September 5, 2004

ISEA 2004: Art Report

by Scott Rettberg · , 10:10 pm

isea club As you would expect, the art installations were done very well throughout the venues of ISEA 2004. The conference made a statement about the vitality of electronic arts by the sheer immensity of the event itself. There was so much art in so many different venues on the Silja Opera, in Tallinn, and in Helsinki, that it would have simply been impossible to see it all during the conference, particularly if one also intended to catch a panel or two. I caught the principal exhibitions in Tallinn and the Kiasma exhibition in Helsinki, but I missed several shows at smaller venues and a bunch of site-specific work scattered around the two cities. The ISEA catalog is a full-length book, and it would take a work of that length to comprehensively discuss the art at ISEA. I can offer only a glimpse of what was on display at the conference in these notes.

The SEA part of the conference, onboard the cruise ship Silja Opera, included a variety of audio installations, most of which were specific to the site and which used the boat or the ocean in some way. There was a thread of art throughout the conference that used data of kind or another, and often real-time data, to algorithmically manipulate audio and/or video. Tucked around different parts of the boat, which was essentially a party in motion, some of these installations were easy to miss. In a couple of cases, we weren’t sure if the audio we were hearing was from an installation or not. Sort of odd and eerie noises were emitting from the ship’s speakers on our deck. We weren’t sure if it was art or just boat noises. I did manage to stare out at the sea for a few minutes and listen to Float by Tuomo Tammenpaa and Tama Szakal of Finland, an installation that used data from the sea, such as depth soundings, and from the route and the surrounding islands, to build an audio experience — the ship functioning as the playhead and the route as the track.

Of the numerous VJ performances we sort of half-experienced while on the ship (there were DJs and VJs all over the place), I thought that the performance by Scanner (Robin Rimbaud) was the most interesting. He had several screens showing video that were evocative of mystery and the cold war, while he mixed an ambient track that you could sort of slump into in the cushy seating at the Metropolitan lounge. Most of the other VJ stuff didn’t do it for me — lots of industrial noise and vector graphics. The only other musical performance I saw that I really enjoyed was that by S.S.S. (Atau Tanaka, Cecile Babiole and Laurent Dailleau) at Club Bon Bon in Tallinn. Dailleau played a traditional theremin while Tanaka mixed and used a BioMuse device, as Babiole used ultrasound sensors to mix simple but colorful video. The result was both harmonious and fascinating to watch, as the three musicians mixed music and video by gesture alone, by breaking invisible fields. As a bonus, I happened to be standing next to Todd Winkler, the director of electronic music at Brown, who was very patient with all of my questions about how the heck they were doing that.

home and away

One of the themes of the conference was Geopolitics of Media, and several of the works exhibited at The Tallinn Art Hall were documentary projects along those lines. A couple of projects that were relatively simple from a technical standpoint, but which were simply well done multimedia documentaries, stood out for me. Home and Away is a documentary project about Indians growing up in London. The installation included beautifully printed wall posters with photos and bits and commentary by young men and women about the split nature of their identities as both British and Indian. The web site includes audio samples of interviews along with photos of the subjects.

Kim Stringfellow’s Safe as Mother’s Milk: The Hanford Project is an excellent multimedia documentary about the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State. For more than forty years, Hanford released radioactive materials while producing plutonium for the U.S. nuclear arsenal during the Cold War. Through maps, a timeline, declassified photos, news reels and commentary, the project creates a clear picture of the time and place, a nuclear company town that paid a price for its love affair with the atom bomb. The site has an excellent design. The installation also included powerful and evocative black and white photos. Stringfellow has also produced similar projects about the Salton Sea and Salmon in the Puget Sound.

One of the energizing aspects of the ISEA conference was the immense variety of approaches that artists are taking to creating electronic art. Approaches ranged from relatively simple web sites to bio-art such as Paul Venouse‘s bio-art in which two samples of DNA raced each other. Projects had a range of scale from the microscopic to the cosmic. I met one artist, Anna Hill, who is working on a Space Art project. As is the case in most new media, many of the projects crossed disciplinary borders, and new media transformations of many of the traditional art forms were on display, even dance. Marlon Barrios Salono gave a presentation on his Unstablelandscape, a dance work that integrates “real-time” interactive multimedia technologies (mainly using MaxMSPJitter and alternative interfaces) to create environments where dance improvisation takes place.

Many of the works on display were physically interactive, in the sense that they enlisted the user’s body in making the experience happen. For instance, Nick Steadman’s Blanket is a robotic sculpture in the form of a blanket that creeps and cuddles with the user. I didn’t see the installation, on a department store bed at a mall in Tallinn, but Jill and I met the artist on the ferry back to Helsinki. He said that it had been the first time the thing had seen a lot of hands-on (or rather bodies-on) interaction (users crawled up in bed with it), and that he had to stay up all night fixing and mending it after its first day of exhibition.

weatherreport A simple but clever installation in Tallinn, “Weather Report” by Janek Schaeffer, consisted of helium balloons and an MP3 player/cell phone. Recordings gathered by starting a cell phone call and then sending the phone up into the atmosphere attached to a weather balloon while recording the call on voicemail are remixed with other weather noises, to be played back on the cell phone in the installation. The artist, incidentally, also has the world record for breaking the most vinyl records by hand on his 33.3rd birthday.

Kiasma Museum, Helsinki


The Kiasma Museum in Helsinki, a world class contemporary arts facility (at night emblazoned with the gigantic cast shadow of a statue of a rider on the horse) situated across the street from Parliament, was clearly the main exhibition of ISEA 2004, and the exhibition was very well-curated, representing a wide variety of approaches to electronic art. One of my favorite works at Kiasma was Light Rain, installed in the courtyard in front of the museum.

Light Rain“Light Rain” is a fusion of “RainDance” by Paul DeMarinas and “The Rainbow Machine” by Rebecca Cummins. A shower drizzles down streams of water. The user opens an umbrella and steps under the streams of water, each of which carries sound vibrations, music which is heard undereath the umbrella and modulated by your movement of the umbrella under the stream. In the late afternoon and early morning light, rainbows are also produced by this interaction. The installation is literally immersive and a delight to experience.

One of the first works in the exhibition was actually an anti-communication technology. BuBL Space is device that creates a mobile-phone-free zone by disabling all mobile phone frequencies within a three-meter radius. While I mused that I might like to have one of these things in my classroom, Jill was able to receive a mobile call standing right next to it, so I’m not convinced the thing actually works. Nonetheless, it’s a great idea. Teachers should wear these devices on their belts.

fluid identity game

fluID Arena of Identities by Mathias Fuchs and Sylvia Eckermann is a very smart work, an installation in the form of an action game about identity. The player of the game starts out with an unfixed identity. As you play the game, you can “discover your identity, change your identity, steal or borrow another person’s identity, destroy identities or create new ones from scratch,” all by engaging in typical gamelike actions, such as jumping into a pool, running across a terrain, identity-zapping other players with a ray gun, or leaping to grab brand names from a cavern wall. The exhibit was set up very well, with two player stations, each controlling a view of the game that was projected onto a large panel of frosted glass.

Diego Diaz Garcia’s Zona de Recreo (video clip) has an interface in the form of a piece of children’s playground equipment. Multiple users engage the work at once, by standing on a circular platform and “balancing” with the other players. In the process, they are attempting to steer their way on a journey through VR panoramas of parks in Brazil. Conceptually, the work is based on the idea that playgrounds, once filled with children at play, have given way to the delights of the Internet and video games. Garcia is trying to find a way to integrate both types of play into one “moving” experience.

constructing narrativeLike Garcia’s work, Pamela JenningsConstructed Narratives enlists adults in constructive, if child-like, play. In this work, participants manipulate input devices shaped like children’s construction blocks. Each side of each input device contains an RFID tag. As a result of the construction play, different pieces of discourse are brought into contact with each other on the projection. In her project description, Jennings writes that “the act and metaphor of construction is used to illustrate how a simple artifact can provide an interactive platform for discourse between collaborating participants.”


scramble suit

Scramble Suit by Hanna Haaslahti is an installation that projects reflections of images of users of the work in the form of shadows on the wall while a wireframe “kinetic monster” tries to capture the shadow of one of the interactors, and then take over that user’s image. The work is quite elegant in its use of black and white projection. It deals conceptually with the vulnerability of self-representation in a mediated society.

path of illusion
Bundith Phunsombatlert‘s Path of Illusion was probably the most visually striking work in the exhibition. As you enter a darkened space, you see five electricity poles of different heights, each topped with a glass sphere emanating advertising messages in English and Thai. The base of each pole features a circular keyboard fashioned from several different types of international keyboards. By typing on the keyboards, you are able to distort the advertising message projected in the spheres.

Another visually striking work that simply but powerfully illustrated the power of wireless technology and the ubiquity of network communications is Steve Heimbecker’s POD (Wind Array Cascade Machine). The work consists of sixty-four movement sensors on the rooftop of Heimbecker’s studio at the Daniel Langlois Foundation in Montreal, and a corresponding number of light poles the darkened room of the installation in Helsinki. As wind blows across the motion sensors in Montreal, a corresponding wave pattern lights across the l.e.d. poles in the room in Helsinki in real-time. The result is that viewers “see” the wind blowing in Montreal while standing in the room in Helsinki, providing a wonderful moment of simultaneity and synesthesia.

stalkshow As we were leaving Kiasma, we were confronted with StalkShow by Karen Lancel, a work that deals with the threats of insecurity and isolation in a surveillance society. In a backpack the artist carries an interactive billboard equipped with a touchscreen laptop and a webcam. As the user stalks behind the artist and navigates through texts about surveillance on the computer’s screen, his or her image is captured with the webcam and projected on a massive screen elsewhere in the space.

I wish that I had been able to experience several distributed art projects which were also included in the Kiasma exhibition. Although I didn’t get to see the video documentation of Teri Rueb‘s Drift, I did hear her describe it during the “GPS Art” Panel in Helsinki. The audio and GPS work included a shifting soundtrack that users experienced by wandering a beach. The locations which set off the different sound cues shifted with the tides. Rueb has done several other location-based projects, including Trace, an installation in the Banff mountains intended to create a sonic memorial through songs, poems and stories which the user experienced in specific physical locations.

implementationThe exhibition, like the whole of ISEA, was an event of significant magnitude that spoke well of the vitality of the international electronic arts scene(s). My one significant disappointment with ISEA was that there was very little in the way of narrative work, or the type of work usually associated with the term “electronic literature.” Providing an otherwise broad interdisciplinary sweep of the current movements in electronic art, it seemed like an error by omission that very little narrative art was in the house. I’m hopeful that future ISEA conferences will let a little more story, a little more poetry, a little more drama, in through the back door. The worlds of electronic literature and electronic art should be hanging out together more often.