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A Braided Metaphor: The Autopsy of an Experience
by Zainub Verjee
Artists are involved in research practice and knowledge production; given that works of art are essentially theoretical statements, interpretations of lived experience, positions on issues of great human significance, on par with philosophical tracts, or with research studies as they are more traditionally conceived. A significant preoccupation in this endeavour has been the idea of Narrative, particularly as it pertains to a visual culture that emphasizes image generation and communication technologies with a focus on key issues such as virtuality, representation/inter-subjectivity and interactivity.
Discussing narrative is very fashionable in a wide variety of disciplines. There is widespread agreement that human beings typically see, live or experience their lives as a narrative of some sort, or at least as a collection of stories. In this essay I will focus on three works: Where are you? (2005) by Luc Courchesne, The Paradise Institute (2001) by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller and The Crossing Project (2001) by Ranjit Makkuni in order to explore some of the above issues as well and to grapple with philosopher Strawson's1 key idea that understanding narrative hinges on the opposition between diachronic (continuous, or narrative) and episodic (discontinuous, or non-narrative) perceptions of life/reality. The engagement with narrative and hence these artworks are about how we understand and perceive ourselves.
The shift to new aesthetics2
At a conceptual level, the central aspects of the arts in digital culture cannot be properly grasped without contextualizing them within the historical background of 20th century aesthetics.3 The notion of "interaction," which is so central to the digital arts, entered the stage as "participation" in the 1960's with Fluxus and the notion of the Happening. This approach transforms the notion of the artwork by designating it as a set of rules that is also constituted by the observer. In addition to these aesthetic reflections, the artwork allows for alternative readings of reality and therefore opens new spaces of action within the world. While aesthetic rules are still given a certain role, from the moment that "the tool is on a level with the work itself"4 a fundamental shift has taken place.
Exploring The Crossing Project5 in this context is interesting. In this project we witness a sort of celebration of the tool. The Crossing Project is essentially premised on the cultural imperative of human-technology interaction. This project is a pioneering effort that brings together computing technology and archetypal content. In doing so, it questions the very form of a computing system and the graphical user interface which has served as its standard visual bridge for over thirty years.
As Ranjit explains, "the project technology presents alternate paradigms of information access, integrating the hand and the body in the act of computer-based communication and learning. With respect to content, it brings to focus a traditional society's notion of eco-cosmic connections. With respect to design, it incorporates the expressions of traditional arts and crafts in the design of expressive information delivery devices."6 In The Crossing Project we see how the setting of Benares—one of the world's most ancient cities—offers a challenge to broaden the notion of a screen-based display to present the overall environment, including architectonic space, backdrops, lighting systems, aroma and wind effects. For instance, we are always left wondering as to what lies beyond a display screen's edge. With the "360 degree display" browser option the user can partake in the virtual experience of being in the midst of the Ganges River and to explore a panoramic view of it.
Image as an embodied experience
This issue of framing an image or what is an image in a digital work has been provocatively investigated by Mark Hansen.7 Hansen essentially states that mainstream modern and postmodern thought has been consistently unable to engage with the complexity of technological experience, preferring instead to reduce technology to a form of discourse or textual representation, or to a socially or culturally determined thing.
In simple terms, the salient feature of his argument is that the digital revolution has exploded the stability of the visual image. The image no longer depends on a concrete, material frame (i.e., the cinematic or photographic frame); yet it is still a process that is intimately bound up with the activity of the body. Although, nowadays the transmission and storage of information takes place in a non-human, imperceptible world, the digital image is still dependent on human perception for its materialization, for its coming into form, and ultimately, for its meaning. What Hansen primarily argues is that in most new media works, it is the body of the spectator itself (as opposed to the representational content) that provides the locus for the experience of the work.
Many contemporary artists are moved by a panoptic fantasy: "the concept of the design is to allow an observer to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) prisoners without the prisoners being able to tell whether they are being watched."8 In this context, it's worth looking at Where are you? by Luc Courchesne. After his early video portraiture days,9 the artist turned his sights outdoors with Landscape One (1997), which prompted him to abandon the portrait for more immersive environments. As the new millennium dawned, he also focused his efforts on the creation of the "panoscope," an immersive projection system. From early on Courchesne consistently explored the self's social consciousness and sense of being. In Where are you?, immersed visitors are invited to explore a multiscaled artificial world and to meet other, live and pre-recorded beings. The work puts the visitor/user in control of his/her position, the path and speed of his/her journey and, more interestingly perhaps, the scale at which he/she is prepared to "exist." In his later work Horizons (2007) he placed the viewer in the centre of the depicted space. This challenges the art of framing so important to film, while also introducing another editing concept and, consequently, an altered form of narrative construction.
Tensions in exploration of "self"
"A basic condition of making sense of ourselves is that we grasp our lives in a Narrative and have an understanding of our lives as an unfolding story.10 This is echoed by Claire in Doug Coupland's novel Generation X: Claire…breaks the silence by saying that it's not healthy to live life as a succession of isolated little cool moments. "Either our lives become stories, or there's no way to get through them."11 Such an understanding has been explored further to offer new frameworks of the metaphysical. Earlier we touched upon Hansen's preoccupation to build a phenomenological model of human technology interaction. And so if technical and organic beings are constantly co-evolving, what effects do our intimate, continual interaction with machines and the worlds that they create ultimately have (or already had) on the very infrastructure of our consciousness itself?
But without going into the complexities of these explorations, a similar exposition comes to life as one begins to interact with The Paradise Institute by Cardiff and Miller.12 Here is another attempt to explore the idea of the real and virtual and within that the notion of self, identity and memory, each linked to a diachronic narrative. As much as it is a continuation of audio/video walks and installations pieces, this work builds on their earlier work Playhouse (1997) where the viewers/listeners sit, wearing a headset, by themselves in a loge overlooking a miniature architectural model of an opera house. The binaural soundtrack is mixed together with a video projection of an opera singer to combine mystery, drama, and suspense. In The Paradise Institute, the focus is on the language and experience of cinema. The sense of isolation each might feel is broken by intrusions seemingly coming from inside the theatre. Fiction and reality become intermingled as absorption in the film is suspended and other realities flow in. At another level, the work also goes against the very homogeneity of experiencing cinematic narrative as much as the politics of filmmaking and film distribution.
Over the centuries, pursuits and investigations into virtuality have sought to get closer to the experience of the photographic image, immersive audio, and to go further to inhabit them—from the inside—with the body. These three works are an attempt in narrowing that gap through an accentuation of the embodied experience of contemporary reality and as a result to help us understand ourselves.
Zainub Verjee is the Principal Consultant of MetaCulture, a global boutique research and strategy consultancy in Cities, Pluralism, Innovation, Design, Culture, Fashion, Architecture and Legacy Management. She has been a major driving force in the Canadian cultural landscape with over twenty five years work in the Culture sector. As a Media Artist her work has been shown nationally and internationally including at the Venice Biennale and MOMA, New York. Her projects are part of private and public collections such as the Vancouver Art Gallery.
1. For a detailed discussion see: G Strawson, The Self?, London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2005.
2. Zainub Verjee, "Art in Digital Culture: Exploring Culture and Technology, Department of Canadian Heritage", Gatineau, Qc., Canada, 2006.
3. See Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials, organized by Marcia Tucker and James Monte, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1969.
4. Peter Weibel, Director of ZKM, Karlsruhe, Germany. An artist, philosopher and former programming Director of Ars Electronica, Linz, Austria (1999). I took a seminar with him titled Algorithmic Art from Cézanne to the Computer: A theoretical and historical approach, at the Media Centre of Art and Design, Barcelona, May 2006.
5. For more details see: http://www.sacredworld.com/crossing.htm
6. See Narendra Pachkhede, and Zainub Verjee, "Science, Art and Technology: Truth, Beauty and Metamorphosis -Exploring the intersections, collaborations and policy frameworks", Oct 4-6, BNMI, Banff, 2002.
7. Chiefly in Mark B.N. Hansen, Embodying Technesis: Technology Beyond Writing, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. Whereas this work can be categorized as a "negative" critical work, his latter work is a positive attempt to construct a phenomenological model of body-machine interaction through a kind of techno-aesthetics manifesto. See: Mark B.N. Hansen, New Philosophy for a New Media, New York: MIT Press, 2004.
8. The concept invoked in a design by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in 1785.
9. Including Family Portrait (1993) and The Hall of Shadows (1996), see Jean Gagnon's essay "Blind date in cyberspace, or the figure that speaks", first published in Artintact 2, Karlsruhe: ZKM; Otzfildern: Cantz Verlag, 1995. The essay is presently available online at: http://www.fondation-langlois.org/html/e/page.php?NumPage=158
10. Charles Taylor, Sources of Self, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
11. Douglas Coupland, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, New York: St. Martin's Press, p.8, 1991.