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Category: [3]texts & Interviews

TAXONOMEDIA INTERVIEW: MEDIA ARCHIVING AND CONSERVATION: WHAT’S AT STAKE?

by Raquel Herrera


A look at Brian Mackern’s vintage computer, “toothless”, which he sold in a performatic move.

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BOOK: A Computer in the Art Room by Catherine Mason, Reviewed by Molly Hankwitz

A Computer in the Art Room: The Origins of British Computer Arts: 1950-80
by Catherine Mason, Norfolk: JJG Publishing, 2008.

Reviewed by Molly Hankwitz

This book is a work of art history analyzing the many contributions made by British artists and scientists to the development of computer art in England and its simultaneous impact and origins internationally. Special attention is paid to the development of new arts curriculum and education for artists during the post-war period. Art is a political battlefield when it comes to how and what is taught. Remarkably the arrival of the personal computer and networked computing as well as associated equipment: plotters, printers, and the monitor – began having an impact on artists in the 1950s when it was perceived to be an instrument through which one could express oneself. With many color plates and a fine art approach to the research, Catherine Mason has drawn together a unique collection of some of the most well known British art groups and institutions to have influence upon cultural acceptance and arts education.

The relationship between The Independent Group and the Institute of Contemporary Art’s (ICA) forms the basis of much of the analysis, as the ICA was a meeting ground and support for the minds of the Independent Group. Lesser known, but keenly important artists such as Edward Ihnatowicz are written about in great detail, as well as their original works, the Senster, for example, and reactions to it, are described in great detail. Thus the text is a compelling portrayal of how important artists worked against the grain of longstanding, traditional arts education in the United Kingdom’s college degree system in order to push for new approaches and ideas. Cybernetics, computer science, robotics, telemetry, as well as ‘interactivity’, ‘participatory’ and ‘process-driven’ art forms are shown to be the intellectural mainstays of avant-garde ideas at the time and are discussed in depth. Great attention is placed upon the overlaps between college arts education, vocational education in polytechnics, ‘think tanks’, fine art departments and the forces shaping government support and reports upon them.


Edward Ihnatowicz working on his computer-controlled sculpture, The Senster, at University College, London c. 1970

Curiously, because fine arts schools such as the prestigious and elitist Royal College of Art were generally the last to accept any cross over between art and technology, while the polytechnics, largely focused upon vocational training and design, more readily hired artists to work in them. Hence, newer ideas were sometimes tested outside of London. Experimental exhibitions, however, generally pushed computer arts into the realm of the visible for the general public.Richard Hamiltons ‘Growth and Form’ and ‘Man, Motion and Machine’ as well as the Independent Groups ‘This is Tomorrow’, ‘Cybernetic Serendipity’ (1968) and numersos others, are discussed by Mason as having huge influence upon the critical art audience and in helping to publicize and lend authority to ideas. Mason cross references her research between the inventions of one artist and the influence had on others. Stephen Willats, Roy Ascot, IIhnatowicz, Lawrence Alloway, Lynda Brockbank, Noel Forster, Brian Eno (a student at Ipswich College), and especially Gustav Metzger, Victor Pasmore, Richard Hamilton, Storm Cornock and others are discussed. Thus, the rise of less restrictive and more experimental and process-oriented sensibilities — in contrast to the traditional methods brought about by allegiance to John Ruskin and William Morris– began to appear in fine arts programs throughout England from the early sixties onwards. Roy Ascott’s revolutionary ‘Groundwork’ foundation course introducted to Ealing and Ipswich colleges was had controversial influence.

The legendary Slade School of Fine Art Experimental Department (University College London) was among the first inter-disciplinary programs to prosper around the teaching of computer art. Because the introduction of computer technology to creative work usually centered around design applications, it was less common and understood in fine art programs of the time. The Slade deparment was experimental, but also highly successful. Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi, and William Turnbull as well as other members of the Independent Group had attended Slade in the 1940s and their reputations helped its experimental growth as an institution. From William Coldstream’s influence onward and including the appointment of Rudolf Wittkower and others into the faculty presents a curious case of collaboration between fine artists, arts councils, funders, and faculty. Moreover, the department developed when “it was clear that art was evolving alongside the social and political changes of the 1960s” (2008, 174) In 1969, Bernard Cohen, in particular, pushed for study in art and electronics and in 1970 the influential Computer Arts Society held ‘An Evening of Computer Art and Composition.’ (ibid, 175) which consisted mostly of performance based works of computer poetry, light/sound performance by John Lifton, choreographed ‘dance’ routines by computers by John Landsdown, and so forth. (ibid, 175). In 1970, Systems Group founder, Malcom Hughes created the first computer curriculum for Slade. His own work was influenced by the process-driven epistemology of Pasmore and used mathematical and generative concepts. Works cited from Slade’s department are drawings and machines of Stephen Scrivener, CAD drawings of Chris Briscoe created on the CRT at the Slade studio and many others. In 1977 Slade owned a ‘technology lab’consisting of a customized computer stacked with a teletype used for alpha-numeric input and output, a storage oscilloscope used for graphic output and the plotter built by Briscoe. (ibid, 181)

The apparent, driving force of Mason’s book is her interest in bringing to light the contributions of major players and thinkers, who along with like minded British scientists, engineers, funders and officials – at times influenced by work in the United States or Germany – were attempting to forge especially creative links between art, science and technology. Mason directs the reader to a wealth of information and background as to the role computers played in artmaking during the post-war period, including attitudes towards culture and machines, publications on similar ideas, as well as disparate strands of thought considered in regards to their use. The author manages an articulate history of art and education as well as offering substantial insight into how the role of the artist was in the midst of changing as a result of increasingly global, computerized culture. She shows how this extraordinarly early experimental work was often funded through collaboration with IBMs European offices, via appeals to international exhibitions, and was presented to the public at large. The book is a set of rarely published facts and ideas collected into one text; a vision, especially, of how British arts education was underpinned by various tensions and forces in the arts, and how these tensions had historic foundations. That a post-modern sensibility towards networks and machines was emerging is an understatement, yet the relationship of art, science and technology went back at least to Prince Albert’s designs for Albertopolis which combined arts and science museums along one ring road. The British Science museum as well as the V&A are residuals of his utopia.

Many of the ideas conceived during the decades of the sixties and seventies as a response to reactionary concepts – ideas of interactivity and connectivity, for example – are peculiarly visionary when laid aside theory and use of networked art today. Information and art, art and machines, have become increasingly indistinguishable and, indeed, perhaps overly alike. The book is very informative for those interested in the emergence of electronic media art in Great Britain and relationships between British art and its influence.


Mason, C. A Computer in the Art Room. Norfolk, 2008.
for more information: catherine.mason@dsl.pipex.com

TEXT: ARCO 2009, Meditaciones en una (supuesta) catástrofe, by Raquel Herrera

Vacas flacas

Coincidiendo con la celebración de la feria de arte contemporáneo ARCO 2009, la ciudad de Madrid se llenó de vacas multicolor a modo de esculturas urbanas que algunos incívicos se dedicaron a estropear. Quizás su actitud destructiva no se viera exclusivamente motivada por la eterna pulsión humana que incita a destruir el mobiliario urbano, sino también con el sentir general expresado en una frase: estamos en crisis.

Pero igual que los metrosexuales o la dieta mediterránea, la palabra crisis (más allá de los despidos laborales masivos o el descubrimiento de timadores a gran escala tipo Brad Madoff), tiene también algo de cliché cuando, antes de que llegue el desastre, las ferias de arte contemporáneo echan el telón de la austeridad y se llevan las manos a la cabeza antes de ver el resultado de ventas.

Según comentó su directora Lourdes Fernández en la rueda de prensa celebrada en Barcelona, la feria empezó a prepararse hace más de medio año, con lo que los cambios (como la ubicación de los pabellones o la ausencia de notables galerías internacionales) no responden exclusivamente a una política de contención sino al propio devenir y gestión de estos eventos.

En cualquier caso, el arte digital no se vio favorecido por la coyuntura: aunque no culpo a la crisis de la situación, pues en su trayectoria el espacio Expanded Box ha demostrado que oscila entre el videoarte más propio de la galería y ciertos intentos de introducir “otro tipo de arte tecnológico” cuyo único vinculo con el videoarte es el de generar imágenes sintéticas, sí que es cierto que si el mercado del arte contemporáneo tienden a apostar por un arte digital “espectacular” (en forma de instalaciones o performances de grandes dimensiones) para asegurarse notoriedad y ventas, éste brillaba por su ausencia en la edición actual.

En la caja expandida, los proyectos oscilaban entre las propuestas de videoarte de la mano de la comisaria Carolina Grau y las instalaciones más vinculadas a los presupuestos del arte digital escogidas por Domenico Quaranta. En este último caso, había “caras conocidas” como At My Limit: In the Name of Kernel de Joan Leandre (galería Project Gentili, Italia), centrado una vez más en “reconstruir” entornos de software, The EKMRZ trilogy de Ubermorgen (galería Fabio Paris Art Gallery, Italia), donde diversos medios se mezclaban para alterar las interfaces de tres macrocorporaciones (un planteamiento también conocido, y pese a ello galardonado con el premio BEEP) o el Unprepared piano de Thomson & Craighead (galería ARCProjects, Bulgaria), que se encargaba de reproducir aleatoriamente pistas musicales de una base de datos de música MIDI en línea (lo que no suscitaba demasiado entusiasmo entre los transeúntes que se encontraban el piano… inerte). En términos de novedades, me hizo gracia el hula-hop-brújula de Lawrence Malstaf (Galerie Fortlaan, Bélgica) que quizás no tenga mucho más que aportar, pero podría dar pie a ideas interesantes si se empleara no solamente como “herramienta”.

Mención aparte merecerían las proyecciones de videoarte-que-no-quiere-serlo-pero-es-cine-o-igual-videoarte-ay-no-lo-sé-pero-quiero-que-sea-arte-a-fin-de-de-cuentas en la sección estudio: Pierre Bismuto, Elija-Liisa Ahtila y Jaime Rosales eran los invitados, pero no coincidí con los horarios de programación de estas actividades.

En el resto de la feria, la sensación general que obtuve fue que o bien sólo miro hacia donde me interesa o los artistas siguen apostando por fórmulas que funcionan para algunos. Todos tenemos debilidades: me gustan los morenos, me gustan las rubias, quiero chocolate, otra copita más, y en arte ocurre exactamente lo mismo. Lo digo porque, una vez más, me reí viendo como unos robotitos (MI y MII, de Jorinde Voigt) con pinta de aspiradoras peinaban el espacio de la GALERIE KLÜSER 2).

Idéntico interés suscitó en mí la motocicleta modelo Purple Rain del artista Liu Hui (Tang Contemporary Art, China), presentada como proyecto individual en un rincón oscuro de uno de los pabellones: la motocicleta estaba rodeada de cables y la iluminaba una potente luz roja tan chillona como subyugante. Asimismo, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer presentó una cuadrícula de pequeñas imágenes pseudo pornográficas cuyo movimiento continuo sugería más un juego de luces que un mandala espiritual. Sé que Lozano-Hemmer se considera muy mainstream (y lo entiendo), así que supongo que es mi equivalente tecnológico a un George Clooney que te convence incluso anunciando café expreso.

Y ante la pregunta, ¿pero esta edición no estaba dedicada a la India?, la respuesta es que sí, pero, en el conjunto no se percibía especialmente. O mejor dicho, ¿cómo trascendemos, una vez más, la tensión poscolonial entre una expectativa de arte folclórico y la presencia de arte contemporáneo global que no podemos vincular a ninguna idiosincrasia nacional? La sala de exposiciones municipal Alcalá 31 trató de encargarse de esta cuestión con la exposición Cultura popular india y más allá: los cismas jamás contados, pero la brecha siguió allí: muy ilustrativa respecto a la historia del collage de estilo pop, pero muy poco respecto a lo que ha ocurrido entre la descolonización y los documentales actuales que, en el mejor de los casos, tratan temas globales representativos del habitual videoarte no ficcional.

Fragmentos de VIDA

Por fin tuve ocasión de visitar el MATADERO de Madrid, ese espacio enorme brutalista que jamás tendremos en Barcelona (básicamente porque no tenemos sitio, a no ser que lo instalemos a 60 km de la ciudad y pongan autocares para ir venir). Las salas eran tan grandes, frías, y estaban tan rotas, que me temo que cualquier cosa habría quedado genial en ellas. Pude ver la exposición Fuegos fatuos de Daniel Canogar, un nuevo conjunto de cinco instalaciones de luces donde utiliza residuos electrónicos. El folleto reza que con estas instalaciones se alude al pasado del Matadero y a la memoria de los residuos. Pero yo, que desde que leí a Kurt Vonnegut me puse una especie de escudo para tomar distancia entre los mataderos y la memoria histórica, lo que vi fue un conjunto de instalaciones altamente sugerentes que por fortuna no me recordaban a los árboles de Navidad, sino a la naturaleza o perversión del mundo natural (y ahí reconozco que Canogar siempre me gana).

En relación a los premios VIDA 11.0, dejé que se me cayera la baba con la instalación ganadora Hylozoic Soil, de Philip Besley y Rob Gorbet, un bosque artificial que reacciona ante la presencia humana (es decir, las extremidades de las hojas se curvan al pasar). Mi descripción siempre resultará burda porque el movimiento de las hojas es sutil y delicado (y atractivo para cualquier edad, a juzgar por la variedad de personas que visitaban la instalación). Menos impactante, pero muy meritoria era también la instalación Birds de Chico MacMurtie (tercer premio): lo digo porque la idea de fila de patas de madera que empiezan a moverse cuando la primera de ellas empieza a moverse al detectar una presencia es fantástica, pero el resultado no acaba siendo tan llamativo.

El resto de premiados, a mitad de camino entre la proyección de imágenes abstractas de sujetos (segundo premio para Performative Ecologies, de Ruairi Glynn) y los globos con vida propia (mención honorífica de la edición anterior para Alavs 2.0., de Jed Berk) no me llamaron tanto la atención. Lo que sí pude constatar es que el arte reactivo (que no interactivo, porque reacciona a estímulos pero no se ve sustancialmente modificado por ellos) goza de buena salud, y que, dado que es casi una convención en las instalaciones, quizás el arte vinculado a preocupaciones está consolidando fuera del museo tradicional lo que el museo tradicional ya ha abrazado en instalaciones de artistas conceptuales (estoy pensando en la exposición de Cildo Meireles en el MACBA al escribir esto último).

Fuera de ARCO

Fuera de ARCO, la vida seguía como siempre: hacía sol, y los museos habían preparado cierta artillería para la ocasión (Francis Bacon en el Prado, retrospectiva de Eulàlia Valldosera en el MNCARS). Sobre esta última, me gustaría comentar que me pareció curioso su acercamiento al mundo doméstico a través de carritos de supermercado que empujados daban a pie a determinadas imágenes, o sus botellas de productos de limpieza que ofrecían confesiones sonoras (aunque a mi gusto demasiadas), pero lo que más me gustó sin duda alguna fue el vídeo de la sala del final donde diversas mujeres (emigrantes en España) hablaban sobre los objetos que les importaban. Un vídeo “tradicional” sobre tres historias tanto o más interesante que el uso de sensores. Me estaré haciendo muy mayor, digo yo.

¿Qué será, será?

El futuro es vago: no sabemos si ARCO caerá víctima de la crisis económica o si se mantendrá al flote cuando el pánico deje paso al realismo. En cualquier caso, la coyuntura económica ha despertado en España (y asumo que también globalmente) el interés de políticos y particulares en un término, al parecer, no lo bastante explotado: la innovación. Esa innovación se traduce a grandes rasgos en explotar las virtudes de ambos sistemas (el público, basado en ayudas a la creación, y el privado, basado en la continuidad entre producción artística y generación de productos) y en fomentar el desarrollo de los “emprendedores” tradicionalmente adscritos al ámbito empresarial.

Con un ARCO patrocinado hasta las cejas por la firma de moda MANGO, ahora conviene preguntarse si estas actitudes “innovadoras” van a trasladarse también al resto de centros de arte, si Madrid va a fomentar aún más el comportamiento emprendedor que etiqueta a profesionales del arte como proveedores de servicios, y si en definitiva el arte tecnológico (que en la mayoría de unos casos, y tras la resaca del net art, requiere una fuerte inversión para llevarse a cabo) va a poder aprovecharse de esta actitud sin complejos respecto a las relaciones entre arte y economía.

CowParade
http://www.cowparademadrid.com/tabid/450/Default.aspx

Sección de videoarte Cinema (comisariada por Carolina Grau para Expanded Box)
http://www.ifema.es/ferias/arco/pdfs/expbox_Cinema.pdf

Project Gentili (Joan Leandre)
http://www.projectgentili.com/exhibition_info.php?id=24&gentili_lang=en

Fabio Paris Art Gallery (Ubermorgen)
http://www.fabioparisartgallery.com/

Premio BEEP
http://www.arcomadrid.beep.es/

ARCProjects (Thomson & Craighead)
http://www.arcprojects.org/main/index.html

Galerie Fortlaan (Lawrence Malstaf )
http://www.kaaitheater.be/productie.jsp?productie=536&lang=en
Galerie Klüser (Jorinde Voigt)
http://jorindevoigt.com/blog/?cat=16

(Tang Contemporary Art) Liu Hui
http://www.artnet.com/artist/424798187/li-hui.html

Matadero Madrid
http://www.mataderomadrid.com/

Daniel Canogar, Fuegos Fatuos
http://www.danielcanogar.com/page_es/index.html

Premio VIDA 11.0
http://www.fundacion.telefonica.com/arteytecnologia/certamen_vida/index.htm

Cildo Meireles en el MACBA
http://www.macba.cat/controller.php?
p_action=show_page&pagina_id=28&inst_id=24976

Retrospectiva de Eulàlia Valldosera

http://www.museoreinasofia.es/museoreinasofia/

live/exposiciones/actuales/eulalia-valldosera.html

TEXT: Notes on March 2009 Visit to El Salvador, by Eduardo Navas

CentroCultural
Front of Cultural Center of Spain in El Salvador

Image source: Cultural Center of Spain

Cultural Center of Spain invited me to lecture in San Salvador, El Salvador from March 8 to the 13, 2009. During this period I also learned about the contemporary art scene as well as the art history of El Salvador.

I presented my research on Remix at the Cultural Center on March 10, and I lectured on art and new media in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of El Salvador (popularly known as La Nacional) on March 11. I met artists from different generations, some who are becoming more established, and some who are up and coming. I also visited the Museum of Art (Marte) which currently is exhibiting a thorough survey of Art in El Salvador since the 1800’s

The Cultural Center introduced me to young artists who work in diverse media, including installations, painting, performance, photography, video and web development. The work was extremely diverse, and well informed about international trends. I asked the artists about their training and they explained that it was very traditional. They also added that they are aware of contemporary art practice in large part thanks to the ongoing exposure that the Cultural Center of Spain offers by bringing artists, curators, and writers under the ongoing thematic of “Curating Latin America,” the same platform on which I was asked to participate. Artists have also developed collectives to support their particular interests. I was able to meet a couple of them. One is Artificio (Artifice), a group of young artists who came together with the goal to organize workshops and lectures that they themselves coordinate. The aim is to develop an informed opinion of what is taking place not only in the country but also in the international scene as well. Many of the members have participated in exhibitions throughout Central America. There appears to be a thriving exchange in this area, in particular between Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

Artificio
Four members of the collective Artificio about to eat pizza with loroco (a local Salvadoran flower) at a popular pizza restaurant in the downtown area of San Salvador.

Members of Articifio (as listed on their main website): Malcriada Victoria, Jaime Aguirre, Natalia Dominguez, Samadhi, Victor Rodriguez, Claudia Olmedo, Dalia Chevez

Another collective that I met is La Fábri-K (pronounced “la fabrica” meaning factory). The name comes from their studio space, a former factory located on the outside of the capital in which electric batteries were assembled. This group is open to artists of any generation, but for the most part its members are of an older generation and more established, some enjoy international attention. Many of them lived or were affected by the twelve year civil war which took place between 1980 and 1992. Their work is informed by some of these issues as well as the current politics, and gang violence. Other members have focused on representational or abstract work that at first glance might appear to reference previous movements in the international scene, but with an open mind one realizes that the works are reactions to local preoccupations. All subjects are tactfully approached with a well calculated critical distance and a strong awareness of historical precedents. Like members of Artificio, these artists have come together to support their diverse practices. Many of them paint, but their approaches and sensibilities offer a dynamic contrast of media from printmaking to installation work as well as online projects.

Fabri-k
Two members of La Fábri-k, Baltasar Portillo and Mayra Barraza, at their spacious studio.

Members of La Fábri-k (as listed on their website): Luis Lazo, Romeo Galdámez, Mayra Barraza, Francisco Zayas, Baltasar Portillo, Amber Rose, Giovanni Gil, Fredis Monge, Jenny McGee

Experimental Space La Fabri-k
Experimental installation space at La Fábri-k. The collective plans to establish an artist in residence program in the near future.

I was also gracefully hosted by the director of the Museum of Art (Marte), Roberto Galicia, who gave me a tour of the current art exhibition titled “re-visiones: encuentros con el arte salvadoreño” (Re-visions: Encounters with the Art of El Salvador). The exhibition includes selected works from artists since the 1800’s. To expose the complexity of migration and immigration in the country and conventional notions of nationality, the curator, Jorge Palomo, opted to include work by artists who are of Salvadoran nationality who live or lived abroad as well as artists of different nationalities who opted to take long term residence in El Salvador. This curatorial decision exposes the complexities of the cultural shifts of El Salvador over two hundred years. The catalogue promises to be a valuable contribution to the understanding of the art of El Salvador. It is well researched, and offers a number of eloquent essays which reflect on the multi-cultural layers of El Salvador in relation to the art movements throughout Latin America.

Monument revolution
Monument to the Revolution (1948-56) by Violeta Bonilla (1924-1999) and Claudio Cevallos (information unavailable). Monument is next to the Museum of Art (Marte).

Museum of Art (Marte): http://www.marte.org.sv/

I was also able to meet other artists who work independently, they include Boris Ciudad Real, German Hernández, Alexia Miranda , Antonio Romero, and Danny Zavaleta. I also had the pleasure to meet Maira Maroquin, director of clic.org.sv, an online resource devoted to art, media and communication.

Finally, I visited other cultural centers, including the archeological site Joya del Cerén, which is a unique place where we can learn how Mayan farmers lived. The site was covered with volcano ash and debris during an eruption of the Laguna Caldera Volcano c. AD 600. The site was discovered in 1976 and was opened to the public in 1993 according to the information provided by my guide.

My brief visit to El Salvador gave me energy to look forward to the future of art practice not only in the Americas, but around the world. The current state of production in El Salvador is ripe for more international attention. With the efforts by institutions like the Cultural Center of Spain in El Salvador in collaboration with the Museum of Art, great opportunities already begin to appear for local artists to become more established internationally. I’m glad to have been invited to experience this ongoing process, which will hopefully be written about by previous and future visitors invested in art and culture.

My many thanks to the Director of Cultural Center of Spain in El Salvador , Juan Sanchez, and Assistant Director, Mónica Mejía for making my visit possible.

Spatial Dissonance, Subjective Imagination and Locative Media: An Interview with Paula Levine

This text is republished with permission. To listen to the interview please visit Wi: Journal of Mobile Media

Paula Levine is an artist, an associate professor at the San Francisco State University in Conceptual/Information Arts and just served a second term as a peer advisor for Almost Perfect, Banff New Media Institute.

Paula Levine is a visual artist focusing on experimental narrative and new forms of narrative spaces. Her research/art practice is in GPS technology, wireless, and remote devices. Paula has twenty years of experience in experimental documentary photography and video. Her current work looks at hidden dynamics as a way to develop new understandings about the nature of place. Her works have shown in video festivals, galleries, and museums worldwide.

Her recent installation, Signature, is inaugural work in the new Contemporary Project Space at the Sonoma County Museum in Santa Rosa, California. Signature is a contemporary portrait of seismic history as it intersects with local lives and landscape. The work uses GPS satellites to trigger the sound of the 1906 Bay area earthquake. The same overhead satellites also cause the surface of a projected digital image of Santa Rosa to rupture and reveal the hidden presence of the Rogers Creek Fault that runs directly through the centre of the city. The sound is converted from a selection of seismograph recordings of the 1906 quake. Santa Rosa was severely destroyed by the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires. While the Rogers Creek Fault has been quiet for many years, current seismic research refocuses attention on it as a possible continuation of the more active Hayward Creek Fault, lying to the south of the city.

Signature is featured as part of a larger historical and geological exhibit called Force of Nature, commemorating the centennial of the Bay area earthquake and fire, focusing on the historical and current seismic impact, events, and geography of the greater Santa Rosa area.

Shadows from another place: San Francisco < -> Baghdad, a web/GPS/transposed geographies project, overlays the sites of bombs and missiles from the first U.S. invasion of Baghdad upon San Francisco. These sites are then identified and located with GPS coordinates, the same technology used to identify the Baghdad target sites, as well as maps and photographs. Through this transposition, the distance between foreign and domestic collapses as distant politics can be translated, visualized, and experienced in local terms.

Shadows has exhibited online in Transposing Geographies: Mapping on the Internet, Image Festival 2006, Toronto; in peripheries + proximties, HTMlles Festival – 7th edition, STUDIO XX, Montreal, Canada; and Labertinos – New Geographies. It was also featured in a paper Levine presented on transpositional geographies as part of the Mobile Narratives Panel at MIT4: The work of stories, a conference on narrative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Shadows from another place: San Francisco < -> Baghdad was one of the projects proposed for and developed at The Banff Centre as part of the IntraNation Residency in 2004. Paula presented a talk on transposed geographies focusing on current projects at ISEA, San Jose, California in August, 2006.

A Canadian-American, Paula teaches in conceptual/information arts, an area focusing on digital art and experimental technologies in the Art Department at San Francisco State University, San Francisco, California.
(Biography from http://www.banffcentre.ca/faculty/faculty_member.aspx?facid=3008)

Recommended Locative Media projects by Paula Levine:
1. Christian Nold (http://www.softhook.com/ and http://biomapping.net/) Christian Nold maps physical spaces and the body within it combining GPS with Galvanic Skin Response, the latter used to indicate affective changes. Volunteers walk through various city spaces recording their movements and affective states along with their own written notations. All are combined to create compelling mapped portraits of place.

2. C5 – The Landscape Initiative 2001-06 (http://www.c5corp.com/projects/landscape/index.shtml, and also http://www.c5corp.com/venues/camerawork/index.shtml) C5 is an artist-research group. This project, The Landscape Initiative, focused on generating new landscape data, combining it with existing information and designing new models of visualizing results. Their research process of gathering data was physically carried out with members climbing Mt. Shasta, Mt. Whitney and Mt. Fuji, collecting data from walking along the Great Wall of China and doing an extensive motor cycle tour across the country. One of the projects coming from their investigations was called The Analogous Landscape: Rim of Fire project which was “to develop inferencing techniques for navigation of terrains of similar characteristic.”

Works that have resonance with and have influenced Paula Levine:
1. Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz’s early research and work in satellite telecommunications and, in particular, their project “Hole in Space” (http://www.ecafe.com/getty/HIS/index.html) where they linked Lincoln Centre in NY and the Broadway department store in Los Angeles.

2. Amsterdam Realtime (http://realtime.waag.org/) and Esther Polak where volunteers carry gps devices that trace their movements through the city. Over time, the city becomes visible through the realtime movements of the bodies within it.

3. Morgan O’Hara whose Live Transmissions (http://www.morganohara.com/) are live drawn traces she made of movements of performers, dancers, speakers, musicians. However, her earlier work, a series of hand drawn maps tracing people’ movements through time and space. For some, it was a day; for others a year. Emerging often from conversations she had with them, she linked these individual reflections of the body in space and time to the history of portraiture. The connections between these portraits and later traces of movements from GPS devices is uncanny.

References mentioned in interview:
Jeremy Hight. (2003). Narrative Archaeology. http://www.xcp.bfn.org/hight.html.

Susan Sontag. (2003). Regarding the Pain of Others. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Hayden White. (1973). Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Paula Levine’s homepage: http://paulalevine.net/

Her recent work:
Shadows from Another Place, Baghdad/San Francisco, http://paulalevine.banff.org/

Signature, http://paulalevine.net/index_frameset.html

Between Conflict and Resolve, http://paulalevine.net/index_frameset.html

Shadows from Another Place, http://www.imagesfestival.com/2006/transgeo/

Aboriginal New Media Arts: A Real Cultural Practice? by Jenny Fraser

This text was originally published on NAICA during the summer of 2008. It is republished on NMF with permission.

Please visit NAICA to access all images and proper links.

The digital arena is sometimes viewed as a new mode of expression for Aboriginal involvement in art, culture and politics. However, at other times it is dismissed as something that does not fit or is perhaps unnatural for such an ancient culture. For Aboriginal Artists there are certain rules imposed: Bark Paintings and Weaving = Yes; Experimental Video and Web Art = No!

The question then seems to be, “Why can’t Aboriginal artists just stick with their traditional art practices? Why do Aboriginal artists want to be included in mainstream shows, away from their own kind? How can the work be written about in terms of Aboriginality if it doesn’t look like “Aboriginal Art”? Surely it is not a real cultural practice? It seems that Aboriginal people are expected to assimilate and give up their cultural and social practices, however, artistically the expectation is the reverse: keep those ancient artworks coming!

For a non-Aboriginal audience perhaps each of the terms needs unpacking: Indigenous, new, media and arts. But, as the title may suggest, naming and defining may be counter-productive, indeed impossible. Our focus here is a mapping, a snapshot in time, an overview, a sketching in of fields of active negotiation between *blak culture and new technologies, Indigenous voices and competing mainstream national or global narratives.

Mainstream “Australian Art” has mimicked and perpetuated the European Fine Art tradition since colonisation. Apparently it is vitally important that artists follow a certain line of artistic enquiry: going to the right art school, fine-tuning the right art form while studying under the right “expert” and recycling the right academic theory. If we were going to describe these notions in terms of music, we might liken them to ‘classical’.

But, something different happened with the uptake of New Media Arts. It was ‘new’ so things were fluid. There were less rules and less reasons to care about them. As with all things experimental, there was and still is, confusion around the area of new media arts, even in the mainstream, the edges are blurry and it’s definition as an art practice bleeds across forms. Perhaps a musical form to associate it with would be ‘jazz fusion’ or ‘re-mix?’ In that context Aboriginal Artists could fit into the relaxed modus operandi, or all rounder approach, a little more readily.

Aboriginal New Media Artists sometimes borrow or mimic an array of styles from popular culture with references to advertising, and even documentary photo and film. In Australia, we don’t often see ourselves represented in these arenas – unlike Indigenous peoples in other countries – we rarely see Aboriginal people on TV, in advertising, films or video games. When we do they are more than likely negative stereotypes. Like other Aboriginal artists before us in the 80’s, we aim to redress this lack of representation in Australia and attempt to position ourselves into the mainstream picture, however using the same technologies that have been used to silence and keep us out.

Those Aboriginal artists working in New Media Arts today come from different backgrounds with regard to disciplines and diverse cultures, bringing a variety of skills such as electronics, visual arts, dance, spirituality, sound, information technology, the sciences, printmaking, communications, cosmology, theatre, film and TV. Now with the broad variety of input, maybe it’s not just about the medium, but more importantly, the message. Aboriginal messages need to be disseminated now more than ever because of the cultural silencing through an oppressive thirteen year term of the right wing Howard government and the disbanding of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. Fascist and apartheid practices have become the norm again, with an attitude of denial and exclusion prevailing towards the minority Aboriginal population. In this climate anything Indigenous is seen as political. So now, if the arts were music for our eyes, it might be considered a protest song – even if this is not the intention.

A number of Aboriginal artists and groups across the country have allowed their practice to evolve under the umbrella of New Media Arts, either in the interest of research, development, presentation and promotion. Whether for a one off work or an urge to maintain consistency in their chosen art forms, people such as Destiny Deacon, Michael Riley, Warlpiri Media, the Marrugeku Company, Brook Andrew, Karen Casey, Lucy Dann and Mayu Kanamori, Donovan Jampinjimpa Rice, Uniikuup Productions, Bangarra Dance Theatre, Aroha Groves, Genevieve Grieves and many others are all forging tracks in the area.

Image: Crying Baby, Marrugeku Company ’99

Interdisciplinary artwork specifically describes a process that engages more than one single art form, either between different art forms or collaborations involving cultural and artistic differences. Crying Baby is a fantastic example of a large-scale interdisciplinary production. Devised and performed by the Marrugeku Company from Western Australia, Crying Baby consists of Urban Aboriginal Dancers and musicians, physical theatre practitioners from the Stalker Theatre Company and Kunwinjku dancers, story tellers and musicians from Gunbalanya, a remote community in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. Crying Baby drew on performances, projections and other devices to impart multi layered notions of cultural survival. Due to the lack of funding and support for such large-scale events, this kind of production is rarely seen in Australia, but features in many festivals internationally for large arts-friendly audiences.

A few of the artists that have invested a great deal of energy into crafting a practice and also in developing the “movement” of Aboriginal New Media Arts in Australia are r e a, Jason Davidson and myself. Because we also work in a variety of disciplines and come from diverse backgrounds we have recently achieved some groundbreaking New Media artworks. Each of our works comment on our own Aboriginal experience while maintaining our own unique style and niche. Our works are also often more appreciated internationally than in Australia.

r e a is a Gamilaraay/Wailwan artist, originally from Coonabarabran, a remote town in New South Wales, but has been based in Sydney for sometime. She has a background in electronics in her mainstream employment and went on to study photography at the College of Fine Arts in Sydney and at post-graduate level including Digital Imaging and Design at New York University. She has a long history in the New Media Arts scene and her current practice mainly involves video and digital imaging processes. Her latest work, gins_leap/dubb_speak, is a video installation featuring the use of sensors to tell the stories of four women from her hometown and their homelands in the Warrambungal Mountains. It was the only Aboriginal artwork featured in the recent exhibition Contemporary Commonwealth (coinciding with the Melbourne Commonwealth Games) at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image.

Image: r e a, detail from ‘gins_leap/dubb_speak’ 2003-05, multi-channel projection, digital video, DVD playback, colour, sound 25:00

Jason Davidson a Gurindji/Mara/Nalakarn artist based in Darwin has a background in music and design. He studied visual arts at Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory. His practice involves producing works that include elements of animation, video, music and his unique ‘X-Ray’ art style – hand drawn designs of animals and body organs. Jason’s work, Kidney Problems in Aboriginal Australia Have Now Reached Epidemic Proportions, is an intricate x-ray art/sci-fi style design that was exhibited in conVerge – the 2002 Adelaide Biennial, a survey that focused on Arts/Science works. More recently his DVD Aboriginal Imagination features animations and video that proactively engages with areas of biomedical function of the kidney. He produced the work coinciding with his research in cross-cultural communication breakdown in a Masters of Health degree program at the Tropical Health Institute.

Image: Jason Davidson, detail from ‘Aboriginal Health Education’, DVD, 2002.

Part of my own artistic practice involves developing new media works, installations and websites with a background in filmmaking and education. I studied through the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane. other[wize] celebrates the lives of Yugambeh family members that were moved from their traditional home-lands to work on pastoral properties in the Gulf of Carpentaria and explores non-linear documentary work as an art form. The project highlights an era of late 1800′s/early 1900′s colonial Australia and explores the prickly issues of Native Policing, dispossession, displacement, massacres and survival. Nine stories are told through the use of family photographs and text, including Yugambeh language and historical documents, and also, contemporary exploration of country through video, audio and digital photography, including projections, a CD-Rom, prints and installation.

My personal commitment to giving back to the community includes founding cyberTribe – an online art gallery that features the works of Indigenous Artists internationally. With a regular program of exhibitions, both online and other galleries, it fills a much needed space for appreciation of work by those Aboriginal artists labeled “Urban” because they are creating conceptual / new media / contemporary artwork, commenting on individual and collective experience.

image: Jenny Fraser, detail from ‘other[wize]’, Interactive CDRom, 2005.

We need to address enduring questions of Indigenous culture in Australia, those to do with survival, representation, control and documentation, but on our terms. It needs to be asserted that Indigenous art, culture and politics are inter-dependent and cannot be separated. The arts is one of few avenues in Australian society where Aboriginal people are allowed a voice and fortunately this is driven by the outside international art market influence. In some ways, showing art is a direct line to the outside and the messages do get out. Aboriginal Artists have a responsibility to tell it how it is.

The production areas defined as ‘New Media Arts’ have allowed the space and recognition for self-determined, culturally specific and diverse sources of creativity, exchange and community building. These will be crucial to the ongoing maintenance of Aboriginal New Media Arts practices. It would be music to our ears if this was recognized by the mainstream Australian arts world, but it is not entirely necessary.

LINKS: (click to follow)
cyberTribe
r e a
Jenny Fraser
other[wize]
Jason Davidson

* the term Blak was developed by Artist Destiny Deacon as a part of a symbolic but potent strategy of reclaiming colonialist language to create means of self-definition and expression.

Time – Space Compression in Cyberspace Art, by Avi Rosen


Kazimir Malevich, “Black Square” (1923).

Time – Space Compression in Cyberspace Art, by Avi Rosen
Faculty of the Arts, the Art History department, Tel Aviv University
avi@siglab.technion.ac.il

The term “time – space compression” was coined by David Harvey [1] in his book, “The Condition of Postmodernity” (1989). It refers to speed-up in the pace of life, while abolishing traditional spatial barriers.

The industrial revolution introduced the railroad and the telegraph line, paving the way for future changes in communications. It brought about the perceptual changes needed in early twentieth-century culture for the rise of the new media that captured communications: photography, cinema, radio and the telephone. The new “high-speed” technologies were the origins of the modern “annihilation of space and time” upon which nineteenth and twentieth-century perceptions of the real world depend. The train and railway system caused distortion in the traditional perspective and sight. This foreshortening of time and space, started by the train’s speed, caused display in immediate succession of panoramas and objects that in their original spatiality belonged to separate realms.
The accelerated viewer was able to perceive the discrete, as it rolls past the coach window indiscriminately; it was the beginning of the synthetic glance philosophy. J.M.W. Turner was one of the first artists implementing the time-space compression aspects. In ”Rain, Steam, and Speed The Great Western Railway” (1844) Oil painting, he confronted a “slow” ploughman in the field, with a high speed locomotive engine diagonally crossing while causing a whirlpool to the pastoral landscape.

J.M.W. Turner ”Rain, Steam, and Speed The Great Western Railway” (1844)
From: Wikimedia Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Rain_Steam_and_Speed_the_Great_Western_Railway.jpg

The overall impression is of compression and distortion caused by the Doppler Effect, as perceived by the artist positioned relative to the speeding locomotive, or on a ship’s mast at stormy sea, as Turner used to do for close experience of speed and nature forces. This phenomenon of nonlinear time and space sensation, together with industrial mass reproduction is a basis to the photographic and filmic vision and notion of montage, as well to the non linear geometry implemented by Impressionists like Édouard Manet in “Luncheon on the Grass” (1863). The male figures are dressed in Charles Baudelaire’s flâneur fashion. The background woman who wades in a stream is too large in comparison with the figures in the foreground; she seems to float. The overall impression is lack of depth, reinforced by the use of broad “photographic” light eliminating “natural“ shadows.
The mobile accelerated eye and consciousness that swiftly jumps from point to point will tend to focus on random details or to accumulate empathetic impressions of tactile sensations. Similar nonlinear multifocal techniques were implemented by Cubists such as Picasso, and Futurists such as Giacomo Balla who created a visual analysis of objects made simultaneously from different spatiotemporal points of view. The artist’s acceleration and omnipresence transformed the process of artistic creation to an almost religious significance because it involves restructuring of novel time and space, a penetration into reality itself.

The Supermatist Kazimir Malevich placed his “Black Square” (1923) canvas in the traditional position of a holy icon in Russian homes. The black square symbolized the death of traditional art and nature, deriving from Einstein’s new relativity theory, speed of transportation and means of communication. The implementation of mass production ready-mades like wallpaper or newspaper cuttings into art compositions, potentially enabled a wide consumption and presence of fine art.

Kazimir Malevich, “Black Square” (1923). (Image at the top) From: Wikimedia Commons
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Malevich.black-square.jpg

Artistic omnipresence caused by the compression of time- space leads to dramatic change in artistic conventions such as Walter Benjamin’s “aura”. Mass production of objects, instant spread and accessibility to all, made every myth instantly realizable. The telephone, photography, movies and even traditional painting inspired by the new technology cluster the most disparate data and images into one compressed new reality of annihilated in-between spaces, and finds its highest expression at the viewer- accelerated consciousness. When time-space is no longer experienced in Euclidian manner, the gap between original and reproduction vanishes, as everything rolls past the train’s coach window randomly. At the turn of the twentieth century Paul Valery predicted:

“Just as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our need in response to a minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign.” [2].

This compression effect was intensified during the twentieth century by the electronic media technology. Marshall McLuhan described in “Understanding Media” (1964) the global compression by communication reality to shape a “global village”:

“After three thousand years of explosion, by means of fragmentary and mechanical technologies, the Western world is imploding. During the mechanical ages we had extended our bodies in space. Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned. Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man – the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves by the various media.” (p. 19-20).

Pop Culture and Pop Art are reflections of the global spatiotemporal compression. Andy Warhol addressed in his art typical mass-produced commodities: soups, bottles of Coca Cola, and shoes together with icons of common consciousness that flood the media channels such as : the electric chair, Marilyn Monroe, Golda Meir, dollar bills, and more. Madonna’s, Jeff Koons’s and Warhol’s lifestyle and art, promoted them as products of the global media and as celebrities. Art became an intangible object of information and symbols consumed globally by “one-dimensional” subjects of “one-dimensional” global culture. The global culture consumption act is performed at commercial centers such as malls, amusement parks and air terminals linked to the global network of production, data and knowledge. The global net lifestyle is imperative to grow new organs, to expand the human sensorium and body to some new, as yet unimaginable, and perhaps ultimately impossible, dimensions (Jameson). The reflections of the traditional three-dimensional global space are converted to electronic digital information, displayed in real time on flat television and computer screens at home, control rooms, and huge outdoor electronic displays, in the style of New York’s Times Square, or Piccadilly Circus in London. Our vision, accelerated to the finite speed of light, guided by our consciousness, controls the happenings of the real world via electronic equipment, through making an instant “short circuit” between action and reaction. The three-dimensional linear physical world, experienced by the railway passenger, became an infinitely thin world of non-Euclidian electronic information, examined by infinitely attenuated TV viewer linked to TV networks of “digital highway”. Recent physical theories assert that the three-dimensional universe is nothing but a membrane in multidimensional space. The flat TV and computer displays, together with our retina and brain, are tiny segments of this torus-like cosmic topology.

Nam June Paik made the video “Buddha” (1976-78), that is a sculpture of Buddha sitting in a posture of meditation opposite a closed-circuit television image of him. The video creates endless body reflections by means of speed-of-light technology, and unites the TV image with the physical body. In his work “Buddha Reincarnated” (1994), Paik upgraded the earlier work with Buddha meditating opposite a computer screen.

Nam June Paik, “Buddha Reincarnated” (1994).
From: http://thebuddhistblog.blogspot.com/2007_09_01_archive.html

The meditation does not take place through a direct observation but through the electronic interface of a telephone, computer and modem. Buddha’s body is intertwined with electronic components that symbolize his incarnation to a cyborg that catches his compressed surroundings by means of his super-positioned electronic senses. The physical world and our bodies have undergone transformation and compression into data distributed in cyberspace. The span of human arms and consciousness is greatly expanded by means of electromagnetic waves of limitless transmission range. In 1900 Karl Schwarzschild described an infinite space that can be partitioned into cubes each containing an exact identical copy of our universe, containing peculiar connection properties so that if we leave any one cube through a side, then we immediately reenter it through the opposite side. This is actually the experience while watching a TV program or playing video or computer games.

The cyberspace surfer immersed in a Virtual Reality (VR) data sphere is equipped with VR headset including display, earphones, microphone, data suit and data gloves that connect him via computer to net hubs. His sensation is similar to the Scanning Electron Microscope operator who alters the tested matter by his sight and cognition. The surfer navigates within the electronic hyper-data that change while surfing. The surfer becomes an artist creating worlds and events, thanks to the responsive data sphere. The net surfer is anonymous, veiled by computer screen and headset hiding his identity, ethnic origin, age, and other characteristics that are no longer significant in cyberspace. His mind and senses are wholly isolated from the material world by means of electronic equipment; the physical environment has lost its past meaning. He remains alone; the other subjects, which accompanied him in the real world, become avatars. There is nobody besides himself; everything is data.

Jean Baudrillad argued that once one has passed beyond this point of detachment from the real, the process becomes irreversible [3]. We will no longer be able to find the objects and events that existed before the cyber immersion. We will not be able to find the history that had been before cyberspace. The original essence of art, the original concept of history have disappeared, all now is part of a real-time holistic data sphere inseparable from its models of perfection and simulation. The cyberspace compressed the time and space to a short circuit hyper-reality.

Cyberspace is more real than everyday life; computer games are more fascinating and alluring than the daily activities of school, work, sports or politics, and hyper-real theme parks like Disney World and VR environments are more attractive than actual geographical sites. The hyper-real symbolizes the death of the real, and the rebirth of holistic reality resurrected within a system of digital data. History, sociology, philosophy and art will never again be as before this point. We will no longer be able to know, ever, what art had been before it compressed itself in cyberspace. We will never again know what history had been before its aggregation in ultimate “MemEx”, the technical perfection of real-time holistic data memory.

The permanent interconnection between both virtual and empiric worlds introduces a new way of being and new ontological philosophy. Karl Popper’s theory of the three worlds is dramatically altered. Traditionally the classic world 3 of hypotheses can never influence directly the empirical world 1 of physical “objects” and vice versa. To achieve this, the mediation of subjective reality, human thoughts, feelings etc. of world 2 is necessary. Cyberspace alters that fact. For example, a surfer may use an on-line internet application that controls and displays a mutation of DNA material or integrated circuits embedded in biological cells. A theory of the function of these circuits finds the way to world 3. Sensors (world 1) transmit feedback data from the electro-biological cells. While the cyberspace is functioning, there is a real-time direct feedback of world 1, world 3 and world 2 (the surfer). The electro-biological cells are now part of surfer’s extended body and his nervous system. Within interconnected cyberspace, world 3 directly affects world 1, and world 2. Popper’s original discrete, linear relation of world 1, 2 and 3 becomes holistic real-time hyper-sphere. This ontological shift affects artistic quantities and qualities which originally defined the artistic object. Art work (world 1) can be controlled and altered by gadgets and real-time predictive software (world 3) causing art consumers to decide and act in the creative scene (world 2). These acts create a closed loop ‘duree’ of art, interconnecting the three worlds. The cyberspace can be comprehended as a container of Platonic ideas that symbolizes the Platonic triangles and tables that emerge from mathematical algorithms. The data can be manipulated, altered and copied by the demiurge (the surfer).

Eduardo Kac’s installation “Teleporting an Unknown State” (1994-2003) creates an experience of the cyberspace as a holistic life-supporting system. In a dark room, a pedestal with earth serves as a nursery for a single plant seed. Through a video projector suspended above and facing the pedestal, remote surfers transmit light via the Internet to enable the seed to photosynthesize and grow in the dark environment. Another piece by Kac “Genesis” (1998/99), is a transgenic art installation that explores the network relationship between technology, society, ethics, biology and myths. An “artist’s synthetic gene” was fabricated.

Eduardo Kac, “Genesis” (1998/99).
From: http://www.ekac.org/geninfo2.html

The gene contained a Morse- encoded verse from the biblical Book of Genesis. The verse reads: “Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” This verse implies humanity’s domination over nature. Morse code represents the dawn of the information age – the genesis of global time – space compression. The Genesis gene was incorporated into bacteria, which were shown in the gallery. Web surfers could control ultraviolet illumination in the gallery, causing biological mutations in the bacteria containing the Genesis verse. After successive manipulations, the DNA was decoded into Morse code, and into mutated verse in English. This art piece suggests a new holistic interactive data sphere where the ability to change the verse is a reciprocal symbolic gesture.

The cyberspace signals Roland Barthes’ “death of the author”, the disappearance of God and his hypostases—reason, science and law, while witnessing a fuzzy logic determination in holistic, time-space compressed cyberspace. Meaning and knowledge are not constant inherited values; rather, they gain new ‘duree’ of meaning while we are immersed in real-time in the data hyper-sphere.

The Cyberspace data sphere is an extended dimension (hyperbolic) of the global geography and the physical body, experienced by the surfer, cyber-flâneur. The computer is a suitable metaphoric vehicle for consuming electronically compressed cyber time-space. The cyber-flâneur passes through compressed data space-time populated with avatars and virtual objects. As Charles Baudelaire’s nineteenth century flâneur was a product of industrialization and modernity, a spectator of modern life in the rising urban sprawl, he is an upgraded product of New Media; the cyber- flâneur, an avatar – spectator of virtual data structures. He is an entity whose aim is to disappear in the time space of the digital city – a viewer who is everywhere and nowhere (superposition state) in possession of his anonymity. He is the one who experiences the fuzzy ontology of cyberspace (cyber-aura), an immediate time space where, as Paul Virilio argued “the moment of departure is compressed to that of arrival”. The flâneur’s ‘duree’ is an impression of endless movement captured by passing through the social space of modernity, and projected on his mind. Super positioned by electronic gadgets, anonymous cyber-flâneur motionlessly witnessing digital data bases through their natural propensity for omni spatiotemporal presence within the boundaries of cyberspace.

The evolution from being an artist-Flâneur in a slow world to a cyber Flâneur is a daily occurrence for most of us. For example, experiencing a series of paintings along the platform wall in a London Underground station, from a stationary train, has its banal outcome. The train passenger looking out of the window notices a single discrete frame of the series, and analyzes it according to traditional fixed semiotics. When the accelerating train leaves the platform, the series of frames advances creating a ‘duree’ of a filmstrip with a varied meaning. The impact of the Doppler Effect is noticed as in Turner’s paintings. While the passenger looks at his cellular phone display, or his Palm held computer, his sight and mind quantum jumps to a global superposition, via the singularity of net hubs.
The speed of the train leaving the platform released the passenger from the attraction of the old, slow discrete world dominated by a dichotomy between objects and subjects. The process of acceleration of the subject’s consciousness increased through radio and television broadcasts, nowadays reached its peak at cyberspace where it propagates at the finite speed of light. This fact led to a dramatic turning-point of the disappearance of the traditional author, artistic discrete object, and art consumer, and the birth of the cyber-aura witnessed by the cyber-flâneur. The meaning of cyber art and its cyber-aura according to traditional iconological and iconographical tools turned irrelevant. It is now valued according to a system of fuzzy logic, dealing with the concept of partial truth with values ranging between “completely true” and “completely false”. The cyber-flâneur embedded with digital gadgets can render the chaotic data of cyberspace meaningful, from traditional to a holistic point of view, while carrying out electronic reading mediated the by the central hub. That ability is similar to the physical phenomenon of the Bose-Einstein condensate of atoms of a substance uniting, at near-absolute zero temperature, to a unique “super atom” that sustains super-fluidity and acts in symbiotic harmony. The passenger/surfer is witnessing cyberspace as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s “noosphere”, the “sphere of human thought” as it grows towards a greater integration and unification, culminating in the Omega Point- the maximum level of complexity and consciousness to which the universe seems to be evolving. [4].

The cyberspace demonstrates Heidegger’s “thrownness”, and Dasein being, when one always finds oneself already in a certain spiritual and material, historically conditioned environment (data-sphere), in the extended world, in which the space and time of possibilities is always unlimited. The cyber data noosphere is the domain of ephemeral8′s “Bits of My Life” (BML 2008) video blog –“Impressions of a data Flâneur”. Ephemeral8 systematically employs his cell phone, to create a video documentation “backup” of his daily life occurrences.

Ephemeral8, “Bits of My Life” (BML 2008).
From: http://www.youtube.com/ephemeral8

BML is his eternal “digital mummy” located in cyberspace superposition, ready and available for use by present and future generations. The videos are mostly as is, unedited, and directly uploaded from his cell phone to YouTube.com site. The Bits are the “meme” for further construction/deconstruction of net audiovisual mutual memory sequences consumed by other cyber-flâneurs. Google, YouTube and its partners become a giant hub, dominating cyber-culture, global networked economy, surfers’ language and behavior. The Cyberspace is an extension of ephemeral8′s foot, eye skin and nervous system positioned on torus-like topology. The hyper-sphere is the stage for ephemeral8′s “Digital Skin 2” video bricolage of his endless cyber voyages, embedding digital personal data as an extra data layer of Google Earth and Sky. His body and mind extension are part of holistic terrestrial and cosmic digital data strips produced the satellites and space telescopes. The three-dimensional universe contains discrete objects and subjects, imploded to an Orbifold, uniting cyberspace, physical space and cognitive space as digital data displayed on the computer monitor. The orbifold topology drastically transformed the traveling experience. Cyber Flâneur’s superposition existence positions him in no time on each location on the torus envelope. “Digital skin” is a cosmic virtual extension of Marcel Duchamp’s unfinished “Big Glass” piece, described in the videos’ sound track by Duchamp’s own voice, digitally compressed. The departure and arrival of locations on the art piece are compressed to a singularity.

The unification of Cyber Flâneur and cyber data sphere is the subject of an interactive network piece, “1 year performance video” (2004), by M. River & T. Whid. A live video stream of the two artists reveals their acts in two isolated cells. Every surfer entering the site witnesses the two artists according to his local time; for example, if the entrance to the site is in the morning hours the surfer will witness typical morning activities such as eating breakfast, exercising, reading the newspaper etc. Surfing late at night, will reveal the couple while sleeping.

M. River & T. Whid, “1 year performance video” (2004).
From: http://turbulence.org/Works/1year/index.php

The network installation transfers the burden of closed cells detention from the artists to the surfer. The performance will be completed when the surfer finishes one year of accumulated participation, then he will gain a digital copy of the piece’s data base. The surfers do not know definitely whether the video stream is live, or recorded, or if the artists are real people or avatars. The server control program chooses the footage to be shown, according to the time of entrance, the number and frequency of previous transitions, and the duration of each video clip. The control ability designates the server computer, the network and the program as powerful Artificial Intelligence art creators, exactly like the two artists. The two cells containing the artists are identical in size, painted white, and lighted by neon. Even the contents of the rooms are identical: a wooden bed, clothes hangers, a shelf, chair, table, thermos for drinks, towel, and toiletries. The two rooms look as though they have a common virtual wall. There is an option for opening, in parallel, a number of windows of the work, and follow the artists in different situations at the same time. As the local time of the surfer’s computer changes, it thus affects the two artists’ activities, converting the surfer from passive spectator to an active director of the happenings on the screen. The surfer is situated in the center of the electronic Panopticon, while the computer screen serves as a peep-hole for the global data institution. The same is true for the two artists while using their laptops in their cells. The mind and gaze of the surfer activates the two artists, and vice versa. Without the actions and gaze of the surfers, the piece will not be realized. The observers and the observed become bits of data in hyperspace, condensing its bits to a super-atom, or holistic conscious entity.

In conclusion, throughout art history since the industrial revolution, artists have tried to perform time – space compression by means of their art. The artistic creation reveals the powers at work in the universe, and enables art consumers to be united. For that purpose artists used new philosophical ideas and accelerating technologies to extend their body and consciousness to a cosmic span.
The cyberspace epoch fulfilled this impulse by turning attention away from physical body extension, toward virtual structures of global digital data. In cyberspace artist and each surfer are privileged to transform their mind and physical body to cyber superposition. This revolution led to a radical change in the definition of artist, art object and art consumer. Reality has again become, as in the distant past, a mixture of the soul, dream, trance, and myth, together with the material tangibility of daily existence. The cyclic concept of time-space that dominated prehistoric culture, and were exchanged for logical, linear, Western concepts, returned to its mythological starting point. All are now particles of “pure artistic” sphere, gathering at the singularity of holistic consciousness in cyberspace hubs, the eternal habitat of art from now on.
————–

[1] Harvey, David (1989). The Condition of Postmodernity. Blackwell, Mass.
[2] Paul, Valery (1991). “Pieces sur l’art, Paris conquete de l’ubiquite” in Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. Hapoalim publishing Tel Aviv.
[3] Baudrillard, Jean (1992). “Pataphysics of Year 2000″. Originally published in French as part of Jean Baudrillard, L’Illusion de la fin: ou La greve des evenements, Galilee: Paris, 1992. Translated Charles Dudas, York University, Canada. http://www.egs.edu/faculty/baudrillard/baudrillard-pataphysics-of-year-2000.html (31.1.2007).
[4] Pierre, Teilhard de Chardin (2005). The Phenomenon of Man. Nimrod publishing. Tel Aviv.

TEXT: NeMe, Immersive Event Time by Jeremy Hight

This text was previously published on NeMe.org on August 20, 2008. It is republished here with permission of the author.

Time is plastic. Our linear measure is man made for convenience. The oversimplification of minutes, hours, days is functional in a base utilitarian sense, yes, but fails to account for point of entry, context, point of view, the density of what is occurring in time and how it is thus experienced. Time is geometric; it also has the experiential component and this has height, width, variation and forms from point of view and processes differently with each individual. An event in time thus is not only to be measured in its variable detail, but also of its place in time. This is not a time-line.

An event in time is a collection of many smaller moments coalesced into measure. It is composed of factors, facts, contexts, scope, details and duration. An event begins, an event ends, but its true measure is not that simple, nor should it be; time is not to be caught and cleaned on a hook like a fish, nor is an event in time just a sequence of moments with a beginning and end. It is more akin to a cumulus, that puff of cotton cloud of so many paintings and postcards, for it also is something of a single form, yes, but much more.

Event time as parts to the whole

immersive event timeA cumulus has an average life span of 15 minutes. It is actually composed of several smaller sections rising and falling, coalescing or evaporating along its lifespan. The cloud is in segments that make the whole and within those segments are smaller segments and components the further in you look and measure. Such is time. There also are contradictions and variations in that cloud that are not visible such as air currents, shear, packets of heating from the earth up in their life spans and most immediately important, there are smaller forms arising along its surface, hence the cauliflower like appearance. Such also is time.

The smaller forms along the surface of the cloud are along its ridges in smaller and variable forms that rise and fall in complex patterns. This is a strong analog to a true measure of an event in time and its components to the whole and various rises and falls at once.

Event time and topography

immersive event timeAnother interesting comparison of an event in time is to a mountain range and its variable shapes, but also its topography. A mountain range has various elevations but also has patterns of individual ridge and crests that are along the surface. The mountain can be placed on a map and seen at a distance as a whole, but it also is shaped by and can be measured by its topography or even deeper as the algorithmic patterns within its shapes and variant elevations (data variations in a whole).

Multiple data streams

As an example there is a topography or cloud-like shape to the measure of a day in the stock market with a stock over time. Several stocks over time will rise and fall at different rates and highs and lows over that same day and yet each can be seen as a pattern in a larger whole, hence an event in time is composed of components and they shift in time and it has a shape.

The general and overall shape or form is the overview; the smaller components are divided in time across that day and the small ridge pulses along the line are what form along the measure in individual spikes and pulses along the way. This commonality thus clearly can be seen in other forms of measure in nature and data as well and is indicative of a need for a different sort of model and sense of measure to better calibrate and utilize this form and flux.

An event in time is that cumulus, it is that mountain range, it is not a time line or chart. It is geometric by its very nature and is definitely not flat. It is a whole, it is segments, it is individual rises and falls of several parts at once at different rates and intervals.

Why not measure it as such?

Time and event as geometric and potentially visceral in measure and model

What if a time line could be something that was full of information not just points and markers, and that one could see this visually in the depth of the time line forming a geometric shape that changed as one moved through the info and grew or shrank in correlation to what happened at that point in time and could cast a sort of shadow or figure over the viewer? The weight of war could become a shadow and the growth became undeniable as one saw the rising death toll like its numbers and time were not only made viscerally immediate and full of triggered layered experiences but the weight of the measure itself could be felt? the passage of time into turned out to be a deeper immersion into war and some passive line or numbers but the moments and things lost or destroyed were brought into immediate experience along with the weight of what was building in time’s progression, sinking the viewer in.

The calibration of the war dead and such data is only a number; it is clinical, muted, clipped of the deeper emotions, of the visceral. A number is a calibration, a blunt icy measure in the face of what may be being measured. Imagine moving through a space and seeing a shadow being cast ever deeper on you as a shape towers ever higher above? What if this is the number of dead in a week of a war? The weight is almost tangible with the growing, looming number rising ever higher in time. This is also geometric and is not a figure isolated or a simple time line. An event can be felt in its measure in a way imbued with a sense of humanity, or crisis, or urgency for attention in this new model. Therefore, time transforms into a three dimensional and multi-faceted experience.

The experiential component: verticality of data and time

immersive event timeWhat if the information is instead data in a span of time but also conveys what is experienced in time and space and that can alter as one moves and chooses? A verticality of time could be measured, in a sense, in its depth and one could experience the ebb, rise and dissipations or spasms of a period or event in time: its turbulence, its squalls of activity, of what is usually laid out horizontally like a map; one walks through a space but also a time-line of sorts that could correlate to the space…..

A true “time line” would be one that is composed of the various aspects and components of an event in time, and mapped as to how they rose and fell at varying rates within the scope or shape of the event itself in terms of length. The example earlier of stocks in a day is a good starting point. What would be the shape of the days events with each stock colored and coded from beginning of the day to the end? Wouldn’t it be a topography of varying rises and falls like the different hilltops within a specific mountain range? More importantly, wouldn’t the same be true of a week in the war in Iraq or in a historic event?

In a sense, event time is convective. A shape of the information within an event in time is quite layered and is about several shifts and changes in information at any moment as well creating the sense of accumulation(and thus perspective both literally and in interpretation) over time. A different measure is possible and it can incorporate these factors and their rich ore of possibility.

From globe to spatial intervention: Immersive Time

immersive event timeImagine a 3d interactive globe that you can access. On the globe are hot spot markers that appear as dots around the world. You zoom in to one and by powers of ten type zoom come to a map of a section of a city.

On that map are two 3d sort of worm shapes. You click on one and have the option of either seeing an on-screen ( computer, phone or pda) play button that runs an intro screen with a set map icons explaining what factors are being looked at in the event mapped. In this option you click play and from a first person perspective or a zoom out to the sides or above an event in time unfolds as a journey through a 3d space (within the shape) with time demarcations passing as the walls and variant ceiling forms rising and falling in variant streams as the event runs as a visualization, not just of its key details, but of its shape in time.

An event to be experienced in viewing can be coded so each portion is clearly understood as a singular entity as well as a key part of the whole. This take on the code of a map and its icons and makes it immersive as well as interactive and connected to deeper levels of information, analysis and experiential recall or replay in the 3d model. There also can be embedded bundles of more straightforward video, audio or text of footnoted/referenced material as well as documentation of what occurred within that portion of the event and its larger timeline. This can allow a full multimedia experience to be utilized as enhancing the data model if desired.

In this new model, a shape on a map zoomed in from the globe is the ultimate shape of the data of the event in terms of its scope, breadth, sections, selected aspects/variables and how they varied in time. This is not a timeline. The model allows analysis and experience of the rises and falls and shifts that is far beyond just data and its cold measure. Immersive Event Time is a new method that allows a greater depth of information, analysis and measure to emerge in a modeling of an event in time that also confronts the literal shape of an event in time and its interior complexities. It also can be a new method of global communication and education as the map and globe can be the simple base for this new layer of analysis and intervention as more projects emerge. Historians can create 3d interactive models of and from their research, commentaries and dissent can be made of specific events in their detail and the places where they took place in tandem. The globe and map thus becomes a platform, a network and is thus radically recontextualized from its semiotics of pure measure but also exclusion and tension into a purely utilitarian space for global communication and interventions.

Range of possible works and their contextualizations of space and data

Works can be placed on the specific area of the event and in fact this looks to be the norm or majority as it is a spatial connection to an event and commentary or record, but some works may be laid out as such to be placed in intentional juxtaposition like Paula Levine’s work overlaying Baghdad on San Francisco. This could make a person jarred both by the overlay of it suddenly in the familiar comfort zone of “home” but also by seeing the tragic details come to life in sound, narratives and/or images and seeing and experiencing a rise or spike in violence and death as one moves through a time line of the war and to see and feel the heightening morass as through growing skyward around one as they walk through the time line of its events. Another work completed on this software may be more straightforward historical analysis from the various branches of historical research completed either by an author completing a body of work, or by a professor and students in various fields.

Works also can be political interventions, commentaries and actions to raise awareness of what took place on a location in time that otherwise may be distorted, downplayed, spun against or ignored. This also creates an even deeper model possible of global interaction in terms of working with shared models and research on a global platform (literally) and of dissent finding community world wide and voice as the basic software will be free to download and the model will run on the net and other platforms.

Connection of each form to Locative Media

The key commonality that ties these concepts even in the non specifically locative visualizations (on-line) tightly back to locative media even in the non GPS run models of the visualization is that all will be clear spatial interactions and commentaries. The on-line map with a visualization connected to a specific space still relates to many key concepts of locative media: spatial augmentation, location specific data, navigation of data tied to a specific space. The concept of “timeline” is now to be not only moved into deeper nuance and interconnection of multiple facets of an event, but also into its connection to place. A thing to consider in a more abstract sense is that both time and mapping coordinates are man made grid systems created for measure, thus both are quite similar in the sense of being overlays and systems.

The mapped/gridded space is to be a platform for its own analysis, deconstruction, contextualizations and voice(s) in this mode. The map will be only a utilitarian base for the layer of interactions and models above which deflates its uglier semiotics and places an interactive space of commentary and deeper analysis above.

Software and web 2.0 app

The user can select what types of data and parts of the whole event to measure in a time span as well as to what type of algorithms they would like from Non-Euclidian Geometry and a visualization that will generate out from data mathematically into form and will shift with point of view/entry as Cartesian points on a grid to a subtler mode for those less mathematically inclined that takes input into individual portions along a time space by width and height from scope and spikes and falls in the measures of what took place in its parts.

The collected work of a historian or group of historians can now be placed in the space that the event took place in and in an interactive visualization that not only allows a viewer to “read” it as a multifaceted entity of many parts and flows, but also as an entity in time to return to for multiple visits with each revealing more information. The same can be for the work of artists and/or political commentary or dissent.

Analogies for the interior space of an event in time as immersive experience

The inner space of an event in time in measure can be compared to that of being inside a giant whale with the ribs as time and data as it’s breathing, shifting skin. Time in a sense is like the ribs as there are points separated by gaps that make the larger shape with a space between and a skin is overlaid (be it time as a system or mapping as a system ) over these points or coordinates of measure. Like the fanciful old tales of people moving within giant whales, the space of an event in time can be a place to move within to see its parts and their relation to the whole as a sort of “living “ entity.

Another metaphor can be of a cave with the walls made of time blending to a ceiling that flows above like different lava flows winding serpentine from the beginning to end in variant curls and bends. One navigates through the cave space in the sense of immersion within a shape or form with edges or walls of varying shape and distance apart and with a ceiling above that also varies in shapes and height from the observer. The ceiling in this case can be static or, more interestingly, can flow with animation along the shapes and forms of each core element measured in the event (in the war example, one section of data streaming above can be blue and be of money spent, a red one arcing higher and higher then leveling to rise again can be injured while a darker colored sharp rising form above can be the casualties).

The viewer can select their p.o.v from within the space. One can (like a first person video game interface) select a first person view from within the space and move along inside of it past the time demarcations of sections of what occurred, shift to a view of their avatar in the space in some forms and can have the option to move outside to view the overall shape of the event measurement and then move back in again for deeper comparison of overall to specific in terms of information and components of what took place. This will be optimal for user interactivity and mobility enhancing a deeper analysis of the parts to the whole as well as the details and form of an event in time in different contexts both spatially with shifting p.o.v and contextually in the different scalings of the data (again like the cloud or mountain range in its parts to the whole).

Locative Media and Augmented Reality Mode: the emergence of inter-linked locative media or LM as global interactions

This leads to a second type of visualization mode. Using GPS and augmented reality one can journey through the data as an active physical space with live geo-location. Individual AR/LM projects can stand alone but also be part of a global network of spatial interactions thus linking into a larger community as well, creating a system of discourse in new ways. Over time, areas may be dotted with multiple works of different scope, context and from different people thus allowing the landscape and cities both a chance to be “read” in multiple voices as well as multiple sections. This is fascinating and needed.

Over time there also may emerge a global sense of AR and LM projects being linked and not so disparate. Events world wide may be interpreted and placed spatially along with spatial analysis and interactions into a larger gestalt of a dialect or dialects of interpretation,augmentation,agitation and questioning the static. This also is very exciting and needed.

The globe is actually in essence a social network as the interventions will be placed in a communal interface to experience from all parts of the world. This creates the exciting possibility of inter-linked locative media and locative media as a global communication and linkage as opposed to individual projects isolated as is the norm. The concept of immersive event time time visualizations being on an interactive globe that has dots marking each work if desired by those who created them that can zoom into specific maps and works also allows an interlink of works into a dialog and dialect within both history, critical theory,locative media and augmented reality, education and educational visualizations and beyond.

Event Time visualization first game interactivity

immersive event time A third and very interesting visualization mode takes the viewer through the event form on-screen as would a first person shooter game with the shape and visualization static. This freedom of movement will allow the person or groups of people logging in from different parts of the world to communicate with each other within the visualization in a more methodical study all the while communicating through text or audio like World of Warcraft or Second Life social space, but within a moment and time and its details. Classes can be held as though within the ribs of a great dinosaur or whale but actually within the space of time and information of what is being studied in class in a fully immersive visualization space. Artists can meet from different countries within a work to discuss it or experience it together and to discuss it. The heights and widths will still vary and there still can be embedded texts, audio and video as well as icons like map icons to explain what each variable is that was measured by the creator or creators of the work/space.

Realistic event visualization immersion mode

Another fascinating possible variation of this form is a realistic visualization of a historic event that replays in its time frame as a realistic scene with embedded demarcations of time intervals/points in time. In this mode viewers can appear and move through the visualization to study it from different points of view, places along its path and even possibly from the documented points of view of persons involved based on different accounts to better study the details and even discrepancies within the event as recorded to attempt to research more information by comparison.

An event can recur in its duration in a graphic visualization with time demarcations along its path not only in space but in time elapsed. One could move within a visualization of things wildly varied, ranging from the fall of the Berlin wall with the ability to replay it from different perspectives and from the western or eastern side to the much debated images and time-line captured in the famed Zapruder film to study the various theories and alternate interpretations of history as to who exactly killed JFK. A larger scale visualization could be of a portion of the freedom march during the civil rights movement with different commentary by those who were there based on who you walk beside within it.

In one version of this mode there can be multiple people moving through the visualization at once as a community space for research or even for classes to meet and discuss the event and information. This version has many applications in terms of tandem research, a global community interaction within a visualization of an event but within its recreation as well as timeline.

Another version of this mode can be only a single visitor/participant that has the added options of slowing the event visualization down and even pausing or rewinding while in the space to review key points. In this mode the community aspect is traded for a greater range of variability and user options in terms of not just moving through the simulation, but in controlling its replay to better study more subtle details.

In this mode, the visualization of an event in time and its elements becomes an active place as though an individual or community space on-line, but as a place to analyze, study or experience a spatial intervention, an event in history and to experience another’s work and research simultaneously. This is a potentially fascinating space and hybrid with a myriad of potentials for moving Second Life type spaces into active applications of artistic, historical or political value or even other fields and disciplines. It also can be an interesting study tool as well as mode of global communication and dialog.

End Notes

The need is clear for a more layered and integrated measure of the information of an event in time that moves beyond the limitations of a time-line and takes advantage of the rich possibilities in immersive visualizations, augmented reality,locative media and even video game dynamics of movement,shifting perspective options and interactivity in a space. The applications for historians, artists, political activists and beyond are numerous and deeply prescient. A global model interface that moves to local is an opportunity to introduce a true global reach to data visualizations, locative media and augmented reality as well as interconnectivity of these otherwise disparate to even isolated in a sense projects and a greater collaboration among these practices into a new dialect of communication, analysis and discourse.

This is a time when access to layered information and a communication unfiltered by corporate or governmental filters is urgently needed History needs distillation and dissemination: voice,audience, access, discussion. Events need the same and places are increasingly to be “read” but now in an integration of parts into a dialect along the earth and of its places, events and time.

Credits

* Jeremy Hight is a locative media/new media artist and a writer. He is credited with inventing locative spatial narrative in the first locative narrative project 34 north 118 west. His essay Narrative Archaeology was recently named one of the 4 primary texts in locative media. A retrospective look at his work and a look at “reading” the landscape is in volume 14 issue 08 of Leonardo. He has published over 20 theoretical essays, is co-editing a special issue of LEA (leonardo online) on immersive visualization with Jack Ox and Erik Champion, has exhibited work in festivals and museums internationally.
*

INTERVIEW: Golan Levin

This interview is republished in collaboration with Turbulence.org. It was released in Networked Music Review on 01/31/08. Only the text is reproduced here. To access audio and video as well as proper links related to this interview, please go to Networked Music Review.

Golan Levin is an artist/engineer interested in the exploration of new modes of reactive expression. His work focuses on the design of systems for the creation, manipulation and performance of simultaneous image and sound, as part of a more general inquiry into formal languages of interactivity, and of nonverbal communications protocols in cybernetic systems. Through performances, digital artifacts, and virtual environments, Levin applies creative twists to digital technologies that highlight our relationship with machines, make visible our ways of interacting with each other, and explore the intersection of abstract communication and interactivity. Presently he is Associate Professor of Electronic Art at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh.

The following interview by Peter Traub focuses on the well-known 2001 work, Dialtones (A Telesymphony), a concert performed through the choreographed dialing and ringing of the audience’s own mobile phones, in which Levin collaborated with Gregory Shakar, Scott Gibbons, Yasmin Sohrawardy, Joris Gruber, Erich Semlak, Gunther Schmidl, and Joerg Lehner. Levin’s more recent work is primarily in the area of installations using computer vision and robotics (e.g. see this YouTube video), and unrelated to Dialtones. None-the-less, we felt this was an interesting interview and dealt with issues that are still relevant to new forms of interaction with music and sound, and raises such questions as: is this music or does it occur in the place of music?

Peter Traub: In reading some of your previous interviews, you stated that you didn’t really think of Dialtones as a musical work, but rather as a performance piece. In what way do you think the difference in thinking about the piece affected your compositional choices?

Golan Levin: Dialtones was always, to begin with, a kind of sound-art piece or conceptual performance artwork. I say this because the project originated from a pure concept (that of performing the audience’s mobile phones), and was motivated by a curiosity to discover what it would be like – sonically, visually, and socially – to experience such a concept. In this sense, I don’t think it’s too much to say that the project conformed well to John Cage’s definition of experimental music: as music that “initiates sonic processes the outcomes of which are not known in advance.” The problem with Cage’s definition, though, is that it suggests that it wouldn’t have mattered whether or not the results reflected any human patterning, or that we oughtn’t intervene in some way to ensure an interesting outcome. I think if Dialtones just sounded like a pile of 200 phones ringing on and off randomly for half an hour, people would have been really profoundly disappointed. For the project to succeed, it was necessary for us to demonstrate that we could actually tame this enormous and unruly beast – the mobile telephony network of Upper Austria – in order to bend it to more musically structured ends. For these reasons, I would say that Dialtones was a performance piece in its conceptualization, but ultimately a musical work in its realization.

diatones_begins.jpgIt’s important to say that, in the end, it took three people to compose Dialtones. Apart from the concept itself and some very telescopic decisions about overall sequencing, I was really the least involved in the actual musical composition; my hands were already quite full with logistical issues and software programming. The greatest bulk of the concert was composed by Gregory Shakar, who developed most of the orchestra’s ringtones, and Scott Gibbons, who also composed ringtones as well as the central solo section of the performance. I think, for them, the compositional process was governed by very explicitly musical concerns – melody, rhythm, texture, drama. We all recognized that this piece had to function in a way that would be recognizably musical, or at least played with this concept by deliberately treading the fuzzy boundary between music and noise. As much as we all admired Cage’s practiced indifference to chaos, we felt that the days of purely random music were over, and that taking a completely hands-off aleatoric approach would have been a cop-out. And as it turns out, there really were a ton of aleatoric elements in its presentation that made it (perhaps pleasingly) difficult to listen to anyway. As I explain below, our job as music composers really came to focus on effectively managing the considerable randomness built into the situation.

Part 1: 15.4 M
Part 2: 13.2 M
Part 3: 18.8 M

Peter: You described one person’s experience with the work in which they entered their phone info in a kiosk, but then had to skip the performance, but kept getting dialed by your performance system. This seems to suggest an almost opposite event, in which people at the performance who had their phones turned on were called normally by someone outside the event. Do you know if there were any occurrences of this? Furthermore, if, hypothetically, a number of people were called from outside sources during perhaps the solo section of the piece, would you consider that an interruption or a serendipitous moment in the piece? I’m curious if you can speak to the idea of tapping into this phone network to produce an organized work, but in the act of doing so, also leaving yourself susceptible to the interruption and chaos that could be introduced into the network from outside of the performance.

diatones2.jpgGolan: The possibility that people could receive outside calls during the performance certainly occurred to us, when we cheekily instructed the audience to “please leave your cellphone ringers on.” If this event actually did occur, we had no technical tools for detecting it; we would have had to listen for unintended rings, and usually there were so many phones ringing at the same time that we wouldn’t have heard it. My feeling is that we would have only conceived such an event to be an undesirable interruption if the audience member actually answered their phone and started having a conversation in the middle of the performance. But we had also explicitly requested the audience not to answer their phones, and fortunately nobody did this.

More generally, your question brings up the topic of chance and unpredictable events in the Dialtones performance. We were able to count at least seven different sources of unpredictability that affected the concert. Some of these were due to properties of the network itself, while others could be attributed to specific audience members or to audiences generally. Chance elements in the performance included the following:

The telephone network imposed an unpredictable latency between the time that we dialed a phone, and the time that the requested phone would begin to ring. We did some experiments and determined that the average delay was 4.74 seconds, with a standard deviation of about a second or so. In some cases, particularly when we dialed international numbers, the delay could be as long as twelve or thirteen seconds. This fact had serious compositional consequences, musically speaking, since it meant that we couldn’t create precise synchronizations between rhythmic ringtones. It also meant that any chord progressions would have to play out over a fairly long timescale in order to be reliably perceived. We ended up composing ringtone melodies which all shared the same tonal center – I think it was A-880 – and adopted a more textural approach to compensate.

dial4.jpgPeter: How many of these chance elements were you able to play with before the first concert? Were you able to conduct small experiments on a limited number of phones prior to the initial performance? If so, were there issues, such as the dial/ring delay you mention above, that you encountered before the first concert and then made compositional changes to deal with it?

Golan: That’s exactly what we did. One of our main logistical challenges in developing the project was actually getting enough phones to test the system. Through a variety of contacts and sources we managed to borrow about seventy phones. Nokia Austria loaned us ten, Ericsson loaned us ten, our main sponsor loaned us about twenty, and a local phone store in Linz provided another ten or so. Another ten were actually loaned to us from individuals! It was a real hodge-podge of different models, which turned out to be quite helpful for the purposes of testing and debugging. Computing the average delay-time was one of the first experiments we conducted once we got the dialing system to work. We only had a couple of days before the show in which everything was actually up and running, and that’s when most of the real composition got done – testing different combinations of ringtones, etcetera.

dial7.jpgWhen we were first developing the concert, it was almost impossible for us to get enough phones to test and compose with. We were really desperate, and we were lucky to have the assistance of the Ars Electronica development office. The staff there called every conceivable sponsor trying to get phones for us, and most of the time they were turned down. It’s sad, but true: once the idea had been successfully demonstrated, it was an entirely different story. This is well-illustrated by the following two pictures. This photo shows our testing setup at Ars Electronica in 2001, while this one shows the 150 test phones that Swisscom Mobile loaned us one year later. They even built a custom charging station for us!

On rare occasions, a requested connection was dropped by the network. This happened less than 30 times (out of the approximately 5000 dialing requests that constituted the concert) and generally only when we were pushing close to the signaling capacity of the concert hall’s base station antenna. It’s impossible to know for certain, but I suspect that there may have been some extraneous phone activity outside the concert hall which, from time to time, ate up one or two channels on our antenna system. Theoretically we had 60 signaling channels, but I don’t think we ever got more than 58 of them going at once.?

dialtones_performer.jpgWe were only technologically capable of specifying the ringtone melodies for roughly two-thirds of the audience’s phones. When Dialtones was performed, in late 2001, many people still did not own phones that could receive new ringtones via the Short Messaging Service – this feature was still just being introduced in the latest models by only a few manufacturers. As a result, we were unable to know exactly what sound would occur when we dialed those people with older phones – about a third of our orchestra, or 65 people. Fortunately, we had a good idea who they were, since we asked all of the participants to provide the exact make and model of their mobile phone when they registered their phones before the concert. With this in mind, we were able to use this fact compositionally: at the beginning of the performance, we dialed all the people with unknown ringtones. It turns out most of those people just had “regular phone” ring sounds, e.g. non-melodies.?

Peter: How were the ‘unknown’ ringtones used later in the piece? Other than at the beginning, did they have a special use within the composition throughout, or did you try to always keep them at some limited percentage of the overall sound texture?

Golan: Generally speaking we tried to avoid clicking on the “unknown” phones except at designated times. This was done just to keep the different parts of the concert perceptually distinct. The alternative would have diluted the character of the different sections with an even blanket of off-color sound.

Some people deliberately (and probably mischievously) changed the ringtones on their phones, even though we transmitted one of our own ringtones to their phone. This happened on at least two occasions. One person, actually a good friend of mine, later confessed to me that he had replaced our ringtone with the theme song from the television show “Dallas.”?

dialtones_performer2.jpgPeople could have deliberately, prematurely terminated the connection while their phone was ringing (or thoughtlessly attempted to answer their phone, out of habit). It is even possible that people could have turned their phone off altogether. I have no information about whether any of these things actually occurred.?

People could have switched seats with another participant, or sat in one of the (few) empty seats. Their phones would still ring, but their personal spotlight would not hit them, and their sound would have a different spatialization than we intended. More drastically, a person could register for the event, and then not show up; their phone would still ring, but not be heard at all in the performance venue. This definitely happened at least once.?

As you mentioned, it was possible for people to receive phone calls that originated externally. We were not aware of this happening, but it very likely could have.

phone.jpgPeter: The second possibility you describe above (of the person registering but not showing up), is quite interesting. Are you familiar with Thomson and Craighead’s Telephony [pictured right]? It’s a gallery-based cell phone piece that allows users to dial out from phones on a gallery wall, or dial into that network of phones from their own phones. Some people would dial their own phones from the gallery wall, thus leaving their numbers in the gallery phone’s register. On multiple occasions, people at later times would hit the send button twice on a gallery phone, thus redialing its last number, and this would end up calling some previous gallery visitor. I found this a very interesting phenomenon, as in some sense the visitor had left the real space of the gallery but had perhaps become trapped in the virtual space of the piece. This sounded very similar to me to your description of people who registered but then left before the performance and were called anyway by your software. Besides the fact that the person receiving the call might be annoyed, would you consider those events happy accidents of a sort, in that the network and the piece are perhaps extending themselves beyond the reach of the physical performance space? I’m not quite sure if that is the right question to ask, but there seems to be something important about this phenomenon and I’m wondering what you think of it?

Golan: I am familiar with Thomson and Craighead’s project (I’ve listed it, for example, in my Informal Catalogue of Mobile Phone Performances, Installations and Artworks), but I wasn’t aware that it enabled the particular behavior you mention. I do agree that this is one of the most interesting aspects of both projects. Speaking for the Dialtones concert, I can only say that this aspect emerged anecdotally, and not due to our explicit intention or on any significant scale.

scott_gibbons.jpgAs you can see, the telephone network itself was unpredictable in many ways. Our attitude was to embrace serendipity, as we really had no choice about it. In some sense, Scott Gibbons’ solo section (which he performed very carefully on 6 phones) became an even more significant contrast to the orchestral sections because of his high degree of control.

Peter: Several interview respondents have talked about the fallibility of networks or the imperfections in networks as being a point of interest for them artistically. In a piece I’m currently working on, the degradation of feedback through audio streaming is a focal point of the work. Why do you think there is such a great interest for many electronic artists and artists working with networks to exploit imperfections, artifacts, and failures within the medium? Did you have similar interests in creating Dialtones, and if not, how do your interests differ?

Golan: By coincidence, I’ve just been reading some essays on this topic, about musicians’ interest in their tools’ artifacts and imperfections. Kim Cascone has a nice article about ‘Glitch’ musics (”The Aesthetics of Failure: Post-Digital Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music“, in Cox & Warner’s Audio Culture reader), and Rob Young has written a related article, “Worship the Glitch: Digital Music, Electronic Disturbance” (in the new WIRE anthology, Undercurrents: The Hidden Wiring of Modern Music). Most of their examples concern composers who are deliberately using vinyl crackling, digital clipping, and digital compression artifacts as foreground elements of their compositions, and these authors’ main conclusions, which I think are quite reasonable, are that (1) “failure is more interesting than success“, especially insofar as it is a progenitor to further discovery and evolution, and (2) artifacts reveal the true nature and limits of a medium. So I agree that it’s quite natural for artists to explore the imperfections and artifacts of a well-understood medium because it gives the listener a new appreciation for a system which is otherwise all-too-often assumed to be perfectly transparent.

dialtones_audience.jpgAs I suggest above, I think these sorts of preoccupations with the failure-points of a given medium presuppose, to some extent, the audience’s familiarity with that medium’s “normal” mode of operation. It’s a cheeky gag to include tape hiss or MP3 phasing in a new CD, because we all know from considerable experience with these media that they’re not “supposed” to sound that way. In the case of Dialtones, on the other hand, nobody knew what 200 simultaneous mobile phones would sound like, and we were just trying to get this telephone network to sound like something at all. So, to answer your question, no: as best as I can recollect, we were interested in overcoming the failure-points of the phone network (like dropped connections, etc.) rather than exploiting them. Of course, it’s sort of an odd glitch in the first place that the telephony network could be abused in order to produce a symphonic chorus of ringtones.

Peter: One of your primary interests in Dialtones was to create this grid of audiovisual pixels through using the audience as a canvas (or screen?). And perhaps that already answers this question, but I’m wondering how you thought about the large and complex phone network that you tapped into as a compositional tool? Did you think about it as a transmission medium for the work much like one thinks about a sound system (i.e., as a means to end) or did you think about it in some way more central to the idea of the work and its structuring?

Golan: Hmm.. I guess my answer partially derives from my experiences in high school, back in the late 1980’s, with keyboard synths. To some extent during its development, I began to think of the Dialtones telephone network as a very large polyphonic synthesizer, albeit one with a lot of unpredictable quirks (especially with regard to latency). And each of the audience’s phones were voices or individual oscillators in that large synth, and my job was to play the instrument by clicking on the right notes on its keyboard at the right time.

swisscom.jpgI say I “began” to think of the phone network as a polyphonic synth, but I certainly didn’t end that way. My concept of the instrument changed entirely on the night of the first performance, when we were finally able to bring a live audience into the situation. What you have to understand, which was a little weird, is that we were projecting the image of our grid like graphical interface onto the audience from above (as you mentioned). The logic of this was to project a spot of light onto the head of an audience member whenever his or her phone was ringing. What we didn’t quite foresee was that the audience was also able to witness my cursor as I hunted around for a person to click on. My whole concept of the instrument changed when I was performing the piece for the first time, and I looked up from my personal LCD screen just to double-check the location of my (projected) cursor in the crowd. My cursor had landed in the lap of this woman and I suddenly made eye-contact with her. I had been thinking, I’m going to click on this cell, but in her mind, she was waiting for a phone call from me. And when her phone started to ring she smiled at me, and I suddenly realized that I was actually able to address individual people in the crowd, and in a peculiarly personal way. I’m not sure what else to say about this, but it certainly yanked me back from conceiving of the phone network as an abstract sound-triggering system, and reminded me about what it really is, which is a communications medium that connects people. I guess that’s sort of sappy (”Reach out and touch someone”), but that’s exactly what the network/instrument became about, from my perspective as its performer.

dial2.jpgPeter: I know you’re not sure what else to say about this, but that is a wonderfully illuminating story. With respect to the phenomenon of people seeing the mouse pointer as you looked for ‘pixels’ to activate, was that something you tried to get rid of for subsequent performances, or did you end up viewing it as an important part of the piece and as a phenomenon that was important in the audience/performer interaction?

Golan: Yes, we kept that. Among other things it was significantly helpful in communicating and illustrating what was going on.

TEXT: Thinking Global, by Ed Halter

Image: U.S. Pavilion Montreal Expo 67, Buckminster Fuller, 1967 (Image courtesy the Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller)

This text is republished in collaboration with Rhizome.org. It was released in Rhizome Digest on July/23/08 and appears here as it was originally posted.

In the late 1960s, when the merger of art and technology became a touchstone for both countercultural mind-liberation and New Frontier futurism, Buckminster Fuller served as a central, if gnomic, philosopher of the moment. The first issue of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog in 1968 features a semi-mystical autobiographical fragment by Fuller and his poem-cum-manifesto “God is a Verb”; Gene Youngblood’s seminal 1970 study Expanded Cinema includes a lengthy introduction by Fuller, in which he praises the “forward, omni-humanity educating function of man’s total communication system”; and the premier issue of early video art’s central journal Radical Software published a “pirated transcription” of an interview videotaped by the Raindance Corporation. “We hear people talk about technology as something very threatening,” Fuller says in the stream-of-language transcript, “but we are technology, the universe is technology…it’s simply a matter of understanding these things.” Fuller’s own book Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth became an underground best-seller after its publication in 1969. Multimedia collectives like USCO and Ant Farm cited “Bucky” as inspiration; members of the latter group even went so far as to abduct Fuller when he came to speak at the University of Houston, picking him up from the airport under false pretense and taking him instead to see a touring MoMA exhibit entitled The Machine at the End of the Mechanical Age.

This summer, the Whitney mounted a major exhibit on Fuller’s life and work, Buckminster Fuller: Starting With the Universe, on view through September. The show features a variety of Fulleriana, arranged in chronological order, allowing for a roughly biographic experience: sketches, architectural models, concept designs, numerous looped clips from the 1971 documentary The World of Buckminster Fuller, maps and diagrams, original publications, and a 12 foot high cardboard geodesic dome built for the exhibit. Though largely a show about architecture, Starting With the Universe presents Fuller as a revolutionary and visionary thinker who worked, as he put it, “comprehensively,” across disciplines, and a forerunner of 21st century environmental design and networked culture.

It took Fuller many decades to achieve the iconic status he enjoyed in the 1960s. The son of a prominent intellectual New England family (his aunt was Margaret Fuller, the Transcendentalist and pioneering woman journalist), Fuller attended Harvard, dropped out twice, then entered the Navy and served during World War I. After the war, following a failed business enterprise, he claimed to have had a quasi-religious experience while on the brink of suicide. “Apparently addressing myself, I said, ‘You do not have the right to eliminate yourself, you do not belong to you. You belong to the universe,” Fuller wrote years later in the Whole Earth Catalog. “You are fulfilling your significance if you apply yourself to converting all your experience to highest advantage of others.”

On display at the Whitney are a generous sampling of Fuller’s ambitious humanity-enhancing projects of the 20s and 30s, none of which advanced beyond prototypes. Included is an original, cartoonish sketch from 1927 of the world, which he called “One Ocean World Town,” expressing a core Fullerian notion of global interconnectedness inspired by the rise of intercontinental air flight. This became the setting for a 1929 drawing of skyscraper-like structures he called “Lightful Towers” — all-in-one multi-family dwellings that could be planted in the ground like trees, and delivered to sites by zeppelin. These evolved into a single-family dwelling dubbed the 4D House, a hexagonal one-floor structure hung from one central pole containing minimal-waste plumbing, electricity and air conditioning; meant to be constructed cheaply, they were also designed to be easily deconstructable and therefore as portable as a large piece of furniture.

A scale model of Fuller’s 4D House was presented to the public at a surprising location: the Interior Decorating department of Marshall Field’s department store in Chicago, timed to promote a new line of modern furniture. The store’s publicity agent renamed the structure the Dymaxion House (a portmanteau of “dynamic,” “maximum,” and “ion”), a term that Fuller later trademarked and used on a variety of concepts. The Whitney show includes a video clip of outtakes from a 1929 Fox Movietone newsreel of a young Fuller explaining his Dymaxion House model. Shot when the technology of sound movies was still new, Fuller is unusually awkward, evincing none of the smooth charisma that would entrance later generations, speaking stiffly with an old New England uppah-clahss accent. Fiddling with his collapsible scale mock-up, he explains that its odd circus-tent shape “is not an aesthetic choice of my own.” Rather, he continues, its shape is due to the fact that “we are living in a spherical universe.” For Fuller, the structure’s true beauty lay not in its visual form but rather in its denial of conventional ornament and design in favor of structural integrity and efficiency. To follow the deep mathematical patterns of nature, in Fuller’s view, was a means to be in sync with the Universe.
Buckminster Fuller, Dymaxion House and photograph from the Collections of The Henry Ford, Dearborn, MI. 1934 Dymaxion “2″ 4D Transport courtesy of the National Automobile Museum (the Harrah Collection), Reno, NV.

A similar concept lies behind the design of the Dymaxion car, a three-wheeled, backwards-teardrop-shaped vehicle created by Fuller in the 1930s as an improvement on the typical automobile. Inspired by the hardnosed engineering of aircraft design, Fuller worked with friend and sculptor Isamu Noguchi to create aerodynamic wind-tunnel models allowing for minimum air resistance and maximum fuel efficiency — a radical notion in the days when a car looked more like a block than a wedge. Images of Noguchi’s gypsum miniatures are on display at the Whitney alongside the last remaining full-scale prototype of the Dymaxion Car, sans interior. Later models, Fuller hoped, would have inflatable wings and be able to take flight.

Throughout the 1930s and 40s, Fuller proposed a number of Dymaxion-style houses, convinced that more efficient means of everyday living was the key to global resource problems. The Dymaxion Deployment Unit converted unused grain shelters into roundhouse-style homes. Though never used as residences, the design was taken up by the US military, who then deployed Fuller’s quickly-built structures during World War II to remote locations in the Pacific and Middle East. After the Allied victory, Fuller devised a means to use surplus wartime materials with the Dymaxion Dwelling Machine, nicknamed the Wichita House, an aluminum dwelling made entirely from aircraft construction machinery and parts. A reconstructed scale model of the Wichita House shows twelve identical, flattened metal domes equally spaced around a cul-de-sac, glowing with rings of circular windows, resembling an eerie conflation of Atomic-era suburbia and The Day the Earth Stool Still. Such a stark, factory-floor style may not have thrilled recent veterans, tired of living for years in anonymous, utilitarian barracks.

In 1948, Fuller began teaching at the Black Mountain College in North Carolina, an avant-garde refuge where he worked alongside Merce Cunningham, John Cage, and Willem de Kooning. While at Black Mountain, Fuller developed sculptural models of his theory of “tensegrity”, or the productive tensions available within the form of a single object. With his students, he constructed his first geodesic dome. Created to allow for maximum volume and strength from minimum materials, the geodesic dome held its shape solely from its framework of interlocking triangular beams, without need for other reinforcements. It quickly became his most successful design. In the early 1950s, Fuller implemented his first practical application of the dome for the roof of a Ford Motor Company building in Michigan. Soon after, the military began using small geodesics as emergency shelter in remote locales, and the government started a long career of erecting Fuller domes at international exhibits as symbols of American ingenuity and technological prowess: first at a global trade fair in Kabul, Afghanistan, and later at the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959. That same year, Fuller was hailed as design innovator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which mounted an exhibit entitled Three Structures by Buckminster Fuller in its sculpture garden, including a plastic geodesic dome, an aluminum tensegrity tower, and a horizontal frame built with the “octet truss,” a form based on interconnected tetrahedrons, a shape Fuller lauded as the simplest structural unit found in nature.

By the 1960s, as Fuller entered his 70s, he transformed into full-blown guru-intellectual — a role uniquely possible in the age of Timothy Leary and Marshall McLuhan — jetting around the globe to give legendarily marathon lectures to thousands. Tirelessly arguing for the power of technology to improve the future of humanity, at a time when many opposed both the “dehumanizing” computerization of society and the high-tech war in Vietnam, Fuller became paradoxically both an advocate for American technocracy and an inspiration to countercultural radicals. Even before Fuller’s famous 200-foot tall dome was erected at the American Pavillion of the 1967 Expo in Montreal, where it would house monumental paintings by the likes of Andy Warhol and Barnett Newman, a ramshackle cluster of utopian hippies called Drop City had already constructed their own village of Fuller-inspired domes in a rural backwater of Colorado. As chronicled in Felicity D. Scott’s recent study Architecture or Techno-Utopia, “droppers” saw in Fuller’s dome an externalized manifestation of a new consciousness. “With few resources but idealism and the conviction that they were ‘total revolutionaries,’” Scott writes, “the droppers believed they were ‘rebuilding the world’ as an open, communal society one dome at a time,” using the blueprints that Uncle Bucky had bequeathed them.

Though the Whitney’s exhibit alludes only obliquely to the existence of droppers and their ilk, Fuller himself had his own grandiose ideas for reshaping society, represented here in a series of concept illustrations of fantastic megastructures. He envisioned midtown Manhattan ensconced in a mile-high, temperature-controlled dome. Even more trippy were his visions of gigantic “Tetrahedron Cities” housing a million residents each, sitting on the outskirts of Tokyo (and rhyming the peak of Mt. Fuji) or floating off the coast of San Francisco. He also imagined large-scale systems for visualizing global resource problems. One plan was “Minni Earth,” a giant scale-model planet floating in the East River next to the UN building, dotted with lights representing population growth, food shortages, and other pressing data. He devised a triangle-based Dymaxion Map that represented the continents with less distortion than the standard Mercator projection, and had the added bonus of picturing the inhabited continents as one near-contiguous land mass: a “one-world-island in a one-world-ocean,” as he put it. Fuller used giant floor-sized versions of this map to play something he called The World Game — a peaceful version of military war games in which players must figure out how to cooperate to share the world’s limited resources. The World Game, Fuller thought, might someday become the entire curriculum of the university.
Minni Earth Location at U.N. Building, N.Y., 1956 (drawing by Winslow Wedin), Ink and graphite on tracing paper mounted on board 15 x 20 in. (38.1 x 50.8 cm), Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries (Photograph by Ben Blackwell)

So if Fuller saw himself as the educator of the future, what should we hope to learn from him now? Why celebrate him in 2008, a quarter century after his death? Solidly embracing the great-man biography model, Starting with the Universe is resolutely invested in establishing Fuller’s significance. In its zeal, the exhibit isolates Bucky as a wholly unique figure at the expense of granting historical context to his inventions and ideas. Casual museum-goers might never consider that schemes for achieving far-reaching social betterment were far from uncommon in 20th century architecture, from Le Corbusier to Neutra and beyond, or that Fuller was not alone in drafting freaky fantasy plans like cloud-cities and underwater homes; contemporary firms like the British Archigram and the Italian Superstudio served up even more far-out dreamscapes (though the show’s catalog does a more comprehensive job of situating Fuller within a larger history). Nor does the exhibit dwell much on the fact that Fuller, like Edison, was as much a myth-maker as he was an inventor: two of his central ideas, the geodesic dome and tensegrity, were actually invented by others before him, and his oft-cited moment of suicidal epiphany that he claims kick-started his career may be nothing but well-crafted fiction.

Nevertheless, the exhibit is utterly convincing in testifying to Fuller’s inspirational potential. Many reports on the show have cited Fuller’s prescience as a prophet of ecological sustainability, but the issue of the environment was only one factor in his truly global attempts at problem-solving — and, in fact, Fuller was no tree-hugger; he always weighed humanity’s own needs as highest priority.

More broadly, at a time when many artists and intellectuals have consigned their work to the comfortable margins, valorizing tactical interventions, small-scale craft and near-mute lessness, the epic scope of Fuller’s vision reminds us that it need not be this way. When massive problems loom, why not think big?

Ed Halter is a critic and curator living in New York City. His writing has appeared in Arthur, The Believer, Cinema Scope, Kunstforum, Millennium Film Journal, the Village Voice and elsewhere. From 1995 to 2005, he programmed and oversaw the New York Underground Film Festival, and has organized screenings and exhibitions for the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Cinematexas, Eyebeam, the Flaherty Film Seminar, the Museum of Modern Art, and San Francisco Cinematheque. He currently teaches in the Film and Electronic Arts department at Bard College, and has lectured at Harvard, NYU, Yale, and other schools as well as at Art in General, Aurora Picture Show, the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, the Images Festival, the Impakt Festival, and Pacific Film Archive. His book From Sun Tzu to Xbox: War and Video Games was published by Thunder’s Mouth Press in 2006. With Andrea Grover, he is currently editing the collection Small Cinemas: American Avant-Garde Film Exhibition from Ciné Clubs to Microcinemas. He is a founder and director of Light Industry, a venue for film and electronic art in Brooklyn, New York.