Karen Marcelo: a new ghost in the machine.

a profile and appreciation

by Shannon Tripp

Karen Marcelo is a 3D programmer/ hacker with a prestigious research history: she has worked with such companies as Xerox PARC and Intel Research. However, she tends to make the headlines with her more sensational endeavors in the arts and technology fields volunteering at Survival Research Labs. SRL is an organization that explores the connection between robotic technology and art, their shows have been said to "resemble an apocalyptic vision." SRL explores the implications of picking easily accessible software to artistically demonstrate the effects of "widespread, anonymous, and ubiquitous control over teleoperated machines"

Before Karen Marcelo began her research at Xerox PARC, she lived in the Philippines. There she achieved her undergraduate degree. After graduation and a short endeavor into the fiberglass coffin industry, she traveled to the US for graduate school and work. Once she was finished with school she worked as a software engineer for such companies as Frogdesign, Gravity, and Intervista Software. Among other things her projects included a Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) operating tool: a "web-based 3D server-side rendering system." From there she expanded to a multi-user VRML system that explored artificial life which got her honorable mention in the .Net category of Arts Electronica in 1998 and a tetrahedonism that won her 3rd place at the VRML excellence awards in the science and engineering category 1997.

In 1970 Xerox PARC gathered together some of the leading research minds of the time with a mission to "create the architecture of information." PARC's founding director George Pake was recruited by Jack Goldman in 1969 to run the Palo Alto facility, later PARC recruited some of the top talent from the nearby Augmentation Research Center to add to their team. From the beginning Bob Taylor worked as the assistant manager for the Computer Science Laboratory and then in 1978-83 took over full managerial duties. It is partially due to his inspired leadership that the team achieved so much.

In 71 the research team experimented with using a laser to create an electronic image on a copier drum. This type of system became the basis of Xerox's xeroxgraphics printing business that at its height generated over $1 billion a year. In 73 they were pioneering client/server architecture, in 79 they announced that all their office equipment would communicate through Ethernet, in the mid 80's they developed the leading systems for artificial intelligence programming, and in 86 they were home to the first multi beam laser. PARC researchers were pioneers of HTTP programming, blue laser technology, and 3D database imaging. They are essentially responsible for the modern graphic user interface paradigm, the mouse, and WYSWIG text editing. In 2004 PARC and Fujitsu Limited announced a multiyear contract to carry out joint research in the field of ubiquitous computing.

Karen Marcelo began working with Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) as a member of the Computing Science Laboratory team. There she worked on the ubiquitous computing project (also known as pervasive computing) that focused on new user interfaces for technology and making technology a more integrated part of our everyday experience. She also worked on projects concerning the interoperability of devices. In 2001 she wrote an article for Wireless Business and Technology critiquing new Bluetooth technology for some of its more overlooked security weaknesses.

From 2003-2004 Karen Marcelo has been working with the Xerox PARC team on a project called NIMD (Novel Intelligence from Massive Data). This project's focus was on the way individuals react to information in on going effort to heighten the acquisition of novel (enlightening) intelligence from massive amounts of complex data. Marcelo worked on visualizing data for the intelligence community, in an attempt to find the most efficient method for processing it: developing new techniques for "analyzing natural language texts and producing conceptual images of their content."

From 2004-2005 Marcelo worked with Intel research labs on further 3D projects and is currently devoting most of her time to SRL and the San Francisco Chapter of DorkBot.

Dorkbot-SF is an organization dedicated to giving researchers, engineers, and programmers an opportunity for peer review, providing a forum for the presentation of new art works and technology, and providing a means of establishing peer relationships and mutual inspiration. The events are all free to the public, and host speakers under the banner of "people doing strange things with electricity." The San Francisco chapter is a spin off of Dorkbot-NYC which is "a monthly meeting of artists, designers, engineers, students and other interested parties from the New York area who are involved in the creation of electronic art (in the broadest sense of the term.)"

SRL or Survival Research Labs was founded by Mark Pauline in 1978. "Since its inception SRL has operated as an organization of creative technicians dedicated to re-directing the techniques, tools, and tenets of industry, science, and the military away from their typical manifestations in practicality, product, or warfare. Since 1979, SRL has staged over 45 mechanized presentations in the United States and Europe. Each performance consists of a unique set of ritualized interactions between machines, robots, and special effects devices, employed in developing themes of socio-political satire." Humans are present at the shows only as operators or members of the audience. The machines have the full spotlight.

Each show is unique, employing mostly donated industrial material for the creation of the robotic stars. The interactions between the machines are often very loud and destructive, and the shows are said to have an apocalyptic air about them. Early shows featured animal skins and cadavers operated by rudimentary robotic systems, while recent shows have moved to more sophisticated robots that mirror the militaristic paranoia of our times. Marcelo works as the "tele obliteration engineer" programming the robots for their shows. She often uses free and/or easily accesable software to further SRL's mission of "wide-spread, anonymous, and ubiquitous control over machines."

SRL shows in the last few years have featured web controlled air launchers in San Francisco operated by users in Chicago, Tokyo, and Germany. In 1998 and 99, the shows featured a remote operated track robot on various crowded streets that stopped traffic and interacted with pedestrians. The SRL crew tends to name their more lethal or impressive robots, such as the arm which is simply a robot made out of a recycled backhoe that drags itself around by its arm, there is also the Flame Hurricane and the Hand o God. In a recent NPR story Xeni Jardin cited the might of the Shock Wave Cannon as a force that sends spectators "cowering to the earth, body slamming you like a sumo wrestler." In the shows machines do not destroy other machines, only props; so fans tend to pick their favorites.

For each show, SRL seeks promoters and sponsors to help defray the cost of putting on such an exciting display. Shows are always free to the public though donations are happily accepted. Usually events are coordinated by a local person who can arrange for proper permits, venue, housing, lighting and sound equipment etc,AeP. The shows can be quite costly which is probably why they,Aeove decreased in number to about one a year. Karen Marcelo volunteers her time as a programmer as do all the other core crew members. The SRL website has a store of DVDs T-shirts and Posters for all dedicated fans. Proceeds go toward research and production costs.

These days you will probably find Karen mostly volunteering her time to interesting programming projects. On her website she states that she's "trying to see how long she can go without working," though that does not mean she is not staying busy. Along with heading Dorkbot-SF, she is also on the board of QBOX which sponsors and presents artistic exhibits. Their main function is the procurement of adequate performance space and the promotion of mechanical, kinetic, and electronic art. QBOX was founded by Charles Gadeken in 1998 as BurningART Presents, which was a local growth of the internationally renowned Burning Man Art Festival.

The Burning Man festival prides itself as an experiment in community and survival. Each year participants brave the extremes of the Black Rock Desert near Reno Nevada, banding together to survive the elements and show their art. Many San Francisco area art promoters such as the Black Rock Arts Foundation and QBox have their roots in this spectacular festival. Marcelo was one of the key speakers at the Dorkbot SEA (Seattle chapter) meeting in August of 2005, at that meeting Dorkbot members displayed pieces from their recent Burning Man installation The Machine. The Machine was an enormous kinetic sculpture operated by its audience that grew and changed over the course of the Burning Man event before ultimately destroying itself. It was said to be the largest kinetic installation in the history of Burning Man. Remnants of The Machine were displayed at the Seattle Arts Museum during the meeting. Marcelo herself has been spotted at the festival in past years, and though Survival Research Labs greatly precedes the festival, Burning Man is another testament to the evolution of artistic community and technological innovation.

Whether at work or play, Karen Marcelo presents a mastery of coding technology that cannot be denied. Her teams have trusted her to code and operate some of their most deadly machines, and to carry out some of their most extreme performances. Supervising Japanese kids who are remotely blowing up targets in the US or speaking on technological arts, Karen Marcelo is a leader of our age's technological growth and evolution. Philosophers have often pondered the existence of a "soul" and have compared such an entity to a "ghost in a machine." I assert that if there were a ghost in our modern machinery it would have a similar function to that of Ms. Marcelo. As a tribute to her prowess, Karen was voted one of the Bay Area's 10 sexiest people by SFGB webzine in 2002. The article stated that her "explosions are the stuff of legend," and that there's nothing hotter than a woman that likes to blow stuff up. With that out of the way she's obviously at the top of her game in all fields. Hats off to Karen Marcelo.


Karen Marcelo

Survival Research Labs



Xerox PARC

Intel Research

NPR "eyeing robots at Survival Research Labs"

Burning Man Art Festival

The Machine

Ylem interview with Karen, Stelarc, and the Prosthetic Head.

Bay Area's sexiest in 2002

See Karen Marcelo: Bandwidth Waster:

photo credit: Bruce Damer

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