This Secret Location Symposium: The visceral and the virtual

Osunwunmi

There’s only so much enlightenment and entertainment a person can take at any one time, and very early on in the Inbetween Time Festival I realised I was going to have to ration my viewing. Besides, we had reviews to write, which made reflection time a hard-won priority. So my experience of the festival was fragmented.

I’ve reclined in a large upholstered egg and wondered why I wasn’t experiencing those intense booming reverberations you get when a boy racer drives past you—only to discover I was listening to sounds generated by my own body (a certain) SILENCE). I’ve been drawn, as through a kinky looking glass, into a sinister dream world of constraint, adaptation and refiguring: a wonderful video work which looked as though Maya Deren had had a wild night out with a chimerical composite of Angela Carter, Peter Carey, and Sarah Waters, resulting in a beautiful lovechild (The Shadowers). Reading the reviews of my fellow workshoppers and engaging in intense discussions of practice with them, I’ve come to speculate that art you’ll never see can still leave a haunting presence in the mind—nah, I’m lying. Nothing beats experiencing the real thing. Being in the work, being provoked, soothed, manipulated, disappointed, made to re-adjust, turned around; I’m exhausted.

Elasticity

I’ve also had time to realise that Live Art is an elastic term that willingly stretches to accommodate interesting work, and that a disruption of traditional audience expectations of closure, narrative or intent is one way of achieving new meaning.

Body work—another elastic term—questions our sensory, emotive and cognitive experiences, our constant embodied interactions between physical and imaginative spaces. Digital technology is among the tools artists use to amplify these interactions, bringing our ordinary processes of living to self-consciousness, facilitating a process of examination, reflection and perhaps, re-configuring.

In between phenomena

In the This Secret Location symposium a panel of scholars and practitioners discussed the intersection of body-based practice with the machine, with reference to the work on show at Inbetween Time. As cultural theorist/performance practitioner Sally Jane Norman explained, the idea of prosthesis, of enhancement, of masking, disguise, alternate selves—an amplified body—is as old as humanity itself. Is the use of digital technology as a sensory and cognitive extension of this activity normatively different from the use of older tools?

Simon Jones, experimenting with performance text (Secrecy of Saints), locates his digitally mediated work within a notion of virtual space as a place unbounded by cultural sensibilities. Within both virtual and real life performance spaces he places 2 or more discursive practices in parallel, seeing their juxtaposition as complementary, not translatable. Jones uses spoken text in an abstract way to establish mood. He places the bodies of both the performer and the audience in a different physical relationship to the theatrical norm: “words move, flesh utters.” This becomes an exercise in disrupting the boundaries around modes of perception, which he intends to trigger a suspension of judgement in the audience, causing them to become open to new experiences.

Musicologist and composer David Toop began with a reading from Moby Dick in which sailors attempt to interpret mysterious sounds heard at sea. He described his fascination with sounds that evade explanation. He reflected on the beautiful ambiguity of the act of making sound with an instrument, where breathing turns to music.

Digitally created sound becomes “less prosthetic, less embedded in personal history, less expressive of the hidden body” and listening becomes a different sort of action, abstracted, flattened and disembodied in that the sound cannot be connected to a memory of physical sensation. This may lead to a new image of the body and a new perception of space, because it creates a new type of space where the corporeal (ie the ears) meets the virtual. Toop mentioned sacro-acoustic research in the context of the utopian aspiration towards purity often expressed in digital practice.

Toop’s fascinating paper touched on the influence of recording technology on a new understanding of the construction of sound. He mentioned that the disembodying technologies of the 19th and 20th centuries (the telegraph, radio, TV etc) which effected a possible spatial and temporal displacement of experience have given rise to a contemporary obsession with fragmentation. This leads to an interest in collecting, rearranging and disrupting sound and in different logics of ordering. He talked about the ability of recording technology to “frame” the capture of sound by using focus to create meaning, making an analogy with the visual practice of taking a snapshot. Both he and media artist Lynette Wallworth expressed a fascination with the ability of digital technology to capture and play back phenomena that are beyond the usual range of human senses—Toop described these as “in-between phenomena.”

Expanded experience

Sally Jane Norman described digital technology as a tool which assists the human tendency to transform and extend the body in performance and communication. Digital technology also allows us to share locations: local input can achieve a simultaneous global audience. The range of our experience has been stretched, from the nano to the cosmic. One new phenomenon within virtual space is the emergence of an anonymous distributed community: our ears, eyes and social sense are tuned into this new form. (David Toop noted that group improvisation with traditional musical instruments could be a form of distributed consciousness.)

Norman insisted that although technology has extended the human impulse to play with versions of embodiment and variations of reality, this has not changed our fundamental nature. “The post-carbon, hairy monkey Stelarc body” refutes the idea that we are somehow less physical than we once were.

Collective evolution

What is evolving is the notion of collectivity. Art adds to this envisioning, creating new states of being: part of the social action of art is to create shared audience experience which proves a socially binding force, leading to new developments in the dynamic of community. The show This Secret Location (in “wilfully public, even if named secret, locations”) is a collective play with, and meditation on, boundaries. The delicate borderline between art and non-art is also being explored here.

Lynette Wallworth works with scientists looking at how natural systems change in response to environmental factors. She uses interactivity to explore audience response and notions of responsibility. She creates an interactivity that can be shared, using simple interfaces that reflect the fragility of natural systems.

Through her collaborations she has become aware that scientific enquiry entails a similar state of mind to artistic enquiry, a state of heightened awareness: “Technology helps us see what has always been there…but without prior imagining you cannot begin to see what questions might be asked.”

Wallworth stressed the importance of the audience being able to “negotiate a contract” with her work, and explained how she needs to observe audience reaction in order to fine-tune the interactive element. Still: Waiting2 would be adapted as a result of her observations.

The panellists discussed how interactivity is conceived by practitioners in different ways, contrasting the model of the ‘heroic artist’ with that of ‘celebratory communion.’ Toop noted how much he was moved by the idea of pure abstract sound as conveyed by the work of Ryoji Ikeda (Spectra II); but he is just as moved by a sincere representation of messy, spontaneous human communication. To both Norman and Wallworth these examples are part of the continuum of human experience and sensation; as Norman put it, “technology cannot be divorced from its social bases and uses.”

The audience was left to reflect on new technology’s potential to extend the field of play, stretching the physical/not physical boundary to be more and more permeable, ambiguous and extended.

This Secret Location Symposium, chaired by Johannes Birringer. Panellists: Dr Simon Jones, Dr Sally Jane Norman, David Toop, Lynette Wallworth. Chemistry Lecture Theatre, Bristol University, Feb 3

RealTime issue #72 April-May 2006 pg.

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

6 February 2006