Why tech/Why not? : a report on the 2003 Subtle Technologies Conference by Barbara Sternberg
just attended my third Subtle Technologies conference, (the 6th annual held in
At the conclusion of the three-day conference,
I was left warmed by the generosity, dedication and humility of the
participants—scientists and artists from
Artists working with technology are moving into new realms, blurring the boundaries and complicating the definition of artist and of art (some hybrids spawned: artist/researcher or researcher/artist, artist/computer scientist, artist/biologist, artist/activist). I propose to review this conference, highlighting several of the presenters and through this consider the effect, the place and the ethics of inter-active, technology-driven, new media art—art that is seen as socially relevant, community-based yet global in reach.
The answer to the question "why technology?" could be simply answered: "Why not?" If the mountain's there some people, artists among them, will want to climb. There is more to it though: it continues to be the role of art to humanize science and technology, to democratize, to question and subvert, and finally, not to be left behind. Artists have often been asked by the manufacturers of the latest technology to work with it and see what it can do beyond its intended commercial use. Have artists been co-opted by this? What is the nature of the connection between science, art, technology, government and business? Is business (and government) a silent partner or the controlling interest? Is globalization inevitable, and is it a result of electronic and digital technology?
Sergio Basbaum (his background is music, cinema and visual arts) presented, Synesthesia and Digital Perception, which contextualized digital art historically (this material is on CDROM which one can move through in a non-linear way—see Appendix). Following upon the tendency to fragmentation and specialization in science and art in the 19th century, and the subsequent specialization and separation of the senses in modernist art, Basbaum argues that digital technology, like the tribal, 'acoustic' world Marshall McLuhan described, is synesthetic and immersive. Many simultaneous sensations are interwoven—the here and now of sensation prevails over the rational symbolic order, a unity is experienced.
It is possible, then, to talk about a digital perception, a synesthetical model of understanding reality which employs notions of perception of reality abandoned in the eighteenth century, but now under a technological support ...[aims to] reunite the once separated senses...[There are] strong trends in digital art to develop synesthetic and immersive works that both envelop us in virtual environments and search for correspondences and complimentarities between the senses, as much as for 'magical' and 'spiritual' experiences of the real world.
With Basbaum's reference to Marshall McLuhan the question, "why technology?", was put into a larger perspective: we are living in a new age, the electronic age, even if we can't yet clearly describe the changes in individual psyches or societal structure that the change from typography to electronic communication has wrought. In "The Guttenberg Galaxy"1, McLuhan recalled Karl Popper's descriptions of changes in society from the unity of 'tribal' to 'open' society that the change from oral to written culture brought about, changes like the shaking up of class structure. Now in the shift to electronic culture, to a digital synesthetic perception, back to 'tribal' is 'back' with a difference. Not back to small tribal communities or cities but a global tribal unity will be realized. We cannot not participate. We're IN it, though we may not recognize the changes. Artworks dealing with surveillance and other 'political' art may be part of the new revolution or a continuation of the dissolution of class and privilege, this time of the ruling military/police/corporate elite. Demolishing isolated locations, global cyberspace is where this new age lives and works.
With SWIPE, artist/activists Beatriz da Costa and Brooke Singer address the gathering of data from drivers' licenses, a form of data collection that businesses are starting to practice nation-wide... Swipe aims to bring attention to this practice [by art performances and street actions] and enable people to see exactly what is stored on their mysterious strip [the magnetic strip on the back of the license]... With public knowledge there is a chance for public voices and ultimately resistance.
At a gallery opening they manned the bar and
asked everyone they served for I.D.; these I.D.'s
were then swiped. Hooked up by computer to a data collection company (which
they paid for), they printed out on a screen behind the bar personal
information on that gallery visitor: name, address, age, social security
number, income. Different amounts of
information were found for different people. In the post 9/11
Marc Tuters noted the similarities between Australian aboriginal song lines and GIS (Global Information System) maps, between the ancient mnemonic devices for navigation and new wireless communication and computing technologies for location awareness. According to Tuters, these devices are "creating impromptu social networks that are mutating users' very relations to space, time and to each other." Friend-Finder services in Japan, group behaviour studies among Finnish teens, political protests organized by forwarding text messaging via cell phones, transponder chips implanted in children by security-fearful parents are examples of this "psychogeography."
Tuters' own design practice and other collaborative mapping projects 'are creating locative wireless interfaces that allow users to annotate space and, in so doing, become the architects of their own social spaces." Tuters sees the transformative potential of locative media but also worries over the issue of social control. For more on Tuters' projects see his blog (blog, for the uninitiated like me, is a contraction from web log or diary - I'm finding the experience of this new technology is very much tied up in language which for the most part is "Greek to me"!)
Lee Smolin, a researcher at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, gave a different type of historical overview. He described the ethical basis of science and democracy—both are ethical communities—and explored points of contact between the scientific understanding of space and time and our conceptions of human society.
Smolin sees the Aristotelian hierarchical universe echoed in the
societal order god, king, people. The liberal
scientific universe of Copernicus and
The question of ethics had been raised early in the conference by Aniko Meszaros whose work crosses many disciplines, even creating a new one, "genetic architecture". Meszaros decided to enter the controversial arena of biotechnological engineering rather than abdicate because of its ethical issues. Her background is in architecture and environmental studies. She has designed plant organisms that will grow habitable landscapes. Her project Plant Anima transforms tools of biotechnology into devices of culture. It proposes a new inhabitable architecture, generated through the invention of unique plant organisms, that is wired yet vegetable, responsive yet independent, artificial yet alive... A new 'genetic' architect then watching the organism grow itself.
Meszaros defends her work from the protests of those against GMO's on the basis that her genetically designed plants will increase diversity rather than move towards the establishment of monocultures which has been the direction taken so far by corporate interests.
The project's research began at the Microbiology Department of the University College of London and won the Gold Prize at Osaka International Design Festival. Further crossing disciplines, it will be exhibited in galleries and museums. Meszaros asserts that while the design of Plant Anima has positive ideals, it is ultimately at the service of beauty.
A sample case will be presented: a floating, inhabitable living landscape inserted into an obsolete industrial harbour. Utilizing plant typologies that digest pollutants, the project can repair damaged ecosystems and provide an entirely new wilderness...
Adam Zaretsky's work points to another art/science relationship, that of ethical watchdog—art as a reminder of societal implications of scientific research especially when it is funded by corporations with vested interests like pharmaceuticals. At the 2001 conference, Zaretsky had warned about transgenetics. He had found that although in his computer collages he was producing mutated bodies with multiple breasts and legs at both ends, he was living in fear of what geneticists could do, are doing to the real thing. To conquer his fear, he got a job in a biotech lab. What he learned fed his politically oriented art.
year Zaretsky has been teaching VivoArts:
Art and Biology Studio, an experimental 'living art' production class at
Zaretsky's idea of art is that it should scramble up existing attitudes about humanity. He asks questions as challenges:
Can we use our green imaginations to create realities of urban closed systems integrate sustainable complexity? Why do we seem to showcase our most isolationist fantasies of the future? How can we use these reflections to design new urban wild lands?
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the lunch break I heard from Camille Turner about her trip to
the project was well-intentioned and successful in terms of participation and
enthusiasm, as I munched my burrito I questioned the colonial, patronizing
attitude the project could be accused of:
we in the 'first world' have computers, you are missing out if you don't
have them too and we will help you to have what we have/be more like us (and
we'll have a new market to capitalize on). This objection was countered by a
third voice with, " It's easy for you to say that
you don't need to have a computer or web access because you can have it if you
want." Camille has also been involved in a similar project in
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(they seem to be a breed apart not to be confused with digital artists) are being called upon to help solve social and economic
problems - (technology as saviour?). Johannes Birringer,
independent choreograher and former Head of the Dance
and Technology Program at
as conversion performances—devising projects for subjective inscription and alternative economies of communication and connection, while also devising partnerships and transfer services between science, culture and teaching that can put former sites of labour to different uses.
For a full description of the process and final performance see the lengthy essay Birringer has posted on the InteraktionsLabor Gottelborn website. Birringer also has specific questions as a practioner in the area for the future of technology-activated interventions:
The Interaktionslabor of course pointed its finger at the future and asked what kind of influence virtual environments might have on our imagination, and what intuitive associations people make with such technically mediated interactions. How can architectures of virtual image-sound-spaces emerge to form meaningful sensual experiences for social interaction, allowing us to recognize our bodily activity? How is the virtual felt? What relationships are forged between portable/mobile media and the persons who use them? How do relations between body media develop into symbolic actions or interactive games which we understand as meaningful collective cultural behaviour? What balances can we achieve between nature, industry, digital culture? Digital nature? With these questions in mind, the laboratory plans to continue its work and regroup next year...
A lot of the works were referred to as projects or research projects rather than art and take place in public spaces. Dance choreographer Yacov Sharir and collaborator Sophie Lycouris use wireless wearable computers in IntelligentCity .
This is a long-term international research project which uses choreographic practices in dialogue with interactive technologies to transform and accentuate the perception of everyday built environments by live audiences who are also regular users of such environments [shopping centres, train stations, restaurants]...The technologies employed translate the sonic and movement reactions of the audience into direct digital imput which trigger visual, sonic and dynamic transformations of the space manifested through the use of multiple video screenings and surround sound.
Each year the dance artists have been the most critical of the results of these technical interventions. In the wrap-up panel discussion this year, Sharir wondered whether they are leading to new movement, to moving differently, to anything substantively interesting or are they just finding something to do with the equipment? Johannes Birringer who has created interactive, collaborative, in-cyberspace 'dance works' questioned the nature of this space and its impact on dance. How useful is this new technology and how much is it a distraction from questions of significant content? He takes the brave attitude that as he works more with these spaces and movement in them, something will eventually present itself that satisfies one's longing for emotive experience in dance.
any of the art 'move' me, 'touch' me? SWIPE is activist and informative, yes.
Is it art? Meszaros'
drawings fascinate as scientific possibilities, but can they be judged solely
as drawings? Steve Heimbecker's Wind Array Cascade
Machine: Pod involved 64 movement sensors on a rooftop in
The most exciting moment, the one with a spark of life that got me stirred up, was Johannes Birringer's presentation at the conference. Here there was ambiguity: elliptical language referring to going down into a dark 'unknown' spoken in broken phrases by a vulnerable person live in front of me (that the dark space actually referred to the mine in Gottelborn was left unsaid and so could have rich diverse meanings and associations for me). Birringer's utterances were accompanied by an arm gesture open to many interpretations—a touching of hand to chest (heart) and a pointing or flinging away or opening out. There was a live video camera which, via computer, tripled the arm gesture on a screen behind Birringer and beside it another video image of a factory or industrial architecture (later revealed to be at the Gottelborn mine site). It wasn't an artwork per se, but it was the closest I got to an art-induced experience during the conference.
Other artistic disciplines are grappling with the whole computer question. I read recently in a craft journal that on-line selling of jewellery was ineffective because of the lack of tactility given the buyer, One needs to feel the weight of the piece, how it feels against one's skin, to appreciate the work. A film journal on screen violence commented that computer-generated special effects have made violence more convincing, pushed screen violence into another realm in the light of which its possible effects (catharsis, fantasy, escapism, imitation, brutality) have to be re-examined. Walter Benjamin (in a discussion on the effects of early Disney film cartoons) spoke of the mass technological reorganization of daily life-and consequently of consciousness. Is another reorganization and attendant change in consciousness happening with the aid of artists - and is this a good thing?
And this thought from J.M.Coetzee's Youth (After the youth of the title uses a computer to generate phrases to make his poetry, he questions the ethics):
Is it fair to be using mechanical aids to writing?...Or do [these] huge resources turn quantity into quality...might it not be argued that the invention of computers has changed the nature of art, by making the author and the condition of the author's heart irrelevant? 2
the roles for art in relation to technology listed earlier (democratize,
subvert, expand, humanize) are being addressed. Nancy Nesbitt from
Why technology? Well, technology is always involved—film, paint, a pen is technology, and each determines the type of art produced. According to McLuhan and Blake and Ruskin before him, the technology of the age determines not just how we think but what we think—our 'imaginations' are bound by the technology we use. The new electronic technology seems to lead to: international collaborations, laboratory research-identified projects, co-operation between various groups and disciplines—interdisciplinarity, community activism; and to aim for some sort of translation, transferability or transformation through technological means, and immersive, often virtual or in cyberspace, often youth-oriented, audience-active, networked environments. It dreams of creating new realities.
All quotations unless otherwise specified are from the presenters' submissions printed in the conference program.
Marshall McLuhan, Guttenberg Galaxy,
J.M. Coetzee, Youth (
APPENDIX of web-sites
Subtle Technologies - www.subtletechnologies.com
Adam Zaretsky, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Worhorse Zoo project - http://emutagen.com/wrkhzoo.html
Beatriz da Costa - www.beatrizdacosta.net
Marc Tuter's web diary- http://gpster.net/blog/index.php
Sergio Basbaum, e-mail address: email@example.com
CDROM - "Psicanalise e Historia de Cultura"
Johannes Birringer - http://www.aliennationcompany.com
His books include Media and Performance (1998) and Performance on the Edge (2000). InteraktionsLabor Gottelborn - www.iks-saar.net
Originally published in Topia : Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, volume 11, Spring 2004