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)

February 12, 2008

H Part 2

Filed under: Discussion — hbench @ 5:59 pm
Tags: , ,

For his part, Hansen imagines a more collaborative relationship between spectator and a new media art object. He contends that viewers (his examples are primarily, if not exclusively, visual art) apprehend new media art affectively through their bodies, which must bring themselves into alignment with the alternate realities new media objects might represent. Bodies are also filters that effectively create images as they enframe and interpret information as perceivable. Indeed, Hansen notes in response to Rosalind Krauss, with the digital image, “bodily activity is required to produce any experience whatsoever” (24). I think in highlighting bodily activity, Hansen wants to distinguish the user from the immobile cinematic spectator—since he spends a good deal of this chapter countering Krauss and Manovich. Insofar as one can only be in the world as a body that is always filtering and framing information, I think Hansen overstates his case. Nevertheless, I think his important intervention is to suggest that new media art works create or foreground affective experiences, that these experiences are what constitute the artistic “object,” or objective, and that such works elicit synesthetic responses in their call for haptic viewing. I do not, however, think this is necessarily the case for all digital media or all new media art works, though Hansen has chosen works that illustrate his argument quite well.

Admittedly, I am sympathetic to theorizing digital media through bodily engagement. I am sensitive to corporeal re-alignments and the rhythms of images as pulsations of space and body. And I am invested in exploring the body in front of the screen and what kind of body is there—not in terms of the social construction of the spectator or the soft body, but in terms of a feeling and responsive body affectively engaged with the digital image. So the work that I’ll be presenting on today speaks, I think, to these two authors, but mostly in terms that Hansen has laid out. In fact, Ellis, the artist, also situates his work in a Bergsonist vein of becoming and temporality.

The files in the dad.project are responsive spaces in miniature, not unlike the installations of Myron Kreuger or especially David Rokeby (whose software underlies many multi-media performances). Like Hansen suggests, the dances in dad are actualized by the user, without whom nothing can happen. The images in some cases have been treated to interrupt visual mastery, and invite a haptic viewing or even a proprioceptive identification with the image. Sight and touch are merged synesthetically in haptic viewing, but cinema can create haptic images without requiring any physical displacement on the part of the viewer. In dad, as in many hyperdances and some of the pieces Hansen discusses, my own bodily motion, reduced, as it is to the tip of my finger, provides a motor force which propels the image onscreen. As Hansen remarks, images, which are now processes, “are irreducibly bound up with the activity of the body” (10).

Even without my own physical displacement or “interaction,” images may yet evoke a bodily mode of apprehension. Ellis’s Microflicks are significant in this regard. There are, of course, many theories of empathic viewing or what is often referred to in dance studies as kinesthetic empathy—from dance critic John Martin’s explanation in the 1930s of the “little man” inside each one of us who feels in concert with performers onstage, to more contemporary theories of mirror neurons that activate the same neural responses when someone watches but does not themselves do a familiar action, or even going back to 18th century studies of rhetoric and the role of intonation and gesture in producing a convincing argument. Leaving these aside, each of the Microflicks demands an acute attentiveness from my body to “make sense” (see Vivian Sobchack) of the image. They carry with them a rhythm and logic that references but does not correspond with the time of the body—the time it takes to move. They are, as Paul Virilio has described, in a constant state of arrival. The Microflicks are only 2 seconds each, but in a sense they are much longer, not only because of the amount of time that has been condensed into each video, but because of my obsessive need for repeated viewing.

I think that’s all I have to say for now.


Blog at