Why tech/Why not? : a report on the 2003 Subtle Technologies Conference by Barbara Sternberg


I just attended my third Subtle Technologies conference, (the 6th annual held in Toronto at Innis College May 22-25, 2003), a conference situated at the blurred boundaries between science and art. Every year this conference, organized by Jim Ruxton with the participation of InterAccess Electronic Media Arts Centre, gathers to Toronto an eclectic mix of scientists and artists working with technology. Areas of specialization include robotics, quantum physics, artificial intelligence, genetics, mathematics, biology, space and time, musical organisms, dance, sensors, interfaces, architecture, art. This year's theme, "Ground", focused loosely on new technologies and architectural practice; there were presentations on locative mapping and positioning devices, industrial culture, biotechnological architecture, surveillance, brain basis of musical performance, interacting galaxies or gravity as art, robotic art projects, and the ethical nature of scientific communities. 


 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 Canada, U.S., Germany, Mexico, U.K. and Brazil.  I was also left with hesitancies and questions: why technology as a driving force in art-making, who is in the driver's seat, and can we make ethical choices about its use? Is this new tech/info age a circling back to an 'acoustic age' (McLuhan) of magic and spirituality and can this happen mediated by machinery? Why has the term interactive become the property of digital art - isn't all art 'interactive'? Is all life now a cog in the tech business wheel, and has the erroneous 'brain is a computer' metaphor become too pervasive to take back? Is early use of computers (children become computer literate in kindergarten), which appears to be affecting human brain development, desirable? Is the technology delivering on its promise; are virtual performance spaces, so lacking in tactility and presence, worth all the effort and gear - and was the art any good?


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 U.S.A.,  security concerns are leading to increased swiping.  What was most chilling to me, however, was the example da Costa and Singer gave of fingerprint identification of schoolchildren for a free school lunch program—getting kids used to Big Brother from an early age.


   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 Newton was non-hierarchical with an absolute background of space in relation to which everything was defined; these ideas were paralleled in John Locke's idea that society has absolutes of justice and right. Twentieth century science understands reality as relational, pluralistic, intuitionistic—there "are only networks of ever-changing relationships. There's no outside, so there's no whole view, just partial views." However, asserts Smolin, truth and beauty are still possible even though they are not anchored in an absolute. We take on an ethical obligation for justice. Ethics underlie both scientific communities and democratic societies.


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.


This year Zaretsky has been teaching VivoArts: Art and Biology Studio, an experimental 'living art' production class at San Francisco State University and at the Art and Science Collaborative Research Laboratory at the University of Western Australia's Art and Architecture Department.  He also developed animal enrichment programs—fun space for non-humans, "programmatic architectural and interactive design of environments for captive animals" which encourage naturalistic behaviour and reduction of neurotic behaviour. Zaretsky wondered aloud about the ways human beings live in urban environments - maybe we need some of that fun enrichment ourselves, to get out of our contained lives, deprogram ourselves, rewind ourselves. What if the culture we're living in is a cult?


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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During the lunch break I heard from Camille Turner about her trip to Jamaica. (So much stimulus and cross- pollination of ideas occur among participants and audience during the breaks. A real benefit and aim of the conference organizers is to bring people together and see what unexpectedly brews). She was working there with British-Jamaican Mervin Jarman and two other practitioners on the Container Project, which is aimed at democratizing access to technology, presenting alternatives and economic possibilities (further removing art from the cultural gallery box and into a hybridized open-ended milieu).  Jarman took donated and salvaged computers to his home town of Palmer's Cross to give street youth a chance to create and play with this technology rather than an earlier and readily available technology and cultural artifact they were using: guns. Camille spoke of the informal and social atmosphere at the 40' shipping container where anyone and everyone could learn, teach each other and create opportunities for themselves. 


Although 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 Toronto bringing together kids from the Regent's Park area and the computer studio at the artist-run centre, InterAccess. There is a long history of artists working with street and disadvantaged youth. Whether they will benefit long term, whether their lives will be transformed, whether they will make art, see economic career possibilities as a result is, as always, unknown. Nonetheless, replacing young men's guns with computers does sound positive.


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Artists-working-with-technology (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 Ohio State University, was invited to "implant a laboratory of interactive performance in an abandoned coal mine in Gottelborn, Germany". The area has been in crisis for 20 years since the closing of the coal and steel industries. Birringer's group, the Interactive Performance Laboratory, views the media arts


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.


Did 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 Quebec City whose information on wind amplitude and direction was converted into light displayed on vertical rods in a Toronto gallery. As the wind blew across the sensors in Quebec, real-time data was transmitted through the WWW and fed into the light markers in Toronto. The light grid gives the audience a visual representation of the wind and is neatly displayed and good-looking, but would be less impressive if not for the awareness of the technological, informational aspects. So much digital, wired art seems overwhelmed by the technology, the interesting aspect being how it was made. In this case, that is the point. What this technology can do is give direct, simultaneous experience of places separated spatially—I see in Toronto, wind blowing in Montreal.


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


All the roles for art in relation to technology listed earlier (democratize, subvert, expand, humanize) are being addressed. Nancy Nesbitt from Vancouver, B.C. implanted two RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) microchips into her body as a challenge to the assumptions about identity implicit in this technology and to resist and challenge ubiquitous surveillance structures. The 2001 conference presented artists working with interpersonal brain wave communication and MRI pictures of personal memories. But the promise of interactivity and of transformative power, immersion and spirituality (Basbaum's 'digital perception') have not been fully realized in the works I've encountered. Is it that this 'new media' art is just that—new—too new as yet to have found 'artful' uses for the technologies as well as artists and audiences familiar enough with the technology to take it for granted?  


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.


1 Marshall McLuhan, Guttenberg Galaxy, University of Toronto Press, Pg.8

2 J.M. Coetzee, Youth ( London, Vintage Press 2003) p. 161



APPENDIX of web-sites


Subtle Technologies - www.subtletechnologies.com


Adam Zaretsky, zareta@rpi.edu

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: musicossonia2001@yahoo.com.br

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