08/06: manuality and craft
I should probably not separate what I consider "manual" from "craft". however, there was something very ingenuous, concrete and...well evoking the "working with hands" in the projects presented by the EDGE laboratory
I was very impressed by the material being produced at the EDGE adaptive lab at Ryerson university. Led by artist /pappetteer and early child education student Noah kenneally, and early child educatiion professor Alison Gaston , the lab is committed to adaptive design, that is to fornitures, toys and chairs that can be used by children with disability. in fact, the problem with these children is not just the inability to do certain activities that other "normal" kids can participate in, but it also lies on the forced isolation and invisibility these kids are condamned to. By building ad hoc tools that will allow these kids to actually participate in the same activities as the other children, the EGDE lab noted an increased awareness and acceptance of chldren with disabilities by the rest of the children. having the right tool then means also facilitating interaction between differently able children as well as acceptance and inclusiveness, which would be otherwise denied.
an interesting detail about the activity of the lab is its use of sustainable material and its duplicability : in fact, the prototypes for adaptive products are built out of cardboard, tailored to the child's needs and easily modified until they reach the ideal form. This strategy not only make this design sustainable and easily malleable, but it also encourages non-designers to make their own prototypes.
Going back to the difference between the two categories "craft" and "manuality", I thought it would be useful to distinguish an activity that implies practicality and the shaping of physical utilitarian objects that, however, focus more on contingent situations (having a problem that needs to be solved by looking at a number of very social factors) from another very material activity that uses creativity in a slighly different way. works by fashion designer and fabric inventor Jenny Leary and ceramic sculptor Mark Jaroszewicz are both fitting the "crafty" category. In addition, both works are very much committed to finding new ways to build objects out of common but underused material such as iron and magnets and in using the materiality of sculpture as away to convey a certain physical feeling to numbers.
in the first case, Leary thought of cloth as a medium to translate invisible process into a tangible form. Her experiments with FerroFabric led to drawing with magnets, Magnetic patterns that can be applied onto walls and combined, magnetic jewelry and the transformation of the magnetic stripe contained in credit card into a skin that can be then shaped as purse or as other objects. apparently, there are many ways to liberate the magnetic strip of your cards. The card liberation front has a few tutorials on how to do it
turning numbers into very concrete objects and then building sculptures that represent numbers is thegoal of Mark Jaroszewicz.
carrying specific shapes and colors, each sculpture is respresenting a number, which then can be recognized by the weight. thus, the number 10 will have a shape and number non recognizable at first sight, but will weight 10 gr. in addition to being a modular sculptural project that can be composed and re-composed alsomst infinitely, the system of sculpture/numbers are a very immediate educational tool that can be used to teach math to skeptical pupils.
Exhausted and hyperstimulated, I attended the last day of the symposium hoping to not have to speculate too much and to se something very physical and material.
I got what I wanted. it looks like whoever drafted the program of the festival had the same needs.
the day was then mostly about works that had ben planned and conducted in a very proactive, practical and concrete way.
one could fit them into broadly three categories: movement, manuality and craft.
Robert Himmel and Carl Flink (a documentary film maker and a dancer and choreographer) banded together to bring encounters between scientists and artists by using the moving arts (dance) as a possible tool to illuminate science. An apparently educational and pedagogical project, this enterprise proved to have more complicated effects : the possibility that not only the dancer and his audience, but also the scientist could benefit from this rather unlikely collaboration. in fact, while Fink approached the collaboration with the scientists at the Institute for Advanced studies at the University of Minnesota as an experiment that in its attempt to express science through dance explored the issue of failure of dance (a failure possibly achieved through the impossibility to emulate a natural phenomena or to reproduce a scientific principle to an audience), the project became also a way to direct the scientist towards alternative solutions and scientific paths and thus became an additional tool that the scientist could use to "see" beyond his own routine research.
Above: Carl Flink
The research under scrutiny is the formation of microtubules and how they grow and then fall apart apparently catastrophically. This moment of catastrophe is interesting, as it can be used in dance to explore its own failure. This phenomenon is also quite extraordinary and mysterious.
Flink brought in his company to choreograph this phenomenon and to create a human size reproduction of this phenomenon that could be observed and analyzed closely by the institute's graduate students
asked by Robert Himmel how the scientific research could be influenced by dance, the chief scientist David Odde had to admit that this collaboration definitely made his work more visceral.
In general, here are some benefits arising from this kind of activity:
1) faster than programming prototyping protocols. you can put together a demonstration of the collision of cells or other micro-relations in about 5-20 minutes. Scientist David Odde for instance was able to see and possibly get indicators that inform the direction of his future research
2) inside /outside perspective for the research. By being able to observe the dancer's movements very closely, the participants had a real life experience inside of the cell.
in a very different way, Gail Lotenberg, another choreographer /dancer participating to the symposium, expressed her view that dance could be an excellent tool to illustrate where logics and emotion collide
Lotenberg's dance is not only deeply inspired by science, but it is also informed by a particular notion of collaboration that is simultaneously a way of thinking as well as a practice. Thus, dance and the words and reasoning of a variety of scientists intertwine in a choreography that reproduces with movement both the concept uttered by the sscientist and his/her sense of humor, or mood.
If the scientist is making science, then the choreographer plays it.
When I was ordering my notes for the blog I realized that two events, respectively the Speed Dating for artists and scientists and the gallery exhbition had the same prefix: Syn, used to express something acting together, united, in SYN-chrony. In the first case, syn-apsis normally refers to the fusion of two homologous chromosomes in the phase of meiosis. in our case, it referred to the possible connections arising from random and quick (5 minutes) encounters.
The speed dating session, aside from being incredibly noisy and, I bet, chaotic if one was observing it from the outside, had people sitting in couples at different tables, one floating and the other fixed. they would start talking about their interests and projects and were incuraged to find affinities in interests, aspirations etc… when prompted, the floating individual would proceed to the next table.
while apparently silly and neither particularly "academic" nor "scientific" this little session had the great quality to let people who would never have a chance, to meet and start a dialogue. my interest was mainly to become aware of the variety of individuals who attended the festival and I was surprised to see how many improbable connections could be established in a mere 5 minutes.
the second "SYN" was placed before Soma, as the title of the exhibition curated by Michael Alstad and Camille Turner featuring Steve Daniels and Robyn Moody.
the title was evocative of the very physical kinetic connections existing between the artificial and the organic through a subtle mechanical mimicry of natural entities. thus, the "sin" signified the unlikely, yet unavoidable encounter between the organic and the inorganic, the lively and the mechanic.
in particular, Steve Daniels' Sessile consisted of 25 kinetic AI sculptures that reacted to a myriad of different, and often unpredictable events: change in shades, movements, color etc…
Robyn Moody's "Heart Lake as seen through the eyes of Manley Natland" reproduced artificially, using differently shaped black gears, a water source (in this case Heart lake whose geographical shape has been reproduced in this work) in Alberta located in the Athabasca region, a territory that has become infamous for the ruthless extraction of oil and its resulting water and territory pollution. the kinetic piece reproduces the singleminded vision of Manley Natland, a geologist who came up in the 1950s with a plan to release the Alberta oil mixed with sand using an underground nuclear blast. in Moody's piece, the spinning gears that cover the surface of the lake are topped with little mirrors. the spinning and the shininess of the constantly moving objects hit by light mimic the separation of oil from sand.
As part of the multidisciplinary commitment of Subtle Technologies, the already mentioned screenings, a performance held on the rooftop patio of the Beaver Hall artists' cooperative at the foot of McCaul Street, an exhibition at the Hotshot gallery, as well as a speed dating fro artists and scientists animated the three nights of the festival.
A conceptually complex performance, the "Toronto Observation," curated by Willy LeMaitre and featuring Annie Onyi Cheung, Kika Thorn and Claudia Wittman, turned out to be minimal in its execution, and light in terms of the technologies used. the performance drew attention to the invisibility of city: for us living our lives inside it, it is almost unnoticeable, but what if we can observe it through a privileged position and by seizing some unnoticed details when directed by the performers? located on the top of a condo building, three cameras pointed towards three different directions. the images captures were then screened in three TV sets. the spectator would look for, and observe the artist staging a performance, standing in a specific position or just not being there in each of these TV sets. In turn, the cameras capturing the scenes were not too far to prevent the spectator from observing the same scenes with their naked eyes. in this way, the spectator had several opportunities to observe the whole neighborhood from above, the scenes and the surrounding environments in their natural, unfiltered form, and the same scenes magnified and filtered through the surveillance device.
above : 3 different perspectives: TV view, park view and general view
Below: view from the top and street level view
A commentary on the city, the performance evoked much wider discourses about the predictability of view, the surprise that could be brought simply by looking at one specific item from a different angle and the transformation that this item can undergo when modified by the intervention of an individual or by an unexpected event. the performance also spoke to the entire festival, as a lot of presentations and projects presented in these days often reflected on the same lines of flights underscored by the performance, that is on the effects brought by the introduction of a different perspective, or to the need to recognize the added value that can be brought by a different discipline or by the artist/researcher.
in the field of virology and immunology there has been often a drive to represent and simulate the way in which viruses may infect their hosts. however, this has been done only visually, using animations or 3d simulations. the same has happened in the field of computer science and info-security, with quite impressive results. following a similar trend, as often biology and informatics inform each other, intertwine, and engage in endless exchanges, neither fields have used sound to convey the idea of contagion or to provide immediate clues that would convey the dynamics of the molecules of viruses during mutation or contagion.
As part of the work of the SMART collective (Science Meet Art Collective) a group of biotechnologists, medical biotechnicians and musicians based at the Turin Polytechnic, Riccardo Castagna and Valentina Margaria not only produced an animated model that translated the genome-encoded protein sequence of the virus into musical notes and created a polyphonic harmony taking in account its tertiary structure, but they also illustrated the actual tight connection between the biological material turned into sound and informatics. in fact, while the information contained in the virus has been collected and translated into a model, this model is--inevitably-- an informatic one, as the only tool that can actually reproduce the behavior of such submicroscopic entity. The "Biomatics Virus", as they entitled their work, maps the genesis and the spreading of the "viral" through sound.
05/06: visualization and mediation
An artist and researcher form Latrobe University, Australia, Mary Rosengren illustrated a key issue in visualization as an act of mediation. in particular she focused on the relation between those images produced in the artists' studio and those in the laboratory.
Barbara Maria Stafford once said that visualization is "a scientific enterprise or an aesthetic one" (Stafford, 2002, p.180). The viewers’ task is not univocal. It involves “not only the careful presentation of empirical observations” but also the “sensational recreation of the actual experience of witnessing them" (p.180).
Starting from the inevitability of creation of "pretty pictures," Rosengren reflected on the way visualizing technologies radically change the aesthetics of images, and on the way the resulting pictures convey different meanings and are produced with different goals in mind according to the context or the individual who constructs them. Artists have a chance to use these pictures to instigate new modes of seeing the objects portrayed, that is, not as classified objects, or merely aesthetics, but also as powerful educational tools and immersive sensory experiences.
this mode of thinking is a recurring one at this year's Subtle Technologies: initiated by the lecture of Marco Mancuso, whose historical introduction to the representation of scientific phenomena and objects mentioned German biologist Ernst Haeckel's early luscious drawings of plants, homunculi and embryos, the issue concerning visualization and portraying of science and scientific data continued with the mentioned Rosengren, Fran Castillo and others' hypermediated augmented ecologies (AE), a reconstruction of the evolution and nonlinear behavior of synthetic substances and aquatic organisms, as well as by Riccardo Castagna and Valentina Margaria's "sonification" of the proteins of viruses.
entertaining and increadibly informative at the same, the mini-lectures by Ben Schumacher and Stephen Morris, respectively a physicist specialized in quantum physics and a physicist specialized in patterns formations in fluid represented what I would have loved to see in a science professor but didn't and ended up in literature. through jokes, funny though accurate images and clear language, Schumacher used Alice in Wonderland phrase that she " always believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast" as a starting point for his own version of six impossible things that science fiction writers have imagined but cannot be realized if we follow the laws of quantum physics.
With a similar exhuberance and accessible language, Stephen Morris introduced his current research based on three major macrophenomena in physics: Columnar Joints, Washboard road, rippling instability of icicles. what made his research most accessible were the devices and the experiments he conducted in order to recreate the phenomenon in his lab: a machine that creates icicles through rotation, a machine that creates ripples similar to the one formed on the roads during winter and a recreation of the formation of columnar joints obtained with Corn starch. it is the simple materials and the rather unpretentious machines he built in his labs with his students that showed the tight connection of his work with --almost--everyday very visible phenomena. his experiments have been video-documented and thus visible on his youtube channel
For instance, the goal of Shannon Mc Mullen and Fabian Winkler, two professors of visual and performing art at Purdue University, was to find new ways for students from different disciplines to engage in collaborations with engineers, scientists and artists. the project "Images of Nature" is an ongoing study configured as a series of workshops and classes targeted to students form the entire university with the aim of creating artistic interventions to be exhibited in a gallery or in public spaces.
Mc Mullen and Winkler think that creating artifacts through interdisciplinary collaborations is the best way to form not only young artists but also scientists and to direct them towards respectful recognition and the convergence of different interests.
In this specific project, the general idea was to arise awareness about the intertwining of nature and culture. Through lab visits, connection with a number of faculty working in different labs across the university and the production of group projects comprising of students with different academic background, the participants (undergraduate and graduate students) were encouraged to not only learn and use scientific concepts and technologies, but also to investigate them critically.
I am wondering if this could be a model of collaboration that could be exported not only across universities but also outside, to include independent scholars, small private start ups that work in the field of new media and environmental science or artists working closed to the local community. on the one hand, too often disciplinary differences and department policies prevent these crosspollinations. on the other hand, there seems to be a resistance by current universities to venture outside and discover that new partnerships could be established with local and small companies.
reappropriating the lost sounds of the territory after having lost it to the technology of the Ipod as in the work of Cara-Ann Simpson; substituting a sense for the other, either because one is lost or non-existent as in the collaborative work of Deborah Fels and David Bobier; associating mathematics to colors and 3D shapes and then translating them into music as in Daryn Bond Harmonic Matrix; using computer vision to make selections among the infinite number of images circulating on the web as in Micha Rabinovich and Yogesh Girdhar's SoYummi semantic software that helps the user choose images according to their uniqueness: these are only three of the projects presented during the rich poster exhibition and short presentation sections.
once again dealing with issues of translation, augmentation and re-imagination, these projects reflected on the role of technologies to confuse, augment and reconnect with the human sensorium.
Cara-Ann Simpson's Geodesic Sound Helmet, now a prototype, but soon to be exhibited as a final project at Isea, took inspiration from some communication theory that examines how personal portable devices such as IPods have the tendency to isolate the individual from the environment the listener is immersed in and to provide a substitute soundtrack for such individual. controlled by the changes in the user's breathing, the geodesic sound helmet recreates a soundtrack that still reproduces the person's physical and sensorial mood (as it is controlled by breathing). however, instead of removing this person from the surrounding environment, it reconnects him/her through a filed recording from specific geographical locations.
Cara-Ann Simpson (right) and a prototype of the Geodesic Sound Helmet
Deborah Fels and David Bobier, the first a professor at Ryerson university, the second an artist whose personal experience engaged him with the world of the hearing impaired, presented their prototype, the Emoti-Chair, a prototype that allows deaf and hearing impaired to "listen" by feeling the vibration of the music while sitting on a specially fitted chair. while similar to many other attempts to substitute one sense for another, the Emoti-Chair is of particular interest for its complexity that enable a variety of sounds carrying different typologies and variations of pitch to translate into ad hoc vibrations. in this way, the hearing impaired is no longer condemned to sense music through the selective vibration of low pitches (the bass), but through a much richer variety of variations.
As I mentioned before, despite the diversity of topics proposed by the projects featured in this year' festival edition, the similarities are stunning.
it is as if the works by the most disparate artists/scientists/geeks were engaged in a sustained and coherent dialogue.
In general, in all the presentations, beside a certain propensity and desire to question and re-elaborate established discourses about current art, technologies and science, one could identify specific directions towards displacing such given tools or discourses and relocating them somewhere else through a sometimes simple, though unexpected mechanism of translation. such mechanism is able to shed a novel light on technologies and scientific phenomena that we usually take for granted and that we would probably never think of re-shaping to perform completely different, or even disruptive tasks.
This was the case of Jennifer's Willet, who developed her idea of ecology by physically relocating organisms from an enclosed controlled world to a hybrid and diverse environment; it was the case of Phenomena whose collection of video transformed the way we see natural phenomena, mathematical formulas and chemical reactions, by passing them through the eyes of the artists.
It is also the case of Julian Oliver's new work, Newstweets, which has recently awarded the Golden Nica at Ars Electronica. the idea here is simple, as it simultaneously manages to jam the news and to encourage a more attentive and proactive approach to todays ubiquitous media . His work is a word of caution that draw attention to the way networks are anything but trustworthy.
A simple device taking the form of an innocuous wall plug casually inserted in the walls of hotspot locations (such s Starbucks coffee and other locations that provide free access to the Web), Newstweek allows to produce and disseminate manipulated news red on a variety of portable devices. In addition to potentially generating news chaos, this device makes us reflect on today's confidence in the information that flows online and on the sense of security and lack of awareness that we have developed when we innocently check our phone messages or browse news and other websites. Furthermore, by encouraging the user to build his/her own plug out of fairly simple material, it fosters a DIY culture committed to challenging the authority of free information flow: a perfect device able to shatter our ignorance regarding the way technologies really work and their manipulative function and sneakyness.
On a different topic, but maintaining a similar attitude, and surprisingly resonating with the issue of species transference and, thus, to Willet's earlier intervention, Patrick Lichty's (a.k.a Man Michinaga) art historical exploration of the art projects produced in virtual worlds such as Second Life, asks how we can use a virtual space that provides a number of potentials in ways that the physical space won't allow.