Interview with Jeffrey Shaw on Data, Metadata and Experience

The following interview was conducted on behalf of the Theory, Culture and Society website, original post here.

Interview with Jeffrey Shaw (Part 1) from Yuk Hui on Vimeo.

Yuk Hui: For many years, your works have been dealing with the relation between the viewer and moving images, and especially the embodiment experience. For example, Mark Hansen has a very interesting essay on your works articulated in this aspect. Instead of others’ interpretations of your works, what do you yourself understand by experience in relation to new media?

Jeffrey Shaw: My fascination with new media is largely to do with the way it can constitute a new relationship between the viewer and the image, that is to say between the participants and the authored art experience. Two aspects are important to me; one is the notion of embodiment, the way media art can offer a full body experience to the viewer and participant. The other aspect is interactivity, the way in which the work itself is open for the viewer /users’ manipulation and exploration.

YH: You are also interested in the idea of augmented space; for example, you use panorama in quite a few of your works. How do these augmented spaces contribute to experience?

JS: We are bodies that occupy real space, and the projection of a fictional artefact into that space creates a vicarious tension between the real and virtual. There is a conversation that takes place at that boundary and a lot of excitement is generated because that is where the space of representation makes contact with you. In the late 60’s and early 70’s I created numerous expanded cinema experiences that were to do with testing the boundary between the cinema screen and the viewing space that the audience occupies. I was looking for ways to transcend the conventional movie theatre’s separation between the projection window and the built environment. So typically these performances involved screens that would burst open and inflatable tubes would move out into the audience carrying the projected images with them. A paradigmatic work of that time was the CORPOCINEMA, where the screen was no longer a flat surface but a transparent inflatable dome. Films were projected into its domed space, which were then visualized by means of material actions such as smoke, confetti and fire extinguisher foam. Thus the fictional space-time of the film was conjugated with the real space-time of a corporeal performance, thereby redefining cinematic representation as a live situation of augmentation and interaction.

YH: In your recent works, such as T-visionarium, it seems there is a shift to a more temporal understanding of experience, or even space.

JS: T-Visionarium is about the deconstruction of televisual data and the temporality that belongs to the television experience. It’s about its dissolution into narrative fragments, the amalgamation of that with the functionality of metadata, and an interactive architecture for the reconstruction of those narrative elements into a newly immersive combinatory cinema

YH: To make it more explicit, in T-visionarium, we see that there is a large dimension of experience that doesn’t come from outside but from inside. The viewer ceases to be a spectator, but has to make sense of his/her past and construct a narrative for the future.

JS: There is another aspect that involves this play with memory. I have often worked with panoramic presentations but not in the conventional manner that shows a complete 360-degree image. In works like PLACE and EVE my paradigm is a mobile viewing window, a kind of porthole that only partially reveals the total image. This projection window is something that you are able to interactively move around in the panoramic space, gradually accumulating a visual memory of the entire field of representation. This is a powerful strategy of embodiment, because the totality of the work only reveals itself as a slowly accumulated internalized experience. Furthermore, the physical interactivity that enables this visual exploration constitutes a journey whose space-time coordinates are each time constructed and articulated as a unique personal enquiry into the work.

We did a small experiment a couple years ago when we were showing PLACE-Hampi in Berlin. We had a visitor questionnaire, and one of the questions shows the outline of a human figure and asks, “Where on your body do you experience this work”? People were marking this figure all over the place – head, eyes, hands, feet, heart and even the genitals. So clearly we were offering a ‘full body’ experience!

YH: You just talked about interior and exterior, which relates to the next question: what is data? Traditionally when we say data, we are talking about sense data, something that is given immediately. For example the French word for data also means given. Now when I look at a table, I perceive the sense data of the table. In terms of new media environment, there is something, which is rather externalized, that we also call data and metadata. To me, some of your works are making data as a work of art, for example the Web of Life in 2002. This suggests that we demand an extended understanding of data. What do you think as a media artist?

JS: In a work like T-Visionarium you have two parallel streams of data. You have the actual data that has been captured from broadcast television. By means of its deconstruction into small sequences they become abstracted narrative building blocks that still resonate their provenance. Then there is a parallel architecture, which is the metadata attached to these fragments and the interaction with the metadata that controls the way in which those narrative fragments reassemble themselves. As a result you have a set of relations that are also influenced by the idiosyncrasies of the machine itself, by the algorithmic formations that possess a certain level of machine autonomy. First one makes a choice by addressing the metadata; this choice then is interpreted by those algorithms that in turn generates various combinatory outputs. In the process there are many chance elements where the computer is a protagonist of the narrative of reconstruction of these materials.

I am fascinated by these interrelationships and unexpected outcomes that are both rewarding and aesthetically satisfying. I am reminded of Francis Bacon who threw paint at his canvases to get out of a procedural bind. When working with computing machines one has this happening all the time because the operations of the machine trigger new paths of thought, of action. For example my artwork The Golden Calf is partially a ‘found object’, because its cow came pre-installed on a particular generation of Silicon Graphics computers to demonstrate the application of textures– including ‘gold’ of course.

YH: I would also like to ask your view on the industry. I remember once you talked about the convergence of the industry and the divergence of artistic practice, which I understood as a critique of the industry.

JS: I think that industry moves towards homogeneity to address its mass marketplace, whereas an artist is committed to the heterogeneity of experience. A fundamental quality of the history of artistic production is its uninhibited miscellany. So one of the interesting challenges for an artist working with these standardized machines is to expose their capacity to be ‘misused’ for much broader purposes. To give you a simple example, paint on canvas has proved itself to be a very versatile medium, so after hundreds of years, painters are still pushing the boundaries of what painting can be. I would like to think that that the new media technologies also have this capacity, and the cinema is a case in point. Its technology is a fairly uniform set of materials, – camera, screen, projector, movie theatre – but these have facilitated an extraordinary range of on-going artistic (and non-artistic) experiment and expression.

In this context we can also talk about the way in which artists are challenged and inspired by constraints. The new media technologies, despite their virtuosity, do impose severe constraints, and the artistry is to take these constraints and convert them into an aesthetic advantage. For example in Points of View, I used an Apple II computer that could only three-dimensionally animate about a hundred straight lines in black and white. So I used Egyptian hieroglyphs because they were elegant and evocative, and simple enough to be rendered by this computer. At the same time I gave the audience a dictionary so they could discover the identity of these characters. This augmented the computer graphics with a meta-narrative dimension that aesthetically gained from its stark formalism.

YH: It’s funny, because when I’ve look at your works over the past few days, I have had this idea that some of your works seem to be very visionary; for example the Legible City (1988) looks like the Nintendo Wii, and the Golden Calf (1994) looks exactly like an iPad. Do you have some collaboration with the industry?

JS: There has been no explicit collaboration in my experience. Industry is lazily uninterested in what artists do – I suppose because what we do is so far ahead of (or outside) market demand. Yet as you noticed, a lot of these early media artworks anticipate what has now become ubiquitous. This does not surprise me, because once you begin to work with these technological materials, you immediately connect with their longer-term implications. Just look at the critical computer literature written in the 70’s such as Radical Software – almost everything that is happening now was predicted then. I suppose the only thing that would surprise these visionaries is the speed at which advances like an iPhone and the Internet were brought about. I am currently making an updated version of the Golden Calf using an iPad – it’s just so much better for the purpose C/F the cumbersome monitor I used in 1995. And everyone is now working with the Kinect because it makes obsolete all those clunky vision systems we had to build ourselves and struggle with till now.

YH: It looks like the speed of innovation in computing in the past 30 to 40 years has been rather slow.

JS: Certainly my generation of colleagues in computer graphics were at first very dependent on exotic and expensive machines to be able to fulfil our artistic ambitions. Yet within a very short time the industry has completely changed. Computer graphics is now largely driven by the games market and has become a consumer technology. This has had an extraordinary impact on the ease and cost of artistic production in this field.

YH: What are the new projects you are developing, especially in the university?

JS: I just joined City University of Hong Kong a little over a year ago, and together with my partner Dr. Sarah Kenderdine we have launched a new laboratory called ALIVE, the Applied Laboratory for Interactive Visualization and Embodiment. We have been able to set up a number of different visualization systems that we developed together with our associates over the last ten years or so; systems like PLACE, CAVE, AVIE, CUPOLA and iDOME. In this lab we are also able to present a lot of our previous works and it’s interesting to have them all in one room together because it gives the viewer an appreciation of the various kinds of experiences these machines can offer, their variegated aesthetic formations and content properties And we are also showing works by other artists such as Jean Michel Bruyère, who has developed a brilliant piece for the AVIE 360 degree stereo projection environment.

Coming back to an earlier theme that we were discussing, I am very interested in the development of technological frameworks that can become useful for other artists to work with. Numerous artists can exploit these machines in quite personal ways when they have sufficient aesthetic neutrality. Ours are also unusual machines with unique characteristics that transcend the ubiquity of what the industry offers. This is about the practice of the artist as an inventor of ‘shared use’ machines that because of their artistic motivations and properties, release a whole new range of aesthetic possibilities.

YH: So you are also working with the idea of open source and opening your works for further modification?

JS: Absolutely. It’s about the boundary between a claim to exclusive artistic ownership, and what constitutes an open resource for all artists to work with. The history of media art embodies a great deal of cross-fertilization of IP, of ideas, of technological invention, of conceptual synchronicity. It’s a vast research project, with artists everywhere discovering and articulating a constellation of what looks like inevitabilities. I often have the feeling that if I didn’t make a particular work, somebody else would have to, because all the elements, especially the cultural exigencies, are already in the air. Yet while this community of artist researchers are all exploring what is so self evident, each artist also has his/her own specificity, an idiosyncratic signature on the works that they create. In other words, while there is an overarching and shared research program that is existentially mandated, this is distinguished by the specific aesthetic qualities that each artist brings to it via their particular contribution. This could be what sets artistic research apart from purely scientific research – while the latter is also busy ‘discovering’ what must be found, it does not have the delightfully wanton dimensions of individual construal that constitutes a good art work.

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