Media Theory for the 21st Century

March 11, 2008


As this will be the last class, I thought a presentation on hypermediated cemeteries would be appropriate.

Deep in the heart of one of the most intensively media-centric landscapes in the world lies a large, unorganized collection of dead bodies, spread out in lackadaisical rows.  From here, the Hollywood Forever cemetery, one has a beautiful view of Griffith Observatory, the Hollywood Sign, the back of the Paramount Lot, and at least one doubledecker tour bus an hour.  This is perhaps not a good place to R.I.P., but I am doubtful whether any bodies mind.  Those who wish to be buried here are keenly aware of their mediated surroundings, as when one buys a plot of earth, they are also hiring a staff of biographers who categorize your life in photo montages and record any messages your dead self might like to extend to the living.  Some of these tapes feature touching (if eery) music and others include a narration by an assumed family member or friend who is able to explain what is going on in the footage.  While watching these, one may get the feeling that they are in the wrong and should not be viewing these people’s private moments and lives that were necessarily recorded at the solemn moment of one’s passing.  However, the question remains concerning why they would post this on the internet if they didn’t want people like me to dig through it.

This online collection of searchable lives is often referred to as “an archive,” a space which guarantees a permanent (if obscure) future and a certain academic gravitas.  While these stories constitute an archive, the slogan for the cemetery as a whole is “library of lives,” which suggests a radical rethinking of what the purpose of a cemetery is and what it should be.  This recontextualization of the cemetery is only possible because of the various levels of media that the space employs.  In   Urban Computing and Its Discontents, Mark Shepard asks “to what extent have mobile and pervasive computing actually begun to supplant the autonomy of traditional architectural practice as the technology of space-making” (33).  The implicit answer is “a lot.”  Fittingly, it would be impossible to locate a burial lot without the various videomaps attached to the lifestory kiosks.  Without this medial guide to order the landscape, it becomes difficult to understand this space as anything other than a schizogeography.

While I do not mean to argue that this space is a model for the use of situational technologies, one can see here a certain strong desire and readiness for this architectural change to take place.  Presently, there are only 3 to 4 working lifestory video kiosks available for “viewings” at any one time, but it is clear that this is a movement toward HD tombstones with sensurround sound.

Walking through the cemetery, one can see a plethora of medial objects that figure the dead body through various lenses and guises.  There are rare 3-D sculptures, statues, and busts that express the dead person in a classical mode, suggesting that they are now important and part of a pantheon.  Far more common are photographic images that are either permanently attached to the tombstone, or precariously sit on top.  Many of the graves used a framed picture as the headstone, though it was unclear whether these were considered permanent fixtures or not.  Regardless, their presence made me consider the classical headstone and its utter inability to represent a person.  Other stones appeared to be very hi-tech and featured photographic images that had been laser engraved into the stone in the same way that one might get their name on an iPod.  Others were super low-tech and had an arts and crafts look, with painted on messages, names and pictures.

The question often arose as to how one would choose the photo that could represented their entire lives.  While most of the photos were obviously taken of people close to the end of their lives, others featured the more vibrant figure of a 20 or 30 year old even as the person may have lived to 80 or 90.  These photos quickly became a way of ordering and making sense of the absent person, whose body was present but hidden.  Because of these photos, I rarely thought about the buried bodies at all and instead thought of the photo as the evidence that the person had existed.  The body became meaningless, or at least lost its supposedly inherent importance.  This made me consider Sterling’s piece and his point that “sometimes I really want an object, the thing qua thing, the literal entity itself, physically there at hand.   At many other times, may crucial times of serious decision, I’m much better served with a representation of that object” (95).  Does one ever want a dead body?  Is the photo montage and last words really what we are wanting when we go to a graveyard?  These images are not a spime in any normal (if there is a normal sense) of the term, but I would argue they act in the same way as a “weightless, conceptual, interactive model” of the living being, which is arguably a better representation than any physical object.

For more:
Sorry for no images here, had to save something for tomorrow.

February 19, 2008

Presentation for 2/19: Embodiment – Pipolotti Rist’s ‘blood-fueled cameras’

Filed under: Discussion,New media art — dfratini @ 12:02 am

The video installation work of artist Pipilotti Rist foregrounds not only representations of the human (female) body but also the viewer’s experience of her art (and by extension any art, or any communication, or life itself) as an essentially, emphatically embodied experience. In her art the boundary between subject and object is fluid. Bodies are seen on the screen (frequently the artist’s own), the screen itself is acknowledge as a body, and the body of the viewer(s) is an integral part of the work.

I realize it’s ridiculous to talk about “the embodied experience of her art” and ask you to look at low-grade surreptitious video of the installations, but as I cannot afford to take us all Zurich, it will have to do.

Here are two earlier works emphasizing representation of the body:

Her most recent works de-emphasize or exclude representations of bodies, emphasizing the installation space, and thus bodies of the viewers/spectators.

In trying to articulate how I believe Rist exemplifies many of the concepts in the Hansen reading, in a most intriguing way, I turned to Amanda Jones’s recent Self / Image: Technology, Representation and the Contemporary Subject (Routledge 2006). Some key excerpts:

  • [Rist] has identified human eyes with “blood-fueled cameras.” …. if the eye is a blood-fueled camera then… vision can no longer be instrumentalized — understood as mechanically securing the viewer in his position of knowing, per Renaissance perspectival models (such as Alberti’s) and apparatuses.
  • Rist’s works are profoundly interdependent….he binary logic of the ‘gaze’ itself has dissolved.
  • While masculine scientific understanding and techno-discourses have celebrated joining of the human body to the machine (as epitomized by the robotic pieces by Stelarc, the rationalizing force of which is exacerbated by his verbal claims for transcending the body through such technological extensions), or alternatively as lamented this joining as a threat to the humanist subject…. [Rist] simply narrates — in verbal as well as visual form — the fluid remaking of the human body as itself a visualizing ‘tool,’ but one that is profounding irrational and incapable of being fully instrumentalized — one that is itself immersed in (as) the image.

In my presentation, I will explain further what Jones is getting at and how I equate this with the Hansen reading. I also want to discuss the experience of the embodied viewer / spectator (which Jones merely glosses), in light of the chapter from Kate’s work (“Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers”).

February 18, 2008

video games, performance, machinima.

At the risk of sounding like the sort of disciplinary colonizer that Markku Eskelinen so despises, there are some tantalizing clear resonances between video games and theatre–or at least I find the pairing compelling. Both take place within a sort of virtual reality that’s designated as other-than-real despite the fact that it requires the operation by actual bodies. Too, there’s an interesting relationship between avatars and gamers that, at least in some ways, mirrors an actor-character relationship (at least a conventional Western one): both can be seen as a sort of hybrid, provisional unit, a liminal figure composed of a corporeal self briefly lending her or his subjectivity to a shell, a subject temporarily inhabiting an object.

Of course, there are some clear differences, too. In gameworlds, the usual distinction between audience and actor is less clear; the gamer is both observer and actor, and any position involves spectatorship and participation. And though I believe that to be true of theatre, too–even in the most conventional performances, theatre audiences are more justly figured as participants than entirely passive spectators–the game model provides a particularly interesting and complex site to investigate action, agency and spectatorship, and the effects of either/both on narrative and drama.

We can often appreciate a sort of inverse proportionality between stable narrative and unrehearsed or randomized participation/interactivity. As Henry Lowood writes, quoting media artist Randall Packer, “computer games occupy a salient position in accepting the role of the player as co-producer of content:

‘While theater begins with the notion of the suspension of disbelief, interactive art picks up where theater (and film) leave off with branching, user-driven non-linear narrative. The letting go of authorial control has been the big dilemma of interactive works as an art and/or entertainment medium, games being the exception.’” (High-Performance Play: The Making of Machinima)

Although it may be dramatic or involve a kind of narrative-like trajectory, a random sample from World of Warcraft play probably doesn’t make a particularly good story or coherent drama.

Still, though, it seems impossible to divorce drama and narrative from games altogether. Lowood traces an genealogy of machinima, animated “movies” created with “footage” captured in-game, that begins with players’ desires to reference past achievements or analyze recorded play. Much of today’s machinima is a far cry from the replays, demos and cut scenes that presaged the genre: recent works include full length movies and recurring, TV-like episodics.

I’ll be talking about machinima tomorrow, both in my small presentation and about the project Jonathan and I are doing for the course. I haven’t yet settled on a work to focus on for Tuesday, but the sorts of ideas that interest me in this context involve games as complex sites of authoring and spectating, and a certain type of explicitly creative consumption. More to come.

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)

February 5, 2008

Looking for the Solid Ground of Attention in Poundstone’s *Tachistoscope*

Filed under: Discussion,New media art — P.J. @ 10:45 pm
Tags: , , , ,

While this post may not arrive in time for some of us attending seminar this afternoon, I still hope to offer this as a supplement and introduction to my exploration of attention and executive function in William Poundstone’s “Project for Tachistoscope” today.

Kate’s already-posted article on “Hyper and Deep Attention” constructs the range of attention along an axis where the behaviors associated with AD/HD align with instantiations of hyper attention, while normative attention more closely resembles what she calls “deep attention.” My own experience and research provides me a different perspective on the issue – especially given more recent developments in the definition of AD/HD. Increasing attention (as it were) to executive function has produced a model of AD/HD that manifests not so much as the “attention-deficit” that is part of its name, but rather an inability to regulate, in either direction, the executive function which moderates attention in the normed population. (Important here is the recognition that executive function is not a clearly identified and observed cognitive process, but the latest in a series of a theoretical construct attempting to model brain function.)

Particularly relevant to understanding this view is the phenomenon of “hyperfocus,” as it is called in AD/HD literature. Hyperfocus, the ability to focus intently to the exclusion of all other stimuli, is increasingly considered to be an AD/HD trait just as much as the widely-documented distractability associated with it. These two phenomena are now considered to be two sides of the same coin, a coin uneasily exchanged in an attentional economy that still favors a balanced response to environmental and internal stimuli – in other words, those who show normal executive function. Hence, where Hayles describes “hyper” and “deep” attention, I recognize, at least in part, these extremes of attention now currently attributed to AD/HD.

Even if generational deployment of media and other technologies might favor more of a shift toward these extremes of attention, I would assert that the shift is not significant, and that the culture generally still rewards normal executive function far more than unregulated, oscillating executive function – and thus those who are diagnosed with AD/HD must still cope within a culture in which their cognitive approach is defined as disordered and pathological.

At the same time, my increasing familiarity with Project for Tachistoscope is leading to even deeper questions about the nature of attention and executive function, and the degree to which language processing and other pattern recognition – particularly when dealing with a multiplicity of data input – is entangled with our understanding of attention generally. Poundstone’s deliberate evocation of aporia through his rapid-fire juxtaposition of linear narrative and random iconic presentation produces beautiful coincidences at certain moments, yet confounds any deeper sense of connection between the text and its “subtext,” while still compelling the reader to attend to both. What sort of “reading” strategy must be employed to engage this work? And given the points of conflict that seem to coalesce at the user interface, exploding into phenomena that range from the ergonomic and workplace trauma of carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive motion disorders, to the profound threat of extinction that attends a Deaf culture contending with the increasing deployment of the cochlear implant. Even in this indirect way, attention to/at the interface is implicated in media issues of embodiment as well. These issues look promising, and I hope to discuss these matters further in class today.

February 4, 2008

Week 5 apértif: Finding the Focus in Poundstone’s *Project for Tachistoscope*

Filed under: Discussion,New media art — P.J. @ 4:11 pm
Tags: , , ,

While I, too, prepare to regale you with a more sophisticated post for this week’s other presentation, I encourage you to review William Poundstone’s Project for Tachistoscope [Bottomless Pit], which you can find through this CD-ROM or this website.

The relative brevity of our seminar tomorrow will prevent me from engaging this work over a prolonged period, so I ask you to spend some time with this before class, and humor me with the following exercise.

Spend as much time with it as you can stand. Seriously. While viewing, I’d like you to think about the following:

What changes or shifts in your attention do you notice as you view this work?
Do you discover yourself watching more passively, more actively, alternating between the two, or deploying these two viewing strategies some other way?
Do you feel any affective or physical discomfort while viewing this? Try to describe your response as specifically as you can.
Finally, record how long you did view this work, summarize what your best guess is of what you saw, and consider why you spent the amount of time you did with it.

More to follow…

January 29, 2008

carrier: becoming symborg

Filed under: Discussion,New media art,Readings — Dr. Dave @ 3:25 am

My presentation tomorrow will focus on Melinda Rackham and and Damien Everett’s carrier: becoming symborg. Inspired by Rackham’s experience with Hepatitis C, this site generalizes the idea of code to include viruses and DNA, while exploring some of the same issues we have been talking about. I want to explore how the work plays into the following debates about code:

Surface and Depth: Is code a deep structure whose effects are only felt through the system rather than exposed by it? The work’s references to DNA suggests that in the case of the human body, we do not know what does our thinking, by which I mean the code of the human body are not directly visible to what it manifests (us). At the same time, on the message board, infection causes technical medical language to enter their conversation; the virus is felt by its effects, both in the body and in conversation.

On the technical side, while the work’s code is concealed, being written mostly in Java, Shockwave, and VRML, the proliferation of various languages brings them all to the forefront. On the original site, though, there is a “diagnosis” page, which helps users configure their browsers appropriately. The work begs us to look deep into its code. I’ve included the source code of some of the Java I find interesting here: infect.jar,, and

Execution vs. Surface, Cayley vs. Mez: Does the work’s use of the structures of the program’s execution as signifiers complicate our knowledge of code depth? Upon visiting the site, the browser downloads infect.jar. This simulation of the process of infection uses the system’s operation as a metaphor to make parallels between the computer and the body. This is a supposedly-hidden execution that the reader is meant to see, which complicates Cayley’s divide between machine and reader audiences. This is something seen in the structure of a language, not the actual code. Where does this fall on the Mez-Cayley spectrum?

The definition of code work: In addition to using the execution as a signifying structure, the work uses code-inflected English in a simplified Mezangelled aesthetic. Does this demonstrate how code begins to permeate language in a more subtle way? I’m thinking in particular of the lines “sHe extends [you]” and the punctuation on the Intimate screen, which allude to Java, but use the signs in different ways, showing how perhaps the presence of programming code frees us to use punctuation in novel ways, not necessarily those ways that are meaningful in the language.

The quote “sHe extends [name]” (a line in CarrierLingo) in Java, means “sHe is a type of object that builds on the functionality of the [name] object.” This line is targeted at the user rather than the system, asking us to imagine that sHe somehow takes a part of us and extends its own functionality that way. Interestingly, there is no sHe object in the source code. sHe is the (Infectious)agent that drives the program, but is the sum total effect of several other classes (see below), yet is experienced by us as a unified thing because we experience it as such. This questions the idea of there being a central signified driving the development of language and code.

Code as execution rather than artefact: Carrier suggests that life is defined by the activity of code copying rather than by an essential material, or meaning. The guiding agent, sHe, is made of Java classes that only contain parts of its behaviors; there are CarrierLingo, InfectiousAgent, and CarrierSite classes (in infect.jar), but no sHe class. A living creature (or an artificial one) is portrayed as the sum total of its actions rather than as an object. In the LifePoet nodes (fear and love), intent and order are contested by the placement of random text over Conway’s life (a process we can see is random in; activity takes the place of meaning.

January 21, 2008

Week Three Discussion: Moving Canvas and El Muro

Filed under: Discussion,New media art — katem333 @ 11:28 pm

Hi all– Like Kim, I will be presenting a couple of projects I’ve spent time with working for the UC Transliteracies working group on New Reading Interfaces. I’ll be talking tomorrow about two projects created by collaborations of artists affiliated with the Berlin University of the Arts: Moving Canvas and El Muro. (more…)

Week 3 Discussion, Part One: The Dreamlife of Letters

Filed under: Discussion,New media art — kknight08 @ 5:38 pm

My suggestion for week three grows out of some work I have done for The Transliteracies Project. For discussion, I would like us to take a look at Brian Kim Stefans’ “The Dreamlife of Letters.” Created in 2000, the piece is situated within a rich textual genealogy – the flash animation is a critical response to a poem by Rachel Blau DuPlessis, which is itself a response to the Dodi Bellamy essay “Sex/Body/Writing.” Keeping in mind one of my favorite Heidegger quotes, “questioning is the piety of thought (35),” I offer below a series of questions that I hope will spark class discussion. (more…)

January 16, 2008

Synaptogenesis in the Age of Digital Reproduction – Nick Roth

Filed under: Discussion,New media art — nickroth @ 7:45 am

[I was really hoping to think of a more clever title for my first blog-post, so apologies for that. Suggestions welcome – maybe something that puns “Synapse” with “Oh snap!”]

I want to address briefly a point that was brought up in today’s discussion first by John, and then by Harmony, that we didn’t really get closure on, but that I think warrants some more dialogue (and I certainly need to work through it a lot more myself to get clear), and that is this:

Can we describe the paradigm shifts in consciousness and brain development involved in the movements from oral to print culture, and from print culture to digital culture, as purely additive processes, or are there potentially also detractive or limiting synaptogenetic consequences, as well?

Or, to simplify (though I think we should be cautious in framing the problem in this way), did the movement to print culture have a negative impact on the development of the speech centers of the brain, and will the shift to digital media have a negative impact on the way people read and write?

First, it should be noted that the problem does not seem to be that engaging with print media would itself have a negative effect on cognition related to speech, but that the ensuing cultural de-emphasis on speech would limit the synaptic growth of those areas of the brain. In other words, it is the absence of the old media, rather than the presence of the new media, that might potentially have a limiting effect on synaptogenesis.

Here Harmony’s point seems valid – that the shift to print media did not entirely replace oral culture. The question is the extent this lack of speech-related input to the brain might have had on synaptic development.

My instinct here is that a significant decrease of synaptogenesis in the speech cognition areas of the brain seems unlikely. Children probably did not speak less, or hear less speech, because of the shift to print culture. Synaptogenesis is most pronounced in children, and decreases as a child matures, learns to read, and generally experiences more directly things like major cultural shifts. While the subtle differences between a child being narrated a story from oral tradition, and a child being read a fairy tale, are not to be overlooked, I am skeptical that that sort of shift would have a pronounced effect on neurological development – but I am by no means an expert.

Likewise, the shift from print to digital culture will certainly be in some ways an additive process (Professor Hayles asserted today that it would likely precipitate a de-emphasis of sequential cognition and an increased ability to process parallel or multiple information streams), but it might potentially limit synaptogenesis – not on account of the new media themselves, but due to the absence of the sort of sensory input involved in print culture.

My instinct here is again a skepticism towards any significant detraction or limiting of synaptogenesis. New media themselves tend to add to and rework print media in more intimate ways than occur in the relation between print and oral media – namely, that many new media so heavily involve text, which, from the perspective of neurological sensory input, is not so different whether on the printed page or on the computer screen. The differences are obviously important, but I am not so sure of their relevance when it comes to a lack of sensory input in children.

So to return to the relevant (and admittedly problematically framed) question, “Will the shift to digital media potentially have a negative impact on the way people read and write?” I think there’s no simple answer. I doubt there will be a direct negative impact on synaptic development in terms of reading and/or writing, but I also freely admit that the consequences to other areas of neurological development will be potentially even more pronounced and certainly more unpredictable. But, again, I’m not firm in this position and am attentive to objections.

A semi-unrelated note I think you’ll all enjoy: on tonight’s 11:00pm Simpsons re-run, the opening blackboard-detention-gag was, “My butt does not deserve its own website.”

Next Page »

Blog at