Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Transdisciplinary imaging

(Long post)

At the weekend I attended a two-day conference in Sydney, the First International Conference on Transdisciplinary Imaging at the Intersections between Art, Science and Culture.  The conference title was "New Imaging: Transdisciplinary strategies for art beyond the new media".  The conference chairs were Su Baker (Victorian College of the Arts) and Paul Thomas (College of Fine Arts, University of NSW).  The conference was held at Artspace in Wolloomooloo with support from a number of universities.

There were over twenty presentations.  The "international" part of the title was justified in that several of the presenters, including all three keynote speakers, were from overseas.  Altogether it seemed to be a fairly high-powered group, and I felt a little out of my depth (though I wasn't presenting).  I am relatively new to this sort of discussion, so in my comments I may well have missed the point or misunderstood things.

All the presenters were either artists or people somewhere along the spectrum art historian, art theorist, cultural theorist, and the artists tended to be theorists as well.  I had the impression that there are certain books and articles everybody there had read; the conference was part of a specific discourse despite its wide-ranging brief.  Although science was mentioned in the conference title, no scientists presented as such, though Oron Catts (of SymbioticA in Perth) must be part-scientist, and a couple of the other artists have collaborated closely with scientists.

Rather than summarising the entire conference I mention the three keynote addresses and then try to indicate some common themes.

The opening presentation "Hyperskindexicality" was by Jens Hauser, an artist, writer and curator based in Paris; he gave a wide-ranging discussion of biological art, that is, art that uses living materials such as bacteria, skin cells, or genetically modified organisms.  Jens broached a number of themes that recurred throughout the conference, including "indexicality" (after C.S. Peirce) and notions of representation, the nature of scientific visualisation, and the relation of "new media" to older media.

The second keynote presentation was by Roy Ascott from Plymouth University in England; Roy was physically at another conference in Norway and presented (before breakfast his time) via Skype and PowerPoint slides under the title "The Syncretic Dialogues".  Roy is a visionary pioneer of cybernetic art, telematic art and art around the idea of complex systems; he has extended this to "technoetic arts", to bring in things like telekinesis, shamanic healing and a trans-human "field of consciousness".  I felt that most of the audience could not follow Roy down the New Age path.  Roy indicated five artists of the modern era as significant: Paul Cézanne, Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, Jackson Pollock, and the much less well-known Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, who created a number of distinct personas, or "heteronyms", each of which is almost an independent author with a distinct writing style and set of concerns.  Roy concluded "the most urgent eco-necessity is the re-design of ourselves".

The final keynote presentation was by Anne Ring Petersen from Denmark, on "The transdisciplinary potential of remediated painting".   Anne discussed three artists who in her view are extending painting into new areas: Thorbjørn Lausten (Denmark), Katharina Grosse (Germany) and David Batchelor (England).  In the works shown, only one of these artists (
Grosse) actually uses paint: Batchelor makes sculptural constructions out of lightboxes or brightly coloured plastic objects and Lausten makes abstracted modernist visualisations of scientific data on computer displays.  Grosse uses paint on a large scale, covering long corridors or large spaces with bright swirls, which extend over furniture or other things in the space. The paper brought to the fore the notion of "discipline" and the extent to which the use of specific materials should determine it.

I will only discuss one presentation on a specific artwork, that by Petra Gemeinboeck and Rob Saunders (Sydney) on their extraordinary "Zwischenräume".  This consisted of two machines or robots (not humaniform), each mounted behind a plasterboard wall.  Each was equipped with a movable eye (a camera surrounded by LED lights) and a hammer.  The robots could move around the wall, and when they got bored they could smash holes in it, to make what they were seeing more interesting for them.  The noises of the hammering also served as a communication system between the two robots.  This piece builds on earlier work by Rob on "curious agents" (computer software agents that exchanged virtual artworks), but has brought the agents out into the world and equipped them with the ability to act on it.

I will now try to identify some of the themes running through the conference.

Firstly, there was general agreement that the term "new media" is no longer appropriate, though it wasn't clear what term or terms to replace it with.  The notion of "remediation" (as in the book by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin), where a newer medium always takes over ideas and conventions from earlier media, was much in evidence; a new medium is never completely new, at least in aesthetics and content.  In the context of "remediation" the terms "modulation" and "transduction" were tossed around quite a bit, but, as far as I heard, without any clear definitions.

The other part of the conference title concerned "transdisciplinarity".  There were two uses of the word "discipline", firstly referring to an artistic discipline such as painting (the paradigmatic artistic discipline), and secondly referring to an academic discipline.  Roy Ascott indicated that a combination of disciplines should produce something new, should transcend the originating disciplines.  I don't think any conclusion was reached about transdisciplinarity, but a related notion of "expanded" art forms came up frequently; thus
Anne Ring Petersen used the phrase "expanded painting" in her talk.  The "expanded" works move away from the traditional materials of a specific artistic discipline, but still carry concerns of that discipline with them.  In a way this is the the other face of "new media": at least in the hype, the new media were claimed to abandon or repudiate the old media (the idea debunked by Bolter and Grusin), whereas the works of an "expanded" discipline are still considered to belong to the originating discipline.

A third fairly large and unresolved theme revolved around scientific visualisation and related questions of representation.  Jens Hauser opened this up with a discussion of so-called "DNA fingerprinting", which is a technique that takes DNA, cuts it up by so-called restriction enzymes, and spreads the results out in a two-dimensional pattern on a gel.  The process is quite complicated and indirect, so the name "fingerprinting" is questionable.  Jens introduced the work of the American artist Paul Vanouse, who has used the "fingerprinting" technique to produce patterns on the gel that form things like the copyright sign.

It is clear that in many cases scientific visualisation is a partial and indirect representation of a complex situation; I don't think scientists would disagree with this statement.  With one or two of the conference presentations I wasn't clear if scepticism about such visualisations was aimed at the scientific use of them, or at the popular and journalistic reduction implying that such visualisation is somehow akin to direct perception.   I would have liked to have heard from scientists as to how they use visualisations, especially when they are very indirect: are visualisations just more or less informal guides as to where a detailed analysis should be carried out, or can a visualisation function in itself as scientific evidence?  What role does the more or less unconscious and unanalysed operation of the pattern-matching abilities of our visual system play in science?  Lucia Ayala (Germany), an art historian who has been collaborating with an astrophysicist, came fairly close to this question but did not actually discuss it in her presentation.

An area that only came up in a minor way was the implications of machine vision.  Linda Matthews and Gavin Perin described a project which, as I understood it, was to provide a building with a cladding so that it would show up as an un-building-like image on a webcam that streams images of Circular Quay to tourism websites.  Kathy Cleland discussed so-called "augmented reality", where symbolic data is overlaid on a view of the real world; an example is the mobile phone application Google Goggles.  Again the hype has got ahead of the reality: if the overlaid data comes from a commercial provider like Google, the data will have a commercial bias.  In this context, someone said something along the lines that "machine vision is uninterpreted", but surely this is not true.  My small digital camera recognises faces and adjusts the focus accordingly, and the robots of
Petra Gemeinboeck and Rob Saunders are even assigning value to what they see.  Petra described the robots as "voyeuristic": they are seeing for their own pleasure.

Another area that also only came up in a minor way in the conference was the "executable" aspect of new media: computer programs do things in a way that only has very tenuous precedents in art (and that is not to be confused with notions of "performativity").  Again the work of
Petra Gemeinboeck and Rob Saunders shows this executable aspect in a striking way.  Mitchell Whitelaw brought up the lack of attention to the executable aspect of new media in the conference, and was fairly answered by Paul Thomas to the effect that this aspect was discussed in the re:live conference on media art history held in Melbourne in 2009, of which Paul was one of the organisers.  Behind this, though, was the feeling expressed by some conference participants that there is a divide or "incommensurability" between discussions of new media art and mainstream contemporary art.  Not everyone agreed with this, but I have a sense of such a divide; maybe it would be a true transdisciplinary project to bridge it.

Although I have mentioned some things that were not much discussed at the conference, it is not clear where they would have fitted in, as we already had two full and very interesting days.  There are many things I haven't mentioned, from Edward Colless's discussion of miraculous images such as the face of Jesus on the Veil of Veronica, through to Mitchell Whitelaw's identification of a trend away from the bland homogeneity of computer and TV screens to site-specific, often home-made and low-resolution, variations on the theme of an array of pixels.  And Daniel Mafe's artwork, which moves seamlessly from abstract painting to visually similar material created procedurally as abstract animations.  And Ian Gwilt's discussion of "compumorphic" art, which draws on computer-inspired forms in the way that biomorphic art draws on natural forms.  And much more!  Many thanks to Su and Paul and all the other people involved!