Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Right Here, Right Now - HC Gilje's Networks of Specificity

This essay was commissioned by Hordaland Kunstsenter in Bergen, Norway, to coincide with HC Gilje's solo exhibition blink (video below). It looks at Gilje's recent work - which spans audiovisual installation, performance, hardware, and networked forms - through the notion of specificity (developed earlier here).

The digital network, where we all spend ever more of our time, is a vast infrastructure of generality. It deploys a system which is standardised, formally defined, highly structured, and internally consistent. If I send you an email, I do it trusting that the interlinked systems of hard- and software, the protocols for data encoding and transmission, the network switches and servers, will all hold together so that the email you receive is the same as the one I sent. Perhaps I'm in Australia, and you are in Norway: we could say that the network generalises our two points in space - for the network, they are the same. As I draft my email it exists as a pattern of voltages and magnetic flux inside my computer. To transmit that pattern effectively, the digital network must erase or resist any local errors or inconsistencies that it might encounter along the way, so that it does not matter if the pattern travels by optical fibre or copper, or in radio waves, or if a boat anchor cut through a cable near Indonesia. It does not matter that your computer is made of different atoms to mine. Those are specificities - local, material events and instances. Digital culture, and networked space, absorbs specificities, compensates for them, rectifies them into generality. Wireless broadband and mobile computing make us into human nodes, bathing in shared connective protocols.

The aesthetics of digital media flow from a related generality, where sound and image are encoded as fields of data. If a pixel is a number, an image is a grid of pixels, video a stream of images, and each of these numbers can take any value at all, then formally, an aesthetics of digital video is only a matter of finding the right values - fishing around in a space containing all possible digital video. If digital media creates this generalised space, anything at all, the media arts are faced with unavoidable questions: not only what to make - which values to choose, but how to choose them, and why?

HC Gilje's work arises from a moment when the anything-at-all of digital video was just opening up, thanks to a combination of new real-time tools, cheap computing power, and some key interdisciplinary influences. Drawing on experimental sound and music, improvisation and performance became important solutions; working live in a specific situation, artists would gather, process, generate, and recombine material. In work from the late 1990s and early 2000s, from Gilje and his collaborators in 242.pilots, as well as video ensembles such as Granular Synthesis and Skot, the result is abstract and intense, a flow of layered digital texture. In performance it saturates the body and senses; big screens, big speakers. Instead of the narrative transport of cinema, which takes us somewhere else, this work creates - and is created in - an intensified sense of presence, what Gilje calls an "extended now". This methodology is vital; it focuses the open-ended generality of digital media in to a point: on this, rather than anything-at-all.

This moment relies on a circuit, a close coupling between artist and media; data flows become experienced events - sounds and images - which in turn inform new data flows, and so on. Audience and performers share a digital-material situation. The specificity of digital media comes forward; for of course these media are always specific, always local, always embodied; but that specificity is usually suppressed by the functional logic of generality. At the same time though, the processes underway here depend on exactly that generality, on the machine's ability to rapidly transform data and shift it between instantiations - from the voltages in video memory to the patterns of projected light.

In nodio (2005-) Gilje creates a system of networked audiovisual nodes that process and share image material. Each node generates sound derived from its image, in a process of automatic translation. On one hand this translation is another demonstration of the abstract pliability of the digital - its ability to transform anything into anything (generality); on the other, its tight audiovisual correpondences generate sparks of material intensity - real events, rather than digital effects (specificity). With these distributed nodes Gilje deploys audiovisual materials in space, creating flows and juxtapositions that function as dynamic sculpture. Of course the formal model of nodio echoes our most ubiquitous generalising paradigm: the network. Once again, the artist applies this digital tendency for generalisation in order to cultivate instances of specificity - the texture and sensation of the here and now.

From drifter (2006) (above) to dense (2006) and shift (2008) (below), Gilje's audiovisual nodes map out a developing exploration of specificity. drifter deploys standard computer hardware, formed into sculptural modules; in passing material between nodes Gilje begins to break the frame of the screen, creating an implicit inter-space. In dense, the hardware moves out of the sculptural field, and the screen is further deconstructed. Instead of the frontal configuration of the cinema / computer, these suspended fabric strips are illuminated from both sides with a video "weave". The familiar architecture of the screen as a blank (general-purpose) substrate containing or supporting image content, is reconfigured here; the specific materialities of screen and content overlap. Even more so in shift, where the nodes are now wooden boxes, illuminated with precisely controlled video projections. As in earlier nodio works sound and image are directly related. Here Gilje extends this fusion to the sculptural objects; each node is also its own speaker-box, so that the digital articulation of sound and image is realised, and grounded materially, in the nodes themselves.

These works drive towards a spatial materialisation of audiovisuals: dynamic constellations of AV intensity, fields for what Gilje calls "audiovisual powerchords". The projectors, speakers and networks of the nodio works present one means to this end, deploying existing media technologies. Again we find an interplay of generality and specificity, as Gilje adapts generalising systems - projectors, computers, networks - to realise materialised instances. The Wind-up Birds (2008) (below) represent another angle of approach; Gilje sets video aside, and creates materialised, local, sculpturally autonomous nodes from electronic and mechanical materials. In these robotic woodpeckers digital media and sculptural embodiment are further enmeshed. The birds communicate using digital radio, and their behaviour is programmed in a custom chip; but their sound is simply percussion - a mechanical switch, tapping on a specially constructed wooden slit-drum. Again this is specificity over generality: a loudspeaker is an acoustic shape-shifter, a technology which promises any sound, in the same way that the screen promises any image. By contrast the Birds produce only one sound, their sound, a specific conjunction of solenoid, timber and vibrating air.

The Birds will run for a month on their own batteries, strapped to trees, calling to each other and any other creatures nearby. These nodes are unplugged: they begin to come away from the technological support system of mains power and the shelter of the gallery or studio, and move out into the world. As in the artist's other work the engineering here is inseparable from the artistic agenda; the Birds are in that sense a realisation of Gilje's spatial and formal aims, an autonomous constellation of intensities. But they also literally expand from there; where the nodio works explore the composition of spaces within a network of intensities, the Birds move outwards, creating points of intensity in the wild, and evoking a spatial alertness - a way of being in and listening to the world - that extends beyond the well-marked edges of an artwork. The Birds are more like an experimental intervention, a digital-material overlay in a complex field of the living and non-living.

Similarly the Soundpockets works (both 2007) make small sonic interventions in urban spaces, pursuing local intensification and juxtaposition through directional soundbeams and micro-scale radio transmissions. Once again we find this interplay of the general - the anything-at-all of the digital - and the specific, the here and now. The "extremely local radio stations" of Soundpockets 2 form a sort of folded juxtaposition of three layers: globalised network infrastructures and protocols, the traced or mediated locations of field recordings, and the specific time and place of the transmissions. Just as Soundpockets 1 uses exotic soundbeam acoustics to perturb urban spaces, Soundpockets 2 shows how we can draw in technological infrastructures in order to reconfigure the real environment, creating flows and distributions that form intense moments of difference and specificity.

In this reading Gilje's work is partly critical. Pursuing specificity, and an intensified, material experience of the here and now, it pushes against the generalising tendencies of digital media. By the functional logic of the network, each node is formally identical, and must be effectively insulated from its environment. Ubiquitous computing promises us "everyware" - total connectivity, the complete interpenetration of the network and our lived environment [2]. But if the network is a generalising force, if it erases differences between places, what will life in "everyware" be like? Gilje's work suggests a utopian alternative: networks that are always local in time and space; nodes of right here, right now. Gilje's work strives for what Hans Gumbrecht calls "presence"; a way of knowing the world that is characterised by intense moments of encounter or revelation - aesthetic experiences that place us in the world, and of it, rather than observing from the intellectual distance of interpretation.

The beauty of Gilje's work though is that it not only suggests this prospect, but demonstrates it, makes it happen; and in that sense the work is constructive, rather than critical. In emphasising the specificity of media technologies, Gilje's work shows us a different way to frame those technologies; as always material, always in the world with us - a view I have called transmateriality. As Matthew Kirschenbaum writes, "computers ... are material machines dedicated to propagating a behavioral illusion, or call it a working model, of immateriality." Gilje shows us both sides of this statement, the functional illusion - generality - and its material foundation - specificity. It shows us a way to reframe the network, too; as always local, always specific; a tangle of real flows and propagating patterns; and endless possible ways of reconnecting the world with itself. Finally Gilje shows us one crucial role for the artist, in this context: seeking out configurations that intensify, rather than dilute, our sense of being in the world.


Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Weather Bracelet - 3D Printed Data-Jewelry

Given my rantings about digital materiality and transduction, fabrication is a fairly obvious topic of interest. I posted earlier about an experiment with laser-cut generative forms and Ponoko - more recently I've been playing with 3d-printing via Shapeways, as well as trying out data-driven (or "transduced") forms. This post covers technical documentation as well as some more abstract reflections on this project - creating a wearable data-object, based on 365 days of local (Canberra) weather data.

Shapeways has good documentation on how to generate models using 3d-modelling software. Here I'll focus more on creating models using code-based approaches, and Processing specifically. The first challenge is simply building a 3d mesh. I began with this code from Marius Watz, which introduces a useful process: first, we create a set of 3d points which define the form; then we draw those points using beginShape() and vertex().

The radial form of the Weather Bracelet model shows how this works. The form consists of a single house-shaped slice, where the shape of each slice is based on temperature data from a single day. The width is static, the height of the peak is mapped to the daily maximum, and the height of the shoulder (or "eave") is mapped to the daily minimum. To create the radial form, we simply make one slice per day of data, rotating each slice around a central point. As the diagram below shows, this gets us a ring of slices, but not a 3d-printable form. As in Watz's sketch, I store each of the vertices in the mesh an array - in this case I use an array of PVectors, since each PVector conveniently stores x,y and z coordinates. The array has 365 rows (one per day, for each slice) and 5 columns (one for each point in the slice). To make a 3d surface, we just work our way through the array, using beginShape(QUADS) to draw rectangular faces between the corresponding points on each of the slices.

To save the geometry, I used Guillame laBelle's wonderful SuperCad library to write an .obj file. I then opened this in MeshLab, another excellent open source tool for mesh cleaning and analysis. Because of the way we draw the mesh, it contains lots of duplicate vertex information; in MeshLab we can easily remove duplicate vertices and cut the file size by 50%. MeshLab is also great for showing things like problems with normals - faces that are oriented the wrong way. When generating a mesh with Processing, the order in which vertices are drawn determines which way the face is ... er, facing... according to the right hand rule. Curl the fingers of your right hand, and stick up your thumb: if you order the vertices in the direction that your fingers are curling, the face normal will follow the direction of your thumb. Although Processing has a normal() function that is supposed to set the face normal, it doesn't seem to work with exported geometry. Anyhow, the right hand rule works, though it is guaranteed to make you look like a fool as you contort your arm to debug your mesh-building code.

The next step in this process was integrating rainfall into the form. I experimented with presenting rainfall day-by-day, but the results were difficult to read; I eventually decided to use negative spaces - holes - to present rainfall aggregated into weeks. Because Shapeways charges by printed volume, this had the added attraction of making the model cheaper to print! The process here was to first generate the holes in Processing as cylindrical forms. Unlike the base mesh, each data point (cylinder) is a separate, simple form: this meant I could take a simpler approach to drawing the geometry. I wrote a function that would just generate a single cylinder, then using rotate() and scale() transformations made instances of that cylinder at the appropriate spots. Because I wanted the volume of each cylinder to map to rainfall, the radius of each cylinder is proportional to the square root of the aggregated weekly rainfall. As you can see in the grab below, the base mesh and the cylinders are drawn separately, but overlayed; they were also saved out as separate .obj files. The final step in the process was to bring both cleaned-up .obj files into Blender (more open source goodness) and run a Boolean operation to literally subtract the cylinders from the mesh. This took a while - Blender was completely unresponsive for a good few minutes - but worked flawlessly.

Finally, after checking the dimensions, exporting an STL file from MeshLab, and uploading to Shapeways, the waiting; then, the printed form. I ordered two prints, one in Shapeways' White, Strong and Flexible material, and the other in Transparent Detail. You can clearly see the difference between the materials in these photos. The very small holes tested the printing process in both materials; in the SWF print the smallest holes are completely closed; in the TD material they are open, but sometimes gummed up with residue from the printing process (which comes out readily enough). Overall I think the TD print is much more successful - I like the detail and the translucency of the material, as well as the cross-hatched "grain" that the printing process generates.

So, a year of weather data, on your wrist - as a proof of concept the object works, but as a wearable and as a data-form it needs some refinement. As a bracelet it's just functional - the sizing is about right, but the sharp corners of the profile are scratchy against the skin. As a data-form, it could do with some simple reference points to make the data more readable - I'm thinking of small tick-marks on the inner edge to indicate months, and perhaps some embossed text indicating the year and location. More post-processing work in Blender, I think.

Another line of development is to do versions with other datasets - and hey, if you'd like one for your city, get in touch. But that also raises some tricky questions of scaling and comparability. The data scaling in this form has been adjusted for this dataset; with another year's data, the same scaling might break the form - rain holes might eat into the temperature peaks, or overlap each other, for example. A single one-size-fits-all scaling would allow comparisons between datasets, but might make for less satisfying individual objects - and, finding that scaling requires more research.

What has been most enjoyable with this project, though, is the immediate reaction the object evokes in people. The significance and scale of the data it embodies, and its scale, seem to give it a sense of value - even preciousness - that has nothing to do with the cost of its production or the human effort involved. The bracelet makes weather data tangible, but also invites an intimate, tactile familiarity. People interpret the form with their fingers, recalling as they do the wet Spring, or that cold snap after the extreme heat of February; it mediates between memory and experience, and between public and private - weather data becomes a sort of shared platform on which the personal is overlayed. The form also shows how the generalising infrastructures of computing and fabrication can be brought back to a highly specific, localised point. This for me is the most exciting aspect of digital fabrication and "mass customisation" - not more choice or user-driven design (which are all fine, but essentially more of the same, in terms of the consumer economy) - but the potential for objects that are intensely and specifically local.