An artist and researcher, Dr. Chris Salter‘s work focuses on the development of responsive performance environments in which light, sound, image, architectural space and sensor-based technologies seamlessly blend with performers and the spectators themselves. Going beyond the simple, one-to-one interaction between user and computer, Dr. Salter explores complex environments in which the viewer inhabits the artwork. As the Director of the Hexagram Concordia Centre for Research and Creation in Media Art and Technology, he works with a team to produce artistic performance and installation projects, scholarly essays, and hardware and software for sensing and controlling responsive environments. His project N-Polytope: Behaviors in Light and Sound after Iannis Xenakis was awarded an Honorary Mention at VIDA 14.0.
Your work ranges from installations where spectators become performers to traditional performance environments. What are the challenges of working in these two different settings? What are your expectations regarding the reaction of the visitors in public driven installations?
Each setting is specific to its context, architectural site and cultural framework. When we talk about traditional performance environments, I mean settings where there is a clear demarcation between spectating and performing. For example, the minute one enters a theater, concert hall or even gallery and there is an architectural demarcation between ourselves as spectators (literally, as “lookers” and not as participants) and the performer/performance, we immediately begin to act according to the conventions of this demarcated setting (e.g., we assume a passive role as observer/spectator; we expect to experience something which has already been planned, rehearsed, etc). In other words, the conventions prescribe and sometimes, even predict and enable specific behaviors in which we quickly fall into. In the case of settings in which there is a blurring between performer and performance, this is naturally more complex because the conventions are not exactly clear from the setting. Either the conventions or frame emerges over time based on a set of rules, constraints, conditions or other structures that you set up so that people can engage within a system or environment in specific ways or, in other cases, the conventions that one thinks are there are, in effect, so defamiliarized that one never figures them out. Again, this is really specific to the project and its own context. For example, in the sensory installation JND (Just Noticeable Difference), the frame is that one enters a very, very dark space and lies on their back, waiting for some kind of sensory stimuli to come. Because the sensory stimuli in the form of sound and then vibration/touch is, at first, almost at the thresholds of hearing and haptic perception, it’s hard to be placed in a passive spectator role since the event itself is entirely dependent on the perceiver. In other words, for example, the multi-sensory environment Displace, which has been presented in both artistic and anthropological-academic contexts, one shifts roles, from participant to observer of others’ behaviors to again, passive experiencer. The ultimate expectation regarding reactions is simply that one enables oneself to give over to an experience that is only made possible by a bi-directional engagement – to come to the world that one is thrown into as much as to enable that world to come to you.
You stated once that “quotidian life in our age has become a continual, round-the-clock performance.” How can artistic performance draw our attention towards this fact?
That quote refers to the fact that through social media like Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and other things that everyone is involved with performing themselves and putting that out on the net for others to experience. I was being more than an bit ironic in that argument in the fact that Andy Warhol’s prediction of everyone experiencing (or wanting to experience) 15 minutes of fame has indeed, come true (although due to the speed of things, its increasingly like 15 milliseconds seconds of fame. Good art, whether it is on the stage, in the cinema or in the street, always pulls us out of the quotidian or, at the very least, makes the quotidian feel alive or vibrant, perhaps more so than the everyday tends to be. In fact, as I told my friend, the sociologist and game studies theorist Bart Simon recently, I think we tend to fetishize the everyday – to make it seem more interesting that it is. There is a difference, for example, in tactical moves like the Situationists who wanted to make the everyday into the fantastic by disrupting social and cultural conventions, whether it was through some kind of Debordian psychogeographic derive or, as the artist and architect Constant imagined it, to create an ambient environment which would enliven and heighten different sensory properties, like smell, taste, etc. through media like a kind of “spray.” But, as Félix Guattari claimed, what art really does is generate “far off balances” from everyday life and to that effect, it actually de-frames and shakes up the quotidian.
As the interaction with interfaces and reactive systems pervades our daily life, is it possible that artistic interactive installations become confused with mere forms of entertainment? How can this confusion be prevented?
Well, yes, in the sense that they become mere spectacle or effect, without any kind of lasting impression. But this is a complex question because, in effect, so much artistic work, whether at big art exhibitions like Documenta or Art Basel, media arts festivals or what have you has become so dependent on large scale that it increasingly takes on entertainment proportions. There is nothing wrong in entertainment in and of itself. I like to interrogate words and let’s not forget that the Latin etymology of the word entertainment is from inter and tenir which meant “to hold” in one’s grasp.
But I think the confusion of spectacle culture can be, if not prevented, at least, challenged by either creating experiences that are not easy or are ambiguous and thus leave something more permanent in the spectators. This invokes the East German playwright Heiner Müller’s famous distinction between “success” and “effect.” Success is when one watches something and leaves feeling satisfied, fulfilled, effected. Effect is when one leaves an event and feels absolutely confused, ambiguous or even, swindled. “What was that? Why did I waste my time?” Then, months later, or even years later, you are doing the laundry or cooking or watching someone you love and that event returns; it haunts you and continues to haunt you.
Pablo Helguera states that “art makes us perform”, in the sense that the context of the art world influences our behavior. In your experience, does the context of the gallery determine a particular reaction of the spectators, as opposed to a public space?
Absolutely. As I said above, the white box and the black box have definitive conventions and socio-cultural-political-economic mores attached to them and, what’s more, distinct forms of perception. This is what the avant-garde has always been about – trying to break these conventions and make people experience something or someplace they think they know anew.
Architecture plays an important role in your work. How does it shape our perception and affect our body? Is this connection between architecture, perception and the body also present in simulated environments, such as the virtual world Second Life?
This is an interesting question. In as far as architecture involves the positioning and movement of the body or the enactment of bodily acts within a scripted space, this is very important to my work. Indeed, each work involves the development of a particular set of architectural conditions and with that, the political frameworks for observation and perception. After all, perception is a political act. Architecture continually shapes our body and perception in relation to temporal and spatial scale as well as material and socio-technical apparatuses. As one opens up or closes down a space, shifts the temporal quality through image, light, scent, sound or creates objects that alter our bodily position in relation to them, all of these are architectural ploys since they involve the conception and construction of built environments. In this sense, architecture doesn’t play a sculptural role for my projects but rather, the role of a set of spatial-temporally organized strategies. Usually these are constructed so that participants have to deal with such strategies. I distinctly remember when designer and collaborator Erik Adigard and I were showing our commissioned work Air XY for the 11th Venice Biennale in which the theme was “Architecture beyond Building.” We were dealing with the tension between the desktop and lived space – between the flatness of 2-D information spaces versus the richness of sensorial space. Since we thought that originally the theme of the biennale, as the director Aaron Betsky told us, was around the theme of hidden systems, we designed a system which only made sense in time. It was built in the sense that it was a gigantic screen in which visitors were captured by cameras and keyed onto the surface of the image as half bodies – surrounded by all of these large scale projected info graphics and complex systems as well dynamic icons that swarmed around their heads and half bodies. When you went around to the back, all your encountered was fog and the short but incredibly bright flash of a strobe. It was only over a particular duration that one could experience another kind of architecture – one that was fleeting, barely perceivable but that you could somehow inhabit, even though it was composed only of light. Of course, this was a kind of citation of Anthony McCall’s work with light and fog from the 1960s but it was also our comment on architecture – that its essence is not only spatial but also temporal. At the same time, even though the theme was “beyond building” all of these other commissioned architects in the same exhibition, like Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Asymptote, MVRDV, Coop Himmelblau, all of our architectural heroes actually just built static stuff that you could look at but hardly inhabit. It was quite a revelation for us that architecture really was more about being inside something that was dynamic and that could alter your perception of the world rather than being something that you essentially look at and walk through. It is also in this sense that I would say that architecture in something like Second Life is strictly a visual domain – and not, like Hans Hollein stated already in the 1960s, an olfactory, tactile or acoustic experience that one inhabits.
Some of your works require a considerable amount of time to be experienced (in relation to the time usually spent observing an artwork). Has this been problematic in relation to the public? Do we usually spend too little time observing ourselves and our environment?
This goes back to the previous question. Since I come from theater where one has a contract with the audience that they will enter something and remain for a long period of time (which is OK), I attempt to bring this kind of commitment to time and experience to my work outside of that theater frame. This contrasts with the shopping mall quality of much art, where you go through an exhibition like you walk down the supermarket aisle and scan all of the different cereals. Usually, this kind of time commitment is really no problem for the public – it is unusual that they have to stop and commit to having an experience (just like when you meditate- you can’t do it in five minutes) and most people seem to appreciate being able to be immersed totally in another space and time. For curators who are worried about throughput, getting the maximum amount of people through an exhibition, however, it is more problematic. For example, we’ve made now four different versions of JND so that each program (3, 6, 10, 15 minutes in duration) can be chosen depending on how many people are waiting. In Lille, we had some 5000 people on the weekend alone – hence the need to create an installation that as many people as possible can go through. The problem here is that you need a certain period of time of sensory reduction – something that doesn’t really happen when you have to spend 3 minutes or less in an experience that really demands more time. This dovetails in response to the question of whether we spend too little time observing ourselves and our environment – the answer to this is obvious – of course! But from my experience showing projects all over the world that create different experiences of time, people are eager for something that is slower, more concentrated and, consequently, has a strong affect on experience.
N-Polytope draws inspiration from the work of Iannis Xenakis, which is taken to a different level. Why did you choose to re-imagine his work? In your opinion, are artists working with new media nowadays aware of the contributions of pioneers such as Xenakis?
In terms of the area of “new media,” Xenakis is clearly one of the forerunners of where we are today. Everything from the interest in self-organization and emergent systems to the continuum between order and disorder as part of a perceptual process and the question of the observer in relationship to technically open versus closed systems was already thought through with Xenakis’ work and writings. Indeed, I chose to re-examine the Polytope projects because they were so far ahead of their time – through Xenakis’ interest in the temporal dynamics of media and its affect on perception, through Xenakis’ use of probabilistic or “stochastic” models to create indeterminate but not random behaviors. Since N_Polytope both comes from research into emergent behavior in multi-modal systems equipped with many sensors and actuators (e.g., light) as well as my own interest in trying to understand historically what Xenakis was after and what relevance it still has today, you can say that the project is both a research program, an aesthetic experience and a platform for exploration of themes like order and disorder and self-organization. To answer the second part of the question – I think there are a lot of artists who are familiar with the contributions of pioneers like Xenakis – but many don’t have the luxury of time or financial support to undertake such a detailed approach to works like the Polytopes – this is the advantage of being within a research context at a centre like Hexagram, which I run at Concordia University. One can spend three years on the development of a project and all of its components – technical, historical, aesthetic – as opposed to having to generate a new project every six months to keep “productive” in relationship to the market. We are gearing up to revise the project for totally new spaces unlike the initial production at LABoral in Spain in 2012. In January 2014, we will show the project at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, as part of their Lichtopia exhibition and inside the Buckminster Fuller dome of the campus – an amazing space and one also very much in the spirit of Xenakis. The other location will be at CTM in Berlin inside another very interesting site – an old city swimming pool located in Wedding. This moving the project around and adapting it to new locales and sites is also part of the spirit of what Xenakis did with the various Polytope editions.
In N-Polytope the use of algorithms introduces the perception of the system as being “alive”. What does this concept bring to your current artistic research? Does the attention of the spectator move from her own body towards the “other” in the “living” system?
Another interesting question that requires a long essay, in and of itself! But to answer quickly – you are right to bring up the term of artificial life. N_Polytope is based on algorithms derived from reinforcement learning, where you have software agents who have goals and are either rewarded or punished for either reaching their goals or not. These resulting actions and behaviors are then mapped to perceptual elements – light and sound – which, because of their temporal evolution, give the impression to the perceivers that the environment functions like a kind of organism. Many people have asked me whether the observers or audience “interact” with the system – meaning whether or not there is a causal relation between something like movement or position and the various sensors. This is where the question of alive comes in. Because the system self-generates to a large extent its behaviors, we get the sense that there is forward motion that, at the same time, is not teleologically motivated. As my friend the biologist and systems theorist Peter Cariani argues, the different behaviors that the system produces are partly a result of the numerous ways an observer observes the system. In this sense, the perceivers own body is critical, absolutely necessary in relationship to the behaving other.
Life, here, is not biological or carbon, but rather the impression of something which evolves but still maintains some semblance of structure as it evolves. This is the fascinating thing about N_Polytope that, I believe, is different and, at the same time, in the same spirit as Xenakis’ use of probability distributions, for example. We have the sense that the system is going somewhere but neither us nor the system know exactly where. In this sense, there is a mutual experience of otherness, between the perceptual field of our experience of the system and the system’s own internal states.
Finally, how would you define artificial life?
A very tricky question but it certainly doesn’t have only to do with computation, as the term is normally understood.