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 15, 2008

Stelarc’s Ear

Filed under: Discussion — jjpulizzi @ 8:01 pm
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Hi All,

In the recently published issue of diacritics there is brief section on Stelarc’s ear project that we discussed briefly in class last week. I’ve attached it as a PDF, for those of you who are not easily nauseated.


Stelarc’s Ear

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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