Knowing your place in Cartesian space

Gail Priest, Ryoji Ikeda, datamatics [ver 2.0]

Ryoji Ikeda, datamatics [ver 2.0]

Ryoji Ikeda, datamatics [ver 2.0]

Ryoji Ikeda, datamatics [ver 2.0]

X and Y are busy letters. Mostly ignored by word makers, the mathematicians and scientists took pity and gave them the important job of describing the placement of objects in space. Watching Ryoji Ikeda’s datamatics [ver 2.0] I am made keenly aware that I am merely a dot on the XY axis of the universe.

Datamatics parses the information of our existence. The sources are not clear—I can only glean star locations and chromosome sequences—but somehow by the end of this audiovisual performance lasting just under an hour, I am sure that all the information that dictates my being has passed before my eyes and been audibly manifested. It’s simultaneously breathtaking, exhilarating, terrifying and humbling.

Datamatics consists almost solely of dots and lines, letters and numbers. These are rendered in reverse—white on black—with short ruptures of black on white, and the occasional restrained applications of red and blue. The opening sequence has dashes of varying lengths in columns streaming vertically. Quick to make figurative analogies from the abstraction, I think ruler markings, Morse code, punch cards, pianola rolls. Then information begins to reveal itself, unravelling from the block lines like pulled threads (I think of Ada Lovelace weaving), to form connections between streaming numbers and letters which I absorb rather than read. The process of analogising becomes futile and I begin to ride the data flow.

The piece progresses from two dimensional scenes—defined by vertical flows or horizontal streams—shifting in the second half (the new addition to datamatics from its original 2006 version)—to rotating intersections of lines defining three dimensional space. Finally it resolves into branch like crystalline structures, but the glitch in the system, the error code, is never far away rupturing scenes and finally becoming all-powerful in the awe-ful conclusion.

All these markings would be just that, without the remarkable power of Ikeda’s sound—his work defines audiovisuality. This is physically powerful music made from data sonification and digital glitches—eardrum ripping beeps and snaps, brain freezing sine tones and thorax thrumming bass rumbles. This essentially noisy palette is held together with tightly controlled yet not overly predictable pulses and rhythms and precise alignment of audio and visual. We are propelled through this potentially alienating inundation of sound and image by the pleasure of synch points—the red cross hatch goes with the high peeping, the planar shift with the bass hum—orienting us in the sound-image space. Constantly surprised by sudden noises and flashes of light, we are never left adrift to drown in this sea of information.

Processing huge amounts of data hurts. (I know, I’ve been manually indexing the 1000 articles that make up the RealTime Media Arts Archive) and Ikeda shares his pain in a postmodern exposition of metadata. The final section of datamatics cannibalises the information that constructs the sound and images of performance itself. Screengrabs, scene numbers and specifications can be identified in the final frenzy of flashing, scrolling information that fades from black to white via the introduction of a sickly sepia to the palette. All the information seems to fold in on itself in possibly one of the most spectacular audiovisual crescendos I’ve ever experienced.

And then it’s over. We are released from this glorious information onslaught. I can’t help feeling I’ve seen some dark secret in the data, something that makes me feel both part of some enormous universe yet more alone than ever—a single dot on an XY axis.

8 June 2013