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The Emergence of the MediaSapien
Marque Cornblatt
MFA Thesis, 2008
San Francisco State University

Abstract
Acknowledgements
Introduction
Part 1: Historical Context - The Virtual Body in Performance
Part 2: Personal Art History - A Hard Drive for the Soul
Part 3: MFA Show Discussion - The MediaSapien
Part 4: Conclusion
Bibliography

Abstract

Artists have always used new and emerging technologies to expand their range of expression. In recent years, artists have embraced digital tools for exploring the meaning of identity and the definitions of the self. From traditional forms of theater, dance and portraiture to interactivity, web art and new media, artists are routinely turning to new materials and ideas to explore ideas of technologically-mediated hybridity and the distributed self

A historical overview of my previous artwork demonstrates an ongoing concern regarding the machine/human hybrid resulting from a childhood physical trauma and long, subsequent recovery aided by cutting edge medical technologies. These themes were expressed in found-object sculptures, interactive robotics, independent video production and commercial broadcasting projects.

The work I produced while an MFA candidate continued this exploration of technology and the self, using Xbox video games as the primary tool. This commercial game platform is used to create works that blur the distinctions between portraiture and performance, technology and the organic and offer a glimpse of a future concept of self.

 

Acknowledgments

Steve Wilson
Paula Levine
Lewis de Soto
Dr. Judith Bettleheim
Dr. Zack
Leonard Hunter
Barbara Foster
George Coates
DC Spensley
Alex Killough

 

Introduction


The discussion of emerging technology and its effect on the body is fundamentally an exploration of postmodern remediation of the senses and the human desire for exclusive entitlement to egocentric experience. Humans have often pointed to our ability to rationalize our experiences as one of the unique markers that distinguish us as more highly evolved than other animals; only humans can examine their experiences and find meaning and poetry. As the depth and breadth of information technology infiltrates our daily lives more deeply, the parameters or boundaries of the human experience are similarly expanding, and we now encounter routine situations that challenge our definitions of the “self” in the remediated territories of virtual reality, telepresence, decentralized network communities and two-way media. Central to this discussion is the history of the computer itself - from Babbage's early mechanical calculation machines through to the current availability of laptops with literally supercomputing power - and how its development has intensified our relationship with earlier forms of mediated experience and blazed a trail to our current environment of chaotic hyper-mediation.

Art making has always maintained a history of engaging with technology, one concerned with exploring, exploiting, and working with new methods, materials, machines and ideas. This relationship has been especially fruitful with the advent of digital technologies, and artists were among the earliest to explore the effects that these technologies would have on our notions about the body and the self. Long before these technologies became commonly available, artists such as Twyla Tharp and George Coates began to probe the territory of presenting a virtual self in live theatrical space during performance, while other artists explored the inverse idea of transporting or transposing their “selves” into a virtual reality space and exploring machine/human hybridity, interacting with other people in shared, computer-generated 3D environments.

As computers and other digital technologies became available and affordable throughout the eighties and nineties, artists began to put them to a variety of uses, and most of these can be defined as falling into one of two overarching categories: A) digital technology as tool, and B) digital technology as site. As a tool, computer and related technologies have found their way into every nook and corner of all creative industries. In just a few short decades, it has already become difficult to remember how we worked prior to the digital revolution. But for the purposes of this discussion, I will be considering the second category - Digital technology as a site of experience. In this capacity, the use of computers, the Internet, virtual reality and other technologies as a substitute location for experience was slower to develop. This is partially attributable to the relatively large computer processing power and network bandwidth requirements to produce and distribute this variety of work, which took a while to become inexpensively and ubiquitously available. However, a more significant contributing factor to the slow acknowledgement of the virtual as a valid site of experience was our own human reluctance to abdicate the egocentric site of our experience (our bodies) to the new, ethereally distributed site of experience (cyberspace). Over time, resistance to this new site has begun to erode, and an increasingly large cross section of the population has begun to accept facets and aspects of this digitally mediated location as “real” and capable of supporting the type of personal and intimate exchanges that define human relationships.

 

PART I

Historical Context - The Virtual Body in Performance

Artists exploring virtual space and computer-based simulation have enabled audiences to experience the growing relationship between these technologies and human body, and explore a wide range of the possibilities of the merging of the organic and the virtual. What does it mean to have a body in a simulated virtual environment free of gravity, weather and decay? What does race, gender, age or even species mean when these traits become instantaneously drag-and-drop? Where does identity reside when it is comprised of both flesh and data? The following artists and examples offer narrative or progression, a story of how the human body is being unseated as the undisputed central vessel of identity.
The Virtual as Holy.

In Twyla Tharp's 1982 evening-long collaborative work with David Byrne, The Catherine Wheel, the use of multimedia and other stage technologies were combined with choreography to create a dance that expressed the chaotic challenges and stresses placed upon a nuclear family living in the shadow of cold war nuclear technology. This rich blend of the organic and the mechanical allows a relationship to develop between Sara, one of the characters, and a projected video image of an idealized virtual body, a wireframe outline of a human form representing St. Catherine. Projected onto a transparent scrim, this virtual body dances with surgical precision, and acts as a meter by which Sara can gauge her own physical development and form. There is a moment of transcendence in the piece (for 1982), when Sara and the projected wireframe body dance a brief pas de duex, performing the same moves in perfect sync; the flesh of the live dancer on stage appears to dance in response to the projected image on the scrim, and vice versa.


The Catherine Wheel (video Still)

While certainly not the first dance work to be documented on videotape, The Catherine Wheel is nonetheless a uniquely suited performance to be viewed this way; the abundance of multimedia, scenic projection, and post-production editing on the video reinforces the idea that this work can exist equally well live on stage or on tape. At the time, this approach to cross-platform accessibility for dance was a relatively new and unproven concept, but one that reflects the growing cultural acceptance of simulation, signifiers, and maps as an emerging substitution for the previously acknowledged definition of the “real” experience of the live performance.

This emerging ambivalence to the historical definition of authenticity is reinforced by Tharp's choice to represent the perfect form of St. Catherine (whom Sara compares herself to and strives to emulate), not with a live human dancer, but rather as a digital simulation of the human form - one that can itself be edited, refined, copied and saved in its perfection. In this way, St. Catherine is raised above and beyond the trappings and imperfection of mortality and the flesh that humans must endure. The digital character becomes more perfect than human, more powerful than flesh, and immutably holy. In the world of dance, where perfect form and movement are often cherished above all else, the ultimate expression of physical perfection removes the organic body from the equation and replaces it with a synthetic representation.
The body Unmoored

As networking technology has expanded, there has been a significant increase in the number of virtual reality (VR) environments available to artists to explore their creative work in a space free of the limitations of gravity, linearity and Cartesian space. One of the largest of these VR worlds is called Second Life (SL), a multi-user domain with several million active users or “residents”. New residents are provided with a generic avatar, or 3D model representation of themselves, and a set of tools for creating and manipulating the virtual world. These tools include simple 3D modeling, programming and animation tools, allowing any user to create clothing, houses, furniture, games, art galleries, cabarets - anything they can imagine - as well as a wide range of social structures within the 3D world where one can meet new residents, chat and interact in real-time, form relationships, start businesses, fall in love and even marry. All of these activities take place within the confines of a simulated 3D landscape that resides within a network of computers located in San Francisco, although users are accessing Second Life while physically sitting in front of their personal computers dispersed throughout the world.

From the perspective of a person familiar only with real life (RL), it can be hard to identify with the idea of the virtual “self” as having valid experiences, but to many of those who inhabit SL, it can feel all too real, the relationships as deep and meaningful, if not more so, than those in RL. It's not at all difficult to find those who in day-to-day life are shy, antisocial and uncomfortable in their own skin - those who are timid or wallflowers. But with the broad palette of SL, they often develop strong personality traits and emerge as social leaders. They have the freedom to look like anything or anybody, and can behave or perform any way they choose. This opportunity to reinvent oneself in VR has been a powerful therapeutic draw for people who are searching for new ways to express their identity. In fact, a quick survey of the population of Second Life seems to reveal a large number of people who identify as, or at least are curious to explore life as, something “other” than who they typically identify as- a different gender, sexual orientation, age, animal species, or even state of matter. In her book Life on the Screen, Sherry Turkle describes one user of VR who compared the experience to that of taking Prozac. Without the drug he felt wrong, incomplete and not himself, while on the drug he describes his experience as being fully “there”. He compares the use of the Prozac to the use of VR, as each allows him to be and feel like the person he really is. Few would question the authenticity of his experiences in the real world while using Prozac, yet most people hesitate to assign the same validity to his experiences in VR. The question begs to be asked: Is the self mediated by pharmacological technology any more authentic than the self mediated by virtual reality technology?

As awareness of our bodies within the spaces of VR has developed, dance has emerged to offer its language of ideas and history of concerns for exploring new and unproven ideas about the body and physicality within virtual space. This deconstruction of physical awareness has allowed a new breed of artists to emerge who question the conventional wisdom regarding dance - Who can be a dancer? What movements or actions can be considered dance? Where is the site of the dance? These concerns have been at the heart of dance theory for a nearly a century and subject to deconstruction and reinterpretation by choreographers, performers and critics alike. As dance continues to establish itself as a genre of virtual performance, these issues take on fresh significance as the very definition of dance once again goes through reinterpretation.

Within Second Life, there is a recently formed dance company, The Zero G Sky Dancers, self-described as the “only hyperformalist dance company in either world”. Their signature performance consists of live performers - whose physical bodies are seated in front of computers in separate locations in RL, each controlling their onscreen avatar through manipulations of the mouse and keyboard - and the site of the dance, a specifically created 3D model of an amphitheater, floating in space above high above the virtual landscape of the SL world. The virtual theater space is filled with abstract, cloudlike formations and crystalline light-filled structures placed directly above and around the audience, whose avatars are seated in the center of the action. As the music begins, the dancers launch themselves into the air, flying, soaring and gliding through the entire space in zero gravity, performing swoops and pirouettes in perfect choreographed sync. The dancers' movements and proximity to the floating clouds and crystals effect the overall space and trigger various changes in lights, props, audio cues and other special effects - the grand sum of which is a multimedia dance spectacle, performed in real-time, unrestricted by gravity and other physical limitations of RL dance.


Zero G Sky Dancer Angel Menoptra (image courtesy Dan Coyote Antonelli)

In a recent discussion with DanCoyote Antonelli, the SL avatar of the troupe's founder, he describes most of the dancers expressing a surprising familiarity between the two worlds. In both real and virtual dance troupes, they were expected to attend regularly scheduled rehearsals and performances, they had to maintain their wardrobe and appearances, and they suffered RL physical aches and pains as a result of the long hours of grueling work. In both RL and SL they were able to gauge the audience's reaction during the performance, and interact with them after the show. From the perspective of the dancers, there was little difference between a performance in the flesh, or one mediated through the looking glass of Second Life. The only significant exception to this parallel was the quality of super-human freedom within SL, the ability to be a more “perfect” or idealized version of one's self. In the case of the Sky Dancers, the chance to have a perfect dancer’s physique, or physical skills beyond those in RL, allows for the fulfillment of the desire to design, construct and project an idealized version of one's self to the world.

As more artists and performers in other fields begin to engage the audience through SL and other hypermediated filters, the acceptance of the range of human activities that can be authentically experienced though these methods will continue to grow. Virtual reality continues to gain a foothold in our personal experience of reality because of the way we imbue it with increasingly more of our selves. As we continue to transpose more aspects of our lives - and their associated meanings - into VR, our sensory recognition of virtual space will become as second nature and as valid as the recognition of memory.
The Network is the Message

Consider the humble telephone. For over 100 years, humans have relied on this technology as a means of vocal communication, and we live in an era where its contribution to our lives goes mostly unacknowledged. Imagine, however, the disruptive force this invention must have caused in the daily lives at the turn of the 20 c. Anecdotes survive today of those who distrusted the new machines and refused to use them. In our current lives, the saturation of phone use indicates our culture's acceptance of them as a valid means of authentic contact between people in spite of the connection being processed, compressed, and converted to electrical impulses and radio waves as it travels between participants. In today's telecommunications culture, we have many different means of communicating via technologies that are essentially extensions, variations and analogies of the original telephone- fax, text messaging, instant messaging, video chat, VoIP (Internet phone service), and others technologies yet to be released. Historically the introduction of each of these technologies has met with both acceptance and resistance, and one key distinction regarding which technologies are considered authentic and which are too overly mediated can often be defined along generational lines - if one is raised with a given technology, that technology becomes a viable component in the creation of the outward projection of the self. In a constantly changing mega-media environment of networked simultaneity, we are increasingly challenged to define authenticity as a synthesis of the real and the virtual.

In 1994, George Coates Performance Work premiered “The Nowhere Band”, which featured live actors and musicians onstage interacting with several performers who appeared onscreen via CUSeeMe, an early webcam software program. These pioneering webcam performers were physically located a great distance from the theater. One of these videochat-enabled performers, Ralph, was a didgeridoo player in Australia and was integral to running the show; he provided the first note to which the onstage musicians tuned their instruments at the start of each evening's performance. When asked in a recent email interview to describe how this piece comments on the body in performance, Coates responded:

"One of the main issues involving telepresence in live performance has to do with the authenticity of the amplified (or extended) human impulse to affect a broad range of creative interactions in real time in multiple live presentation environments. The Nowhere Band is an example of a bionic extension of human interaction designed to extend and receive creative impulses beyond the local environment of the participants. Artists and audiences who are connected via the Internet in real time share a unified field of play."


Several other physically dispersed actors and musicians appeared in similar chat windows throughout the performance, including the surprising migration during the performance of some of the live performers from the physical stage into the mediated window of the streaming video projection - a transformation that manifests the evolution of the characters' “projection” of the self, an escape from the mortal limitations of the organic body, and the first step on a path towards a more perfect form - a hybrid made of flesh, blood, energy and data.


The Virtual Other

The desire to understand and control the visible characteristics of human identity occurs continually throughout the history of image production, and digital tools have recently become central to the work of many artists exploring these themes.


Billboard for Burson's The Human Race Machine

Nancy Burson's 2000 work for London's Millennium dome, The Human Race Machine, attempts to utilize digital equivalents of the phrenologist's tools to explore the historical perspectives regarding race and offer viewers a chance to see their virtual self as another race. Her machine, similar to a photo booth, captures a portrait of the viewer, and through the use of patented digital algorithms allows them to see themselves as any of six different races. Rather than emphasizing the differences between racially defined groups, Burson is attempting to highlight the similarities in all people. It's worth noting that the piece has routinely invited comparison to work of 19th C. geneticist Sir. Frances Galton, the father of eugenic theory, by consciously referencing the composite image technology and hierarchical taxonomy he developed. Burson is quick to point out the differences between her motivations and that of Galton. As she explains,

I think what's important is that we understand that we are 99.9 percent alike. It's all about sameness and not about difference, and I think if we focus on that then it would further our chances of going from "I-ness" to "We-ness" to Oneness, and I think that is what will hold humanity together.

-Nancy Burson, Interview from Egg, the Arts


While steeped in the artist's sincere belief in humanity, this project cannot be considered without acknowledging its dubious roots in phrenology and other morphologically based pseudo-sciences, or the potential freakshow qualities that lie at the heart of its popularity.

"By insisting that photography and new media have the potential to change the world, Burson has bravely chosen to follow her own path. But by refusing to see that beauty and truth and even universal humanism are subject to multiple interpretations, Burson short-circuits the potential power of these worthwhile projects."

-Art in America, Jan 2003, by Barbara Pollack

Burson's idea of technologically-mediated identity is one of homogenization, in which obvious similarities between human phenotypes are highlighted with patronizing blandness, while the differentiating features are negated with a politically-correct softening of most racially distinct characteristics. This tendency towards homogenization is reinforced by the fallacy that the digital software, which is essentially a mathematical equation, can somehow reproduce a range of phenotypes that encompass the whole of human variation, when the images actually produced by The Human Race Machine present the obvious limitations of the machine.

 

The Hybrid Within

Another artist who uses digital image manipulation exclusively to present images of radical human hybridity is Daniel Lee A photographer originally from China and now living and working in New York, Lee draws inspiration equally from Darwin's theory of evolution, the Chinese zodiac, the Buddhist belief in reincarnation, and the pulsing rhythm of New York after hours. The resulting portraits of “manimal” creatures spark an insight into


Daniel Lee Self Portraits, 1997

the subject's character without the need of any additional surroundings or environmental clues. The viewer naturally transfers recognition of these animal traits to the character almost unconsciously - a kind of partial recognition occurs not unlike attempting to identify a familiar face. We continue to look, like spectators at a freakshow, as we attempt to process this creature into our own internal archive of human and animal variations. This reaction drives our response to seeing the creature and the not-quite empathetic response it inspires:

"Recalling Huxley's Brave New World, Orwell's Animal Farm, and Kimbrell's The Human Body Shop, Lee's "Origin" makes perfect sense as an exploration of the boundaries among man, beast, and machine. We have reached the stage of organ transplantation, non-sexual cloning, and, ultimately, life reproduction. Yet, the distinction between man and beast has not been widened in the modern times; rather, the blurring of their natures has become an ethical black hole in the man-beast hermaphrodite."

-San San Yu, Art China Magazine, May 1999


In his images, the unknown other is not some external cultural force or technology, but is literally the animal within. While firmly couched in the historical conventions of racial taxonomic image production, Lee's images permit us a forbidden sight, that of a genetically “other” human, a nearly taboo image that implies a move for humanity beyond merely biological evolution and into the realm of the transhumanism. Although purely fantastic, these images reveal an aspect of ourselves which scientists and governments alike fear to express and barely acknowledge - that we as a species are undergoing rapid changes, both phenotypically, and perhaps more importantly, genotypically, and our reliance, trust and dependence on modern technology is the foundation of this journey into human transformation.

 

Conclusion

The digital revolution has affected daily existence permanently and profoundly in ways that are sometimes difficult to categorize or define. The distinctions that were once easily understood regarding technology and the flesh are under increased scrutiny and boundary lines are being redrawn. In an era in which our social structures and relationships are increasing technologically-mediated, richly interactive, decentralized, networked, and diversifying at an exponential pace, artists have risen to take the mantle and provide a new framework for shaping identity - including the definition of the self, the boundaries of the body, and what it means to be human in an age of hypermedia.

 

PART II

Personal Art History - A Hard Drive for the Soul


Introduction

The exploration of the relationship between the self and technology is a theme that is firmly established throughout art history, but is particularly resonant as we move out of the 20th c. and into the 21st and we find ourselves situated resolutely in the digital age. Historically, as the distinctions between the organic and inorganic grew increasingly difficult to parse, visual and performance artists embraced and explored this ambiguity, looking deep within their bodies and selves, as well as outward to the overwhelming cascade of new materials, ideas and technologies available to them. From cosmetic surgery to automated voice mail, modern technology has fundamentally transformed the territory of the self, and eradicated boundary lines and distinctions between organic and inorganic at a pace not seen before in human history.

My personal interest and curiosity in the growing intersection of human and machine was fostered at a very young age - long before the notion of artistic expression was defined as an option - mostly due to personal encounters with medical technology as a result of traumatic injuries sustained in a bicycle accident. During my long recovery, I had ample time to consider the machines, tubes and monitors in the ICU that maintained my health in a kind of medical stasis while my broken body healed. This formative experience inspired feelings of both technophilia and technophobia as I struggled to redefine my self in light of my journey into technological hybridity. It was during this period that I began to associate with the decidedly optimistic philosophies of transhumanism and extropy, in which the future of human evolutionary development is seen as benefiting from the synthesis of the body with technology. But I was also keenly aware of the potential challenges and problems associated with acceptance of such a radical vision of human development, the dark side of the human machine hybrid - and as a result the artwork that I have produced tends to exhibit this ambiguity.

My previous work can be divided into several distinct bodies, with each reflecting an interest in the human/machine synthesis, yet each of these bodies of work also reflects unique concerns regarding the complexity of emerging hybridity. My earliest examples are kinetic found object sculptures, usually figurative and containing working video screens with prerecorded images of faces, eyes, and other body parts. These pieces exist as a menagerie of hybrid characters, not quite human, but clearly identifiable as embodying humanity within their rusty shells. They exist both in time and space, and often give viewers the interactive sensation of making a connection to another, not quite human, being.

Out of this sculptural work emerged the second body, the Sparky rover platform - a truly interactive robotic entity capable of realtime video teleconferencing on a wireless and remotely controlled chassis. Sparky was developed as a means of satisfying an urge to interact in a manner that the previous sculptures could only suggest, and immediately began to break down the barriers between art and spectator, human and machine.

The third body of work further explores the wealth of new media tools for self expression, promotion and distribution, and is squarely aimed at the growing grey areas emerging between television and the Internet, between one-way communication and two-way communication, between reputation and celebrity. This work takes a traditional media format, a reality TV show, and circumvents the traditional broadcast model to self publish episodes online. While the program, titled “Gomi Style” functions on several planes, including the ultimate desire to produce the show for broadcast television, on the most basic and fundamental level the program serves as one enormous, long-term performative self portrait - with the ongoing goal of crafting a very specific and predominantly fictional celebrity persona or “brand” as a lifestyle and design guru.

 

Found Object Sculptures - The Hybrid Awakens

My earliest work to actively examine the human machine relationship in detail was the series of figurative self-portrait sculptures made from found objects, mannequins, and working TV monitors with video playback. These pieces were made during the early to mid 90's, and were inspired largely by material access, and not by a specific desire to explore the deeper meanings and associations of personal identity on an intellectual level. It was not until I was several years into this body of work that I fully recognized that the work was serving as the subconscious exploration of my own history with technology, my body and my identity. The pieces began to suggest individual personalities, with histories and narratives from some parallel world, in which the inorganic, roughly humanoid chassis houses the intangible essence of the soul.

Self Portrait - The Acid of Indifference

These sculptures represent my earliest use of pre-recorded video to replicate specific parts of the figure, from properly scaled and positioned images of eyes and faces, to internal views of the heart and other organs. The inclusion of temporal video elements effected a significant change in these pieces, transforming them from essentially static sculptures into breathing, gazing beings. Once the additional dimension of time was included, subtle life-like qualities, such as the sensation of making eye contact with the pieces, began to suggest an interaction, or non-verbal exchange between the sculpture and the viewer.

This interaction of art and spectator - and the technological means by which it is produced - became the most interesting aspect of these pieces, and a desire to further develop this interactivity inspired my research into telepresence and robotics.

 

Sparky - Autonomous Telepresence

The Sparky project started in 1995 as an interactive self-portrait sculpture, made from materials found while dumpster diving and at garage sales. The goal was to create realtime face-to-face interactivity through a mobile robotic platform. The materials employed were primarily recycled consumer goods: off-the-shelf technologies such as obsolete TVs, video cameras, baby monitors and remote controlled toys. This patchwork of re-purposed modular components worked - but with severe limitations, such as horrible audio and a range as that was often as small as a few meters. I always wanted further reach with the device; I envisioned the ability to operate Sparky anywhere, anytime. I pursued many different approaches using the Internet and other digital technologies to deliver the Autonomous Telepresence experience, including custom built software and assorted 3rd party controller boards. Now using Skype's free video chat and the power of their API, Sparky is completely controllable via a web-enabled computer anywhere in the world.

Autonomous Telepresence (or AT) is a term I use to describe the emerging field of research that combines remote sensing, telepresence, social networking and human interaction. These elements together enable an entirely new and unique form of human/machine hybrid - the video chat rover, or Sparky. The definition of the word telepresence here is consistent with other uses of it - to use a set of technologies to give one the sensation or appearance of being present at a location other then one's true location. But the adjective autonomous is used here as a modifier referencing not the machine alone, but the combined human/machine hybrid as a single entity - and it is this hybrid that has the quality of being self-governing or having self-directed freedom. AT references the freedom of the human operator while embodied within and as Sparky, to move and control the device unrestricted by wires or other local restraints. In other words, true physical independence, or autonomy, for the machine/human hybrid.

Sparky 2.0

While the technologies that enable Sparky to function have evolved and changed significantly over the years, the fundamental purpose of the robot has remained consistent - to provide a remote user the opportunity to control and inhabit the machine, to move the robot among a group of people and talk and interact with them as one of them. The technologies used in the most current version of Sparky are digital systems designed for easy development of custom software for a wide range of purposes and applications. These include VoIP, purpose-built sensor software and multiple channels of physical motor control - the sum total of which allows essentially any web surfer anywhere in the world to take complete control of Sparky's movement, appear in real-time on the robot's screen and “become” the entity embodied within, and thus extend their own identity into the machine/human hybrid.

Sparky's most significant contribution to the arc of my conceptual development has been as a platform to explore the notion of identity mediated through technology in an authentic experience - as opposed to the simulation of the experience offered by the figurative sculptures. Sparky is clearly not pre-recorded, or operating independently, as it chats with people in real-time and navigates through crowded environments. What is less clear to spectators, however, is the exact nature of the organic/machine hybrid they encounter. Where is the human operator located? How is the device controlled? What does Sparky mean or represent? By responding to the question as Sparky, and not as the device's creator, I don't answer directly, but rather reflect the questions back to the audience, allowing them to draw their own conclusions regarding questions of identity, definitions of the body, and the bifurcated nature of the hybrid being.

 

Gomi Style - Will Work for Reputation

With the explosive growth in the 90's of digital tools for making and distributing media content came a blurring of the traditional distinctions between artist and audience, as well as a breakdown of the separation of Internet and television. In a remarkably short span of time, viewers were empowered as producers, celebrities and public personae. No longer dependent on the old big media conglomerates to define who becomes known, independent individuals and productions began to emerge to challenge the status quo. Word-of-mouth and viral marketing began to replace traditional advertising and marketing; suddenly, regular people were becoming celebrities, industry experts and media stars. Words and deeds became the meter by which recognition is bestowed, and personal reputation emerged as the new currency of fame and notoriety for the masses, not only the previously exclusive celebrity class.


Gomi Style (video stills)

Gomi Style is an episodic web-based reality show, featuring do-it-yourself design projects that emphasize recycling, re-use and sustainability in which I function as both host and expert. Originally launched as a “pilot” episode in an attempt to sell the show to a television network, this project quickly presented me with a unique opportunity to further explore the relationship between the individual and digital technologies - in this case the newly minted user-centric online tools of media creation, distribution and promotion. In this new digital media landscape, individuals have the power to craft whatever outward image(s) they wish, and can present only those aspects of their selves that they choose (real or fictional), and effectively remain unknown behind the mask presented publicly. In fact, many users of these technologies maintain several, or even many, different identities and personae via various social network websites and online communities. The nature of these communities is very decentralized and distributed globally, which fosters the emergence of a significant new form of human interaction, one in which people can be known only by their words, images, and other media uploads. With the absence of any organic or biological connection -unless mediated through these digital filters - comes an unusually high dependence on indirect methods to evaluate people, and personal reputation emerges as the dominant currency of these new communities.

The approach I took to the project was to leverage the best of the old and new ways of media production - music, editing and other aesthetic choices would be informed from the traditional broadcast model to insure commercial production quality, but all the other elements of the project would rely on the emerging web 2.0 model, in which the playing field of media access has been leveled to a remarkable degree, and any project has the potential to reach the vast audiences formerly reserved for a select few massive media conglomerates.

As the host of the show, my goal is to define my role on-camera as a knowledgeable and capable expert in a wide range of fields, including residential construction, interior design, electric vehicle fabrication and environmental technologies. But as an artist investigating identity, a second, more compelling goal emerged - defined as an opportunity to pursue an ambitious conceptual art project that further explores the notion of hybrid identity - an ongoing, multi-part self-portrait performance, in which distribution via the Internet - and ultimately broadcast television itself - acts as the “canvas” for the work, and not simply the delivery system or marketing platform. Or to express it another way, the network is the canvas.

 

PART III

MFA Show Discussion - The MediaSapien

Who is the MediaSapien?

Exploring and expressing our identities through symbols and images are uniquely human activities, and our relationship to technology has always been fostered by the desire to master these semiotic constructs to achieve social power and cultural relevance. In current society, this drive manifests itself most notably in the use of the Internet, digital video, multi-media and other broadcasting platforms as tools for expressing personal, political and social ideals and values. In a relatively short span of time, our culture has evolved from a traditional one-way communication infrastructure - in which a few elites controlled essentially all public communication - to a wildly disruptive environment of multiple interactive technologies that provide a rich variety of tools for anyone. Out of this chaotic growth a new breed of human hybrid emerges - The MediaSapien - a multitasking quick-study who has a unique ability to absorb, decode and repurpose the overwhelming bombardment of words and symbols constantly targeting her/him - such as advertisements, icons, signs, logos and other media. This new semiotic specialist can often speak or communicate in several languages and dialects simultaneously, including the visual iconography and grammatical shorthand associated with text messages, email, blogging and other two-way media, and he instinctively employs those same linguistic patterns and techniques for his own use while creating websites, YouTube videos, personal blogs, and other self-generated communications.

 

I, Gamer

One environment to recently emerge in which the MediaSapien has flourished is in the world of online video games and multiplayer virtual universes. Generally games are either dedicated to single purpose competitions, such as auto-racing, shooting guns or slaying dragons, or built around the open-ended sandbox-style exploration and social interactions of Second Life or Sims Online. In addition to the time actually playing or engaged in competition, many gamers also spend hours chatting with other players, customizing and tweaking their online appearance and profiles, as well as their online real estate, fashions and other “property” - all of it contained within the shared virtual simulation of the games.

To a growing population of dedicated gamers, the time spent immersed in these digital universes rivals or exceeds the time spent outside of them, and the personal identities that are crafted within these spaces are often emerging as dominant aspects of a person's identity and can easily carry over and manifest in the non-digital world. This observation of the transference and dominance of the videogame experience within a gamer's life has been used to bolster support for such high profile political causes as anti-videogame legislation. But it has also been cited by numerous corporate human resource departments as a valuable means of determining a potential employee's personnel management experience; by examining their interactions with other real people within a virtual world such as World of Warcraft - in which literally hundreds of people work, play and fight in structured, formal groups - a potential employer can see traits in an applicant that are useful in the modern workforce, such as working under pressure, delegation of responsibilities, managing conflicts and interacting with remote team members.1

Simulated violence and masculine dominance and aggression have been a cornerstone of videogame activities, goals and themes from the earliest days of the industry, and as the visual and interactive qualities of the games become increasingly more sophisticated and realistic, the depth and breadth of the violent male identity has expanded to include nearly every form of violence one can imagine: a gamer can easily embody a soldier, assassin, fighter pilot, mercenary, hunter, thief, mutant, zombie, pro wrestler, and too many variety of monsters to name. And while there are certainly violent female characters as well as non-violent games available, those with violent male-oriented content tend to dominate the field. Within these violence-based universes, the individual identities presented to each other by the players are equally intimidating - large, mean and violent names and images meant to establish dominance before the competitions even begin. Yet most of these gamers will never meet face-to-face or otherwise know their teammates and opponents, except through the personae presented online; these big, brutal online identities are the entire basis for the players' reputations, relationships and interactions.

By entering into these virtual reality (VR) worlds with a different agenda than the one presumed by the game developer, one can easily subvert their original intent and reveal a rich “site” for performance art, image-making and social critique.

Some of these VR worlds are designed with the ability to make unique personal characters - also known as avatars - a central aspect of the game play, such as the social networking world of Second Life (SL). In SL, the first thing a new user does is to make their avatar unique.

In most competitive games however, the ability to customize one's character is still a novelty - a fun, but non-critical feature that can be totally ignored, or used to immerse oneself more fully in the game. It is within these games, where identity is less central, and which therefore offer simpler, less sophisticated tools for avatar customizing - that the activity of crafting identity has become a personally compelling conceptual activity. Almost like a treasure hunt, one can explore these games searching for inconsistencies or “holes” in the game world, looking for ways to exploit and subvert the game designer's intent and make social commentary or cultural critiques without relying on programming, hacking or modifying the game. By working within the limitations provided by each game design and style -by simply playing the game as opposed to working in a 3d development environment that allows unlimited modification - one is faced with severe restrictions and limitations of expression that have become highly representative of the challenges faced when one begins to create online identities and have digitally-mediated relationships.

A particular game may presume the player to embody certain characteristics, such as the violent tendencies of a urban mobster represented in the game Saints Row on the Xbox 360, but that doesn't necessarily require the player to shoot, stab and run down every other character he sees on the virtual streets. The player can choose instead to avoid violence and physical conflict and simply enjoy a quiet swim in him private pool, or take in the scenery during a peaceful stroll through midtown. It can be a very simple act, yet an entirely unexpected one, which forces the game into a kind of unexpected feedback loop. Typically, enemy characters are generated by the game program with the expectation that the player will engage (kill) them, but when this doesn't occur, the enemies remain in a kind of confused limbo, with nothing to do and nowhere to go. The denial of the fundamental nature of the game mechanic forces the game into a kind of broken reality, in which the economy of violence is subverted and replaced by an uneasy and dissatisfied calm. The relative peace and quiet of the non-violent performance cannot entirely conceal the potential for mayhem and destruction lurking just below the surface. Still, this simple act of strolling is subject to the over-arching violent intent and expectations within the game, and so the mobster's gait will always embody a certain menace, and pedestrians and autos on the street will go out of their way to let him pass, or wait patiently until he is gone.

Uncanny Valley

Does our interdependence with technology make us less human or more? Can a piece of technology express spirituality? Do MediaSapiens have a “soul?” When one is face-to-face with an virtual avatar, is there a spark of recognition or even eye contact? At first blush, most would respond negatively to these and other questions that probe the spiritual aspects of technology, however many people are finding distinctions blurring. This is not to suggest that God can be replaced by a box full of circuits, but rather that the path one takes to spirituality and enlightenment may just as likely be paved with pixels as stones.
The work displayed in my MFA graduate exhibition attempts to probe these ideas and offer viewers a starting point for their own exploration of the MediaSapien within and what it means to them personally. I've chosen two works which offer their own unique portal into these concepts: a videogame based self-portrait series, and a videogame-based performance/installation.


Self Portrait - Tiger Woods PDA Tour '08

The videogame self-portraits are an ongoing series of video loops made with games released for the Xbox 360 console from Microsoft and were selected based on several criteria - the most important being the inclusion of basic avatar-creation tools. Each piece consists of a video loop on a LCD monitor, which is placed inside of an antique wood and gold leaf frame, emulating and referencing the long tradition of portraiture in fine art. Thus far the series has included portraits created within The Godfather Game, Tiger Woods PGA Tour '07, Tom Clancy's Rainbow 6: Vegas, WWE Smackdown vs. Raw, Mass Effect and Saint's Row. The range of titles suggests a diverse range of portraits, and the resulting images reinforce this diversity. Each of the images is undeniably a self-portrait, yet each one carries with it unique identifiers that force specific character traits upon the image. In these works, I am transformed into a gangster, pro wrestler, SWAT member and space Marine, yet I never completely accept these roles, nor do I completely reject my own identity. The resulting images are a struggle between who I am and who the game expects me to be. Each piece is a journey into the uncanny valley , where the viewer is caught between the desire to accept the humanity of the figure, yet experiences repulsion caused by it's not-quite-human qualities.

The Spiritual Pixel

The performance/installation piece is an exploration of the interstice between the digital and the material worlds and the blurring distinctions between map and territory in an effort to probe the specific location of spiritual relevance. Viewers enter one end of a small, darkened room. Projected upon the far wall is a video loop of the artist's gangster avatar from the game Saint's Row, who is seen in a slowly rotating dolly shot as he calmly treads water in his private swimming pool. The gentle sound of lapping pool water and light rain showers can be heard, and the occasional dragonfly can be seen darting about. In the lower corner of the projection is a graphic common to many videogames - a HUD, or head's up display which offers a top-down “radar scope” view of the player's location and nearby surroundings, including icons representing potential enemies, goals, power-up's and other important in-game elements. Placed on a low table in the center of the room is a rendering of the HUD in colored sand approximately 48 inches on a side, and includes examples of all the icons and elements of the projected HUD.


Self Portrait - Saints Row

The HUD functions as a map of the in-game territory - the simulated city of Stillwater - which itself serves as a kind of generic map of any American inner city. This rabbit hole of a map within a map within a map is reinforced by the handmade sand rendering, which serves as a both a material resolution of the video image, and launching point for challenging the concept put forth by Alfred Korzybski in 1931 that ”The map is not the Territory”. How does that statement resonate in today's digitally rich context, in which we visit countless simulacra of territory, reference maps that signify maps, and have deeply fulfilling personal experiences in the non-territories of virtual space? Are there any original territories left, or has literally everything become a signifier for something else, an infinite loop of maps leading to maps eventually leading back to the first -but not necessarily the original – map?


Self Portrait - Saints Row (detail)

 

PART IV

Conclusion

The development of ideas surrounding identity has always been informed by contemporary technologies, and the recent exponential growth of digital technologies furthered this dynamic. As digital hardware and software tools became available, artists were among the earliest explorers of these new cultural landscapes, and they pioneered the development of themes of technological hybridity that would later be explored by others. By embracing far-reaching developments for communication, social interaction, entertainment, and training and simulation, artists have been able to coax these emerging technologies into various forms of artistic expression, including many artworks that broaden earlier definitions of the visual and performance arts and introduce entirely new genres. As more artists embrace these technologies and tools, they will continue to focus on issues surrounding identity and the self, and the synthesis of the organic with the mechanical – the emergence of the mediasapien. These artists will be in a unique position to frame the ongoing discussion of regarding the body and technological hybridity and can provide meaningful touchstones for measuring humanity’s journey into technological hybridity.

 

1. Brown, Seely and Douglas Thomas, "you Play World of Warcraft? You're Hired!", Wired, April 2006

 

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© 1987 - 2006 Marque Cornblatt