Saturday, July 13, 2013

International Symposium on Electronic Art - Part 2 of 2

The ISEA  conference had more than 50 paper sessions and panel sessions, organised in five parallel streams, so I could only attend a small fraction.  It was noticeable that there were relatively few sessions purely on technological gee-whizzery as such; the emphasis was much more on the artistic and social uses of the technology and the broader implications for society and culture.  The word "post-digital" occurred, but there is nothing "post" about it: all this means is that the technology has grown up and permeated everything, so that we no longer particularly focus on it: we are all digital natives now.

Some snippets.  Christiane Paul, a curator from the Whitney Museum in New York, talked about a movement called "The New Aesthetics", inspired by the "eruption of the digital into the physical" and the idea of "seeing like digital devices".  I'm not sure how new it is: Troy Innocent in Australia has been working along these lines for a long time, but British designers have apparently recently caught onto it.  There were other sessions on aesthetics, on the supposed divide between new media art and mainstream contemporary art, on the place of interactive artworks now that the hype has died down.

Stuart Bunt, a Professor of Anatomy from Western Australia, gave a talk on "Unintelligent Design", intended to counter the way that designers talk about the wonders of design in nature.  A prime exhibit here is the human eye: there is a layer of nerve cells in front of the retina, getting in the way of incoming light, and then a whopping great hole in the retina where the nerve fibres join into the optic nerve on the way to the brain.  The sensible arrangement would be the retina in front and the nerve cells behind, which is the layout in the eye of the squid.  Stuart has been involved with the SymbioticA group in Western Australia, who use tissue cultures and the like for artistic projects, and there were a number of talks about what is now called bio-art.  One was by Tash Bates, who told us that of the 100 trillion cells in and around the human body, only 10% are actually human: the other 90% are microscopic organisms that form our "micro-biome".  Although numerous, they only form a small fraction of our body weight.  One such organism is the yeast Candida albicans, which has both good and bad effects on the human body; Tash's project involved cultivating quantities of it.

Another striking bio-art piece was by Adam Brown, who used micro-organisms (extremophilic bacteria) to produce metallic gold from gold chloride.  He then made a sort of illuminated manuscript by taking scanning electron micrographs of the bacterial films, and applying gold leaf made from the microbial gold to those areas in the micrographs that showed the bacteria depositing gold.

There were other sessions by artists using science or reacting to it.  Chris Henschke (Monash) described the artworks that came out of his residency at the Australian Synchrotron in Melbourne. There was an exhibition of the work in a gallery in Sydney, and I was able to see it.  Deborah Lawler-Dormer (New Zealand) described what sounds like a very ambitious project in Auckland making a computational model of the brain and the face, including things like the action of dopamine in the brain.  One of the people involved is a high-profile computer animator, and an output will be a 3D model of the face that shows emotions.   Deborah is looking at this from the point of view of a curator of new media interested in how this scientific research will inform people working across art and science.

There were also sessions on the history of electronic art, and on preservation, exhibition and curation of electronic artworks.  There was a discussion of how the pervasiveness of digital media is affecting the traditional museum.  Keir Winesmith (at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, but about to take up a post in the U.S.A) described a catalogue the MCA produced.  It was in the form of an app, in three versions.  The first version was prepared in advance, like a traditional catalogue.  The second version was made after installation, and included the (elaborate) installation procedure.  The final version was made after the show closed and contained audience interviews (some quite critical) and other material.  The app was free during the show, and after it ended they charged $3 to download it, as opposed to say $50 for a traditional catalogue.  The MCA has also done things like projecting inside the gallery photographs people took during a visit the the MCA and subsequently posted on the Internet.

Preservation is an enormous problem, though Steven Jones (who was part of the band Severed Heads) has been doing a large project on recovering Australian video art, and thought that with care and attention the preservation problem could be dealt with; nobody else seemed to agree.  I have certainly lost a performance work: I no longer have either the hardware or the software.  At the festival I attended at Osnabrück in April the artist Igor Štromajer described a ritual he was making, of deleting 37 pieces of Internet art he had made, because maintaining them was too onerous.  And he isn't just anybody: he has work in the permanent collection of the Pompidou.

There were over 30 exhibitions associated with ISEA; I only saw a few of them.  I caught the last night of the large projections on the Opera House and the Museum of Contemporary Art, part of Vivid Sydney.  There was a collection of sound-related works at the University of Technology, Sydney, though they had visual elements was well.  I particularly liked Jon Drummond's Twittering Machine (named for the work by Paul Klee).  At Conny Dietschold Gallery, Ernest Edmonds had a responsive piece that looked like colour-field painting.  It was networked with two other pieces by Josh Harle and Sean Clark, so they all affected one another.  Kudos Gallery had the work of Chris Henschke already mentioned, and other works, including a panorama by Volker Kuchelmeister that was activated by walking around it moving a lever.  It turned out to hold considerably more than 360 degrees of images.  The images were made by collaging together photographs of two very different environments, the Tasmanian wilderness and urban Hong Kong.

I saw the three ISEA-related exhibitions in the Powerhouse Museum: an exhibition of work coming from the art-science residencies under the Synapse program, which places artists in scientific organisations; an exhibition of bio-art work associated with the SymbioticA group in Perth; and the Speak to Me exhibition of electronic and computer art organised by Experimenta.  I previously saw this exhibition scattered across several venues in Melbourne; here it is all collected together.

I regret not having seen the installation Test Pattern by Ryoji Ikeda at Carriageworks; it was evidently a highlight.  But I had a very packed few days as it was.

Jon Drummond's Twittering Machine

A bioreactor containing stem cells, In Potentia by Guy Ben-Ari and Kirsten Hudson


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