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ISEA Nagoya: the delightful slowness of being

Melinda Rackham

Melinda Rackham is a Sydney based artist and writer. The New Media Arts Board of the Australia Council for the Arts funded her attendance, exhibition and presentation at ISEA

'There was always more in the world than men could see. The precious things are thought and sight, not pace. It does a bullet no good to go fast, and a man...no harm to go slow, for his glory is not at all in going, but in being.'

John Ruskin, The Art of Travel

140 years ago, when one could see Europe by train in a week, John Ruskin was distressed by the speed at which we viewed the world, overlooking simplicity, subtlety and detail. These days, when the Inter-Society for the Electronic Arts (ISEA) community jets into a global locale to hold their weeklong biannual exhibition and symposium, the desire to go slow is again relevant.

In one of ISEA’s opening dialogues, Japanese media theorist Hiroshi Yoshioka echoed this sentiment emphasising the need for slowness, subtlety, and contemplation when viewing electronic arts. This seemed strange from my gaijin perspective of Japan’s furiously paced technological evolution—its constant production of smaller, faster, cuter things. But there is a new social and cultural movement emerging in Japan, promoting an environmentally friendly, symbiotic lifestyle and discouraging mass consumption and waste. It’s not quite the slacker generation, but organisations like Sloth Club (Namakemono), whose motto is Slow is Beautiful, are embracing slow food and helpful technology. With this cultural insight framing my mood, I sought out the mediated aesthetic of being.

Japanese artist Kaoru Motomiya’s elegant interactive sound installation, California lemon sings a song, a rocket shaped floor installation of Sunkist lemons and traditional Japanese cooking pots connected by copper wire, generates its own electricity, becoming a fruit acid battery. Viewers can smell fresh citrus and hear sounds of greeting card size musical devices when they open the pots. Motomiya says that when she considers electronic arts, she thinks about power generation, not only consumption. The lemons also provoke us to contemplate globalisation, as we fuel our bodies, our own electronic circulatory system, with produce exported from around the world. Nature and technology entwine.

Unfortunately, delicate work like this suffered in the Pier Warehouse Exhibition, where disparate installations were squashed together. The lack of discrete viewing and listening spaces was consistently a problem for my gallery-trained sensibilities. The subtly shifting soundscapes produced by navigating through Squidsoup’s (UK) Altzero multi-user-networked shockwave installation were swamped by surrounding works, as was US-based Beatriz Da Costa’s Cello. This normally well disciplined robotic cello player, which alters its movement and sound according to viewer feedback, reacted erratically to the almost market place cacophony and kept tuning the cello rather than playing through its repertoire.

Faring better, as it relied on touch sensors rather than sound, was Talking Tree, which postulates a posthuman relationship with nature, as Takeshi Inomata and Tsutomu Yamamoto (Japan) search for the intrinsic information on being via a piece of driftwood. Touching the exposed and vulnerable rings of the magnificent sawn-through Kiso River tree stump activates texts on the effects of the unmitigated destruction of the forests and images of the stump’s mountain origin, as a ghostly 20 metre animated tree shadow eerily sways to the sound of axes chopping into the trunk.

Our embodied relationship with technology was a recurring theme in the ISEA Symposium. Academic papers competed for listeners’ attention with the venue’s superb gold and silver flock wallpaper, mirrored ceilings, and intricate sculptural chandeliers. Slovenian artists Darij Kreuth and Davide Grassi spoke of incorporeal communication in networked virtual reality performance. In their production Brainscore, sensors are attached to the head of the performers who remain physically constrained, while their tracked eye movements and electrical pulses from brain waves control their avatars. The vaguely face-shaped avatars consume data from the internet resulting in slow changes to their form, colour, size and location. The changes in turn effect the eye movements and brain functions of the performers, providing a self-sustaining feedback loop between performers and software and generating a projected 3-dimensional choreography of colour, shape and sound for the audience. Boundaries of human and machine consciousness subtly merge.

Another unexpected delight was Jim Campbell’s (US) work, at an associated exhibition in Nagoya City Art Museum. Campbell’s unique style questions the subjective experience of technology. He creates a matrix of varying dimensions, for example 32x24 (768) pixels, out of LEDs on which simple black and white (or red) video images of a person walking across the screen are reproduced. The LED display transforms the visual information into a numerical code resulting in a hauntingly beautiful and simple mediation of analogue metamorphosed into digital. In other works he includes a sheet of diffusing plexiglass in front of the grid to produce a blurring effect, shifting the digital pixel image back to a continuous analogue film image. Simplicity is powerful.

So too in the Electronic Theatre with Patrick Lichty’s fabulous 8 bits or less, a short film on alien abduction. Shot on a Casio WristCam with music produced on Commodore 64, the work proved that lo-tech is every bit as compelling as high fidelity: intricately rendered realism. Slowness and subtlety were also the strength of Anne-Sarah Le Meur’s (France) animation Where It Wants To Appear/Suffer. Simple surfaces meet with slow movement; smooth or fibrous textures, subtle colour and minimal light give the impression of both microcosm and macrocosm. Animal, vegetable and mineral are condensed in underwater or intra-body environments.

Appear/Suffer is the first stage of a virtual environment project, Into the Hollow Of Darkness, based on the viewer’s desire to perceive, about which Le Meur spoke at the symposium. In large-scale projection she intends abstract visual sensation to produce a strange intimacy with the image. Nothing tangible is represented—everything rests upon the power of the images and the reciprocity of the power the viewer has over the images. Abstract representations move away from the viewers as they move towards them; the viewers gradually learn that by becoming passive, motionless, they can pause the forms, or “tame” them as Le Meur suggests. This slow dance of viewing the artwork gives the impression the forms are alive, even looking back at you. Slowness creates intimacy.

My meander through the exhibitions and conference presentations was refreshing, revealing works that seek to seduce rather than control the viewer, immersive and interactive on subtle levels, based on simple principles often backed by complex technology. ISEA aroused my desire for feeling, listening and slowness to provide a delightful respite from knowledge, action and speed. It’s nice to be reminded that contemplation is as valuable as manipulation.


ISEA, Inter-Society for the Electronic Arts biannual exhibition and symposium, Nagoya, Japan, Oct 27-31.

Melinda Rackham is a Sydney based artist and writer. The New Media Arts Board of the Australia Council for the Arts funded her attendance, exhibition and presentation at ISEA

RealTime issue #53 Feb-March 2003 pg. 24-25

© Melinda Rackham; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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