Motor Studies: Raphael Arar Interviewed by Tyler Calkin

Motor Studies: Raphael Arar Interviewed by Tyler Calkin

Holland Project Galleries is very pleased to present a pop-up exhibition by Portland-based artist Raphael Arar from October 7-9, 2021. A couple of years in the making (postponed many times by the pandemic), this exhibition is comprised of sculptures performing gestures intended to represent the physical embodiment of a digital notification and its demands for our attention. The gallery is thus transformed into an operating system complete with a set of apps attempting to attract, engage, and distract the viewer. Gallery hours for Arar’s Motor Studies are Oct. 7-8 10AM-6PM, with a 5-7PM reception on 10.07, and Oct. 9 from 9AM-1PM. For information, please email The interview below was conducted by UNR Professor in Digital Media, Tyler Calkin, who helped introduce the gallery to Arar and organize this special pop-up exhibition.

TC: Perhaps you could start by describing your creative interests?

RA: I’d say that my creative interests revolve around ‘systems’ both in form and in function. Conceptually, I’m intrigued by the complex and amorphous ways we interact with the world, both as individuals and as groups. While this curiosity serves as the inspiration and grounding for the work itself, the form of the work takes place as a system too. What this means is that I tend to create work that places participants in experiences, often with non-human elements, that then create feedback loops of understanding, meaning and ways of looking at the world. 

To make this a little more concrete, this set of works at the Holland Project stemmed from a curiosity and critique of the Attention Economy—this notion that the most vital economic resource now is our attention given how much we interact with our digital devices. As a way of exploring this, this set of works is an attempt to make the digital ecosystem of the Attention Economy physical—each piece vies for your attention with its own motor-based notification system of sorts.

TC: What led you to kinetic sculpture as a way to explore these ideas?

RA: You know, it was pretty organic. I felt that in order to approach some of the temporal aspects of systems, the form of the works needed to have a time-based component too. Given that a lot of the systems I explore incorporate intangible elements like our relationships with new technologies, social behaviors and economic factors, I wanted to make the intangible tangible in a way. Kinetic sculpture felt like a natural way for me to do those things simultaneously. It doesn’t hurt that I also like making physical things!

TC: Making a digital ecosystem physical makes me think about how our bodies relate to these objects. If the gallery is a digital environment made tangible, do we metaphorically become digital as we walk among notification systems?

RA: When I work with technology as a medium, I often think about the false dichotomy between physical and digital. The divide is far more fluid than it’s often made out to be. In light of the pandemic, many of us have hit an inflection point where we interact more with people via digital means than in real life. The odd and often unnerving thing is that this balance has become normalized amidst the pandemic. In many ways, the ecosystem component of the show is a reference to that absorption into our devices and the fluidity between digital and physical. 

TC: There’s an approachable everyday quality to the works; you use materials like dice and ping pong balls. Can you discuss your material choices?

RA: I see these everyday objects as a hook of sorts into larger themes. To me there’s something playful and slightly humorous when you take a simple object and use it in unexpected ways. My hope is that this hits you in more of a visceral way and acts as a bridge to some of the deeper themes I explore in my work.

TC: I’m glad you mentioned playfulness and humor, because not only are these objects recognizable, some of them are used in gameplay. Were you thinking about gamification with this work? And if so, how does that tie into the Attention Economy?

RA: Gamification is such a front-and-center aspect of the Attention Economy. In order to try and hook you in, there are so many aspects of behavioral economics at play. Things like the slight delay before you receive a notification when you open up an app, the sound design of the bells and chimes, the visual design of the software—all of these components leverage ways to lure you in and trigger a dopamine rush. They’re highly addictive. These pieces take inspiration from those notifications, but I’m actually trying to subvert that dopamine rush experience in a way. Through the timing and spatial layout of the pieces, they may be engaging at first, but over time, they can be overwhelming and irritating. This kind of temporal experience is what I’m trying to evoke with this set. 

TC: The word “study” can connote sustained attention, learning, and also a preparatory step in a process. What kind of “studies” are these?

RA: Each one of these works seeks to distract and engage you, and so your phrasing of “sustained attention” is spot on. I actually co-opted this word from some of my early experiences with piano performance. A study, or an etude, is a piece that a performer plays over and over again to build up both technical and musical skills, and in that respect, the repetition is key. Each piece in Motor studies uses a repetitive gesture from one or two motors, so it serves as an extension of that interpretation of “study”.

TC: I’m glad you mention music, because sound seems really important with this work. Do you want the viewer to have a musical experience in this show, or to rethink the aesthetic value of notifications? 

RA: Sound is such a visceral sensation, especially when it’s caused by a mechanical action. I’m using it to enhance that part of the experience. There’s an orchestration at play—the pieces do not uniformly go off, nor are they tightly tuned to one another. The sonic component is meant to accentuate the trajectory of the viewer’s aesthetic experience in a way that really leans into the time-based nature of the works. My hope is that viewers will spend some time in the space and “tune in” (terrible pun intended) to their emotional state over time.

TC: I think viewers will definitely tune in when they encounter the work. Thanks for taking the time to discuss Motor Studies!

Raphael Arar works at the nexus of complex systems, transdisciplinary design and arts-based research. His work highlights the social, political, and economic implications of technological acceleration and human-to-machine interaction. His media often incorporates kinetic, sculptural elements connected through coded interfaces that invite participant interaction. His artwork has been shown at museums, conferences, festivals and galleries internationally including the ZKM | Center for Art and Media, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, International Symposium on Electronic Art (ISEA), ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Gamble House Museum, Boston Cyberarts Gallery, and Athens Video Art Festival. Commercially, his design work has been featured in publications including TED, Inc. Magazine, FastCompany, Wired and others.