Media Theory for the 21st Century

February 15, 2008

Embodiment in Performance Art Systems

Filed under: Discussion,General,New media art — mkontopoulos @ 5:46 am
Tags: , , , , ,

Ok, now that all has been fixed with my author status, I can re-post my entry from last week. Sorry it wasn’t up on time:

This week’s readings presented multiple ways of considering issues of embodiment; physical and virtual spaces, avatars, notions of absence or mediated removal, the physicality of pre-cinematic devices are a few that come to mind. I found it difficult to generate an overarching thesis that was any more focused than generally agreeing that new media and digital technologies change the way we perceive our bodies and our roles and relationships to space and one another (not to mention, art).

I’d like to present two new media art works that I believe, serve as interesting compliments to one another, and will probably generate some interesting class discussion as a result. The first piece Very Nervous System, is a performance system developed in the early 90s by the celebrated media artist David Rockeby. Our classmates that study dancing will no doubt find this interesting; assuming they haven’t seen it already. In VNS, the bodily gestures of a participant are observed by a camera and translated in real-time, to a generative musical composition with a slight amount of randomness. On his website, Rockeby cites a variety of inspirations for developing this system: “Because the computer is purely logical, the language of interaction should strive to be intuitive. Because the computer removes you from your body, the body should be strongly engaged. Because the computer’s activity takes place on the tiny playing fields of integrated circuits, the encounter with the computer should take place in human-scaled physical space.”

The second and arguably more provocative piece, is the performance Ping Body, by Australian performance artist Stelarc (1996). This performance makes clever use a system built by Stelarc that manually actuates the muscles of the performer (Stelarc) based on impulses from a remote audience. In the Ping Body performances, the input is supplied not by a remote audience but by the flow of data itself: internet traffic. In her book Digital Art, Christiane Paul writes that “allowing the body to be controlled by the machine, Stelarc’s work operates on the threshold between embodiment and disembodiment, a central aspect of discussions about the changes that digital technologies have brought about for our sense of self” (167).

I’m interested in the relationship between these two very different works. Rockeby’s piece uses the body as an input device – an organic, impulsive and completely unique physical presence that gets outputted to pure information and pattern, but done so in a way that defies a recognizable pattern and assumes an organic appearance. Conversely, Stelarc’s performance uses pure data as its input, acting upon and subverting the agency of once unique physical body. In doing so, the data transforms Stelarc’s actions into a programmed and therefore, recordable and repeatable format.

As a class, I think it would be great to discuss Mark Hansen’s proposal that framing new media in terms of cinema (Manovich) denies the polymorphous potential of digital data. He doesn’t offer many examples of alternatives in this particular chapter, aside from agreeing that many digital art projects move towards the traditions of pre-cinematic devices in their necessity of physical participation and interaction. According to Hansen, “with the flexibility brought by digitization, there occurs a displacement of the framing function of medial interfaces back onto the body from which they themselves originally sprang”.

I’m also interested in discussing Kate’s theory of pattern/random vs. presence/absence and how emphasis on information technology privileges the pattern/random dialectic. This could be an interesting context to discuss and critique performance related works like these two. “The pattern/randomness dialectic does not erase the material world; information in fact derives its efficacy from the material infrastructures it appears to obscure. This illusion of erasure should be the subject of inquiry, not a presupposition that inquiry takes for granted” (28).

Very Nervous System:

Ping Body (the website is hideous, sorry)

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