The big connect

Somaya Langley, The Portals

Justin Clemens, Christopher Dodds, Adam Nash, Distributed Empire

Justin Clemens, Christopher Dodds, Adam Nash, Distributed Empire

Chatswood shopping mall on a Saturday afternoon. I weave my way between the crowds of North Sydney-siders who duck in and out of the various chain stores along the mall. At the traffic lights I run into Touchy, the human camera (see “Touch me there“), so I know I must be heading in the right direction.

When I arrive at my destination, an urban screen looms gigantic over the Chatswood Performing Arts Centre (The Concourse). What seems like a thousand primary school students, all in uniforms, are milling around. (Presumably they’re taking part in a school band event, as they’re each carrying a musical instrument.) Under the screen, a number of the artists involved with The Portals project are gearing up for the lunchtime artist talk.

The Portals is one of four projects funded by the Australia Council for the Arts through their Broadband Arts Initiative in order to test out the possibilities that networked arts present. For the duration of ISEA, The Portals has linked Chatswood’s urban screen with a similar screen in Darwin (at the Casuarina Campus of Charles Darwin University).

As a delegate attending ISEA, the chance of seeing more than two of the five works presented as part of The Portals is slight. Between midday to six in the evening the works are shown on rotation in two-hour slots. As a Chatswood resident or regular commuter through this locale, I expect it would be a somewhat different experience. Bringing innovative digital arts practice into the ‘normal’ suburban lives that many Australians rarely get the chance to escape from, while it might challenge some passersby, I’m sure is equally welcomed by others.

Justin Clemens, Christopher Dodds and Adam Nash weren’t able to be present at the artist talk, so the Creative Producer of The Portals, Ricardo Peach, gives a brief overview of their work. Distributed Empire is quite simple in its essence, pulling together a series of ‘selfies’ (photos you take of yourself). You can upload your selfie to the online service (http://www.distributedempire.net) and, from what I can tell, it stretches and morphs your photo, continuously creating generic digital portraits. While the visual realisation may be simple, it is an important reflection of our personal involvement in contemporary networked society. Given the lives we lead, are we able to resist this practice of sharing information and images of ourselves?

Andrew Burrell, Chris Rodley, Enquire Within Upon Everybody

Andrew Burrell, Chris Rodley, Enquire Within Upon Everybody

Enquire Within Upon Everybody, developed by technologist Andrew Burrell and writer Chris Rodley, is one of the most engaging of the works in The Portals (or perhaps that’s because I’ve been lured too far into the Twittersphere over recent years). Utilising Twitter and a series of algorithms, questions tweeted to a particular hashtag (#enquiresydney) evoke responses from the social media ‘hive mind.’ While it might take a day for you to personally receive a response to your own tweet, the answer I got back was pretty much on the money. What astounds me is that, as the work is being demo-ed, one of the mothers from the school band event comes over to request that Enquire Within Upon Everybody is no longer displayed on the oversized urban screen. Apparently, some of the text isn’t appropriate for a school-age audience. Although, from what I’ve seen, the most contentious of tweets have been questions about marriage and gender, addressed to Jesus, or about dreams of Julian Assange.

Nancy Mauro-Flude, Nick Smithies, Crystal Thomas and Frontline Media’s Is Starlight A Wifi Signal? was a one-off performance on the evening of Wednesday 12th June 2013, linking Tasmania, Darwin and Sydney. As these artists also weren’t able to be present at Saturday’s artist talk, Peach presented stills from the browser-based networked performance. The work is a poetic approach to this space, presenting snippets of image and text such as “something touched a nerve, made a connection” and “a neon light shone in a language I did not understand.”

Thea Baumann, Ben Ferns, Shian Law, Metaverse Makeovers

Thea Baumann, Ben Ferns, Shian Law, Metaverse Makeovers

The other highlight of The Portals was Thea Baumann, Ben Ferns and Shian Law’s Metaverse Makeovers (Live). Several layers of contemporary social culture are woven together: networked technology, augmented reality and nail art. Yes, you heard me. Nail art. While the painted nail designs are eye-catching, when you hold them under a mobile device and use them as the visual input to an app (specifically developed for this work), the entire fluoro-augmented-reality-rainbow comes to sparkly life. While this might seem like a technological gimmick, this work is truly awesome.

Jimmy McGilchrist, Matt Ditton, Tom Killen, Tyler Solleder and Johan Dreyer, Shadow Net

Jimmy McGilchrist, Matt Ditton, Tom Killen, Tyler Solleder and Johan Dreyer, Shadow Net

Shadow Net by Jimmy McGilchrist, Matt Ditton, Tom Killen, Tyler Solleder and Johan Dreyer, enables participants in remote locations to dance together. Red and blue outlines of figures are projected onto the screens, and users can also add to the soundtrack by virtually touching a range of green squares floating on screen. While technically I’m drawn to the notions behind this work (“…hidden networks between people, networks and communities on the Internet”) after less than a minute my curiosity wanes. Not so for the handful of primary school musicians who are hanging around. This work is a total hit. The kids try to figure out how it works, with the same fervour I imagine they’d have participating in a treasure hunt. They’re constantly shouting comments like “Get on the big screen!” and “Oh, yeah!!” Eventually it turns into a girls-versus-boys tussle. The group of girls eventually oust the boys to the sidelines.

A whole swag of people is involved in The Portals, including Creative Producer Ricardo Peach with Kathryn Gray and Britt Guy as the Northern Territory Creative Producers. I have to congratulate them all. What The Portals does is to bring our networked and sometimes socially isolated lives back into urban inhabited spaces. While the regular arts aficionado might’ve bypassed The Portals in Chatswood, it really does bring digital culture into a context that other audiences may be able to digest, and hopefully some moments of inspiration to a mundane urban landscape. If the shrieks of joy from those school kids are enough to go by, then it’s more than earned its brownie points.

26 June 2013
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