Category: Art

Ubiquitous Computing and Borges' "Parable of the Palace"

October 26th, 2008 — 2:52pm

I’ve been look­ing at ubiq­ui­tous com­put­ing for the past few weeks, work­ing on the first install­ment of what will be a recur­ring col­umn in UXMat­ters, and it’s had me think­ing a lot about Borges’ enig­matic Para­ble of the Palace.
I’m not exactly sure what the res­o­nance is — it lit­er­ally popped into my head a few weeks ago — but the con­nec­tion has stuck with me. Maybe it’s the quan­tum uncer­tainty of the tale? Or the ambi­gu­ity of the sym­bols. Are design­ers the poet? It feels that way some days. Is the palace the world around us? Maybe we’re also the emperor…
With­out fur­ther ado, I present the para­ble in it’s entirety.
Para­ble of the Palace
by Jorge Luis Borges
That day the Yel­low Emperor showed his palace to the poet. Lit­tle by lit­tle, step by step, they left behind, in long pro­ces­sion, the first westward-facing ter­races which, like the jagged hemi­cy­cles of an almost unbounded amphithe­ater, stepped down into a par­adise, a gar­den whose metal mir­rors and inter­twined hedges of juniper were a pre­fig­u­ra­tion of the labyrinth. Cheer­fully they lost them­selves in it — at first as though con­de­scend­ing to a game, but then not with­out some uneasi­ness, because its straight allées suf­fered from a very gen­tle but con­tin­u­ous cur­va­ture, so the secretly the avenues were cir­cles. Around mid­night, obser­va­tion of the plan­ets and the oppor­tune sac­ri­fice of a tor­toise allowed them to escape the bonds of that region that seemed enchanted, though not to free them­selves from that sense of being lost that accom­pa­nied them to the end. They wan­dered next through antecham­bers and court­yards and libraries, and then through a hexag­o­nal room with a water clock, and one morn­ing, from a tower, they made out a man of stone, whom later they lost sight of for­ever. In canoes hewn from san­dal­wood, they crossed many gleam­ing rivers–or per­haps a sin­gle river many times. The impe­r­ial entourage would pass and peo­ple would fall to their knees and bow their heads to the ground, but one day the courtiers came to an island where one man did not do this, for he had never seen the Celes­tial Son before, and the exe­cu­tioner had to decap­i­tate him. The eyes of the emperor and poet looked with indif­fer­ence on black tresses and black dances and golden masks; the real merged and min­gled with the dreamed–or the real, rather, was one of the shapes the dream took. It seemed impos­si­ble that the earth should be any­thing but gar­dens, foun­tains, archi­tec­tures, and forms of splen­dor. Every hun­dred steps a tower cut the air; to the eye, their color was iden­ti­cal, but the first of them was yel­low and the last was scar­let; that was how del­i­cate the gra­da­tions were and how long the series.
It was at the foot of the penul­ti­mate tower that the poet (who had appeared untouched by the spec­ta­cles which all the oth­ers had so greatly mar­veled at) recited the brief com­po­si­tion that we link indis­sol­ubly to his name today, the words which, as the most ele­gant his­to­ri­ans never cease repeat­ing, gar­nered the poet immor­tal­ity and death. The text has been lost; there are those who believe that it con­sisted of but a sin­gle line; oth­ers, of a sin­gle word.
What we do know–however incred­i­ble it may be–is that within the poem lay the entire enor­mous palace, whole and to the least detail, with every ven­er­a­ble porce­lain it con­tained and every scene on every porce­lain, all the lights and shad­ows of its twi­lights, and every for­lorn or happy moment of the glo­ri­ous dynas­ties of mor­tals, gods, and drag­ons that had lived within it through all its end­less past. Every­one fell silent; then the emperor spoke: “You have stolen my palace!” he cried, and the executioner’s iron scythe mowed down the poet’s life.
Oth­ers tell the story dif­fer­ently. The world can­not con­tain two things that are iden­ti­cal; no sooner, they say, had the poet uttered his poem than the palace dis­ap­peared, as though in a puff of smoke, wiped from the face of the earth by the final syl­la­ble.
Such leg­ends, of course, are sim­ply lit­er­ary fic­tions. The poet was the emperor’s slave and died a slave; his com­po­si­tion fell into obliv­ion because it mer­ited obliv­ion, and his descen­dants still seek, though they shall never find, the word for the universe.

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Psychogeography Comes to Central Square

October 17th, 2005 — 8:43am

Art Inter­ac­tive and Glowlab, a local “net­work of psy­cho­geo­g­ra­phers” is using Cen­tral Square as an exhi­bi­tion and inves­ti­ga­tion space for the next nine weeks, con­duct­ing exper­i­ments with laugh­ing bicy­cles, art/clothing made from trash, and other psy­cho­geo­graphic phe­nom­ena.
Wikipedia says, “Psy­cho­geog­ra­phy is “The study of spe­cific effects of the geo­graph­i­cal envi­ron­ment, con­sciously organ­ised or not, on the emo­tions and behav­iour of indi­vid­u­als”, accord­ing to the arti­cle Pre­lim­i­nary Prob­lems in Con­struct­ing a Sit­u­a­tion, in Sit­u­a­tion­niste Inter­na­tionale No. 1 (1958) .“
I first heard the term psy­cho­geog­ra­phy while read­ing J.G. Ballard’s The Ter­mi­nal Beach, Con­crete Island, and Crash. Richard Calder is a more recent exam­ple of a writer work­ing with these ideas. (Note to the curi­ous: Calder’s writ­ings include some *unusual* tastes and fla­vors.) Calder may have optioned one of his nov­els for film pro­duc­tion. Of the mem­bers of the Sit­u­a­tion­ist Inter­na­tional men­tioned by Wikipedia, I’m most fami­lar with Guy Debord’s writ­ings, from quite a few sem­ina ses­sions on media the­ory, cul­tural the­ory, post­mod­ern the­ory.
Regard­less of psychogeography’s ori­gins, all roads lead to the inter­net now: a quick Google query turns up, which links to an essay titled Dada Pho­tomon­tage and Sitemaps that com­pares Dadaist pho­tomon­tages to the fami­lar sitemap. The first two cita­tions in the piece are the Yale Style Guide, and Tufte’s Visu­al­iz­ing Infor­ma­tion.
The cir­cle closes eas­ily, since one of the link threads leads to, where you find a page on [Gen­er­a­tive] Psy­cho­geogr­pahy. Ran­dom note; socialfiction’s ban­ner car­ries ref­er­ences to “cartho­graphic sadism * gab­ber avant-gardism * exper­i­men­tal knowl­edge * DIY urban­ism” — all likely cadi­dates for Amazon’s SIP sta­tis­ti­cally improb­a­ble phrases list­ings. Per­haps most intrigu­ing is “disco social­ism”. Now that might catch on in some pub­lic pol­icy cir­cles that could use a bit of help pick­ing a good back beat…
A quick selec­tion of events that looked inter­est­ing:
6:30PM — 8:30PM: N55 Artist Talk & Din­ner
Hosted with the Cen­ter for Advanced Visual Stud­ies at MIT
Dan­ish artists’ group N55 cre­ates mobile tools and sit­u­a­tions for every­day liv­ing: a work­place, a mod­u­lar boat, a shop, a fac­tory, a clean air machine, a com­mune, and even a per­sonal rocket. Food & Drink pro­vided. NOTE: This event is hosted at CAVS, 265 Mass Ave, 3Fl (Bldg N-52, Rm 390), Cam­bridge MA.
6PM9PM: Glowlab Party!
Hosted by the Boston Soci­ety of Archi­tects. All young artists, design­ers, archi­tects and their friends are invited to enjoy good food and cheer and become a part of a grow­ing net­work of young pro­fes­sion­als who are shap­ing the future of Boston. Free drinks & enter­tain­ment. RSVP to
For those of you with fash­ion incli­na­tions (spurred by watch­ing too much InStyle?)
12PM5PM: DIY Wear­able Chal­lenge
Make an inter­ac­tive out­fit from Cam­bridge trash and dis­carded elec­tron­ics Led by Jonah Brucker-Cohen and Kather­ine Moriwaki.

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The User Experience of Interactive Art: Boston CyberArts Festival 2005

May 3rd, 2005 — 9:24pm

Prompted by curi­ousity, and a desire to see if inter­ac­tive art really is irri­tat­ing, I took in sev­eral exhibits for the 2005 Boston Cyber­Arts Fes­ti­val, at the Decor­dova Museum this week­end.
Sarah Boxer’s review of Trains — a land­scape made of tiny model rail­road build­ings and fig­ures, adorned with movie images from famous movie scenes, and pop­u­lated by pas­sen­gers that appear only on the video screen of a Game­boy — offers sev­eral stel­lar insights about the emo­tion­ally unhealthy states of mind brought on by attempt­ing to inter­act with com­put­er­ized inter­faces. Boxer says:

Alas, some cyber­works com­bine all the annoy­ances of inter­ac­tive art (pruri­ence, rit­ual, ungra­cious­ness and moral supe­ri­or­ity) to pro­duce a mega-annoyance: total frus­tra­tion. Case in point: John Klima’s “Trains,” at the DeCor­dova Museum School Gallery, in the Boston sub­urb Lin­coln, which is a model train set guided by cellphone.

It’s clear from this that the emo­tional or other con­tent of the art instal­la­tion itself was obscured by the user expe­ri­ence Boxer had to nego­ti­ate in order to engage with the piece. Boxer’s expec­ta­tions for user expe­ri­ence qual­ity might have been lower if she were try­ing out a new spread­sheet, or Lotus Notes, but that’s just an exam­ple of how the soft­ware indus­try has trained cus­tomers to expect abu­sively bad expe­ri­ences. See pho­tos of Trains here.
One of the more usable — if that judge­ment applies — is Nam June Paik’sRequiem for the 20th Cen­tury”. Requiem — photo here — accord­ing to Boxer is less annoy­ing “…a relief to just stand there and watch the apoc­a­lyp­tic mon­tage! No inter­ac­tion. No instruc­tion. No insults.“
Once past the inter­face, I found Requiem ele­giac as expected, but unsat­is­fy­ing for two rea­sons: first by virtue of con­cern­ing mostly Paik’s work in video art, and sec­ond by being strangely empty at heart (or was that the point?). The svelte phys­i­cal­ity of the Chrysler Airstream art-deco auto­mo­bile con­trasted sharply with the ephemeral nature of the video images show­ing on it’s win­dows, in a clear exam­ple of con­cepts that were well-thought-through, but in the end, this is another exam­ple of art (post mod­ern and/or oth­er­wise) that is clever, yet inca­pable of engag­ing and estab­lish­ing emo­tional res­o­nance. “Requiem” is not even effec­tively psy­cho­log­i­cal, which would broaden it’s poten­tial modes of address. To ame­lio­rate this weak­ness, I rec­om­mend obtain­ing the audio­book ver­sion of J.G. Ballard’s “Crash”, and lis­ten­ing to it’s auto-erotic on head­phones while tak­ing in the sil­vered spec­ta­cle.
From the descrip­tion: “Requiem sums up the twen­ti­eth cen­tury as a period of trans­for­ma­tive socio-cultural change from an indus­trial based soci­ety to an elec­tronic infor­ma­tion based soci­ety. The auto­mo­bile and the tele­vi­sion fig­ure as both the most sig­nif­i­cant inven­tions of the cen­tury as well as the most promi­nent sig­ni­fiers of West­ern consumerism.”

Con­tinue reading »

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Plant a (Virtual) Tree With Your Cell Phone

March 11th, 2005 — 6:12pm

For those who would rather plant trees than cell phone tow­ers:

The Cana­dian Film Centre’s Habi­tat New Media Lab in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the SEED Col­lec­tive will unveil an inno­v­a­tive inter­ac­tive art instal­la­tion, SEED, dur­ing the scope­New York Art Fair, March 11th to 14th at Fla­to­tel, 135 West 52nd in New York City. This pub­lic inter­ac­tive art instal­la­tion invites par­tic­i­pants to use their cell phones to plant “seeds” to grow a vir­tual for­est.
SEED explores the con­ver­gence of rich media and wire­less tech­nol­ogy in the cre­ation of a col­lab­o­ra­tive and evolv­ing work of art. Through sound and imagery users cre­ate and pop­u­late a for­est together. By dial­ing a par­tic­u­lar num­ber, each audi­ence mem­ber will be given a “seed” to grow using the key­pads of their cell phones. With each punch of the key­pad, audi­ences have the abil­ity to grow their seeds, choose the type of trees they want to plant, and change their tex­ture and colour. After the three days at the scope­New York Air Fair, the end effect is that all trees cre­ated by audi­ence mem­bers will reveal a vir­tual forest.

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Traces of Fire

May 26th, 2004 — 9:55pm

Traces of Fire is an art exhibit and social exper­i­ment that used wildlife-tracking teleme­try to trace the move­ments of ten cig­a­rette lighters ‘lost’ in famous pubs in Lim­er­ick. The lighters were car­ried around Lim­er­ick by unknown peo­ple, as trans­mit­ters relayed loca­tion and motion data to observ­ing artists for nearly two weeks. From the cumu­la­tive data, the artists built a series of exhi­bi­tions show­ing pat­terns in the loca­tions and move­ments of the lighters around the city.

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Do You Want to Rock - in ASCII?

September 5th, 2003 — 10:36am

C404 — an art/media group — brings you music icons includ­ing The Sex Pis­tols, Hen­drix, AC/DC, and Van Halen per­form­ing live in videos ren­dered in Wachowski-style cas­cades of glow­ing ASCII text.
I cre­ate cat­e­gories pro­fes­sion­ally, which means it’s almost inevitable that I’m inter­ested in things that chal­lenge and escape cat­e­gories (the “mind forg’d man­a­cles” Blake labelled so well) by their nature.
Though I’m sure this will appear in an over-miked com­mer­cial for tooth­paste or pick-up trucks soon, at the moment it’s a new way of look­ing at sev­eral very famil­iar cul­tural prop­er­ties that ques­tions the thresh­olds of recog­ni­tion, per­cpetion, and iden­ti­fi­ca­tion we rely on every day.

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