Rotterdam: new media pleasure & pain

Anna Davis

My first impression of Rotterdam and the Dutch Electronic Art Festival was a mesmerising liquid architecture display of green pixelated images and text, moving and mutating over the surface of a 50-storey building. I later discovered that this was not part of DEAF03 as I’d first assumed but simply an impressive Dutch Telecom site abstracting segments from current news headlines. The DEAF03 opening was close by though, along an abandoned dockland inside Pakhuis Las Palmas, one of the biggest, coldest and most technologically equipped warehouse spaces I have ever visited.

The buzz of new media celebrity warmed me up as I excitedly squeezed my way past Lev Manovich, Sadie Plant and other members of the new media art elite to get my complimentary glass of pink champagne at the bar. In the centre of a packed wooden amphitheatre, its top rows consisting of giant bunk beds complete with fluffy cushions, the director of V2, Alex Adriaansens, tried to make himself heard over the lively crowd: “DEAF03 Data Knitting, from Wunderkammer to Metadata, will focus on the conditions of our information and knowledge-based society and the role of the media therein. It will specifically explore the ways in which information is gathered, ordered and made accessible through databases and archives.”

As I listened I looked around the impressive space containing over 20 plasma monitors connected to various roaming video camera operators, 5 large video projection screens, countless computer terminals and a 30-foot inflatable plastic jumping tube (and this was just the workshop room!). With a list of partners and supporters that most Australian festival directors could only dream of, DEAF is a huge, multifaceted and technologically sophisticated production which has a growing audience of over 10,000 visitors to each festival.

Warmed by the free flowing champagne and never one to turn down a free ride, I jumped on the bus to see a preview of Whisper, an interactive, performative installation by Thecla Schiphorst and Susan Kozel (Canada) in a theatre on the other side of town. We were ushered onto a white vinyl surface where different atmospheric sounds could be heard by moving into various zones. These emanated from beautiful clear perspex sound domes that isolated you in your own private waterfall of sound. Beside this was a standard looking clothing rack, on which hung 6 strange bulging white robes. Schiphorst and Kozel each put one on and described how sensors in the robes measured your breath and heartbeat and how this bodily data was represented by your own personal heiroglyph on the garment via LED display panels. Whisper, they explained, was an acronym for Wearable, Handheld, Intimate, Sensory, Personal, Expectant, Responsive System. Unfortunately we were then told Whisper was not functioning due to the common and boring problem of “a server being down.” Not to be deterred, I drank more champagne and decided to come back tomorrow to see the rest of the festival. I was not disappointed.

The main DEAF03 exhibition consisted of 20, mostly large scale, interactive artworks housed in a fashionably dark and cold warehouse space. Interestingly, one of the most powerfully charged works was also one of the few that was not interactive. Ingo Gunther’s Worldprocessor, a series of more than 50 illuminated thematic globes made between 1988 and 2003 were technologically simple yet highly evocative sculptures that illustrated and dramatised global trends, statistics and flows. Gunther refers to the Worldprocessor as a “data jacket for the common globe.” Admitting that his works are instantly out of date and always incorrect, he bravely tackles issues such as the culturally biased interpretations of data sets and the challenges of representing complex global issues. One particularly memorable globe visualised how the wealth of particular companies related to the wealth (GNP) of particular countries and continents. One horrifying comparison was that the US store Walmart is economically the size of Africa.

A more personal and poetic globe-based work was The Globe Jungle Project by Yashiro Suzuki (Japan). This magical spinning installation was part of a larger project in Japan to encourage more interaction between young and old through the redesign of city parks. Video images of children playing on the globe-shaped jungle gym by day were re-projected onto the globe at night and could only be seen by spinning the globe so the bars became like a screen. As with quite a few works in DEAF03, The Globe Jungle Project approached the theme of data knitting and digital archives via metaphors of memory.

Pockets Full of Memories by George Legrady (Hungary) also explored notions of collective memory. Visitors were invited to scan any object they had and to fill out a digital questionnaire. The object would then be added to a constantly growing and changing database along with its assigned properties. A projected map of macro-relations was constructed from these micro-personal interactions using a self-organising map algorithm that positioned objects of similar descriptions near each other.

Deciding I needed some bodily stimulation I headed for Stahl Stenslie’s (Norway) Erotogod which was standing tall in the darkness like some futuristic altar to the god of technology. An imposing steel structure, it looked like a chrome wave with an inverted pyramid made of white latex projection screens on its peak. The work was constantly surrounded by hordes of eager visitors. I watched as each person was led up the Erotogod ramp by an attendant and then asked to kneel and straddle a flexible metal paddle seat facing the 3 large screens. While the ‘user’ (who was looking more and more like the ‘human sacrifice’) was kneeling in this slightly humiliating position, the attendant fitted them with a glittering, padded ‘suit’ that looked scarily like a reject costume from an 80s Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. The ‘victim/user’ was left on the altar while texts and images were generated on the 3 semi-opaque screens and deep vibrating sounds emanated from 16 speakers placed around the work.

Although initially put off by the 80s spacesuit, I decided to tackle the Erotogod myself. As the suit was fastened between my legs and around my chest and arms the attendant explained that it was full of many sensors and that I should touch myself to trigger different images, sounds and texts from The Koran, The Talmud and The Bible. As I was left alone and feeling quite silly, a new aspect of the work quickly became obvious to me. By touching yourself through the suit, waves of different vibrations emanated through the suit and into your body. I was so distracted by these intense vibrations I hardly noticed the scripts from the sacred texts that were appearing around me. After what was a pleasantly exhilarating, multi-sensory 5 minutes, I left the work looking slightly flushed. Erotogod says Stenslie, “is a futuristic media altar linking auto-erotic touching to stories of Creation; a sensory fusing of religions.” Quite a sensation from one of the early founders of Cybersex (Stenslie built a full-body, tele-tactile communication system in 1993).

Another extreme work but on the other end of the sensory scale was PainStation by Volke Morawe and Tillman Reiff (Denmark). Think prehistoric PlayStation with an extra incentive to win. PainStation is based on the early video game Pong, but in an interesting twist, if you miss the ball in PainStation you actually get hurt. The PainStation module is constructed like an early video arcade game, the crucial difference being the addition of a surface where players must constantly press their left hand. This is the PEU or Pain Execution Unit. When either player misses the ball during the game the PEU is activated and can attack your hand with extreme heat, electrical shocks or lashes of a painful whip. The first player who lifts their hand in this situation is the loser. PainStation was nearly always surrounded by a crowd of young people challenging each other to pain duels. A somewhat simple idea, PainStation was nonetheless engaging and perhaps relevant given the new generation of children developing repetitive strain injuries because of early addictions to computer games.

There were many interesting works such as Zgodlocator by Herwig Weiser, Synthia by Lynn Hershman, Web of Life by Jeffrey Shaw, Poetry Machine_1.5 by David Link and PoliceState by Jonah Brucker-Cohen that I’d have liked to discuss if I had the space [We’ll try to provide it in the next edition. Eds]. The festival’s 2-day Symposium, Information Is Alive, with speakers including Manuel DeLanda, Brian Massumi and Arjun Appadurai was an interdisciplinary feast for the brain, as were the numerous performances, workshops and seminars held throughout the festival. The DEAF03 website, http://deaf.v2.nlis a journey in itself with enough documentary material to keep you busy for hours.

DEAF03, Dutch Electronic Art Festival. Data Knitting, organised by V2-Institute for the Unstable Media, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, Feb 25-Mar 9

RealTime issue #54 April-May 2003 pg. 26

© Anna Davis; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2003