0davidrokeby.jpgRokeby who has a piece at the exhibition -Taken, gave a talk two days ago at the Salon. He started with a short review of his work, then discussed Taken and other works that investigate the surveillance area and ended by presenting some of his latest works. I'm not going to insist on the first part because i'm not exactly a fan of his work but the artist had a number of interesting comments on our surveillance society, interactivity and artistic tools.

Just a few words about Taken, the surveillance installation provides two readings of the activities in the gallery space. On the left hand side of the projection, visitors are extracted from the ground of the gallery floors and walls, and then looped back onto themselves at 20 second intervals. Every action that has taken place in the gallery occurs together on the screen, repeating every 20 seconds. The right hand side is a catalog of the gallery visitors. Individual visitors are tracked within the space. Their heads are zoomed in on, and adjectives are attributed to them (i.e. i was "unconcerned" and later on, i was "taken"). These individual head shots are collected as a set of the last 200 visitors and presented as a matrix of 100 or occasionally all 200 shots, moving in slow motion.

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When working on the theme of surveillance Rokeby likes to play with ambiguity. On the one hand there's the pleasure of voyeurism and on the other one there's of course the Big Brother aspect of the activity. Taken is not as ambiguous as one of his previous pieces called Watch, it clearly has a critical stance on surveillance. He started working on the project for the Science Museum in London. Because of the IRA many surveillance cameras were installed in London and the public accepted the idea of a surveilled state much before the USA did. Some of these cameras are supposed to recognise suspicious behaviour. Rokeby was interested by questions such as: how do you come up with an algorithm able to detect suspicious actions? How do you make the machine make human judgements?

The choice of adjectives from a given set is totally random (unlike in The Giver of Names, a piece currently shown at the ZKM), reflecting on the fact that governmental agencies are claiming that researchers come up with code that is able to make discriminations, so he felt it was more honest to fake it and make us reflect about a machine that is making decisions about us,

0menainbluee.jpg He discussed other recent pieces such as Sorting Daemon. The system looks out onto the street for moving things that might be people. When it finds what it thinks might be a person, it removes their image from the background. The extracted person is then divided up according to areas of similar colour.

The piece was triggered by Rokeby's concerns about the increasing use of automated systems for profiling people as part of the "war on terrorism". After 9/11 there's been an explosion of new surveillance products. Until 9/11 their manufacturers were afraid to release them to the public whom they though would find the technology too invasive. After the tragedy people were much more receptive to anything that could provide them with a sense of security.

Another recent piece: Machines For Taking Time commissioned by Oakville galleries. A zoom camera is capturing 1080 images each day (a million images in the database over 4 years) of the very same space. The installation constructs a continuous pan that is slipping through time. A single cycle takes about 20 mins, taking us through micro-narratives of people who pass by to larger narratives (the seasons). Rokeby is working on a second version, this time it will be looking over the city of Montreal.

Completely different piece, Cloud, for the Ontario Science Center is a very large kinetic installation made of hundreds of mirrors with motors attached. They rotate across 2 axis and shift through different phases, sometimes synched, sometimes not, sometimes wave-like patterns. The sculpture is completely different from every angle you watch it because of the perspective, of the way light is reflected, etc.

Now what was interesting was the Q&A that followed the talk. Andy Polaine noted that Rokeby had first shown a series of interactive pieces but his most recent works are not interactive. Why such change?

The artist gave an answer that made me want to take him into my arms: "I'll be happy when interactivity will just be another tool in the palette of the artist and not that element that everyone always makes a big fuss about." He therefore prefers to leave interactivity aside if it's not apropriate. When he started interactivity was something that had to be explored, now he believes that classic interactive art is getting a little bit tired. Today when he goes to ars electronica, he sees many works that replay the same paradigms that had been explored years ago.

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Wow! That was a fantastic talk. I wish more artists could talk about their work with so much passion and sense of humour. The talk of Australian performance artist Stelarc, titled Fractal Flesh - Prototyped, printed and phantom bodies, presented his work in a thematic way.

He explained how his performances explore the body as an evolving architecture. In our era, bodies can be extended in different ways: plastination enables us to conserve corpses and the advance of medicine allow for the life of a comatose patient to be extended for a long time.

0rocccccccs.jpgThe Suspension performances where his naked body was suspended in the air by inserting fishhooks into his skin were done 27 times over a period of 13 years and each time at a different location. He called it a "posture of indifference": the body's awareness is extruded and its operation is extended into the realm of the absent, the involuntary, the alien. In a performance in Copenhagen (video), the body of the artist (he actually talks about himself as "the artist") was suspended 60 meters high using a crane from street level. Heartbeat and blood flow were amplified with multi sound sensors to produce a soundscape. As he got gradually exhausted from the performance the heartbeat quickened, breath shortened and so the soundscape evolved.

The rock suspension of the body was counterbalance by the wreath of rocks, one rock for each insertion point. The body was gently swaying from side to side, setting up random oscillations in the rocks. Stelarc decided to stop the performance when he heard a phone ring in the gallery. They did it anyway. His body was rolled out of the window of a building. After 5 minutes he could see the police cars arriving. Police then erupted in the apartment and asked for his ID which given his situation at the time was rather difficult to produce!

In an abandoned space in Brisbane, he made a more complex performance using a control box that allowed him to choreograph his body movement through the space. He could hoist his body up and down travel in any direction. He could also propel it forward, turning his body into a kind of projectile in the space. Also by starting and stopping the body suddenly he could get the body to swing from side to side. The performance was about 30 minutes. There was hardly any bleeding. You just have to avoid to insert the hook into the muscles.

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At an abandoned monorail station in Japan, he did a suspension with the third hand attached and controlled using his muscle signals (abdominal electrodes allow independent movements of the third hand.). He could control the up and down movements of his body. The sounds of the third hand and the body signals were amplified to produce a soundscape.

These performance were usually done without an audience, only people who happen to pass in the area by chance would see him naked, hooked and suspended. In NYc and Copenhagen, however, the performances were financed by galleries and festivals so they had to be public.

0aastomach.jpgIn 1993, he participated to the Australia Sculpture Trienalle. The theme was: site-specific works. As ususally he went for the extreme and had a Stomach Sculpture specially-designed for and inserted into the body (video). The sculpture was inserted approximately 40 centimeters inside the stomach cavity. The sculpture was a very simple mechanism driven by a plexidriver cable to a servo motor and a logitech circuit outside the body (not all the parts were small enough to be inserted inside the body). The body became the host of the art work. Instead of a sculpture for a public space, he made one for a private physiological space. Instead of having the technology attached to the body (cf. Third Hand), technology was invading the body. It was inserted into the body not for some medical necessity, but simply through some artistic choice.

The sculpture had a flashing light and a beating sound. It is about 15 mm in length and 15 millimeters in diameter but fully opened it is about 50 mm in diameter and about 75mm long. The video was done using an endoscope.

0athirdhandd.jpgThe Third Hand was attached to his body. It is controlled by abdominal electrodes, that allow independent movements of the apparatus.

Completed back in 1980, the new extended arm manipulator has wrist rotation, thumb rotation, individual finger flexion and each finger opens and closes. So each finger can be a gripper in itself. This time the body is extended with a new manipulator. In a performance he used his three hands to write the word "Evolution." Was quite tricky especially as he had to learn how to write back to front because he was writing the word on a glass panel in front of the audience.

A 1995 work was using a touch screen interface that allowed people at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, at the Media Lab in Helsinki and at the conference Doors of Perception in Amsterdam to access his body in Luxembourg and by touching the muscles on the computer model program the choreography of his remote body. He could see the face of the person who was moving him, and they could see his body movements or their choreography. The body became a kind of host for a remote agent. People in the three cities were able to access and move the body over a period of three days. Only his right leg could not be activated (he needed it to stand on!)

The Ping Body performance used the ping internet protocol to activate the body through internet data. During the performance he would ping 40 global sites. The signals were mapped to the body muscles and the body thus became a crude barometer of internet activity. The body moved according to the internet activity.

0asstelar.jpgThe Exoskeleton was inspired by insects. It is a six legs walking machine that translates body movements into machine legs motions.

The Walking Head: an autonomous robot with an LCD screen and a computer whose facial behaviour depends on the movements around. As visitors enter a dark room, the eyes of the face open and starts to communicate with the person and the robot moves. It then sits down, closes its eyes and waits for the next person to enter the room (images).

Talking about robots, he showed us a video of a fantastic robot developed at the University of Cleveland. It uses both wheels and legs to move superfast, it can tumble down the stairs without any damage and it can move equally well on either side.

He presented a rather weird work called Blender. He met Nina Stellar one day at the morgue, she was carrying a human arm. Her job is to cut up body parts for medical students. Both artists had content of their body removed (blood, subcutaneous fat, nerves, connective tissues). It was actually very difficult to obtain the body liquids. As soon as body content are outside your own body they are labelled as "bio-hazardous material". The installation was human high, it was composed of a blender and four oxygen tanks. The material removed from the artists was mixed every 5 minutes. After that the protein would go back to the bottom of the glass bowl and the fat would sit at the top. It's the opposite of the Stomach Sculpture, as this time it's the machine that contains bits of human body.

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The Extra Ear project dates back to 1996 so it took him nearly 10 years to find surgical assistance to realize the project as the process goes beyond cosmetic surgery. He was first planning to place the ear on his cheeck, next to his actual ear because the jawbone contains too many facial nerves which made it too risky (he could have half of his face paralysed) and ridiculous (the extra ear would wiggle each time Stelarc would speak or chew.) The idea is to construct an ear using skin cartilage taken from his thorax. Together with SymbioticA and Tissue Culture & Art Project they deided to grow a small replica of the ear using cells. They made a cast of the ear, scalled it down, used scaffold to give the cell and ear shape, put it inside a rotating bio-reactor and fed the growing ear with nutrients regularly.

0armstelar.jpgThe ear was seeded in Perth but at some point it had to travel. The trick was to keep it constantly at body temperature so they put it in the underwear of the person who was carrying it. There was fortunately no body check at the airport.

Beginning of last year he got the opportunity to get funding for the project and attached the ear on the forearm of the artist. The operation requested 3 surgeons on 2 and a half hours. He first had a microphone implanted in it but had to be removed temporarily because of infection.

The idea is to have the microphone connected to a bluetooth wireless transmitter. When they first tested it at the hospital, it was working quite smoothly even if the ear was wrapped in bandage. The system would allow people in remote place to hear what the extra ear is listening to. If you phone him with your mobile phone, Stelarc could speak to you through his extra ear. Speaker and receiver would be placed in a gap between his teeth: when his mouth is closed, only he would hear the phone conversation; with the mouth open, the voice of the caller could be heard through Stelarc's mouth.

Images from Stelarc's talk at Transmediale.

0transmeiodj.jpgThe Transmediale festival opened yesterday evening. The programme lists several interesting partner events, some funky installations at Maria am Ostbahnhof but the exhibition at Akademie der Kuenste is rather unimpressive. Most of the works are good though. What made me unhappy is that the way they are shown is too museum-like, it doesn't feel like you're at a lively, edgy new media art festival. The works have loads of space around them which is good if you want the pieces to breathe but too much space makes them look isolated and grief-stricken. Hopefully this will be solved when hoards of visitors will stroll around the exhibition on Saturday. I also wonder if it was really necessary to set the pieces in such a gloomy light.

But hey, enough ranting (for now).

There are two superb works. I found them so aesthetically magical that i don't even care whether they are interactive, meaningful or whether there's any technology involved in their creation.

The first one is Death Before Disko, by Herwig Weiser. The piece uses an online data stream from space observation and translates it into simple yet spectacular sound and light events (i confirm the spectacularity of the light but the one of the sound is quite modest.) I might have more to say about it tomorrow after having heard the artist's talk at 2 p.m. at the Salon. Video.

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The other beauty is a fascinating fluid system with its own life and means of communication. Roots by Roman Kirschner is inspired by an old persian image: a bush growing heads. In an aquarium-like cube filled with a brownish fluid, iron crystals grow steadily. Bubbles ascend like jellyfish. Branches break off and sink to the dark ground. They start to dissolve and become thick clouds hovering over the scene.

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Electricity is pulsed through the sculpture. Growth changes the flow of the current. The modified flow changes the growth. The voltages at each wire are put through a resonance filter and thus transformed into sound.

The installation is based on the model of a chemical computer by “cybernetician� Gordon Pask in the early 1950s. It was open to the environment and it managed to grow to a configuration which was able to distinguish between different frequencies. Roots refers to a time when the big synthesis and simulation of image, sound, thinking and memory was soon to be started.

First images of the festival.

0drummerboy.jpgMark the date in your agenda: January 29 at 8 p.m. And the place C-Base (a 5 minute walk from Jannowitzbr. station). Dorkbot Berlin has a pretty nice programme this year and you'll get free entry if you show your Transmediale pass. No pass? just drop me a line and i'll add your name to the guest list.

The c-base gang will demo its multi-touch console, a low-cost touch-sensitive and programmable camera/projector table interface.

Simon Schiessl will present the ueber-cool installation Mechanism-#1-War. You wind up a mechanical toy drummer boy with the brass key. The action of the little drummer correlates to a projected video that shows bombs dropping from the sky. The sound of the bombs keeps exact beat with the drum. The tighter the mechanism is wound the faster the bombs will drop.
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Thomas Kusitzky will give us a (((controller-beat performance.

Elliott Malkin will be there as well to bath the space in an anointed electromagnetism. Crucifix NG (Next Generation) is a wall-mountable device that broadcasts an ASCII, non-denominational version of the Lord's Prayer at 916 megahertz.

Oh! yes! and the evening will be presented by Jussi Angesleva.

I'm still trying to figure out how much exactly i should be disappointed by Transmediale. Maybe it was a historical edition, ahead of its time and i'm, as often, a bit too slow to understand what's going on. The best report from the festival has been written by Armin Medosch on Mazine.

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Back to my own report. On February 5, AGF aka Antye Greie, Sven Gareis, Stefan Riekeles, Ken Furudate, Daisuke Ishida and Yukiko Shikata presented the Moblab project.

The MobLab bus toured Japan from October 15 to November6. On board, 7 "mobnaute" artists: Antye Greie, Sven Gareis, Stefan Riekeles, Ken Furudate, Daisuke Ishida, and Kensuke Sembo + Yae Akaiwa of exonemo.

Moblab -a name derived from mobile laboratory as well as mob (crowd, people)- was both an intimate space in which the MobNauts slept and spent time together, and a public space that functioned as an information base and as an art gallery. The project aimed to connect the virtual and the physical space and tried to invite local people wherever they went to participate to the experience. The bus went from art institutes to schools and art venues, starting at the Institute of Advanced Media Arts and Sciences in Ogaki and making its final stop at the Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media.

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The bus was totally white but at each location, the public was invited to join in painting the bus. The vehicle was equipped with a web server, a conncetion system, webcams to record the scenery while the bus was moving, power supply, GPS system, etc. A software was developed to allow people to follow from the internet the whole bus trip.

Art projects:

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Stefan Riekeles' Contemporary Moss project consisted of collecting, displaying, pondering, discussing and "bringing moss to the world."

He collected moss at every stop in Japan and made a kind of mobile moss garden. Moss is totally static yet constantly growing. The plant doesn't store water inside but rather between plants, it works like a network. Moss combines thus several aspects of space and time. Riekeles ended his presentation saying that his moss art is totally trendy now in Japan, because of the Slow Life movement.

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Kensuke Sembo and Yae Akaiwa from exonemo were filming sceneries from the window of the traveling bus, making a Road Movie that was downloadable from the internet.

Downloaded frames from the Web cam were complete with dotted lines for cutting and folding, and could be printed out and transformed into a paper sculpture of the Moblab bus with windows showing the captured images.

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Along the way, Antye Greie wrote 99 poems. She then hid her poems at various stops along the way. She left the poems in unexpected locations and photographed them. She also distributed them to random Moblab visitors. She also interviewed Japanese passersby and visitors about pre-judgements towards Germans (txt).

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Videoartists Sven Gareis was taking still images of the every Moblab stops, and then overlayed them with images of European cities. The ever-growing dual-image Pulse installation was shown inside the bus at each stop.

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Sound artists Daisuke Ishida and Ken Furudate invited local musicians at each Moblab station to join in creating music: for their "Feedback Bus" installation, they used the bus as a musical instrument. Speakers were attached to the walls inside the bus and connected to an amplifier and microphone, making it possible to perform using the entire bus as a musical instrument.

The China Connection, part 1.

This panel discusses the role that European media arts and technology organisations have been playing in the recent developments of a Chinese media-cultural agenda. It asks how Chinas new electronic media artists deal with the social potentials of globally connected media technologies - from CCTV through cryptography to open source software, with all their attached cultural dimensions.

Here's a few notes on what was being said during the panel (which included only one Chinese and three Dutch speakers!)

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Alex Adriaansens
, director V_2, Rotterdam.

As a foreigner, Adriaansens found China very hard to understand, it's very big, there are many cultures, many languages but at the same time, the country is very coherent and is strongly controlled by the governement. People expect China to take a leading edge on technology and economy. So far the US is the strongest in terms of economy and technology and when it imports some of it to us, Americans embed deep cultural elements in them. The same thing will happen when the technology we'll use will come from the East.

Lu Jie: artist and media activist, 25000 Cultural Transmission Centre, Beijing.

The internet power is amazing. Whatever the attempts of the Chinese government, the power of internet is beyond its control or censure. The benefit are immense, especially for grassroot people, think about the agricultural society, people living in remote areas, etc. Example: The Super Girls contest (similar to American Idol), during the 2500 edition 400 million people watched the TV programme continuously during months. They didn't care about war, Tsunami or anything else. On the final night of the competition, 8 million people voted with their mobile phones. It was the most democratic vote in the history of the country. There are clubs, fans and fundations to back the candidates. Some say this new way to bring people together is a revolution.

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Sui Jianguo's Made in China.

Today's highly successful new media artists in China are criticised by the young generation. They say that these artists are just producing works to please the curators of art biennales not to investigate or reflect on society. They know what art curators like and make work especially for them. On the other hands, the students of art school admit that they are not being educated to reflect on society only learn the techniques. There's so much money to make in art in China these days that parents are no longer pushing their children to study engineering or law but also art.

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Feng Mengbo's Ah_Q

Discussion:
The Super Girl contest can also be regarded as a perversion of democracy, as a way to distract people from crucial issues. Or one could stress that it's the first sign of some kind of democracy.

30 000 persons are employed by the government to read blogs to denounce the "bad" ones or counter act (writing long comments explaining how good the government is acting).

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Xiao Yu's Ruan

Jie: the media is totally beyond control in China. Think about that artist who cut into pieces and ate an aborted baby. The artist is still walking free in the streets. China's situation is very complex.

On March 30, at 19.00 Tangent:Leap, a meeting at V2_ in Rotterdam about the emergent blogosphere in China. The event will be streamed live.

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