0cartogrfia.jpgI spent last Sunday in Genoa to attend Resistant Maps, artistic actions in the interconnected urban territory, a conference and exhibition that investigated the 'resistant' practices and theories related to the territory imaginary and how once can inoculate political viruses in the re-thinking of the space. It was a small, unaffected and friendly event but it was also one of the most stimulating and thought-provoking conferences i've attended this year. An unrelated note: i thought i was tired of Italian food but i had forgotten what a gastronomical fairyland the Ligurian region is.

The conference started with Alessandro Ludovico's introduction. Ludovico is a well-known media critic and the editor in chief of the magazine Neural since 1993. The publication was awared a Honorary Mention for Net.Vision at Prix Ars Electronica in 2004. One of the latest projects Ludovico has been collaborating to, Amazon Noir, is in the short-list of the upcoming Share festival.

His intervention was quite short as he only wanted to give some food for thoughts, some input for the upcoming reflection. He first explained how new technologies have re-defined our own perception of space. They include mobile telephony of course but also the now widely available mapping technologies. So far, the representation of territory was coming "from above", it is still owned by governements and strictly protected in Europe. Maps have been freed in the US (that's why an application like Google Maps could bloom.) Lorenzo Tripodi later added that if approved, a EU directive, INSPIRE, might further strengthen the States' monopoly on geographical data.

Thanks to the apparition of these new technologies, maps are not granted anymore by structures of power, they are built by individuals who, drawing on the ideas of the psychogeographical movements, redraw the urban space according to fresh new coordinates. People can now share with others a more personal vision of geographical data (as opposed to the one traditionally in the hands of power.) Personal information can be added to the presentation of a given territory and thus come to be part of the collective memory.

Ludovico highlighted three tools that are representative of the opportunities that collaborative and locative technologies offer us today:

- Delocator, developed by Finishing School, an application that invites citizens to fight the homogenization of café culture imposed by franchised java providers.
ogarbagescoutis.jpg - Google is the biggest operator on the net. They might provide us with cool mapping tools and applications but one must not forget that their first aim is commercial profit. MapOmatix is a free software developed by Hackitectura as a collaborative environment for creating and editing maps. The maps can contain physical elements (oil resources, telecomunication antennas,etc), abstract ones (such as human organisations, web servers) but they can also be used to emphasize relations between these entities. Behind this tool is the idea of editing and publishing tactical maps. See for example, their Deportations of African immigrants in Morocco map.
- GarbageScout that uses the API provided by Google Maps to point you to potentially useful things that have been thrown out in the street.

Next speaker was Lorenzo Tripodi who presented Cartografia Resistente, a project rooted in the territory of Florence. The work combines psychogeography, digital mapping and political activism. The idea stems from a desire to explore the territory "from below," to offer other tools able to describe the territory, independently from the copy-righted geo data that government proposes. According to Tripodi, the economy of glabalization is a winning model in Florence. There's very few voices that arise to express any oppostion.

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Cartografia Resistente is a wiki, it's flexible and makes the process of sharing of information easier. There also a photo gallery. The group started to collect geographical data two years ago. Two characteristics of the project:

- The way the actors of Cartografia Resistente explore the city is inspired by the situationist practice of the Dérive, they walk without any agenda set, following the whim of the moment.
- Their focus is political, they aim to highlight the transformations that the city of Florence had to face over the past few years.

He ended his talk with a few considerations on the difficulty to sustain a budget-less project that relies only on the availability and energy of its users.

My images on flickr.

Sponsored by:

nordichi(4).jpgI've been writing about Lalya Gaye's work over and over again ever since i started to blog. She's one of those few people who seem to swim effortlessly in both the artistic and the purely scientific waters.

She's an engineer and PhD graduate working in multidisciplinary projects that search to explore new territories of personal expression and creativity enabled by ubiquitous computing. Her research focuses on mobile media for urban space and on computational repurposing of everyday objects. In 2002, she started working on various research projects at Future Applications Lab, Viktoria Institute in Göteborg, Sweden. But she still manages to find some time to develop smaller new media projects with friends and to get involved in the mobile music and New Interfaces for Musical Expression (NIME) communities.

Your biography says that you are an engineer working in "research projects exploring the convergence of art, technology, and design." Do you feel that your work is welcomed with the same interest in a technological context as in an artistic or design one?

The Viktoria Institute is an innovation-oriented research institute in applied IT that is closely related to the IT-University in Göteborg, Sweden (which is a collaboration between Göteborg University and Chalmers University of Technology). Viktoria consists of several groups with different research focus: telematics (IT and cars), IT for firemen, etc. The group I work in is called Future Applications Lab and was founded by Lars Erik Holmquist in 2002. It focuses mainly on ubicomp applications for everyday life, with a human-computer interaction perspective to it. Basically, we look at what new meanings new technologies can bring to people’s everyday life by developing prototypes for rich social and aesthetic interactions.

We are a multidisciplinary group with backgrounds in cognition psychology, design, engineering physics, language technology, physics, computer science etc and the projects we have worked on span across a variety of fields: ubiquitous computing, new interfaces for musical expression, robotics, information visualisation, mobile and locative media, interaction design. We all work on several projects at the same time, either with other group members or within collaborations with other research groups, artists or master students. What projects we are able to work on depend on available funding because the institute’s only financing comes from project funding, but our group leader seeks those that meet our research interests so that we get funding for what we want to research about. So we are quite free within a certain frame.

Right now the main themes we research on are mobile media, and robotic applications for everyday life. Marketing potential is not on top of our group’s list, we would rather prioritise relevant and interesting findings from a research perspective. However, it does not hurt if something we do has some commercial potentials. A couple of years ago for example, Johan Sanneblad made a computer graphics platform (Gapidraw) and an ad hoc networking platform (OpenTrek) both for handhelds that became a very successful company (Develant), besides enabling a series of projects we have worked on in the group. I have heard they have become a standard for mobile gaming on hand-helds.

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Sonic City

A couple of years ago, you developed a concept of music creation that has always made me dream: Sonic City. Where is that project now? are you still working on it? do you still believe in its relevance today?

Sonic City was my first project when I joined Viktoria in 2002. It was a collaboration among Ramia Mazé and Margot Jacobs at PLAY, Interactive Institute, and a very talented Swedish sound artist called Daniel Skoglund who used to be in the group 8Tunnel2. We ended the project in 2004 after having completed a final user study, so I am not working on it anymore. However, most of the projects I have worked on since then take further some of the concepts we explored in Sonic City: embodied uses of the everyday (everyday activities such as walking, everyday environments such as the street…) as a resource for aesthetic practices (music, photography, etc).

Although this project is now quite old, I think that what it touched upon is still very relevant today. The same way a lot of projects you write about in your blog do, it looked at how ubicomp can enrich our everyday life, help us appropriate public space and provide us with new means of being creative. And there is a growing community of people working with mobile music technology nowadays, which I am very excited about!

What are the new frontiers of mobile music? Do you think that the industry has understood how to fully exploit its possibilities?

It is hard to say what big mobilephone companies have in mind because they are very secret. They could be developing loads of new mobile music applications as we speak, I have no idea. But on the art-design-research side and in smaller companies such as SSEYO, there is definitely a lot going on. I have been organising a series of annual workshops about mobile music technology (together with Frauke Behrendt from Univ. Sussex, Lars Erik Holmquist, Atau Tanaka and Drew Hemment from Futuresonic) to get people who are active in this field to meet, discuss what they do and learn from each other. The workshops are getting bigger each year! By the way, the next one will be in Amsterdam this spring at STEIM and De Waag Society.

Mobile music workshop

What I find interesting with mobile music is that it democratises the use of music technology and takes it to the streets. The field develops very quickly so it can take various directions at the moment: mobile music is by nature multi-disciplinary, at the crossing between interactive music, mobile computing, locative media and consumer audio, so it benefits from all the current developments in all of these fields. Therefore it is since long ago going way beyond ringtones and mp3 players. More towards ad hoc collective actions such as networked music making and sharing for example. These developments do not seem to reflect enough on the products available on the market so far but hopefully in the near future it will.

You often seem to collaborate with people from various backgrounds: how does the collaboration happen? Do you understand each other right from the start? are there periods of adjustement?

0lashoe1.jpgIndeed, I just love collaborating with people! I find it much more fun and enriching than working by myself and also depending on what you work on you might not have all the necessary skills to complete a project all by yourself. Yes, I especially enjoy working with people from different backgrounds, you really learn a lot and the projects get richer that way, more nuanced.

Usually I work with colleagues from Viktoria or from other research groups, or with people I met at festivals/conferences with similar interests in art and technology. Sometimes simply with friends when we have idea we want to explore together. There is no standard way in which the projects happen, it depends: one might have a project idea and search for the right people to contribute to it, sometimes an idea just pops up from casual discussions, sometimes one works in an assigned project with people that have been assigned as well. But in most cases, you need funding to be able to fulfil the projects, except for projects with friends such as Tap-n-Bass where we typically have no budget whatsoever.

But it is a hard process as well. In the beginning, it is a matter of understanding what background people come from and use a common language. The word “design? for example might mean different things depending on if you are an computer engineer or a product designer for example. People are not necessarily interested in developing the same things in a project either but it is all good, you just need to accept it and embrace it. It is all a learning process, and that is what makes it fun.

What can an artistic approach bring to the development of ubicomp technologies?

I guess it could be perspectives on the usefulness and meaning of the technology? Art questions common assumptions of what technology is for and what it achieves. Ubicomp is meant to become a pervasive presence in people’s lives and with this come issues of personal integrity, democracy, etc. Therefore it is important to question what form and impact this presence could have. Not everything has to be about work or making people safer, more productive, more socially engaged either… But in my research I am more interested in the opposite actually, what ubicomp can bring to the arts.

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Track and Tejp

Your finishing (?have finished?) your PHD this year. can you talk about what it is about? do you already have plans for the post-PHD life?

Well, finishing this year was the initial plan but it is taking more time than expected so I will probably be done by spring 2007. I am searching for post-docs or researcher positions for after my hopefully very long holidays, but I have not seriously started looking. I would like to continue collaborating with people with various backgrounds in art/tech/hci/design projects. So if you are reading this and have a position available somewhere: call me!

Whatever happens, I will continue to be involved in the NIME and mobile music communities. There is also a book coming up about mobile music, authored by myself and a few others.

How would you describe the situation on the Swedish scene for art forms that use technology as a medium?

I love it. Initially, I was going to be in Sweden for about a year before moving to Paris, now I have been here for almost 7. I just cannot get enough of it.

It is a mixture of very high-tech mobile projects, Scandinavian interaction design, street-art interventions and DIY cut-n-paste works with hacked electronics. There is a number of small local scenes in different cities with a lot of very good pieces in world class that should definitely get more exposure (and funding). In Göteborg where I live, there is an excellent electronic music scene with local artists making music with electrified vegetables or cracked tape-recorders, and booking agencies such as Koloni, sync24 and iDEAL who bring us international underground acts. Add to this high-quality interaction design such as the interaction design collegium at Chalmers for example, a vibrant local culture scene (TSiG, Dance & Theatre festival, Big Love, Röda Sten, etc) and a growing network of international artists staying a couple of years in Göteborg to work or study. There is for instance a Master programme in Art & Technology at the IT-University that attracts super talented art students from the whole world every year. At the risk of sounding like a tourist information office, I would say that there is a good momentum going on here that makes the city very exciting in spite of its very small size. Actually the small size can be a good thing sometimes because it becomes easier for people to come in contact with each other and work together. There is a lot going on in Malmö, Umeå and Stockholm as well. A new research centre called Mobile Life will open in Stockholm next year for example. Stockholm has a dorkbot as well, and a long tradition of electronic music (Fylkingen and EMS), music technology research (TMH) and digital arts.

Can you recommend us some Swedish artists that you think should get more attention from the public?

Absolutely! There are too many great Sweden-based artists, designers and researchers to name them all, but I could recommend Alex Berman aka Nim, Daniel Skoglund, New Beginnings, mixnbrew, Richard Widerberg (now based in Helsinki). Also in interaction design and research: my colleagues at FAL of course, Hanna Landin and Morten Fjeld from Chalmers, Liselott Brunnberg at the Interactive Institute and Kia Höök at SICS. I would like to name a few former Art&Technology students, even though they are not all Swedish and not all of them still based in Sweden: Sue Huang and Brian House (aka knifeandfork), David McCallum, Dylan Tinlun Chan, Alberto Frigo, etc. So many people!!!

That's it and thanks again Lalya!

A Californian inventor has patented a new breed of throwable games controllers.

Each "tossable peripheral" resembles a normal throwable object (whatever this might mean!), like a beach ball, a football or a Frisbee. But they also connect via WiFi to a games console and contain an accelerometer capable of detecting speed and impact, an altimeter, a timer and a GPS receiver.

The console can then orchestrate a game of catch, awarding points for a good catch or deducting them if the peripheral is dropped hard on the ground. Or perhaps the challenge could be to throw the object furthest, highest or fastest, with the connected computer keeping track of different competitors' scores. The peripheral can also emit a bleeps when it has been still for too long, to help the owner locate it in the long grass.

Via new scientist.

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Maybe the guy should get in touch with Haiyan Zhang who designed the Control Freaks accessories that attach to any object or living thing. They can sense the movement and sound of their host and connect that feedback to a local gaming platform, translating the manipulation of the host into game play commands on the connected game platform.

Net_Dérive, by Atau Tanaka and Petra Gemeinboeck with the collaboration of Ali Momeni, is a location sensitive mobile media art piece that calls for an exchange between participants in the gallery and participants in the streets. Deployed on advanced mobile phones, the work seeks to create a kind of musical instrument, thinking of the city-as-instrument.

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Participants are given a kind of scarf with a mobile phone in each end and off they go to explore the neighborhood. One of the phones takes pictures every 20 secs and collects sounds, the other talks to the GPS (also in the scarf) and to the server inside the gallery space. On a radar they can see themselves pictured as dots but also the images they're taking. The sounds and pictures collected in the streets are sampled and mapped to a 3D city map in the gallery. As users are walking they can hear some voice instructions through a pair of headphones. Those comments suggest paths to follow or turns to make, they are generated and heard in a musical fashion. The voice instructions are inspired by the old Situationist games and theory of the Dérive - now brought into the digital and mobile spheres. As the user chooses to heed or ignore these instructions, a trace of his/her path is carved out in the city.


The engine then generates an audiovisual amalgam based on this information, and feeds it back as a live stream to each mobile client. The simultaneity, history, and memory of the various users’ paths and images become an abstract narrative that is summed together and projected in the gallery space. A feedback mechanism is created as users’ actions generate the collective narrative that in turn directs them.


Presented in Paris during the IntensiveScience exhibition of Sony CSL Paris, 6, 7-october 2006

Photos by Walter Kim and Dana Gordon. Images and information courtesy of Atau Tanaka.

UPDATE: Ali Momeni informs us that he has additional documentation (words, software, images and video) on his website.

Related: Sonic City, a wearable piece that enables people to compose music in real time by walking through the city; headphones that turn urban noise into music.
Atau Tanaka's talk at Futuresonic; Pixel bondage on rice paper.

undersound is an interface that allows you to listen to, distribute and affect the flow of music on your mobile phone while you're travelling in the underground.

The project imagines that you will be able to add music to the system at upload points in the ticket halls, and download tracks on the platforms. Because of the architectural configuration of the stations undersound users would have to congregate at certain locations for the purpose of interacting with the system.


Each track in the system is tagged with its place of origin (the station where it was uploaded) and this information is visible as the track is being played. This may trigger musings around your personal relationship to that place.

While in the carriages of the tube, you can browse undersound music of other people in range (that idea was inspired by tunA). You can see when a track has been in the system, the number of times it has been played, the number of people who have played it, etc. You can browse through other's tracks anonymously, but if you decide to download a song from someone else an alert will be triggered on their phone letting them know that you are grabbing one of their tracks.

A project by Arianna Bassoli, Johanna Brewer and Karen Martin.

Via coin-operated.

Another nice art project for the metro:

In unspoken_series, performers done a custom-made construction vest embedded with red and green LEDs to permit the display of up to 24 characters.


The artist programmes messages on the front and back of the vest, revealing facts, thoughts or ideas that the wearer would otherwise not pronounce in public. For example, the vests worn in the metro could display at once humorous and confrontational messages such as: “Took my seat...I am not happy!? or in an art gallery it could be "This is crap! ...are you happy??


People who happen to be in the metro become the audience. The vests become the starting point of conversations about issues around the specific city the wearer is traveling to or from, about the main target audience he or she is exposed to, and general concerns in public space.


A work by Hoyun Son whose website also features a very funny parody of Speech Recognition Technology (video).

Currently on view at Sartorial Flux, a show curated by Valerie LaMontagne, at the A + D Gallery in Chicago until October 21st.

Deeper under the ground: For sale: Britain’s underground city; Tokyo's underground farm; Frame-by-frame underground ads; Cast Off stages knit-ins on the London Underground, occupying a carriage and knitting around the Circle line; Locker art show; parasite and Chiho Aoshima in the London underground.

0johnklima.jpgJohn Klima's work is probably one of the most curious, challenging and fascinating i've ever read about. He has exhibited all over the world his remote-controlled fiction piece, a bunch of "robugs" that think they are the new Jackson Pollock, a kiddie ride inspired by the conflict in Afghanistan, a pre-Google-Earth installation, his coin-operated arcade game which puts at risk the life of a real golden fish and some maliciously user-unfriendly interfaces.

Klima is currently a research scientist in the Mathematics department at New York University, and adjunct Professor of Digital Media at the Rhode Island School of Design.
His bio states that: "Consistently connecting the virtual to the real, Klima builds large scale electro-mechanical installations driven by 3d game software he programs from scratch. The virtual computer imagery mirrors and extends the potential and agency of the physical components to produce cohesive worlds that are both humorous and sinister." Well, as you'll read in this interview, if one had to choose between "sinister" and "humorous" to define Klima, the latter adjective would by far be the most appropriate.


What's your background?

When I was a kid, I always messed around with electronics and computers. I built lots of kits, and I had a TRS-80 model II, with 4k ram, we eventually upgraded to a whopping 16k. The TRS-80 was essentially the very first PC. Back then (1978?), I taught myself programming in BASIC. At that time, bootlegging software essentially consisted of typing in the code from a book or a magazine, or doing an audio tape-to-tape copy. Those were the days. I wrote a bunch of games in BASIC, the most complex being a rodent control simulation in an urban setting I wrote as project for my biology class. The teacher refused to believe I did the thing myself and accused me of plagarism. Asshole. It's funny how to this day most of the criticism of my work in the mainstream press has come from a similar position, lacking a fundamental comprehension of the systems involved. Anyway, I was just starting to "poke" around in machine language (pun intended), but after being a proto-techno-geek for many youthful years, I eventually became interested in girls and punk rock, so I went to art school. I have a BFA from SUNY Purchase, the NY state system's art school, 1987. I loved it – I got to draw naked girls for 3 hours a day, and I was exposed to great professors who were prominent in their fields. It was cheap, two grand a year. No student loans, no debt, excellent value for my educational dollar. I primarily studied photography under Jan Groover, my "art mother," but I did a lot of sculpture and drawing too. I never really painted much until I was 30. At the time I was consulting as a computer programmer, making a bunch of money, and making a little software art on the side, not thinking anyone would be interested in such a thing. I took a painting class at the 92nd Street Y here in New York, and I rememebered what the hell the purpose of my life was. It was great fun, painting flowers and vases with little old ladies on the upper east side, and there I was using big fat brushes and bright colors, and bending the space in all manner of ways.

When I was working with photography, I was exclusively interested in still-life, but I was always having trouble finding the right object to resolve the composition and content of my image. I realized with the computer, and with 3d technology, I could just make the object exactly as I needed it. I really feel there is a direct link to the work I was doing when I was 20, in traditional (if you call photography traditional) media, and the work I do now.

Anyway, I more or less suck at math, or at least the public school system thought I sucked at math, so I was not tracked into the advanced science and math courses in high school. This really bothered me - it was my first experience of being told I was not capable of something. It is with great irony that my current professional title is "Research Scientist in the Courant Institute of Mathematics, New York University." Funny how all you need is a BFA (hell you don't even need that) and a major institution will label you a scientist (for your euro-readers: BFA = bachelor's degree, fine art). I am currently essentially a drop-out from the MS program at Brooklyn Polytechnic. I completed two semesters last year but I had too many other things to do, and never managed to register for the final semester of my degree program. Maybe this fall I will finally complete the degree, but damn if it does not seem essentially pointless. I teach there now too, which is a particularly funny situation considering I am a dropout. No, no, I will get that stinking piece of paper eventually.

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The Great Game

While many interaction/new media artist stress that their work can beintuitively understood, some of your works (Train in particular) require some learning to be fully enjoyed. Why is this learning element important?

Great question. I never claim that my work is intuitive, ever. Quite the contrary. I ask that the viewer come to terms with the interaction. I don't really believe in the notion of intuition in terms of a user interface. There is no such thing as intuition, only habit. A scroll bar is intuitive only if one has seen a scroll bar before. If one has never seen a scroll bar, good luck. If a user is indeed familiar with a scroll bar and if this scroll bar suddenly looks or behaves differently than every other scroll bar, you're really in trouble. Yes there are visual cues that may help with understanding how an interface device functions, but no device is intuitive if one is coming from a place of inexperience. Each individual is different, and behaves differently with an interaction. You can never address the needs of all users in an interface, and as an artist, I choose to address none. When I showed "EARTH" at the Whitney, there was a visitor who was furious at me because it was not a point and click interaction. Somehow I was obligated to make my interface just like a website, where you point and click. This person was literally furious, venomous, angry at me because my artwork did not accomodate her habits. It was hilarious really.

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"Train" was a particularly challenging proposition because I thought I was making something that was very easy to use, but viewer expectations and assumptions resulted in an outcome completely unexpected. As I mention at length in my essay for a-minima, many users assumed their cell phones, the input device for the piece, were to function as does a remote control for a television. They pointed their phones at the trains and started pressing buttons, where what they needed to do was listen to the audio on the phone. Also, many assumed that they were controlling the trains, where what they were actually controlling was the track the trains ran on. They expected to see an immediate reaction through their manipulations, where in "Train," the results of the viewer's actions can sometimes manifest several minutes after the input. There is a general expectation by viewers of new media and interactive works that they will immediately see themselves in the work, that the system is essentially a mirror. My work only rarely operates this way, and when it does, it is only a small aspect of the piece, not the central theme. In the very rare case it does become a central theme, the nature of that desire to be mirrored *is* the theme.

I ask the viewer to come to terms with the interaction in my work, and not vice versa. It is not designed to be easy for the viewer to use. The process of learning the system, or in a sense, accepting the system and flowing with it, is a critical aspect to the work. The systems I create are complex and layered. I do not always have a plan ahead of time how the system will function. The work often consists of several parallel processes that run independently of each other, communicating with each other to produce a final outcome. This is what is interesting to me, and I go through my own process of discovery with my own work. I need to learn how to use my own systems. I love this, because this way I get to enjoy the work as a spectator and not only as the creator.

«EARTH» is a geo-spatial visualization system that retrieves real-time data from the net and positions it onto a 3D model of the Earth. What was the impetus for this work?

Well, clearly, the impetus for "EARTH" was the novel "Snow Crash" by Neal Stephenson. In his novel he describes an interface that collects all the data in the world and represents it in a geospatial interface. It is a very compelling idea, a beautiful idea, and there have been several implementations of this idea over the years. The most well known at this point in time is of course, Google Earth. I pride myself in the knowledge that I built my earth several years prior to Google, though of course there were several implementations prior to mine. However, there are many aspects that make my implementation unique. All the data has been extracted from publicly available sources. It is all free data. Also, I incorporate visualizations of METAR weather data. This is the primary data source for every weather ticker and website that offers global weather information. METAR is an odd old data spec, a text specification, word of mouth so to speak. I take these observed weather conditions and create a visual record of this linguistic report.

I also make no provision for the viewer to find a specific location. This is not the point. In "EARTH" you can not type in "San Francisco" and instantly zoom up to the Mission district. There are no political boundaries, no roads, no icons indicating the location of a Motel 6 or a Starbucks. Everything you see in "EARTH" has been processed through my eye, so to speak. The data is acquired in a raw form that I then re-present in a highly aestheticised manner. I don't really clean up the data. I don't blend the seams, I don't smooth the transitions between data layers, I don't correct discrepancies between the various coordinate systems each data layer uses to locate itself. I find these discrepancies, these inaccuracies to be very interesting. They point to the flaws in our understanding and ability to quantify the world. When the software tries to stich the seams, blend the layers, and create a false verisimilitude, it is essentially a lie - the representation is no more accurate than mine. In many ways, it is less so, because it endeavors to hide the truth of the inaccuracies and flaws.

Terrain is a 'dynamic display surface' that uses only light to allowviewers to "insert" themselves into the data stream. How did theproject evolve from its initial concept to its current form? What werethe challenges of creating such a complex system?

Initially "Terrain" was supposed to be an extension of "EARTH," allowing the display of the "EARTH" dataset on a dynamic three-dimensional projection surface. So the user would grab a joystick, and be able to fly over Mount Everest or other such place, seeing the terrain form on the surface right there in front of them. The mechanics are simply a display device, and any information can displayed upon it, so I am sure one day I will use it for it's initially intended purpose, but I had become a bit tired of working with geo-spatial information so I decided to render a female form on the surface instead. There has been a long standing connection in art between the female form and landscape, and of course "mother nature" and all that, so it was a logical choice for subject matter. But there is more to it than that. Terrain uses the projection beam as the means of control and data transfer. There are no wires connecting the computer to the surface. The light focused from the projector on a matrix of light sensors is translated into the matrix of highs and lows forming the surface. The viewer can block the light, cast shadows on the control matrix, and thus directly manipulate the surface. One can quite literally insert oneself into the data-stream. In the press release for it's debut at Postmasters gallery in New York, I made a comical remark about it being as close to Keanu Reaves stopping a bullet in the film. A critic for Art Forum who evidently had no sense of humor, took me quite literally and trashed me in his review, calling me pretentious or something to that effect. But that is another rant.

The rant that I was currently following is about the means of control. There are countless new media works, some of them very good, others simply derivative, that use video tracking systems to allow a viewer to be inserted into a picture, to manipulate an image in real-time, and what have you. Camille Utterback's “Text Rain? is an example of a very good video tracking piece. Still though, to me, these pieces are vaguely pornographic in that they pander to the audience's need for instant gratification, they ask very little of the viewer in terms of their interaction, they are transparent interfaces. They are always very popular at festivals and in museums because they are immediately understood, and the viewer gets to see themselves in a mirror. Because Terrain has a similar interaction system, though no camera is used, I decided to employ imagery of a Danish porn star working in the 1970's named Tiny Tove. Sexy little thing she was. I have to wonder what became of her. I liked this idea very much, it is hidden in the piece, but once you know it is there, it is quite evident. I also feel that few new media artists are addressing sexuality, or sensuality, in a manner that was not strictly from an academically critical perspective. In general, I think we are a bit too serious, too scientific, so using Tiny Tove as my subject seemed a perfect solution to my boredom with geo-spatial data. The nature of the surface is very skin-like. I first used latex as the material, but it felt a bit too S&M, a bit too creepy, so I switched to spandex. The nature of the control also lent itself to using Tiny Tove, because you can manipulate the surface, you can touch it, but only remotely, only through the image can you have contact with this object of desire.

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The process of developing the technology for Terrain was a long one. In short, the goal was to develop a matrix of actuation and control for less than $10 per point. Terrain in it's complete installation has 450 points, and it came in at about $12.50 per point in materials. The means to develop such a complex system is of course, to make it simple. All decisions were based on minimizing cost and complexity, and you could not have a better guiding principle. The system is essentially an analog system, made from components that have existed for 50 years. The only thing that makes it "digital" is that it is arranged in grid. Each point is completely independent, controlled by it's own independent light sensor, in the most direct manner possible. Initially I expected to use something like DMX-512 or MIDI to control the actuators from a computer. But in the end, the light projection mechanism was the simplest and cheapest approach, and proved to be the most elegant, and advantageous in that it exposed the data-stream to direct manipulation by the viewer.

When I began work on "Terrain," I had no idea at all how it would actually function. I invented a circuit from scratch that basically came to me in dream, literally. I woke up one morning thinking "Hey couldn't I just connect a motorized slide-pot to a window comparator driving a motor H-bridge?" It turns out that indeed one can do just that. The circuit, with the light sensors, completes an electrical loop. It's really quite elegant - the actuators are constantly going up and down a tiny amount. As it moves up, the resistance in the slide pot is compared to the resistance through the light sensor and the H-bridge turns the slide-pot's motor the opposite direction, until the resistance equalizes. If the light changes, the motors move to equalize the resistances. I get a thrill every time I think about how simple and elegant it is.

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Badajoz (Spain) has taken on the care and maintenance of Train. How heavy is the care and maintenance of suchinstallation? How frequent is it for a new media artist to have one of his/her works taken care of by an institution or organization?

Ha! Well, it is a giant model railroad controlled by cellphone, so you tell me! Seriously though, sure it's a pain, when the thing is running. When it is in storage (the natural state for 99.99% of all the art in the world) it's no more difficult than any other large fragile work of art. Train consists of a single branching and looping track, with two separate trains running on it. There is a complex system in place to keep the two trains from colliding. This system is a failsafe system, It works 100%, unless of course a wire breaks, or an electrical connection fails. It is an extremely robust, analog, system and has run flawlessly for six months. The major problem turned out to be the computer that runs the phone interface. It's hard-drive failed. I bought a brand new machine for the piece, and the drive failed in less than six months. hey, shit happens. Also, occasionally a train jumps the track. It happens in the real world too. But I think this is funny, as it gives the guards in the museum something to do. They get to play with the piece. The hardest thing however is getting them to understand that it is OK to play with the piece. You are not supposed to touch Art, but in the case of train, you have to touch it occasionally.

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John Klima's studio

Which role should art institutions and galleries play in regards to work like yours?

Well, same role as they always have, present and preserve. In the case of work like mine, there will always be certain issues that they are completely unfamiliar with. But in time, institutions will have qualified individuals available who can resolve these issues as would any traditional art conservator or art handler. At this point, nobody seems to know who's job it is when a machine needs a re-booting. Can the guards do it? Is it the job of the art handlers? The A-V people? The IT department? In a unionized institution like the Whitney Museum, this becomes a real issue. There are labor laws that could potentially be broken. It's somehow ridiculous, but at the same time, necessary.

Do you think it is possible for new media artists to support themselves financially? Which factors could improve the situation?

Of course it is possible, many of us do it. One can have teaching positions, and one can chase after grants, supplement this with gallery sales, commissions, etc, and cobble together a livelihood. In some cases one can have a very acceptable income, but not without certain compromises. At this point, I think it is completely impossible for a new media artist to make what ever work they feel like making, hang it on a wall, and expect to make a living. For me, the essential problem is that festivals, grants, commissions, etc all seem to have a theme that needs to be addressed. Lately, mobile devices and social networks seem to be the hot topic. So what do you do if you have no interest in the "theme de jour?" You end up shoehorning what you want to do, to fit within the current theme, and the work suffers because of it. Lately, I am not so interested in chasing grants, participating in festivals or finding commissions. I am also not so interested in teaching, though I do teach a class or two here and there.

Fortunately for me at this moment, a system I recently invented for my own work, has been shown to have commercial viability in the computer game industry. I am not really at liberty to discuss it further, it's kind of top-secret. Suffice to say, it is a procedural animation and AI system for generative character behavior and motion. Anyway, I hired a former student of mine from Brooklyn Polytechnic University and with my guidance, he is implementing the technology for a company out in San Francisco. He's thrilled to be working on something far more interesting than a Visual Basic front end to a SQL Database, and I pay him very well. Thus, he works really hard and thus I can explore my technologies and artistic practice free from the contstaints of the theme de jour, free from the requirements of a commissioning body, and free from the limitations on content that any publicly funded art practice forces on the artists it supports.

The point is however, that as new media artists, we have skills that are useful to the world at large. The goal for us I think, is to insure that the work we must do outside of our artwork, does not interfere with our ability to make art. In my case, I am fortunate in that a number of things came together to allow me to hire someone to help me do the commercial work, and the commercial work is exactly what I am developing for my own artistic uses. If all goes according to plan, it will require very little of my time to perpetuate itself, and the work I am doing for this company is precisely the work that I would be doing for myself anyway. I was very careful to stipulate in the contract that I am free to use the technology I develop for my own purposes, as long as those purposes are not in direct competition with them. Well, as an artist who shows in galleries and museums, I think it very unlikely that this in any way competes with game industry.

Time Machine

A constant element of your work is game. Are you a gamer yourself? Which games do you like to play?

Oh yes, I am an avid gamer, unfortunately in retirement. I don't have the time to play much any more, so I am essentially a binge player. When a truly new game is released, I get it immediately and play it non-stop, sometimes for 48 hours at a stretch without sleep, sometimes for several weeks. I did this with "The Sims" when it first came out. I did this with "Neverwinter Nights," "Dungeon Siege," and "Freedom Force" as well. I love "Freedom Force," it's a hilarious comic book superhero game that takes place in "a completely destructable world" as is printed on the box cover. I turned on Mark Napier and his kids to this game and they love it too.

I am not so fond of first person shooters, I just don't have the rapid hand-eye coordination. I like third person role playing games and simulations. I like real-time strategy games too, like the "Total War" series, but I try to avoid them because they really chew up your time. I like games where you need to think and plan. I tend towards games that are not based on reality, with the exception of the real-time strategy games.

The one game I lost most of my life to, was "Ultima Online," essentially the first massively multi-user persistent on-line role playing game. I played this game 80 hours a week, I worked a single character to the highest possible level, a Grandmaster Mage. I could have sold her for real money, but when i quit the game, I deleted her. It was hard to do, but I just couldn't stomach the idea of some silly rich kid running around the world as me. Oh and I always, always, always, play a female character. I won't play a game that does not allow me to play as a woman. The whole point for me is to be something I am not, and this first choice when selecting a character in a new game is indeed an essential one for me. If you consider the third person perspective, this is not such a surprise - in many ways I simply prefer to look at a cute little scantily clad elfin ass than some buffed-up meat-head steroid-overdosed slugger. I tend to play spell-casters that hang in the back of the tactical group, managing the combat and providing crucial assistance where needed.

I also get together with a group of guys weekly to play traditional "paper and pencil" strategy board games. These are games sort of like "Risk" but far more complex. A consistant favorite when we can amass six players for two consecutive weeks is "History of the World." More often lately we have four or five players, in which case we play "Louis XIV", "Puerto Rico" or "El Grande." These are all games that are based on some historical context, with a complex resource management and player exchange system. Some guys get together for poker night, or to watch a football game. What can I say, once a geek, always a geek.

What are you working on now? I read about domdams and about another project, this time in collaboration with France Cadet. Can you tell us something about them?

la_belle.jpgYes the Domdams are a new project I am very excited about. I am taking plastic Gundam model kits, all of which are male characters, and "bashing" the kits, giving them sex change operations, to create a universe of female Gundam characters. I am making them ultra-sexy, equipped with various bondage and dominatrix accouterments, thus the name Domdam. The models will be placed in a variety of diorama scenes that convey a narrative, essentially the story of Rebecca, a female Gundam struggling to survive in a male dominated mecha-universe.

I had no idea how much fun it would be to perform these operations, I love the physical activity. I have always worked with my hands, and it is a welcomed break from the computer. The series will of course have a digital game-like component as well. Each physical scene will have a virtual equivalent where the narrative is expanded. The physical scenes will essentially be equivalent to the frames of a graphic novel, and the virtual scenes will animate the graphic novel frames in a procedural manner. This is the technology my assistant and I are implementing for the game company in San Francisco, and will become the core of my work far into the future.

I have also begun working with France Cadet on a project. She has a wonderful series of work based on a relatively inexpensive robot dog, sort of a knock-off of Sony's Aibo, called the I-cybie. She re-programs and re-works the appearance of these dogs so they behave in a variety of humorous, disturbing, and sexy ways. Rather than me explaining the nature of the her work, best thing is to see it online, www.doglab.net. She has also been working with a brilliant engineer, Jean-Pierre Mandon, who has developed a small WiFi device called PicoIP, small enough to add to the electronics of the I-cybie, enabling wireless control of the dogs, from a separate computer. So again, I will employ this top-secret technology I have been developing to create a virtual dog circus act, with a virtual France Cadet as the ringmaster, and with a parallel manifestation in the real world, through the PicoIP, to France's robot dogs. Like you, she got a kick out of the fish piece and suggested we do something similar. It is very interesting working with her because she is not really interested in the game aspects that have driven my work thus far, so essentially we are not approaching the interaction in the piece from my usual game driven perspective. I like this, as it forces me to think in a manner I am not accustomed to, and in a manner that in many ways I have always rejected in favor of the game approach.

Dog [Lab] by France Cadet

Any artist(s) or researcher(s) you find particularly inspiring? Why?

Well, of course I am a big fan of France Cadet. I suppose, she has become my muse. I never really believed in the notion of a muse, having never had one, I thought it a rather old-fashioned notion. But like so many things in life, you don't know a thing about it until you experience it. It is not really that she has changed the way I think about things, or "inspired" me to create work, it is more like she gave me a reason to make the work in the first place. She became the prototype subject that kept my interest long enough to take the idea I had for this top-secret technology, and sit down and spend the time it took to actually build it. She also has allowed me to explore themes I have always wanted to explore, but never allowed myself to explore, for a variety of reasons. I am extremely pleased with what I have been doing since meeting her and spending time with her. I feel in many ways that I am finally doing what I want to do, in complete artistic freedom, without having to shoehorn my ideas to fit into a fashion or an artistic theme I have little or no interest in. It is really quite odd actually, and a bit scary too, that meeting one person can so dramatically steer the course of my artistic practice. It was totally unexpected, and when it occurred, I had to pursue it fully, and not without great cost in other aspects of my life. However, those costs have been fortunately offset by the opportunities that this new artistic path, lying dormant for some 20 years, have opened up.

Thanks John!

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