Friday, September 21, 2007

Langheinrich & Khut - Embodied Media at BEAP

One of the strong points of PerthDAC was its overlap with BEAP, Perth's premiere media arts festival; even better, the conference built in gallery visits to several of the BEAP shows. I'll blog the conference soon - meantime see for example Axel Bruns' comprehensive blogumentation. For now here are some thoughts on two of my favourite works from BEAP, both of which use abstract digital forms to create profoundly embodied experiences.

In Ulf Langheinrich's Waveform B, video projection and strobe lights play over a long, pool-like screen on the floor of the installation space. Entering the darkened central space of the building, the screen flashes and vibrates under ultraviolet strobes, seeming initially to come loose from the floor, hover and drift. The strobe banks mark out audiovisual intervals of time, but always accelerating or slowing, coming together, intensifying or dissipating: temporal waves meet, reinforce and neutralise each other. When these waves are most intense the work's visual field becomes overwhelming; bursts of ultraviolet seem to outpace vision, inducing refractions, afterimages, phenomenal artefacts that drive perception inwards. In calmer moments video-projected noise textures blend with the strobes, and again occupy a perceptual threshhold where time and space interfold; the noise seems to eddy and flow; differentiations in space rise out of this horizontal field and quickly sink back into it. The ripples are derived from video of Ghanaian ocean waves - there's a trace or imprint of fluid dynamics here; the overlay of oceanic ripples and video static recalls Michel Serres' Genesis, where he figures noise itself as a kind of material and informational sea.

Strangely, Hannah Mathews' catalog statement describes the work as "a temple to technology, enabling audiences to meditate upon the inherent stillness of a contemplative digital void." Slightly better than another PICA account - "a multi-level, immersive audiovisual experience of the colour blue." Happily neither description does the work any kind of justice. Waveform B evokes phenomenality; material, sensual experience; though unlike some other works with this aim, Langheinrich eschews (conventional) pleasure in favour of overload, disorientation and the edges of perceptual experience. Augmented with strobes the ubiquitous video projector is stripped back to its technical core, a kind of hyper-articulated source of visual energy, rather than a cinematic window on the wall. A 2005 interview fleshes out some of Langheinrich's background; I was struck especially by his mention of music as an aesthetic model. On that thread, the soundtrack at the PICA installation created an effective atmosphere, but lacked impact - maybe the sub had been turned down?

In George Khut's Cardiomorphologies v.2 participants are gently rigged with breathing and pulse sensors that drive an abstract visualisation. Overlayed concentric rings and discs grow and shrink in patterns that suggest both modernist geometric abstraction and mystical diagrams or mandalas. Using the system the visualisation takes on another inflection, as a kind of avatar, a (data) projection of the self imagined through the language of meditative practice as a point of energy. Biofeedback - at the core of Khut's project - occurs as bodily process drives image which in turn inflects mind and body. I enjoyed that state, but it's not a guaranteed ticket to nirvana; I saw others getting quite uncomfortable as their heightened awareness of breath led into anxiety.

Khut's approach is an interesting combination of techno-pragmatism and an ethical commitment to, and knowledge of, bodily subjectivity. Engaging visitors to the work he's very open about the mechanics of sensors, data gathering, analysis and interpretation; if you're interested he can explain in detail the theoretical correlations between spectral analysis of heartrate fluctuation frequency and the parasympathetic/sympathetic nervous system balance. Khut makes it clear this isn't some mystical strain of data-mapping "magic," but a concrete, physio-psychological process. In fact the conversations around the work are part of the process, drawing out participants' experiences and sensations and informing the ongoing development of the system. Khut's work shows how data practice can engage intelligently with, and reflect on, the extraction or creation of datasets as well as their aesthetic and affective manifestations.

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