SESI Digital Gallery, São Paulo
Third SP Urban Digital Festival
The festival theme considers the larger questions relating to the future of urban digital art, its civic and social values, its architectural opportunities, and how it informs our human behavior. It considers how the current visions of urban digital art will inform future practices and contribute to its future reason of existence.
In a few decades from now – after the Kinect camera is considered an old device, after the sensation of scale has ceased, after interactivity has become intuitive, and after the hype of real-time is over – todays urban digital art will resonate for a new generation of contemporary artists, as afterimages of a period influenced by particular artistic ideas, urban visions, aesthetic challenges and technological curiosity. DIGITAL AFTERIMAGE, the third SP Urban Digital Festival origins from the urgency to question: What is the “reason of existence” of urban digital art? How does digital art contribute to the local urban environment, how does it contribute to building and enhancing a public social sphere, and how does it pave the way for future digital art interventions? In sum: What do we want from urban digital art and its role in the urban context and public discourse?
The festival includes artworks by Andar7, Thiago Hersan & Radamés Anja, Lucas Bambozzi, The Constitute, Eduardo Kac, Yucef Merhi, Suse Miessner, and Marina Zurkov.
Curatorial essay by Tanya Toft
Digital art is no longer news to us; neither is our encounter with digital art forms in urban environments. Over the last decade or so, artistic production and display of digital art has developed with fast pace. The accessibility and affordability of digital technologies has allowed artistic curiosity and experimentation to keep up with the speed of the digital, supported by a professionalization of the exhibition landscape of digital art festivals, urban galleries, and media architecture. These platforms are critical in facilitating, commissioning and presenting the new art forms to curious publics and for establishing urban digital art as a progressive niche in the art scene, or even a territory of its own. They are equally critical to qualify what will become the afterimage of digital art – the artistic ideas, visions, methods and curiosities that will resonate in the future.
Ever since artists freed themselves from the restrictions of formalism in the 1960s and started including video and software in their works, technologies have been an established part of the arts. Digital art implies the making use of digital technologies in the production (and installation) of art. It involves a mix of art forms such as net art, digital installation art, virtual reality, interactive art, multimedia art, mobile art and other artistic categories most of which were articulated in the 1990s. These medial categories are being mixed and diminished in the domain of digital art, which continues the artistic ideas formulated by conceptual art, of liberating art from its reference system and diffuse its role – both in the system of art and in meaning systems beyond the art world.
The twenty-first century began with an almost nihilist disorder of things and artistic ideas in which digital art could continuously interweave discourses of fine art, digital culture, software and computation, architecture, academia and cultural production. This was in the wake of the Digital Revolution, a third epoch of the Industrial Revolution, continuing the change from analog to mechanical to electronic technology to digital technology. It began with the adoption and proliferation of digital computers and digital record keeping in the latter half of the twentieth century – and announced the beginning of the Information Age in which digital art would flourish in experiments combining computer, Internet and mobile media.
Digital art leans on logics that were established outside of the analog art world. Among these, anti-essentialist ideas of the 1980s such as post-structuralism and related ideas of relationships between power, knowledge and social control (Michel Foucault); ideas of non-hierarchical connections, heterogeneity and nomad thought (Gilles Deleuze); and ideas of network theory, insisting on the relationships between objects/phenomena and social networks (Bruno Latour). This philosophical foundation makes an alternative to the one ruling during the triumph of Modernism in the twentieth century, which sought to categorize, reduce and valorize the art.
Does it matter to an artwork that it has a technical origin of production? Yes, it matters in terms of the potential of the artwork to adapt to material facades and cultural contexts of exhibition, and it matters with regards to what critical dialogue the artwork can engage with of past, current or future concern to the information society. The technical origin of digital art has left artists, curators and critics in a discursive debate about the meaning, role and purpose of digital art. To a large extent, the debate concerns a cultural divide between what Lev Manovich in 1996 coined “Duchamp Land” and “Turing Land”[i], which indicate two attitudes towards the meaning of digital art. While Duchamp-land is oriented towards content/the rationale/the concept that may draw meaning from a range of fields including sociology, the arts and politics, Turing-land is oriented towards hi-tech technology or a technological facet, and process and method are the drivers for the creative act. Artworks admitted to Duchamp-land often take the characteristics of being self-referential and destructive/reflective about technology, whereas artworks in Turing-land take technology seriously and before content[ii]. Although the divide between the “lands” might have decreased over the past few decades, the difference in attitude towards technology is still posing a challenge to digital art.
The divide between the two discourses characterized in the convergence between the art world and the computer world were also addressed in Claire Bishop’s article on Artforum.com, Digital Divide: Contemporary Art And New Media (2012). The stir of hundreds of comments, response articles and blog posts that the article triggered, debating whether Bishop was right to argue that there is a divide between the analog art world and the world of new media art and, if so, where this divide is leaving digital art, witnesses about our still complex relationship with the technical. Are we ready to accept the technical as a natural, integrated part of our reality, or do we need to keep a distance to it and protect what is “human”?
The relationship between humans and technology has been (and still is) a central philosophical concern in contemporary digital art. Paved away by important writings by among others Walter Benjamin, Marshall McLuhan, Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio, new media philosophy is looking through the lens of digital art[iii] when continuing research on topics such as how changes in media technology lead to changes in human consciousness; how new techniques of representation extend or diminish human values, practices and experiences; or how new technologies of information and communication influence new models of society. These are essential concerns relating to our participation as citizens in a digital reality. Digital art has long been addressing these concerns and played with human imagination and action in relation to technology.
The question currently announcing itself is how digital art can contribute to finding truths and revelations about our relationship to technology. How is this mode of critical self-reflection present in contemporary artistic production of digital art?
Digital art has found a particular venue in the urban context. In the urban context, more than anywhere else, digital art rejects the artistic discursive heritage from the Modernist era such as a common denominator of art, objectification or singularity of aesthetic taste or meaning, and the thought that the scope of art can be limited by a priori. Taking over screens, living through mobile devices and integrating with architecture and the urban construct, digital art is pursuing new questions and exploring new modes of intervention in dialogue with the urban environment and its social sphere. But it is also facing new challenges while intervening in public space, a territory in which mediated images have been contested for representing false illusions and which are shared among complex publics and politics of colliding interests. Digital art is developing new forms and aesthetics in the urban dialogues, while discretely searching for its raison d’être. Still in its infancy, urban digital art cannot rely on established discourses to explain the reason for its existence. Therefore, it needs to rely on a discourse of critical self-awareness.
In a few decades from now – after the Kinect camera is considered an old device, after the sensation of scale has ceased, after interactivity has become intuitive, and after the hype of real-time is over – todays urban digital art will resonate for a new generation of contemporary artists, as afterimages of a period influenced by particular artistic ideas, urban visions, aesthetic challenges and technological curiosity. DIGITAL AFTERIMAGE, the third SP Urban Digital Festival origins from the urgency to question: What is the “reason of existence” of urban digital art? How does digital art contribute to the local urban environment, how does it contribute to building and enhancing a public social sphere, and how does it pave the way for future digital art interventions? In sum: What do we want from urban digital art and its role in the urban context and public discourse? The festival theme considers the larger questions relating to the future of urban digital art, its civic and social values, its architectural opportunities, and how it informs our human behavior. It considers how the current visions of urban digital art will inform future practices and contribute to its future reason of existence. The artworks included consider the afterimages of digital art and its future public role in the urban environment. They do so by interrogating some of the main artistic ideas and curiosities that are shaping current idioms of digital art on big screens/media facades, and by questioning the cultural meaning that these works have to an audience in public space. It is in the afterimage that urban digital art can explore a critical self-awareness.
Afterimages of urban digital art
An afterimage, as phenomena of optical illusion, is what continues to appear in people’s vision and mind after the original “image” has disappeared. It is the short visual memory, imprint or affect of the image that was before. Look at a bright image or source, close your eyes and the fading light imprint you see is the afterimage.
In the early nineteenth century, particularly with Goethe’s writings[iv] on physiological colors in Theory of Colours[v], the afterimage as subjective visual phenomena was no longer perceived as something “spectral” and external to subjective vision, which Isaac Newton had introduced with his analytical treatment of color. The afterimage was considered a matter of human perception[vi]. We find this position in contemporary artistic thought in this quote by the Danish/Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson: “The notion of the after-images depends on what kind of retinal material you might carry with you, in your eye, and of course the retinal material is not just physiological, it’s also our memory and what our brain puts into the eye that we project. An after-image, unlike taking in an image, is a projection.” Eliasson goes on: “The concept that you are in fact constituting your surroundings by looking at it is something I found generous in the sense that the person looking is becoming the producer of her/his own surroundings.” (Quoted in Sabine Eckmann, Aura, Virtuality, and the Simulacrum (2009))[vii] An afterimage as a matter of human perception is depending on our human pre-programming for perceiving something, and it matters to how we shape meaning in our context.
Mesocósmico (Paulista) (2014) by Marina Zurkow explores afterimages as graphic memories in the particular context of Paulista Avenue. The piece is hand-drawn animation that recombines through software originally developed for Zurkow’s animated landscape portrait series MESOCOSM, and continues an investigation into near-possible nature and culture intersections. It uses the afterimage as a visual tool to awake curiosity about the relationship between human, animal, and landscape, through effects of complementary colors, silhouettes, tricks of the eye and flash frames. The real-time piece considers the nature ground of the Mata Atlantica that surrounds and once occupied the territory that is today the mega city of Sao Paulo; a forest biome containing thousands of unique plant species of which many are found nowhere else in the world. Through the visual exploration of the conflict and contrast between the human and the non-human, the artwork compares and questions a complex relationship between the cultural diversity of the city’s demographics and the surrounding forest ecosystem. It does so by combining aspects of urban life, illustrated in graphic mosaics of the beat-driven rhythms of Sao Paulo, the urban growth of buildings, and the rhythm and commerce of mobility, and aspects of the surrounding rainforest of the Mata Atlantica, illustrated as indigenous patterns and graphics of enormous Bullet ants, tiny Flea frogs, gangly vultures, and spider-like Muriqui. The graphical drawings are organized by a sharp rhythmic editing that appears visually closer to musical phrases than painting montages. The images integrate into an organic, graphic, re-constructed memory of the site; an afterimage of its ancient and current history and nature/urban biology, “burning” into the retina display of the audience as a reminder that the human being and industrial progress is part of a much bigger eco-system than the city; that of the world and its evolution.
The real-time parametric animation Lagoglyphs: Animation (2009) by Eduardo Kac considers another aspect of the relationship between biology and human construction, in an afterimage of the cultural phenomena of “alienation”. The piece is part of the artist’s Lagoglyphs series and references Kac’s famous bio art work titled GFP Bunny (2000), the ‘Alba’ bunny that glowed green under a certain type of blue light. Also known as “the green bunny,” GFP Bunny manifested the art genre “bio art”. Bio art was about exposing the role of science in society and its incorporation in our everyday worlds. It also brought attention to the notion of mutability, which in Lagoglyphs: Animation is illustrated in the generative mutability of writing. The piece shows an animation of a sign system of constantly changing constellations composed of green and black bunny symbols. While converging and dispersing, the bunny symbols are translating biology into the language of the digital. The symbols are however put together in a way that makes them, and the language they symbolize, totally foreign. The artwork considers how certain life forms (such as a green rabbit) are “alien” to us, or considered to be unknown or strange by our retinal material. It then tries to assimilate the “alien” into the environment so that it transforms into something that feels familiar. In this way the piece reflects on how society constructs the idea of difference, an idea that is not only critical to most multicultural and complex urban societies today – like the demographic context of Sao Paulo – but also to our social participation online. We are still debating whether social media are truly “social” and bringing people together in genuine networks – or if these platforms are in fact making us feel more alienated among each other.
The awareness of science in our everyday worlds gains new relevance in our digital culture as our behavior in social networks is turning into an object of science, as data to be measured, analyzed and traded. In social media networks, we engage with each other’s representations all while our movements and preferences are being traced by corporate industries. Lagoglyphs: Animation reflects on bio art’s afterimage on artistic discourse of interrogating the role of science in society while re-establishing its relevance in digital culture. It invites for critical evaluation of the relationship between human behavior and new technical systems of the digital, and how this makes us relate to each other and the world.
Urban context: Speed, shock, control
In studies of physiological afterimages we may consider two kinds of optical illusion-afterimages, negative and positive ones. The negative afterimage emerges from overstimulation or shock after the image has disappeared, as an inverted image of illusory complementary color that occurs on one’s retina display. The positive afterimage, on the other hand, is the same color as the original image and might occur before the negative afterimage appears. This is brief and only appears when the stimulus is very bright, for example coming from the sun. The negative afterimage is an illusion on our retina display, whereas the positive afterimage is a right or true perception.
As a metaphor for illusion, we can look through the negative afterimage to address a problem that has been haunting the history of visual culture and which digital art is confronted with today: the deception of the image of representation. The difference between images of perception from deception is even harder to distinguish in the images-everywhere-condition of the media city, and this condition leaves urban digital art in a difficult situation. Since critical theory’s resistance to the culture industry[viii] and the avant-garde’s critique of the symbols of capitalism, lead by Guy Debord’s critique of mass media in Society of the Spectacle (1968)[ix], mediated images in public space have been met with resistance – mainly targeted towards advertisement and the overstimulation of images and symbols leading to “shock” and pacification of the human mind. These ideas were based on the conception that people were unable to critically and subjectively make sense of what they perceived. Today however, “shock” is no longer confined to overstimulation brought about by the fluctuations and discontinuities of urban living, as Georg Simmel[x] first diagnosed and which was later adopted as an assumption by the avant-garde[xi]. If dark glasses were a symptom of a “fear of light” and a veiling from the intense illumination of “the acceleration of the cinematic effect” in urban perception in the western metropolis of the 1940s, as Paul Virilio (2009, pp. 60-61) interprets Aldous Huxley’s writings in “The Art of Seeing” (1943), today’s Google Glass might reveal a symptom of a need for enhanced (accelerating) perception across real and virtual layers in the contemporary media city. Our lives have been sped up, and our perceptual apparatus is adjusting.
Paul Virilio’s idea of pinoclepsy, which he presented in The Aesthetics of Disappearance, is relevant to how we understand human reaction to “shock” in an urban context today. Pinoclepsy is a particular mode of perceptual reaction to the contemporary city, by which human perception is conditioned to distort reality. It describes a process of perceiving reality in a kind of neurological disorder, or an epileptic state of consciousness, in which we stitch together fragment pieces of experience – breaks, absences, and dislocations – in order to create what is believed to be a continuous vector of reality. According to Virilio, the gaps alter people’s perception by making the impossible, the supernatural and the marvelous seem visible and real[xii]. Pinoclepsy is the attempt of making sense out of “shock,” by trying to cover up the gaps between the pieces of experience, memories and imaginations.
The work Coisa Lida (2014) by Lucas Bambozzi confronts our contemporary urban condition of speed and shock. It makes visible the speed of the city of Sao Paulo and explores tensions of acceleration and flow. Based on the work Coisa Vista (2011), Coisa Lida lives on the gallery façade after-hours on Paulista Avenue. It presents glimpses of words and phrases by Alberto Caeiro (F. Pessoa), Paul Virilio, Pierre Clastres, Oscar Wilde, Clarice Lispector and others that reference quotes on speed and perception. These are generated as video sequences, fading in and out with varying pace, blending into sequences like a filmic montage of word-images. The text is dynamic and interfered real-time by the changing pace and noise from Paulista Avenue in front of the gallery building. In a negotiation between acceleration and deceleration, the rhythm of the phrases responds to signals from a motion detection system installed in front of the gallery façade, from a webcam that “sees” and “listens” to the flows of cars and acts as a regulator of the acceleration system. The audio perceived on the sidewalk is captured, amplified and diverted to screens located across the street from the SESI Gallery. Coisa Lida reacts to the city’s rhythms and impressions in real time, as a dynamic, dystopian afterimage of the city’s rhythm and pace. It considers the low resolution, pixel and color limitations of the gallery façade and adopts an aesthetic that goes in a different direction than employing high-res graphics. The images are mental rather than polished and “finished”. The oscillation between the phrases reveals the processing of images on our retinas and memories as a clash between what escapes the eye and what is retained on our retina. The word-images send optical shock waves through the body of the audience. It reveals the pinocleptic gaps in human perception, fluctuating between consciousness and escapism into the illusionary reality of a city on speed. In a kind of counteract to the rationality of this city, the audience is invited to slow down in order to fill these gaps and make sense of the word-images.
The human condition is dictated by speed. Speed is like our ecstasy in the technological revolution. Coisa Lida reminds how our context, both physical and cultural, programs our perception – our retinal experience, or our mode of seeing things. We constitute the meaning of our surroundings by way of how our context pre-programs our way of seeing things. And it is by slowing down we reach a state of consciousness, become aware of this programming and are able to act differently on our surroundings.
Our urban surroundings are filled with ubiquitous electronic and visual information. Screens and media spectacles have become equally ubiquitous and so familiar to us that they are almost “invisible” in the current “post-media condition”[xiii]. Even architecture has changed in the condition of the post-media, becoming “fluid” and changeable. Light dematerializes buildings. It makes them assume dazzling and indefinite and finally makes them disappear as fixed constructs. As digital technologies make architecture responsive and communicative, it is the role of digital art to work against the danger that media architecture comes to fulfill the visions of Le Corbusier’s control society of electric light converting mute architecture into a living and communicative thing in ‘the radiant city[xiv],’ resulting in light becoming a signal of rationality and rational design. There is a role for digital art in destabilizing the control society, which has long been an aim of the arts but which digital art can perform in direct dialogue with the very visible infrastructures, facades and platforms where control is visually upheld.
RetinAmérica (2014) by Andar7 seeks to destabilize the icons of control found in institutional symbols. The installation turns the Fiesp gallery building into a totem of colors and shapes, composed from deconstructions of existing symbolic iconographies found in institutional iconographies of Latin American nations. They evoke the graphical compositions of the “banderinhas,” the geometric abstractions of small flags by the modernist Brazilian painter Alfredo Volpi (1896-1988) from the 1960s, which originated from Brazilian folklore and were structured by poetic forms from Brazilian urban landscapes. The institutional symbols, flags and iconographies are important to the upholding of a nation as symbols of national identity. They stand in contrast to a situation of anomie in which society reinterprets identity in order to create a unified, heterogeneous community. The piece evokes the theory presented in Josef Albers’ (1988-1976) theory of color[xv], suggesting that colors are always being seen in relation to the colors that surround it. RétinAmérica indicates how the dynamic and changing nature of color in relation to its context, as proposed by Albers, might also apply to how a multicultural demography of Sao Paulo is considered in relationship to the “color composition” of its context. Black would not be black without white and various shades in between. The deconstructed patterns and color compositions indicate a criticism of the affirmation of identification with the modernist idea of “nation” that in order to be upheld requires structural conditions such as social order and patterned citizen behavior. The piece explores effects of retinal persistence, achieved through complimentary colors composed by geometric mathematical calculations and the use of Quartz Composer and Professing software. The re-composed graphic icons in RétinAmérica make attempts to de-territorialize affective and social transformation. They appear as “collective afterimages” of a multi-cultural society and make the gallery building engage in a poetic, tropical and colorful relationship with the urban surroundings.
As a metaphor of true perception, we look through the optical afterimage for experiences of brief lapses of consciousness in our pinocleptic registry – moments of “seeing clearly”. Jonathan Crary has reminded us how in the early nineteenth century, particularly with Goethe’s writings, the Afterimage was no longer considered a deception that would obscure true perception, as previously thought, but rather an irreducible component of human vision. What could be experienced by the eye had to be optical truth[xvi]. Moments of seeing clearly are moments of awareness, where we might realize how our perception apparatus is stimulated by speed in the city in Coisa Lida or of the images of control and how we assign meaning and power to them in RétinAmérica. The perceptual experiences that the audiences discover with these installations evoke Marcel Duchamp’s experiments with three-dimensional illusion in his Dadaist, surrealist film Anémic Cinéma (1926). This was made of spinning flat cardboard circles with patterns and phrases. Duchamp aimed at constructing an experience in which language, thought and vision would act on one another. He aimed at “putting art back in service of the mind” and make audiences critically reflect on what they see.
Screens and screen behavior
“The screen” has developed as an architectural urban construct and become a fundamental platform for public broadcasting. It was one of the most important platforms to the origin and development of urban digital art because it made it easy for video-based artworks to migrate to the urban environment, using these existing transmission platforms. A question of high relevance today is what it means that the mathematizing instrument of the Cartesian grid, which dominates the architecture of dedicated visualization chips and screens, has also become the overwhelming structure of 21st Century visuality. We might, as suggested by the media philosopher Sean Cubitt, have opted for the good enough over the best possible when hasting to populate our urban environments with screens and media facades – and in the process abandoned technical trajectories that might have suggested other social and political capacities and affordances[xvii]. The interrogation of the social function and cultural meaning of technological constructs behind the digital image, such as the screen, is a critical point of attention in current practices with urban digital art. So is the critical attention to our perceptual engagement with screens, media spectacles and urban screen environments.
Urban Alphabets (2013-2014) by Suse Miessner explores alternative uses for the screen. The gallery screen is explored with a different purpose than transmitting content to a mass audience, and the screen of the smart phone is explored as a facilitator of a new mode of urban perception. Urban Alphabets reflects on collective memory of the signs and symbols that decorate our cities. It consists of letters collected by audience participants, both via a smartphone app in a workshop held prior to the exhibition and during the exhibition period, which compose a custom alphabet for the city of São Paulo that is altered during the exhibition period. The alphabet is like a user-generated visual identity for the city – replacing visual identities stated by corporate entities in contrast to homogeneous font systems, such as for example Helvetica. The letters are also geo-tagged and uploaded to the project’s website www.ualphabets.com, where they contribute to a collection of “city alphabets” that are made of letters found in different cities. The gallery screen becomes a platform for collaborative art. The piece seeks to affect human behavior with new technologies in public space by challenging the cocooning effect of smartphones – when people isolate themselves by listening to music, watching videos, or follow GPS (Global Positioning System) routes, instead of paying attention to each other and perhaps have an unexpected conversation with a stranger. The Urban Alphabets smartphone app explores how technology can alter human perception differently in public space, by making users pay attention and establish a new sensation for one’s physical surroundings.
In presence of screens, we have developed particular modes of cultural behavior without also developing an awareness about which modes are good for our cultural development. 0.25 FPS (2014) by the Brazilian artist duo Radamés Ajna and Thiago Hersan reflects on the incessant, unilateral broadcasting behavior we perform when “sending,” “trending,” “liking,” or “posting” in social networks and digital culture. A mirror is placed in front of the gallery building, and images taken by a camera facing the mirror are transmitted on the gallery façade every couple of seconds. First a white flash appears, then the image appears in a slightly processed version and fades before the next picture is taken. Audiences are free to step in front of the mirror and have their picture taken and projected on the façade for a few seconds, before it disappears. While the work invites for a seemingly innocent, playful engagement with the mirror and camera, the emotional avowal of having one’s portrait and gestures shown on the huge façade evokes a narcissistic dilemma. It reflects our desires for self-promotion and feeling of self-importance that is accelerated and propagated by technology and social networks. In that sense, 0.25 FPS makes the gallery façade reveal a contemporary mode of desire and self-representation that is currently characteristic to our behavior and modes of social interaction in online social communities. The piece reminds us that our behavior with digital technologies is what shapes our digital culture and the premises for participating in it. These behaviors remain as afterimages, paving the way for our future digital culture.
Both Urban Alphabets and 0.25 FPS reflect on our social relations, how screens and the cultural role they have gained in public space have informed particular modes of visuality and perception. The works re-explore the screen as a social platform while questioning the current modes of social behavior that the screen seems to facilitate. Or, those we as cultural participants have accepted. Scott McQuire has wisely said: “changing contemporary culture demands changes in the dominant social relations sustained by technological images” – and practices that forge new ways of engagement with these “images” and with others in public are a critical element of any such change.”[xviii] Digital images on various types of screens have advanced as a dominant medium of social experience. The digital images we encounter in today’s urban context are presumably even more shocking, at least larger, more luminous, dramatic and immersive than those of the past. But it is the social relations they facilitate, that we program and demand from them to facilitate, which determine their role as urban constructs. Through urban digital art we can explore alternative programming of the screens and reflect on what we demand from screens in the future.
How did we arrive here?
In openly meeting the artistic visions of digital art, urban digital art exhibition platforms have facilitated the production of artworks that break with our expectations to aesthetics and to what is technically possible. The skepticism is announcing itself, of the presumed uncritical celebration of technological progress and of the equally presumed perception that “anything goes” as long as the art is camouflaged in technological expressions that we still don’t know how to understand or evaluate. Despite the right- or wrongful rigor of these skeptical points, a critical task for urban digital art today is to reflect on how we arrived here. This involves re-examinations of technological breakthroughs and re-evaluations of the technical trajectories we abandoned along the way. Such reflections contribute to ensure that what we consider to be “progress” is guided by cultural aims rather than technical possibility.
Retrospective reflection is part of the motivation behind C-240 (2001-2014), a low-tech/electronic sound visualization developed by Yucef Merhi. The installation takes a step back from hi-tech visualization systems and investigates the contemporary relevance of the music visualizer as social phenomena. It looks back on the history of video game consoles, pointing out the celebrated Atari VCS 2600. In 1976, Atari invented the first electronic music visualizer: the Atari Video Music. Initially, the machine was described as an “Audio activated video display” under the US patent 4081829 (https://www.google.com/patents/US4081829). C-240 explores people’s sonic engagement with the LED gallery façade. It reframes ancient technologies, such as a rare and unique device that was developed in the 1970s to represent sound frequencies as visual patterns. The music visualizer, which is integrated in the artwork, allows for an analog engagement with the otherwise digital building. The installation encourages audience participation by letting people on the street speak into a microphone. Since the microphone is connected to the Atari device, real-time sounds become visual representations on the façade. Also, an answer machine empowers remote audiences to call and leave messages to the building, and these recorded messages are played when audiences on site are not engaging. So are recorded sounds from Paulista Avenue. The visuals show colorful geometric patterns, which can be choreographed by voice interaction. Additional LED screens next to the gallery building façade are “transformed into Atari video game stations” and bring awareness to early game aesthetics. They trigger a sea of memories to the many bypassing Brazilians who grew up with the Atari game consoles.
The retinal material of our perception in context is not only constituted in the now. It is also an afterimage of events, memories and inherited discourses from the past. In contemporary digital artworks we find a curiosity in all kinds of cultural and technical phenomena that may have influenced how we arrived where we are, including paradigms from before the digital. What matters is that afterimages from the past and present will remain archived in the collective memory behind our retina display – and guide our self-awareness of current and future practices with urban digital art. Digital Afterimages is an opportunity to anchor urban digital art across discursive domains of Duchamp-land and Turing-land, where concept, reflection and technology are taken seriously. It seeks to highlight the opportunity in urban digital art to express self-awareness and reflect on the afterimages on which it builds, as well as the afterimages it will leave for the future. Digital art that derives from a self-aware discourse is anything but decoration. It is aware of the legacy of its predecessors of inventions, technological break-troughs, social phenomena and cultural events; aware of its role in context, and of its contribution to the evolution of digital art and its purposes in future urban scenarios.
While the critical motivations of digital art might long have been about formulating a critique of its social functions or exploring the visual and experiential potentials of software-based artistic processes, a current direction is seeking to diminish the boundary between human and technology. This is explored through re-establishments of space as a dimension where analog and digital are one, physically, conceptually and phenomenologically. In the speed of the contemporary media city we might tend to accept that space is supplanted by time, as the German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued in the late eighteenth century. But we are realizing that space is the dimension where human experience is structured. This is where we relate to each other, where we sense a foothold in the world, and where we make sense of things. When brought to an urban exhibition context, what digital art can do in the environment is creating space for experience, reflection and contemplation about our environment and how technologies are affecting our behavior in it. Urban digital art is continuously finding new generic forms of expression in dialogue with the urban environment and new ways of interfering with the social sphere. It contributes with insight, revelation and comment that are crucial to awake critical reflection on our evolution in the digital era.
[i] Lev Manovich proposed the terms “Duchamp-land” and “Turing-land” in his essay The Death of Computer Art (1996) [revised 2001], on Rhizome.org.
[ii] Manovich (1996) The Death of Computer Art, Rhizome.org.
[iii] Predecessed by Gilles Deleuze’s writings about cinema and art, important new media philosophers who have looked at the human relationship to technology and the digital through digital art are Brian Massumi who has written on the neglected importance of movement and sensation in cultural formations and our interaction with real and virtual worlds in Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (2002) and Mark Hansen, who has written about embodied perception in the digital age through the image in New Philosophy for New Media (2006).
[iv] Goethe was concerned with how phenomena are perceived and presented the idea of human color perception as an alternative to Isaac Newton’s analytic treatment of color (Jonathan Crary (1988), Techniques of the Observer, October, Vol. 45, MIT Press).
[v] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (2006 / first published 1810), Dover Publications.
[vi] Jonathan Crary (1988), Techniques of the Observer, October, Vol. 45, MIT Press.
[vii] Olafur Eliasson quoted in Sabine Eckmann (2009) ”Aura, Virtuality, and the Simulacrum,” in Lutz Koepnick and Erin McGlothlin, After the Digital Divide? German Aesthetic Theory in the Age of New Media, Rochester: Camden House, 2009.
[viii] The term ”culture industry” was coined by the critical theorists Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) and Max Horkheimer (1895-1973) in the book Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), presenting the idea that popular culture and its images manipulates mass society into passivity.
[ix] Guy Debord (1967) Society of the Spectacle, Black & Red, Detroit.
[x] Georg Simmel (1903) The Metropolis and Mental Life.
[xi] This argument is elaborated by Richard Langston in ”Digital Negation & The Fate of Shock After the Avant-Garde” in Lutz Koepnick and Erin McGlothlin, After the Digital Divide? German Aesthetic Theory in the Age of New Media, Rochester: Camden House, 2009, p. 132.
[xii] Virilio (2009), The Aesthetics of Disappearance, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), p. 11.
[xiii]The term “post-media condition” has been proposed by Peter Weibel in The Post-Media Condition, Mute (2006), referring to a condition characterized by the equivalence and mixing of the media.
[xiv] The Radiant City, or La Ville Radieuse, was an unrealised project designed by the French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier in 1924 as a blueprint of social reform. It announced high-rise blocks and master plans that were radical, strict and nearly totalitarian in their order, symmetry and standardization.
[xv] Josef Albers’ ”theory of color” was first presented in the publication Interaction of Color (1963).
[xvi] Crary (1988), Techniques of the Observer, p. 9.
[xvii] Sean Cubitt (2011) ”Current Screens,” in Imagery in the 21st Century, Cambridge: The MIT Press.
[xviii] Scott McQuire (2008) The Media City: Media, Architecture and Urban Space, London: SAGE Publications, p. 155.