Digital senses

when digital data turns into art

du 17 avril au 11 mai 2008
Center for Contemporary Art at NaUKMA (Kiev)


Imagine this: You're in a dark room, holding a pleasantly warm glowing sphere in your hands and you're standing amidst a net full of shimmering butterflies that react to your movements. But these butterflies aren't real live creatures; they're images projected onto the net. You control the butterflies' hectic flight as you stand there surrounded by a veritable cloud of wondrous creature fluttering about you. Subdued piano music enhances this magical performance — a work composed of light and one of nature's most delightful forms.

This interactive installation entitled «Phantasm» by young Japanese artist Takahiro Matsuo is part of an exhibition whose title at first glance seemingly couldn't have been more apropos for a show of this kind: Digital Senses: when digital data turns into art. Eight works by artists from Austria, France, England, Serbia, Japan and the USA take a variety of approaches to enabling those partaking of them to experience digital code.

We proceed under the assumption that our capacity to process sensory impressions lets us perceive/experience the world around us. We see, we hear, we touch — as in «Phantasm» — and we smell and taste too. It's claimed that we occasionally develop a sixth sense that enables us to intuitively react in the right way at the right moment, though this seems not to be connected with a particular organ of our physical body but rather with the entirety and complexity of our body and spirit. So, with that said, what in the world is a digital sense supposed to be?

The «Messa di Voce» installations by the American artists' group Tmema as well as «Life Spacies II» by Christa Sommerer (Austria) and Laurent Mignonneau (France) are two additional examples of works that require viewer intervention in order to attain artistic consummation. In partaking of «Messa di Voce», we stand before a microphone and our trained rational faculties prompt us to make sounds and noise (just as the very title suggests) to interact with the work as a means of gaining access to additional possible levels of significance of vocalized sounds and noises. At «Life Spacies II», we are confronted by a keyboard, and here as well, amidst a totally unfamiliar situation, our inborn curiosity gets us to start pecking at the keys to launch a sort of interaction that allows the actual artwork to emerge. One might say that our digital sense is precisely what enables us to see and experience the work of art, and even to become part of it.

Sensory experiences are encoded states that, as a result of stimuli and their transmission, are decoded only upon reaching the brain. In our world, we are constantly exposed to digital stimuli. In going about processing them, we generate information and even emotions. Accordingly, one could also regard the digital sense as an additional level that has taken leave of materiality. Even the process of triggering such stimuli takes place in the so-called virtual realm-that is, exclusively in an imaginary reality that, in turn, goes on to generate real emotions? Taking this further, we might ask: Do digital senses lead to an expansion of our powers of imagination? And could digital senses generate forms, information and images of our world the likes of which we've never encountered before? For example, «Tissue» by American artist Casey Reas and «MU herbarium» by French artist Catherine Nyeki are so-called Code Art projects. The distinguishing characteristic of these two projects is precisely the stimulus they impart as they enwrap the user in their web. Whereas in Catherine Nyeki's work, these are figurative creatures resembling beings in nature, Casey Reas spins abstract strands and webs around our powers of imagination and thereby helps us bring forth new impressions and emo-tions. Nevertheless, these works toy with us and lead us to believe that we're the creators of new images. Users of «Messa di Voce» and «Life Spacies II», in any case, justifiably assume the status of a participating component of the work of art; Catherine Nyeki and Casey Reas' works, on the other hand, seem to totally exclude us from their digital cosmos. When we consider and interact with these works, we do indeed have the feeling that we are creating the actual image, the work of art; at the same time, though, we come to find ourselves in the midst of a strictly regimented digital construction to which we have to subordinate ourselves. Here, we are far from a state of design freedom in a digital cosmos that is well-nigh endless to be sure, one that we can imagine only emotionally and which we long for while we're generating «Tissue» and «MU Herbarium» images. «Spacequatica» by the British artists group The Sancho Plan comes across similarly: partaking of it, one gets the impression that a wonderful, comic book like underwater world is flowing past and that one can exert at least some degree of influence upon it so that the fish and other sea creatures react to the user, an intruder resembling a scuba diver.

Even more independent and self-sufficient like a discrete, living digital cosmos — is the work of Serbian artist Natasha Teofilovich. This work seems to be subject to a set of rules all its own. Visitors to her work «s.h.e.» are only able to watch as virtual creatures seem to unite with the real installation space. «s.h.e.» grants us absolutely no possibility of influencing it, but it is precisely this withdrawal that is the source of its attractive power, since this is what enables us to really perceive this separation between the real and virtual (sensory) world. Loving creatures alternate with sad and hyperactive ones that resemble human beings although they lack eyes. Neither we nor these creatures/characters can break through the barrier; we can only develop an imagined conception of our opposite numbers. They apparently have different senses with which they process stimuli. Concisely formulated, this yields the following hypothesis: Aren't these digital worlds also subject to their senses and stimuli in their own digital cosmos, which can be imagined but not yet perceived by us?

What we aim to achieve here is perception with as many senses as possible as a means to register, to experience, to grasp, and afterwards to be able to maintain: to know. American artist Aaron Koblin didn't go with superficial stimuli in his work «The Sheep Market». Quite the opposite: Koblin designed a home-page featuring sheep made by workers on Amazon's Mechanical Turk. Workers were paid $0.02 to «draw a sheep facing to the left». In this project, real labor becomes the virtuality of the project. The participative element provided to this work by users is immersed within a collection of 10,000 such submissions. Each individual user is of little significance; only the quantity of past submissions counts. The work is presented here and now on the Internet.

This exhibition will not settle once and for all whether and in which form digital senses exist; this is rather meant as the launch of a utopian thought experiment. What this exhibition most certainly does is to breathe life into digital codes as the upshot of a wide array of external stimuli.


Curatorial Statement by Manuela Pfaffenberger and Gerfried Stocker

The world in which we live is comprised of information streams, and how we go about decoding this information hinges solely upon our subjective senses and feelings. We create images of our surroundings during the process of continuous interaction with them. And as we contemplate we frame a visual picture around us, but our surroundings wouldn't be complete without sound, smell, touch...

Art conveys information via symbols and images. Artists decipher feelings through visual symbols and in this way transform reality into an entirely different world, a world where it's difficult to distinguish the border between the real and unreal.

Modern digital technologies and the art of programming provide an opportunity to unite visual perception with the perception of movement and sound, which in turn allow for the creation of new virtual worlds where real images change into digital ones and illusions become part of reality.

Artists explore the real and virtual expanse enabling contact between the spectator and the virtual world while analyzing the relationship between the human being and the machine from the philosophical, psychological and social point of view.

The Sancho Plan's (England) interactive installation «Space-quatica» gives viewers the opportunity to juxtapose themselves with the fantastical world of animated musical creatures.

In the piece «Phantasm» by the Japanese artist Takahiro Matsuo, it's impossible to distinguish between the real and unreal. The virtual butterflies trailing soft light emanating from the fire to the sound of a piano bisect the boundary of virtual space nimbly circling us, transforming our reality into a fabulous, illusory world.

Not narrative yet at the same time verbally based project Tmema's (Golan Levin and Zachary Lieberman, USA) «Messa di Voce» is completely silent yet at the same time deeply verbal. It transforms every audible subtlety into a complex and fine graphic image and forges a new expanse in which sound begets form and texture. As such, the human capacity for spontaneous association, which ties together several psychic syntheses, renders, based on the interaction of computer and man, with an emphasis on their antithetical qualities: the non-programmatic essence of the one adjoined with the clearly programmable tasks of sound and visual analysis processing of the other.

Experimenting with computer programming and technologies, the artists take the interrelationship between human being and machine to an entirely different level of communication on which their virtually created world isn't interpreted as «digital space»; instead, it takes on real images and movements, assuming a completely new model for relations.

Natalia Manzhali, curator MediaArtLAb, Kyiv

«Digital senses: when digital data turns into art»

includes the artistic projects by international media artists that represent the actual trend in the culture of contemporary digital society. The exhibition is the perennial result of longstanding collaboration of KIMAF and MediArtLab, Kyiv and Ars Electronica, Linz — world largest forum for art, technology and society. It is obviously that recent years digital and information technologies are developing and changing exponentially: new software, new resources and devices appear and change at such a quick pace. This gives us no the time to realize the full impact and analyze the possibilities and potential they have for the development of society. Notwithstanding, the information field also expands at this rate as does the information flows with its waterfalls that «flood» our lives. So, how do we negotiate the challenges and problems we are facing with daily? How do we apply the available global communication and informational resources for efficient work and successful life? How do we preserver our individuality? Is it possible to change the world? The intellectual and artistic community all over the world asks these questions itself.

«Draw me a Iamb, which is looking to the left», the Little Prince asked the Pilot. This is a very minor request; however, we recollect the meaning of the question otherwise: draw me a world I'll live in. But in today's technological society we ask a computer to do the same. The relationship between a human and a machine is becoming ever more open, simple and complex. The influence of a machine onto a human being grows daily. The computer is becoming an integral part of our daily lives and plays a big role in formulating of a person's worldview, their way of thinking, habits, desires, dreams and life goals.

Contrary to the authors of the commercial digital products, media artists consider the soft ware products and scientific inventions from its social and human perspectives. The artists create innovative artistic interfaces that refer on intellectual, emotional, creative potential of human. The scope of artistic research is very wide. How does technology influence a life of a person, how human perceptions, sensations are changed, what is genetic engineering or nano-technologies, what is real and what is virtual, what is a human being and what is the universe, how has the relationship between them changed? These issues and many others are explored in projects of artists. They are innovative as an audience, quite often, becomes a co-researcher, co-operator of an artist. That is why the aesthetic experience of an audience is very valuable and promising. These projects invite a person to communicate in the form of a game. Such a communication reveals emotional, intellectual and creative capacities of a person. On aesthetical level one perceives oneself as a creator, as a part of the universe, as extraordinary personality, an intelligent spiritually developed human being. Even when it is a game or an illusion, a person still perceives oneself as a part of nature, a free individuality in the society, able to from active and creative attitude towards one's life, the ability to learn and to develop progressively. On the other hand, the interdisciplinary approach may open new perspectives for the artists to create new advanced interfaces that could give a human the opportunity not just play with life but change it?

The projects exhibited at the «Digital senses: when digital data turns into art» test the virtual landscape of digital senses. Real time interaction (action-reaction) is an important part of some of the exhibits. Visitors have a chance to create a virtual worlds and virtual creatures, to communicate with them emerging from their individually intuitive, intellectual and emotional experience. To get choice set, creativity, to see and feel the physical flow of words are the codes of (Life Spices II, Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau, Austria/ France); to «draw» your own words, the sound of your voice (Messa di Voce, Tmema — Golan Levin and Zachary Lieberman, USA); to feel the magic and joy of the fantastical swarm of butterflies (Phantasm, Takahiro Matsuo); the intuitive-illusionary world of unnatural creatures (Mµ herbarium — Catherine Nyeki, France) and to look after the sauntering «between the spaces» of the virtual double of the artist (s.h.e. — Natasha Teofilovich, Serbia).

Wanted: rich imagination, creative approach, freedom of movement and sound, and emotion!

Liudmila Motsiuk, curator MediArtLab, Kyiv