Reflections on perthDAC 2007 & BEAP
I attended and presented at my first Digital Arts and Culture conference at the perthDAC 2007 held 15-18 September (though I co-wrote a paper for the 2005 DAC). The 2007 programme is on the site, but the full proceedings will be available online soon. In the meantime, I thought I’d share some of my impressions/experience of the event. As a primer for those unfamiliar with the conference series, here is a brief description of the event:
The Digital Arts & Culture (DAC) conference was the first conference to attract and present the work of researchers, practitioners and artists working within the field of digital arts, cultures, aesthetics and design. It still attracts papers from a variety of disciplines, and from researchers and artists alike.
The conferences are held every two years (though there is discussion of changing to an annual event). Here is a listing from the main conference site:
- DAC 2007 (Perth, Western Australia, Australia)
- DAC 2005 (IT University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark)
- DAC 2003 (RMIT, Melbourne, Australia)
- DAC 2001 (Brown University, Providence, US)
- DAC 2000 (University of Bergen, Norway)
- DAC 1999 (Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, US)
- DAC 1998 (University of Bergen, Norway)
DiGRA, the Digital Games Research Association, was also born out of DAC. Many attendees of perthDAC 2007 are now in Tokyo for DiGRA 2007 and some are at the Australian Blogging Conference.
perthDAC was wonderfully organised by Andrew Hutchinson and was held inconjunction with BEAP — the Biennale of Electronic Arts Perth (the 2004 event I attended and reviewed for Realtime). The BEAP element was great because we were treated to visits to openings and exhibitions. I’ll refer to some works alongside papers in this general overview of themes which arose for me. This approach augments Axel Bruns’s posts which provide a detailed overview of the individual presentations and also Tama Leaver’s personal report. But now, to my impressions:
Many papers and artworks featured in BEAP showed a trend/prevailing approach of stepping back from entirely human-made creations to ones in which Nature is framed by the artist. The artist becomes more transparent and privileges nature in the work. Jim Bizzocchi discussed and presented his ‘ambient video experiences’ where beautiful scenes of snow-peaked mountains and riverbeds slowly move over time. At the ‘impermanence’ exhibition at the John Curtin Gallery, Lynette Wallworth’s Still: Waiting2 (2006) is an installation with a large screen showing a video of ’an Australian River Gum that is home to a huge number of native Corella birds’ filmed in South Australia. Although the work was ‘interactive’ in that when you entered the space the birds flew away and you had to sit still for the birds to return, the beauty of the work was really (to me) a simulation of what happens in real life, and the beauty of the sunrise and birds. Keith Armstrong discussed ‘grounded media’ which is described in his abstract as:
a form of art practice forcused around the understanding that our ecological crisis is also a cultural crisis, perpetuated by our sense of separation from the material and immaterial ecologies upon which we depend.
Armstrong showed (among other works) ‘Grounded Light’ (2003). The work involved participants walking up a hill, following performer Lisa O’Neill who is adorned with lights and to the sounds of trombonist Ben Marks. The piece finishes at the top of the hill, at night, with a view of the lights on Lisa merging with the lights spotted over the valley. The work aimed to ‘ground’ participants:
We have thrown our civilisation like a picnic blanket over this country, often with little regard for its rocks, sticks & dirt, which seem of little significance or consequence to the way we live our lives. While Indigenous Australians are profoundly connected to that ground our colonial history has been correspondingly un-grounded. (perthDAC 2007 Proceedings, page 25)
In Armstrong’s case, as with the others mentioned, the artwork seems to gently shift our focus back to nature. The point is nature and how we feel about it and the way this is communicated is through making nature the artwork. On a similiar note, were artists that utilised nature in some way but their artwork is in the intervention in nature rather than a highlighting of it. Su Ballard, for instance, referred to Douglas Bagnall’s Cloud Shape Classifier where pictures of clouds are and how people classify them (using Bagnall’s ‘machine’) are the artwork; and Allison Kudla discussed and created works that employ live plants such as her ‘The Search for Luminosity’ (2005-7).
Cruelty to Nature
Allison Kudla ’s ‘The Search for Luminosity’ (2005-7) work was developed from her experimentations with highly-light-sensitive plants. Allison turned a light on to cause the plant to open up, and then promptly turned the light off, over and over again. I, and some others, were surprised at the torture-type approach to working with the plants. There was also a work in Symbiotica’s Still, Living: Verena Kaminiarz’s Ich Vergleiche Mich Zu Dir . In this work, Verena used a particular type of flatworm that can regenerate body tissue. She caused the flatworm to grow another head and then filmed it unsuccessfully trying to swim in both directions endlessly for the rest of its short life. Although she did put up a commemorative gallery of portraits of the flatworms, I found it very sad. She called it ‘tragic realism’. But hey, I don’t like bot abuse either.
Now, I’m sure Allison and Verena didn’t mean any harm (?)…but their works seemed cruel. The problem with such works, indeed with all bioart, is at what point do ethics come into play? When the ethics issue comes in to bioart a whole can of worms (yes) opens: balancing experimentation with the impact of art and science, ethics in science, ethics in art and the differences (if any).
Thinking Beyond Code As We Know It
There were a few talks where a code-centric approach to new media creation and analysis as it has been previously articulated was argued to be insufficient. Jason Lewis, in his talk ‘Writing-Designing-Programming: The NextText Project’ discussed the projects from Obx Labs . In particular, Jason spoke about the fight that creators have with digital tools. Rather than having to plough through different levels of semantic meaning, Obx Labs are working to create tools that allow the artist to work at the level of meaning they want. Two tools will be released next year: Glyphkicker and Mr Softie, which will in the words of Jason in the proceedings:
The vainglorious hope is that these tools will be picked up by others, and both encourage creators to make meaningful work and encourage developers to think twice about how they handle text in their applications. (perthDAC 2007 Proceedings, page 211)
Nick Montfort’s and Ian Bogost’s work on Platform Studies was presented by Fox Harrell. Montfort’s and Bogost’s argument is that although many researchers are now including code in the analysis of games and culture at large, there is still a massive gap in the understanding of games because of there is little attention to the hardware level. They outlined five levels of digital media studies: reception/operation; interface; form/function; code and platform. It is the latter, particularly the Atari VCS, Multimedia PC and Nintendo Wii, that they interrogated in the paper (and more in their forthcoming book). The only criticism of the proposal was that (at this stage) there was no consideration of the cultural and industrial factors.
Fox Harrell, in his paper ‘Cultural Roots for computing: The Case for African Diasporic Orature and Computational Narrative in the GROIT system’ augmented his technical paper delivered at the last DAC with this cultural studies perspective. His paper is best described from a snippet from his abstract:
Cultural practices and values are implicitly built into all computational systems. However, it is not common to develop systems with explicit critical engagement with, and foundations in, cultural practices and values aside from those traditionally priviledged in discourse surrounding computing practices. I assert that engaging commonly excluded cultural values and practices can potentially spur computational innovation, and can invigorate expressive computational production.’ (perthDAC 2007 Proceedings, page 157)
So too, Simon Penny went one step further and questioned the viability of creating anything on computers as they are now. From his abstract:
Where computational technology are engaged by social and cultural practices, there exists an implicity but fundamental theoretical crisis. An artist, engaging such technologies in the realization of a work, invites the very real possibility that the technology, like the Trojan Horse, introduces values inimical to the basic qualities for which the artist strives. The very process of engaging the technology quite possibily undermines the qualities the work strives for. (perthDAC 2007 Proceedings, page 298)
Both Penny’s and Harrell’s papers resonnated with me. Harrell, because he looks at oral storytelling (orature) and ‘polymorphic poetry’ and Penny because I understand the frustration of working with a system that doesn’t match what I want to create. Although that is a simplification of Penny’s argument, the point still stands. As yet, there is no storytelling/universe creating system that matches the way intuitively would like to do it. I am, however, using what exists in different ways, to create new ways of seeing, which will then facilitate new creations, which will then….
Beyond Digital Media
Many presentations discussed projects that utilise other media besides digital media. The bioart works I mentioned earlier are included, also location-aware spatial audios of Nick Mariette, board games with Stewart Woods and locative media projects with Brian Degger and Mary Flanagan. Mary Flanagan presented on ‘Locating Play and Politics: Real World Games and Political Action’ in which she argued that most locative media projects do not actually use the locations. As she explains in her paper (which is mistakenly not in the proceedings but will be online):
‘The key issue to examine with locative media and pervasive games is that many of these new, mediated experienced refer to and appropriate space while divorcing it from its meaning, history and significance.’
And of course, my presentation…which was a quick snapshot of the range of multi-platform projects emerging in different commercial, non-commercial, mass entertainment, independent gaming and art sectors simultaneously. In my paper I look back to the possible reasons why this happening, what cognitive processes are involved. I’ve called the dual process of abstract unification with material diversity I posit is behind these integrationist practices: mono-polymorphism. In the future, I contend, this will only increase…and so the lens of ‘digital media’ will become less and less prevalent.
The Call for New Methodologies
It was apparent too, in some of the presentations and conversations that new methodologies are yearned for. In order to get new outcomes we need to go back and alter the approaches we use in analysis and creation. For instance, Torill Elvira Mortensen argued in her paper ‘The Real Truth About What Game Researchers Do All Day’, that games studies needs to ask new research questions. She sketched the different directions of games research: immersive school; structuralist school; the contextual school, and everybody else. Some of the problems Torill mentions is the issue of studying games by playing games and how that involvement changes games. This issue is always on my mind too. I often do not blog about particular projects that I am studying because I do not want to influence its development or reception. I am aware that as a public intellectual (may I be so bold as to say that? – leave me to my fantasies!) that my observations change the object of my study. While on the one hand, as a creator and Earth-community-member, I feel it is my delightful duty to share my discoveries and help change things…on the other, as a researcher, I’m aware of the difficulty of studying something that I have helped create. Torill ends her paper saying:
If we have a responsibility as researchers it is to not ignore that which we do not immediately understand. (perthDAC 2007 Proceedings, page 285)
I observed too, that in many papers and the responses that there was a growing urge towards more integrated methodologies…which made me wish I had presented on my theory of transmodiology! But, good to see many yearning for more (that is the nature of true inquiry is it not?).
The Future of Digital Media is…
I’ll end my reflections here, though it should be noted there were many other talks that I found quite interesting, including Axel Brun’s talk on the ‘produsage’ (the patterns he has observed across different social sites resonnate with some of mine. I’ll blog his ppt soon); Tracey Fullerton and Celia Pearce (and Jackie Morie who wasn’t present)’s paper ‘A Game of One’s Own’ (a call for non-male-constructed game spaces); Jichen Zhu’s ‘continuous materiality’ and truna, David Browning & Nicola J Bidwell’s ‘Wanderer Beyond Game Worlds’. But for now, I’ll finish with a quick thought about the theme of the conference. I was quite surprised to find that (out of the presentations I attended) hardly anyone addressed the theme of the conference: ‘The Future of Digital Media’. Therefore, the inference many people made is that the (emerging?) trends discussed will be the future. My only concern with that interpretation is that there is difference between discussing emerging trends and thinking about their role in the future. Extant practices may become prevalent, some may die off, and all will not continue as they are at present. When considering the future, then, one has to understand, in my opinion, the core of the current practices — why is ___ occuring now? what has influenced it’s emergence? where has it come from? what factors will impact it’s development? For me, the point I tried to make in my paper was that in asking for the future of digital media one is artificially framing the future. I understand the question can be countered and explored in ways other than how it was framed. That is what I did. Questions can maintain that thinking…or questions can challenge it. Dissonance is good for growth.
The question remains then. What is the future of digital media? I think the themes I cover in this post point to some possibilities…what are your thoughts?[reblogged at WRT]