Performance art is very much in favour these days. This Summer in London only, The Tanks opened its gigantic space to 'art in action' and the Hayward inaugurated Art of Change, a showcase of installation and performance art in China.
Active Presence - Action, Object and Audience which opened last month at LABoral in Gijón has a fairly similar focus: performance and installation art. But with an added focus on audience participation.
Before this intro goes any further, i think i should exemplify the concept of the show with one of the works i found most engaging. Mentally and physically. Well... i slightly moved my head to the beat of the music while watching the aerobic class. Surely, that counts as a bodily experience.
That's right! An aerobic class! Mads Lynnerup has designed a series of gym equipment (my favourite are the weights shaped like jamónes) and invited local fitness instructors to use them as they please during their classes. Right in the middle of the exhibition space. Anyone interested in taking part can register and bring their leg warmers or whatever is suitable for aerobic, zumba or pilates.
In Plastic Gymnastic, the art objects are either hung on the wall or manipulated by sweaty palms. And the people you never get to meet outside art openings, are suddenly there in front of you kettlebell swinging and doing planks.
The work demonstrates Lynnerup's fascination with the similarities of two universes that appear to be very dissimilar. 'I think the two worlds have a lot in common, he explained. They are both obsessive and become fanatic in their own way (as in one thinks only about working out or making art etc.) and I like the idea that, as an artist in my studio, I am working out something.'
Active Presence - Action, Object and Audience is thus about performance and installation art but they are never dissociated from the role that the public takes in the exhibition space. Implicitly or explicitly. Physically or psychologically.
Or in curators' speak: The aim of the exhibition is the conflation of performance and installation into a diverse landscape of dynamic installations activated by the artists and/or the audience within the museum's gallery walls. There are works in which the audience take a more passive role, while the artists are the activators. Conversely, there are also installations whose existence depends upon the participation of the public. There is work that also functions in both domains. In all is found a unique territory betwixt and between genres where conceptually layered relationships uncommon to the experience of pure performance or installation reside.
Spectators have to be brave to engage with John Bock's Vas-Y! (which i'd translate as 'go on!') though.
Bock invited members of the audience to step inside a small house, complete with furniture and music instruments. But as soon as the door closes behind you, it starts moving on its axis and you feel like you are inside a washing machine. Or a hamster inside a wheel if you walk at the correct rhythm.
Video of what goes on inside.
Thom Kubli used the exhibition space as the setting for a Guiness Book record. He broke the world record of "The Longest Guitar Solo Ever Played." He managed to stand there --without ever taking a break-- playing the instrument during 17 hours, 21 minutes and 2 seconds.
If you think you can outperform Kubli, feel free to drop a line to produccion @ laboralcentrodeart org. They will give you the space, the guitar, a witness and stream your solo of guitar through their web.
I've no clue what Alastair MacLennan was doing balancing a tree on his head but it was the most exquisite and intriguing spectacle of the opening night.
Sergio Prego's rubber architecture of tunnels in the entrance of the art center.
More images from the show:
Active Presence, Action, Object and Audience was curated by Sergio Edelsztein and Kathleen Forde. The exhibition remains open until 25 February 2013 at LABoral Centro de Art y Creación Industrial in Gijón, Spain.
Another work i discovered at the GAMERZ festival in Aix en Provence a few days ago. And just like yesterday's this one give sound a visual presence. So visual actually that artist Cécile Babiole defines her work as a 'sound sculpture.'
Bzzz! The sound of electricity brings us back to the pre-digital sound, to a time when electric energy was so raw and new, that it buzzed, sparkled and vibrated. The work renders the sound of electricity audible and spread it over the ambient space. Six frequency generators comprising basic electronic components allow the electrical current to be modulated so as to generate slightly amplified sound vibrations.
The soundscape is best experience when walking inside the sculpture, going from one sound to another, seeing how the cables and loudspeakers slightly vibrate as if the electrical current was waking them to an organic life. The sound wave generator itself is at the centre of the circular structure. It was amusing to see how male visitors felt entitled to turn the buttons to control the sound. I guess any artwork that uses electronics is now regarded as being automatically 'interactive.' But this piece wasn't. Cécile Babiole did however use Bzzz! as an instrument for a performance she gave during the opening of the festival
By reinventing an obsolete low-tech sound wave generator in this all-digital age, Bzzz ! serves as a commentary on the history of technology and a tribute to unprocessed, unsampled analog sound : in a word, the raw sound of electricity.
Video showing the installation in action, along with a short interview with the artist (in french):
Also at the last edition of GAMERZ: Macro-videos for musicians in action.
I didn't get the chance to see Five Thousand Generations of Birds but the idea and its result are so seducing i thought i should write something about it. Five Thousand Generations of Birds was an exhibition located in the archipelago of Fitjar, on the West coast of Norway, - a landscape consisting of 381 islands, isles and reefs.
Roman Signer planted a pair of blue boots on poles on a reef. Not only is the reef in the middle of nowhere but it is not even visible when the tide is high.
Joanna Malinowska asked an opera singer to stand and sing on one of the isles.
Miks Mitrevics chose to spent 15 days in complete silence on one of the isles. All by himself and sleeping in a shelter he had built. He communicated through letters he sent on a floating mailbox in the sea. The locals brought him fresh fish to eat, sheep for company and magazines for entertainment on their own initiative.
Norwegian duo aiPotu measured an island, transporting a big tree from land by sea and using it as the measurement.
Five Thousand Generations of Birds showed art that interrupts, disrupts and transforms the landscape and the local community. In the end the exhibition -which lasted only a couple of days- all was back to normal. The islands, isles and reefs are ruling the landscape almost as if nothing ever happened. The only difference is that the local communities and visitors are probably looking at it with another eye.
Well, as i wrote, i wasn't there to experience it but that didn't prevent me from asking the curators to tell me about the project:
Hi, Andrea and Silje! The way you made Five Thousand Generations of Birds is probably as fascinating as what you made. Could you tell us about the challenges in logistics (transport, construction, shipping, etc) you encountered while preparing the exhibition?
Obviously, most of us were not used to these kinds of logistics. Working on tiny isles could be compared to working inside a bus, driving in circles in a roundabout, with the windows wide open, without seats, and without a driver. Still, it hasn't been more challenging or time consuming than we expected. We wanted the logistics to be an intrusive part of the process.
On the other hand, to actually live there and never be able to escape the context was more of a challenge than what we expected. After work every day, the artists where shipped to their residence at a small island called Engesund, and had to stay there until the local boat drivers started their shift around 10 o´clock the morning after. Some said that at first it felt like some sort of a claustrophobic art prison, but after a few days, this prison created an unique atmosphere and an open dialogue between the artists.
The projects were in constant change, not only due to artistic freedom, but also due to the fact that the exhibition space was regularly modified by storms, heavy rain, wild sheep eating the art, etc. This lead to quite a few problematic practicalities that had to be solved during the last days. Thanks to resources that seemed to appear as if by magic, and a lot of enthusiastic people, we were able to make it happen.
One example is the work of Julien Berthier (FR). After finding the geographical center of Fitjar and detaching it from its ground, he wanted to transport the 3,2 meters in diameter and 650 kilos center with a helicopter to place it on his isle. Fortunately the first windmill for a huge windmill park in the Fitjar mountains was being shipped at this time, and there was a lot of helicopters cruising around in the area, so one of the helicopter drivers agreed on shipping the center of Fitjar in between the windmill-work.
Another example is Tori Wrånes (NO) diving board. She needed to mount the board on a cliff wall for her performance. A good climber was required for this task. After talking to some of the locals it actually turned out that an Australian free-climber was hanging out in Fitjar, just waiting for adventures, he was booked and was a great recourse during the rest of the project.
All in all, several projects could not have been realized without us partly relying on the strategy of chance. A strategy that is used by many of the locals in Fitjar, they say you just have to spread the word, and everything is pretty much solved within an hour.
Ftgofbirds takes place on the archipelago of Fitjar which is made of 381 islands, isles and reefs. I suspect you must have met with some ecological concerns when you submitted the idea of organizing this weekend of site specific works. Did you have to meet requirements related to the land or the eco system for example? Did any of them force you and the artists to modify some of the projects or modes of operation?
As we started the process of getting permission to work at the islands in 2009, we already knew that we wanted to emphasize production on site, which meant no shipping of finished works from around the world. This strategy of course limited the amount of materials available, but increased the involvement with the local community and also saved the amount of transport needed.
Taking a look at the history of Fitjar and other places along the Norwegian coast, you don't have to go more than 60-80 years back in time to find documents of how people who lived on the islands had to risk their lives when rowing out to buy materials for their farms and houses. There are plenty of stories of people who drowned as their boats were caught by bad weather, and the only traces left to find were pieces of wood floating on the water. The stories have set a dark, uncanny backdrop for us as artists in our constant hunt for materials.
Concerning requirements we were not allowed to make any permanent marks in the landscape except from drilling a few holes with a maximum of 12 millimeter diameter on each isle.
This rule shaped some of the artists work. One of them, Øyvind Aspen (NO), worked with the idea of a tiny drilled hole as the only permanent, physical mark anyone could make and drilled a 13 millimeter hole in his island. The performance based installation was titled; "One out of two mystical possibly magical passages tumbling the hell away from this godforsaken place." His character Øy-vind (island-wind), a mixture of a hillbilly/magician/fisherman, was spotted cruising around in Fitjar on a scooter, flirting with the local teens, visiting the area, while handing out flyers with information of this proclaimed passage.
As the only inhabitants on the isles, the birds that usually live there were a big concern during the production, but as the hatching season was over, the birds easily relocated to the neighbour isles.
I'm also curious about the local communities. How did they react to the project?
The local community has been a very important part of the project.
We thought it would be a struggle to engage the local communities, but they proved us wrong every time we came up with a new idea. People have been curious and eager to work with us.
Ever since the municipality got involved, we have regularly visited Fitjar to have meetings with a local resource group who have been helping out with logistics, etc. Without this connection the project would have been very hard to conduct. A couple of weeks before the exhibition, we sent a very informal letter to all the residents at Fitjar, introducing us and the project and giving everyone an invitation to the exhibition. Approximately 2500 people visited Five Thousand Generations of Birds during the weekend, most of them from the area, and Fitjar is a small town of only 3000 inhabitants. We heard this after we left: "There is a new era in Fitjar. Before and after Erlend Helland, (the local taxi driver), attended an art exhibition."
Kunstverein St. Pauli, a nomadic gallery that came from Hamburg to join the programme brought a tattoo needle with them, so that people could get free island tattoos. Several artists, the crew, volunteers and the audience got tattoos with one of the islands surrounding Smedholmen.
What guided the selection of artists? And according to what criteria did you attribute an island to each one?
We are both artists, and wanted the strategies to be based upon artists inviting artists. The selection has been made from several criteria related to our intuition, association, our common sense of humour, but most of all we have have been working together for so many years that we just created our own sense of logic related to this project. This logic or these rules are hard to categorize or even grasp, and they have been changing alongside the constant work in progress.
Other important aspects guided our selection:
- We wanted to approach the process in the same way as we would do in our artistic production. The site is also a logical choice based on our own artistic production.
Each of the works created was temporary and site-specific but do you think that they might also leave something permanent behind them?
We wanted the exhibition to be temporary. We wanted the works to be seen within two days by the audience. For a sculpture-based work, this is a relatively short time, but for a performative work, the duration had to be up to 8 hours since we wanted all the works to be present at the same time.
There might be some actual physical traces of the works left behind, even though we wanted the landscape to appear untouched after the show was over, it was a strong request from the locals that we would leave some of it there. Roman Signer donated his sculpture "Ladder with Boots" to Fitjar. This can hopefully be seen for many years, and it's interesting to see what happens over time to a work that is meant to be temporary.
Other artists donated their works to the volunteers of the projects, some of the sculptural works can be seen in gardens around Fitjar.
The geographical center of Fitjar is also marked permanently with the pole Julien Berthier put down after ending his project.
The permanent effect will be easier to talk about later, after we have visited again, and after the stories related to the project have spread.
A local change should not be underestimated.
The documentation of the exhibition, and the tales of before and after, have been difficult, as the images and the words could romanticize this kind of artistic practice. The experience of being present during the exhibition was much more subtle and demanding.
All images courtesy of the curators.
Do you remember Technoviking? He was one of Youtube's sensations in 2007. Millions of people admired his dancing skills and undeniable male magnetism but to this day, his identity remains a mystery. The technoviking video has been blogged, commented, shared, emailed and sparked numerous parodies.
Wafaa Bilal has installed an inflatable Technoviking avatar at All Saints Park in Manchester for AND, the Festival of New Cinema, Digital Culture and Art (running this weekend and you should run there too if you can, it's that good). The gigantic head is linked a twitter account and in order to breathe life into it, people have to tweet about it otherwise Technoviking will go flat and dance right back to oblivion again. So go and tweet #technoviking to keep him alive!
Pop culture and astute social comments cohabit in this work like in other works by Bilal. Meme Junkyard is fun and a bit silly of course but it also invites us to reflect on the promises of constant connectivity, on the meaning of 'going viral,' of generating almost unlimited levels of attention before fading back into disinterest. What happens to the technoviking (as well as to the other meme that will soon lay to inflate and deflate in the meme junkyard) is similar to what awaits our ego when other web users stop re-tweeting our rants, linking to our blog posts (oh please let that never happen to me!), or thumbing up our status on facebook.
And the one and only:
Wafaa Bilal is going to discuss his work this Sunday at Cornerhouse. The event is free.
AND, the Festival of New Cinema, Digital Culture and Art remains open all over Manchester until 2 September 2012.
Other works by Wafaa Bilal: Subversion in the Arab Art world, A few words with Wafaa Bilal, Book Review - Shoot An Iraqi, Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun, Positions in Flux - Panel 1: Art goes politics - Wafaa Bilal, ...and Counting.
Time machines, false memory, earthly landscape, moon rock gardening, flying saucers, lunacy, galactic adventures and the occasional rabbit. That's the world sketched by Sue Corke and Hagen Betzwieser. Roughly speaking, Sue is a printmaker and Hagen is a 'New New Media' artist but together they are more than the sum of their parts, they are We Colonised the Moon.
The work of WCTM is clever and nonsensical, dreamy and rooted in techno-scientific experiments. It is driven by its own logic. I'm not sure that the interview below is going to lift the whole mystery behind their work but i certainly had a lot of fun in the attempt.
Hello Sue and Hagen! I discovered your work a year ago, when you were showing '101 Harmless Scientific Experiments To Try At Home' at the Acme Project Space in London but you've obviously worked on many ideas and projects right after that. What are you up to this Summer?
Sue: This summer we have had two shows running, at EB&Flow in London and Villa Rosenthal in Germany. The shows are both mostly dealing with work we have done together over the last couple of years. Most recently we have been working on ideas about astronaut training and space maintenance, shooting a lot of videos and building moon rocks out of authentic moon dust simulant.
Hagen: This is definitely the direction we are focusing on now. Installation, video projection, artefacts, movement and performance. We started more 2D for sure because we came together through making graphic work, we continue to make prints but most of the time we're working on installations now.
You come from different backgrounds. Sue is involved in printmaking and illustration while Hagen used to work mostly with video and conceptual art. How did you two get to work together?
Sue: Pure accident. We literally bumped into each other at a bus stop in Norway. Hagen was in a residency programme at the Nordic Artists' Center in Dale (NDK) and I was visiting to make a short illustration project about forests and star constellations there.
Hagen: It all started a bit like RUN DMC and Aerosmith working together as studio neighbours.
Sue: Dale is surrounded by the most amazing Norwegian mountain and fjord landscapes. We made an expedition to Sognefjellet, a Photoshop perfect wilderness, and had endless discussions about how reality is constructed. In the process we discovered some shared interests. We both had backgrounds in science and media. My parents were chemists. Hagen was a junior astronomer in an observatory close to Heidelberg in Germany. I worked for a spell in advertising and multimedia. Hagen had been an art director for a design agency.
Hagen: Through endless hikes and talks about The Clangers, YPS, Blue Peter, Particles, Heinz von Foerster, Constructivist epistemology and so on somehow we came to the point where we thought it could be an interesting idea to work on a project together.
Sue: The ideas we generated during this trip were so fun that I definitely wanted to work like this more. And it was obvious Hagen had absolutely no idea about printmaking!
Hagen: True. I thought only about my little A4 laser jet. Oh boy :) But she convinced me the quick cartoon style sketches I make for my works would work really well as silkscreens. So this is how a nature encounter, theory, two different illustration styles, childhood interests, professional skills and ink became the starting point for our collaboration ... and even our name WE COLONISED THE MOON is made in Norway. Out of this small joint illustration / print project it became now an ongoing and growing collaboration since 2008.
You've '(re-)created' the smell of the moon in at least two exhibitions. How did you do that? How much of the result is the fruit of your imagination? Is this a pleasant smell?
Sue: Astronaut Charlie Duke, the tenth man to walk on the moon, said it was not unpleasant. The Apollo astronauts were drawn from the military. I think they knew what they were talking about when they likened the smell to gunpowder. Naturally this is their frame of reference but that's how we all interpret sensory information. I like the smell of burnt matches myself.
Hagen: No one can smell the moon directly of course. The vacuum in space prohibits this. But this gritty tacky meteor bombarded dust on the surface gets on to their spacesuits and back into the LEM. Then there is this massive reaction with oxygen and moisture. The loose molecules go off like firecrackers and generate the smell they experienced.
Sue: So, we had the smell synthesised by Steve Pearce, a chemist who is an international aroma expert in the UK. He makes flavours and smells commercially for his own company and had been approached by NASA some years ago to work on the smell of space for astronaut training.
Hagen: What's attractive to us about this phenomena is the strong link between smell and memory and the association with place, whether it's real or imagined is actually the crux the work we make hangs on.
Sue: Curator Caro Verbeek from the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam knew we were working on the idea of space aromas and asked us to make a piece for her for the event "Do It Smell It" on olfactory art in 2010. We came up with the idea of a scratch and sniff postcard from the moon. A momento from a place most people will never go. A fictional memory.
Hagen: Then in 2011 for a commission from The Arts Catalyst and FACT Liverpool we created an installation for the exhibition Republic of the Moon. Visitors could enter (on own risk) a film-set like test chamber. Periodically an astronaut resprayed an array of "authentic" moon rocks with synthesised lunar aroma. As longer you stayed in the environment as more you got pollinated with moon smell. After you left, the smell travelled for several hours with you on your clothes out into the city.
Sue: At the moment we are also doing a lot of "Live Moon Smellings" using helium balloons and pins! We have enough smell left to pollinate an area twice the size of the Olympic stadium.
What's behind the name We Colonised the Moon?
Sue: I guess it's really a kind of band name. A comment one of us made when we saw how lunar the glacier region we visited in Norway looked. It just stuck.
Hagen: The truth is the name comes from an encounter with an electricity pylon. Surrounded by this pristine wilderness the pylon looked like the first man made structure on a virgin planet -- which more or less then created the idea that this might be what it looks like when we start to colonise the moon.
Sue: So no, we're not necessarily all about science or space or pylons. We just started there.
By the way, Hagen can you tell us what are the scope, objectives and functions of the Institute of General Theory?
The Institute of General Theory is a project of indeterminate duration, for anything. It operates in an undefined area, in the grey zone where there is no distinction between fiction and science, art and craft, independent work and self exploitation; between game, experiment and paid work, between experimental and studio space, or between museum and university.
After I graduated in 2001 at Merz Akademie Stuttgart, the Institute of General Theory became, besides my daily agency design job, my independent playground for experimental projects. Then, when I became a fellow at Akademie Schloss Solitude in 2005 the Institute turned into my full time artistic career. It's my operational format and combines pretty much everything I am interested in since early childhood until today in a professional dilettante way.
I have another question for you, Hagen, your short bio says that your "artistic practice is exploring the gaps and connections between art and science to create New New Media." I sometimes write about the connections between art and science so i'm interested in your mentioning of the gaps between them? What are the most interesting/fascinating gaps between art and science? And should they remain gaps or should they somehow be made to disappear?
Hagen: Working with scientists is mostly fun and generates often interesting results for both sides. But academic artistic research makes me grumpy! There is a lot of art-science-art, science-art-science that takes itself way too serious that even tumbleweed would stop to roll. New New Media is Post Artistic Research, liberated from University fantasies about how things should be done according to the most recently developed textbooks.
Sue: I grew up with the Clangers and Blue Peter and a DIY attitude to life. What I like about the way Hagen operates is I can walk right in and join in without worrying if we do it right. Misunderstanding is actually even productive.
Hagen: In the last couple of years there is so much sophisticated theory that it is sometime hard to see the art behind it. I am not saying my own work is not based on mountains of theory but I like to offer the observer first an enjoyable view and if he wants he can go and discover as much more as he wants in my landscape and not the other way around.
Sue: This suits me too. I think theory like technology should not be the thing you notice first.
Last summer, you were showing 101 (Almost) Harmless (Mostly) Scientific Experiments to Try at Home in London. Could you share some of them with us?
Hagen: Haha! The biggest experiment was definitely being holed up together for two months in ACME Project Space, a studio in Bethnal Green. Two options, homicide or art.
Sue: Indeed! Normally we work together on and off for say a couple of weeks max at a time and in between the work goes on online. This was altogether a different experience.
Hagen: The project was inspired actually by a children's book on science from the 1950s I think. You know the kind of thing. Make Your Own Atomic Bomb in 5 Easy Lessons.
Sue: What people want to get up to in the privacy of their own homes is their business. Mostly I guess it does not involve black holes but I think amateur science is a great tradition which should be encouraged. So we decided to tackle anti-gravity with an electric hoist, built our own design for a future satellite disguised as an asteroid and began a campaign against cosmic rays.
Hagen: From what I learnt the Scottish Enlightenment seems to have taken place mostly in the pubs of Leith. I have no problem with that. Dilettantism was always a powerful driving force for progress and only in recent times has it become this negative aftertaste. I am very happy to be a professional Dilettante!
Any upcoming projects, exhibition, residency, public presentation you could share with us?
Sue: The next thing we are definitely participating in this year is a special three day "Kosmica" festival at Laboratorio Arte Alameda with curator Nahum Mantra in Mexico City. "Republic of the Moon" will also travel on from Liverpool too and some more actions are in the pipeline.
Hagen: Also in September my latest work as the Institute of General Theory, "A Bucket full of Particles" will be part of On Dilettantism a wonderful show curated by Frank Motz at Halle 14, at Spinnerei in Leipzig, Germany.
... and of course ... (say it loud now!) ... NO COSMIC RAYS!
Thanks Sue and Hagen!
Authentic Goods from a Realistic Future is at EB&Flow, London until 1st September, 2012
A few days ago, Chris Salter, along with his collaborators Sofian Audry, Marije Baalman, Adam Basanta, Elio Bidinost and Thomas Spier, premiered n-Polytope, Behaviors in Light and Sound after Iannis Xenakis at LABoral Art and Industrial Creation Centre in Gijón, Spain.
The cutting-edge light and sound environment is an homage to Iannis Xenakis' Polytopes which at the time of their development (1960s-1970s) were regarded as pioneering and radical. Reading articles about the Polytopes, you realize that many of the concepts and structures used to describe them are part of today's new media art and interaction design language: large-scale "multimedia performances", "immersive architectural environments", etc. Xenakis' Polytopes were live performances that merged electronic sound, light shows, and temporary structures. They made the indeterminate and chaotic patterns and behavior of natural phenomena experiential through the temporal dynamics of light and the spatial dynamics of sound. But as ground-breaking as they sound, the polytopes are still relatively unknown.
Salter's n-Polytope re-imagines Xenakis' work as short performances as well as a continuously evolving installation, both steered through a sensor network utilizing machine learning algorithms. And i'm going to pretty much copy/paste the press release now:
"The 'learning' network studies the rhythmic and temporal patterns produced by the light and sound and helps in generating a totalizing, visceral composition that self organizes in time. LED's and tiny speakers are suspended through the space on a single ruled surface, creating a walk-through performance environment which continually swings between order and disorder, akin to Xenakis's original fascination with the behaviors of natural systems. Creating bursts of light as well as evolving patterns, the behavior of the LED's suggest cosmological events, like the explosion of stars and supernovas. While the LED's create a changing space of bursting points, colored lasers that bounce off the surface of fixed and changing mirrors generate fleeting architectures of lines and shapes that that appear, flicker and disappear before the visitors' eyes. Counter-pointing the intense visual scenography, multi-channel audio from the small speakers as well as the larger environment fills the space, shifting between sparse natural and dense electronic textures - noisy bursts, clangerous, gamelan-like lines and percussive explosions of sound. Across the architectural structure, the network of tiny speakers produce the behaviors of mass sonic structures made up of many small elements (sonic grains) creating swarms of tiny sounds that resemble a field of cicadas or masses of insects."
Check out this video on El Comercio : Chris Salter briefly explains the work and in the background you can get a sneak peak of the preparation of the installation at LABoral.
I haven't traveled to LABoral to see the installation/performance but i'm glad the new work gave me an opportunity to briefly interview Chris Salter. Salter is Associate Professor for Design + Computation Arts at Concordia University in Montreal and Director of the Hexagram Concordia Centre for Research-Creation in Media Arts and Technology. The artist and researcher is currently working on Alien Agencies: Ethnographies of Nonhuman Performance. The little information i found about the book sounds as exciting as its title. The publication will explore questions such as What does it mean that nonhuman matter "performs"? How can contemporary techno-scientifically influenced and produced artworks be understood under the term "new materialism" - the increased interest in the acts of nonhuman objects, processes and matter itself promoted by such scholars as Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour, Karen Barad and Andrew Pickering? What can fields and practices fields such as Science, Technology and Society (STS), anthropology and sociology offer to current technologically molded practices in the area of "research-creation?"
Hi Chris! Unfortunately i couldn't come and see the work in Gijón but i've been wondering what visitors can experience exactly during the performance? And since the piece is using machine learning algorithms, does the performance evolve over time and how?
This is a complex question but in a nutshell, what audiences experience is a kind of visceral journey from tranquility to chaos and back again, made manifest through light and sound that is partially choreographed (that is, organized and scored) and partially open to what happens in the environment. The techniques we are using (designed by my collaborator/student Québec based artist and PhD researcher Sofian Audry) come from a branch of machine learning called reinforcement learning - which basically involves software learning agents that interact with their environment in order to achieve a goal. The agent seeks to achieve its goal despite the fact that there is a high degree of uncertainty about the environment - in other words, the agent doesn't know until it does something and is then "rewarded" in either a positive or negative manner. Hence the term "reinforcement." The agent's actions thus influence not only the state of the environment in the present but also can affect the environment's state in the future.
In n-Polytope, the agent receives sensor-actuator information from the environment (the brightness of an LED or the amplitude of a sound, for example) and can either turn the LED or the sound on or off, receiving a reward for it. However, the environment around the agent (and the sensor) is continually changing, so it's hard to determine what steps the agent will take and what they will result in. In this sense, the performance is evolutionary in that each "time step" the agent takes is going to be different from the last.
On the opening day, we already had visitors who saw a performance earlier in the day and then one later tell us that they felt the performance was qualitatively somehow different - that it "felt" different. At the same time we have to "tame the algorithms" by shaping how these behaviors and actions are revealed to the public, particularly given that some of these processes take many minutes to unfold and are not entirely interesting in the long run. Sure, they produce patterns but patterns or the formal processes that produce them are not always intrinsically interesting from an aesthetic or affective point of view in and of themselves. This gets us to your next question...
The composition "self organizes in time". Does that mean that the work is going to surprise you? To create light and sound compositions that you had not forecast?
The idea that something will surprise you is at the heart of the concept of "experiment." In science, of course, you want to somehow stabilize this over time and reduce the surprise so things can become consistent and deterministic (and thus, other people can repeat the experiment, achieve the same results and then eventually call this a scientific "fact"). In art, particularly art that utilizes these unstable computational systems, you hope to create the conditions to enable something surprising to happen and then hope it does! This is one reason why artists like Cage with his "chance operations," Xenakis with his "stochastic music" (i.e., music based on probability models) or us with these statistical procedures from machine learning (which are also similarly stochastic), are interested in using techniques in which the results can only partially be predicted.
The issue of relinquishing control is a really interesting question and I've found after working over many years with similar ideas that one is always in a moving target between something which is scripted/fixed and, at the same time, allows a certain degree of improvisation and self-organization in order to keep the sense of "liveness" - that is, something that is taking place right then and there in real time before you. This is the reason to explore these techniques - because ultimately you want to create an experience that renews itself and that maintains its "nowness" - its "life." Control in the real time context of performance is something that I think is vastly overrated! Despite using computational systems (which are at their heart, control systems) and techniques from probability, for example, Xenakis (or Cage, for that matter) was wholly in control of his work and we are too - in the sense that control involves plotting something out in time in some kind of purposive manner. But at the same time, you are never wholly in control because you are dependent on so many other factors, materials and things that have their own tendencies and predilections -- what my friend, the famous sociologist of science Andrew Pickering usefully terms, their "material agency" - their own way of producing material affects in the world.
n-Polytope is using sophisticated technologies that didn't exist at the time of Xenakis' experiments, but apart from the technology what does your work bring that sets it apart from his "Polytopes"?
I think there is more that unites our different approaches than separates them, although clearly our own histories are very, very different than Xenakis's World War II experience. First, the similarities. The original idea to revisit the Polytopes came from two different directions.
The first is my general interest in the history of performative, technologically augmented "total works of art" I wrote a whole book published by MIT Press called Entangled that came out in 2010 about these performative histories) of which the Polytopes are an essential but unfortunately, mostly forgotten part. Indeed, in describing them Xenakis used terms like "interactive," "self-organizing," temporal acts, etc. that are part of our cultural vocabulary now.
The second is more specific to Xenakis' and my own interest in using formal systems (such as those from mathematics or statistics) to generate visceral, perceptual experiences for audiences that continuously slide from order to disorder and in this process, somehow manage to transcend these formal, abstract structures. What is different is clearly the historical and techno-social context that has radically changed since the Polytope de Montreal in 1967. The kinds of media environments that Xenakis had imagined that the Polytopes represent have become, in some ways, common and part of our own technical-cultural moment. Even though we are using very sophisticated techniques culled from current research in computer science and engineering, I think we bring to this re-imagining perhaps a more sober, less utopian approach to technology. Our approach is far less "Platonic" than Xenakis's in that we are interested less in creating a kind of ideal, perfect experience that would be achieved by the "beauty of numbers" or formal principles of geometric thinking but rather creating something less perfect: more fragmented, disordered and messy and whose actions and influence are open to the world.
I'm also quite curious about the fact that n-Polytope is described as a "performance installation". Could you describe what makes the work performative? Why is it not a simple light show?
There are two scales of performance going on in the piece. First, there is, in the traditional sense of a performance, an event that takes place over a very specific window of time, that has a clear beginning, middle and end and has a specific dramaturgical or narrative shape - that takes the audience through a carefully shaped range of experiences - from a kind of meditative silence to absolute, almost apocalyptic chaos and then back to silence. We run five of these performances daily so people know what to expect - when you use the word performance, audiences understand that they should come in at a specific time and stay the duration and that if they wander in or out they will miss part of the experience. It is, of course, always difficult to create this kind of time in the context of museums or visual art exhibitions (think of works from James Turrell or Robert Irwin which, in one way or the other, force audiences into understanding/experiencing a different sense of time than one is used to in the shopping center/ browsing atmosphere of museums) so we are very clear that one should experience the work from beginning to end.
But there is also a second sense of performance. Indeed, why couldn't a light show be seen as performative? Why does a performance have to imply a human performer at all?
This is the core question underlying my current book project for MIT Press called Alien Agency: Ethnographies of Nonhuman Performance. There is now a huge interest in science studies, in sociology and clearly in art and design in moving away from understanding performance as something that is a strictly human act and instead, emphasizes material actions or behaviors of techno-scientifically orchestrated things, transient objects and processes. We already see this taking place in the early days of cybernetics and indeed, this is one reason why we subtitle n-Polytope "behaviors" in light and sound. What one should observe and experience is how light and sound acts and unfolds indeterminately over time, that is, performs - particularly given the fact that this performance is not completely under human control but instead, based on the environment.
Xenakis worked on several "polytopes". How about you? Do you think that this is the first of many n-Polytope?
I think so. The Polytope LABoral is site specific in the sense that it is built for that particular, difficult space, particularly the acoustic design. As soon as the piece opened, I already started thinking of how we can change it to make it better and to resolve things that aren't working yet to our satisfaction. There is already interest from other venues in Europe, in Asia and in North America and they will have their own cultural contexts. So, yes, I think there will be other Polytopes to follow!
n-Polytope, Behaviors in Light and Sound after Iannis Xenakis remains on view at LABoral until 10 September 2012.