Last night I attended a salon on spectacle in urban software art, featuring artists Eric CorrielKacie KinzerRune Madsen, and YesYesNo / Molmol Kuo. The event was hosted by LISA/Isabel Walcott Draves and Tanya Toft, who organized it as part of a curatorial fellowship and her doctoral research at Copenhagen University. Okay, that’s probably more detail than you need. Anyway, Tanya was my former advisee and research assistant at The New School, and I’m now serving a external advisor for her CuratorLab project. The salon marked the launch of her new Urban Media Aesthetics platform, which I announced here earlier this week. She intended for the evening’s conversation to examine how these artists’ works “embody and exercise a form of criticality in public space” — in other words, how they use “spectacle” to do critical work.

Tanya invited me to write up a response to the salon. It’ll be posted to the UMA website [and here it is!] — but I figured I’d share a draft here, too. So…

 

SPACES OF CRITICAL ENGAGEMENT

If capital-S Spectacle implies superficiality, commodity fetishism, and alienation, perhaps little-s spectacular, in its less overdetermined condition, offers at least some possibility for redemption, for the recuperation of thoughtful, critical engagement. Maybe we can still find somewhere in those dazzling urban screens and media facades, or in those captivating interactive maps of sentient urban systems, the means of critique or radical action. We might also discern in all the blinking LEDs a reminder that “to be radical” in the cosmopolitan city – where efficiency, profitability, and growth-for-growth’s sake are prime virtues – might mean, simply, making time for play or contemplation.

At the Urban Media Aesthetics salon on December 4, four computational artists presented work that, while spectacular within its urban contexts, still allowed for some form of criticality. Looking across the oeuvres of these four practitioners, however, it became clear that that critical potential resides in different places in different projects. Sometimes it’s in the conceptualization and execution of a work, and sometimes it’s in its reception or use: in the user’s active manipulation of the work; in the way the work prompts the user to reexamine herself, or her relationship to those around her; in the user’s phenomenological experience of the work – even her resignation to and absorption into the work.

By simply recognizing that there are so many means of engaging with urban media art – that they’re more multifaceted than the totalizing theories of the Spectacle might imply – we’ve already done the critical work of acknowledging that all those glowing rectangles, big and small, are more than flat screens. They represent a layering of infrastructures, a three-dimensional interface between their makers and users, a generator of social space. Rather than erecting superficial “planes of alienation,” Urban Media Aesthetics has the potential to generate environments for purposeful thinking and action.

Written Images from d_effekt on Vimeo.

Rune Madsen began his presentation by talking pedagogy. In “Printing Code,” a class he teaches in NYU’s ITP, students learn graphic design through code, by acknowledging the algorithms behind so many creative, expressive practices – the measurements behind grid systems, the geometry behind typography, the proportional relationships behind color choices, etc. He wants his students not to be “blinded by the tool” or the technique, but, instead, to be aware that those often-invisible infrastructures are present – and have been present for as long as our ancestors have been making art – and informing their creative choices. “Students often don’t know what rules they’re trying to break – or they don’t know the rules at all.” Knowing the rules – then perhaps deliberately breaking them – makes for more thoughtful and critical designers and programmers, he suggested.

In his own work, Madsen aims to highlight, if not break, the rules governing learning algorithms, which learn what we like – in food, in friends, in fashion – and filter the future options placed before us, à la “if you like this, you’ll also like that.” For The Artist is Not Present, which appeared in the SP_Urban Digital Festival in São Paulo in 2013, Madsen created an algorithm that generated iterations of geometric art; then, by rating those works on a scale of 1 to 9, he “trained” his computer to predict his aesthetic preferences for the next generation of designs. As his algorithm generated the 50,000 increasingly complex, unique artworks that were projected on a São Paulo building façade for the three-week duration of the festival, Madsen effectively effaced his agency as the artist. And the software then effaced itself on the last day of the festival. This intentional erasure or disappearing – perhaps, if we’re into awkward neologisms, we could say “de-spectaclization” – also characterizes Madsen’s Tiny Artists series, which, again, grants aesthetic agency to the algorithm. Tiny programs generate geometric poster designs, which are then printed, before the programs delete themselves and their own source code, leaving the analog prints to stand alone, mutely hinting at the process of their generation.

In a gallery setting, a visitor would likely be privy to Tiny Artists’ backstory, and might appreciate the critical issues – regarding authorship, originality, materiality, the creative freedom of artistic production, etc. – that Madsen is grappling with in this work. Yet in downtown São Paulo, it’s quite possible that a passerby, unfamiliar with the work’s critical play with aesthetic agency, might see little more than dynamic shapes in vibrant colors flashing on a skyscraper – a scene that might be read, as Christiane Paul suggests, as “an aesthetic visualization of a public social space or as pure visual spectacle.” There’s less control, in this urban context, over the critical context in which the work is perceived – and thus greater chance that the critical intention might be missed. Yet there are at least two cues in Madsen’s work that might enable even the uninitiated to recognize that there’s more here than meets the eye – that this isn’t a gratuitously clever techno-Spectacle. First, the work’s provocative title, The Artist Is Not Present, if displayed or broadcast anywhere in the vicinity of the projection, raises critical questions about Madsen’s intentions; and second, the obvious “pattern language” of the display – the fact that there’s clearly a rhythm, a repetition of certain formal, chromatic, or compositional elements as the designs evolve – could compel passersby to want to “crack the code,” to wonder about the logic driving the artwork’s evolution. The Artist Is Not Present thus becomes a mystery: one of missing persons and secret codes.

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There’s a mystery behind Kacie Kinzer’s work, too. When a city-dweller sees one of Kinzer’s tiny, unassuming, good-natured Tweenbots rolling aimlessly through an urban park, he or she likely wonders who’s behind this small-scale spectacle. Who’s manning the robot’s controls? As it turns out, nobody. Well, actually – you are, sort of. As Kinzer explains, “the adorable and helpless-seeming ‘bots,” constructed of cardboard and the most rudimentary of mechanics, “roll along at a constant speed, in a straight line, and have a destination displayed on a flag. They rely on people they meet to read this flag and to aim them in the right direction to reach their goal.” And people do. Kinzer offered up plenty of video documentation of park-goers interrupting their conversations, putting down their guitars and sandwiches, parking their bikes, hanging up their cellphones, and empathetically engaging with this inanimate, yet highly emotive, cardboard object. The improbability and mystery – the small-s spectacle – of this decidedly un-spectacular object led people to choose to perform an irrational, yet compassionate, act. And in making that choice, many people seemed to be visibly vulnerable – aware that they were critically reflecting, in public, on their own code of ethics.

There’s an empathy-inducing vulnerability in much of Kinzer’s practice. She professed unease or distaste for highly scripted interaction design – for the kinds of projects in which designers might develop hypotheses regarding what will happen when they place technological objects in controlled urban environments. Rather than championing this “scientistic” criticality, she prefers a more speculative form of critical action in which the outcome is emergent. Kinzer aims to create contexts in which “connection, serendipity, and play” come together in urban space, and then she “embraces the unexpected” – even if that unexpected result is failure. There is indeed much critical insight to be gained from experiments that fail.

Molmol Kuo and her partners in YesYesNo also use fanciful, rudimentary robots to generate serendipitous encounters – encounters that, despite their seeming mundanity, have the potential to raise critical questions about ethical interaction. Their YesYesBot has the enviable job of roaming around and dispensing candy. Anyone can download the remote control app onto his or her iPhone and dispatch the little retro-style bot to share candy with whomever crosses its path. It might be a stretch to suggest that YesYesBot will inspire its beneficiaries to reflect critically on the nature of the gift economy, or that it’ll compel its remote control operators to ruminate on depersonalized commodity exchange. But perhaps the technology might allow for other applications with more obvious critical dimensions. Consider Kuo’s Walk in Shelter, a walking robot modeled after a goddess’s temple that travels around Taiwan for one week each year, drawing pilgrims who divulge their trials and tribulations. Kuo’s version is embedded with a video display showing documentary footage about sex trafficking and domestic violence. The robot’s sculptural form and animalistic movement create a small-s spectacle on the street, which draws an audience – both to the sculpture and, ideally, to the critical issues it aims to address.

In “Connecting Light,” a project they created for the London 2012 Festival, YesYesNo strung hundreds of six-foot-diameter weather balloons equipped with LEDs along Hadrian’s Wall in the UK. People could visit the project’s website and post messages, which were then translated into pulses of color and transmitted down the 73-mile line of balloons. As various messages originated from different points along the wall, they crossed paths with one another, and their colors blended. Kuo’s colleague Zachary Lieberman told the Telegraph, “We are imagining a reverse wall – an inverse of the border. The border was built to separate people, and we want to bring them together again.” We’ve seen similar urban media art projects that transmit user-generated messages, or translate them into light or sound. And many of these projects – like those of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and Krzysztof Wodiczko – grapple with critical issues, like surveillance and immigration. But again, we must wonder if a public encountering illuminated balloons will see “pure visual spectacle,” pure delight and frivolity – or a form of communication that does critical breaking-down-walls work. As Zimmerman explained to the Telegraph, “We want to create experiences that are magical, and create wonder and surprise – and give people good dreams.” Do good dreams preclude critical engagement? Perhaps not – if those good dreams envision a better world.

Eric Corriel’s Pool Portals, an interactive video installation projected onto a pool of milk, created more of a psychedelic experience, one that carved out a heterotopia, or a space of exception, in the urban environment. There’s no explicit critical message here – but Corriel did tell the story of one little boy who became obsessed with the work; played in it for hours, with his mother on the sidelines, clearly fascinated by her son’s fascination; and emerged from the experience convinced that he wanted to be an artist. This – convincing young people of the value of aesthetic experience – is indeed critical work.

But Corriel also uses his work to convey more explicitly ideological messages. Water Will Be Here, a video installation positioned at street level on building facades, premiered in Dumbo, Brooklyn, in 2010 (it later showed in Atlanta, Toronto, and Southampton). The immersive installation created the sensation of floating in water, and periodically going under. Particularly in the waterfront neighborhood of Dumbo, which was flooded during Hurricane Sandy, the installation made the potential effects of climate change – specifically, the rise in sea levels – palpable. It transformed an abstract concern into something experiential; it made a critical argument phenomenologically. It made aesthetics ideological.

And while not all of the works explored in the salon were overtly ideological, all embodied a criticality – in their making, their reception, their manipulation, even their appreciation. It might be especially critical to recognize that even the “mere” act of contemplation – the bracketing of time to appreciate quotidian beauty and the routines of everyday experience – can itself be a critical act, particularly in an urban environment that demands urgency and productivity and profit. Those spectacular glowing rectangles can, after all, provide deep spaces where we can contemplate purposeful thinking and action.

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