Saturday, November 28, 2009

Design After Nature Exhibition

The Centre for Electronic Media Art at Monash University, Melbourne is putting on an exhibition of recent work called Design After Nature.
  • Venue: Guildford Lane Gallery, 20-24 Guildford Lane, Melbourne (near Melbourne Central station).
  • Exhibition dates: 3rd - 20th December 2009
  • Opening: Thursday 3rd December, 6-8pm.
  • Gallery hours: Wed-Fri 12noon - 9pm; Sat, Sun 12noon - 5pm
The works are described as "experimental ecosystems", generally computer-based in some way. It is shaping up to be a very interesting exhibition.

People involved: Oliver Bown, Joel Collins, Aland Dorin, Alice Eldridge, Mark Guglielmetti, Indae Hwang, Troy Innocent, Taras Kowaliw, Jon McCormack, Gordon Monro, Yun Tae Nam, Ben Porter, Mitchell Whitelaw.

All welcome!

For those on Facebook, there is a Facebook Event for the opening.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Super Human

I have just spent two days at the Super Human conference in Melbourne, organised by the Australian Network for Art and Technology. The full title of the event was "Super Human: Revolution of the Species Symposium". It had a focus on the human body, in the context of interactions between art and science, and is part of a suite of events, including an exhibition at RMIT Gallery and the "re:live" conference on media art history.

The conference had quite a strong international representation. The first keynote speaker was Barbara Maria Stafford from Chicago, whose mission is to build bridges between the humanities, especially visual culture, and neuro- and cognitive science. Her talk was wide-ranging, but one of its themes was "slow looking", or paying mindful attention to something outside oneself. Automatic mechanisms of perception and the like have been much studied, but deliberately focused attention has apparently not.

Quite a strong theme was prostheses, extensions of the body (in various senses) and devices to help people with disabilities. Another keynote speaker was Ju Gosling from the U.K., who is a passionate campaigner for the rights of disabled people (she uses a wheelchair herself), and would argue at least in part that the normal/impaired dichotomy is to be avoided; we all have our problems. Not that she is against medical intervention; indeed the opposite. However, she pointed out that so far replacement hip joints, for example, are not as good as the natural ones; in general the technical substitutes available now are inferior. (The artificial lenses I have in my eyes after cataract operations may be an exception. I am much less short-sighted than I was before the operations.) Ju was also strongly opposed to the popular idea that medical science will soon solve all our problems, and so we don't have to worry about the disabled, as soon they will be "fixed".

After Ju we heard a rather wide-eyed and visionary talk from Natasha Vita-More (U.S.A./U.K.), who doesn't have any doubt that the combination of "nano-bio-info-cogno-neuro" will solve all our problems, and improve on our natural bodies. In particular she very much likes the idea of extended life spans.

Another talk in this area was from Junichi Ushiba (Japan), a scientist who has been working with a practical brain-machine interface device. It allowed a quadriplegic with essentially no limb movement to control an avatar in Second Life purely by thinking (imagining movement). But its most widespread potential use is in allowing stroke victims, who typically lose control of one side of their body, to regain some function on the affected side. This work is tied up with the body image of the participants, which is often damaged after the stroke.

All this was related to another theme that emerged, that of "embodied consciousness". How important is feeling and moving to thinking? The consensus appeared to be that our sensory-motor systems are indeed very important to thinking. The role of the emotions also came up.

There were two talks on scientific visualisation. Dolores Steinman (Canada) talked about the different representations of the same data (in this case on blood flow) required by physicists, engineers and medical practitioners; the different requirements are due to training and disciplinary culture as much as anything else. Tami Spector (U.S.A.), who is an organic chemist, talked on "nanoaesthetics", about the visualisation of atomic-scale structures, through conventional chemical structure diagrams, and through images obtained by techniques like atomic force microscopy. These images are derived in an indirect fashion and are not comparable with photographs, but we tend to accept them as such. There is a very good question as to what they actually represent.

Svenja Kratz, a student at QUT in Brisbane, talked about her artistic work involving human cells, and the ethical issues that arose. It is apparently possible to buy cell lines, in Svenja's case cancer cells derived originally from an anonymous 11-year-old girl, and use them, even feed them to ants, without ethics clearance. But when Svenja wanted to obtain cells from volunteers (who were keen to be involved), an elaborate ethics clearance process was needed. Svenja said that her own views on ethical matters had changed considerably as a result of her experiences. She also devoted some of her art works to creating an imagined identity for the 11-year-old from whom the cancer cells originally came.

Kathryn Hoffmann (U.S.A.) talked about some extraordinary displays that used to be seen in anatomy museums, essentially artworks made out of bones and other body parts. There is a link here to the nineteenth century practice of mortuary photography, photographs of dead people (even children) taken and used as mementos. The anatomy collections discussed by Kathryn are now very largely inaccessible and placed in storage; Kathryn is campaigning for some to be re-opened. The public treatment of death oscillates over time, and Kathryn thought a public focus on death was coming back. The question of respect for the dead was raised. Kathryn said that she thought the present treatment, stuck in boxes in a warehouse, was more disrespectful than any public display would be.

There was a lot more, including the phenomenology of avatars and virtual bodies, using software that can read faces to detect emotions, a project from Sydney University to make a figure with artificial touch-sensitive skin (how should a robot react to being touched?), the design of "medical jewellery", that is devices that serve medical purposes as well as looking attractive, and so on. Many of these topics were introduced by artists discussing their own practices.

The final talk was by Paul Brown (U.K./Australia), who had the task of summing up the conference. He outlined three possibilities for engagement of art and science. In the first, an artist appropriates scientific ideas for artistic ends, often treating the science in a critical or hostile manner. Conversely a scientific group may use artists as designers to make their own scientific work look good, essentially for PR purposes. The third and most desirable engagement is a true collaboration, where artists are involved early in the project, both sides contribute on an equal footing, and both sides benefit. We heard about several such successful collaborations during the conference.

Most of the speakers were women, an outcome apparently not particularly planned by the organisers. I did hear a rather acid comment (from a woman) that women were playing out their traditional role of handmaidens to someone else, in this case (male) scientists. I don't think this was fair, as in many cases it seemed that the artists in a collaboration were taking the lead or were equal partners. Also among the six or so (self-identified) scientists and engineers who spoke, two were women, and at least some of the (self-identified) artists obviously had a high degree of technical knowledge. And a substantial proportion of biologists (in particular) are female. The divide male scientist/female artist may still exist, but it is getting pretty blurred. My take on all this is simply that there are a lot of successful female artists.

It appears from the conference that just now Australia is a pretty good place for art-science engagement.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Phenomenology Rules

(Long post)

At the beginning of October I went to a three-day conference in Melbourne called "Time, Transcendence, Performance". Not something that I would normally do, but my installation Cloud Drum was in the art show associated with the event. All the works dealt with some mixture of time and performance in some way, and since mine involves two time scales and is interactive it fitted in quite well.

The conference was organised by Stuart Grant, Jodie McNeilly and Caroline Vains, assisted by lots of people; Jeff Stewart looked after the art show, among other things. The conference took place at three locations: Monash University's Caulfield campus, Dancehouse in Carlton, and ACMI at Federation Square. There were also events in Second Life. At times it seemed that threre were three or four separate conferences going on, and I missed out on all the Federation Square events, including Stelarc's opening talk. Also at Caulfield there were multiple parallel sessions, so I only saw a fraction of the conference. It was certainly a large and complex event, with a sizeable international participation. Of the parts I saw, although the tight schedule became a bit frayed at times, as far as I can tell things ran pretty well.

I don't think I have met a card-carrying phenomenologist before, but there were quite a few around the conference. It was pretty clear that "time" in the conference title didn't have a lot to do with physics, but rather with personal experience. Heidegger and especially Husserl came up repeatedly. (I realise that there is an argument that time as conceived by physicists can be derived from phenomenology, but I don't know how it goes.) There is a whole language here that I don't speak - this is not a criticism, just a comment - so quite a few of the presentations went over my head. There was a sub-theme of comments on intense experience, described by one speaker as "moments of stillness".

As well as theory, there was practice. The main performing artform people were concerned with seemed to be dance, and there were performances at Dancehouse, some quite striking, in the evenings. I'll just mention "Zeno's Overcoat", performed by Peter Fraser (dancer) and Dale Gorfinkel (musician). There were also two talks I attended where the speakers described their personal experiences very vividly. One was by Ian Maxwell (Sydney), describing his baptism into the Greek Orthodox Church, which came about because he wished to marry a Greek woman; the other was the last paper of the conference, given by Alphonso Lingis (U.S.A), which consisted of a series of vignettes of various experiences he has had over the years, with appropriate music. Although both of these people were talking about specific experiences, they somehow managed to give them a universal character.

I'm not sure what I've taken away from the conference, though I found it enjoyable, and there were lots of interesting things. There is a whole world of phenomenology, it seems. Indeed, I did have a sense to some extent of two parallel worlds, with phenomenologists occupying one and cognitive scientists (who were not represented here) the other. From what I can work out, the phenomenologists opened up these questions first, but a lot has happened since. This isn't a criticism of Stuart Grant, as the conference already had an impressively wide scope. Also, I understand he has plans for bringing together phenomenologists and cognitive scientists at some time.

The conference also pointed out to me a specific difference between the humanities and the sciences. I saw somewhere (I don't remember where) a comment that in science, successful work becomes anonymous, in that it is absorbed into textbooks and nobody except the odd historian feels the need to go back to the original writings. This certainly fits in with my past experience in science. The conference was on the humanities; there were constant references back to the writings of Heidegger and Husserl, and other originary thinkers. Also, the history of science is a small sub-discipline, whereas it seems that many (most?) humanities scholars are part-time historians of their disciplines. Again, a Mathematics department is full of mathematicians; the parallel would be an English department full of novelists or poets. Not only is the history of science not much practised in science departments, but criticism or analysis as understood in the humanities is not much practised either. This isn't a question of wilful blindess; it must be a consequence of the different ways knowledge or understanding is secured in the different disciplines.

I'm not gong to rush in any further where angels fear to tread.

Monday, September 21, 2009

St Patrick's College Art Exhibition

I recently entered my piece Exiguous Cubes in the St Patrick's College Art Exhibition, Ballarat. This was the first time I have entered a general art competition of this sort, and it was also the first public outing for Exiguous Cubes as a whole. To my surprise (I wasn't told in advance) I won the University of Ballarat Emerging Artist Prize. The main prize, the Flanagan Award, was won by Carole Wilson's collage work Survey Vessel 2. The judge was Gordon Morrison, Director of the Art Gallery of Ballarat.

Most of the 84 works on display were two-dimensional: largely paintings, drawings or mixed media; there were some photographs and some 2D works involving digital manipulation. There were a number of sculptures and ceramic works. Mine was the only computer-based work, and there were no video pieces, though video works were mentioned in the call for entries. I'm not yet familiar enough with the scene to recognise a lot of the artists' names, but there seemed to be some people with fairly high profiles there, winners of Australia Council residencies and the like.

As a visual artist I am "emerging" according to the conditions of the exhibition. Since I started so late in visual art I am grateful to the organisers for not setting an age limit. Once I heard an artist talk entitled "Have I emerged yet?", but it will be a little while before I have to worry about that.

Monday, August 17, 2009

"Ab Initio" exhibition in Ballarat

I will be having an exhibition entitled "Ab Initio" as part of the Ballarat Foto Bienniale Fringe exhibition program. It is of digital prints related to my installation Cloud Drum, and generated from scratch in my computer. So they are not photographs at all, but they have been accepted for the Fringe.

My exhibition
Exhibition: Friday 4th September to Monday 5th October
Opening: Friday 4th September, 5.30pm.
Location: Radmac Gallery, 104 Armstrong Street (North), Ballarat VIC 3350.
Gallery hours: Mon-Fri 8.30am-5.30pm, Sat 9am-12 noon.
Radmac Gallery (which is also an art supply shop) is venue 26 on the map here. The gallery is a short walk from Ballarat railway station. Scrolling the map down will show, among other things, more than a dozen vineyards in the area.

The Ballarat Foto Bienniale
The Foto Bienniale, which runs throughout September, promises to be huge, with a Core of over 20 invited exhibitions, a considerably greater number of Fringe exhibitions, and various seminars and artist talks. The exhibitors include overseas and interstate people together with locals. Most events and exhibitions are free; they are mostly in Ballarat, but some are in Daylesford and other towns. Details at

Monday, August 10, 2009

"Biotope" photo

Here is a photo of my video Drum Mask playing on an external screen at Cube 37, Frankston Arts Centre, Melbourne.

Image courtesy of Jon McCormack

The video was also playing on an even bigger screen round the corner - the biggest screen I have ever seen my work on. This was part of the "Biotope" event showing works from the Centre for Electronic Media Art, Monash University.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

"Biotope" at Cube 37, Frankston

Currently Cube 37, the large street display at the Frankston Arts Centre, is showing works from the Centre for Electronic Media Art at Monash University, including my new video Drum Mask.
A lot of the people involved have been out of town, so there will be a "closing" rather than an opening on Thursday 6th August.
"Opening": Thursday 6th August 6.30pm.
Frankston Arts Centre (Cube 37)
37 Davey St, Frankston VIC 3199
Works will continue to be shown until 9th August.

Back from Schloss Dagstuhl

I am still trying to assimilate the seminar on "Computational Creativity" at Schloss Dagstuhl.

The old buildings at Schloss Dagstuhl

There were two notable computer art pioneers present, Harold Cohen (San Diego) and Frieder Nake (Bremen); also the well-known philosopher Margaret Boden (Sussex), and quite a range of people who are predominantly computer scientists working on various ways that computers might behave creatively or generate output that we may consider "creative". A lot of them were also artists or musicians, and two informal concerts (one acoustic, one electronic and audio-visual) were organised during the seminar.

I have read papers by quite a few of the people there, and it was good to meet them in person. Unfortunately I came down with laryngitis, and could only whisper the whole time I was there. Nonetheless it was a great event to be part of, and it will undoubtedly influence my future work.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Schloss Dagstuhl

I'm off to Germany soon for a seminar on "Computational Creativity" at Schloss Dagstuhl in Saarland, Germany. Schloss Dagstuhl is a conference centre set up to hold conferences in computer science, though this particular conference crosses over into the arts and philosophy. The topics up for discussion centre around creative behaviour in artificial systems; the systems may operate autonomously or with guidance or collaboration from a human artist. A particular focus is on systems that are modelled on evolution in nature, and there is already quite a long history of "artificial life art", surveyed in the book "Metacreation" by Mitchell Whitelaw. There is also quite a long history of computer programs that can improvise music in concert with other (human) musicians.

The seminar is shaping up to be pretty exciting, and some well-known people will be there. The web page for the seminar is here.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Galanter's complexist manifesto

I recently came across an article by the generative artist, writer and academic Philip Galanter: an admittedly manifesto-like piece in which he proposes what he calls "Complexism - a new science-friendly paradigm for the arts and humanities".

Galanter discusses modernism and postmodernism in the context of complexity theory from science. He sees post-modernism as offering a corrective to some of the unfortunate aspects of modernism, but now post-modernism has fallen has fallen victim to its own problems. Galanter's Complexism is intended to reconcile the two via the theory and practice of complex systems, and he presents the following table:

ProgressCirculationEmergence and Co-evolution
The AuthorThe TextThe Generative Process
TruthNo TruthIncomplete truth known to be not fully provable
Pro FormalismAnti FormalismForm as public process not privilege
HierarchyCollapseConnectionist networks

There is a lot to be unpacked here. Galanter expands on the table in the 20 pages of the article, which is online at He has also started a blog in which he intends to further develop these ideas, at

I am certainly pleased to see work like this proceeding beyond the now sterile debate of modernism versus postmodernism, and especially work that deals seriously with some of the extraordinary advances in scientific thinking of the last half-century or more.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Art Incorporated

[Slightly edited to remove typos]
I have been reading a small book by Julian Stallabrass, who lectures at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. The edition that I have is entitled Contemporary Art: A Very Short Introduction, (one of a series of Very Short Introductions from Oxford University Press) but it was first published in 2004 under the title Art Incorporated, which better reflects its contents. The book discusses the period 1989 to about 2002, covering the collapse of the Communist states in Eastern Europe and the emergence of the U.S. as the sole superpower, the stockmarket crash of the late 1980s, the boom in the 1990s and the dot-com crash of 2000. The book contains a sustained discussion of the relationship of the art world to globalisation, neoliberal ideology, rampant capitalism and consumerism, with reference to a substantial number of individual artists and artworks.

A few quotes from the book:

"Art prices and the volume of art sales tend to match the stock markets closely, and it is no accident that the world's major financial centres are also the principal centres for the sale of art."

"Corporate culture has thoroughly assimilated the discourse of a tamed post-modernism. As in mass culture, art's very lack of convention has become entirely conventional."

And, even more strongly:
"The daring novelty of free art - in its continual breaking with conventions - is only a pale rendition of the continual evaporation of certainties produced by capital itself, which tears up all resistance to the unrestricted flow across the globe of funds, data, products, and finally the bodies of millions of migrants."

In the context of the proliferation of biennales in the 1990s:
''Just as business executives circled the earth in search of new markets, so a breed of nomadic global curators began to do the same, shuttling from one biennale or transnational art event to another ..."

"[A biennale] performs the same function for a city ... as a Picasso above the fireplace does for a tobacco executive."

In discussing an exhibition of Chinese art in Hong Kong in the context of globalisation, making the point that the welcome for "exotic" artists in the international art scene is very selective:
"... such works [in more traditional Communist and realist styles] were genuinely different from Western productions and therefore invisible to the global art system".

And a rather depressing conclusion:
"To break with the autonomy of free art is to remove one of the masks of free trade. Or, to put it the other way round, if free trade is to be abandoned as a model for global development, so must its ally, free art."

Despite the conclusion, I found the book refreshing!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"Silence Sound" at Frankston Arts Centre

There is a big group exhibition coming up at the Frankston Arts Centre under the name "Silence Sound". My video Triangular Vibrations is included.
Opening: Thursday 30th April 6pm.
Frankston Arts Centre (Cube 37)
37 Davey St, Frankston VIC 3199
Exhibition: 28th April - 23rd May.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Visual Music Marathon reprise

In 2007 Dennis Miller organised a Visual Music Marathon in Boston as part of the Boston Cyberarts Festival. Now the whole Marathon is on again in New York, at the Visual Arts Theatre, 333 West 23rd Street, New York City, on April 11th, 2009, form 10am to 10pm. My piece Dissonant Particles is included, in the first hour. Details of the Marathon are at

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Victorian bushfires

The Victorian bushfire emergency is finally over, more than a month after what is now called "Black Saturday", 7th February. Some fires are still burning, but are "contained" (burning within a perimeter).

Over 200 people killed, around 2000 homes destroyed - Australia's worst natural disaster. It led to extraordinary outpourings of generosity, and the State Government has set up a Bushfire Reconstruction Authority, headed by the just-retired Police Commissioner Christine Nixon. It has also set up a Royal Commission, with very wide terms of reference: "courageous", as Sir Humphrey would say; good to see a Government not trying to control the outcome of an inquiry in advance.

Several people have asked me if we were affected. Fortunately, not. There were only minor fires near Ballarat. The nearest sizeable fire was near Daylesford, about 35 km to the north, as the crow flies (or the bushfire travels). Also, we are near the centre of town, though being in a town doesn't necessarily provide protection in extreme conditions - 50 or more houses were destroyed in Bendigo, a town similar in size to Ballarat and about 100 km north. I remember walking through whole suburbs of Hobart that were wiped out in the fires there in 1967, when about 60 people were killed.

There were a couple of days when we decided not to go anywhere, because of road closures around Daylesford and Trentham, and the generally threatening conditions. On Saturday 7th, Ballarat had its all-time record maximum temperature of 44 degrees (111 degrees Fahrenheit), and this was cooler than much of the State - Melbourne reached 46.4.

The most destructive fires were apparently in the Mountain Ash forests. One writer said that these forests are usually wet, and will only burn after a long drought and in extreme conditions. Then they burn with extreme ferocity. The usual advice about defending one's home, if sufficiently prepared, simply didn't work for Black Saturday.