who originally owned the Elmos, and portraits of young girls from around the country whom Heaton paid to be photographed at Sears in Elmo costumes. In a statement about the work, Heaton describes its aesthetics as "multi-layered: The exterior is fashionable, humorous and perverse; the interior is cybernetic, biological, and terroristic."

" Elmo was just not an inert stuffed toy," she explains. "He responded to his senses. The computer chip gave him that ability to process data. It has machine intelligence, and I think of him as a living being; I don't treat him as a doll. I want to push that boundary of what we think is a living being as much as I can.

" I'm interested in where is the soul of Elmo? Is it in the electronics? The pelt? The eyes?"

Heaton is the first artist-in-residence ever appointed by computer science, and her work at Duke continues efforts made by computer science, ISIS, and other programs to build bridges on campus between the arts and technology communities. These include last year's "Free Space" dance concert involving a dance company and the Fitzpatrick Photonics Center, and an ISIS-sponsored symposium on music, new technology, and theft.

" ISIS's mission is to integrate information sciences and information studies more fully into all aspects of research and the curriculum at the university," says program director Edward Shanken. "[Heaton's] space in the art studio is out of the art department. She's shooting a video in the warehouse that involves David Brady and people from the Fitzpatrick Center. She's working with art students and she's working with electrical engineering students along with engineering professor Gary Ybarra. These are the kind of collaborations that ISIS was hoping to make possible."

The Elmo coat, called "Live Pelt," is part of a larger work she calls Bibiota. Two of the main Bibiota pieces do for the toy Furby what "Live Pelt" does for Elmo. Heaton skinned 400 Furbys, turning the skins into a red-and-white, Santa Claus fur outfit she calls "Dead Pelt." She then took the eyes, mouths, and electronics from the 400 Furbys, reprogrammed the electronics, and mounted the eyes and mouths on a wall she called "Reflection Loop." As people walked by the wall, the Furbys detected the motion and their eyes and mouths would start to open and shut.