Monday, July 23, 2007

Real-time Collaborative Art Making workshop notes

A Methods Network Workshop,
20 July 2007


Dr Gregory Sporton, Director, Visualisation Research Unit (VRU)
This is one of a number of e-Science workshops which intend to explore the questions 'what is e-Science and how can it benefit the Arts and creative practice? What are the issues?'
He says there is a neglected potential for the integration of creative arts and technology given the emergence of 'digital natives'. It's seen as a peripheral activity. He notes that it can be expensive to get involved with technology. Nevertheless technology and creative practice is 'a hot issue'. Dissemination through networks, rather than galleries, seems to be the way to go.
By and large specialist processes have gone (eg the many processes and associated skills of darkroom-based photography have largely been replaced by digital photography). At the moment such new technologies are used to improve workflow rather than being used as creative disruptive opportunities. ('Disruptive technology' is my take on this message).
There is a small minority who feel that using computers goes against all that is good in Art. How do we culturally begin to accommodate the 'e'?
Disruption comes from 'new functionality through distribution.' (That connective -ist thing again!).
The opportunity to see what artists are doing holds a lot of potential for the creative arts. Web 2.0 and other collaborative technologies offer this potential.
Now is the time for 'the Creatives' to take ownership of the use of technology from the technologist and begin to impose ideas (their own language?) onto the technology.
The VRU are also trying to move away from screens and keyboards.
The technology can be the potential locus of creativity in and of itself. This can feel and be quite intense. However there's a risk of becoming dependent upon the technology.
How do they acquire sufficient resources given the scale of the cost of technology supported art compared to existing areas of practice? It's of a different order to other areas of creative practice?
He noted some concerns.
There is an emphasis today in this workshop on playing with the technology - trying to get it to do things for which it wasn't originally designed. As we have noted in education generally, we are increasingly faced with technologies that have not primarily been designed for us.
There are some genuine security issues and the resultant firewalls. These help and hinder. IPR is also an issue for artists - putting your stuff out there means people can nick it.
He also asks, "How genuinely real are 'virtual' experiences , such as SL?"
See for resources relating to this workshop.
(Video conferencing with Edinburgh held things up for a while at lunch. I'm not sure why there was a connection to Edinburgh other than to demonstrate that a performance can be witnessed in another place using an access grid. The conversation between the two places was delivered using Skype and Greg used a conference PZM microphone on the floor which apparently worked well.)

Digital Technology & Performance

Greg then demonstrated his use of technology in his performance work. He said, "We expect problems because we are breaking new ground." And I think that is part of the art of this performance - the degree of unpredictability it introduces. The performance (or was it drawing?) was based upon dancers holding bluetooth pens designed for drawing on flat surfaces. The movement of the pens it captured by a technology called E-beam ( I gather the sensor and pens are designed as whiteboard-like devices for offices. The movement of the pens is tracked by the sensor device when the pen's stylus is depressed. Normally you would mount the sensor on a window and draw onto the window. This is then captured and presented on computer-based whiteboard application. You can change the colour of the pens and their thickness. The pens were not pressure senstive apparently - either on or off and there was no way with this technology to represent speed of movement from what I could see.
In the dance work Greg placed the sensor at hand-height and each dancer holds a pen, the movement of which is captured on the whiteboard. This is then saved as a JPG or AVI depending on whether you wish to capture the time aspect of the performance or just the resultant product (a still drawing). This is essentially drawing in space. He said, " We're not dancing, we're drawing. Producing a drawing through dancing." Learning how to use it was he thought analogous to getting a decent sound from a theramin.
It's hard to predict when the sensors will register a mark.
The rhythm is represented in the drawing. There are latency issues over the network and this becomes one of the properties of the performance.
In terms of creativity and technology I think the remarkable thing to note here is that the technology is very basic - pens are either switched on or off and not reliably captured by e-beam anyway - therefore the art, like other artistic media (eg any process mediated art - think about drypoint for example) is defined or understood by the technological constraints within which it is made. In discussions I had at lunch there were several ideas for technologies such a the Wii, motion graphics, light exposed to film and others, where more detail could be captured. That presumably is not the point. As my interest at the moment is in Web 2.0 technologies and the concept of 'extending the studio' this is useful - don't think how can web 2.0 replace the studio, but how it adds to the creative toolkit with its new opportunities and constraints.
He also showed a couple of videos of other technology performance work which is distributed via YouTube.(eg
This is a film based on exercises. The work involved a sound file author, video maker and dance/movement/subject= collaboration.
He describes his work as projects "with technology".
He usefully referred to 'extended techniques'. A term used in music that recognises the mediation and impact of the musical instruments on the art. They are technology extensions that facilitate the creativity. He sees the technologies he is using in the same way.
I spoke to someone later who noted that the Wii could have been used as a much more reliable interface (as noted above) He is doing some work on haptics at Birmingham and says there is a software developer kit for the Wii and he hopes to develop a drawing tool for the Wii. Nintendo however are apparently only interested in releasing the SDK to games developers at the moment. I would like to see how the Wii could be used by artists and designers .
Greg says, "It's very intense and engaging working with technology. The risk gets you wound up." He saw this as a benefit - or at least given the difficulty in establishing the access grid connection he was maybe putting a brave face on it!

Technology performance

In the afternoon session we were invited to a technology enhanced performance. This was intriguing. It's very hard to describe the impact this made on me, which was great, but I will try.
The piece (?) was performed by four people, three of whom were operating various new and old media technologies. The other was a dancer. On entering the gallery/white cube space there were various flat screens on the floor presenting various images. Some of this was layered video made of up layered artefacts and some of it was automated slideshows driven by shared image photos. Audio was being used. Various activities were being mic-ed up, though I later found out that the sound from the previous day was being played back. This intentionally connected one performance to another even though the voices and sounds were obviously from a similar event. There was a mixture of technology essentially capturing, relaying and acting upon words originated by the dancer. The dancer would speak a word every now and then into a radio mic she was wearing, this would be heard by the audio guy, who typed the word on an archaic typewriter. An index card was produced and the word was catalogued using a made-up taxonomy. A video camera was focussed on the index card and a microphone recorded the clack of the typewriter (all of the performers were too young to have ever used a real typewriter before!). The typewriten index card was taken to another person who did a Flickr search based upon the words. He was constantly blogging the procedings. The Flickr images were printed and given to the last member - the videologist who constructed footage in real time for the tv screens. There were various other bits and pieces going on. The performance on this occasion lasted about 20 minutes though other versions have lasted hours.
At first it was the dancer's performance that grabbed your attention as she worked through a series of choreographed movements. The attraction of the human figure seemed to provide the intial focal point for others I spoke to too. The dance was quite repetitive. Then the videologist came in a grabbed a load of images of her on a stills camera. There was a fair amount of bleeping and typing noises and the sound of voices occasionally. However it was very disjointed. It appeared to be coming from the performers (but of course it was yesterday's performance recording).
What was the relationship between these four people? How choreographed was the collaborative performance? How choreographed were the individual performances? Occasionally the videologist would scan a Flickr photo, or rip it up, or stick it up on the wall.
The piece seemed to be about networking and the sharing and mediation of data. The passing of data was explicit, but what was most intriguing was the implicit social networking and its affect on the performance. How had it been planned? How were they responding to each other (apparently they were not consciously responding during the event).
I interviewed Matt Gough afterwards for the podcast and discussed some of the many issues that were raised. Facinating!
Also see Let's Talk about Collaborative Art Making site and Matt Gough's blog

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