Low-fi gets physical at Stills

This is your last chance to see the Low-fi exhibition of net art commissions which opened during the Edinburgh Festival. This is the third in a series of exhibitions, in recognised UK galleries which introduce some aspects of networked media art to a more established art audience.

The Stills Gallery in Edinburgh is an excellent choice of venue. As a centre for “research, production and exhibition of contemporary art inspired by existing and emerging technologies” they sustain a community of students, volunteers and interns with evident commitment to the excellence of their programme. In the afternoon that we spent there, it was heartening to observe how at ease visitors appeared, popping into the space, viewing and interacting with the exhibits and chatting with the welcoming gallery team.

Big Five Digital Zoo by Radarboy comprises five, small LCD displays hung in a row, just inside the window as a lure to the passing audience catching the wandering eye of anyone with an enthusiasm for playful uses of digital technologies and gadgetry.

According to South African media arts group, Radarboy, “Big Five Digital Zoo explores our emotional relationship with technology, alongside how we relate to and treat wild animals within the context of a zoo”. Gallery visitors are requested to look after a virtual lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhino by using their mobile phones to send text messages such as “love”, “health” and “snack” within a game-like environment. The animals (chosen to represent popular targets for the old colonial hunters, now mostly reduced to tourist icons) each exist within their own panels, as animated images. Like Tamagotchis (remember your mid-90s virtual-pet?) their survival is dependent on the nurture of their human owners. Without it they grow weak and expire. In the Digital Zoo the gallery audience is made collectively responsible for the wellbeing of the virtual creatures.

So it was disappointing to observe, during our visit, that all the LCDs displayed a red cross, signifying that the animals had perished from neglect. We were informed by a droll gallery attendant that they had all died due to a lack of mucking out. Visitors just weren’t prepared to scoop their poop.

A quick Google search reveals that there are 5 species of rhinos left in the world, with 11 subspecies. All are threatened with extinction and in total there are only 5,860 left. Somehow, the absence of this kind of bigger-picture information, combined with the amused micro-interactions of inadequately informed visitors, only serves to replicate in digital form the passive spectacle associated with trips to the zoo.

It is becoming impossible to escape the notion that nature is being murdered by ‘anti-nature’ – by abstraction, by signs and images, by discourse, as also by labour and its products. Along with God, nature is dying. Humanity’ is killing both of them – and perhaps committing suicide into the bargain. - Henri Lefebvre- The Production of Space 1974

Was the virtual mass extinction that we witnessed on our gallery visit part of the artists’ intention? To point to the troubles faced by contemporary global society, coordinating collective human action for the mutual benefit of all? The actual, rather chilling impression given was that the artists are more interested finding light-hearted applications for convergent technologies, than in delving into any contextual reflections on the theme of their work - our responsibility for the guardianship of the wild animal species of the planet.

Straight through the gallery and down the stairs, the UK Museum of Ordure's (UKMO), Audio Library is the only other work in the exhibition shaped and changed by audience interaction. All participants become content producers for the artwork.

In the hallway in the basement word pairings, chosen by UKMO, are updated daily in white chalk on a blackboard by gallery staff in the following arrangement- '..... with respect to .....'.

Fixed to the wall next to it, a newspaper rack accompanied by simple instructions: -
Please select passages from the newspapers which have a bearing on the subject- passages might consist of one word, a sentence, a paragraph.

The process is simplicity itself .

The main part of the physical installation is a sound-recording studio, painted black with a speaker in each corner. A microphone listens out for audio activity (using a Mac Cocoa patch) and a sign lights up red when a recording is being made. The vocal contributions of previous visitors are played back in a loop, all mixed up and radically decayed. Each days’ recordings are archived by subject and are accessible through the project website.

The theme of the day when we were visiting was 'Truth with respect to News'. So a short piece in The Scotsman about the dissembling of the London Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Ian Blair, seemed broadly to fit the bill.

With newspaper in hand we made our recordings and then listened, waiting a couple of minutes before recognising our own tones amongst a jumble of other voices including some shouting kids- all intermeshed into a decomposing soundscape. UKMO are to be congratulated for devising these simple and effective rules of visitor engagement. The whole process of having one’s thoughts collected for immediate disposal- of being induced to contribute even more to the world of shit than we do already, daily, of our own helpless accord, was fun and thought provoking.

Apparently “Ordure!” was the warning cry given by mediaeval city dwellers, before the days of civic sewage systems, as they threw their night–soil from their bedroom windows into the filthy gutters. For some reason- and perhaps it’s a British thing- we find this amusing. The work is full of humour and we enjoyed the UKMO’s commitment to anti-triumphal, anti-positivist professional cultural-waste disposal in the digital age. This project (perhaps unknowingly) is part of an honorable net art tradition of collecting, reprocessing and archiving the cultural debris of digital civillisation, including works such as Mark Napier’s spam reprocesser, Landfill and the random ascii of Trashconnection. As such, and in comparison with the rich sensual experience of the recording studio, the website is flat and a little disappointing. It does not explore the potentialities of the web for contributory artworks and fails to evoke the same complexity of ideas.

A mechanical device sits whirring in the main window of the gallery, passing a paper scroll under a tiny web cam, controlled via a web interface at a computer sited some 20 feet away. It has the appearance of a prototype for some prematurely lopped branch of Victorian scientific experimentation. Cavan Convery’s Vertical Scroll is a whimsical artefact. Visitors can use a slightly clunky and lagged digital interface to navigate and scrutinize, inch by inch, a series of modern day hieroglyphs that, suggest a kind of comic-strip blog; documentary images, drawing on both personal and public imagery, including contemporary news iconography of the day. We recognise the face of Osama Bin-Laden on protesters’ banners.

This work has a light touch that both evokes and chuckles at the objectifying interest in human relations of an imagined turn of the century anthropologist. The last images on the scroll depict an ‘Eve’ figure kicking an ‘Adam’ figure in the balls- a reference to the spaceship Pioneer 10 which only recently left our galaxy, carrying messages inscribed on an external plaque to intergalactic aliens. On this is a depiction of our species with a muscle bound, superior man (with small genitals) waving, and a woman who appears to stand behind him, submissively looking on.

This is a most unusual networked artwork in that it studiedly refuses the transitory, and deliberately makes searching and information retrieval nigh on impossible. It conjures up the obsessional life’s work of a difficult, unknown 19th century amateur archeologist.

Mauricio Arango’s Vanishing Point opens with the following quote.

“History is made less by those who make it than by those who tell it.”- FH

This database driven map of the world “reveals how international news media is creating new cartography”. The huge scale of the human and political dramas surrounding the recent landfall of hurricanes Katrina and then Rita have driven a new level of intensity in the hunt for up-to-the-moment news via the Internet, television screens, and newspapers.

With the mass adoption of blogging (writing personal online chronicles), those that make history and those who tell it are starting to converge. Bloggers, declaring their own take on situations as they occur around the world, can challenge to a degree, the information pouring from large corporate media, but still the dominant voices tend to reflect the interests of the powerful. The mediation and retelling of current events (our histories whether political, social or theoretical) within digital space, offers an endless field for exploration by the contemporary artist. All representation is re-interpretation, thus we are caught up in the messy and confusing noise of intentions and questions about who it is that is informing us of what and why.

Mauricio Arango addresses these perplexing issues with an elegant intelligence. Vanishing Point uses Flash 7 for its interface, PHP and MySQL for its dynamic database and takes the content for its news search from RSS feeds (automatically syndicated news) from selected online newspapers of the G7 countries (that’s the G8 minus Russia). From the Internet this net artwork is projected onto the wall, throwing an image measuring about 6 x 8 feet. A mouse allows you to interact with the work and other people in the gallery can watch your journey around the map.

If there is a criticism of this intensely thoughtful and beautifully executed work, it is the apparent redundancy of the additional physical installation of the work. Against the wall facing the projection is a reading desk and two piles of daily UK newspapers, The Guardian and the Times, presumably offering a resource for the audience to explore a more local perspective on the world news for the duration of the exhibition. This feels like an attempt to justify its installation in physical space. But while the web work can be viewed just as easily through your browser at home, the scale of the projected work and the social interaction fully justifies its presence in a gallery space.

This navigable world map, interrogates one’s own, socially constructed, sense of global perspective to re-evaluate previous assumptions, and to acknowledge statistical inaccuracies that lead to the partiality of our info-landscape. It challenges the homogenization of ideas around global info-access and the objectivity of the 4th estate. It successfully presents the clearest demonstration of the first worldview as persistently blind in one eye.

James Coupe appears to be the friend of machines- an advocate for the emancipation of computers from human and art-world concerns. Drawing a wobbly line from the difference engine, a super calculator invented by Charles Babbage in 1822, to HAL, the psychopathic on-board computer of Arthur C Clark’s novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey, he believes in the emergence of artificial machine emotion.

“Issues of understanding, desire and uniqueness play an important role in establishing difference and the contradictions inherent in the relationship between technology, meaning and difference are the focus of this artwork.”- James Coupe

Each of the four autonomous nodes of The Difference Engine consists of a computer in a cube, each with their own audio-visual display, connected to the Internet and assigned their own “personal” email account, primed to receive spam.

We watch the nodes explore the Internet ”in search of metaphysical meaning”. At head-height, head-size, with a face-sized screen, ‘singing’, “evangelizing”, from speakers set at ear-position about their discoveries, each with a distinctive tone and timbre. The anthropomorphism implied by their arrangement has the gallery guides referring to the resulting, endless, atonal madrigal as a chorus and the machines as the choir.

The accompanying blurb proposes that each node is on its own autonomous specialist voyage of discovery, developing difference- that machine identities evolve, driven by machine desire. This suggests a rich field for imaginative reflection; stretching Metaphysics away from any relationship with the human body, to an examination of the relationship between emotion and the complex generative functions of networked immaterial data.

However without the explanatory text this work is pretty opaque to a human audience. And this raises the question of who or what is this artwork for?

Indeed after tolerating the intensely boring, scrolling overview of the machines’ web search- page after page of bland sameness- gridded and branded web pages and their endless dissonant incantation, we come to the conclusion that no human should be faced with this dreary mirror held up to humankind’s interests- this is machine art for machines- which might suggest a future project for audience development for the machine community.

Still we are unsure whether this is a work of genius or whether we might at any moment pull back the red curtain on an advanced nob-twiddler creating media-art smoke and mirrors, technical tricks and illusions intended solely to intimidate and overawe a living breathing human audience.

Kate Rich, has a different take on exhibiting networked media artwork in a space. Visitors savour a cup of coffee, made with beans imported personally by the artist and distributed along social networks. Her work, The FERAL TRADE COURIER is initially experienced by drinking the coffee against an information backdrop of documentary photographs of manhandled cardboard boxes in transit and an online goods tracking database, accessible from a computer.

"... life is much more interesting than art" said Alan Kaprow, who's main mission since the 1950's was to revivify art practice that he regarded as smothered by a stuffy art establishment, stultified by an attachment to art historical canons that separated artists from their creative impulses. Instead he explored ways of engaging within the realms of the everyday for the stuff and context of his art practice.

If you are part of the fluid, social network involved in getting Feral Trade goods shifted, you use the database to track the physical journey of your order from source (in this case, excellent coffee direct from a farm in El Salvador) via public buses and trains, corporate airlines and private cars; then along social networks from distribution hubs such as Limehouse Town Hall in London, to your door, (or the boot of your car- if it’s more convenient). As a 'customer' you are encouraged to upload written and photographic evidence of your transactions to the database. The documentation then serves as both a tool and a model for other would-be DIY importers as well as outputting information-rich 'live' packaging, specific to each consignment.

Kate Rich has created a work that reflects a contemporary consciousness, with respect to its imaginative engagement with networked systems, and in so doing she blurs the distinction between art and life. This also connects with ideas of Relational Art that introduce an expanded notion of art performance that engages and involves the public in the creation of the form and meaning of the work itself. It is also interested in the aesthetics of dynamic human interactions, motivated by an array of social, political and personal interests.

The Feral Trade web site declares that 'feral' denotes a process which is willfully wild (as in pigeon) as opposed to romantically or nature-wild (wolf)." As Mauricio Arango's map of the world reveals how international news media is creating new cartography, this work forges new, wild, trade routes across hybrid networks of business, trade and social interaction. Feral Trade rhetoric is shot through with statements that clarify its intention to subvert and intervene in the existing mechanisms of global capitalism.

In common with other contemporary, dynamic, networked art, the complexity of this project throws long, dark shadows at its intersections with the less humane aspects of global economic and technical systems. For example, by supporting the artist’s entrepreneurship, each ‘consumer’ contributes their own immaterial labour, to the institution of the 'Feral Trade' brand. Some take a legalistic, instrumental view of this kind of work, and the presentation of tools as art seems to encourage this. They point out that there are no safeguards against the future misappropriation by the artist of our energies in her brand building. Beyond the project’s informal status as a non-profit making venture there are no terms and conditions, no constitution to prevent it playing the market, adopting dirty tricks to turn a quick profit. And yet we know from experience that even legal contracts provide limited protection for small-scale humanistic endeavour in the face of the big ‘players’. And Feral Trade looks set to retain both its artistic and its humanistic intentions through its conscious incorporation of subjectivity and pragmatic issues of scale, rather than through unassailable technical systems.

This exhibition is ambitious in its breadth of concept, content and range of networked technologies and while Low-fi accommodates some experimental concept- stretching in a couple of the artworks, the show is astutely curated. By not relying on the usual protocols of established media art history to justify its existence, it manages to communicate to new audiences without interfering with the meaning of the artworks. The supporting information is clear and unpretentious, introducing the work in a way that serves to demystify the technology and places its use well in the context of the artists’ intentions.
In addition to this, on the day that we visited, everything was working- and with media art, you still can’t always rely on this being the case, even in some of the most established International media art institutions. This exhibition should give heart to other small venues who may be considering staging media arts projects but are concerned that the technology always fails or that they might alienate their regular audiences.

The Low-fi exhibition is comprised of six diverse, distinct and generally accessible works and no one should underestimate the shear graft involved in the creation of each of these works, all of which display high levels of technical expertise and artful reinventions of the interface between the always-online artwork and a global audience; also the tricky negotiations of the politics of digital information and its distribution and the expanded, dynamic concepts of aesthetics that these give rise to. This exhibition reminds us of the mind-boggling range of this particularly challenging area of emerging contemporary art practice now called networked media art.

Low–fi is showing at Stills Gallery till 2nd October ’05

Low-fi, net art locator

Stills Gallery

Review by Marc Garrett and Ruth Catlow

Also featured on Furtherfield.org

September 2005

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