The Aspen Movie Map, created by Michael Naimark and his team at MIT, represents one of the forefronts of interactive video computing technology that was in rapid development during the late 70s. Seen as a revolutionary example of hypermedia, the movie map was perhaps the first interactive platform of it’s kind to utilize non-linear live-action content to create an interactive experience. Many technologist and artists during this period were also actively pursuing the idea of a platform that would allow the perusal of interconnected media in a way that was non-linear and associative. The basis for this idea can be traced back to the concept of the Memex, first proposed by Vannevar Bush in his essay, As We May Think back in 1945.
In his discourse, Bush lamented the lack of a system that enabled humans to easily reference the collective knowledge of the entire race in a quick and intuitive manner. He described the laborious process of index based referencing and how it was an unnatural way for the human mind to process information. “The human mind […] operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts.” He envisioned a system of interlinked documents and media that would behave similarly to how humans connected thoughts, ideas and concepts in a chain-like fashion. While this concept predates hypertext, it most definitely behaves similarly on a conceptual level.
Bush also envisioned that the system would take the form of a desk, a visual metaphor for graphical computing that will still use today. While this might have been a subconscious decision, it would stand to reason that Bush would have wanted the interactions with the Memex to be as similar to what people were already doing in their day to day lives. This would have greatly helped to reduce the friction in adopting such a radically new way of working and thinking. To the more technologically astute, this rudimentary description of Bush’s would remind one of the Graphical User Interface (GUI) that was eventually developed by Alan Kay and his team over at Xerox PARC. The Memex then, can be considered as the philosophical ancestor of all of modern computing as we know it; from the way in which content is non-linear and interconnected, to the way users went about interacting with them.
In a similar vein to the Memex, the Aspen Movie Map is another example of technology that leverages hypermedia to more closely imitate real world experiences. While the Memex was interested in creating a better user experience for the perusal of documents, the Aspen Movie Map proposes a better system than traditional two-dimensional maps to make sense of positional and spatial data. While maps have been used by human society as an aid to understand spatiality for the longest time, it still requires a certain degree of mental gymnastics before the two-dimensional map on the drawing can be re-interpreted to guide one through a three-dimensional reality such as the one we all live in.
However, what makes the Movie Map more pertinent in media history, is that instead of having users sit through an ‘on-rails’ experience where they are brought along for the ride, the Movie Map allows for people to travel through the space and wander around the city of Aspen, Colorado in a similar fashion to real life. Niamark termed it “surrogate travel”, where he served as the surrogate traveller for viewers to later go through the same journeys digitally. The usage of hypermedia allowed the team to create a richer experience for users, providing them the option to enter buildings, interact with restaurant menus, and even change between seasons. To the modern person, this would seem extremely similar to the Street View feature of Google Maps. The user experience from the Interface, coupled with the use of live-action footage, creates a sense of immersion for users of the movie map that far supersedes the experience of making sense of a traditional cartographical diagram.
The modern world is extremely indebted to hypermedia and metaphorical visual computing for laying the ground work for our present day digital existence. From creating non-linear information portals that provide us with knowledge, to visual interfaces that rely on intuition to operate these portals and devices, Vannenar Bush, Michael Niamark and Alan Kay have really pushed the human race forward such that we may truly go about our lives as we may think.
As They Might Think Envisioning Media Art In The Age of Machine Intelligence
When Richard Wagner put forth his ideas for the Gesamtkunstwerk, he was concerned with the creation of a total artwork that would unify the various disciplines of art through theatre. The opera was seen as the pinnacle of artistic expression during the mid-to-late 19th century and it provided the perfect platform for Wagner to pursue his ideals. Introducing the darkened space and controlling how and what audiences saw, Wagner was one of the first to successfully execute on the concept of the “suspension of disbelief.” As we progressed along, creatives and technologists remained dedicated to furthering the “totalitizing experience of art.” The works of creators like John Cage and Nam Jun Paik began to explore the behavioral relationships between artist and observer; bringing into view cybernetic visions within the field of art.
Roy Ascott commented in his essay that modern art needed to offer “a high degree of uncertainty” and permit “a great intensity of participation.” Experiments into full body digital immersion in the 80s and 90s answered that call, and more. With the rise of head-mounted displays, binaural audio and sensory input devices, systems such as the VIEW at NASA Ames allowed artists to create “doorways to other worlds” that existed beyond the physical limitations of our own. Seminal virtual-reality works like Char Davies’Osmose brought such worlds to life and formalized new relationships between audience and artwork. In effect, interactivity and immersion had now become key considerations in the construction of a gesamtkunstwerk — going so far as to say that it was essential now for these artworks to exist in the form of media art.
With these developments in technology, one could be excused for thinking that a pinnacle has been reached. What more can be done, given that it is now possible to transcend both body and mind into an altered state of reality? Indeed, there is more to be achieved. In the 30 years since the development of the VIEW system, technology, society and the way we interface with the world around us have shifted significantly. The rise of the internet and ubiquitous computing has forced us to reconsider our place amongst technology as well as its impact on our lives. Society has been reconditioned on a level that has not been witnessed since the Industrial Revolution and digital data has become the all encompassing common denominator of human society. Consequently, the total artworkof the present and future should take into account these cognitive shifts in societal behavior and derive new definitions of what constitutes the gesamtkunstwerk of the 21st century. Refik Anadol is one such artist whose works explore our relationship with technology, the merging of physical and digital space, and how data can be exploited as a medium to create profound media art experiences.
Rethinking Digital Immersion
A contemporary media artist who works across large varieties of digital media, much of Anadol’s works focus on site-specificity — choosing to create digital public art that leverage and accentuate the surrounding architecture. Anadol uses projections (both indoors and outdoors) as well as large scale screen installations to create immersive spaces that transport audiences into an imagined environment. As a media artist, designer and spatial thinker, Refik Anadol is also intrigued by the ways in which the transformation of contemporary art culture requires the rethinking of new aesthetics, techniques and most importantly, a dynamic perception of space. His works aim to create visually agnostic depictions that form a visual language capable of appealing to large groups of people; despite cultural backgrounds or aesthetic preferences.
The importance of space in Anadol’s works is also seen in his interpretation of it through his artistic expressions. By embedding media art into architecture, he questions the possibility of a future within which all human-made surfaces are informed in some shape or form, by the digital footprint that mankind leaves behind. Spatiality also informs how Anadol designs his viewers’ interactive experiences. His works cater towards eliciting the reactions and interactions of passers-by within unconventional spatial orientations, going against the established status quo of pursuing highly abstracted digital spaces to create immersion. Anadol’s works then, suggest all spaces and facades have the potential to be utilized as the media artists’ canvas; seemingly determined to prove that highly immersive spaces can in fact be achieved without resorting to the use of “The Ultimate Display“.
Data As A Medium
Refik Andol’s works and creative processes are based on and deeply influenced by technology: specifically generative data. As modern members of society, we are profligate with the creation of new data. In 2013, it was noted that 90% of all the data output ever made occurred over the span of 2 years (2011-2013). The pursuit of smart cities and the vision of embedded sensors within our built environment have contributed towards this exponential growth of data-generation. We now occupy living, evolving, self-aware cities, bristling with input devices that continuously monitor and provide a myriad of data feedback. Human society also produces large quantities of data through modes of self-expression such as social media and other computer mediated technologies. Often times, all of this data rarely sees the light of day; relegated to internal uses within the social groups, companies and government bodies that process them.
However, what if as creatives, one was to exploit these information sources and utilize these large quantities of unprocessed data to create new forms of expression? How do we negotiate the ever-fading distinction between our personas within the digital space and our “real” lives within the physical world? What if we were to question how our experience of space is changing now that digital objects ranging from smart phones and embedded sensors to urban screens have colonized our everyday lives. How have computer mediated technologies changed our conceptualizations of our everyday spaces, and how has our built environment embraced these shifting conceptualizations to accommodate these changes?
Through his work, Anadol tackles these questions; not by simply integrating media art into built forms, but by translating the logic of media technologies into spatial design itself. Data becomes the medium and the subject; the cause and the effect of trying to establish the gesamtkunstwerk of the 21st century. That said, how does one go about defining a new visual vocabulary for these types of works without resorting to the established visual practices of traditional data visualization.
During his talk at the Emergent Visions symposium, Refik Anadol addressed this specific concern when discussing his works. He elaborated that for creatives working with data, it was not enough to simply stop at data visualization. “We are not data scientists,” he remarked. Authenticity and accurate representation of the dataset was not always required, or maybe even useful in developing a visual outcome. Rather, Anadol encouraged creatives to attempt what he termed as data dramatization; to create a sense of empathy and derive emotion out of the data as opposed to presenting a cold, immutable tabulation of scientific findings. He argued that for data driven media art, the meaning of the work should be held in the poetics of the representation and not be derived from the source itself. This philosophy rings similar to Roy Ascott’s thoughts on telematic art where he put forth that “meaning is the product of interaction between the observer and the system, the content of which is a state of flux.”
The usage of data as a medium then introduces a new approach to thinking about media art. It calls into question the very paradigms that form the foundations guiding our understanding about the collection, storage and presentation of data in the creative practice. In this regard, Archive Dreaming by Refik Anadol serves as a potential candidate to further dissect and understand how we could go about building future “total artwork” experiences.
A New Reality for Old Knowledge
Archive Dreaming (2017) by Refik Anadol is a data visualization work installed at SALT Research in Istanbul, Turkey. Being a public art installation, the work was conceived as an alternative method for visitors to peruse and engage with the document collections of SALT Research. The facility comprises a specialized library and an archive of both physical and digital sources. Their collections include visual and textual sources on art history, the development of architecture and design in Turkey, as well as documents dealing with transformations in the region during the transition from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic. Due to the significant age and frailty of most of these documents, large parts of the facility’s collections are housed in specialized, environment controlled rooms; reducing accessibility to large parts of the physical collection.
While other attempts at a such a project might have led to the creation of a photographic or micro-film database, Archive Dreaming takes the concept of an interactive archive much further. The most obvious and significant aspect of this work is in its use of physical space and architecture. The installation is designed to be a spatial experience. In the words of Anadol himself, the work is described as an effort to “deconstruct the framework of an illusory space [that transgresses] the normal boundaries of the viewing experience of a library”. The work was specifically conceptualized with the notion to significantly transform the experience of accessing a knowledge repository. The work was to be a “a three dimensional kinetic and architectonic space of an archive.”
The vision to create a new paradigm for archival access may seem bold and ambitious. However, much of these ideas can be traced back to the research and thought experiments conducted by artists and technologists during the 60s. Ivan Sutherland’s‘The Ultimate Display‘ famously envisions a futuristic display system which takes the form of a room “within which the computer can control the existence of matter.”
While we are still decades away from experiencing anything remotely close to his description, Sutherland’s essay made significant arguments towards how we could utilize immersive environments to augment our current assumptions of a particular subject matter. He claimed that by simulating other realities foreign to our current comprehension, “we can learn to know them as well as we know our own natural world.” Archive Dreaming in many regards, does precisely this. Data is no longer confined to a network terminal or pages of a book, instead transporting the viewer into the data-space of the archive itself. It reframes our established preconceptions of what a library should be and might perhaps even establish new methods for scholarly research. Much like what Osmose did for physical transcendence, Archive Dreaming could conceivable do the same for academia, as users physically engage with, negotiate and understand the data-space.
The other aspect of Archive Dreaming that sets is apart from a simple digital database is the flexibility that it provides users. The system allows visitors to browse all 1.7 million documents in the archive in a variety of modes. Each mode draws different associations between the documents in the archives, assisting viewers to form relationships in a way that is suitable for their individual needs. In this way, the installation “intertwines history with the contemporary, and challenges [the] immutable concept of the archive.” This changing perception of the relationship between documents will seem familiar to those that have read the works of Vannevar Bush.
When Bush penned his ideas for the Memexin his essay As We May Think, he was operating in an environment that was vastly different to ours today. While he lamented that the traditional index based referencing was counter-intuitive to how we approached thinking, the recent data explosion has made it all but impossible for even hypermedia to serve as a viable solution. Sifting-through and organizing data is now a task best left to algorithms and machine intelligence. Standing in for human curators, these systems are capable of independently creating associations and forming relationships between countless datasets. These machines operate as we may think, but at speeds much faster than humans.
This realization is not lost on Refik Anadol either. In this post-hypermedia age, Archive Dreaming utilizes Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence to look at, understand and organize all of the content found within SALT’s large set of documents. The system builds its own set of definitions and correlations to make sense of the data, autonomously without human intervention. This codified information is then easily controlled by visitors from a touch sensitive console at the center of the installation space.
This interface showcases the benefit of digitizing the analogue experience of accessing a library’s collection. Users are able to much more easily access the content, with the process made more tactile and immediate. This also has the benefit of externalizing human intelligence, allowing us to transcend the limitations of what we can achieve with our own minds. In this regard, one begins to question if the gesamtkunstwerk of the future should also concern itself with the processing of data, in addition to using it as its medium.
While Machine Intelligence has proven to be useful in helping humans circumvent the limitations of our intellectual minds, it also holds great potential in augmenting our creative minds. In Archive Dreaming, machine intelligence takes center-stage for the final aspect of the installation. Getting its name from this process, the installation enters into a “dream mode” when no one is interacting with it. The system uses the knowledge gained from studying and classifying all of the 1.7 million documents to “hallucinate” new ones that could possibly exist in the archives. Although the results may sometimes appear fuzzy and underdeveloped, acknowledging that humans are no longer the only ones capable of creative execution is a sobering thought.
The dreaming feature of the installation is powered by the emerging field of Generative Adversarial Networks. This technology allows computers within the system to learn and evolve completely unsupervised. This presents new challenges for creatives working with technology both as a medium and as a subject matter. Now that machines are capable developing their own sense of aesthetics, how do we as creatives navigate this new space in art-making? In the case of Refik Anadol, he has chosen to embrace this development to work in concert with the machines, furthering his study and practice of media art. One could postulate then, that the future of media art is shifting towards the eventual removal of the human from the creative process entirely and that Anadol’s works are the first steps in this direction.
Perhaps the future of the gesamtkunstwerk lies in the complete release of creative control, allowing machines to determine the optimal experience required for a total artwork. Perhaps the role of the human artist in the future would be to provide vague suggestions while the machine computed the final visual outcome; creating as they the machines might think, as opposed to how we think.
In 1966, engineer and friend of artists Billy Klüver gave a talk about the changing relationship between art and technology. In it, he mentioned that up until that moment, art had remained “a passive viewer of technology.” However, more and more creatives had begun to experiment with the inclusion of technology, challenging and redefining what art meant. Despite this progress, to Klüver, an engineer was only “raw material for the artist” the same way paint and charcoal would have been. This seemed to suggest that while important cross-pollination was happening, art and technology were still very much divided into their own camps, and a true blend of both disciplines had yet to happen.
But as Klüver so rightly pointed out, for Aristotle “Techne” meant both art and technology. And indeed, they should exist as the same thing. We have come a long way since Wagner’s first foray into actualizing the gesamtkunstwerk. Art and technology are now so deeply intertwined, each informing the other and erasing the hard boundaries that were still present slightly less than 60 years ago. The future of media art is dependent on this continued partnership. It is important for man to continue pushing the boundaries of the artistic practice, be it through the embrace of technology, or the resistance of it. The total artwork then, becomes a futile pursuit, forever changing as the technology available to us evolves. Maybe the pursuit should instead be of something grander and more ambiguous — a pursuit of honesty and artistic purity, choosing to create works on a medium that best represents the views and intentions of the creative.
Archive Dreaming (2017) by Refik Anadol is a data visualization work installed at SALT Research in Istanbul, Turkey. It was presented as part of The Uses of Art: Final Exhibition with the support of the Culture Programme of the European Union. Being a public art installation, the work was conceived as an alternative method for members of the public to peruse and engage with the document collections of SALT Research. The research facility comprises a specialized library and an archive of both physical and digital sources. Their collection includes visual and textual sources on art history, the development of architecture and design in Turkey, as well as documents dealing with the transformations in society and the region from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic. Due to the significant age of most of these documents, large parts of the collection are housed in specialized, pressure and temperature controlled rooms; causing most of the physical sources to be as easily accessible.
While other attempts at a such a project might have led to the creation of a simple photographic database, Archive Dreaming takes the concept of an interactive archive much further. The most obvious and significant aspect of this work is in its use of physical space and architecture. The installation is designed to be a spatial experience. In the words of Anadol himself, the work is described as an effort to “deconstruct the framework of an illusory space [that] will transgress the normal boundaries of the viewing experience of a library”. The work was specifically conceptualized with the notion to significantly transform the experience of accessing a knowledge repository. The work was to be a “a three dimensional kinetic and architectonic space of an archive.”
The other aspect of Archive Dreaming that sets is apart from a simple digital database is the flexibility that it provides users of the system. The work allows users browse the 1.7 million documents in the archive in a number of possible ways; each drawing different associations between the documents through the various viewing modes. This assists the viewer to draw relationships with the documents in a way that is suitable for their individual needs. In this way, the installation “intertwines history with the contemporary, and challenges immutable concepts of the archive.”
Such a system is only conceivable with the aid of Machine Learning and AI that have the capabilities of looking at, understanding and organizing all of the content found within this large set of documents. All of this processed information is then easily controlled by visitors from a touch sensitive console at the center of the installation space.
Machine Intelligence also takes center-stage for the final aspect of the installation. Getting its name from this process, the installation enters into a standby “dream mode” when no users are interacting with the archives. The system uses the knowledge gained from studying and classifying all of the 1.7 million documents in the archive to “hallucinate” new ones that might possibly exist in the archives. In a post-truth era where “facts” are constantly challenged and called by other names, this process calls into question about how much of our shared history is “real” and how much of it is to be trusted; a challenge that historians and documentarians constant face and grapple with. It also postulates the idea of a brave new world where creativity and creation might no longer be just in the domain of humans and perhaps, machines might play just a vital role in shaping the art histories of the future.
Refik Anadol is a contemporary media artist that works across a large variety of digital media. Born in Istanbul, Anadol is currently based in Los Angeles, California in the United States where he is a lecturer and visiting researcher in UCLA’s Department of Design Media Arts. He holds a master of fine arts degree from University of California, Los Angeles in Media Arts, master of fine arts degree from Istanbul Bilgi University in Visual Communication Design as well as a bachelors of arts degree with summa cum laude in Photography and Video.
Much of Anadol’s works focus on site-specificity, choosing to create digital works of public art that leverage and accentuate the surrounding architecture. He works with projections (both indoors as well as outdoors) and large scale screen installations to create immersive environments that seek to transport audiences into an imagined space. As a media artist, designer and spatial thinker, Refik Anadol is intrigued by the ways in which the transformation of the subject of contemporary culture requires rethinking of new aesthetics, technique and dynamic perception of space. His works aim to create visually agnostic depictions that form a visual language capable of appealing to varying groups of people; despite cultural backgrounds or aesthetic preferences. Due to their public nature, Anadol also caters his works towards eliciting the reactions and interactions of passers-by within unconventional spatial orientations.
By embedding media arts into architecture, he questions the possibility of a post-digital architectural future in which there are no more non-digital realities; a future whereby all human made surfaces are informed in some shape or form, by the digital footprint that mankind leaves behind. His works invite viewers to visualize alternative realities by presenting them the possibility of re-defining the functionalities of both interior and exterior architectural formations. Anadol’s work suggests that all spaces and facades have potentials to be utilized as the media artists’ canvases.
A large percentage of Refik Andols works and creative process is deeply influenced by and based off of technology – specifically generative data. We as modern society are profligate with our creation of new data. Just within the last two years, the human race has generated about 90% of all the data output ever made within the life-span of our species. The concept of smart cities and embedded sensors all over our built environment have contributed towards this exponential explosion of data-generation. We now live in living, evolving, self-aware cities bristling with input devices that are providing feedback of various kinds . We ourselves produce large quantities of data, be it through our self-expression via social media, or simply the communicative data we send each other. Often times, all of this data rarely sees the light of day; relegated to internal uses within the companies and government bodies that process these information.
Through his works, Anadol questions how our experience of space is changing now that digital objects ranging from smart phones and embedded sensors to urban screens have all but colonized our everyday lives. How have media technologies changed our conceptualizations of our everyday spaces, and how has architecture embraced these shifting conceptualizations to accommodate these changes? These are the three main questions that Anadol tackles in his works; not by simply integrating media into built forms, but by translating the logic of media technologies into spatial design itself.
Refik Anadol is a good case study to research and explore for the purposes of this hyper essay as he represents a growing trend of multimedia artists whose works are heavily dependent and influenced by data. As much as the impressionists used paint and light as their mediums, this burgeoning group of media artists to which Anadol belongs to, are using data as a medium to develop their works. The added spatial qualities of Refik Anadol’s pieces begs us to question the role spatiality plays in the experience and consumption of media art, as well as how this new phase of media art harks back to the roots of the pioneers while also carving out a new path for itself.
The Art of the Networked Practice online symposium has been one of the few events that has truly challenged my preconceived notions as to what constitutes net art or performance art. Spanning a total of three days and spread across a wide variety of geographical locations, the symposium was a mix of online live performance works, keynote presentations by acclaimed artists and creators, as well as academic focused round-table discussions of the works that were performed. While it initially proved to be a rather disorienting experience for me, I eventually found my footing and enjoyed the entire process of being a participant in this social broadcast. The following essay will examine the symposium from the point of view as a participant and how social broadcasting seemingly serves as a proving ground for the expression of the poetics of the networked space.
The symposium is strongly founded in the premise of Gene Youngblood‘s call for “a communications revolution… an alternative social world” that decentralizes the experience of the live broadcast through the creative work of collaborative communities. Herein we see the purpose of this get together, a breakdown of the hierarchal approach to the sharing of ideas where a system of one-to-many is adopted. Instead, the symposium embraces a more classical approach akin to a Socratic Dialogue where a many-to-many platform encourages all participants to freely engage with one another in any method they deem fit (within the limitations of the platform). However, any discerning individual should question the authenticity of this idyllic vision and determine if this symposium has in fact been able to achieve this.
Matt Adams of Blast Theory shared this sentiment when he remarked during his keynote about how the internet seemed like a compelling new platform full of promise during the early 90s. However, development and maturity in the space proved that it was unable to “match up with the utopian believer’s hope that new social relationships can be made possible by the new interface – internet.” In a previous interview with Maria Chatzichristodoulou, he also mentioned that the internet and it’s adjacent technologies were still largely “consumerist” and “solipsistic” in nature. To some degree, one could pin this on the fundamental communicative processes of the internet. The third space requires (and commands) a different kind of presence in order for our voices to be heard. This is seen throughout the symposium in the various facets of the broadcast interface, the way participants engage with one another, as well as the shortcomings and failings of the network upon which this symposium exists itself. Ultimately, the network experience is centered mostly around the self, and this idea was seen constantly in all of the performances that we held during the conference.
Much of how the symposium was consumed and negotiated was determined by the user interface that it was broadcasted through. The idea of an amorphous space with no clear boundaries seems difficult to imagine with our everyday use of the internet, let alone an online symposium. The platform of choice for this event was Adobe Connect, a conferencing software that allows for many-to-many broadcasting by leveraging online collaboration technologies. The key part of the interface for attendees of the symposium was the included chat-box. A mainstay among all popular live-streaming platforms, the chat-box allows for the creation of a telematic space where people from all geographical locations are able to simultaneously exist in a shared environment. This creation of a temporal community is a significant shift to the way we are used to understanding gatherings of this nature.
In a regular symposium where attendees are all in the same physical space, there is a established decorum expected of attendees to defer control to speakers. The attendees are merely observers in the space, engaging with the speakers and their content passively. The same can also be said about audiences at a performance; the observers are passive and merely there to witness the unfolding of events. If any dialogue or reaction is to be had for either, it typically happens after the fact. Furthermore, real-world symposiums have the added challenge of participants having to navigate social etiquettes to introduce themselves to one another before such interactions are allowed to happen.
However in the case of this online symposium, the chat-box was in fact, very much alive. Participants were constantly discussing issues regarding both the performances, as well as the discussions held after. In a way, there were two layers of presence during the symposium. An active presence within the participant base where ideas were exchanged and discussed in real-time as they happened in the heat of the moment, as well as a passive presence where the classical behaviors of audience and performer were observed. This duality in experience can be likened to the collaborative co-creative art practice outlined by Roland Barthes in The Death of the Author. In it, he envisions the roles of the artist and viewer becoming one, a vision that transpires in the “third space” of social broadcasting. Audience members are discerning meaning, clarifying concepts and creating new interpretations, all the while the performances and presentations are happening in real-time. As Roy Ascott so famously put in his essay:
In telematic art, meaning is not created by the artist […] Meaning is the product of interaction between the observer and the system, the content of which is in a state of flux.
I had the opportunity to be present for both online performances that happened during the symposium. While each performance had their unique appeal, I would like to address some of the shared experiences both of these works had in relation to working within the third space.
The key challenge that both works had to address was the inherent instability of the network experience. While we have come quite far as a society with regard to networking technologies, the idea of having multiple videos streams being simultaneously hosted is still somewhat of a challenge. There is a great deal of variance in terms of getting all of this to work reliably, from the network stability of each individual participant, to the processing and then dissemination of the combined stream to all participants by Adobe Connect. The system is ultimately in control of all aspects of the performance and it is to its will that participants and performers must bend. The power to create, perform and observe is deferred to this system.
This “deferring of power”was seen across both performances when network issues caused performer to become out of sync with each other; particularly affecting Annie Abrahams’ Online En-semble – Entanglement Training work. The unexpected network challenges put the performers in a situation where they had to behave in an adaptive manner, making improvisational tweaks to account for instabilities in the network. This introduces an element of chance and spontaneity into the process of art-making that is otherwise not usually found in prepared performances. While staying to a script, the artists also had to account for the inherent dynamism and indeterminism of the stage upon which they were performing.
Inversely, in Jon Cates’ performance igaies, such intermittent disturbances to the planned performance were welcomed (and in fact encouraged). Much of the work was largely indeterminate in nature, and there appeared to be a sense of improvisation to how the artists used the physical space during the span of the work. The performance by XXXtraPrincess and their use of a social media platform meant that ultimately, there was no control as to how participants on the network would respond and behave on the feed. The viewers were free to hashtag anything they wished and also had the option to not directly participate with the work at all. It was also conceivable that the stream could have been cut-off at any moment should the owners of the social network deem their content inappropriate. This surrender of control to the system is something unique to telematic art and if difficult to recreate or experience outside of the third space place.
A (Unfinished?) Communications Revolution
Ultimately, my experience with this symposium has lead me to the conclusion that finished or not, the third space provides us with an opportunity to reassess how we see ourselves as individuals in the networked space. The internet still holds the promise of being a revolution in the way we communicate; but it will be a matter of time before we are fully capable of understanding and navigating the societal nuances of this brave new world.
In the context of the symposium, I would argue that the internet and the network space is indeed a valid space for the creation, consumption and staging of art; participants and performers are in no way affected by the lack of a physical presence. In fact, the third space promises the opportunity to provide a much richer experience for both parties. Through a multi-faceted presentation system, there also exists the opportunity to create a vibrant temporal community around the work that seeks to both enrich and augment the experience in new and profound ways.
For much of human history, people have understood to varying degrees that in order to live more comfortable lives, we as individuals had to give up certain personal liberties. Our prehistoric ancestors knew this when they started gathering into tribes to increase their chances of survival. As human dwelling groups got larger, individuals gave up some of their own personal freedoms to carry out tasks that contributed towards a greater purpose.
Leaders of varying levels came into the picture, becoming representatives that helped to steer parts of society so it could function as intended. Today, we understand this as politics and governance. We hold elections to have people represent us in varying levels of hierarchy such that large groups of us can live and function together with ease. We willingly give up some fraction of our personal agency in exchange for more convenient lives. That being said, we as a society are also constantly in flux when it comes to agreeing on how much agency should we concede to our representatives.
This thought forms the conceptual crux of Kidnap by Blast Theory, a performative art work that invited potential participants to be kidnapped. One of the strangest part of the work that audience had a difficult time reconciling with was the question why someone would willingly pay a £10 fee to essentially enter a raffle that might result with their kidnapping. In essence, this is a critique of modern society at a fundamental level. We pay taxes to a government (the entry fee) in hopes that they guide us the right way (the act of giving up control). We are not physically kidnapped as such, but the psychological essence is remarkably similar.
The way Kidnap pans out further echos this sentiment. In his interview with Maria Chatzichristodoulou, Matt Adams of Blast theory comments that “they were putting the audience body in a situation where one had to decide […] how to position themselves.” The audience members were “constructing an experience by filtering his/her understanding of what is going on.” The works mirror the way we naturally experience and process our surroundings because of how well they are tied to actual, in-world experiences. The audience are no longer ‘on rails’, experiencing a pre-determined narrative outcome with pre-determined visuals such as a film or painting. They become an integral part of the narrative itself, directly driving the final outcome. By leveraging the participation of their audience, Blast Theory in essence creates a scenario whereby the audience are directly responsible for the situations they place themselves in. Their agency, or lack thereof, makes the work.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and this questioning of agency becomes even more pertinent. Social Media has become a point of contention recently making Kidnap just as relevant almost 20 years on. Adams comments that it is important to understand “to what extent these technologies function as consumerist, solipsistic toys” and if they really do generate social transformation. Much of the discussion centers around our lack of agency over the data we create and how all of this data gets weaponized against us to mainly further capitalistic and political ambitions. To many of us, these social media networks are marketed as utopian sanctuaries where people of similar interests can gather to meet new friends and reconnect with old ones. However in doing so, most of us are either unaware or unwilling to accept that we are exchanging our data and privacy to become a part of these networks. Ultimately, these networks are also businesses that have costs and must face the challenge of remaining profitable.
In our fervor to express our individuality with the rest of our social circle, we populate our streams and profiles with highly personal and identifiable information that paint extremely accurate pictures of who we are. This participatory act of giving up our data is, for all intents and purposes, exactly the same action agreeing to be kidnapped by members of Blast Theory or giving up liberties so we may be governed. It is an intrinsic part of being an inhabitant on these networks. If this is the case, then are we allowed to be dissatisfied when these services use the data they gather to fund their operations or affect decisions? Are we justified in our stance that these networks should not be allowed to use the very information that we so willing contribute? Are we justified to believe that this data is not to be used in any shape, way or form when we were so willing to give it up just moments before under the guise of connecting and communicating?
Much like it was for the audience participants of Kidnap, this issue becomes a question of “how much agency are we truly comfortable with?” Similar to the participants, we as modern humans have collectively deemed that the use of social media to connect with one another is enough of a convenience to part with our privacy and data by way of the content we publish onto these mediums. If we are comfortable doing this, we should be just as comfortable realizing how much of it is used as a means to profile and categorize us. Instead, we enter a state of mass hysteria and panic just like how the participants of Kidnap became more and more concerned about the ‘boundaries’ of their kidnapping despite agreeing to it themselves in the first place. Perhaps, the answer (and the message Blast Theory was attempting to communicate via Kidnap) is to participate in the act of actually losing all of it in the first place – such that we may learn firsthand what it truly means to retain the power of choice, agency and freedom as an individual.
Telematic Dreaming by Paul Sermon is perhaps the most seminal and forward looking artwork from the early nineties that truly embraced the future promised by the rise of telepresence. Continue reading “Telematic Dreaming”
Understanding Ant Farm and their works would be impossible without first understanding American culture from the early 50s to the late 70s. The rise of the automobile’s importance in American society was one that began as the would-be members of the collective were still children. Freeways ripped through cities as the American life began to revolve more and more around the automobile. A symbol of physical, cultural and societal mobility, the car ushered in an era of motels, drive-thrus and other car-centric innovations. Continue reading “The Eternal Frame”
Osmose by Char Davies is an example of a media art work that uses virtual reality to craft a fully immersive experience for its audience. Going beyond establishing a visual outcome, the artwork employs a multi-sensory approach to successfully transport viewers into the artist’s imagined space. The unique interaction method centered around breathing, as well as the use of a head-mounted display create a sense of tangibility that embeds the immersants deep into an otherwise foreign and unrealistic space that feels real.
In that regard, Osmose may be seen as pioneering attempt at realizing Ivan Sutherland’s vision that was penned in his essay ‘The Ultimate Display’ thirty years prior to the creation of this work. In it, Sutherland postulated that as technology got better, humans would be more capable of designing all encompassing sensory interfaces that would appear to simulate our reality to a point where “a computer can control the existence of matter”. While highly ambitions and visionary, the statement does align with how technology has progressed over the last 50 years since it was written. As a society, we strive to create computer systems and interfaces that remove the intermediary layer with which we manipulate media, and have tried to place the user as close to the content as possible with regard to the user experience. The ultimate goal then, is to march towards “complete immersion”.
Sutherland also discusses the idea of familiarity and how that affects the pursuit and uses of the theoretical ultimate display. He posits that being able to recreate experiences that one is already familiar with in real life would help to increase the perceived immersion in this “ultimate display”. In his essay ‘Virtual Environments’, Scott Fisher mirrors this line of thought by explaining that “for most people, duplicating reality is an assumed […] goal” for digital imaging technology. While the display might be useful in perfectly recreating the reality we are all familiar with, the display could also be used to help us discover new alternate realities with rules that we are not familiar with. While Sutherland uses the example of possibly exploring the physical properties of quantum mechanics to further human understanding, exploiting such displays for a more poetic and artistic outcome is also reasonable. Davies uses Osmose to allow her viewers to experience a new reality that would have been other difficult to reconcile with something as static as a painting.
Historically, art has always been communicated to others on a mediated platform. A painting is a summation of an artists internal experiences and believes that are then repackaged and visually represented for the consumption of another individual. The experience becomes largely external to the original thought and intent of the artist; it is consumed second-hand. As Fischer puts it, the “abstracted second-hand knowledge is often more generalized and concentrated” but lacks the “balance and completeness of experience.” First-hand experience then, becomes the defining factor as to how complete the encounter with a work becomes. Osmose brings this to the table by having the immersants experience first-hand, the imagined space just as the artist would have in her head during the conceptualizing of this work. The artist is provided the opportunity to externalize their thoughts in a more tangible fashion and viewers are able to step into the artist’s mind and form their own conclusions from that experience.
One could argue that the crucial element that ties all of this together is the way in which locomotion is controlled within the world of Osmose. By having her immersants’ breath patterns tie directly to how they move within the world, Davies is able to successfully marry a real-world physical experience (breathing and the tangible principles of buoyancy) to an imagined new space with it’s own rules in a way that is both familiar and awe-inspiring at the same time. This was the key to the unprecedented immersion that viewers of the work felt and perhaps, the way to continue approaching immersion in the field of media art.