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Waxing and Waning: Attention and Distraction in the work of Wang Yuyang, Daan Roosegaarde, and Ken Rinaldo
by Caroline Seck Langill
Spark - The brilliant star of light produced by the discharge of a voltaic battery is known to all as the most beautiful light that man can produce by art.1
- Michael Faraday
I SING the Body electric.2
- Walt Whitman
What is it that attracts our attention, captures our gaze? Even today, when there is so much to distract us, as rates of change provide technologies which are visually arresting at a breakneck pace, we can still feel the pull of the phenomena which preoccupied those whose quotations appear above. The artworks brought together by curator Malcolm Levy for CODE Live, an exhibition mounted in conjunction with the 2010 Olympics, in Vancouver, British Columbia, interrogate phenomenological events. Three of these works, Daan Roosegaarde's Dune (2006- ), Ken Rinaldo's Paparazzi Bots (2009- ) and Artificial Moon (2007) by Wang Yuyang, revolve around each other by exploiting our attraction to what Michael Faraday identified as the spark, to brilliant points of light, whether embedded in a crystal or suspended in space.
The Reverie of Illumination
This has been an interesting winter for the global body which dominates our night sky. Today as I sit by my window writing, there is a blizzard outside yet the sun is visible, diffused by the snowflakes which make its viewing tolerable to the naked eye. This is in marked contrast to recent winter nights when the moon was unusually dominant, for on New Year's Eve 2009 the moon was full for the second time in a month; a "blue moon" according to folklore.3 A full moon on a cold winter's night, when the air is crisp and free of particles creates an unparalleled ethereal glow. Attempts to mimic this quality of light are difficult and somewhat futile. However, pollutants in the earth's atmosphere-both particle and light-are interfering with our ability to visually apprehend such phenomena. Wang Yuyang's Artificial Moon consists of a four-meter sphere constructed from a metal armature to which energy-saving light bulbs are haphazardly affixed. Their collective blue glow is typical of energy efficient light sources, which singularly often disappoint in their inability to provide the warm glow of incandescent bulbs. The compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) amassed by Wang Yuyang create a "blue moon" that is surprisingly reminiscent of the moon's glow, in reality an illusion resulting from the sun's reflection off of it since it produces no light of its own.
Rachel O. Moore has identified the emancipation offered by illuminated images: "Such is the nature of the reverie released when 'the human motor' turns toward the light."4 Moore traces the magnetic nature of illumination, whether derived from fire, cinema, or the electric light bulb, and in so doing refers to Gaston Bachelard for whom electricity heralded an age of "administered light," with the sobering effect of flattening out space.5 Now, with the advent of CFLs, the warm glow of electric light evokes a kind of nostalgia, existing in a temporary present which is ultimately unsustainable. Artificial Moon functions to transport us into a future where perhaps beauty can reside alongside virtue in the sustainable.
Culture as Nature
Dune, an interactive environmental work by Daan Roosegaarde, in cooperation with Studio Roosegaarde, ventures into similar territory with its replication of dune grass as interactive interface. Consisting of numerous flexible stalks tipped with light emitting diodes (LEDs), the work responds to the presence of the viewer/participant. Dimly lit en masse, the LEDs brighten and glow in response to either movement or increased volume of sound. This interaction, coupled with the opportunity to brush one's hand through the "grass," much as might happen in any dune ecosystem, creates an experience not available in the real world. Far from being an emulation of real life this work extends beyond what nature taught us, for the grass is visibly interactive. The thrill the viewer feels as she brushes the mimics relates to the reverie Moore attaches to our relationship with illuminated images. One might be tempted to consider these works as spectral or phantasmagoric6 in nature, however I believe Dune taps into what literary scholar Terry Castle has noted to be a transformation in human consciousness which has occurred over the past two centuries, what she calls "the spectralization" or "ghostifying" of mental space.7 For these objects are not phantoms, we do not associate them with the ephemerality of projected light. As with Artificial Moon, Dune acts as a hybrid between nature and technology, between bios and techné,8 not otherworldly, but grounded in our new relationship to digital spaces and artifacts. For Roosegaarde this specifically relates to the new corporeality: "The interactive installations that I realize have an ever growing inclination to merge with the human body. This characteristic of the work is a reflection of the technological era in which we live, surrounded by instruments that are essential parts of our identity and the way in which we communicate."9 Our experience of Dune is an experience of the body, but not really a merging with it or an extension of it. If one looks back at the history of electronic media there are precedents for similar audience encounters. For this writer Roosegaarde's work straddles the space between Atsuko Tanaka's Electric Dress (1956) and The Senster (1970) by Edward Ihnatowicz. Although historical, both of these pieces address the integration of technology in the quotidian within a new digital threshold that emerged in the post-war era. Dune has similar cybernetic ambitions to The Senster, but instead of emerging as alien, the animated stalks complement today's mobile technologies. Studio Roosegaarde's endeavours emerge out of a digital revolution which artists like Tanaka and Ihnatowicz were forecasting.
Nevertheless we now find ourselves as audience/viewers/users/participants/interactors experiencing new media fatigue, where our online digital doppelgangers are "disturbingly lively," but our corporeal bodies are "frighteningly inert."10 Jonathan Crary reiterates this sentiment in discussing the effects of converging technologies: "methods for the management of attention that use partitioning and sedentarization, rendering bodies controllable and useful simultaneously, even as they simulate the illusion of choices and 'interactivity.' "11
Dune appears to slow down technology's pace, begging us to tune into our bodies as the "grass" tunes into us. We are invited to touch, the work responds. We are invited to vocalize, it glows in reply. Our interaction is dialogical, immediate, ironically more organic than our typical relationships with technology, and so it garners our attention. In the postmodern/posthuman12 economy, attention is the marketable commodity we collectively hold. According to Crary, despite a shift from bounded to unbounded methods of control exerted by information technology: "Attention continues to be integral to the subjects produced for a whole range of socio-technical machines… ."13 Crary's observation emerges from an argument wherein attention and distraction "…ceaselessly flow into one another… ."14
Illuminated Faces and the Reversal of Celebrity
Recognizing these merging fields of attention and distraction is essential to the work of the artists in CODE Live. Ken Rinaldo's Paparazzi Bots function differently than the previously discussed works in that they engage the audience as media directly, capturing their image and transmitting it instantaneously to an online site. In the following description Rinaldo verifies the robots' purpose: "They seek one thing, which is to capture photos of people and to make these images available to the press and the world wide web as a statement of culture's obsession with the 'celebrity image.'"15 The robots are selective about who they choose to photograph based on their subject's smile. Immediately adjusting their height, the bots singularly celebrate the person they are documenting to the exclusion of other humans in their proximity.
The French word célèbre means "well known in public." Sociologist Chris Rojek notes that this "ties celebrity to a public, and acknowledges the fickle, temporary nature of the market in human sentiments."16 As a public we have more often than not tied celebrity to Hollywood and its star system, given the absence of royalty on this continent. However, the Hollywood system is not nearly as relevant as it once was, as Roland Barthes conveyed when he remarked that the face of Greta Garbo "[belonged] to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy… ."17 Further to this, Barthes sees a shift in the meaning of the face in cinema when he observes "[t]he face of Garbo is an Idea, that of [Audrey] Hepburn, an Event."18 The movement of the face of the star becoming an event as opposed to an idea occurs in parallel with the onset of digital culture and can be extrapolated forward to include the way faces of celebrities are captured in the post-millennial frenzy for attachment to their lives. When Richard Hamilton painted Swingeing London in 1967—drawn from a paparazzi image of Mick Jagger and art dealer Robert Fraser arrested for drug possession—he was documenting a shift in our tolerance for images which do not just portray the star, but provide evidence of behaviours which prove their fallibility and tie them to the public. With Paparazzi Bots Rinaldo achieves the reverse. Banking on the social capital realized through the uploading of media objects like photographs to social networking sites, Rinaldo ties his public to the celebrity experience, thereby giving them a moment of stardom.
The flash of the bot as it captures its prey is reminiscent of the spark referred to by Faraday in the citation which opens this essay. While different from the ethereal glow of Yuyang's moon or Roosegaarde's animated dune, Paparazzi Bots also speaks to our contemporary negotiations with techné's effect. Artificial Moon, Dune, and Paparazzi Bots bridge our carbon-based corporeality and the body electric, aiding our mourning of analogue's waning and our anxiety regarding the waxing of the digital.
Caroline Seck Langill is an interdisciplinary artist, writer, and curator living in Peterborough, Ontario. Educated at Ontario College of Art with an MFA from York, and a PhD in Canadian Studies from Trent University, her research spans the fields of science and art. As a researcher in residence at the Daniel Langlois Foundation in 2006 she looked at the history of new media art in Canada. She has extended this project into new research on preservation of new media, knowledge migration, and machine/human behaviour. She is currently Acting Associate Dean, in the Faculty of Art at Ontario College of Art and Design.
1. Michael Faraday, Experimental Researches in Electricity (1839-1955), quoted in George Johnson, The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments,Toronto: Random House, 2008,p.75.
2. Walt Whitman, "I Sing the Body Electric," Leaves of Grass, 1900, 8 Jan. 2010, at:http://www.bartleby.com/142/19.html.
3. For astronomers a "blue moon" occurs when there is enough ash in the earth's atmosphere to create the effect of a blue moon. Andrew Fazekas, " 'Blue' Moon to Shine on New Year's Eve," National Geographic News, at: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/12/091230-blue-moon-new-years-eve.html.
4. Rachel O. Moore, Savage Theory: Cinema as Modern Magic, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000, p.121.
5. Moore, p.135.
6. Phantasmagoria were types of magic lantern shows in the 1790s and early 1800s that produced spectre-like projections for an unaware, but willing audience.
7. Terry Castle, "Phantasmagoria: Spectral Technology and the Metaphorics of Modern Reverie," Critical Inquiry, Autumn 1988, p.29.
8. Techné was a term most often associated with the writing of Jacques Ellul to refer to the mechanical and its attendant technologies within material culture. The tension between bios and techné is an alternate consideration of nature and culture. See Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, John Wilkinson, trans. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970.
9. Daan Roosegaarde quoted in "Artist in Residence: Daan Roosegaarde," at: http://www.montevideo.nl/en/nieuws/detail.php?id=117&archief=%3E.
10. Donna Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York: Routledge, 1991, p.194.
11. Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999, p.75.
12. Theories of postmodernism and posthumanism emerge somewhat simulateously in the 1980s. Both terms signal cultural shifts away from modernism and its metanarratives. N. Katherine Hayles ties the posthuman to the emergence of cybernetics and the desire to extend beyond the boundaries of corporeality, however our desire to outwit carbon-based life and its limits has a long history as documented in religion and folklore. See. N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
13. Crary, p.76.
14. Crary, p.51.
15. Ken Rinaldo, "Paparazzi-bot," 8 Jan. 2010, at: http://www.paparazzibot.com/.
16. Chris Rojek, Celebrity, London: Reaktion Books, 2001, p.9.
17. Roland Barthes, "The Face of Garbo," Stardom and Celebrity: A Reader, Sean Redmond and Su Holmes, Eds., Los Angeles: Sage, 2007, p.261.
18. Barthes, p.262.