[-empyre-] mediaskins, sensation, power geometry

Brian's post was great, and gave me a lot to think about. If I'm repeating some of that post here, its because I'm thinking through its implications. I haven't read Sally or Hugh's yet, but I have to be away from the computer for awhile, so this'll have to be my last post for the week.

First, a brief report on "mediaskin" architecture from Champaign- Urbana, in an attempt to try to steer a little towards the other thread this week. I'm not sure why the threads Catherine and I began haven't really touched; not that they have to, but I'll try to make this at least point in that direction.

Since roughly the start of the CSP thread on Empyre:

- The town's first electronic billboard went up on Kirby St, across from the very popular frozen custard joint. Every 10 seconds a new billboard appears on this screen, including an ad for one of our two competing healthcare providers (in it, a woman of color stands next to the slogan "First Period - First Pregancy - First Hot Flash.") Several letters to the News-Gazette protested this addition to the architecture, and the City Council met to debate the issue. (One letter: "It blocks my view of Memorial Stadium on the drive to work." )

- Memorial Stadium saw its first home football game of the season, and, thanks to a painfully late change in University policy, its first game in decades without the revered half-time performance by a white student dressed as "Chief" Illiniwek. According to the News- Gazette, the sound of the crowd chanting "CHIEF CHIEF CHIEF" during the time when the dance would normally happen was deafening. A new and more graphical scoreboard also debuted, but many complained that it wasn't visible from every seat.

- At my home department, a new flatscreen monitor appeared in the main hallway in time for the start of classes. Student artwork played on it for a few days, then it went dark. Yesterday I saw Tom, our janitor, peeking around the back and poking at something, I guess looking for life.

- At the Department of Computer Science, another flatscreen monitor, also in a primary gathering space, switched over to displaying weather and stock reports, news headlines after three years of programming with works from art and new media. Inspired by the "Media Test Wall" at MIT, I placed a series of works on the screen that I thought might make sense for viewing in passing. It just never made sense, it got turned off repeatedly by viewers and just didn't fit. I learned some things I could say more about later, but in the end when a tech-support staff person asked if they could put up some Apple desktop widgets instead, I gladly accepted the offer.

- Monsanto came to campus and set up their huge mobile media center, after a stint at the annual "Farm Progress" show at the former Chanute Air Force base in Rantoul. I missed the Monsanto show, but Ryan went with some students. From all reports, it was a media extravaganza, but what stood out to me was Ryan's report of a screen that appeared to have some sort of motion tracking camera attached to it, analyzing the responses of viewers(?). Sharon caught a great pic of their new logo (http://flickr.com/photos/arboles/1336685488/). Monsanto apparently brings us the "Ag" in IMAGINE.

- All of us faculty in the art department received a happy email from GlaxoSmithKline, offering our students the opportunity to design Youtube video commercials for Aquafresh toothpaste. This opportunity, we are told, "would make an excellent addition to your existing curriculum."

- In a grad studio visit, I encounter for the first time the casual use of a cheap little digital picture frame as passive bearer of an abstract animation. I've seen students hack such solutions before with a lot of hoopla, but this time it's just a given, something to look through, found on sale at Office Depot. A little moving painting, ready to move into the world of trade.

Two texts that stood out in our reading group discussions last year were Rosalyn Deutsche's /Evictions/ and Lefebvre's essay on Rhythmanalysis. Both portray dense spaces, contested spaces where histories, audiences, investments, and sensations interweave to keep space in motion; not in rapturous, impossible to unravel futurist motion; not in the motion of emergence and granularity so popular today; but in the motion of a finite number of vectors caused by a specific set of people en route to greater or lesser power. As in Massey's "power geometry of it all."

There have been a couple of posts since this week's empyrial server failure (I love that this happened) where people rightfully pointed to the role and agency of viewers in discussions of instruments and instrumentality. In my concerns about the ways in which certain media forms engage the senses, I wrongfully neglected attention to the viewers, those who willingly suspend disbelief, or perhaps even manage to trespass in the (to me, Romantic) style of de Certeau's readers.

I still suspect that the senses can be engaged in a more or less coercive way, in a more or less discursive way, and ultimately in a more or less humane manner. When a visible, aural, or haptic experience depends on deeply coded signs to produce a specific set of physical responses, bodies and their instruments seem to merge and become a new instrument in the service of other flows - that gives me some worries. But I think Brian's post very helpfully points to the need to also examine those decisions to engage, a viewer's (or "view- ser's" ?) decision to enter into a particular sensory system.

In the modernist vision (and in "game theory"?) a person either has power through/in spatial autonomy, or doesn't, or willingly surrenders it for awhile. If we instead look at power as produced in relation, not as something held and released, it seems then the moments of seeming suspension or transfer or gifting acquire special significance. There the transfers in action, the deep and multi- scaled vectors of movement, might be temporarily more easy to see. Who is surrendering what, why and to whom?

Thus neither the electronic billboard in my town, nor its ad content, is inherently "bad" through an instrumentalization of vision. But a passerby's willing or unwilling connection with that visual circuit, especially when conducted as a "public" debate about the cityscape, reveals some of the deeply intertwined visual practices, and power dynamics, at play within our grid of streets.

As an onlooker, I can start viewing at the site of the billboard's design, or of a letter-writer's response, and examine and even "critique" the structures therein, the uses and abuses and habits of the senses and bodies.

As an actor, I can enter in to the networks of production there, alone or with others. I can try to place myself within that loop of media-response for purposes of at least collective reflection, and at most of discursive civic debate about policies. I can also choose to deploy my own visual strategy in response or in place of what I found. With the help of others, that visual invention might begin to interweave itself into that geometry of vision and response. I might be able to create sensory experiences that I believe to be more full and humane.

But the onlooker or "critic" and the actor or "practitioner" are both in space, and they perpetuate particular sensoria through who they are when they engage the senses, design for the senses, or examine the sensation of others.

What I fear about the city as screen is not a reduction of human agency through sensory coercion. I'm most concerned about how it seems to come with the illusion of a more flexible public space, a more malleable and influenced sphere of sensory production and reception. The benefits of the city of Screens seem are often presented as an increased number of possible entries into feedback loops of sense and response. If we pay too much attention to these interactions, or even to a limited formal analysis of their sensoria, we risk missing what else is happening in this collection of willing surrenders. My interaction with a screen is tied to others interaction with theirs', not because of the data network between them, but because of the way these micro-transactions of autonomy add up to a greater geometry or flow. We can look back to painting again, to the production of lookers at images, lookers in images, and of course of the looked-at.

That's why I like where Brian ended up:

"Criticality as an inherited formalism that gains you brownie points in somebody's abstract book of virtues might not be worth very much. But any kind of critical artistic practice that touches another person in their intimate perception of the qualities of belief and make-belief that bind them to the social space which they inhabit seems to me worth exploring, deepening and extending in times like these. The place inside, where you decide to perform your disbelief and your little reality, makes the space that you and others will live in."

(By the way, this is also the subject of one of my favorite books of late, "Mediation and the Communication Matrix," by C.Kaha Waite.)

These are some of the key concerns I'll continue working on, alone and with my colleagues. Thanks to Renate and Tim for inviting me to participate in discussion of this good topic, and thanks to all for the very generous and provoking questions and departures.

Kevin Hamilton

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