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- Rhythms of the Imagination, Technological Tools and Works
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- eARTS BEYOND : Shanghai International Gallery Exhibition of Media Art
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- FILE 2005
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- Silverfish Stream
We are, without a doubt, living in a world in which information and communication technologies have colonised all aspects of human activity, both public and private. This phenomenon is most apparent in urban areas. While this movement towards the computerisation of our environment and to remote access to information most affects large cities and their inhabitants, who are used to solicitations of all kinds and to the accelerated pace of social interactions, it can only become more prevalent and widespread.
The increasing presence of digital technologies and communication networks is profoundly altering our experience of the spaces in which we live and move about. This change is seen in the increasing number of screens displaying electronic content on walls, display units and materials of all sorts, both indoors and out. The tools of personal communication, for their part, are contributing to this same invasion of screens in individuals’ personal activities and spaces.
The omnipresence of screens large and small is having the effect of introducing sensorial experiences which compete with our experience of physical space. It is contributing to the mixing of multifarious perceptions and sensations and to the production of heterogeneous spatial conceptions which demand resolution. The screen, by taking its place in a space in which it superimposes itself on the space’s surfaces and the objects used by individuals, modifies the relationship we have established with the world, creating an “augmented” space. (1)
The instability of the content shown on these electronic surfaces gives rise to a superficiality and exteriority in a process of constant renewal. This is because the screen is not a surface which exists for itself. Its nature is to show something, always to show something else. By superimposing itself on another surface, which it replaces, it creates a break in the continuity of physical space, an empty zone which it constantly tries to fill, as if it were trying to hide this usurping, to fill the gap it creates in reality. (2) The screen takes charge of content, like a bottomless pit, in order to carry out its role as surface. It finds its worth in its ceaseless activity, in the replacement and renewal of its face. Occupied as it is to ensure its epidermal presence, by means of rapidly supplanted content, depth has little opportunity to take hold.
Under what conditions can the renewed “superficiality” of the screen lead to interiority? By what means can this ephemeral, discontinuous and variable digital information manage to create a path to the individual’s inner space, to the integration, understanding and experience of thought? Artists are often the first to be interested in the effects of the transformation of the social and cultural environment on human experience. The ubiquity of screens and the composite spatial experience they produce are at the heart of many artists’ work.
Some artists have opted for a more material presence of the screen in their work, engaging it in an unexpected dialogue with its environment or creating unusual tangible interfaces in order to create a more meaningful physical connection to the user. Tact by Jean Dubois and Perversely Interactive System by Lynn Hughes and Simon Laroche are works which employ such strategies as a way of contesting the familiarity we have acquired with digital displays, their uses and conventions.
Over the past few years, Jean Dubois has created a number of interactive projects with touch screens which establishes physical continuity between the participant and the digital content through touch. With Tact, the participant makes a face appear by pressing on an initially fuzzy screen which appears momentarily to grasp its fleeting image. Crushed against the screen, the face appears constrained not only to obey the movements of the participant’s finger, but also to remain within a very shallow space. Despite this presence, the participant never truly comes face to face with the image: the character returns to its indistinct space as soon as the participant stops touching the screen. The back and forth movement from one part of the screen to another that results from this interaction creates a supplementary space but does not manage to create a true sense of depth. A circular mirror around the screen, rather, offers the participant a paradoxical surface, both absorbent and reflective, in order to make of it an instrument which encourages engagement and a turning back to the self--a mediation system essential to the creation of interiority.
Lynn Hughes and Simon Laroche also propose an encounter with a virtual character in Perversely Interactive System. Accomplishing this face-to-face meeting relies entirely on the use of a tangible interface which measures the participant’s internal metabolism: the search for a relaxed state is a fundamental condition of the desired exchange. Perversely Interactive System thereby offers a completely out of the ordinary interactive situation, by addressing the world beneath the skin, the biological being. This inner consciousness, however, as corporeal as it may be, is not limited to a purely physiological experience. The character’s engaging presence and the gradual progression of the encounter keep the participant in a state of expectation. The relaxed state develops over time and is accompanied by a slowness favourable to a more widespread interiorisation, one which joins affect and intellect. The participant experiences a concomitant space, passing from his or her inner world to an objective manifestation supported by alterity.
Other artists pay special attention to the ubiquity of digital images. They examine what becomes of identity in situations in which the individual is solicited by multiple screens or when his or her presence itself is divided between different places through the use of networks. In these works, the question of the embodiment of the self and the image take centre stage. Alexandre Castonguay’s Digitale and beewoo’s habitgram, for example, lead the participant to reflect upon questions such as these.
Alexandre Castonguay’s interactive installation Digitale invites the visitor to be seated and to use an old camera to take both video images visible on a touch screen and still photographs projected onto the wall. These images, which are similar because they were taken with the same camera and in the same environment, nevertheless provide very different experiences. The image embedded in the bench asserts its desire for continuity and materiality while the projected still images reveal their fleeting nature, their degradation and immateriality. Digitale leads the participant to experience heterogeneous times and spaces by taking into account the impact of technology on the incarnation of the image. The recourse to tactility and the manipulation of the image involves participants physically and leads them to act as the creator of the image and/or an actor in the image. Participants can assume different roles in the installation, confirming their status as its author and/or subject, rendering them active or passive in this exercise of separating and distributing the image. They are thereby involved in a process which leads them to evaluate the impact of their subjectivity on the world of technology.
beewoo’s habitgram, for its part, puts to the test the spatial conception individuals have of their bodies and of the space they occupy by proposing that they don a coat equipped with cameras. What this piece of clothing sees with its multiple “eyes” is not the same as what the participant sees: the coat creates gaps and spaces whose effect is to destabilise perception. The projected images--oblique, unstable and variable--never completely conform to the orthogonal shape of the room nor even to the verticality of the body. By getting inside the coat, the participant is already extending his or her limits in space--by becoming “covered” in space. The walls on which the images produced by the coat are seen become in turn a larger piece of “clothing”. The experience of the habitgram invites the participant to assimilate and define space, no longer as something disconnected from oneself but rather as an extension of oneself. As an instrument for distributing the self, the work creates a loss of orientation, to a spatial confusion and to confusion around one’s identity which give rise to reflection. The spatialisation of the individual and his or her extension throughout the space lead to a critical evaluation of the ways in which images are created and individuals are disseminated. They also express the individual’s desire to establish an intimacy, a spatial continuity, with the world around them.
Other artistic projects using new media pay particular attention to the dimensions which evade our senses and convey the hidden depth of reality. They reveal the complexity of the world, its depth and plenitude, with the goal of countering the excess of superficiality brought on by the omnipresence of screens and solicitations which maintain the individual in a constant exteriority. This is the case, for example, with Brad Todd’s wave_scan and with the DATA project by Æ.
Brad Todd’s wave_scan project externalises in sounds and images phenomena that are invisible yet present, thereby causing to rise up out of the surrounding space an interiority which can’t be grasped by the senses or even the usual recording devices. The reading of very low frequency electromagnetic fluctuations is expressed by unusual sounds and images of water slowly filing by. The effect is to create an environment both poetic and enigmatic. The ambiguous nature of the sounds and images which convey this plenitude assert themselves in the space with the goal of soliciting subjective mental acts of creation. The images of water, taken in different settings, create a thematic continuity and refer to the universal presence of this element, as well as to its qualities of fluidity and adaptation. Water’s omnipresence and universality have the potential to produce a symbolic resonance for each individual, to call upon their personal memory and thus to enter their inner world.
Similarly, the project DATA, like many other works by Æ, is the result of a quest for the imperceptible, of a search among underground levels of reality beyond appearances. DATA’s digital images, created thanks to a residency in a scientific laboratory specialising in nanotechnology, engage our gaze in a depth of reality that is completely inaccessible to the senses. (3) The result of a complex instrumentation in the field of scientific analysis and imaging, they nevertheless remain mysterious and resist identification and didactic interpretation. Rather, their ambiguity creates curiosity about them and encourages observation. They are recreated in the space of the exhibit by adopting the configuration of the space and adhering to its structure and by re-affirming their bond with the world, for the reality they depict is well and truly founded upon the physical world. DATA proposes that we read these images, that we move about amongst them and plumb them as a way of viewing reality in all its complexity and depth.
Exteriority is inseparable from interiority and any external manifestation supposes a depth, an unfolding, a prolongation above the surface: “. . . when we see what is in front of us, why is something else still observing us, imposing an inside?”, Georges Didi-Huberman has written. (4) The superficiality of the screen thus demands to be overcome, made deeper, turned inside out, taken over. Against the trend towards exteriority, these artists propose, precisely, a physical, affective and intellectual engagement, an expressive spatialisation of the screen. They show the digital image in such a way as to create a creative tension between an inside and an outside of the surface of the screen. In doing so, they succeed in creating a space that provokes the realm of the imaginary.
- See Lev Manovich, The Poetics of Augmented Space, 2002-05 (www.manovich.net).
- On this topic, Olivier Asselin has written: “And our experience is essentially mixed and even heterogeneous: it is perforated by a multitude of screens and cameras which incessantly capture and transmit images, and export and import a variety of information. Our experience brings together different times and spaces--distant and nearby, private and public, past, present and future, factual and fictional--like a multi-dimensional strainer.” “Digital Screens”, Parachute 113 (2004):10.
- On the technology for visualising data in the field of nanotechnology, see Jim Gimzewski and Victoria Vesna, “The Nanome Syndrome”, HorizonZéro 14
- Georges Didi-Huberman, Ce que nous voyons, ce qui nous regarde (Paris: Minuit, 1992), 10.