By Jonah Brucker-Cohen
Photo from “Immersion and Self” panel
Set in the blood red upholstered venue of the Tate Modern’s Starr auditorium and amid the futuristic light-arrays of the London Science Museum’s Wellcome Wing, the 3-day User_Mode conference on emotion and intuition in art and design kicked off with a wide array of over 30 speakers spanning disciplines in art, design, textiles, fashion, research, science, and even osmology. The event’s theme centered on how emotional design and aesthetics intersect digital art practice and covered everything from audience engagement, subjectivity and interactive experience, immersion, social ecology, and shared communication systems over distance. Despite the looming threat of information overload, the event turned out to be both entertaining, provocative, and despite a few lapses of focus along panels, created a positive forum for active discussions to occur.
The opening panel, “Poetics and the Spectacle” began with chair, David Ross’ (Beacon Cultural Project), opening address on the history of art practice and his belief that despite technological changes in expressive forms, all art engenders interactive traits. He seemed adamant about the aging view that designates the artist’s role into one that changes experience into moments of “sublime intimacy” and that available technology is less important than the time period in which art exists and reflects upon. Of the presenters, artist Simon Biggs, who presented Babel, a browser for navigating the Internet using the Dewey decimal system, favored the term “reader” over “user” to explain the process of interaction with his work. This approach was telling when fellow panelist, Masaki Fujihata (Japan) described his most recent “Field:Work” GPS video mapping project, as a method of showing how multiple perspectives in location-based systems creates a greater sense of individual appreciation and understanding of the work. According to Fujihata, it’s not enough to experience the work from outside, but to also gain new perspectives within. Fujihata proved this best when he placed five apples on the lectern as a metaphor for describing abstraction using real objects.
Focusing on the internal nature of “Interactivity & Subjectivity”, the next panel lead by Irene McAra-McWilliam (IA/RCA), spoke about how the depth of human memory relies on our ability to both to store and forget information and how this relates to the design of future human/machine interfaces. Taking no prisoners, RCA researcher, Brendan Walker gave a sermon-like speech into the phenomenology of “thrill”, examining both the ethnographic question of cultural dependence on high-risk interfaces and addiction to integrating a “thrill” quotient into our everyday lives to escape personal realities. Afterwards, artist Stuart Jones instigated discussion when he postulated that interactive systems might lose their authorship to audiences, and that “users” end up being puppets of the author’s predetermined system. This relationship seems to be constantly changing as artists focus on generative systems of interaction where the experience itself shifts along with the content of the interaction.
The opening day’s final panel explored sensory experience and the body. Speakers included Crispin Jones’ pain-based fortuneteller table to Jenny Tillotson and George Dodd’s smell-based wearables featuring a model walking around the stage with activated shoes and perfume emitting garments. When Dodd gleefully exclaimed, “We are surrounded by smells”, chuckles filled the auditorium, but his focus was more on how adding a sense of smell to digital interfaces can augment our emotional attachment to machines and seemingly banal interactions.
After a long night, and little sleep, day two began on a charged note with the “Aesthetics” panel which I was lucky enough to participate in along with fellow panelists Joshua Davis and Lev Manovich. Lev opened the panel with a humorous and extensive slide show of objects of representation such as the classic Mac SE and industrial machinery that signify fundamental shifts in artistic representation through the last century. In contrast, Davis began with a video of his self-blinding food coloring antics to illustrate the beauty of unexpected outcomes and went on to describe his forays into generative Flash animation systems that create unique outputs based on simple rule sets. My talk focused on how physical networks exploit conventional connectivity cliches and covered some of my recent projects including Desktop Subversibles, which looks at shifting normal desktop relationships by networking everyday activities like copy/paste and mouse movements.
Delving deeper into concepts of data visualization and sonification of virtual environments was the “Immersion and Self” panel, led by Banff Centre’s New Media Director Sara Diamond. Artist Golan Levin opened the session with his view that immersive experience “thickens” our point of view while he showed examples of his collaborative work, “The Secret Life of Numbers”, as well as previews of his new graphical vocalization project, “Mesa Di Vocce”. Looking at voice translation from text to speech over networks, installation artist Susan Collins described her “In Conversation”, which featured a net-connected mouth projected onto the pavement of a busy sidewalk, as an open system where the street meets the public space of the network. Her most recent work on the “Tate in Space” project amplified this belief that new contexts for artistic mediation add new dimensionality to interactive work. Finally, Selectparks’ Julian Oliver described his work in building custom game engines and levels that exist both as virtual prosthetics to existing architectures as well as provide social dimensions to games by associating them with real locations.
Examining the social ecologies and matrices of interactive art, another panel featured speakers interested in representation of space and experience within distinct situations. FoAm, represented by Nat Muller, explained the contextual theory behind their “TxOom” project – a collaborative performance held inside an old hippodrome in Great Yarmouth. Peter Higgins of London’s Land Design Studio, explained how creating projects for public spaces often determines the range and durability of the piece, while Tobi Schneidler’s presentation on the Remote Home (remotehome.org) was a closer look at the implications of interactivity within the private context of networked living spaces. Natalie Bookchin and Jacqueline Stevens presented their outline for “Citizen’s Dillema”, a rule-based political foray into multi-player online games where citizens are given voting rights to configure the world. All of these works addressed context, without which most lose meaning, a danger in which digital art often falls victim.
Rounding out the conference, day three took visitors to the London Science Museum where discussions centered on the collective conscious of everyday life in networks and communication medium. The opening presentation was given by a Macintosh II computer’s text to speech interpreter while Arthur Elsenaar sat still with electrodes connected to his face. By sending electrical pulses to his cheeks, the computer could theoretically control his facial expressions. Juxtaposing this idea of computer mediated emotion to siphoning human emotion through connected, abstract objects, was the Faraway Project’s use of connection relationships to illustrate methods of intimate distant interaction. Lastly, Anthony Burrill of friendchip.com, added some non-sequitor examples of how simple models of complex systems can be emotional when he played a spliced and note separated version of “Hey Mickey”.
As User_Mode concluded, it became clear that the true value of emotional connections with technology and interface is whatever personal experiences can be brought to the surface through this interaction. User_Mode represented a collection of innovative cross-disciplinary speakers attempting to answer the fundamental question of whether or not technology exists to improve the overall quality of life. Fundamental questions still remain for debate such as: How do we connect human experience to technology? How do social, cultural, geographical, individual and global differences affect how we interact emotionally with each other ,the technology we use, and our everyday experience? Can the technological artist be an important instigator in this debate? We may never agree, but ultimately, events like User_Mode help to establish discourse that attempts to include all disciplines by deconstructing cultural production into its most basic forms.
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