Future Cinema

Course Site for Future Cinema 1 and Future Cinema 2: Applied Theory at York University, Canada

An Analysis of Liquid Architectures

By

David B. Beleznay

Introduction

Steve Dixon’s piece discusses how artists explore alternative approaches to our immediate urban environments, deconstructing our relationship with our homes, our cities and our World. These semi-permanent architectural installations are designed to challenge our notions of what it means to live in manmade structures, in other words they seek to re-define physical reality itself.
The spaces are constructed or rendered so they are able to “respond to change and exchange” with the people who interact with them. Ideas generated by these temporary installations and performances are now used by architectural companies in commercial building projects such as the Salt Water Pavilion in the Netherlands.

Media and Architecture

When thinking of architecture we tend to think of walls and closed places. We inhabit them, we paint the walls, decorate and hang pictures, or stuffed squirrels if that’s what it takes, all in an effort to bend it, to re-form it to our soul’s silhouette. Yet the physical space remains the same if we take our treasured masterpiece of taxidermy and leave.
The artists Dixon mentions, seek to explore new ways of seeing and interacting with our environment, to train us to think differently and expect more of our architectural environment. These spaces are able to form around us and can provide far greater stimulation than any number of stuffed squirrels.
One of the examples Dixon provides is Gretchen Schiller’s “trajets” installation (with Susan Kozel), which comprises twelve screens, suspended from above. These walls are motorized and are able to move freely in response to the visitor’s paths. The moving walls also act as projection screens. This way the architecture of the space envelops the visitor, forming and reforming according to his/her needs.
Stephan Silver takes the idea of responsive screen environment to another level in “Synfonica” where participants activate and directly influence audiovisual projections.

Narrative Spaces

One of the most interesting aspects of this line of artistic inquiry in my opinion is how technologies, which allowed us to rethink physical space, also spurred new approaches to storytelling.
Sarah Neville’s “Ada” reimagines the original heroine of computer programmers Ada Byron Lovelace, author of the fist software, as creator of virtual worlds, and her character as the mirror of the unpredictable computer architecture.
Director Lynn Hershmann used virtual sets during the filming of “Conceiving Ada”. These virtual architectural pieces reacted in real time to the movement of actors on the set, allowing them to play off of their imagined surroundings, much more so than current green-screen technologies where the virtual set is only integrated to the finished film during post-production.
Theatrical productions also incorporated alternative projected architecture in innovative ways. Keith Armstrong’s “Hacking a Private Space in Cyberspace” used hand gestures to “paint” projected architecture onto 3D shapes.
“Guest House” does the same only on thin white wooden screens as they rotate in mid air.
Though Dixon emphasizes the innovative technique and praises the artists’ ability to unify the flexible virtual and real space on stage to create a convincing mise-en-scene, he is decidedly unimpressed by the performance and direction.

Sensory Immersion

The experience of space through auditory and physical sensation is perhaps the most overlooked way we perceive our surroundings. When we think of our world we think visually.
Artists such as Sarah Rubidge, Alistair MacDonald and others, seek to create immersive and sensuous spaces where participants are enveloped in responsive liquid soundscapes, surreal ghostlike figures swimming in the dark above them on massive screen projections, all the while surrounded by silky robes guiding them through the maze. The ritual of creating a personal sound signature further enhances the almost ethereal experience. The goal of “Sensuous Geographies” is to force visitors to embrace non-visual sensations so that they would allow themselves to experience space primarily through sound and touch.
By witnessing others experiencing their physical environment in a radically different way, confronts the waiting visitors with their own expectations of the World.

The Body as Screen

The natural progression of the process of rethinking physical space is to arrive back at the root of the problem, the vehicle through which we experience the World: our bodies.
By redefining the outside space we are left pondering the question: is our physical presence in space the ultimate measure of it, its final definition?
Bud Blumenthal’s dancers in “Rivermen” perform on stage interacting with the digital projection designed to redefine them and the space they exist in.
Describing the performance Dixon focuses on the lyrical beauty of the choreography and liquid way it interacts with the projection, but I think he misses the opportunity to talk about the philosophical implications of using the body as the screen. It seems to me that by subjugating the physical center of human experience to the projected shadow of an alternate reality, Blumenthal’s dancers acting as screens, question the primacy of our own perceptions of it.

A Hole in Reality

In the final third of the paper Dixon spends some much needed time on discussing the effects all these artistic thought experiments have on our perception of Reality (with a capital R). He uses Slavoj Zhizek’s definition for virtual space: it is a “Whole in Reality”.
Whenever we see a virtual image as part of the reality, the reality we perceive as “real”, the World fractures. At the intersection of real and unreal a new reality opens which is born of this doubling of space. It is a “mixed reality”.
One of the most memorable examples which depicts this theory in action is Susan Collins’s “In Conversation” which is a digitally projected animated mouth interacting with surprised British people out for a stroll in Brighton. The mouth speaks the words of online users in real time and people converse with the magical mouth. This use of a disembodied virtual mouth in the installation shows us what happens when people encounter an experience that contradicts their expectations of what is real. What follows is the willful suspension of disbelief by the participants. They cross the threshold willingly and without thinking about it, into a third reality that is a bastard child of “Real” and “Virtual”. Dixon points out that the online viewers interacting with people on their screen through a virtual mouth are further removed from the experience than the pedestrians they talk to, yet their world connects to the space on the sidewalk.

Conclusion

Through artworks, which seek to redefine physical space, we can deconstruct our immediate environment, our greater World and finally our experience of it. By rethinking how we see and understand our existence we can glimpse at a new understanding of ourselves, of a layered reality. Dixon argues that encountering and interacting with virtual images and projections does not necessarily collapse realities, as neither the participant nor the viewer mistakes this as an encounter with the supernatural. Rather it is only a connecting of spaces that takes place, like during a telephone conversation.
On this point I disagree. Of course encounters with the virtual would no more be mistaken for a religious experience by a person trained to see the World through the symbolic language of technology, than an interior decorator would consider a taxidermied squirrel as a legitimate choice in her line of work.
The definition of “Real” changes when the virtual space punctures our World, when we have no other choice but to reconsider and redefine where one begins and one ends. It is the malleable nature of our understanding of reality, our inexhaustible ability to conform and adjust our expectations that makes it hard for us to perceive when spatial realities collapse.

Tue, January 17 2012 » Futurecinema_2009

2 Responses

  1. david January 17 2012 @ 1:12 pm

    By the way, does anyone know where can I find a discreet Taxidermist? My fridge is full of squirrels…

  2. david January 17 2012 @ 1:21 pm

    Which is a problem because they keep eating my cereal.

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