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Art on the Hinge of Time
by Stephen Kovats
The year 2010 is for much of Western culture a mythical year. It is often said that centuries, or in our recent case ... a millennium, need a decade in order for their particular Zeitgeist to truly kick in. Although there was both massive anticipation and apprehension of what the new millennium would bring, the direst of predictions that we would be consumed in some allegorical vacuum of time with all of civilization being brought down by a seemingly irrelevant oversight in the design of automated systems, never came true. There was palpable fear that this virtual bridge in time ... the infinitely miniscule and immeasurable moment between the 20th and 21st centuries could not be breached without some significant cultural, economic or societal cataclysm. The hype which fuelled the Y2K bug story seems in retrospect to have been the final gasp of the 20th century—the capping of a century that spent most its cultural energy not so much in defining what it could be about, but in projecting itself into a techno-determinist future—a 21st century being the penultimate vision of the 20th century's achievements.1
Indeed to launch into what could be considered a new era of cultural relevance, fissures and shifts in the essence of our cultural code need to emerge. We have entered our own future, and it's not quite what we expected it to be ...
The many writers, pundits and visionaries who were positioning the 20th century beyond its frame of time and space, particularly the cyberpunk authors including William Gibson, Philip K. Dick and futurologist Bruce Sterling contextualized much of their work in a post 2010 world as a way of understanding what the true essence of the 20th century was. Yet the potent utopian elixir of technology and progress that fueled the past century, made this mythical 'future-laden' year seem unattainable, as distant as the sci-fi fantasy it was penned to be. In the accelerated hype of media multiplicators, the broadcasting of one's self, collaboration statistics and networked friends creating invisible communities jockeying for cult-recognition it seems that what we used to think of being the future-space travel, self-sufficient living environments, zero-energy systems, global political harmony—suddenly became very passÚ! Just as the Y2K bug began to recede into the speculative memory of pop culture the world braced for its first digital storm—the meltdown of a global financial system that relied entirely on the autonomy and seeming guiltless infallibility of digital trading systems, and more recently, just as we thought the Y2K bug was long behind us, the 2010 bug2 struck, blocking millions of European bank cardholders from accessing their accounts.
The paths of technological progress, the 'truth systems' that mark our digital culture can no longer be set on autopilot. If the future has caught up to us, then this is because as a concept it is experiencing an identity crisis, and that the conditions for another form or re-evaluation of the future as a cultural code need to be laid out. Intrinsically fused into the way we read digital systems and our actions as a social entity art, and in particular that which we consider to be digital, networked, hacktivist, or process based art, begins to play an increasingly significant role in re-tooling our understanding of what the concept of future is, today.
Let us leave the 20th century moniker of 'new media' behind us, for the art we see at CODE Live is based on the timeless materiality of communication, networks and free ionic flow-systems and means of interaction, connectivity and linkages, rather than an aesthetic manipulation of 'media' per se. In 2010 we see and know the infallibilities of the systems we have created to achieve technological progress, cultural development and social harmony. But these achievements are infused with the realization that we have also assimilated some of the jargon of Orwellian "Newspeak"3 into our daily vocabulary.
CODE Live brings many of these ambiguous positions together with major works by artists concerned with the complexities of time, space and the perception of the self vis-Ó-vis digital culture, doing so as a reading of what we could refer to as 'futurity.' In an era where we could consider life within a creative and unstable hybrid space between past utopias and dystopian visions, futurity implies not a speculation about what the future may be, but the qualitative elements, processes or states of being which we consider to be 'future-worthy.' Art works which foil the strict notions of time and space, placing the individual into a direct confrontation with their own understanding of technological process and social context, evoke such qualitative takes. They sharpen our sense of being and of our ability to control our technological, urban and social environments. Of the many works presented by CODE Live we can consider three examples of works acting as moments or hinges bridging notions of time and space with our digital consciousness. Focusing on physical presence and the intersection of the body with physical space each work evokes a particularly poetic sense of futurity through various perspectives, and in variable scale. From We Are Stardust, George Legrady's cosmic view of global systems, through Vectorial Elevation, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's radical re-appropriation of public space to David Rokeby's Seen the works directly engage our presence within a speculative space we may recognize, but are not entirely sure we are party to. In the case of Seen multiple worlds captured by a single video source are tracked and intersect with one another, and movement within a particular scene becomes a form of 'behavioural plot' enacted between separate protagonists.4 In doing so, Rokeby shifts perception from the usual voyeurist point-of-view, to one in which the movement of individuals is morphed into studies of flow and procession. "Areas which experienced the greatest density of traffic in the recent past would be quite densely packed and less traveled areas would be sparser, providing a kind of probability plot of activities in the space"5 where each individual leaves a unique trace.
Legrady's work also follows a trajectory of movement as a time-space continuum, but takes us off the earth altogether to one of the key points where science peers into space. By tracing the infrared and spectral observations of the Spitzer Space Telescope, an infrared temperature sensing instrument launched in 2003 that is orbiting the sun and trailing in the earth's cold shadow, We Are Stardust considers "the question of how we imagine our place in space and time at the grand scale."6 Legrady couples the satellite's imagery of deep space's heat emitting bodies with infrared visual recordings of the visitor's thermal presence, fusing experience and action into a complex frame of perception. The body, reduced to a composite thermal signal gives the visitor the opportunity in equally powerful and enigmatic means to perceive the material composition of the universe as a whole, and the minute and perhaps irrelevant place we as humans have within the greater scale of matter surrounding us.
These works also seek to reinstate—or in some cases lay claim to—public and supra-national space as areas intrinsically free to the domain of citizenry. This is very much the realm of activity in which Rafael Lozano-Hemmer operates. Uncompromising in his use of urbanism and the space of network communications Lozano-Hemmer explores the very spectacle of citizenry as a creative and collaborative act. Vectorial Elevation, as it is to be installed at CODE Live will be an opportunity for people around the world to create unique three dimensional light sculptures, facilitated by a collaborative software interface created by the artist, controlling a series of 20 robotic searchlights scanning the skies around Vancouver's English Bay.7 Traceable online and visible locally to a radius of ca. 15 kms Vectorial Elevation is one of the event's key art works, bridging not only physical and networked realms, but creating new forms of creative communication between a global community of participants.
As works which are meant to bridge the barriers of space, process and interaction, we thus see an emergence of an altered form of anti-time in art which begins to address what Bruce Sterling, in his definition of 'atemporality,'8 sees as a fundamental re-think in the cultural as well as the societal relationships fusing the past, present and the future into a new form of the 'now.' Once we establish that we have entered the timeless realm of futurity, the power to define where we are headed enters our grasp.
Media researcher and architect Stephen Kovats is artistic director of transmediale, Berlin's festival for art and digital culture, previously program curator at V2_Institute for the Unstable Media, Rotterdam and initiator of the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation's Electronic Media Interpretation Studio. His interests lie in the dynamic relationships between media, political, and electronic space, with projects aimed at strengthening the role of art and technology within the transformation of societal and cultural landscapes.
1. A general cultural history of the 20th century can be traced along such a trajectory of techno-cultural escapism, from the Futurist Manifesto of 1909, through the Futurama World Fair of 1940, to Alvin Toffler's 1970 book Future Shock and Arthur C. Clarke's 2010 being just a few referential moments.
2. See, among others: http://www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1952305,00.html?xid=rss-topstories
3. The fictional language of political contradiction and denial in George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984.
4. An earlier version of Seen was installed at Piazza San Marco in Venice, in which case the work's protagonists were the "people milling about the piazza and the famous San Marco pigeons. What was still was the architecture of the piazza, and the kiosks selling souvenirs and corn with which to feed the pigeons." http://homepage.mac.com/davidrokeby/seen.html
7. A number of Vectorial Elevation installations have taken place worldwide, each site-specific, with this variation being the first to take place over water. http://www.vancouver2010.com/more-2010-information/cultural-festivals-and-events/event-listings/vectorial-elevation_187156jn.html
8. De:Bug magazine interview on 'Atemporality' with Bruce Sterling, Dec 2009, in which he claims that our notions of future, as a postmodernist concept, have been eclipsed by the fusion of the past and future into techno-determinist present. http://de-bug.de/mag/7128.html