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Scalable City: Interview with Sheldon Brown, by Eduardo Navas

Image and text source: gallery@calit2

The following interview with Sheldon Brown was commissioned by gallery@calit2 for the exhibition “Scalable City”. Exhibition dates: Thursday, Oct. 23, 2008 – Monday, Dec. 15, 2008

Sheldon Brown is an artist who works in new forms of culture that arise out of developments in computing technology. He is Director of the Center for Research in Computing and the Arts (CRCA) at UC San Diego, where he is a Professor of Visual Arts and an academic participant in the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2). During his early career, Brown experimented with emerging technologies to develop works that explore the possible meaning of “virtual reality.” His installations were often designed for immersive audience participation. Many of these works have been developed for the gallery, such as “MetaStasis” (1990), an art installation consisting of a room that visitors enter to experience what appears to be, as Brown himself has called it, a “zoetrope of TV images.” Brown took his interest in mediated reality to the public sphere in installations such as “Video Wind Chimes” (1994), which projects broadcast TV images on the street sidewalk – images selected according to how the wind blows. In both of these projects, as well as many others, Brown emphasizes how metaphysical experience is contingent upon our increasing dependency in immersive media of all forms. Brown’s longstanding interest in mediation is further explored in “Scalable City.” In the following interview, the artist reflects on how Scalable City connects his interests in emerging technologies as well as longstanding traditions of art practice.

[Eduardo Navas] Unlike many artists who claim to be interested primarily in expressing their ideas and not being bound to a specific medium, you have chosen to focus on the development of art that is involved with computing technology. Having said this, the computer makes possible metamedia – meaning it simulates other media, and in this sense it allows artists to focus on idea development. It appears, then, that you share the interest of exploring ideas in the tradition of modern art practice with artists who might play down their preference for a particular medium. With this in mind, could you reflect on the shifts that art practice may be taking based on the increasing role of computers in all aspects of our lives? How do you see your art practice in relation to previous practices which may have downplayed their preference for a particular medium?

[Sheldon Brown] It seems you attribute conflicting claims for my relationship to “medium”, but I don’t see computing as a medium in the 20th century sense. Probably even the idea of it as a meta-medium does not capture its character. It may be more useful to think about computing as creating certain cultural conditions, and I’m doing work which utilizes and responds to those conditions. It might then be more like the interest in speed as a condition for the futurists, but I wouldn’t want to make too much of any analogies to previous art movements and their concerns. The impact of computing on culture comes after the modernist, conceptualist and post-modernist engagements, and just as I have called it a meta-medium, I could also call it a meta-ism – it is able to simulate any and all of these previous attitudes. Not that my interests in this begin and end at simulation of previous forms; this is but one of the gestures possible in this condition, but when it performs any of these simulations, they become rapidly engaged in a new dynamic which doesn’t stop at borders of previous operations.

[EN] The strength of computing appears to be the ability to simulate, hence your calling it a meta-medium or meta-ism sounds reasonable. The term meta-media as we know was coined by Marshall McLuhan, but the principles of simulation were conceptualized by Alay Kay when he proposed the Dynabook, which is essentially the computer laptop today. Would you say that the tendentious aesthetic of simulation is currently at play because the computer was conceptualized deliberately as a meta-medium by individuals who were influenced by the ideas of McLuhan and Kay? What does this tendency mean for the way we view reality once computing becomes the basis for media in general?

[SB] Simulation is a very core idea in computing – but not the only one involved. I would peel back the references you cite a bit further to look at the concept of the universal Turing machine as key to the nature of computing – a machine that is able to simulate other Turing machines. However, the simulation is just the starting point. The quantitative nature of computing is crucial. It may be able to simulate a logical operation, but the ability of doing a few billion of these a second creates a new phenomenon. The multitudinous simulations of previous forms in previously improbable combinations combine to create new entities. Therefore, it simply isn’t enough to look at the outcomes of digital culture with the analytical frameworks of previous eras and think that computing is just simulating or replaying those forms. Realizing that this quantitative property of computing is crucial to its nature, it is important to note that this property is rapidly changing. Computing today is not the computing we will know tomorrow, and there is no foreseeable endpoint for when it will cease its Moore’s-law redoubling. As it continues this development, more aspects of reality become a part of its operations. So certain concepts that have efficacy in computing become applied across cultural domains that previously hadn’t been considered as computable, and then they become translatable and accessible to the broad realm of the computational. Will this distort our views of reality? Of course! The invention of perspective has distorted our conception of space. Every tool has both intended and unintended effects. These unintended, ancillary artifacts are places that are very useful in seeing the juxtaposition of intent and outcome.

[EN] You argue that film language has been a defining element that has shaped reality. In your text “4K Fidelity in the Scalable City,” you allude to a new stage of simulation that is arising, which relies in part on 4K technology – an image technology that describes the spatial resolution of the image, ~4,000 x 2,000 pixels. The result is a highly detailed image that supersedes anything seen before. Yet, this is happening in a time when we also rely on low-resolution images, which are likely to be more popular since they are privileged by mobile devices. How do you see 4K influencing other areas of visual culture beyond the big screen? Will it be a medium of privilege, like film was in its early days, or will it somehow become part of popularly used devices? Will the Scalable City also be accessible in other forms, or do you see it primarily moving towards high-resolution technology due to the concepts of immersion you are interested in exploring?

[SB] The 4K format is a means to crack the cinematic nut, to turn it into a digital medium. A fully digital cinema becomes a territory for the rampant activities that we’ve seen occur when other mediums become digital – think of the changes to the music industry. While the digitization of cinema has been happening in many facets, the movie theater has maintained a constant structure fronting the movie industry with its fairly stable forms of production and dissemination. It bifurcates cinema culture into professional and amateur realms: the professional engages digital production means (from overt special effects to simply a part of the production pipeline of color correction, lighting adjustments, sound design, and removal of wires, pimples, and wrinkles), and the amateur exploits distribution forms (YouTube, etc.).

The final format of this new digital cinema will not be 4K. This is simply the first movie theater scale digital form that has visual qualities that are desirable in comparison to film. Once the transition occurs to digital cinema presentation and dissemination, the formats of presentation are likely to change and diversify rapidly. Developing outcomes that can migrate across a multiplicity of forms, even taking advantage of different affordances that a form may have, will be more and more the case. Scalable City alludes to this in its operations as a series of movies, as an installation, as prints, as objects, and soon as a downloadable online game. Within each of these, there are variations – the interactive installation is configured differently for each venue – but at each venue and for each form, I am bringing forward particular qualities of the work.

[EN] You are able to walk a fine line between art and technology. As you explain, much of your funding comes from institutions that support computer science. How do you see the relationship of art, science and technology today, especially when much funding comes from corporations ultimately interested in the bottom line? And how does this affect the type of criticism that has traditionally been part of the fine arts? Is the arts’ critical methodology being redefined?

[SB] The relationship of how work is supported to what it addresses seems to have fallen out of the critical banter in the last couple of decades (post-1980), with the gallery system and the relationship to museums and collectors less critically examined as a part of how artwork is validated. I think the economies of production should be considered as a part of the reading of a work. It doesn’t entirely constrain the work to these systems. We are able to look at Michelangelo’s efforts and not only see them as di Medici decorations, but by having some analysis of this, we can understand some things about intent and outcome. In my work, I’m continually looking at what we are about to be able to see and do through the developments of our technologies of knowledge, vision and representation. Pushing these forward requires that I develop new approaches for the advances that come from computing. This builds knowledge that extends beyond the confines of this particular artwork at this time. I hope it can help make these technologies more effective for seeing further and knowing more.

[EN] One of the challenges that appears to confront your art practice is that you are often dealing with subject matter that is not popularly recognizable, or even common within art circles. As we know, artists today tend to work mainly as commentators: they take material from culture and spin it in ways that invite viewers to reconsider how such elements are taken for granted or promoted by the media. In your situation, do you find that some explanation or contextualization is at times necessary for the wider art circle to better understand your work due to the specificity of the technology? Would you say that this is a recurring tendency that has kept artists invested in emerging media technologies from showing in certain major art venues?

[SB] You might be right in some of your assessments, but nevertheless, I would have to argue with some of your assertions such as “subject matter that is not popularly recognizable.”. First of all, if you look at the visual elements of Scalable City, it consists of landscapes, automobiles and houses. I think those have popular recognizability. That they are visualized via techniques that forefront the artifacts of their representational systems – computer vision capture, polygonal forms, satellite imagery – are also commonly encountered artifacts of the contemporary visual world. What is probably less common is using the artifacts of these representations as a meaningful gesture in digital technology. Much of the way that digital forms are celebrated in popular media is for their disappearance. In cinema, it makes the unreal look real, but I think the relationship to reality and its representations is a much more complicated and interesting territory.

However, these works have a pretty high indulgence in these visual forms, which combine them in ways that are fairly overt. (Tornados of cars? Skyscrapers made of suburban house pieces? What’s unfamiliar here?)

In this case, I think the multiple forms of the work provide an intra-commentary that is useful in reading the work. The cinematic works benefit the game works, which in turn illuminate the sculptural pieces. I do think that there is something in the operationality of these works (and others like them) that is an impediment for some to be able to really see them. The ability to consider is really important. The need to operate can interfere with that. A reader of these types of works sometimes needs to operate them, and then consider them. For some, that just seems like too much.

[EN] Golan Levin (and I think he would not mind that I say this) often refers to a “new media ghetto”, meaning that due to the specifics of work like yours only so many venues can support it. Do you think we will move beyond this stage? And if so, how?

[SB] Maybe it is okay to be in this state. In the late 90’s a bunch of institutions jumped on a new media bandwagon and launched a bunch of websites that seemed to be their response to the situation. This was mostly uninteresting, but did stimulate a rush toward this as a normalizing mode of new media art activity. For me, exhibiting is another part of the working process of creating a project. I enjoy showing in unusual and diverse venues. On occasion, new media art forums are of interest, as well as the more regular art world, but I also find that engaging in deep technology venues (Supercomputing conferences, SIGGRAPH, etc.), or architecture exhibitions, or science museums, can provide a contextuality that is not unlike creating public art. By this, I mean that each of these forums has a set of conversations that are ongoing, I enter into these knowing something of them, and through my work, I try and steer those conversations to some new territory. In the process, I gain a tremendous amount by how the work is received, and the future directions that I will pursue.

But the slightly disengaged art world relationship to this field is ultimately an unfortunate situation. In the 20th century, the art world developed as our domain of cultural research. This research is not about material forms and techniques, but about how meaning operates in the created world around us (forms and techniques play a role in this). As our culture is undergoing a radical restructuring that is reflected and provoked by the transformation of many of its forms to computed entities, art is one of the domains that is working with the conundrums and possibilities of this moment. If the issues that new media arts are engaging are not part of a rigorous discourse, they become insular. If the art world ignores the field, it becomes irrelevant. That is the most caricatured description of the situation; it isn’t that bleak, but it warrants ongoing address.

[EN] In your multifaceted project “Scalable City” you combine various forms of art production from prints to sculptures, implicitly leaning towards video gaming as a pivot in cultural production. To contextualize your practice in relation to these various forms of expression, you have developed the term “troiage aesthetics,” which you argue is intimately bound to the development of computing, and is relevant to painting and literature. You explain that troiage aesthetics is defined by the acts of doing, seeing and thinking. What stands out in your theoretical description is that “troiage” emphasizes three-dimensionality, specific to computing media, and is dependent on reactive interaction by the viewer. Could you explain how you see immersive technology of this type redefining reception and interactivity? Particularly when you argue that all methods of sculptural reception are interactive, and you explain that the video game ruptures the previously established interactive paradigm? In this sense, is the Scalable City exploring a possible format that started with film, and may be moving to a paradigm in which the viewer will be expected not only to interact by perceiving, but also to react by performing an action?

[SB] Let me start by stating that my first interest in interactivity is that it provides a method to complicate the image plane, or the temporal image plane (provided by cinema). It is interactivity that spatializes this frame. This provides for a cubic extension of engagements. So first and foremost for me is interactivity as a perceptual apparatus. With this (and your previous attribution that I’ve made about this as meta-medium) non-interactive forms continue, but as instantiations of the set of outcomes which come from the equation of “Cultural Object = Data x Algorithms x Users” (although the arithmetic of that equation is overly simplified).

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