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angles of incidence (works) : steaming and streaming
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steaming and streaming
Interactive Artists Tapio Mäkelä and David Rokeby Explore Bathing as a Cultural Interface
by Angus Leech

David Rokeby doesn't collaborate with other artists very often, but teaming up with Finland's Tapio Mäkelä to build a digital sauna installation at the Banff Centre was a great chance to generate cross-cultural dialogue that Rokeby didn't want to miss.

A hot bath! How exquisite a vespertine pleasure, how luxurious, fervid and flagrant a consolation for the rigours, the austerities, the renunciations of the day.
-- Rose Macaulay, Personal Pleasures
I was happy, there in the crazy dark, with the lost peaks,high and broken all around us, and the wounded slope of Sulphur Mountain pouring its blood into visitor's dreams.
-- Robert Kroetch, (Alibi)

If there's one element that Banff and Finland share in abundance, it's steam: spilling from the hot springs of Sulphur Mountain in the first instance, wafting from the doorways of traditional Finnish saunas in the second. So perhaps there's some poetry in the fact that Canada's David Rokeby and Finland's Tapio Mäkelä chose The Banff Centre's 2002 Up Front and Personal artist's residency as the place to hammer together (literally) their new collaborative project, Steamingmedia.org. Over several weeks of inclement Spring weather, the two interactive artists laboured beside the Sally Borden pool to construct a portable three-person wooden sauna wired with a few digital enhancements. This was the first production phase in a grander plan to tour Steaming Media installations around the world over a span of several years, starting in early 2003.

Steamingmedia.org will consist of two special saunas linked together over both geographic space and cultural difference. In each of two remote locations, saunas equipped with real-time Internet streaming features will communicate sound, blurry steamed-up video, and environmental data between installations. As Rokeby and Mäkelä explain in their artists' statement:

One wall consists of a rear projection screen, which shows the interior of a second, remote Steaming Media sauna located in some other country or location bathers can see remote co-bathers through a blurred, steamlike video image (reducing the sense of voyeurism, but reinforcing the sense of proximity) and enter into a dialogue with them.

The project will also connect sauna experiences through time, by layering archived audiovisual recordings from previous bathing sessions into the live portion of the experience. This temporal convergence will be interactive in the sense that it will be linked to the degree of "steaminess" detected by environmental sensors hidden within the sauna's confines:

(T)he act of throwing water on the stove produces a hiss of steam, and as the resulting burst of warm humidity reaches the bathers, it draws a chorus of groans and expressions of pleasure. It also generates a distinctive temperature and humidity signature, which our system can identify. These distinct signatures are used to launch appropriate pre-tagged media files from the archive. This system will not be intrusive, but rather acts as a moderator of the current sauna session, waiting for lulls in the conversation before intervening in an attempt to stimulate further discussion.

Steaming Media's time-machine element will also function full-time if there is no one to talk to at the sauna's distant end, taking bathers on an audio-visual journey through sympathetic environmental states instead. Meanwhile, bathers who crave more interactivity, or a cool respite, can follow Finnish tradition and take a dip in the swimming pool situated alongside each sauna, which will be rather un-traditionally rigged with under-water versions of David Rokeby's Very Nervous System. The submerged cameras of VNS will transform swimmers' movements into responsive music, converting the pools into interactive soundscapes that, just like the saunas, are telematically connected to one another:

The video stream is analyzed by softVNS software...and the results of the analysis and similar information from the remote pool are used to compose the unfolding interactive sound environment played through speakers in the water and above the surface. Each pool can function autonomously, but when swimmers are active in both pools, the local and remote swimmers can interact allowing each swimmer a tangible sense of the other. The pool and sauna should be fairly close to each other so that reflections on the pool experience can also be shared in the sauna discussion.

The intention of Steamingmedia.org is to merge the intimate conversation and heightened bodily awareness of the traditional Finnish sauna, with the possibilities for cross-cultural dialogue provided by telematic communication systems, and the body-oriented human-computer interactions made possible through VNS.

Each of the two or more saunas that Rokeby and Mäkelä construct will be fully portable and collapsible, designed to be fit into shipping containers and rebuilt somewhere else. The artists will be able to tour their installations from institutions like The Banff Centre and Finland's Kiasma Museum (another project sponsor) to electronic arts festivals like Toronto's IMAGES and Holland's DEAF 2003, where it is hoped that Steaming Media will launch. Thus Steamingmedia.org is likely to become a meeting place not jusst for divergent cultures, but common interests in the media arts as well. Though there will eventually be limited online and gallery components to the project, the main intent will always be to bring unique choruses of people together across time and space, and watch their interactions steam.

Angus Leech is the Assistant Editor of HorizonZero.

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