Already a couple days ago during re:publica, Aram Bartholl presented an overview of his artistic work which very much focuses on the ever-increasing resonances between the digital and the analog worlds.

To illustrate what this means to him, Aram told the audience about a situation when a friend visited his studio. aram0.jpgHe wanted to empty the trash underneath Aram's desk, but instead of simply doing it, felt like he needed to obtain permission and asked "Can I empty the trash?". In that situation the two realized that they were acting like an operating system and its user, applying the paradigm that Apple introduced to the public in 1984.

Trained as an architect, Aram naturally got interested in how spaces are perceived in virtual environments, mostly in the context of games where, in between DOOM in 1993 and the current craze about Second Life, most of the action has happened. Because of those games, the mainstream-audience is by now quite familiar with the simulation of three-dimensional environments, partly because in games – simply because your virtual life depends on it. Actually some gamers are so into it, that also they carry over parts from the game experience and make it part of their daily lives (like habitually checking if there's a terrorist crouching behind the door) or even re-enacting things from the game.

aram5.jpgThese breaches between the realms of the everyday life and game narratives is what many of Bartholl's works use as a starting point. One example is de_dust, basically the infamous crate from one of the most played maps in the game Counter-Strike. On a one pixel equals one centimeter-basis, he re-created the crate and put it up at several locations in Berlin, watching people figuring out why it seems so strangely familiar to them. Another piece which proved to be very popular with the gaming-crowd are his First Person Shooter-glasses (and they usually really don't dig media art). Cut out from a simple postcard, they put the terrorists' AK 47 in front of your eyes, absurdly poking in from the right side, just as in Counter-Strike.

aram4.jpgHow identity is communicated in massive multiplayer games is another thing that greatly differs from the physical world. In many games, players have their names hovering above their character which leads to a very special kind of social behaviour and also makes for an interesting group portrait-culture (photo from Joi Ito's album). Aram transferred this into physical space in his project WoW by cutting out letters and attaching them to a kind of fishing rod which then is carried by a person behind the "wearer" while he or she is walking around (video).

Views of urban space is an interesting realm to which Google with their mapping applications are currently developing a quasi-monopoly on. Yet, it's kind of funny how for example places are being marked in Google Maps – its slightly weird red markers don't scale with the aerial photographs below, cast a gigantic shadow but already have gained an iconic quality to them. aram3.jpgThe work Maps deals with this relationship in the way that Aram simply built one of the drop-shaped markers for real and put it up in Berlin. Not to much amazement since people are probably used to crazy artworks standing around.

If this is giving you the same déjà vu that the gamers have with the de_dust crates, it might be because you've seen Aram's Random Screen at this year's Transmediale. Also check out Jonah Brucker-Cohen's interview with him over at Gizmodo.

Related: Speed, Punchcard Pixels and Bits on Location.

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A few weeks ago, Rafael Mizrahi told me about the 4th Kinnernet, a hyper-geek event organized each year on the southern shores of the Sea of Galilee (Kinneret Lake) in northern Israel. I checked out the website and started bombarding Rafael with questions "What's this robots?" "And that vehicle?" "How about this gaming arcade?" Here's a few notes from our conversation:

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Computer Crash Course and Game Rider

Set up in cooperation with Hubert Burda Media, creators of DLD conference, and following Tim O’Reilly's Foo Camp, KinnerNet intvited about 150 technology addicts and creative people to gather informally and discuss topics and concepts such as software development, internet culture, social networks, web services, Wi-Fi, open source, cellular services, computer games, interactive TV, VOIP, technological trends, gadgets, security, etc. The general purpose is to share thoughts, work-in-progress, show off the latest tech toys and hardware hacks, and tackle challenging problems. The camp is a closed and private event and participating to it means contributing.

Rafael defines himself as an "artificial vision explorer" at Feng-GUI lab (which developed the ViewFinder, an algorithm that simulates the human eyes and brain and what would be the gaze path of the eye movements while being exposed to visuals. Similar algorithms are embedded into robots) and a member of GarageGeeks (which looks like "crazy projects paradise".)

As part of the Robot Extravaganza of KinnerNet 2007 camp, he presented the GuitarHeroNoid which he built together with Tal Chalozin. The full-scale humanoid autonomously plays the Sony PlayStation game Guitar Hero II (video of GuitarHeroNoid playing the song Woman by Wolfmother).

0guitarheoooo.jpgCan you tell us more about the robot that plays the PlayStation game "Guitar Hero"? How does it work and play?

At the game, each song is presented on a set of five columns, resembling a real guitar fret board, that scroll constantly towards the player. The five columns correspond to the five fret buttons and appropriately colored notes appear in these columns.
We connected the PlayStation video output using a capture device into a computer and by live video streaming filter capture the video frames as images. Each image is being processed and the detected notes are sent through the parallel output or through network cable directly into the robot. This distributed architecture is also used by a robotics bio-technology called Remote Surgery :) and actually this distribution saved us when my parallel output was burned by an electric shock coming back from the robot solenoids, and we separated the process into two laptops.

Tal built computer-controlled, solenoids fingers that matched the fret board and strings in the game. Getting the fingers to press the fret buttons and hit the strum correctly was the hard part.

Tal took a storeroom mannequin and positioned the arms to hold the guitar. But the arms couldn’t be put in the right position, so he had to break and glue them to hold the guitar right. All the robot wiring is inside the mannequin ending at a control panel on the back of its neck.

This first public demonstration of GuitarHeroNoid received a rock star ovation from the ultra-geek audience. We also prepared a multiplayer mode, so you can play against the robot. Pushing the envelope higher, maybe next year we will build a robot that plays the game “dance dance revolution? (known as Dancing Stage in Europe).

Now how about "Real Pacman"?

The Real Pac Man (Tal Chalozin, Niv Efron) main idea was to build some old school tech symbol using as much nowadays-technologies as we can find. Right away we knew that we want a large scale game that will give the feeling of the "PacMan come to life..."
The game board made of a projector mounted on a stand, projecting a 15-square-meters game board on the floor. The PacMan was a wireless Pac-look-a-like robot which "drives" over a game board, equipped by RFID reader, Bluetooth transceiver controlled by ATMEL microcontroller, riding on a game board marked with RFID tags.
At the button of the PacMan there is an RFID reader that reads the tag location and sends it back to the game "engine". The game engine is a java game we hacked, running on a laptop computer.


The result is that you are playing with a completely realistic PacMan over a full virtual game board, but they communicate as if they are one.

To make it more useless tech powered, we've written a J2ME application running on a cellular phone for controlling the PacMan. So, instead of playing with the laptop keyboard, you play the game on your cell, which sends via Bluetooth the control commands.
The next step is to make it a multiplayer, PacMan and ghosts...

Pac Man does not get anymore realistic than that!

All around the room were screens and gaming consoles and a hydraulic driving simulator, so you could just sit down and rumble. At the center of the gaming room there were two home made arcade tables, one crafted by Davidi Silberstein and the other by Amit Jurgenson, both musicians, handy-men and old-school gamers.

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Arcade Machine Quest and Amit's Arcade Machine

And the hydraulic driving simulator?

DidiWarmAndSpider.jpgPower tool drag racing took place inside a large and crowded tent. Crossing the middle of the tent, were two long wooden strip tracks in which the racers ran, dragging their electricity cables behind them. The race judges where Michael Shiloh, co-founder of MakingThings and an annual participant of drag racing, World class notorious hacker Pablos Holman who breaks and builds new technologies and Eyal Gever with the "from a designer perspective" opinion.

Image on the right: Vladimir's Warm vs. Shy Vardi's Spider (photo: Yaniv Golan)

Of course, the fastest racers were the ones Michael and Pablos brought. Michael had Jim Mason's blazing fast "monorail" that runs as a monorail train on top of one of the sides of the track, and Pablos had borrowed an "Old Killdoggie" model racer, which is a modified grinder with inline-skate wheels. But getting first to the end of the track is not the goal of such a race.

At least half of the races were built by Yedidya (Didi) Vardi and his crew. Didi, a junk collector, designer of hands-on science models and screws-and-bolts seller. On Didi's team were Shy Vardi, Vladimir Zviagintsev an aircraft engineer, who built the kites that were raised to thousands of feet in height, and Shlomo Abayoff.

Babylon Tower Racer was built by the GarageGeeks Zvika Netter, Yuval Tal, Ohad Pressman, Gil Hirsch and Tal Chalozin. A laptop sitting on a wagon with electric lawnmower wheels, motivated to move forward by SMS sent by the audience to Yuval’s phone number. Each time an SMS arrived, the light blob was blinked the message in morse code, and a Text-to-Speech algorithm announced the message using the racer's speakers.

More racers such as the bottle Xylophone, playing on bottles set at the sides of the track, containing various amount of water for different tones. A CleanTech racer that needed no electricity but the moments of falling parts, Vacuuming Hovercraft, Skateboard Ventilator, and Parking, which actually did park most of the time and didn't finish the race.

Crocodile "rocket" Handy by Naama, Achi and Yariv

KinnerNet looks like a hell of fun. Why is the number of participants limited to 150?
Are there like-minded events in the country during the rest of the year?

KinnerNet is a a lot of fun and in order to participate, you have to contribute and not act as a "camp potato". I guess that the number is limited because only super geeks are invited. Since there are many people who wish to share and expand their connections, forks of miscellaneous camps and events are being formed. For example, GeekCon, EureKamp, and even us, the GarageGeeks are hosting (images) content evenings, barbeques and Gaming Lan Parties (images.)

I saw on the programme that there was some place dedicated to digital art? What happened there? Any good work you'd like to highlight?

I think digital art was everywhere. In the evening we all gathered in the dining room and watched videos prepared by participants. Michal Levy, for example, a saxophonist and graphic designer, presented a beautiful visual interpretation that she made for John Coltrane's Giant Steps.

We were asked to bring from home any junk we don’t need anymore and Hanoch Piven hosted a face making workshop that was one of the most popular happenings. Hanoch has been making collages with objects - mainly illustrations of faces for magazines and newspapers since 1992.

The GraffitiPrinter

Ariel Schlesinger, presented his GraffitiPrinter, a handheld printer, feed from punch card that translates to spray writing on the wall.

Inside a large room, Ezri Tarazi along with the creative industrial designers Maayan Hagar and Yasmin Yotam, and anyone who wished to help, built a chain reaction sculpture called a machine that does something that does something.
Next to that sculpture, and the Superman Simulator, Didi Vardi presented his Vibrating Laser Balls Organ, a 400 pound golf-ball-and-aluminum Stradivarius, a wonderful, real musical instrument inspired by the Animusic's virtual Pipe Dream. (video)

I'm also very curious about the Cooking Madness event. Was there anything edible there? What does "Cotton Candy with ambient touch" taste like for example?

BurningBicycleMan1.jpgCooking Madness was more than edible all right. As you cannot be in all of the activities, I didn’t get the chance to taste that Fluffy Clouds Cotton Candy. But I ate two pieces from Tal's mother’s terrific passion fruit cheese cake, which was introduced by 3 Powerpoint slides at the camp's first gathering. Most of the time I stood next to Yuval Tal who prepared the Extra alcoholic chocolate drink, and verified the quality of the cocktail.

At night, things were getting weirder, people juggling, geeks playing arcades or fighting each other with light sabres, and Vladimir, inspired by The Burning Man Project, was riding a bicycle while dragging another bicycle with a burning doll, which was created earlier by Didi's team.

I’d like to finish by send a enormous thanks and hugs to anyone who helped in the great 2007 KinnerNet event and also thank Yaniv Golan and Alex Sirota for the photos.

Thanks Rafael!

A last tip from Rafael: Gil Rimon and Lior Katz's Supermarket 2.0 parody (video.)

More images at Flickr tag KinnerNet2007. Photo of GuitarHeroNoid by Yaniv Golan. More images.

0goooape.jpgThe Ludic Society's Tagged City Play for Real Players in Real Cities was recently presented at Social Hacking, a series of temporary public art commissions for the city of Plymouth (UK).

Attracted by the slogan Become a game figure by implant!, participants were invited to get an injection of “RFID Judgement tags? under the skin. They then become Real Players, 1st life personae who are also game figures in the Reality Engine while playing in a real city. They can drive tuned Plymouth racing cars to tag the city and receive a tagging toolbox containing graffiti, spray stencils, stickers, RFID stickers and implant injection kits.

Real objects in the city are subjectively chosen for tagging. The tags are functional but useless (RFID-tags with zero data.) By putting this zero-tag on an object, players de-valuate real world things into virtual play-objects. If the Real Players find a tagged object with a value assigned to it, they zap it. The goal is to change the value of tags into the value Zero by using their “Wunderbäumchen? (inspired by the car air fresheners in the shape of a pine), technical toys used for finding and reading tags and/or emitting a target-oriented electro magnetic pulse.

0aaadammap.jpgThe players come in person to the play's Pit Stop to be refreshed and to be read. The ID information carried by the bodies of game figures/real players is uploaded. The implants are scanned to receive an individual play time pattern.

The Pata Play Map, a collectively en-played graphical machine, shows the score of each player depending on objects tagged and de-tagged. Depending on each player’s RFID-number, it generates a graphical element to display the routes between tagging actions over a satellite map. Each location of a tagging action is marked with a Wunderbäumchen sign. The interface integrates GIS systems such as Google Earth and Wikimapia. The look of the map as game score and display, for uploading subjective play data, forms the uncensored on-line map of ‘the Internet of things’.

The difference to existing locative mapping games is that it is no Game, just play, according to the Ludic Society slogan: We sell Play – no Games!

Via internetactu.

0enjoyyyyy.jpgLike probably many people i wouldn't think of using a phone booth anymore but i feel a pang of nostalgia each time i see an old-style one. Many artists have created performances, installations or games around public booth. One of my favourite performances is Sophie Calle's adoption of a phone booth in Greenwich Village back in 1994.

When Paul Auster suggested that the French artist contribute to the improvement of life in New York City, she spent a week sitting on a chair next to a public phone booth in TriBeCa. She replaced the Nynex logos with Have a Nice Day and Enjoy, stocked the booth with snacks, cigs, drinks and flowers, listened to conversations, chatted with people and got comments on the notepad left at the booth.

In the end representatives of the telephone company threw all of Calle’s improvements into a trash basket (via).

More recently, Ryan Holsopple launched a public pay phone who-dunnit that invites people to make a toll-free call from any public pay phone in Canal Street Station and solve a murder mystery.

Set in the maze of tiles that make up the station, the Canal Street Station game puts participants in the shoes of a private investigator, as he searches the depths of Canal Street Station for a young French woman that may have committed a murder, or may be a figment of his own imagination.0fileletelef.jpg

The game uses a Trixbox server, a phone application platform based on Asterisk™, to collect caller ID from payphones in the Canal Street Subway, and pinpoint where the player is located.

Players are asked one simple riddle that can be solved by refrencing a subway map on the platform, the answer has to be entered into the keypad when they hear Niki (alias Tajna Tanovic) say the words, "Canal Street Station."

"If you answer the clue correctly you hear her say, "Great Work Detective!" Niki then tells you a more difficult riddle that takes you to another platform in the station. The riddles become increasingly difficult as you walk the creepy corridors of the Canal Street Subway station finding the answers," explains Ryan Holsopple. "You can start on any payphone, but no matter where you begin you will eventually end up on the same platform in the end of the mystery, when you answer the final question, you are told which train to exit the station on to take you to the last stage of the mystery."

It's not the first time that the artist works with payphones: one project recorded subway Buskers, busker dial up (in collaboration with John Schimmel) and Peter Stuyvesant's Ghost, a self-guided walk through the area of Peter Stuyvesant's farm utilizing pay or cellphones to access soundworks.

I asked Holsopple a few questions about his latest project:

Why payphone? Are you still using them to make phone calls? Were you interested in working with them for some nostalgia-related reason?

I love payphones and with the growing number of mobile phones, it seems that payphones are on their way out, but I feel they are still essential to the makeup of the city.

Payphones in the NYC subway are the only way to communicate with the outside world, so that puts a boundary on users in a piece such as this, which is great when it comes to a game/theater piece.

I also love the nostalgia theme and much of the work that 31 Down does is based in nostalgia and the technology of the past and how it relates to the present.

0canalstreeeeeee.jpgThe theater company centers around the ideas and cliches of the 'Private Investigator', so this became extremely relevant when I started working with Asterisk, which is an open source PBX created by Mark Spencer. Asterisk (and the voyeuristic possibilities that it offers) has a very 'seedy' side to it and seems to me to be the perfect fit for a private investigator obsessed with surveillance and eavesdropping.

I was also interested in a report by the Straphangers about the state of payphones in the NYC subway.

When i first read about your project i immediately thought about some old films noir. Are there movie scenes that influenced the scenario or any other elements of your project?

31 Down's work is heavily influenced by film-noir. In this pay phone mystery, the audience gets to play the character of a private detective, Mike Sharpie. For clues along the mystery, you hear the inner voice of the detective through the phone handset, this convention has a direct relationship to the film-noir voiceover narrative, which I love.

You also hear the voice of a young lady who speaks with a heavy French accent (played by Tajna Tanovic), she may have killed someone in the station and she is leaving mysterious clues for the detective; this device is mostly based on the work of film director Krzysztof Kieslowski (Dekalog), and the use of obsession and voyeurism in his work.

Thanks Ryan!

The work is co-produced by free103point9 Transmission Arts and 31 Down radio theater and will be running until October 31, 2007. Photos of CSS by Christina Latimer.

0traaashthiscit.jpgNirmala Shome is currently busy fiddling with scissors, glue and bits of cardboard. She is meticulously constructing a cardboard model of a city that comes right out of the online game SimCity. The Trash This City installation will cover the floor of the All of the Above Gallery in Melbourne. This invasion of the space will force visitors into unavoidable contact with the "game interface". They will be free to manipulate and reconfigure the city, moving the buildings around, using markers to tag and graffiti the streets, etc. The show will only be open for one day and the night will culminate in the destruction of the entire installation, as only possible in the game.'

Video footage will be streamed live from the floor of the model and projected onto the gallery walls.

TRASH THIS CITY is the first work by Nirmala Shome, recent graduate of Media & Communications at Melbourne University and examines the powerful metaphor the game provides for life, and also the exhilaration involved in destruction.

Why this interest for sim city in particular?

Aside from the fact that I love the game city simcity2000, the computer game in general is a strong metaphor for the urban lifestyle. Each individual participates in a kind of game everyday, where the overriding aim is to score high - get money and reach the next level, or climb the career ladder. These are often the sole purpose in the daily urban lifestyle.

The city has become symbolic of the height of civilised culture today. But individuals are often at the mercy of the urban lifestyle and very rarely find opportunity to take control of the urban space. This why I have included the ability to move and shift buildings and graffitt, as a kind of 'reclaim the city' aspect.

The game sim city also allows players to destroy the city in the end, and as often the case with games we are able to carry out the most gruesome and terrible of tasks simply because their are no consequences. Often people when they start playing computer games, will try out all the horrific moves just to see what happens. For example, in the game Fable - a role playing game set in the Middleages, players were using peasants as human shields in their battles forcing the desginers to remove that feature of the game. Destruction is a powerful force that we rarely get to engage in, and computer games are one outlet. So as you set over the large keyboard into the screen of 'TRASH THIS CITY', you get an opportunity to play the game hands on, turning the usual user-friendly interface into a real tangible experience.

So far it has taken me around two months to build the model and I suspect I will be going for another two weeks, it's a lot of work!!

So Trash This City is a comment on game culture, urban environement, graffiti, right?

It comments on all these things, mostly game culture and the urban environment, but also is an examination of play and how we engage in play more often than we may think.

0alloftheabov.jpgHow do you feel about the idea of patiently building up a huge installation and seeing it reduced to a bunch of trash in only one evening? Why do you want to let all the power into the hands of the public?

It is going to be hard to see all my work destroyed, but I think that it is necessary. And for it to be truly interactive i believe that a fair amount of agency will have to be given to the audience, because an essential element of any game is the ability to control your movements, even if you cannot control the environment that you are playing in.

You recently graduated from Media & Communications at Melbourne University. How is the new media art scene over there?

The Media Art scene in Melbourne is still developing momentum. There is alot of video art coming up and being shown at well established galleries which is great. Our ACMI - Australian Centre for the Moving Image - specialises in film and video art, and often has great work showing and video installations.

Thanks Nirmala!

The installation is on view on Friday 30th March, from 11am till late, at All of the Above Gallery in Melbourne, Australia.

Angelo-Vermeulen-foto.jpgIn December, Yves Bernard invited me to give a talk at Art+Game, a conference and exhibition about video games from an artistic point of view. After my usual little show, a guy came to me, his name was Angelo Vermeulen. He had curated a part of the exhibition with such talent and impeccable taste that i was all ears, i thought he'd want to talk about games. He didn't. He wanted to give me a CD of his work. Man! Don't you have a website like everyone? A CD! Something tangible that will meet the same end as all those business cards that people keep handing me: they end up in the bin of some hotel because they just clutter my handbag. I came late to digital data so now i stick to it, if i want to find you, i just google you and that's it. Anyway, a few days later i was in one of those hotel rooms. There was no internet. I open Angelo's CD and look at its content. The next thing i did when i finally managed to get online was to ask Angelo if i could interview him. Angelo doesn't have a website (yet!), he's way too cool for that.

He wrote part of the interview in NYc, part in Sint-Niklaas and then disappeared somewhere in Andalusia.

Originally trained as a biologist (PhD at the University of Leuven, Belgium), he also followed a photography training at the Art Academy of Leuven. Moved to London to work with Nick Waplington. Back in Belgium he took up post-graduate studies at the Higher Institute of Fine Arts (HISK) in Antwerp.

Blue-Shift-[LOG3.jpgAfter that traces of his activities appear online. Most notably, his installation Blue Shift [LOG. 1], introduced last Summer at Isea2006, aims to question the status of the utilitarian in art and science and push interactive installation art into Darwinian realms (detail of the installation on the right). A community of single-cell algae, water fleas, fish and water snails is set up in the exhibition space. Visitors induce a gradual microevolution of the - genetically determined - light-responsive behavior of the water fleas. When the system is in standby, yellow lights illuminate the aquaria from the top. The water fleas are attracted to this light and swim towards it. Whenever a visitor is detected in proximity of the installation, blue spotlights are activated. Water fleas, repelled by this color, flee downwards and pass through holes in a false bottom in the aquaria... where fish are waiting to wipe them out.

What can be considered to be a survival strategy in natural circumstances - blue light indicates clear open water and hence potential detection by fish - has quite a different meaning in this set-up: it is exactly those water fleas that do not swim away from the blue light that survive and reproduce. In this way their genes will become dominant in the water flea populations and a "contra-natural" selection will occur.

He has been working on “SKANNER?, a new media project on human fear in cooperation with Tamuraj, electronic musician and mathematics researcher. The audience is exposed to a frightening live montage of video images and sounds generated by the artists and an artificial intelligent computer system. Physical reactions of the audience such as heart rate and blood pressure are monitored. An artificial creative agent uses these data to decipher and simulate the relation between fear responses and sounds and images. The agent functions as a third “virtual? artist. Through the accumulation of empirical data and learning algorithms, SKANNER tries to evolve towards a real fear machine.

Skanner Labtest - Video stills

Angelo is currently busy writing a book on the relation between art, technology and spirituality in partnership with art philosopher Antoon Van den Braembussche. In collaboration with Quebec-based artist Louis Blackburn, he is also preparing several new media projects and a documentary on computer game culture. He and Etienne Van den Bergh, president of Contour Mechelen, will be touring Europe with a series of lectures on games (games & cinema, games & the body).

Angelo, you’re one of the few people who are both trained as a scientist (biology in your case) and fine artist. Do you make a clear distinction between your work as an artist and your scientific activities?

In the beginning of my life as an artist I was mainly focused on photography and I was convinced that my scientific background was something I had to get rid of in order to make good art. It was only a few years later that I discovered that combining these things would lead to much more powerful creations. Now I feel a lot of my work is a layered convergence of rationality, intuition and hyperesthesis. In the interactive cinema project ‘SKANNER’ (2002-2005) and the installation piece Blue Shift [LOG. 1] (2005) I explicitly combined both my art and my science background. Certain aspects of these projects were strictly scientific, while others were purely artistically motivated, and there is evidently a different mindset for each of the positions. Blue Shift [LOG. 1] was created with Luc De Meester, a former colleague of mine and a specialist in evolutionary biology. For this project I had to make a lot of choices about the setup of the piece in a larger art exhibition context. I choose a basement location because that gave the right kind of conditions and associations I wanted; a half-hidden and darkened laboratory with close proximity to a workshop where technicians were running in and out. Once the location was chosen the process started of building up the piece in relation to the space itself. These decisions were primarily artistically motivated: I wanted to create a 3D image that had an immediate and strong impact on the visitor. I have learned by now that such creative choices only can be rationally analyzed and (partly) understood after the piece is ready. When creating an installation I strongly rely on intuition to decide which specific materials to use, where to put things, how to set up the lighting etc. Of course there are also significant conceptual issues related to certain choices, it’s not just a formal process. However, with Blue Shift [LOG. 1] things became even more complex than that; whenever I made a creative choice I had to make sure it did not violate the scientific rationale behind the work. The idea of this piece was to create a work that functioned both as an interactive installation, and as a scientific experiment. A true hybrid work.
Skanner Labtest Z33

SKANNER was a collaboration with musician and mathematician Tamuraj. The goal was to create a live horror movie that would use images and sounds from a database in combination with a live-generated soundtrack. During the performance we monitored the public’s bodily responses as an indication of emotional state, such as heart rate and blood pressure. We then used these data to optimize the live montage of image and sound in two different ways. First, all the data were displayed in real time so that we could actively use the public’s emotional state as a directive for mixing sound and image. Second, Tamuraj programmed an artificial intelligence module that constantly compared output (the live movie) and input (the public’s emotional data). The software then automatically optimized the impact of the performance by making autonomous decisions about the sound sequencing for example. In this way, the soundtrack during our last performance was to a large extent created by the audience’s hearts. In an art project like this, the aim is to create a powerful audiovisual experience that at the same time uses systematic scientific analysis.

Did the art audience react to Blue Shift [LOG. 1] in the same way as the scientific audience?

Both audiences reacted strongly to the aesthetics of the piece; to its visual language and its setup in the space. But each audience also responded very specifically from within its own context; art audiences tended to be fascinated by the conceptual dual nature of the work, while scientists quickly started investigating the experimental design of the project. During the exhibition Luc De Meester invited an American colleague who was visiting Belgium. His colleague was extremely enthusiastic because he saw both a scientific and educational value in the project. We were provoking Darwinian evolution of the light responsive behavior of water fleas through exposure to predating goldfish. Our hypothesis was formed from related observations, and had never been tested before. The project was a way to bring specific research to a wider audience. The feeling that your daily practice gets a meaning for a broader public is very gratifying, but unfortunately, this happens hardly ever for scientists.

Water flea and Blue Shift [LOG. 1] installation view

What makes the art approach interesting in a regular scientific context? Can your artistic explorations be fed back to the scientific frame?

I am not sure that the art approach in general can have a major impact on scientific practice. The last decades it’s been very popular to stress the similarities between art and science. Artists and scientists are “creative and inspired?, the artist studio can be seen as a sort of laboratory, etc. Recently, at an exhibition opening in Los Angeles, an artist came up to me and stated that “scientists are artists?. I personally oppose this oversimplification. There are fundamental differences between both worlds that cannot be bridged. First, the idea that scientists have of the world is completely different than that of artists. According to science, the world is something to be fully understood and modeled and mathematics is regarded as its true underlying basis. Through a process of continuous refinement science is looking for the one universal model that will explain everything. This is a very Cartesian way of looking at the world still. As an artist you have the freedom to reject this, and personally I believe you have to reject the supremacy of such reductionist models to make truly engaging art. Art is about what escapes definition, there is a sort of spiritual element in good works of art that defies any analysis. Take poetry for example; a computer program using artificial intelligence could probably convincingly simulate a poetic style. However, true engaging poetry has an authenticity you cannot artificially create. This may seem like a very Romantic notion of art, but I believe ambiguity and ungraspability are crucial characteristics of art.

0thomskhhu.jpgA second important difference between science and art is the handling of tradition. In a more traditional view, science is a constant flow of historicide, while art production is a process of reiteration. Through the continuous creation of new subsequent models, science progresses towards a sort of utopian ultimate understanding of the world. Older models are replaced by new ones, hence the concept of historicide. In contrast, art would constantly build on the works of former generations. “Unlike art, science destroys its own past? Thomas Kuhn argued in his Comment on the Relations of Science and Art. I don’t fully agree with this. In the daily practice of science its history and traditions are continuously present. One of the most central aspects of scientific practice is its use of statistics, the universally adopted methodology to analyze data and present insights. If your insights do not comply with the norms of this standardized system, they won’t be considered valid. It’s quite a fascinating system in its own respect and works really well. However, for me this was a major difference when I started making art: in art there is no such inevitable standardized context to work in. Art works do not have to comply with a specific set of rules to be considered “valid?. On the contrary, in the avant-garde/modernist model we use today, art should be questioning, even annihilating predecessing art and should create more pertinent and visionary answers. This doesn’t mean that the contemporary art world is always so ‘refreshing’, quite the opposite. Contemporary art seems to suffer heavily from reiteration, and we see the same things over and over again such as conceptualism, minimalism, pop art etc.

Apart from similarities, both art and science have their individual specificity that you have to handle in their own respect. Like I said before there’s no need to throw away things; combining different attitudes is the most fascinating thing you can do. However, the desire to fuse everything into one ‘model’, into one singularity is a typically Western cultural attitude. This attitude not only has its roots in scientific thinking but has also been shaped by religion and economics. A religion in which everything is reduced to one singular deity, and an economic model – capitalism – which at the root is obsessed with efficiency and hence singularity.

So, because of fundamental differences between contemporary art and science, I don’t believe they will blend again into a sort of neo-Renaissance model. Moreover, in practice science is often only superficially interested in art. Scientists don’t have the need and, more importantly, don’t have the time to indulge in an art practice consistently. However, there are examples in which the scientific community truly shows interest in a complementary artistic approach. In the specific example of ‘Blue Shift [LOG. 1]’ there was effectual feedback to the scientific community on different levels. Luc De Meester was happy to see that his year-long laboratory work finally found a way to a broader public, and that the work resulted in actual data to be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Personally, this is one of my favorite aspects of the whole project; publishing an art piece in the world of science through a sort of Trojan horse.

On the other side, a lot of contemporary art does happily embrace science and technology. ISEA2006 (International Symposium for Electronic Arts) in San Jose was a clear example of this. This symposium is organized every two years in a different city, and for the 2006 edition the organizers worked together with ZeroOne San Jose, a festival on digital culture. During a full week in August there were numerous artist presentations, lectures by media theorists and curators, panel debates, etc. All this in conjunction with an extensive showcase of art works and performances throughout the whole city. The art projects somehow always made use of recent technology, both in very simple and in very elaborate ways.

Now, this embrace of technology in art has its own problems. What particularly struck me during the symposium sessions in San Jose was the desire of many artists to drown their work in an academic jargon. It looked a bit like a desperate attempt to be taken seriously and make sure the audience realized there was a “deeper meaning? to the work. I think that by doing this so explicitly you basically ‘kill’ the work, you kill the potential for an open experience by your audience. And then again, don’t forget that clever rhetorics can be used to apply ‘deeper meaning’ to almost anything. Of course all this is a consequence of conceptualism and of the enormous influence of academic discourse in the shaping of art careers. Another way in which the importance of an art project was put forward was through stressing its technological innovation value. Most often this resulted in art project presentations that were basically nothing more than fancy tech demos. There’s more – or sometimes less – to art than impressing with a technological trick developed in collaboration with a prestigious university. It’s the sort of techno-fetishism that is rife in the new media art scene. A new creative technology is presented as an art piece but essentially lacks genuine layers of poetic meaning simply because the focus is on the technology itself, and not on what lies beyond. The medium has become the message; nothing new here.

Spiral & Underground Support System (Television)

You wrote that today (new media) artists are often under pressure to present their work as "research". What are the pitfalls of such attitude?

I have no problem with research in the arts whatsoever. It’s an interesting evolution that artists don’t necessarily have to produce well-defined (collectible) objects. It’s the art practice as a whole that has come to the foreground; what artists stand for, how artists make their attitude come true in the world, how they communicate their ideas, what other experiments and side projects they’re involved in, etc. Such layered activity and exploration is also valued these days. However, there are some pitfalls in overtly stressing research in art practice.

First of all, research may become an end in itself; the artist’s work becomes interesting simply because it is research. As a consequence some artists start legitimizing their work through some sort of research concept hoping that it will make the work more relevant. Well, it’s up to the spectator to decide whether the research presented is actually meaningful or just a “marketing trick?. Sometimes research even becomes an excuse to avoid making a clear-cut artistic statement or finalized work. The work-in-progress-syndrome. I have nothing against work-in-progress tactics but they should be meaningful in view of a chosen strategy, not a pretext to procrastinate. In some cases artists fall victim to their own endless technical research. This is a phenomenon which you often encounter in the new media scene. People start up a technically complex project and keep struggling with it for years and years, continuously working on the technical and financial aspects of the work. Once again, this is not a necessarily bad strategy but in some cases the artist would be better off picking up some completely new ideas and a fresh new project. Experimentation and exploration seem essential for me.

I also believe there is a strong tendency nowadays to instrumentalize art, especially those art forms that do not sell well. This is of course a neoliberal vision on the art practice; art should somehow financially sustain itself within market forces. There’s a big cultural difference between this in Europe and the US. In Europe, art that has less or no commercial value can be funded by the government, much less so in the US. As a consequence, American artists tend to present their new media work more often as research with a utilitarian benefit for society: it has an academic value, it’s technologically innovative etc. I think this is not always a healthy situation. Art should reclaim its rights to be sometimes… well, not useful at all, not in a directly measurable way. I even think contemporary art should become more irrational. We badly need more “nonsense?.

Is Drumlander a way to, as you put it elsewhere, "reclaim the freedom to play"? How did you get into the game culture by the way?

Yes, Drumlander is exactly that. This doesn’t mean we approach our game-related projects in a casual manner; on the contrary, we are very focused on bringing quality in what we do. Computer games are something Louis Blackburn and I grew up with. I was playing a lot but never really thought of incorporating games into my art. All this changed when I visited Louis in Québec City in 2004. We started talking about games; about the beauty, strength and craftsmanship of our favorite games, links with other media, and above all, approaches to recycle this culture in a creative manner. And that’s how we decided to set up Drumlander. Drumlander was originally conceived as a DJ project with game music, but quickly evolved into a much broader platform to explore the creative potential of games. In the DJ set we mix original game tunes, game music remixes and chip music made with old game consoles. We have gathered a massive collection of game songs and sounds, and depending on the venue, things become more dancy or experimental. It’s undoubtedly a great new experience for me coming from a background of science and visual arts.

Drumlander Art+Game montage

I really liked the games you curated for the exhibition Art+Game organized by IMAL in Brussels last December. It presented the most interesting aspects of video games today: activism, education and fun. Which criteria guided your selection?

Drumlander’s game arcade The Sweet and Violent Underbelly of Game Culture is a showcase of independent games, mostly freeware and open-source. The present-day game industry can be compared to the film industry, with a small group of massive studios creating the most lucrative games, and a widespread scene of independent artists and programmers. For the arcade we consistently look for computer games that show a level of artistic ingenuity. As a spectator, this may not always seem so obvious at a first glance; sometimes you really need to submerge yourself in the game to discover this. There are many different levels on which a game can excel in creativity: its concept, gameplay, graphics, music, etc. A crucial aspect of the arcade is that we are constantly around to introduce people to the games, to play with or against them, discuss the significance of games, etc. This results in a whole different experience for the audience. For many visitors, games transform from a previously misunderstood commodity to an exiting medium with loads of creative potential.

For our last installment of the arcade at Art+Game in Brussels, we also included a personal selection of political games. These are games that take current political and social issues as a central theme. Sometimes in truly activist sense, and sometimes more in an ironic way. Through their sheer subject matter these games possess a sort of documentary value; something I learned during a debate with Eddo Stern and Peter Brinson at Gamezone deSingel in Antwerp last year. I find this a very interesting new way of looking at games.

Drumlander - DJ set in Quebec

I read about one of your upcoming projects that will star mad scientists. It is certainly an ironic idea coming from you. What motivated the choice of that character?

I have a strong interest in cultural icons like the zombie, the alchemist, and mad scientist because they represent a sort of underground science. Each icon has a specific and consistent logic of its own but at the same time clearly transgresses the boundaries of normalized rational thinking. They also reflect people’s fears; both about science and the unknown. The alchemist and mad scientist are figures that operate in an ethical no-man’s-land and use technology without constraints, thus provoking fear. On the other hand, the mysticism which is involved in alchemy and zombies reflects man’s inexhaustible fascination-repulsion for the unknown.

I am currently planning an audio piece using the in-game dialogues of mad scientists captured from a wide range of computer games. The piece will be a multichannel surround installation set up around a central video sculpture. My idea is to create a sort of incongruous conversation piece that in a way reflects the representation of science in popular game culture.

Can you already tell us a few words about the book you’re working on?

The book I am currently writing with art philosopher Antoon Van den Braembussche, is a series of dialogues on contemporary relations of art, science, and spirituality. We met some years ago at the HISK; a postgraduate art school in Antwerp where I was studying at the time. During our first meeting at his home we had a non-stop conversation of more than seven hours. Consequently we thought it might be a great idea to use such conversations as the basis for a book. We approach the rather wide spectrum of the book’s subject through ten different angles: art and science, the virtualization of contemporary culture, computer games and visual culture, spirituality in the digital age, etc. It’s an extremely “natural? project that flows wonderfully well. The discussions are almost always unprepared and lead to the most surprising insights. We also travel around for this project. We go to Spain quite often, to work in isolation in a small mountain village in Andalusia, and we’re also planning to make a trip through Asia to go and talk with local philosophers and Buddhist monks.

There’s already a big interest in our book; people keep on asking me when it will be finished. We plan to have the Dutch manuscript ready by the end of this year, and the book should be out in 2008. After the Dutch version we’ll start working on an English and French translation.

Now two silly questions that I think you deserve!
1. When will you have a website?

In February I will have a brand new web site. It will contain both an artist archive, a blog and a vault for all texts, ideas, scans, manuals that I think might be useful for the community. Until then you can check some of my work on the IBK Visual Arts Database.

2. Is there any talent that you don’t have?

Oh, one thing I am pretty bad at is orientation. I don’t know why but I have a harder time than anyone else to get a clear oversight of a city. In the end I usually get it, but it takes me like 15 times longer than a normal brain. However, in games I do pretty well…

Thanks Angelo!

All images courtesy of Angelo Vermeulen (except the portrait of Thomas Kuhn.)

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