DECONSTRUCTING INSTALLATION ART © 2006 Graham Coulter-Smith CASIAD PUBLISHING ISBN 978-0-9548334-4-2

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Place: Rhur, 2000

Speaking of interactive video art in Place: Ruhr, 2000, Shaw provides a screen-based environment that is immersive in the manner of Legible City but has a more complex content and mode of interaction. The work is a computational videographic apparatus that allows the viewer to explore the landscape of the Ruhr, once the industrial heartland of Germany and now undergoing the vicissitudes of post-industrial regeneration.

This digital interactive installation is more elaborate than Legible City. It is essentially an interactive panorama. The viewer occupies a platform with controls in the middle of a 360° panoramic screen. A 120° field-of-vision image is projected onto the screen. By manipulating the control panel the viewer, standing on a rotatable platform, can position a 120° image within the larger 360° surface. If viewers see something that interests them, they can zoom into the image. The eleven panoramic images of the Ruhr environment are presented on the screen in the form of graphic cylinders that the viewer can choose to enter. These cylinders refer to the shape of the panoramic screen and also, for Shaw, they connote the eleven interconnected circles of the Sephirothic Tree of Life which, in the context of this work, suggest the exploration of multiple realities and realities within realities. Upon selecting a particular image cylinder via controls on the viewing platform it opens out into a 120° computational panoramic image which the viewer is able to explore videographically. Mark Hansen quotes ZKM (Centre for Art and Media Technology) director Peter Weibel’s  description of Shaw’s use of interactivity as ‘a heightened ability to view and use the world according to one’s own notions, more individually, more subjectively’ (in Hansen, 2004: 51). And Hansen suggests that the physical involvement of the viewer in the viewing process makes ‘technology a supplement to the body’ (2004: 51).

One might argue that this embodiment is illusory but that observation has to be balanced against the fact that all of our various senses including corporeal senses such as touch and the kinaesthetic senses are interrelated within the processing systems of the brain. Leading edge research into artificial intelligence also indicates that language is embodied, which is to say integrated into the internal and external senses (Roy 2005).

Interrelatedness of sense and the senses is necessary to give us a coordinated grip on the world. On the one hand our consciousness of our body and world is produced in the synaptic universe of the brain. On the other hand the interrelated learning networks of the brain are inherently informed by the fact that we have a physical body in a physical world. Which is to say, body and brain are, perceptually and cognitively speaking, intimately entwined. Francesco Varela coined the useful phrase ‘embodied mind’ to refer to this condition (Varela et al. 1991).

In her history of installation art Bishop mentions the work of Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica who pioneered an embodied mode of installation art. The embodiment took the form of a network of spaces that the viewer was invited to explore. The construction of spaces that the viewer is invited to explore is also evident in the contemporary installation art of Mike Nelson, Gregor Schneider and John Bock. But a parallel process of embodied exploration is taking place in the immersive screen space of  Place: Ruhr. This parallel mode of embodied exploration is also evident in commercial computer games that involve creative exploration.

 

Attaining the Interactive Goal: Vectorial Elevation

If Jeffrey Shaw (born 1944) represents the pioneering, first generation of interactive digital installation art then Rafael Lozano-Hemmer  (born 1967) is an outstanding representative of the second generation. He has produced several remarkable works but the one I will focus on here is Vectorial Elevation, 1999–2000, which is a paradigmatic instance of interactive installation art which facilitates a creative engagement on the part of the viewer and brings art into everyday life.

Vectorial Elevation was staged in Zocalo square, Mexico City, one of the largest public squares in the world. It has played a role in many of the political upheavals in Mexican history as well as being a site for concerts and celebrations. Lozano-Hemmer placed eighteen remote controlled searchlights on the roofs of the building surrounding the square. The movement of these searchlights was controlled via computer and it was possible for people to program the pattern made by the searchlight beams by using a web browser graphic interface that could be accessed anywhere in the world over the Internet. In his video documentation of the project Lozano-Hemmer claims that Vectorial Elevation introduces ‘new creative relationships between control technologies, ominous urban landscapes and a local and remote public’ (Lozano-Hemmer 2000). He notes that ‘the Zocalo’s monumental size makes the human scale seem insignificant, an observation that has been noted by some Mexican scholars as an emblem of a rigid, monolithic, homogenizing environment’ (Lozano-Hemmer 2000) which is to say the government building flanked square becomes an architectural embodiment of alienation and disempowerment the artist seeks to ‘deterritorialise’.

Lozano-Hemmer also notes that ‘searchlights themselves have been associated with authoritarian regimes’ and one can cite Adolf Hitler’s resident designer and architect Albert Speer who on the occasion of a spectacular Nazi rally in the Nuremberg stadium, in 1936, made use of a line of searchlight beams pointing vertically into the sky like a Roman colonnade.

The crucial difference between Speer’s fascist spectacle and Lozano-Hemmer’s use of searchlights is that Lozano-Hemmer places the means of spectacle into the hands of the viewer. Accordingly, his work goes further than situating art in public spaces. That simply expands the potential audience, it does not offer a more active role to that audience. In addition, in Vectorial Elevation, the viewer is not only controlling the lights but also the public square. If Zocalo square can be understood as a site of tension between the power of the state and that of its citizenry, then for duration of his installation Lozano-Hemmer hands the spectacular power of square over to the public.

The significance of Vectorial Elevation lies in the manner in which Lozano-Hemmer creates a situation in which the public are placed in control of the means of production of spectacle. If, as Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard argue, spectacle is one of the principal methods whereby the capitalist system ensures its hegemony then Vectorial Elevation can be said to possess an emancipatory dimension.

Vectorial Elevation is a quintessential instance of an art game, a game without winners and losers; instead the game is oriented towards creative engagement and empowerment. This work actually achieves the very high aspirations alluded to by Bishop in the following statement.

Many artists and critics have argued that this need to move around and through the work in order to experience it activates the viewer, in contrast to art that simply requires optical contemplation (which is considered to be passive and detached). This activation is, moreover, regarded as emancipatory, since it is analogous to the viewer’s engagement in the world. A transitive relationship comes to be implied between ‘activated spectatorship’ and active engagement in the social-political arena. (Bishop 2005: 11)

The exceptional nature of Vectorial Elevation is evident in the fact that the achievement of such goals is so extremely rare. It is also extraordinary that current texts on installation art are so focused on traditional fine art that they neglect developments in digital interactive installation art such as Vectorial Elevation.

Reality TV

The key feature of Vectorial Elevation that distinguishes it from the instances of fine art addressed in this book is its game-like structure. Like a game designer Lozano-Hemmer becomes a facilitator handing over the active use of the work of art into the hands of the participant.

Vectorial Elevation is a paradigmatic instance of not only interactivity but taking art into life. And it is significant that Lozano-Hemmer states that Vectorial Elevation would be an ‘ephemeral intervention that would have no linear narrative’. Nonlinear narrative is one of the key principles of deconstructive art to the extent that if work of art does not follow this rule it is not deconstructive. This does not pose a problem when the fundamental goal is creative playfulness but it does pose a problem if one is intent on having a purpose such as creating a functioning design or transmitting an ethical message. The beauty of Vectorial Elevation is that it demonstrates that a creative game can square the circle and transmit an ethical message while at the same time being nonlinear.

This is quite an achievement because, on balance, nonlinear narrative has done fine art more harm than good. In particular, it led deconstructive art away from social relevance and into the dimension of pure play, and solipsistic private languages.

It should be useful, therefore, to add the concept of the creative game to that of the narrative continuum with its two poles of linearity and nonlinearity. If the linear-nonlinear narrative continuum is the horizontal x axis then we can install a vertical y axis consisting of the poles of the creative versus the classic game. The difference between the two types of game is that the classic game entails winners and losers whereas the creative game concerns exploration and experiment.

The doctrinal dedication of deconstructive art to nonlinear narrative has contributed to its lack of success in attaining the goal of a greater involvement of art in everyday life. Accordingly I would like to take a look now at an area of popular culture—reality TV—which has turned away from classic linear narrative without losing its popularity. One may think that this instance is just too popular but I would argue that in certain cases reality-TV can be more socially significant than fine art.[31]

In drama the logic of the story, narrative logic, is superimposed on elements of everyday life. In the case of reality-TV what is imposed is a game logic, often in the form of a simple model in which there are winners and losers (a microcosm of the game of life). From the standpoint of interaction the pertinent feature of the game is that it can accommodate both spectation and active participation.

As in literature and film, reality-TV focuses on human behaviour, in Bourriaudian terms it is quintessentially ‘relational’. This is in stark contrast to the focus on inanimate objects, formalisms and autobiographical obsessions evident in the sphere of modern-postmodern art. This is not, necessarily, to suggest that deconstructive art should turn to reality-TV—although that might be an interesting and productive avenue—instead I am pointing to a phenomenon wherein the non-narrative form of the game is able to intersect in a creative manner with everyday life.

One might also cite sport, which has massive popularity. But, unlike sport which depends upon high levels of skill, most reality-TV games are designed so that anyone can participate, but there is usually a task of more or less complexity that has to be accomplished.[32] The participant in the reality-TV game therefore can undergo ‘character growth’ which is one of the staples of narrative development in classical cinema.

Comparing and contrasting deconstructive fine art and reality TV is instructive. One can note, for example, that the socially privileged position of successful artists presents a significant barrier to their attempts to interact with social reality. In this sense the producers of reality-TV are at an advantage because they are unencumbered with traditional values such as the intrinsic genius of the reality TV producer. They are simply making a product, not a remarkable contribution to High Culture. And reality-TV offers its participants more than payment it offers them a taste of fame, more than that it can offer a very real sense of achievement and an expansion of life horizons. Whereas the people who take part in works of art are mostly ciphers.

 

 

INTERACTION | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | CONTENTS

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Vectorial Elevation, 1999–2000

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Vectorial Elevation, 1999–2000.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Vectorial Elevation, 1999–2000. Photo: David Quintas.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Vectorial Elevation, 2002. Vitoria-Gasteiz, Basque Country, Spain. Photo: David Quintas.

Jeffrey Shaw, Place: Ruhr, 2000, installation view

Jeffrey Shaw, Place: Ruhr, 2000, installation view © Jeffrey Shaw.