Utopia/Dystopia

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t86MnUilW18&feature=youtu.be <— link to video

Utopia/Dystopia integrates traditional printmaking, video, and interactive media to contrast the utopian and dystopian implications of the integration of technology in our lives outlined by Stelarc and Samuel Butler in Jane Goodall’s chapter in “Stelarc: The Monograph”[1]. This paper is broken up into a few different sections. First I will talk about some of the pieces which have informed my idea and process. Secondly I will give some background information on the creation of the lithograph that was used to generate the video and its role and conceptual function in the piece. Thirdly I will discuss the ideal installation setup and the theoretical specifics of the dialogue between Stelarc and Samuel Butler. Utopia/Dystopia hasn’t been fully realized but I have made progress with the tools. I will then conclude by talking about how I can fully realize my installation by investigating more of the tools.

I was inspired by Jim Campbell’s work Hallucination (Figure 1) while reading Christiane Paul’s Digital Art[2]. While initially it was the surrealistic qualities of the video which attracted me, it also got me thinking about the participatory and dynamic qualities of interactive video and how I could use them in my own practice[3]. I started thinking about how the proximity of a person in relation to a sensor could affect visual information on an interface. Myron Kruger’s Videoplace and writing on interactive art helped setup the frame I wanted to explore in my interactive environment:

Over a period of time the computer’s displays establish a context within which the interaction occurs. It is within this context that the participant chooses his next action and anticipates the environment’s response. If the response is unexpected, the environment has changed the context and the participant must reexamine his expectations. The experience is controlled by a composition which anticipates the participant’s actions and flirts with expectations[4]

I am interested in how the human body can function in creating distortions to pre-recorded video therefore being participatory and dynamic. In this case the pre-recorded edited video is the pulsating rhythmic edifice representing evolution (Figure 2). The distortion which appears as television static (Figure 3) was inspired from notions of “computer crashes, technical glitches, corrupted code, and otherwise degenerative aesthetics”[5]. In Utopia/Dystopia the static represents an end or hindrance to our transcendental and physical evolution.

Telegarden (Figure 4) by Ken Goldberg and Joseph Santarrommoa is another work form Christiane Paul’s Digital Art that informed the development of Utopia/Dystopia [6]. Although I don’t incorporate telematics in the piece, the participatory idea of people planting, watering, and keeping the piece alive inspired the interaction I want the viewer to have in my piece. I want the viewer to discover the role they play in keeping the image on the interface from bleeding into static and keeping it alive.

My printmaking and painting practice involves investigating notions of the unknown through the intuitive creation of symbolic venerating beacons. These paintings and prints are largely inspired by transcendental philosophy from the American romantic era[7]. Mark making in these works becomes the search for the inner divine and personal transformation[8]. Manovich’s idea of the database as a list of unorganized items has helped me understand the functions these beacon-like forms hold in my work[9]. They are databases of knowledge that can help us evolve, similar to monoliths in 2001: Space Odyssey which effect human evolution[10]. The cycling yellow light moving upwards through the middle of the piece alludes to the idea of enlightenment or evolution. Although Utopia/Dystopia doesn’t directly investigate these abstract works, I think it’s important that the viewer and audience understand their function as a symbol for evolution and transformation (figure 2).

Utopia/Dystopia has gone through a multitude of processes and has been hybridized by multiple traditional and digital tools. The imagery was generated from the development of a four layer lithograph printed from stone which I completed in late September (Figure 5). After the printing of each colour I printed black impressions to scan and use as masking layers in Adobe Premier6 (Figure 6). After editing the masking layer files in Photoshop 6 I started experimenting, arranging, and playing with the images to create animated shorts that would eventually turn into the loop. After a month of playing with Premier6 for the first time I arrived at a usable loop in late October. After Derick Ostrenko spoke to our class about some of the tools used for interactive art I started researching Max Msp which is a more user friendly visual programming language for artists and musicians[11]. I downloaded the 30 day trial and started experimenting. After tracking down Tom Lapann who is a thesis graduate student in sculpture at LSU we sorted the first phase of programming over the course of a couple hours. He showed me how some of the tools worked, although I know I still have a long way to go and wouldn’t have been able to program it without his help. My computer unfortunately is too slow to run it properly so I have included a diagram of the program we made (plate 7). We made it utilizing Tom’s Mac.

At this point the program runs a loop of static on the interface until the space bar is hit on the keyboard. Once the space bar is hit it starts the transition to the symbol of evolution (plate 2). In a gallery installation setup I wouldn’t want a viewer to come up and hit a button on the keyboard as it would take away from the mystery of the piece. I wouldn’t even have a computer present, just a screen or projection unit. Myron Kruger’s Psychic Space (plate 8) inspired the possibility of a foot sensitive pedal or pad which could trigger the gradation although I haven’t had the time to integrate it or research it in much depth[12].  The second and ideal phase of the installation would treat the human body more like a slider on a mixing board: the closer the viewer walks towards the piece would create a greater disturbance on the interface. I would like the disturbance to start around a meter from the piece. After researching the tools to achieve this I came across Kinect for xbox360 (figure 9). The description on Target’s website reads as follows:

…the Kinect sensor utilizes revolutionary full-body tracking to put you in the center of the fun. This amazing new technology allows the sensor to recognize your body and mirror your movements in the game, making you the controller.[13]

Since its release, artists and groups like the arts and technology collective Seeper have been using and programing the Kinect for interactive installations[14]. The piece of technology is only around $120 which I feel any dedicated artist can save up to buy. I believe these mass produced tools like Kinect and online communities like http://processing.org/ have changed the way artists make work even compared to ten years age. When contrasting our current technology with what Jim Campbell used with Hallucination (figure 1) in 89-90, it’s evident that using a Xbox Kinect, an LCD screen, and video cameras from Wall Mart might have been lot easier and affordable than using custom electronics, two laser disk players and 50inch rear projection enclosed video monitor, especially with tools like MAX MSP which are specifically made for artists[15][16].

As in many of Kruger’s pieces I’ve adopted that “only small amounts of people should be involved at a time”[17] during the viewing of the piece. I think the interaction would be most efficient with one person. The act of walking towards and away from the piece becomes a reactionary metaphor of the dialogue between Stelarc and Butler. Being closer to the piece symbolizes being closer and more integrated with technology.

The main concept I explore in Utopia/Dystopia is whether or not the integration of digital technologies in our lives or bodies can enhance our evolution. I am interested in creating a dialogue where the viewer is allowed to discoverer how their act of walking towards the piece relates to the distortions on the interface. Ideally the video should switch every few minutes from having static as the default image on the interface to the symbol of evolution. This allows the viewer equal opportunity to explore both sides of the dialogue. By walking closer and further away from the piece, the viewer puts themself in a utopian or evolutionary environment or dystopian and devolutionary environment. The closer the viewer is to the piece literally means the closer they are integrated with technology. For example walking towards the piece will blend the symbol of evolution into static referring to Butler’s ideology. Five minutes later the same viewer will experience static blending into the symbol of evolution referring to Stelac’s stance. These switches in default video represent the exploratory frames of Samuel Butlers and Stelarc which the viewer gets to interact with.

I borrow and contrast Stelarc’s harmonizing philosophy of robotics with Samuel Butler’s notions of man vs technology from his book Erewhom[18]. Stelarc’s view is that human kind has always been prosthetic and that it’s natural and what makes us human to want to amplify parts of our body[19]. The amplifications of the body that inspired the interactive conversation within Utopia/Dystopia are mostly our integration with the internet, cellphones, social media, and things that allow us to communicate with each other. Stelarc believes “We have brought ourselves to an evolutionary crisis point by generating a technological environment to which we cannot effectively adapt as a purely biological species”[20] Utopia/Dystopia raises questions about whether or not these amplifications of the body hinder or elevate our ability evolve. Stelarc’s use of his Third Hand during his Obsolete Body performances helped demonstrate how the function of his robotic appendage could supersede his own physical hand therefore being a positive addition.

For 20 minutes the real hand attempted to mimic the motions of the artificial third hand “but” appeared clumsy and jerky” and “could not cope with the 270 degree wrist rotation of the artificial hand[21]

These performances demonstrate Stelarc’s interest in harmonizing organic and technological components together[22].

In contrast Samuel Butler’s novel Erewhom portrays “an isolated community from which all mechanic artifacts have been banned”[23]. This narrative “is the first work of fiction to explore a rivalry between human and machine evolution as a Darwiniam scenario”[24]. I think it’s important because it raises a conflicting paradigm to Stelarc where technology “puts biological humanity on the road to extinction”[25]. I use these two points of views as a vehicle for discussion. I don’t present an answer or an opinion on the matter, but rather leave it up to the viewer to discover their own opinion and thoughts through in interaction.

In conclusion, creating Utopia/Dystopia has allowed me to become more aware of the tools, the community, and the steps involved in making interactive works. It has made me realize the importance of collaborative relationships in the world of digital art making. As an artist who normally works in 2D it was certainly a challenge to change focus from image to the interaction. I feel fulfilled in that for the first time I got my images moving in time based media. However in hindsight maybe the content of the print used for the animation wasn’t the best to illustrate the relationship between Stelarc and Butler. I feel it may come off a little vague; I don’t believe most people would recognize it directly as a symbol for evolution. If I was to do it again and wanted to make sure I illustrated the dialogue between Stelarc and Butler more clearly I would create a sculptural element for the installation that perhaps alluded to the ideas of evolution of technological integration. A reaching cyborg hand protruding from the wall could help illustrate that the viewer was coming into closer contact with technology. I need to push the aesthetics of the piece so that they reflect the ideas more efficiently. I didn’t discuss much about the treatment of the interface or the frame of the interface. That could be another element I develop to enhance and illustrate the experience. On the other hand my art practice has always been based more around exploring an idea than illustrating a concept so maybe this piece is a balance of that.


[1] Jane Goodall “The Will to Evolve”, in Stelarc The Monograph ed. Marquard Smith. (Spain: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2005) 4.

[2] Christiane Paul, Digital Art Second Edition (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2008) 102.

[3] Paul, Digital Art, 68.

[4] Myron W. Krueger “Responsive Environments” From AFIPS 26 National Computer Conference Proceedings, 423-33 Montvale, N.J : AFIPS Press 1977, accessed http://cva.ap.buffalo.edu/courses/f07/dms543/files/f07/dms543/readings/Krueger.pdf,  379.

[5] Alexander Galloway Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentrilization ( Cambridge, Massachusetts London, England: The MIT Press, 2004) 213. Accessed  http://moodle2.lsu.edu/pluginfile.php/224727/mod_resource/content/1/20120823103714166.pdf

[6] Paul, Digital Art, 155.

[7] Romanticism: Romantic Period in America 1828-1865 (University of Arizona, 2004) accessed http://www.u.arizona.edu/~atinkham/Emerson.html.

[8]  Romanticism: Romantic Period in America 1828-1865, 1865 (University of Arizona, 2004) accessed  http://www.u.arizona.edu/~atinkham/Emerson.html.

[9] Lev Manovich, “The Forms” in The Language of New Media (Cambridge Massachusetts, London England: MIT Press, 2000) Accessed http://moodle2.lsu.edu/pluginfile.php/231287/mod_resource/content/1/The%20Database%20Manovich%20213-243.pdf, 6.

[10] Wikipedia, 2001: A Space Odyssey (film) accessed http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2001:_A_Space_Odyssey_(film)

[11] Cycling 74, What is Max?,  accessed http://cycling74.com/whatismax/

[12] Kruger, Responsive Environments, 381.

[14] Gear live, Kinect for Xbox 360 Interactive Art Installations by Seeper featuring Sylvie, November 18th 2010, Accessed http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHG50Z5gQZE.

[16] Cycling 74, What is Max?, http://cycling74.com/whatismax/

[17] Kruger, Responsive Environments, 379.

[18] Goodall, The Will to Evolve, 1-2

[19] Goodall, The Will to Evolve, 1

[20] Goodall, The Will to Evolve, 1

[21] Goodall, The Will to Evolve, 8.

[22] Goodall, The Will to Evolve, 8.

[23] Goodall, The Will to Evolve, 2.

[24] Goodall, The Will to Evolve, 2.

[25] Goodall, The Will to Evolve, 2.

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