Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Visualise: Making Art in Context, a review by Jonathan Zilberg

Susan Aldworth and Karen Ingham. “Between Mind, Matter and Materials” exhibition.
Ruskin Gallery, February 2012. Photograph: Andy Robinson

Visualise: Making Art in Context
by Bronac Ferran, ed. Cambridge: Anglia Ruskin University. 2013

by Jonathan Zilberg

One might never think to associate Cambridge, England, with the genesis of Pink Floyd or auto-destructive art, let alone “open-source urbanism” and hacking as creative intervention in city dynamics. Enter Visualise, launch pad for new initiatives there such as the Art and Science Circle, impetus for the Cambridge School of Art’s new Digital Gallery, and celebration of the history of art, technology, business and science. Think Cybernetic Serendipity, Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd’s first gig, Alan Turing’s famous experiment, Future Fluxus, radical new manifestos for Arts Industry, synthesizers and stochastic patterns, kinetic poetry, and Eduardo Kac’s interactive “alphabet of gesture.” In a word: Hip.

Visualise. Bronac Ferran’s tastefully produced and highly readable volume of essays and interviews is the outcome of a program of public art held in 2012 in Cambridge to inspire engagement with public spaces through art and technology. Small and slim enough to slip into the side pocket of a briefcase, it is notable for its lack of glossy images or intellectual pretension and its sheer accessibility. A record of a series of art events either held in the Ruskin Gallery at the Cambridge School of Art at Anglia Ruskin University or outside in the streets, it tells of the past, present and future of the school, this university and this city, through advancing Ruskin’s mandate that to see is to learn and that art should be useful.

An experimental celebration of the nexus of art, business, science and technology, the Visualise project and this book—effectively a catalog—bridges the city and the university. Likewise, it bridges two generations of artists: those who were working with experimental media in the 1960s such as Gustave Metzger, Alan Sutcliffe and Liliane Lijn, and some of today’s younger leading figures in new media and sci-art who emerged in the 1980s such as Eduardo Kac and William Latham. This text throws traces and arcs back in time and launches new media art forward in an expanded field. There it is important to understand how this project was explicitly an exercise in anti-monumentality and thus introduces a critical rejoinder for British Art history in the larger context of public art. But that, along with the history of sci-art at Cambridge, the problems text-based records present for coverage of new media events, and the question of beauty so close to Ruskin’s heart are beyond the scope of this review and will be separately elaborated upon in a forthcoming discussion in Caldaria.

At a slim 79 pages, Visualise: Making Art in Context (and I emphasize the subtitle here) carries a weighty historical significance for the Cambridge School of Art, inaugurated as it was by John Ruskin in 1858. Though the essays are all brief, they do not lack for this. Edited and conducted by Bronac Ferran, they serve as an excellent demonstration and bellwether of the convergences taking place in public art, electronic media, art, science, technology and industry. A record of the outcomes of the Visualise project in late 2011 through mid-2012, it is highly readable throughout. And in the clarity of its writing, its absence of obscure and complex art criticism and theory, its telling of the story of how the business community and artists – and indeed the university and the city – came together, it is true to Ruskin’s legacy.

The genesis of the project is significant. In percent-for-the-arts schemes we typically see artists being competitively commissioned to create works for new buildings or public parks. In this case, in contrast, the percent funds set aside from the construction of the new business school were used for a series of events and exhibitions designed to connect the city and the university, and the new campus and the old. The idea was to create a conceptual rather than material legacy and thus advance Ruskin’s mission to “do most good by simply endeavoring to enable the artist to see.” In its address to Ruskin’s legacy, Chris Owen’s brief opening contribution is in itself an important essay for and on the history of Cambridge. And, to belabor an important point, it is precisely because of the accessibility and clarity of language and illustration, the fine design and production, the quality of the paper and careful aesthetic choices in every detail that not only make it an excellent conversation piece for those in the business community who funded and collaborated in this project, but a minor testament to the importance of the art and craft of producing a lasting record of such events in print.

Rather than in a work of art, then, Anglia Ruskin University has invested a percent of the new business school in a more communally inclusive legacy through advancing the conjunction of art and technology while engaging the community and business interests. It has united the old campus and the new with the city and its people at large. And for those of us who were not aware of these events, literally the only trace of this history lies between the pale green covers of this little volume.

* * *

Perhaps a note on the form of this unusually extended review is in order. In all the reviews I've written for Leonardo and other more academic journals, I've never had the chance, due to space restrictions and tradition, to illustrate the discussion or comment upon a book’s feel and form. The subtlety, the variable use of color and the angled titles, the range and manner of illustrations chosen (but, sadly, not the quality of the photographs), the quality of the paper and print type and the jacket flaps: all of it is very nicely done. It reminds me in these qualities of the Routledge Classics Author's series, which adds a classic touch by association. Because they have been so carefully attended to, these things make Visualise to some degree a work of art, even a monument of sorts. Small details such as the careful string binding, for example, convey a distinct sense of craftsmanship. These features add up. They matter because this is Ruskin’s legacy, and this book is all we have in terms of the effective material legacy of the Visualise program in either the print or digital public record. In itself, this raises important questions underscoring the value of creating a publically accessible archive for what are essentially immaterial phenomena. Fortunately, some of the artists, such as William Latham, have posted short videos to the internet explaining and illustrating their work (see video).

This type of extension of the material takes us from the comparatively sad and lifeless still images as they are presented on a page to how compelling the work is when experienced in the gallery through digital media. Compare, for instance, the video given in the link above to the following image from the interview “Like Escher on Acid,” and then both to the scientifically fascinating and numinous experience itself. In short, there are limitations to what one can do with text when writing about new media arts.

William Latham’s work in ‘Poetry, Code, Language’ exhibition
Ruskin Gallery. Photograph: Tony Ellis.

Cambridge. For those of us in sci-art, I think it fair to say that one image and two names will always stand out as iconic of Cambridge: Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid (the DNA double helix), and Watson and Crick. The double helix image is as immanent and representative of 20th century science as was Darwin’s Tree of Life for Cambridge and the late Victorian era. Through Visualise we learn that it was Crick’s wife, Odile, who created the first diagram of the structure of the double helix. I did not know that. And which of these artists did you know about before reading this review or attending those events – except for perhaps Kac and Metzger?

Who, after all, has not heard of the glow-in-the-dark transgenic GFP rabbit? But did you know about the Ruskin School of Drawing’s graduate William Latham, about the nature of his serious games with the trinity of art (computer engineering, science, and bioinformatics) which practice evolution in action? Here we learn about how his wooden spiral structures in the 1980s inform his remarkable mobile scientific visualizations of the evolution of protein structures and mutational grammar today. Ever heard of Liliane Lijn and Duncan Speakman? If not, read this book, for beside the canonical art histories of modern British and American art here are some parallel and intersecting fascinating minor art worlds connecting us back to European surrealism and American Beat. They are too little known.

Intimate and precise insights are provided into the history of all the artists concerned, from Metzger to those I cannot attend to Rob Toulson, Alan Sutcliffe, Tom Hall and Ernest Edmonds. While most readers will be well aware of Eduardo Kac and some of the older artists, the less well-known artists spanning the last forty years here are equally interesting, namely Bettina Furnée, Giles Lane and Duncan Speakman. Indeed, Speakman’s final essay about the “Visualise Associate Artists were Circumstance” is an all-important essay for this project in terms of people and place, music and the city. It fittingly concludes this collection while returning the reader full circle to the first artist’s essay by Bettina Furnée, “Reality Rules,” and her work on boundaries and augmented reality, “New Rules For a Fair Society” with Dylan Banarse and Caroline Wendling.

The most visible internationally recognized contemporary figure is the transgenic artist Eduardo Kac. Recall his remarkable “Genesis” project from 1999. Through bacterial mutation, he altered the meaning of the sentence in the bible which grants man dominion over nature, an extraordinarily original critique of literal scripturalist interpretation, and a demonstration of how we should not accept inherited meanings without contemporary interpretations. In the latest metamorphosis of his corpus, Kac has taken his transgenic work with the iconic green glow-in-the-dark bunny called Alba into completely new territory: interactive lagoglyphs.

For Visualise, Kac launched a new form of protest over the incarceration of his GFP bunny rabbit, held prisoner in a laboratory in the suburbs of Paris. Lapidographic lagoglyphic writing, inspired by the form and rhythm of the bunny hop, is something completely new. The technical processes involve radically creative conjunctions of cutting-edge experimental technology with the arts, in this case bio-conductive ink, interactive computer-based imagery, and music. These conjunctions are what makes this and the other collaborative projects so significant and are indeed why I call refer to them, not so tongue-in-cheek, as hip. Though Kac was not the only artist to experiment with language, imagery, and computers, I have chosen to foreground his work because it is the most recognizable (especially to an American audience). But this is in no way to diminish the work and contribution of artists Ernest Edmonds, Alan Sutcliffe, Bettina Furnée, and Tom Hall.

Eduardo Kac, Lagoglyph Sound System, proof of concept, Ruskin Gallery, 2012

Duncan Speakman’s interview, “Of Sleeping Birds: The Audience Become the Orchestra,” is especially useful for giving us a sense of the most visible public connections that occurred during the programs:
Having created a series of intimate experiences distributed around the city, we created this work as a singular journey. We built an orchestra of portable loudspeakers, each one responsive to its geographical location via satellite positioning technology… We plotted a route that would take the audience from the historic old city, through the commercialized pedestrian areas and onwards to the newest building construction at Anglia Ruskin. Each section of the composition was written to reflect and harmonise with its surroundings, but also to become a soundtrack for an imaginary film of the city. We acted as conductors guiding the audience through the streets while they carried the speakers, becoming both participants and performers. (p. 74).
Thus through hand-held sound boxes, Speakman’s collective allowed “people to see their home anew” and leave their trace in Cambridge’s collective memory.

Tom Hall added to this mediated sonic experience by questioning the notion of sharing in musical performances. As he begins his essay: “What motivates electronic musicians to share and show an audience aspects of the music’s structure that may otherwise remain unseen and unheard… ?“ What matters for Hall as a modernist is ultimately that the appreciation of his electronic music is in alignment with his intention as the composer. What follows is a fascinating insight into audience reception of live coding events. For instance, to synthesize audience alignment he created the “PitchCircle” as reproduced in the illustration below, see A program which uses SuperCollider programming language, it visualizes music notation, and is in this case applied to a saxophone-structured improvisation.

Tom Hall: PitchCircle

Hall’s clarity of intention is essential. His goal is to align the aesthetic experience such that the audience has a direct and unambiguous appreciation of what he is trying to communicate. This is a compelling example of how musical notes and chords can be both heard and seen, and how we can appreciate music through visual metaphors, both hearing and seeing patterns. As such, it brings me naturally to Giles Lane and David Walker’s ingenious visualization project, Lifestreams.

Lifecharm shells 3D printed in ceramic, glass, resin and sterling silver, September 2012

Anthropologically speaking, Visualise is interesting because it is about people and place. Through three innovative research collaborations with local businesses -- Reality Rules, Phillips Research and Proboscis -- the artists found new ways to make people more aware of their city. Citizens become more emotionally and intellectually engaged with the city, the university and even their own bodies and rhythms, as in Lifestreams. The shells in the above image are materializations which express in physical form patterns in life: health-related data as recorded in the details of these life charms.

Series of 3rd generation Lifecharm shells 3D printed in laser sintered nylon plastic, August 2012.
All Lifestreams images shown licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND Proboscis

While for an idealist or a romantic beauty would rather be found in the perfect shell, the beautiful pattern, in the real world our beings and reality are marked by imperfection and distortion. But leaving this aspect of Ruskin and the debate over beauty for a separate and forthcoming discussion, is this not a fascinating example not only of how art and business have come together to create new kinds of the most intimate embodied informational forms?

One of the advantages of writing an extended essay-review such as this is that it allows us to extend our insights into the genesis of such art works. For example, the next two images are conceptual notes which explain the mathematics and logic behind these creations: first, the formula for generating a shell and second, the manner of expressing variation in chosen variables.

Perhaps one has to be a scientist by inclination, or at least interested in mathematics, but I take it as self-evident that, scientist or not, the conceptual work represented here is a wonderful example of the specificity and precision at work in all these science-informed projects.

As with Speakman’s understanding and application of the principles of evolution, and as with Tom Hall’s intention to communicate with his audience, this is not a matter of playing with language and the obscure for the sake of an elevated pretense of being philosophically and aesthetically minded.

* * *

Latham, in the short YouTube video describing his work featured in this show, stresses that the role of the artist is to create new and interesting forms, and that what he is doing is trying to change how we define art. In his words “… the role of good artists is to change the definition of art itself.” Latham’s evolving life forms, truly the interface of computer science and art and the application of Darwinian principles (especially with the music and in their rotation and development) are very mysterious, a little unsettling, and I would even say sublime, as over-worked a term as that may be. They provoke a sense of awe at what this artist has done with technology and art. But how does this relate to my primary critical concern about this book as a record of what are mainly new media art forms?

The black and white image in the figure for the interview “Like Escher on Acid,” reproduced further above in this essay, is a constantly transforming background, as is the imaginary life form in the foreground evolving in rotational three dimensions before our eyes. Though no still photograph could do justice to this work, this is a consistent problem with most of the other art works experienced during Visualise. It is an important issue. Until I watched the video, I could not get any real sense of why Latham’s work is so visually interesting and aesthetically compelling (again, see video). It makes me think, then, that the most fitting way to produce a book or catalog about such a show in the future is to create an on-line text with links to videos of the works. Perhaps that is a critical contribution this review can make.

From Liliane Lijn's performance of her Manifesto for Art Industry to Alan Sutcliffe's SPASMO to Tom Hall's musical performances and his “Pitchcircle” designed to use extramusical means to communicate the musical thinking in his work, we see here iconic examples of the conjunctions occurring between industry and the university and the arts. In every case, from Kac’s viewer-activated transformative holopoetry to Ernst Edmond’s code poetry created from his archives, to Speakman’s sound box glue which became an iconic symbol of the Visualise program, these interviews and artists’ explications of their art-historical trajectories must unfortunately rest for the reader on the frozen images in the text. As an artist who sees the world in terms of words, vibrations, energy and light, Lijn is perhaps particularly important here, as hers is an art of the word, light, and energy in motion. She returns us to early experiments in the 1960s and to ancient Greece; she makes images of industrial power into mythical archetypes and celebrates the future of plastic. So Visualise takes us back and at the same time that it moves us forward.

From Lijn’s “Faster Than Birds” to Speakman’s “Of Sleeping Birds,” the texts themselves are fascinating. They are lively and true. Never do they degenerate into the mindless babble and impenetrable philosophical rambling that characterizes so much art criticism. Ferran’s book is in this a masterwork of straight talk. Yet this book calls out to a digital future in which we who will not be there can yet be so in some way. What are needed for such projects are on-line multi-media archives of the art as it was experienced in sound and motion. In fact, should this not be an elementary requirement for any future project in new media art history?

“Of Sleeping Birds,” the collective participatory work orchestrated by Visualise Associate Artists were Circumstance, was the projects signature event and the book’s final chapter. Speakman’s Ruskin-like goal was clear: “On a fundamental level we’re trying to get people to become more present in and attentive to where they are.” He masterfully brings this to realization for those who were not only not there but who would never have heard of what happened in Cambridge at Anglia Ruskin University in 2012 had it not been for this book:
“We arrived as strangers and outsiders,… took guided walks through old chapels and colleges,… sat in pubs and listene[d] to tales of late night fights,… walked from shopping centre to shopping centre,… found out about 1,000 radio receivers hidden in a cinema, and imagine what would happen if they moved en-masse across the city… our explorations showed us a divided city… we tested connection and disconnection… we created a mythological walk… We opened doors to strangers… We acted as conductors… letting people see their home anew and leaving a mark in the city’s collective memory (Duncan Speakman in Ferran pp. 72-74).
The metaphor of artists as conductors is a good one; an enticing sense of the new, of excitement make palpable, is what they can bring us. Latham conducts experiments in the evolution of computerized life forms. Lijn conducts experiments in mythic empowerment. Kac conducts experiments in sound ink. What will these artists and their business associates imagine next, and what will happen if they fuse their works?

Liliane Lijn, Untitled Neurograph, 1971.
Letrafilm and Letraset electronic symbols on paper, mounted on card, 22 x 20cm

On that final note, imagine if Liliane Lijn’s vibrograph were engineered such that its hypothetical circuitry were developed as a synthesizer for Tom Hall’s PitchCircle, producing music modulated by audience interaction in which choices were made as to open and close circuits or to increase the strength of resistors and capacitors, either producing a sound file to download or forward, or printing a 3-D soundstream form, or acting as an environmental force inducing changes in the growth of one of Latham’s creations emitting light energy as it grew. Then we would have cross-sector trans-artist new media art synthesis on a whole new level.

To Future Fluxus, then!

Jonathan Zilberg is a symbolic anthropologist interested in the convergences of the arts, sciences and humanities. His most recent work on biochemistry and embodied learning, 'The Dance of Life,' appeared as the lead article in this month's edition of SciArt in America.

1 comment:

  1. Caldaria has a focus on the nexus of art and science, but this review by colleague Jonathan Zilberg has for me the unexpected but important effect of thinking that we should also include economics in our vortex.

    In brief, Jonathan has brought to our attention the fact that the ultimate source of the funding for the public art program documented in Visualise was the newly-founded Lord Ashcroft International Business School of Anglia Ruskin University -- and this a function of the recognition by British universities that business and technology are being increasingly driven by art and entertainment!

    (Believe it or not, my own New Orleans has become one of the better places in the United States to find a high-tech job -- and why? Because the movie industry brings hi-tech in its wake -- yet another example of the inevitable arc of human evolution, in which our activities will become increasing centered about aesthetic/spiritual goals.)

    Indeed, so important is the confluence of forces documented in this review that I would like to throw into contrast a fundamental question with which Jonathan is grappling.

    On the one hand, he highlights the "anti-monumental" character of the public art program which the university trustees decided to sponsor -- and there can be no doubt that the resulting series of "happenings" spread the available funds more widely, and more studiously avoided the anointing of a relatively chosen few, than a traditional "percent for the arts" program.

    On the other hand, Jonathan is very much in tune with the idea expressed in my own recent Caldaria review of Edward Shanken's Art and Electronic Media: history and the public alike demand a monument, and which in the present case -- Jonathan himself a distant colonial son of Britain, and therefore literary minded! -- he finds in the Visualise catalogue itself, and so lauds its craftsmanship.