Art Between the Digital and Physical World
Nov 12, 2012

Just a few days after Sandy, I flew out west for several events. The city was firmly in the back of my mind, as the day before my flight I'd wandered through Lower Manhattan, empty and eerily silent, from afternoon until that very dark night. The ambient disentangled into individual pieces. Without a constant stream of lights from all directions, I noticed the headlights of individual cars approaching, the faint brightness of candles in apartment windows. Also indexical: a conversation overheard from a block away, the flutter of pigeon wings. Every sound amplified without the white noise of the city to blur it away.

All the stores in Soho and Tribeca were taped up and shut down, Battery Park City overwhelmed with city workers but fewer spectators than you'd think, and even Chinatown seemed mostly empty apart from a handful of massage parlors or trinket shops (commerce independent of electricity.) James pointed out 60 Hudson Street, which, despite even watching a documentary about it, I'd never actually noticed before. We also walked by 33 Thomas Street, AT&T's data center(/nuclear fallout shelter.) I'd probably past it several time before, but absent of everyday city distractions, the peculiarity of the tall windowless building seemed oversized. (By the way, I write this all now from the rooftop of a Los Angeles hotel with One Wilshire smack in front of me.)

Perhaps you've seen that oft-quoted line from a recent survey: "51 of people believe stormy weather can interfere with cloud computing." Well, it *can* even if perhaps not the way people think it might. At the very least, a major storm means a number of IT headaches. I know a few websites for media sites and various institutions that were down for days due to their servers. Some data centers are still recovering. That a storm could mean going for days without your company email is one of those things we don't often enough think about.

The new nature/nurture, you can't say "digital" anymore without someone saying "and also the physical—" the reverse is true as well. This call and response is appropriate. We are still grasping to understand the relationship, how to talk about the relationship, how to behave or even think about either in relation to the other. There are a number of art projects which highlight the difference, and I had a chance to talk about some of them recently.

What follows are some links, images, and other notes from the presentation I gave at Art in a Digital Age at Stanford Art Center. These ideas were later expanded upon in a longer presentation/workshop at Centro in Mexico City. Thank you to Stanford Arts Institute and thanks to Manuel Alcala/Centro for inviting me:

gifs of Greg Petchkovsky's "Mixing Digital Sculpture With Real Objects"
via Prosthetic Knowledge

You know that we have lost the sense of space. We say “space is annihilated”, but we have annihilated not space, but the sense thereof. We have lost a part of ourselves. I determined to recover it, and I began by walking up and down the platform of the railway outside my room. Up and down, until I was tired, and so did recapture the meaning of “Near” and “Far”. “Near” is a place to which I can get quickly on my feet, not a place to which the train or the air-ship will take me quickly. “Far” is a place to which I cannot get quickly on my feet... Man is the measure. That was my first lesson. Man”s feet are the measure for distance, his hands are the measure for ownership, his body is the measure for all that is lovable and desirable and strong.

— E.M. Forster, The Machine Stops (1909)

Smart mobile devices have for the most part simmered down old fears that technology makes us immobile, antisocial, regressively calibrating our eye movement for a world of two-dimensional planes, and so on. But we are still grasping to understand space and our relationship with it, as digital technology presents a challenge as dazzling and vast as the arrival of the telegraph, locomotive, and photograph rolled into one.

There was so much excitement when these images of Google data centers were released last month. Gorgeous photographs of tech anything tends to excite people, but part of that enthusiasm, I think, could be that these images emphasize that the "cloud" is nonsecular. Anyone who has ever toured a factory or lab facility has seen architecture not dissimilar. The wonders on our screens come from these tall locker-like structures, multicolor pipes, and stray wires— rather than magic.

My friend Kashmir Hill once told me she thinks that a lasting benefit of Facebook was its mass adoption graduated people with enormous fear of technology toward a shared vernacular. My mother, who had a very minimal interest in the internet and still rarely uses it, knows what I mean when I say I "messaged" or had an online "chat" with someone. We're all common readers of this 'book.

So the digital experience is something we can count on most people to understand. Next comes demystifying the Internet's physical intricacies. There we face difficult questions in trying to articulate how these two "worlds" operate differently. For one thing, one of the two is not actually a world (good reading on that from Mark Graham in The Geographical Journal, "Geography / Internet: Ethereal Alternate Dimensions of Cyberspace or Grounded Augmented Realities?")

The slippage between digital and physical world is so natural to many of us, it seems obvious to even comment on. Checking twitter on my phone is as automatic for me as grabbing a glass of water. It's lost its intentionality, now fully integrated in my life as something I reach for to communicate or fact-check, and such. But then again, late at night, web browser tabs-upon-tabs open, yes there are times I still feel that horribly dated coinage "surfing" seems an appropriate, if embarrassingly silly, metaphor for what I'm doing.

A number of contemporary art projects take a digital object and recreate it, defamiliarized, as a sculpture or installation. Results are mixed, but the gesture and impulse behind it is interesting. Glitches, compression artifacts, distortions of images are the everyday reality of screens, but not native to our physical world. Representations outside the realm where we expect them highlight this tension, these differences.

Stephanie Sydecu's work, in particular, is very thoughtful comment on this tension. Much of her work considers representation and materiality, as it relates to objects on a screen.

Sydecu's RAIDERS, an exhibition last year at Catharine Clark Gallery, included a series of antique Asian Vases collected from museum image databases. The images were printed and mounted on lasercut wood, at actual size.

Another project by Sydecu brings Google SketchUp 3d designs to life. She created handmade sculptures of the work of anonymous users, which were often just to test out the software, and never intended to be anything more.

Unwanted and unloved, these "Thingies" float in a virtual version of outer space, and remind me of the notion of space junk—these random objects that increasingly clutter our world as offshoots and debris...The works were physically challenging and taxing to make, and I did my best as an outsourced worker to fabricate works that were never meant to see the light of day.

— Artist's Statement, Particulate Matter: Things, Thingys, Thingies 2010

That project reminds me of a curious page on Thingiverse of 3D Printing Tests. These were indeed meant to be brought into the physical world, but of little utility besides. And here is the winning object of a "torture test," meant to press the 3D printer to its limits.

This piece is part of a series of 3D printed objects by Matthew Plummer-Fernandez, "Digital Natives." Starting with everyday objects like a watering can or vase, the 3D scans are distorted with algorithms and later printed as new forms.

Writing about his interest in both programming and working as a "conventional physical maker of things," Plummer-Fernandez points out somewhere in the overlap is where things become interesting:

For me it was my own digital/physical take on magic realism. Growing up in Colombia I had to read quite a lot of magic realism; the school curriculum included almost every Gabriel Garcia Marquez book. The thought of sporadically and unassumingly interrupting reality with the digital appeals, it provokes a sudden uncanny questioning of the limits of reality. We live in glitch reality. When people see online images of my physical work, they sometimes ask me if its a computer render. Sometimes I secretly swap images with identical photo-real renders to maintain the confusion. I want to jokingly call it magics realism, referencing the magics software designed to effortlessly turn digital models into something that can be made physical. In Garcia Marquez’s Macondo from One Hundred Years of Solitude, technology was always an interrupter of reality, even the invention of ice was first experienced as some new alien artefact from the future, regardless of whether other towns had begun to find ice a mundane reality.
—Matthew Plummer-Fernandez

A project collecting similar examples is James Bridle's The New Aesthetic. Much has been written about the New Aesthetic tumblr/research project, but especially thoughtful commentary comes from a recent article in Aeon Magazine:

Great value is placed on ‘seamlessness’— bigger, better LCD displays that connect better with their surroundings; connections between our bank accounts and mobile phone accounts and loyalty cards; personal devices that talk with each other and compare notes on our data; augmented reality. The virtual world is being integrated with the physical world and this seamlessness is presented as inherently good. No harm may be intended: it's natural for a designer to want to smooth away the edges and conceal the joins. But in making these connections invisible and silent, the status quo is hard-wired into place, consent is bypassed and alternatives are deleted. This is, if you will, the New Anaesthetic. Instances of the New Aesthetic are often places where a glitch has exposed the underlying structure — the hardware and software. Or it is an oddity that has the unintended side effect of causing us to consider that structure. Part of a plane appearing in Google Maps makes us realise that we are looking at a mosaic of images taken by cameras far above us. We knew that already, right? Maybe we did. But a reminder may still be salutary.

This is political...The question is one of viewpoint. ‘As soon as you get CCTV, drones, satellite views and maps and all that kind of stuff,’ Bridle said, ‘you’re setting up an inherent inequality in how things are seen, and between the position of the viewer and the viewed. There are inherent power relations in that and technology makes them invisible. When you have a man in a watchtower, you look up at him, and that’s an obvious vision of power. When the man is in a bunker far away and you have just a little camera on a stalk … most people seem to be fine with that.’
—Will Wiles, The Machine Gaze, Aeon Magazine Sept 17, 2012

In an essay serialized on e-flux, the design duo Metahaven writes of a wide range of issues relating to cloud computing, privacy, and surveillance. A paragraph toward the end of part 2 stands out as articulating what is slippery here —

The space of flows is absolutely not smooth. It looks like a data center, and the coal plant that powers it. It looks like Julian Assange’s room in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. It looks like the Principality of Sealand. It looks like Sabu’s social housing unit on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The landing from the digital onto the material is hard; it comes with a cruelty and intensity we haven’t even begun to properly understand. Along these lines, we might grasp an emerging political geography of information, resources, and infrastructure. In such a geography, the state and the cloud are among the most important layers, but they are not the only layers by far. Saskia Sassen writes that we need to problematize “the seamlessness often attributed to digital networks. Far from being seamless, these digital assemblages are ‘lumpy,’ partly due to their imbrications with nondigital conditions.
— Metahaven, Captives of the Cloud: Part II, e-flux journal #38

The digital is not another world, it is a layer upon this one. So how do we stretch this "layer" that it may best advance human purposes?