are we real or are we memorex 12.04.2005, 4:01 PM
posted by bob stein
i saw four live performances and a dozen gallery shows over the past few days; one theme kept coming up-- what is the relationship of simulated reality to reality. here are some highlights and weekend musings.
thursday night: "Supervision," a play by the Builders Association and DBox about the infosphere which seems to know more about us than we do -- among other things "it" never forgets and rarely plays mash-up with our memories the way human brains are wont to do. the play didn't shed much light on what we could or should do about the encroaching infosphere but there was one amazing moment when video started shooting from left to right across the blank wall behind the actors. within moments a complete set was "constructed" out of video projections -- so seamlessy joined at the edges and so perfectly shot for the purpse that you quickly forgot you were looking at video.
friday night: Nu Voices six guys making amazing house music, including digitized-sounding vocals, entirely with their voices. one of the group, Masai Electro, eerily imitated the sounds laurie anderson makes with her vocoder or that DJs make when they process vocals to sound robotic. the crowd loved it which made me wonder why we are so excited about hearing a human pretend to be a machine? i asked masai electro why he thinks the audience likes what he does so much. he had never been asked the question before and evidently hadn't thought about it, but then spontaneously answered "because that's where we're going" meaning that humans are becoming machines or at least are becoming "at one" with them.
saturday afternoon: Clifford Ross' very large landscapes (13' x 6') made with a super high resolution surveillance camera. a modern attempt at hudson river school lush landscapes. because of the their size and detail, you feel as if you are looking out a window at reality; makes you long for the "natural world" most of us rarely encounter.
left with a bunch of questions
does it make a difference if our experience is "real" or "simulated." does that way of looking at things even make sense anymore. when we manage to add the smell of fresh air, the sound of the wind, the rustle of the grass, the bird in flight and the ability to walk around in life-size 3-D spaces to the clifford ross photos, what will be the meaningful difference between walking in the countryside and opening the latest "you are there" coffee table book of the future. in a world with limited resources i can see the value of subsituting vicarious travel for the real thing (after all if all 7 billion of us traipsed out to the galapagos during our lifetimes, the "original" would be overrun and despoiled, turning it into its opposite). but what does it mean if almost all of our experience is technologically simulated and/or mediated?
Pedro Meyer in his comment about digitally altered photos says that all images are subjective which makes altered/not-altered a moot distinction. up until now the boundary between mediated objects and "reality" was pretty obvious, but i wonder if that changes when the scale is life-like and 3D. the Ross photos and the DBox video projections foreshadow life-size media which involves all the senses. the book of the future may not be something we hold in our hands, it might be something a 3-dimensional space we can inhabit. does it make any difference if i'm interacting only with simulacra?
Gary Frost on December 4, 2005 11:41 PM:
I hope someone is minding the store. Of all the out-of-body simulations, the paper book is one of the weirder, particularly in its performance record of transcending time and cultures. I keep watching the 25 right column "Categories" trying to cope with the taxonomy that is emerging here. Is the old IftFotB Manifesto still posted? I think I will go and look now.
One of the attributes of the book is its self-reference or a sense of place. I would like to know more about the traffic here, more about the scope. Are we watching the news of the future of the book or writing the book?
Padmini on December 5, 2005 5:24 AM:
does it make a difference if our experience is "real" or "simulated."
Though it might not make a difference to our perceptions, the knowledge that accompanies that perception will make that difference - that set of actions and impulses that take us outside to feel dewy grass under bare feet are separate from that which will motivate us to open that 'coffee table book of that future'. And as long as we are not living in a Truman show world, and have agency, I think it always will.
sol gaitan on December 5, 2005 11:25 AM:
The interesting about Super Vision is to witness the transformation of the actors. As they inhabited the virtual stage, they became part of the video. This is emphasized by the use of live video projections while the actors are on stage. The plays' idea that the infosphere is a totally neutral and unhuman "landscape" does not exclude the fact that all that data has been generated from and by humans. Data alone is just empty information waiting to acquire relevance. My overall feeling is that this piece, surveillance or not, shows that what data information shares is precisely the human in us. What is left out is the animal, what makes us pluridimensional. And that is lost in the virtual reality we inhabit.
So, does it make a difference if our experience is real or simulated? Yes, but because both are different kinds of experience. Ever since the first travelers started documenting their journeys, there has been a vicarious traveler. "Explorer" was a profession. Marco Polo spent 24 years traveling in Asia, and it was only at his return, when he was a war prisoner in Genoa, that he found the time to dictate his "Description of the World." The Age of Discovery coincides with the invention of the printing press, and is both a sign and a result of the transition between the Middle Ages and Modern Times. Columbus letters are full of references to his readings. He saw America, vicariously, through the eyes of other explorers.
Ours is not necessarily an age of discovery but it is an age of exploration. Our travel book is the documentary, as the travel book of the future could be the technologically simulated one. However, direct contact with geography will continue to be a choice. There will always be those who love nature in books, but hate the mosquitoes in the real one. The book, no matter what its shape, will continue to be there. Our urban or pastoral explorations will continue to produce references. Proust's madeleine, a sensory experience, produced seven volumes. If media can indeed involve all the senses, we will look for the next thrill. Meanwhile we are doing both, watching the news of the future of the book, and writing it.
ben vershbow on December 5, 2005 2:26 PM:
What is left out is the animal, what makes us pluridimensional. And that is lost in the virtual reality we inhabit.
Watching Super Vision last Thursday, I was struck by how physically constrained the actors were by the demands of the multimedia apparatus -- holding in place for the video cameras and projection overlays, their voices miked... Of course, working within constraints is central to art, and the actors did manage to squeeze a bit of live, pheromonal humanness into the proceedings, but my overriding impression was of people hooked up to a machine (life support?). The play, with all its dazzling techno-wizardry, ultimately surrendered itself to the technology. The very fact that the actors did not need to project their voices (and this was by no means unique to this play) amounts to a subjugation of the actor's craft. The voice, the breath -- those things that are most inextricably tied to life and physical presence -- are mediated before our eyes. But perhaps this tells a more fundamental truth than anything else. And I'm not saying that calculated use of mediation in live performance can't be highly effective (e.g. Krapp's Last Tape).
Movie acting has changed noticeably as an increasing share of the performance takes place in front of a blue screen. I found it fascinating, and a little unsettling, to see this transferred to the stage. You could say that an actor's imagination must be more vital than ever before because of all this technical embellishment. But as an increasing number of technical strings are attached, the actor becomes more and more a puppet of the technology. The locus of control moves outside the human. That's why, in the Lord of the Rings movies, the computer-generated Golem seems so much more lifelike than the human actors. To me, that's the most interesting thing about those movies: how totally secondary the actors are. They're placeholders, only there because the technology hasn't yet advanced to the point that the entire film can be convincingly rendered from top to bottom, like a video game.
Ray Cha on December 5, 2005 4:59 PM:
Is the natural next step in film gaming? The recent New York Times article "The Gamer as Artiste" asks if, in the near future "[games] can move people emotionally or intellectually in the manner of great art."
In art, there were movements which focused upon realism, as artists mastered perspective and light. Afterwards, abstraction and deconstruction reinterpreted the depiction of reality, which had been perfected. Likewise, computer animators and game designers strive to create games and films that look real. Perhaps, only after games spaces can closely emulate real life that will we understand that there is merit in abstractions of reality.
Lisa Lynch on December 5, 2005 7:55 PM:
Hmm. I never did see the 2001 film Final Fantasy as the harbinger of the apocalypse of live-action films. For one thing, I think Hollywood actors are their own brand of simulacra, and for better or worse, the global addication to celebrity won't easily be sated with the permanent substitution of Angela Jolie with Lara Croft
Perhaps more to the point, even if games get better and better, they are still different than movies in fundamental ways. I want to slip in a quote by Ken Perlin from the excellent collection First Person, edited by Noah Waldrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan, that I has something to do with what we're talking about:
There is something very particular about the way the novel, in all its many variants, goes about its business. By telling us a story, it asks us to set aside our right to make choices -- our agency. Instead the agency of a protagonist takes over, and we are swept up in observation of his struggle, more or less from his point of view, at though we were some invisible spirit of angel perched upon his shoulder, watching but never interfering.
By way of contrast, look at games. A game does not ask us to relinquish our agency. In fact, the game depends on it. When you play Tomb Raider....the humanlike figure you see on a computer screen is really a game token, and every choice she makes...is your choice.
Perlin concludes that what we experience in games is our own agency: the "characters" in games don't have any existence apart from the choices that we make for them. Thus, games and novels -- and here we can safely include films in the same category as novels -- are engaged in a sort of dialectic. In order to create a true game/story hybrid, Perlin argues, we would need to create something along the lines of "intermediate agency," a state of being that broke down the lines between self and other.
Last Friday at the Institute, Ray pointed out that the game-based movie Doom made a strange gesture towards that boundary crossing: the film placed the viewer in the same visual field as if they were playing a first-person shooter, to the point of including the tip of a gun at the edge of a frame. Did anyone see this film? It certainly isn't what Perlin means when he talks about "intermediate agency," since watching the film was a passive experience, but I wonder what effect this visual interpolation had on the viewer.
Regarding Bob's orginal question -- does it make any difference if one is only interacting with simulacra -- perhaps the most necessary and urgent discussion of this question is taking place (or should be taking place) among designers of military training simulations. This is something I'm hoping to take up in a near-future post.
sol gaitan on December 6, 2005 5:20 PM:
Afterwards, abstraction and deconstruction reinterpreted the depiction of reality, which had been perfected. Likewise, computer animators and game designers strive to create games and films that look real. Perhaps, only after games spaces can closely emulate real life that will we understand that there is merit in abstractions of reality.
The movement from realism to abstraction had a long incubation through what has been loosely identified as Modernism, mainly through the musings of the Symbolist poets such as Mallarmé and Verlaine, who found the need to portray a fresh and more accurate vision of reality, than the one naturalism and realism had to offer. In other words, the need to bridge the gap between form and content that has continuously preoccupied the West since Aristotle. The function of art is to express content through form, ideas through images, not to reinterpret a depiction of reality that has been perfected. The day art can produce the perfect depiction of reality, it would become dispensable. The central impulse continues to be the question about reality. What is it all about?
The New York Times article "The Gamer as Artiste" shows two positions, the animators and game designers who strive for realism, and the ones who believe in creating a new world, as Henry Jenkins from M. I. T. says in the article, "You are building the world from scratch. Why does it have to look like the world you live in?" Douglas Rushkoff puts it beautifully:
What made Pong so exciting was not its accurate depiction of Ping-Pong or its relationship to reality. It was the ability to move pixels around on the screen, and an appreciation of the way the game designer is working in metaphor.
alex itin on December 8, 2005 2:00 PM:
I find it odd that this subject has come up over my little bridge man (as that was sort of what he was illustrating - the mediated experience). I haven't read ifbook in a few days, but even so I found myself in bed two days ago thinking that Baudrillard was right and everything is Simulacra today and maybe has been for longer than my romantic mind cares to admit (even "romantic" is based on the French word for novel and so love is make believe). The zeitgeist is a funny thing.