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very nervous system (vns) : Synthetic Sensualism
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Synthetic Sensualism
Softvns's hold on the very human
by Patricia Robertson

What happens when an imagineer like David Rokeby makes the techology behind his installations available to up-and-coming peers? Patricia Robertson explores the ethnography and artifacts of some new Canadian interactive artists who have been discovering the tactile potential of softVNS

I created the work for many reasons, but perhaps the most persuasive reason was a simple impulse towards contrariness.
-- David Rokeby writing about his Very Nervous System
Electronic art is a strange mixture of wide open playing field and severely crippled tool... but the reason I continue to use the computer is that I find the computer a fascinating artifact. It may be logical and mathematical, but it is a product of human desire. I am interested in what it tells us about what we are trying to do as a civilization, and who we think we are. It is a crazy and somewhat perverse self-portrait, and so when I use it, I am also engaging in a research project into the meaning of the computer in my life and our culture. I have a big love/hate thing going on.
-- David Rokeby, from an interview for HorizonZero (July, 2002)

Exploring To Discover/The Specator As Animator
We are in the throes of an aesthetic and technological renaissance wherein artists can "name" and "construct" experience with apparent ease, using the sleight of hand of technology. In Canada, many of these artists are able to act as free-form cyber-scientists thanks, in large part, to the labour and passion of one man -- an artist who has, over the past ten or more years, issued an open invitation to join him in his social and technological laboratory. He dons many masks -- cyber sensualist, synthetic soothsayer, Internet philosopher, teacher, and technological trickster -- but goes by the name of David Rokeby.

"How does one best function within a situation one cannot hope to understand completely?" asks Rokeby. "By exploring to discover rather than to confirm." It's fitting, then, that this is the story of how one journalist, and many new media artists, came to know David Rokeby and his Very Nervous System (VNS). My role: to explore in order to discover. I spent three weeks researching Rokeby's work, tracing the evolution of technology from print to plug-in, from on the wall to off the wall, from controlled and curated art practice to collaborative new media centres like Toronto's Interaccess. There, Rokeby and his acolytes exhibit, trade ideas, and learn from one another. But that's only part of it. In taking installation-based software from closed systems to open architecture, VNS (and its creator) is leading the way to a new way of being, seeing, and thinking about technology -- and then sharing it with the world.

Rokeby's decision to share his life's work arose from practicality and a desire to help fellow artists. That singular choice has had many positive spin-offs. It has inspired new works, garnered critical attention, even spawned a new community of artists. As Rokeby explained in our online interview, "After almost ten years of working on Very Nervous System through the 1980s, I was starting to feel strange about having developed a fairly refined technology for the sole purpose of enabling one particular work of art. It seems an embarrassing waste, and so I looked for ways to make it available to those who would find it useful."

As an artist whose installations often aim to foster heightened awarenesses of physical space and the body -- even transformations in consciousness -- Rokeby might be regarded as a kind of electronic shaman who leads us (and his co-collaborators) in dances of delight with computers. His work is evocative, sensual, complex, and cryptic -- VNS might well be called The Very Human System instead. The biofeedback circle of experience that the system creates -- a complex back-and-forth interaction between person and computer -- is only completed when the user enters the installation space. Without the participant, there is no content, no meaning, no call and response -- no interactive relationship. This is a common thread in much of Rokeby's art (see Shock Absorber, Guardian Angel, The Giver of Names, n-cha(n)t, as well as the work of many young artists influenced by the dissemination of VNS and its commercial software offspring, softVNS.

Spectator as animator, artist as shaman, computer as site of ritualized rebellion. The participant surrenders to sensual serendipity, enters the ecstatic zone of music, rhythm, and motion in a figurative display of digitally-enhanced abandon. All of this is played out on the body in a public space where cyber greets human and feedback relays motion to the sound of music as the participant plays along to explore Rokeby's self-described "boundary of identification."

Very Nervous System could easily be subtitled: abandon preconceptions, surrender control, remain open to the mystery, be forewarned...some assembly is required.

Melding The Computer With The Social / Some Assembly Required
After interviewing three emerging Canadian new media artists who have adopted VNS as one of their own creative devices, I have made two observations: First, personalized domain names are commonplace in their world. Second, you must download many plug-ins to fully partake of their mystery. (Hence the some assembly required addendum.)

Slavica Ceperkovic is one of the young artists I talked to. A recent graduate of the new media program at Ryerson University, she first encountered Rokeby's work in 1999 at Toronto's Interaccess Electronic Media Arts Centre, while attending a six-week workshop -- one of several run by Rokeby over the years to teach other artists about softVNS.

"It was an opportunity open to artists of any discipline to see how they would use the software in relation to their own work," says Ceperkovic. "For me, it was an interesting opportunity to think about the audience in a new way, as participants given a new role to shape the work based on their presence." VNS offers a number of benefits to new media artists. The first is the ability to connect directly with the viewer. As Ceperkovic frames it, "VNS really creates an intuitive relationship between the audience and interface. For my piece nape I used softVNS to detect the position of people in the [installation] space, how many of them are there and how long they stay. This in turn [controls] the video projection."

VNS enables Ceperkovic to set up a free, open-ended site of interactivity: "I don't believe in creating push button trigger environments, I create environments where the audience genuinely affects the work, changes the piece, completing it. The work doesn't exist without the audience. I think it is generous in that way." New media has altered her aesthetic precepts, and Rokeby has been a key factor in shaping her visions: "I don't think my work would be the same if we had not met."

For new media artist Galen Scorer [www.galen.ca], Rokeby is less enigmatic, more a wonder of productivity -- not to mention a great source of software. "His software is a great tool," he says. "It is a flexible tool, has multiple applications, and an open architecture." Scorer also studied new media at Ryerson, and came to Rokeby's work through Interaccess. His work touch skin -- skin touch uses softVNS to map hand motions via camera and translate them into visual displays on a computer screen. For him, biofeedback is a compelling point of interaction between computer and body. "It tracks your mental state, that very human internal interaction. The works don't exist until you interact with them."

Nicholas Stedman sees Rokeby as a role model for young artists. "First, there is his level of technical knowledge," explains Stedman, "and then there is his critical capacity to create a concept and execute it. He creates meaningful work, like Guardian Angel, about topical subjects -- electronic surveillance and its effects -- that truly opens your mind. And he makes them himself. softVNS is an amazingly useful tool. There are applications beyond artwork."

The essence of the work that Stedman makes using softVNS is dualistic. It is about "having a conversation with other art. And then there is the telematic aspect, where there is a direct conversation happening right inside the work." His piece melt was co-created with Slavica Ceperkovic, and used ice as a communicative link: softVNS was used to convey interactivity over the Internet. The warm hands of an audience in France melted a block of ice in Canada. "It is about touch," says Stedman, "The impression you leave. It is also ephemeral."

It is the ephemeral nature of installation-based work created with softVNS that makes it so human, so compelling. In melding the world of the computer with the social, the technical with the spiritual, Rokeby has taken computers (and people) into a new realm. It's a challenge that has confronted artists since the first graphical interfaces were invented -- what do you do with this stuff? If Rokeby has his way, soon we will all be swaying to the rhythm of our own biofeedback, and generating a unique yet perverse self-portrait.

Patricia Robertson is a Calgary-based freelance journalist and member of the Single Onion Poetry Collective. She lives in a 1920s cottage and favours a push-mower.

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