Monday, January 5, 2009

The Work of Art in the Age of Computational (Re)Production ***

Posted by Alpha Auer...

Lately I have been giving a lot of thought to the concept of Not Possible in Real Life in terms of creative activity. So, I have come to the conclusion that sharing what my sense of what is NPIRL may well be in order at this point in time.

The State of the Art of computation and creativity today

You may remember a certain backpack which enables an avatar to "wear" a landscape on his/her back, which I posted about a few weeks ago on this blog. Even as I was writing the post I could not help but be reminded of my PhD colleague as well as good friend Laura Beloff's wearable art in Real Life. And specifically one item which Laura has created, which is a breeder of fruit flies to be carried as a backpack. (Other wonders of Laura's include a a wearable head that a second party can communicate with via mobile technologies, a wearable weather observatory and networked boots which capture the conversations in online chat rooms and transmit them via audio playback into the physical realm).

Laura Beloff: The wearable fruitfly farm

Laura Beloff: The wearable weather observatory

Laura Beloff: "Head"

The output of the hybrid field of art and computation is vast indeed and unless one turns it into a fulltime occupation it would be quite impossible to know all that comes about. Thus, I shall continue to stick to the work of my close associates and colleagues for further examples.

My much beloved friend, colleague and indeed adopted “brother” Yacov Sharir has been dancing on a Real Life stage with virtual dancers whom he has created in 3D Studio Max since the late 1990's. The touchingly beautiful pas de deux of the real and the virtual dancer are accomplished through a sensor wired glove through which Yacov directs the movement of his virtual partner(s).

Yacov Sharir: "Lullaby"

My colleague Selçuk Artut, right here in Istanbul, is conducting research on the creation of a sophisticated interface that will bring about musical instruments with which musicians will be able to compose/perform music from the feedback of biological organisms. And not little old beeps and bleeps but scored music! Which in its turn reminds me of my PhD colleague Nicolas Reeves' work which focuses on the creation of music not only from architectural constructs but also from clouds: "La Harpe à Nuages (1997-2000) is also known as the Keplerian Harp after German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), who first came up with the term "music of the spheres". Reeves describes the harp as a "meteo-electronic installation." It is a physical sculpture containing a technological system that, thanks to a series of infrared lasers, reads the structure of clouds and then transforms this reading into music. The melodies vary depending on factors such as altitude, cloud density and meteorological conditions".

This list could be extended by quite a bit even if it were to be restricted to just my own circle of friends. However, I will need to stop at some point and this will be my colleague Diane Gromala's Meatbook. To quote, “the Meatbook is a project that provokes users’ senses of their visceral responses. A time-based (that is, decaying) slab of meat, constructed as a book, is embedded with various sensors that cause the meat to react and quiver as the viewer approaches it. The reanimated flesh also responds with other movements and sound when users touch it”.

Diane Gromala: "Meatbook"

And yet, there has to be one final artist, without whose name such a survey would be most incomplete: The grand master of body art, Stelarc is not amongst my personal associates and so I do not feel at liberty to use an image of his output without his permission. However, I would urge everyone who is not familiar with Stelarc's output to take a look at this... And then especially this...

The State of the Art of "art" today

From the above examples it is quite obvious that the human creative spirit is alive and well in the year of 2009. And yet to me something quite fundamental is not right. And it isn't just me who thinks so either: I have shared countless conversations with colleagues (including the ones whose output is shown above) on this matter, and we are all more or less in agreement that a very vital component of artistic practice is no longer present with us today. Or at least not immediately and obviously so. Does artistic output still serve the intrinsic purposes of humanity? Or has art simply lost its cause?

For millenia art provided the visual narration of religious concepts. From Lascaux to Karnak to the Sistine Chapel generations of artists dedicated their creative abilities not to the pursuit of personal agendas but to serving one of the most fundamental purposes of humankind: Belief. And notwithstanding that some amongst them (as would be the case with Caravaggio) were eccentric individuals living from time to time on the edges of society, for the the large part artists were fully integrated members of the milieu in which they operated; responsible businessmen with professional commitments, outstanding (pre-paid!) orders and accounts to balance, supervising hordes of apprentices in well organized and efficient workshops. A far cry indeed from the type of individual we seem to have inevitably become today in the face of personally instigated demand and supply.

With the advent of the Bourgeoisie in Europe after the 16th century yet another demand was charged upon artists: The newly individuated and wealthy Citizen no longer settled for just the glorification of religion, but sought personal glorification as well. The outcome was the genre of portrait painting, as well as interiors, landscapes and still lives, with which the European Burger adorned his estate. However, whether Sistine Chapel roof or Rembrandt portrait, one essential premise remained unchanged in that artwork was something present in living spaces, indeed to be lived with, to be experienced on a basis of daily familiarity - something to be "used" and not merely to be "viewed" in spaces designated for that activity alone.

And then, needless to say, with the 19th century there came photography, followed shortly thereafter by the moving picture. Compounding these advances in technology was also the rise of empirical inquiry and religious skepticism, both results of the Age of the Enlightenment, weakening the social power of the church, amongst else also as patron of the arts. And so, the whole "business of art", as it had been practiced for thousands of years found itself in a precarious position of re-evaluation. Of a need for creating personal agendas and purposes that would continue to provide an outlet for that intrinsically human attribute we call creativity.

Up until the early decades of the 20th century the research of the visual elements of art themselves - of light, of space and of object culminating in pure abstraction, served the bill. Indeed, for me, this brief period of the "avantgarde" in modernist art constitutes one of the most notable apexes of mankind's artistic endeavor. Then came a brief dabble in an investigation of the human subconscious during the middle of the 20th century - but ultimately it was all self propelled, self instigated and could sustain its own momentum for only so long. And it seems to me that the present day phenomenon of conceptual and indeed post-conceptual art is not faring much better. I know this is presumptuous of me, and who am I to even pontificate upon any of this - however, it is my considered opinion that unless we provide an intrinsic purpose for it, and one which transcends that famed holy cow of "creative self expression" at that, our artistic goose is pretty much cooked! Overcooked, if anything, should you ask me... ;-).

And then came the Metaverse...

The concept of NPIRL which Bettina Tizzy has thrown on the virtual table is no less than visionary in its manifold implications.

So, what is NPIRL? Stelarc's "third ear" is in Real Life after all, as is the "meatbook"...

One of Laura's biggest gripes is that the wearables which she creates do not really get used as such, inevitably ending up as exhibits in museums or sophisticated art venues such as Ars Electronica. Occasionally a person may put them on and wander about a bit, but by and large they are not part and parcel of everyday life in Real Life. They do not get worn long enough to evoke "behavioral change" in the wearer. Laura wants people to play with her output and to change whilst doing so. They do not. They watch, they wonder, they admire and they talk about it. Oh yes! Do they talk! And maybe they try it out - just maybe, not always... But in Real Life that is far as it seems to go.

And here, suddenly, in the metaverse we have this truly amazing and seemingly not all that possible in (grown-up) Real Life occurrence: Playful activity and the changes it can engender are subject to a huge area of discourse in the Social Sciences, exemplified by the writings of Huizinga and Brian Sutton-Smith. Sutton Smith alerts us that in Real Life “frivolous playfulness” is a distinctly rare attribute once childhood has been outgrown – and this despite the fact that according to Sutton-Smith it is a crucial one for the sustenance of the species.

However, unlike Real Life “play” in the metaverse is very much alive, becoming manifest in what we wear and what we “use” and how we interact with ourselves and others whilst kitted out in all of our splendid NPIRLness. And doesn't what we discover about ourselves during this seemingly frivolously playful activity acquire huge significance when viewed from the point of view of Homo Ludens?

But of course it goes much further and deeper than just what we wear and what we use. All of that is merely the paraphernalia of a novel form of ritual - the Ritual of Behavioral Change I presume to call it. The very creation of fantastic identities: Becoming a Neko, a Furry, a Hobo, a Drow, an Urban Warrior, a Fairy or a Gorean involves a great deal more than a bunch of attachments. It involves living by that creed. I can take a safety pin and attach a length of rope to my jeans and become a neko in a nano-second in Real Life after all... But would I be able to sustain it? Develop a full identity around my tail? Which my Real Life peers unquestioningly accepted? Would I be able to wander into, say, a faculty board meeting at my university and have my colleagues listen to whatever it was that I had to say with any degree of seriousness? Could I teach a class? Or just simply venture out of my home even? You tell me… Can I do so in the metaverse? Is there even a question here? Since when are nekos not taken seriously in the virtual realm? grrrr… ;-)

And then it goes even further than the creation of just the one identity, doesn’t it? While you are at it, why not create a whole bunch of them? In Real Life we call it Schizophrenia. In Second Life® we merely call it the rezing of alts. Standard practice it seems. Certainly no indicator of mental instability. After all, how many amongst us are there that don’t have at least the one? For my part, last time I looked, I had 4...

And this would more or less delineate my take on the matter I believe. In any case, it may go some ways towards explaining quite a bit of the content which I have covered, and especially my emphasis on design output – and particularly non-human oriented design output, which in its intrinsic attributes seems to me to fulfill the role I wish for in the realization of “play” and consequent “behavioral change”. Leben Schnabel, in the post that I wrote on his work sums it up far better than I possibly could:

“… the fact that I can give people the means to express a part of their personality with my avatars. That, for me, is a wonderful aspect of working in SL. As fleeting and transient as our work is in this medium, for a while, people relate much, much stronger to it than to, for example, an expertly painted picture. Typically, people look at a picture for merely seconds, of maybe minutes if it speaks to them on some level. Somebody who wears my avatars or has his or her virtual home in one of my caves, might spend months in a close relationship to my work. That is one of the things that I absolutely like about making content for a virtual world”.

Personally, I have created Syncretia entirely by the credo of "livability" as opposed to "viewability" and my future efforts in metaverse creativity will follow along these lines as well, since to me this seems to be a thoroughly viable means of providing context to artistic endeavor today: The provision of usable objects and spaces serving the ritual of behavioral change and consequent self discovery through play.

The past few months for me have been a period over which a creative block has cast a huge shadow. I am happy to be able to say that the dry spell seems to finally be over. Compounding this is the fact that my sabbatical semester leave is drawing to a close and once again the duties of a full time Real Life beckon.

The blogging activity here on the NPIRL blog during this entire period has been nothing less than a God send. Amongst much else, this has also provided me with a wonderful opportunity to take out the time and become fully engrossed in the detailed examination of the creative output of others for a change - an experience which I have vastly benefited from and hope to put to good use in my own future design work. So, I will most certainly continue to post – however far less frequently than before. I still have one June Dion post, this one on her scary avatars (and boy, are they ever!) which I will be posting soon-ish (I hope), but beyond that you will be hearing from me only occasionally, since my own creative output should be keeping me quite busy for the foreseeable future at least.

(*** Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction")


Corcosman said...

Thank you for another outstanding post, Alpha.

Alpha Auer said...

How very kind of you to say this Corcosman. Thank you so much!

Anonymous said...

Excellent post Alpha, thank you very much.

earlyadopter said...

I love the idea linking the need for artists to reconnect with the rest of society with recent research about the value of playfulness. Do you know that essay "the education of the (un) Artist" by Alan Kaprow? He talks about artists "un-arting" themselves - not worrying too much about being called artists and just doing the work of encouraging other people to be more playful and creative - i'm paraphrasing maybe badly so anyone thats reading this - go read the original essay its great. Anyway- I think you raise some really interesting points here about what the roll of the artist in society is and should be and I'm really curious what other artists in SL think of it can't wait to read further comments. - JAY NEWT

Unknown said...

Brilliant post! Thank you SO much! You might find this interesting:

Play! Definitely incredibly important I think to these issues. Too tired to say much more at the moment,... more later...

Beth Harris/aka Max Newbold

Alpha Auer said...

Thank you very much for this link Beth. Very very apt, I have to say...

@ earlyadopter: Yes, I am indeed familiar with Kaprow's essay, but thanks for reminding me of it nonetheless: I need to write a theoretical paper before too long and was wracking my brains for suitable reference material. So this comes at just the right moment...

And thank you everyone else, who either commented here or wrote to me. No worries, I shall be back before too long to inflict my particular brand of neko torture upon you some more...

someone somewhere said...

Wonderfully fantastic essay! I may have to read it again and ponder it more. I haven't felt this missing art aspect in much of the art that I pay attention to, but then I don't spend much time bothering with art that does not speak to me on a deep level. I loved what you said about art and belief - and it made me think about the kind of art that really does mean something to me, to realize that it makes me believe in possibility, hope, progress, and change. It instills curiosity in me, a trait that I believe is inherently necessary for humans to be humans and continue to survive.

BUT I have struggled with *myself* about why I should even bother making art, because I have felt like I was missing some vital piece. And your thoughts here go a long way in the direction of figuring that out. So thank you. :)

(Also, one minor correction - the development of more than one personality in a single person's psyche is called Disassociative Personality Disorder, and is not the same thing as Schizophrenia. It's a mistake many people make, perhaps because of the very word 'schizophrenia', which essentially means "split mind". However, schizophrenia is typically identified by hallucinations, delusions, and voices. The 'split mind' connotation comes from the trait of many schizophrenics to have the "incorrect" reaction to a situation - a simplistic example would be laughing at a tragic event.)

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