Sunday, 31 August 2014

Aliveness Machines, Shadows and Undercurrents

Posting up here the content of a presentation - by NOVA - at the RGS annual conference recently. This is a collaborative project with Jon Pigott. The geographical genesis of the project - in the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of North Devon - lies slightly beyond the limits of the Severn Estuary, but arguably still within this 'bio-region'. Strictly speaking, the River Torridge flows into the Bristol Channel. However, for the Sabrina Dreaming residency, I tend to regard the Severn Estuary as encompassing the whole tidal waterbody spilling out between Wales and the West Country.

How might we harness creative science and science-based creativity to enhance connections to ecological processes, boosting nature:culture and human:non-human relationships?
How might we couple the virtual world to the physical and help make science sensuous, intuitive, intimate? 
How might we position materiality as central to the aesthetics of data translation and environmental understanding?

These are some of the questions that underpin the collaborative experimental project that is Aliveness Machines - an attempt to connect in new ways with ecological vitality. 

The aim is the translation and presentation of environmental data via immersive kinetic+sonic sculptural installations. These sit at the intersections between: environmental sustainability; scientific-digital data; hidden ecological realms; hacked/retro technologies; experimental sculptural assemblages; immersive installation spaces and education/learning settings.

Beyond Our Senses - Shadows and Undercurrents

Prototype 'Aliveness Machines' were first presented in 2011 in the context of an immersive eco-art installation for audiences in the North Devon Biosphere Reserve. The title was Shadows and Undercurrents, reflecting an approach aimed at teasing out some vital, yet obscured, ecological threads within that special protected landscape.

We were keen to reveal layers in the living landscape that typically slip below or above the radar of normal human perception. Working in and around the River Torridge, we slowly familiarised ourselves with the place and its ecological character. Over the course of a year, we undertook fieldwork, and led workshops and sound walks with school groups. Availing of sensitive microphones and hydrophones, the participants were able to delve into the unknown by extending the range of their senses.

A key aspect is the slow, long-duration ‘tuning-in’ and creative listening to a landscape setting, enabling a process of distillation through a myriad of conversations and encounters. A form of Deep Mapping.

Data Harvesting and Translation: 

With the assistance of the iDAT Unit at the University of Plymouth, we installed customised wireless micro-sensors at a number of sites in the river catchment area. These enabled us to remotely measure and monitor levels of river pollution and the activity of bats - pulling in both recorded and real-time data. 

In the exhibition space, our immersive installation was host to two kinetic, sculptural mechanisms that responded visually and sonically to these hidden worlds. Through sculptural animation, sound effects, light and shadow, we attempted to ‘give voice’ to the changing levels, and complexity, of the local Biosphere processes.

We describe this installation work as scenographic - having the quality of a theatrical stage.
It is also geopoetic - combining knowledge and imagination

Ecologies of Place, Media and Data

From its earliest uses, the word ecology has connections to science, art, humanism, and politics. Within the range of current expanded meanings, we find terms such as ecologies of place as popularised by geographer Nigel Thrift and others; and Jussi Parikka’s media ecologies and archaeologies. 

These themes have been important in our evolving project, bringing together our interest in geopoetic and intimate deep mapping of place and landscapes with a materialist sensibility directed at the technological assemblages of our contemporary media and communication worlds. By embracing multi-faceted and technologically enabled approaches, we are dealing with complex relationships between the various ecologies. This mesh can provide a medium of connectivity to the more-than-human spheres, or lifeworlds, and an imaginative approach to monitoring life processes.

Installation Mechanism 1: Bat Activity

To communicate our bat-activity data we constructed a device that harks back to early cinematic contraptions such as the Zoetrope (whose name means 'wheel of life'). The bat-derived information emerges using motion, projected light and shadow.

Another cinematic, audiovisual component was added, akin to a Mutoscope, which through its simple flick-book style (kineograph) animation contributes a further flapping sound. This makes a poetic and intimate connection to the source of the data - the wings of a flying bat, as well as to the to the chatter of old film projectors (exhibiting another layer of association - with early, silent vampire films).

Installation Mechanism 2: River Silt Pollution

For our river pollution (turbidity/silt) monitoring data, we developed a second kinetic sculptural device, attempting to communicate the vital flux of the underwater world of the river, and its living ecosystem, again in a material way. Turbidity information was translated via a bladeless fan, into continuously varying airflow. This, in turn, activated suspended ribbons of steel that were hooked up to contact microphones. 

The visual elements of this piece included a cylindrical cage of hundreds of lines of fishing line, which - in conjunction with up-lighting and the movement of the steel ribbons - provided a water-like dance of light, shadow and reflection. Our water pollution recorder was also partnered by a 'bolt-on' data-activated fishing-reel mechanism, further augmenting the poetic soundscape.

Data Ecologies

As our relationship with this techno-social ecology developed, we began to question the role of data in the context of this project. 

The data-streams morph and translate from one material substrate (muddy water or bat-calls) to another (electromagnetic waves, semi-conductors, motors etc), through to the creative cultural realm. The idea of the sonification or visualisation of data became, for us, an invitation to translate one localized, situated, material environment into another. 

It was clear that solely screen-based visualisation and acousmatic loudspeaker sonification outcomes would have limitations in describing the complex relationships and interdependencies of bats, rivers, electromagnetic waves, communities, mud, silicon chips, sensors, fish, smart-phones and pearl mussels, to name just some of the agents that we encountered in our research.

Overlapping Narratives

Some Other Voices:
Through their physically dynamic, sonic and visual behaviours we suggest that the Aliveness Machines embrace the notion of an ‘intimate science’, as described by Roger Malina "coupling the virtual world to the physical” and “helping to make science intimate, sensual, intuitive”
Thus, we see this experimental work as fusing creative science and science-based creativity.

“So the place of humans in the web of life is as embodied participants, ‘living as part of the whole’. From this perspective we can begin to articulate a participative worldview to re-enchant our world and find new ways of education and inquiry...Living as part of the whole requires of necessity an ‘action science’. This means that we integrate all forms of knowing - immediate acquaintance, aesthetic expression, informative statements, practical competence - in our inquiry and education process” 
Peter Reason, 2009

Future Trajectories:
The plan is to refine the Aliveness Machines, moving from the prototype/concept stage to full-blown manifestations as discrete site-specific exhibition pieces and - more expansively - as a family of data-augmented immersive installation spaces. Thirdly, there are possibilities for cinematic performative live-art events, involving collaborating artists, musicians and others. 

A central objective for the installation/exhibition works is to engage diverse audiences and initiate conversations about the vitalities within our surroundings. Our backgrounds are such that we recognise the limitations of much scientific communication and engagement. From our early audience explorations, it is clear that the Aliveness Machines concept has traction across many disciplines.

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