Monday, August 06, 2007

Hall of Mirrors

As you can see from this image in which I am part of Manet's A Bar at the Folies Bergère, I attended the opening of the galleries for Art and Emerging Technologies yesterday at the international meeting of SIGGRAPH in San Diego. In addition to including the spectator in the tableau, the artwork also periodically comes to life with an actress presenting different iterations of the next moment after the frozen frame, in which the barmaid's ambiguous expression is resolved into clearer demonstrations of rejection or flirtation.

I've written about Iraqi video artist Wafaa Bilal before here in Virtualpolitik, in connection with a recent interactive installation that allowed online visitors to shoot at him with a paintball gun and experience vicariously the arcade-style rhetoric associated with the Iraq War. (I fired at him myself and still feel weird about being part of the participatory culture of the exhibition.) Bilal co-authored the Folies Bergère piece in which I ephemerally appear above, along with Rennsler Polytechnic Institute professor Shawn Larson. At the exhibit, Larson and I discussed the intellectual property issues suggested by the piece, along with the general politics of getting curators to consider displaying it alongside the original, which is currently hanging at the Getty Museum.

For me, the highlight of my walk through the exhibition may have been spending some time talking to Tracy Fullerton about the diverse religious attitudes of those on the team developing Bill Viola's new and hauntingly beautiful videogame about enlightenment, The Night Journey. I've talked about the game before here, but this was my first time in front of the screen getting to play through some of the sequences in the desert and ocean sections of the seeker's experience. The "X" button on the standard console controller has been redesignated the "reflect" button, which causes the player to experience visions when contemplating a particular object.

Of course, art often also meets politics in the SIGGRAPH galleries. Above, you see a photograph of Scientific Commons member Mir Adnan Ali of Social Dynamics Interactive. This Canadian company is known for its expertise in interactive culture and digital code that coalesces around two seemingly unrelated subject areas: water and surveillance. These two topics come together in their designs for a mass-decontamination facility, shown behind Mr. Ali, planned for installation already in an unnamed site in Washington D.C. The group is also known for their work on "sousveillance," which includes a project called Glogger, in which photographic subjects can give digital releases before their likenesses are posted on the World Wide Web. The Toronto-based collective also makes OpenVidia, which combines NVIDIA hardware with a fundamentally different open development model that is far more efficient. They are also the makers of the hydraulophone waterflute, which brings music, water, and participatory cultural practices together.

I also spoke with Sheldon Brown of the Experimental Game Lab of U.C. San Diego, who was showing a demo of "Scalable City" at SIGGRAPH. Brown is interested in the "algorithmic tendencies" of planned communities and how each step of the "data visualization pipeline" shaping urban and suburban environments "bulds upon the previous amplifying exaggerations, artifacts, and the patterns of algorithmic processes." In Brown's simulation, the user drives a huge tornado built up of whirling cars over a landscape of architectural elements from Southern California built environments that has been recombined in ways both orderly and more chaotic. As the tornado is moved by the user, roads spiralling ever inward into the self-referential logic of the circular planned community are built in its path.

Other digital artworks commented on the relationship between design and urban architectures of sociality and control, specifically in New York City. The Tactical Sound Garden uses user-generated content and mobile devices to plant discrete sounds at a particular point in the landscape. In this way, participants are encouraged to cultivate public sound gardens in which a city's inhabitants can re-engineer the soundscape. Future Perfect addresses the controversy surrounding the Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, which has been discussed here on Virtualpolitik before, by mixing architectural visualizations, paintings by school children, and the present-day streetscape of the area.

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