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A view from the bleeding edge

Paul Brown, Consciousness Reframed 2000

Paul Brown is the recipient of an Australia Council New Media Arts Fellowship for 2000-01 and is currently Artist-in-Residence at the Centre for Computational Neuroscience and Robotics at the University of Sussex, UK.

PICO-SCAN system, Laurent Mignonneau and Christa Sommerer PICO-SCAN system, Laurent Mignonneau and Christa Sommerer
In the 1980s the place to be and be seen was SIGGRAPH. Its first Art Show was in 1981 in Dallas and it became the essential focus for the art and technology community. By 1990 ISEA was the young kid on the block, unfettered by convention and keen to take risks. But by the late 90s it had burned out. So now, at the dawn of a new decade, century and millennium there’s Consciousness Reframed ( - expired). Over its first 3 invocations (1997, 98 and 2000) Consciousness Reframed has established itself as one of the more significant international meeting places for the misfits who often slip between the cracks of conventional discipline boundaries.

The conference convenor is Roy Ascott, Founder and Director of the CAiiA-STAR postgraduate program that has attracted some of the top international talent in the arts field ( In his own plenary talks and presentation Ascott was anxious to reinforce his concept of the transdisciplinary nature of the art, science, technology and consciousness convergence. He also quoted another regular contributor, Australian Stephen Jones: “The term technoetic is the key. It refers to our use of technology in cultural production, and it also refers to the noetic, or how we understand the world and our processes of being in it. This suggests the exploration of how technology is changing our perception of the world.”

Ascott proposes “Edge Life: technoetic structures and moist media” where “between the dry world of virtuality and the wet world of biology lies a new moist domain, a new interspace of potentiality and promise. Moist media will constitute the substrate of the art of the new century, a transformative art concerned with the construction of fluid reality. This will mean the spread of intelligence to every part of the built environment coupled with recognition of the intelligence that lies within every part of the living planet.” Shades of de Chardin and Gaia as he continues: “This burgeoning awareness is technoetic: techne and gnosis combined into a new knowledge of the world, a connective mind that is spawning new realities and new definitions of life and human identity. This mind will in turn seek new forms of embodiment and articulation.”

In his own talk Stephen Jones ( - expired) describes cyberspace as a system that orders information objects according to their importance to each other or via their perceived value to an observer. This geometric space is very different from the perspectival space that orders objects according to their geographical location. As such cyberspace has more of a relationship with medieval organisation, (I was reminded of Eco’s library in The Name of the Rose) than with the Renaissance systems that displaced them and have dominated our thinking since. The mind has a similar structure where myriad connections are rhizomatically made and remade allowing consciousness to emerge. He concluded that the real and the virtual are of the same nature. Fact and fiction converge. We face a continuous spectrum of experience differentiated only by the tools we use to observe this continuum.

Many of the artists speaking at Consciousness Reframed describe virtual artworks. Donna Cox (, the pioneer of ‘renaissance teams’ where artist and scientist work together to reveal knowledge via computational tools, has recently joined the CAiiA-STAR PhD program. Her virtual theatre is the Hayden Planetarium at the American Natural History Museum in New York and she talks about the global virtual team who created their spectacular digital tour of our local Milky Way Galaxy. She compares this to her personal research which looks at the way that different civilisations have merged scientific knowledge and artistic practice in order to understand the nature of the universe and consciousness.

From the other end of the budget, Sydney-based Melinda Rackham ( - expired/, demonstrates her “Empyrean—soft skinned space.” She says, “however I am the centre, I hold the axial position 0 0 0 in this space—that of the empyre builder.” Her presentation playfully mixes her own poetic insights with quotes from the VRML manual to create a fluid frame of double meaning. “My words become flesh—my statements create mythology.” Empyrean achieves a sensitivity that is unusual in the often clunky VRML world and will consolidate Rackham’s reputation for work in the network domain.

Greg Garvey describes a split brain user interface that he developed during a residency at the Banff Centre in 1999. Using a headmounted display with both stereo vision and sound, he presents the user with the emotionally charged testimony from the 1991 Supreme Court Nomination Hearings where nominee Clarence Thomas faced Anita Hill who accused him of sexual harassment. The spectator simultaneously sees and hears the two protagonists—one via the left eye/ear, the other via the right. Like most of Garvey’s work the simplicity of the concept belies the complexity of the ideas and emotions he juggles. It’s a profound and challenging piece that sadly, since C-SPAN won’t release their video rights, cannot be exhibited.

Michael Quantrill is a researcher and artist-in-residence at the Creativity and Cognition Research Studios at the University of Loughborough. He describes a system he has been developing with the centre director, Ernest Edmonds—one of the pioneers of the computational arts in the UK. It’s based on an earlier work called SoftBoard which uses a large scale whiteboard interface that allows artists to communicate with a computer process by drawing standing as if at an easel and which allows greater flexibility of movement than a mouse or graphics tablet. Their more recent work extends this to more general movement detection where “the computer can become an extension of the individual, part of us, but not always under our direct conscious control.”

The theme of human computer symbiosis continues with Laurent Mignonneau and Christa Sommerer ( - expired) who describe their new PICO-SCAN system created for the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin. The spectator faces an array of flat panel plasma screens each with an attached hand held scanner. When the scanner is picked up, artificial-life creatures come out of hibernation and the spectator can modify their behaviour and feed them by scanning in parts of their bodies. When the creatures acquire enough energy they can mate and produce offspring that inherit various characteristics from their parents, as well as minor mutations. The artists describe the work as an open system since it involves the external agency of the spectator and suggests that the creature-creature interactions coupled with the creature-spectator interactions create a complex adaptive system that links the real and the virtual.

During the 90s the Brazilian/US artist Eduardo Kac ( established an impressive reputation and he has created several key works in the emergent genres of telecommunications, teleprescence and interaction. Now another member of the CAiiA program, he describes his most recent work in Transgenic Art—works that involve genetic engineering.

Genesis takes a sentence from the Bible: “Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” The genesis gene was created by first converting the sentence into the dots and dashes of Morse code. Kac describes his decisions: “This sentence was chosen for its implications regarding the dubious notion of (divinely sanctioned) humanity’s supremacy over nature. Morse code was chosen because, as first employed in radiotelegraphy, it represents the dawn of the information age—the genesis of global communications.” (In the same month that Kac described this work at Consciousness Reframed Morse code was officially retired from the telecommunication spectrum.) The next step converted this Morse code into a DNA sequence where: dashes were represented by the letter T (thymine); dots were represented by the letter C (cytosine); word spaces were replaced by the letter A (adenine); and letter spaces were substituted by the letter G (guanine). This DNA sequence was then synthesised and inserted into the genome of a strain of E-coli. This living bacterium was exhibited and grew, reproduced and mutated. After exhibition the mutated DNA sequence was decoded to produce the modified sentence: “let aan have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over every living thing that ioves ua eon the earth.”

The relatively remote location of the conference, at Caerleon in South Wales, helps make the event small and intimate with plenty of opportunity for networking and socialising. Next year Ascott intends to focus on the non-ordinary, non-local and non-linear with an emphasis on parapsychology.

Consciousness Reframed 2000, The Centre for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts—CAiiA, University of Wales College, Newport, UK, August 23-26.

Paul Brown is the recipient of an Australia Council New Media Arts Fellowship for 2000-01 and is currently Artist-in-Residence at the Centre for Computational Neuroscience and Robotics at the University of Sussex, UK.

RealTime issue #40 Dec-Jan 2000 pg. 19

© Paul Brown; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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