Editor's note: The following post is by Jaenine Parkinson, the 2011 Artengine/Vague Terrain critical blogging resident. We'll be introducing Jaenine formally soon, the following post is a slightly modified version of a review that she wrote for the Artengine blog a few weeks ago. We'll be hearing more from Jaenine soon, as she is headed to the Elektra festival in Montreal this week.
Objet Indirect Object is a pan-institution, pan-media project concerned with analogue mechanisms in media art. Curated by Steven Loft, and Marie-Hélène Leblanc the project culminated with a series of events and exhibitions begining on 23 March. For me, the highlight was Catherine Béchard and Sabin Hudon’s Free-Fall of Possibilities on display until 23 April at Axené07 / Daïmön in Gatineau, Quebec.
Whilst enthusiastically trying to describe this work to friends, I have discovered that Free-Fall of Possibilities is actually quite tricky to put into words. “Imagine choreographed fishing rods,” I say waving my hands around, “dancing ceremoniously with cut-glass dishes and vases.” Puzzled looks abound. Luckily, in this format I can show you some pictures, both moving and still. You’ll see about eight fishing rods all standing upright in a circle around huddle of glassware. They are those familiar type of colored, cut-glass collectables that your Grandma keeps in the china cabinet for dusting. The fishing rods dip and rise, in orchestrated formations, clinking small vibrating weights against the sides of the glass vessels. The initial soft buzz you hear of their motorized movement is interrupted by the staccato, bell-like ring of the glass when it is struck.
Anyone walking into the room will trip the motion sensor that begins the dance of the fishing rods. Despite the fact that the artists/curators state that this work is about “human movement within space and time”, I really think human observers are superfluous to the whole event. The simple trigger-responsiveness is more about the self-preservation of delicate moving parts than any engagement with the audience. It’s not the human actors who are important here. Actually–to anthropomorphize these little robots–to me they seem introverted; huddled together in a circle, oblivious or dismissive of intrusive onlookers as they carry out a private ritual. If you leave they will just carry on. Sure, we could apply a theatrical reading (à la Fried) over this work but it is not useful. This work is about watching something beautiful and surprising unfold in front of you, not self-consious awareness of oneself existing in the same space and time as the work.
It is more useful to see Béchard and Hudon’s work as a digital update on the kinetic sculptures of Tinguely or Lye. The computer has enabled them to arrange lengthy sequences of movement that range from elaborate flourishes to quiet modulation. This is choreographed sculpture. This is dance without human bodies. This is performance art on demand. Here computer controlled machines act as tireless, obedient proxies for fallible human bodies.
Also, just like kinetic art of the sixties, Free-Fall of Possibilities could easily be seen as an autonomous musical instrument as well as a performative device. The whole contraption is geared up to produce sound: the soft hum of the fishing rod motors vibrating against the wooden floors, the buzz as they strain to lift and lower and the sharp ring as the small vibrating weight hits a glass rim. It’s like an elaborate music box, complete with mechanized ballerinas. It is as if the ghost inside the machine had a previous life as a stage director. It is this autonomy that is captivating.
Mulling over this work further, I think to myself, there must be some sort of male/female dynamic going on. I’m sure I’m not reading too much into it…the phallus and the vessel…need I say more. Could it really be a coincidence that this work was made by a male and female in collaboration? The artists/curators claim the work is a metaphore for the “little deaths” we mourn in our lives. La petite morte? Surely the reference didn’t escape them? The dance definitely has the feel of a mating ritual. Even the everyday materials used are so obviously gendered – the cut glass punch bowl: an icon of newly-wed domestic bliss, the fishing-rod: a classic symbol of the masculine escape from the domestic into nature.
This is an integration of the domestic and the digital. The vibrating baits hanging from the fishing rods are actually components harvested from cellphones. The glassware sits nestled in a nest of network cables. As an analogue extension of the electronic or a digital extension of kinetic sculpture Free-Fall of Possibilities fits perfectly with the theme of Objet Indirect Object. Although, is there really anything left that could fall outside of this hybrid category? Computers are so integral to our work that it is rare to find artworks these days that have escaped their touch.
'What is the relationship between man and machine? Is open source a sustainable way to run a creative society? Can digital creations have the subtlety we know in the natural world? These are the issues addressed by Scott Draves work; he creates art by writing software that runs an internet distributed supercomputer consisting of 450,000 computers and people, creating images as a form of artificial life, each with its own genome, generated by thousands of numbers that define how it looks and moves. The first versions of this algorithm date from 1992.'
Scott Draves: Pioneer of Generative Art
Editor's note: Artengine and Vague Terrain are pleased to announce Jaenine Parkinson as our new Critical Blogging Resident. Jaenine will start her year long residence with Artengine and Vague Terrain with a trip to the cutting edge Elektra Festival in Montréal. Over the course of the year Jaenine will be using the Artengine and Vague Terrain blogs as creative spaces for critical discourse around the media arts and creative technological expression.
Jaenine is a writer and curator from New Zealand. Prior to moving to Ottawa in January, she was the Director of an experimental art project space in the lower South Island of New Zealand. Her art history masters thesis examined interactivity in digital art and became the basis of an undergraduate university course she taught at the University of Auckland. If you want to get in touch please feel free to email her at email@example.com.
The Elektra 12 festival, presented in Montreal from 4 to 8 May 2011, followed a similar pattern to previous years. During the day was the “international marketplace”: a series of short presentations by artists and administrative types talking about their work. In the late afternoon were openings of exhibitions dotted around town. Then from 9pm there were performances at the theatre Usine C. I want to unpack the screen-based AV performances in a later post, but for now I am going to focus on two works that perform beyond the projecton screen and the speaker.
The best thing that Elektra had to offer was Kurt Hentschlager’s FEED—and they know it. It ran almost every night, sometimes twice in one night, and has been shown at five previous Elektra festivals. It is a work in two halves and the second half completely overshadows the first. So much so that until I came to write this I had almost forgotten about the first part: a projection of a featureless computer generated male body floating and replicating in a black void. Except for serving as a warning of how we might soon feel, I saw no real connection between this projection and what followed. And what followed was awesome.
I will never capture the experience in words. Every person I spoke to had a different impression. Before going in we all had to sign waiver forms acknowledging that we had read the warnings about how overwhelming the experience could be. No wonder the projection was so forgettable, we were all sitting there waiting for the pandemonium to begin. It was well worth the wait.
Theatrical fog flooded the room. I immediately began to assume that we are going to see something akin to a 1960‘s Expanded Cinema event, maybe with lasers if we were lucky. But the fog got so thick that the possibility of seeing anything was quickly ruled out. I couldn’t see my hand when it was right in front of my face nor could I tell if my eyes were open or closed. A strobe started up with accompanying pulsating sounds, and then the magic began. Rainbow colored vortexes and shimmering diagonal grids appeared, not in-front but inside my eyes. It was like an sober psychedelic experience. The scientists call these visions phosphenes. They are formed between the retina, as it is bombarded by light, and the visual cortex, as it strains to see something in the fog. You can approximate the FEED experience by pressing on your eyes or, of course, by taking hallucinogenics. Although it is more like the latter because you can always stop pressing your eyes at any moment and release yourself from the sensation. You can’t escape Feed. It is engulfing and can become quite claustrophobic.
[Typical phosphene forms]
At a few stages I had the urge to get up and move around, to feel untethered from three dimensional space like the faceless man in the prelude. Undoubtedly, that would be a heath and safety disaster. The bureaucratic mindset that had us signing liability release forms wouldn’t want us crashing into, vomiting over, or passing out on each other.
When the strobes began I was quite relaxed; the rhythm created through light and sound was temperate. With hindsight, Hentschlager was just easing us into it. The intensity heightened. He is obviously aware of, and manipulating, a correlation between the frequencies he could generate and naturally occurring frequencies in the human body like heart beats and brain waves. Hentschalger was playing our senses like they were dials on a synthesizer.
Previous discussions of FEED, which has been shown around the world, talk about it as fusing the human and machine providing a vision of our cyborg future. I can’t help but channel Lev Manovich and Donna Harraway here and argue that Feed also provides a vision of our cyborg past and present. Renaissance perspectival machines harnessed and manipulated the properties of binocular vision. Cinema (and its various Victorian fairground precursors) works because our brains see movement when shown rapidly succeeding images. To be quite literal about it, all technology is just that – an extension and enhancement of human capabilities. We have been and always will be cyborgs.
Another Elektra work that operates on sensory deprivation and manipulation was Just Noticeable Difference (JND) by Chris Slater. Only one person can experience it at a time and I was one of the fortunate few. You crawl into a pitch black cube and lie down, as instructed, on your back. In the beginning I couldn’t work out if the faint buzzing in my ears was just tinnitus, induced by the night’s performances, or the work. I waited patiently. Then my stomach grumbled – or at least it felt like it did. Then my foot began to twitch and my breathing became bronchial. In sensory deprivation chambers it is common to become more aware of the sounds and movements of your body, so I wasn’t sure of the origin of these sensations.
Although, quickly the just noticeable difference became a very noticeable difference. I almost screamed. There was a tapping on my shoulder from underneath me and the ceiling of the space lit up with flashes of red. The space began to feel more like a coffin. Then came the thunder and lightning – a deep rumble with flashes of light from above. As the storm subsided I was turned into a human drum. The floor had morphed into something like a robotic massage chair switched to the ‘karate chop’ setting. The effect was no longer subtle. In the end it was more like being on a carnival ride.
My comparison with fairground experiences is not flippant. Fairgrounds and amusement parks were the sites where modern technologies of grand scale and spectacle were made available for the public to physically experience. They were theaters of machines; both generating technological wonders and reflecting the pervasive techno-culture. Their decline has left a gap. Where do we go now experience technologies beyond the cinematic? Where do we go to confront, externalize, escape and make sense of our media dominated habitat? I am not the first to suggest that contemporary art, museums, international art biennials and fairs have slipped into this terrain and become increasingly spectacular.
In the face of this, contemporary art criticism is scathing of the spectacular. Any display of impressive and enjoyable technology is seen as dangerous, homogenizing, distracting, isolating and pacifying. Critics invoke Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and Baudrillard’s Simulacrum and Simulation to express a suspicion of sensational affects. Any artwork using spectacular means and any viewer enjoying it are framed as critically unaware, or worse still complicit.
I am weary of criticism that assumes I and other viewers are easy dupes. Just because we sit passively, willingly absorbing, does not mean that our minds are not active. As Jacques Rancière argues “spectatorship is not a passivity that must be turned into activity. It is our normal situation. We learn and teach, we act and know, as spectators who link what they see with what they have seen and told, done and dreamed.” Through our interpretations we all actively construct meaning and knowledge. Then by communication with others we can transform the way a work of art is seen. Feed and JND definitely give us plenty to interpret. They offer experiences that we couldn’t otherwise know; an aestheticisation of senses and modes of perception beyond the dominant modes.
However, these works cannot elude the valid criticisms that, despite their content, spectacular works are in themselves spectacles of capital investment. They require a luxury of time, resources, funding and space to produce them. In their desirability and marketability they also marginalize less spectacular works, consuming everything from sponsorship to attention. Still highly contested, delving into these works is a roller-coaster ride of highs and lows.
This review was cross-posted to the Artengine blog.
[Jean-Baptiste Weckerlin / The Cat Organ from Musiciana, extraits d’ouvrages rare ou bizarre / 1877]
Sampling as a recombinant procedure has an uncertain origin. In the course of the twentieth century it has achieved a central, even dominant position both culturally and technologically; the sample is as necessary for digital technology as it is for celluloid motion pictures—making it an technique of contemporary mediated cultures. However, it is clearly on view in a much older, historical device called the “cat organ” (or katzenkavalier), a “musical instrument” described in Juan Christobal Calvettes’ 1552 book chronicling King Felipe II of Spain’s travels in Europe1. A consideration of this early example of semiotic reassembly offers insight into contemporary ethical questions that could be asked about the use of sampling in digital capitalism. The operation of the cat organ was summarized by French writer and critic Jean-Baptiste Weckerlin in his 1877 book Musiciana, extraits d’ouvrages rare ou bizarre (Musiciana, descriptions of rare or bizarre inventions):
When the King of Spain, Felipe II was in Brussels in 1549 visiting his brother the Emperor Charles V, each saw the other rejoicing at the sight of a completely singular procession. At the head marched an enormous bull whose horns were burning, between which there was also a small devil. Behind the bull a young boy sewn into a bear skin ride on a horse whose ears and tail were cut off. Then came the archangel Saint Michael in bright clothing, and carrying a balance in his hand.
The most curious was on a chariot that carried the most singular music that can be imagined. It held a bear that played the organ; instead of pipes, there were sixteen cat heads each with its body confined; the tails were sticking out and were held to be played as the strings on a piano, if a key was pressed on the keyboard, the corresponding tail would be pulled hard, and it would produce each time a lamentable meow. The historian Juan Christoval Calvette, noted the cats were arranged properly to produce a succession of notes from the octave… (chromatically, I think)
This abominable orchestra arranged itself inside a theater where monkeys, wolves, deer and other animals danced to the sounds of this infernal music.2
The details of the cat organ present it clearly as an instrument cat lovers might wish was a fictional horror, much like the “mouse organ” on Monty Python’s Flying Circus3. It produces katzenmusic by torturing live animals as a productive means, causing them to mew on demand: literally cat-calls that are not merely cat-calls, but something more—a form of music semiotically reassembled from the distinct voices controlled by the device. As Weckerlin’s description of the procession shows, the cat organ functions symbolically, based on the association of cats with devils and an immaterial, supernatural order where normally antithetical animals come together in a peacable kingdom4. This separation of source from meaning relfects the action of a semiotic process.
To Weckerlin, and contemporary audiences, the horror of this machine lies with the fact that individual animals are significant to the device only in so far as they stand-in for the specific pitch they produce; in effect, they are living samples of abstract musical tones, and it is this transfer that is significant to understanding the device’s relevance to contemporary technology: the cat organ finds its parallel in the software application AutoTune where any voice can be correctly tuned to be perfectly in pitch, transformation of ordinary voices into pure musicality. In arranging live cats so the timbre of their voices would at one and the same time transform them into the various pitches of a musical composition, the cat implicitly employs an understanding of physical reality analogous to contemporary digital sampling and fragmentation. It reflects a specifically digital conception of physicality: the operative procedure is semiotic, the results dependent upon the reorganization of a collection of data samples. The katzenkavalier is thus an early symptom of the digital both conceptually and in approach: sampling, via the fragmentation of physical reality into discrete packets (the individual cats), for semiotic reassembly and manipulation as a new product: (katzen)music.
[Jingle Cats / Meowy Christmas, cover art / 2008]
The cat organ reappears (quite literally) in the 1990s as a pair of Christmas albums by the group Jingle Cats. They were a popular sensation—their first album, Meowy Christmas, was completely sold out at Christmas in 1993, and followed in 1994 with Here Comes Santa Claws, both albums feature music “sung” by cats’ meowing on key. As the “Jingle Cats” website notes5, in a disturbing reflection of the original cat organ’s basis, the music was created using real cats. This was possible because of digital synthesizer technology that could sample actual cat’s mews and then adjust them to be on key, thus allowing the use of real cats in the performance: these albums repeat the semiotic procedure of the cat organ. Both are symptomatic of the ability of digital technology to fragment a continuous physical reality into discrete packets allowing the disassociation from their source, the disassembly into component elements, and their reassembly as only the relevant data. Thus, an autonomous protocol neutrality enables and proceeds without concern for the physicality of the material translated to digital form.
This neutral protocol so clearly on view in the cat organ is also a machinic one that incorporates the living into the non-living: cats encased in the instrument of their torture-performance is itself distinctly and specifically cybernetic. In this cybernetic dimension is a analogue to the digital transferal (and surrender) of human agency to the automated and digital computer where particular human concerns become data in the reconfiguration of social space to reflect the valorization process central to the financialization of digital capitalism.
Torture is at the foundation of this technical apparatus. The cat organ’s sampling process—where the animals as such become insignificant to its meaning and purpose, but essential to is form—is inherently contained within the foundational procedure of the digital, reflecting the same stripping of physicality from conscious awareness that is essentially the aura of the digital. That there is an ethical concern in relation to this historical infernal device’s use of sampling—the necessary foundation for the digital semiosis—implies a similar ethical dimension and critique may be relatable to the aura of the digital’s occlusion of physicality from consciousness. These ethical questions are emerging, however, not from the manipulation of sampled animal voices, but in the aftermath of the “Housing Bubble” of 2008 where the sampled and semiotically manipulated materials were at once both less tangible (securitized debt) and immanently visible (the human impacts). The dilemma posed by ethical questions about an instrumentality lies with that technologies’ fundamental ambiguity, an element that inheres to its aspirations towards the state of information: to pose an ethical problem for one also opens the other to the same questioning.
Calvete de Estrella, Juan Christobal. El Felicisimo Viaje del Muy Alto y Muy Poderoso Principe Don Felipe (Madrid: La Sociedad de Bibliofilos Espanoles, 1930), pp. 73-77.
You may need: Adobe Flash Player.
Our ninth VT Audio Edition is live! Contributed by the Ottawa-based Michael North (aka Tex Mackenzie), "A winter into spring walk in the neighborhood" is a live processed mix of field recordings collected over the past few months. Michael describes his perspective on acoustic ecology as not being focused on documenting soundscapes "…but to convey his emotional response to the environment through improvisational processing" – essentially, aural psychogeography. Jump through to the release page for more info and a download link.