Published on – 9/13/04
Baltic Sea, Helsinki (Finland), Tallinn (Estonia)
August 14-22, 2004
by Jonah Brucker-Cohen


Held over a week and located in Helsinki, Tallinn, and a Baltic Sea-roving cruise liner, ISEA 2004 was a marathon media arts conference like none other. With over 1,500 artists taking part in panels, performances, fashion shows, keynotes, and installations, there was little time for sleep among all of the commuting between venues. The conference’s theme examined the crossover between wireless culture, wearable or fashionable technology, and networked experience. ISEA 2004 aimed to explore themes surrounding critical notions of interaction design, open source software culture, and geopolitics of media. This approach attempted to challenge accepted notions of interaction by focusing on possibilities of re-appropriation instead of mere re-evaluation. Although the conference schedule was an often strenuous journey through multiple cities and events, the discussions, interventions, and realizations that manifested contributed to an exhilarating experience.


The festival officially began aboard the “Networked Experience” Baltic sea cruise (I missed the Koneisto sound event the night before in Helsinki), where the focus was on how networked culture iterates human understanding through shared experiences such as email lists, collective performance, interactive narrative, and GPS sound installations. The panel entitled “The List: The mailing list phenomena”, began in the Metropolitan ballroom of the ship, with a panel of list-serve moderators such as Melinda Rackham of Empyre, Kathy Rae Huffman of Faces, Axel Bruns of Fibre Culture, and Charlotte Frost who is studying list culture for her Ph.D. thesis. Examining networked culture, the debate centered around the nurturing of lists and what types of communication technologies are appropriate for specific communities. I spoke on the challenges of my BumpList project as an example of an email community that focuses on shifting the structure of a system to change its participants behaviors. Other panels and events focused on community awareness in digital media projects like “E-Tester” and UNESCO meetings with African and Asian award winners and participants.

Arriving bewildered and tired in the city of Tallinn, Estonia, the “Wearable Experience” theme of ISEA began with a keynote from Concordia University’s Joanna Berzowska. Her talk was an overview of wearable trends and projects that aimed to challenge traditional notions of strapped-on gadgetry by emphasizing the integration of sensors and displays into clothing. Her own research on “Memory Rich Garments” showed how everyday emotions and intimacy could be projected and enhanced through computationally enhanced clothing that stores non-personal data about people it comes into contact with. Other panels focused on the how technology and fashion can integrate into networks, how clothing can act as a display for portable signage, or how intimacy could be conveyed over distance. This discussion continued to Helsinki’s “Wireless Experience” theme, which began as hundreds of ISEA attendees were stuck in passport control after arriving on the SuperSeaCat ferry from Tallinn. Machiko Kusahara of Japan’s Waseda University opened the conference with a keynote address on mobile phone culture in Japan. Her focus centered around how “socially acceptable” mobile phone or “ketai” use had become and how advertisements for services emphasized how “left out” of mainstream culture people have become without a phone. Although her talk emphasized the social pressures of technology, it left out dangers of extended mobile phone use or the advent of surveillance culture. These questions were made more evident through the many parallel sessions over the next few days.

The second keynote by the Sarai New Media Initiative’s Shuddhabrata Sengupta focused around the conference theme of “Histories of the New” and how reinventing the future is often tied to lessons from the past. His talk “The Remains of Tomorrows Past: Speculations on the Antiquity of New Media Practice in South Asia”, presented the history of technical networks from the telegraph to the Internet. His talk referenced Tom Standage’s book “The Victorian Internet” to illustrate how these information networks are not new and how they simply provide frameworks for a centralized space that expands global discourse. UCLA’s Erkki Huhtamo, followed this talk with his take on the “Archaeology of Mobile Media”, or how media does not exist independently from the social framework that envelops them. He showed imagery of the amateur photographer of the early 20th century comparing the public perception of this “nuisance” to the current mobile phone camera phenomenon: both seen as invasions of privacy and unwanted surveillance in the hands of the people.

Following this theme, the GPS art panel, moderated by San Francisco based-artist Marisa Olsen, attempted to ground location-based media projects into a defined genre. The current ghettoization of media art into technology-defined categories like GPS or Wi-Fi tends to counter creativity at its roots. Instead the focus should be on crystallizing an idea so that the technology becomes less awkward and central to the output. Projects discussed included Pall Thayer’s “Hlemmur in C” that tracked taxi movements through GPS and composed real-time soundtracks based on their position in the city, Joel Slayton’s (of the C5 collective) mapping of altitudes on the Great Wall of China to plot where it could have been built in California, and Teri Rueb’s “Trace” which allows people to discover location-based sound clips embedded into positions on a nature trail in Canada. In a sense, most of the work in this area centers on GPS enabling you find or discover things in your environment or enabling people or devices to find you. Little was mentioned about the surveillance aspects of tracking or the social aspects of why this technology is becoming pervasive?

Filling in the hard theory was keynote speaker Wendy Hui Kyong Chun of Brown University who spoke on “Control and Freedom: Interactivity as a Software Effect”. Her talk was probably the most seminal moment of the conference as it connected up the central themes. Chun emphasized the role of technology as a contributor to social stigma especially in networked culture and outlined how surveillance is becoming a visual and territorial metaphor for control. Her breakdown of the utopian view that current software assumes that users cannot understand computation showed explicitly how layers of mediation between code and interface are getting thicker. Nina Wakeford of the University of Surrey spoke on “Identity Politics of Mobility and Design Culture”, focusing on the importance of local knowledge with examples of projects that emphasized aspects of mobility as a driving force in design.

The exhibitions scattered around Tallinn and Helsinki showcased everything from fashion tech and accessories to social and political projects, to interactive installations and data visualizations. Some impressive projects included Bundith Phunsombatlert’s “Path of Illusion”, a series of street lamps with rotating LED displays that passerbyers could type into rounded keyboards at the base of the lights. Also meant to display information in public space was Steve Heimbecker’s “POD (Wind Array Cascade Machine)” which consisted of sixty four air flow sensors in Montreal that transmitted data to towers of LEDs that resembled a large-scale graphic equalizer. Also interesting was Diego Diaz’s “Playground” which turned a kids merry-go-round into a collective joystick to navigate a shared 3D space. I think someone got overexcited and broke the piece midway through. In Tallinn, the wearable showcase features Tina Gonsalves and Tom Donaldson’s “Medulla Intimata”, video jewelry that changes depending on the emotional state of the wearer and the conversations in which they are engaged. Other projects such as Kelly Dobson’s “ScreamBody” which consists of a bag you scream into and release the sound later, Sabrina Raaf’s “Saturday” which used gloves with bone transducers to hear sampled CB radio conversations through your cheekbones, and “Seven Mile Boots” by Laura Beloff, Erich Berger and Martin Pichlmair that allows people to traverse chat rooms by walking around a physical space. Overall the projects in the show examined how wearable technology can impact and change our environment, personal experience and social landscape.

As ISEA ended, most people were thoroughly exhausted. Although the constant shifting of venues, cities, and themes might have contributed to this, the questions raised by the presentations and exhibitions remained strong throughout the event. Why is interaction engaging? Is there a larger message involved? How do creative systems and practice filter up to decision and policy makers to provoke and result in global action? With diverse speakers such as the Sarai Collective’s challenge to the hegemony of the digital art canon and Mark Tribe open-sourcing his presentation online so that people could “remix” it after his talk, the conference presented a wide array of contrasting opinions that attempted to make sense of the current media arts landscape. With so many perspectives, the endpoint seemed scattered but also manageable. The more we question the fundamental reasons why technology is important, the more we discover why we cannot live without it. Only through events like ISEA can we really come to grips with this realization.