Category Archives: Research

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Hasan Elahi: The Artist as Producer, Curator and Critic

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Original image grabbed via The Baltimore Sun

It is interesting to note how in the above image, Hasan Elahi identifies himself and his presence with a downturned arrow pointer. It is as though through this simple icon, Elahi seems to rebel against conforming to convention. The same can be said of his works which go against the grain, in terms of how he ends up being both Hasan Elahi the Artist, and Hasan Elahi the Curator. His constant stream of meticulous documentation of his own private life becomes overwhelming, to the point where this stream becomes littered with both something and yet nothing at the same time. It is interesting to note how this notion of duality seems to be present.

Elahi’s efforts to track his own self border on the line of extreme and yet, they also poke fun at the idea of surveillance. His name being accidentally added to the FBI watch list as a suspected terrorist was the catalyst to his delving deeper into the whole process of self-surveillance and making the gathered data public. By making so much of this information public, he intentionally creates a glut of data which keeps surfacing and burying itself in a constant state of flux.

It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen. The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself—anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide. In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face … was itself a punishable offense. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: facecrime …

– George Orwell

Perhaps it is no surprise that Elahi also refers to his Tracking Transience project as “The Orwell Project”. Tracking Transience embraces surveillance and the loss of privacy. Elahi’s whereabouts and images from the places where he has been to are readily broadcasted and archived on the website.

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The artist becomes a hyperactive medium, who is continually active in interacting with his own body of work. In Elahi’s case, his penchant for tedious documentation, geo-tagging and archiving becomes a never ending process. Perhaps it is best to call Tracking Transience a continual work in progress where the documentation and it’s arrangement echoes the concerns of the artist. Organizing and curating these material become a form of controlled chaos for the artist, as one can only imagine just how much data one has to pour through in order to arrange them by date, location and so on just to make them presentable. The end result becomes a neatly archived record of everything and also nothing.

The average individual on the Internet would tend to provide details and descriptions of photos or videos he might have taken along with with tagging details of who he was with and where he was going. However, in Tracking Transience, these vital extraneous details are cut off. The occasional photo might pop up with a some letters and numbers placed in the centre of the image, which could possibly be some form of coordinates pointing to where Elahi was at the time the photo was taken. But other than that, the only thing a user ends up tracking on Tracking Transience is but a sparse detailing of the life of the artist and what he gets up to. This brings to mind the idea of inducing information paralysis by overwhelming one with information, similar to FriendsterFriday created by Ian Aleksander Adams.

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Screenshot of the homepage of FriendsterFriday.com
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Screenshot from TrackingTransience.net

The masterstroke in Elahi’s Tracking Transience is how he creates this illusion of giving you every single information about himself and also nothing at all. Fragmentation and unification of disjointed information seem to provide the perfect online camouflage for Elahi. His careful attention to detail in presenting this information to the public eye seems to mock “Big Brother”, effectively thumbing the eye of surveillance with gusto and showmanship. The artist therefore ends up donning two feathers in his hat, that of producer and curator of his own body of work.  This can be seen in how Elahi uses his own documented material in his installation works , which extensively utilize monitors and cameras.

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Hiding In Plain Sight, Hasan Elahi, 2011, Intersection 5M
Grabbed via artbusiness.com

It is as though the artist is using the act of surveillance against itself, thereby effectively negating any palpable form of usable information which could be deciphered at the end. Elahi becomes almost like an icon of defiance in the face of government surveillance, which is something that has become an increasingly pressing issue as of late in the United States.

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Grabbed via archive.tehelka.com

In an age where the boundaries of privacy become ever so faint, Elahi’s work raises concerns over just how aware are we of our own information trails we leave behind. Personal data and the person behind that data can effectively become distorted by technology and the mass media. To me, I find that Elahi’s Tracking Transience evokes this idea that people should take ownership of their own data and that a lack of privacy is still pretty much a problem in society today. At the same time, what about the possibility of being intentional in trying to break down the wall of privacy? What about those who willingly upload photos of what they eat and who they meet on Instagram and Facebook? Perhaps there are also those who relish in the lack of privacy, where entering their space in the digital sphere is very much the same as entering their home unannounced. Should this group of individuals be worried with what Big Brother does with their very public data? Or does it not matter in the end since they voluntarily put up their most private information on very public online portals? Elahi’s work thus continues to stimulate debate and raises more burning questions which are a pertinent critique of the superficiality of society. In the mean time, Hasan Elahi continues to hide in plain sight.

Click here to check out Nasir’s take on Elahi’s work.

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jodi.org: The Desolation of Text and the User Interface

In this day and age, the majority of us are familiar with the World Wide Web. We already have a conventional idea of what websites are, how websites are supposed to look like and how they can be navigated. We go through a preset array of motions, scrolling and clicking our way through this digital terrain, as we traverse bytes and data.

Surely nothing new can faze us now right? Have websites become predictable in terms of form and function?

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When a user lands on the homepage of jodi.org, he is greeted with…and therein lies an interesting twist. The homepage is never constant. Never. Visiting www.jodi.org again will result in an entirely different landing page. The URL in the address bar would change by itself, redirecting the user somewhere else even though he typed in the correct url.

What peaked my interest as I continued exploring the site was the complete lack of an attempt to let the visitor know what to do, where to go, what to click on and so forth. There were no instructions, no guides. The only available form of text was butchered and chopped up, mixed together with a healthy dose of symbols and ascii art elements. On the surface, it just looks like one big mess. But perhaps there is something larger at work?

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Sometimes some portions of the text are clickable, leading the user on towards parts unknown. This reminded me of  SURPRISE.SG (one of the many websites which are part of the Web Art Movement initiated by OSS alumni Eugene Soh) where the user is presented with a big red button to click on to move from watching one video to another without being able to know in advance what he is going to watch. The videos which play one after another and their content range from the absurd to the absolute surreal (hence the title, “SURPRISE”)

Extracts from SURPRISE.SG

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Where jodi.org differs from a website like surprise.sg is that it abandons the idea of even making something actually look clickable. Hyperlinks could be hidden virtually anywhere, residing in-between chunks of “nonsensical” text and gibberish, waiting for the user to hover their mouse over them. The conventional notion of web aesthetics and user interface are thrown out the window with wild abandon, resulting in unpredictable user experiences for anyone who visits jodi.org. Clearly it seems as though the creators of the website do not want users to attempt to understand what is going, and they seem to taken great care to ensure that there is no possible trace for visitors to pick up on to even know what is going on.

Screengrabs from jodi.org

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I attempted to visit jodi.org again for the “n”th time, and sure enough I got redirected to another url (www.wrongbrowser.com). The following below details this particular visit which bore an unexpected present.

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I landed on an almost barren page.

There were no instructions, no popups telling me what to look at or what to follow. I was completely left to my own devices.

On the left were what appeared to be hyperlinks which would bring me to other sites hosted on different domains. In the middle of the site, there were two small squares of black and yellow. Above them, the words “mac osx” and “pc win” were flush aligned against each square. Right at the top, “%WRONG Browser” screamed in bold and above that, a “9.04”.

Even though this just how sparse the layout was on the site, it was enough for me to draw a relationship between the two squares and the words at the top.

It was enough for me to come to the following conclusion: If I was on a Macintosh, I should click the black square. If I was on Windows, I should click on the yellow square. Seemed straight forward enough. I inched my mouse over the black square and clicked it. Immediately, my browser started downloading something. There was no prompt, no warning beforehand. All I saw was the progress bar filling up as my browser downloaded what seemed to be a zip file which was suspiciously titled “COM.zip”.

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Leaving my sense of better judgement behind, I went ahead and unzipped the file (but not before making sure I had saved whatever stuff I was working on in case something terrible unfolded on my computer). The contents of the zip file was only an executable, nothing more. I double-clicked it, as though by some hard wired response.

Nothing happened.

Or so it seemed.

My cursor turned into a spinning beach ball.

My screen went black.

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A few seconds later, my screen was the host to a sea of white, populated by random blocks of blue, green, red, black and yellow.

Lines of text started running on the screen, growing in length, stopping, and starting again.

I had lost control of my computer.

 

Could gibberish be a new form of cryptography? Maybe the various symbols stem from some sort of system grounded in logic? Or maybe they don’t? Perhaps the site pokes fun at security, and the lengths to which one might go to hide their digital footprints in many more subsections of digital footprints scattered across a server. Whatever may be the intent, there is clearly a sense of mischief afoot in the minds of the creators of jodi.org.

When encountering jodi.org, the web visitor is encouraged to be an active participant. Instead of being spoon-fed instructions on how to navigate and what to look at, the unassuming web surfer gets pushed into a system of organized chaos. A system where language, text and usability get subverted, maybe even exploited and abused, leaving behind a long unending trail of web-domains and hyperlinks which link to one another. Even in the wake of such sheer abandon and destruction of conventional forms, a new aesthetic form is being given birth to: a form where the very raw and at times crude visual amalgamation of media and text become visually striking and maybe, even visually unique from anything else we have been exposed to on World Wide Web.

Welcome to the net.art movement.

For more thoughts about jodi.org, check out Nasir’s musings.

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The Virtual Identity in Second Life: “You vent, You release, You repeat”

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Source: www.impawards.com

“Life 2.0” sheds light on a group of individuals who closely identify themselves with their virtual avatars. While Second Life might seem like any ordinary social game on the surface, it ends up meaning so much more for these everyday people.

The action-reaction relationship works both ways, where their actions in the virtual world could at times result in reactive effects in the real world. An example of this can be best seen in one of the individuals shown in the film who goes by the name “Ayya Aabye” in Second Life. What is unique about this particular example, is how the individual (a guy) adopts a female persona in the virtual world as way of trying to “explore another side of himself”. This persona becomes a virtual outlet for his fantasy and emotions, while his symbiotic relationship with his virtual avatar grows even stronger.

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“It’s like another part of me”

He mentions this many times when trying to explain his actions in the virtual space to his partner, but she sees this as something that is straining their real-life relationship. Their failure to see eye to eye on what is happening pushes them apart from one another, leading her to leave him eventually.

What seems interesting in the development of this scenario is that we eventually learn that this man was sexually abused at a young age. He says that perhaps this could have been a possible catalyst for his obsession with his female alter ego online. Could this manifestation in the virtual realm could have been a form of therapeutic release for his pent up emotions which he is unable to share with anyone else ?

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Plugged into the virtual, with no sense of fleeting time and the Real.

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The virtual identity becomes a virtual output: a release system for an individual to express himself without worry of causing any real physical harm to others. Ayya Aabye’s rampage of destruction as “she” tried to get herself banned from the servers is one example, where if something like this happened in the real world, the consequences would be devastating. Within the virtual realm, limits are imposed and things are kept in check. If citizens in Second Life step out of line, the admins would ban them or freeze their accounts for a set period of time or forever.

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In Ayya Aabye’s case, he was disappointed that he was banned for only a day as he was hoping to get his character banned for the long term so that he can force himself to “unplug” and go back to the real world. As such, he becomes stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of plugging into the virtual space, letting go of himself fully into his alter ego and enjoying this temporal release before having to find the need to go back in again. This endlessness is further cemented with his return to the virtual realm with a new avatar as a young boy after having terminated his “Ayya Aabye” persona a week ago. Such is the strength of the addiction to fueling the virtual fantasy escapades of the other Self.

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Image credit: Eran Cantrell Grabbed via www.gizmag.com

This brings to mind the subject of supernormal stimulus, and in this case, the heightened exaggeration of this fantasy reality of meeting new friends, new avatars while staying in character as a young girl, becomes favored over reality and his real-life partner. In such extreme cases, one has to practice due discretion and above all else, moderation. Otherwise, we become controlled by such forms of supernormal stimuli when instead we should be able to clearly reason and think for ourselves as to what the physical and the very real consequences of such reckless behavior hold in the real world.

To read more about the issue of dissociative identity in relation to this, check out Interactive Media, Death and Taxes.

Stelarc performing "Ping Body"

Stelarc’s “Ping Body”

For Stelarc, the human body is something that is just beyond the conventional image of being a passive entity. The body becomes much more than just a passive agent of flesh and blood. In his array of performance works, the human body takes on an active role of being a malleable medium and “Ping Body” is no exception to this. What seems so striking about this work, is just how readily Stelarc gives up control of his body to anonymous users over the Internet. It is as though the artist acknowledges that one cannot have full control over the self, and embraces this vulnerability with open arms.

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Shrouded in darkness amidst blinking monitors and noises from machine interfaces, Stelarc’s body convulses, twists and turns. One gets the impression of how the body is unsure of what it is doing, or rather, that the body is no longer under the control of the artist. Arms, legs and hands flail about with the accompaniment of noises from the machine interfaces, painting a picture of some sort of reanimation being underway. It is as though Stelarc is creating a space for both the body and technology to become aware of one another.

Perhaps it is this vulnerability of the human body that becomes readily apparent as Man continues onward to further mesh himself with Machine. Stelarc is literally wired up to a live system, which continually dictates his every movement, action and reaction via electrical signals. In this day and age, these signals are very much like the stimuli we receive everyday via media (i.e. smartphones,  computers, television, iPods, etc).  The physical tethers (ie. the wires, cables) seen in Stelarc’s “Ping Body” are still very much real today in our daily lives(i.e. chargers for electronic devies, head/earpieces, underground fibre cables for Internet connections). Even as we march onwards towards wireless systems, we are in fact more closely wired to the very machines we make use of.

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A body held in stasis, waiting for input.

Who are you? Who slips into my robot body and whispers to my ghost?

– tagline from “Ghost in the Shell” (1995)

It is interesting to note how this idea of the body being a host to an external device or influence is reflected in mainstream cinema today. Mamoru Oshii’s “Ghost in the Shell” and the Wachowski Brothers’ “The Matrix” come to mind as being effective in putting across this idea of Man being the servant to Machine, and the notion of a society where Man and Machine continually compete for dominance and power.

Source: collider.com
Source: collider.com
Screengrab from "The Matrix"
Screengrab from “The Matrix

Stelarc’s “Ping Body” thus becomes a poetry piece for our generation and the next. The body becomes the puppet, and technology becomes the puppeteer. The body turns into a host to serve the whims of it’s master. A frightening thought, yet the possibilities of what can be accomplished with a fusion of Man and Machine remain relatively endless. With the speed at which technological advancements are being today in this day and age, one cannot entirely rule out the creation of living and breathing cyborgs just yet.

Interested in reading more about Stelarc’s “Ping Body”? Check out Dazedream for more!

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Hole in Space

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“Hole in Space” opens the proverbial door into a world where Man makes contact with Man via this hole, which only exists in a virtual space. In the work, artists Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz created a portal, allowing people on the east coast and the west coast of the United States to communicate with each other in real time, while being able to both see and hear one another.

At the time, such a work seemed so unreal and so out of the ordinary, as participants in the work actively engaged each other via this virtual space to reach out to those existing in the real space on the other end of this hole in space. For that moment, both participants on either side of the hole were connected to one another. The added bonus of people being able to not only see but to also be able to hear and talk to those on the other end elevates this unique moment to greater heights in the realm of what was originally though to be impossible.

The real spaces on both ends become connected via a virtual space (the hole), which is not bound to any form of limitation. This virtual space becomes an entity of it’s own, allowing for the constant two-way feedback and projection of video and audio to both parties on either ends of the hole. In a way, this establishment of a connection between two sides which seems very real, becomes even more mind-boggling by the fact that this conenction is sustained by something that exists in a space which is not grounded in reality, or rather, a space which exists solely in the virtual realm.

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Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, "Hole-in-Space", 1980, Video documentation
Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, “Hole-in-Space”, 1980, Video documentation

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“Hole-in-Space” is a quintessential work which was highly effective in tearing down the idea that the Real and the Virtual spaces need not be separate, by actually creating this illusion of a hole torn in space which broadcast and carried feedback from both ends of the open real spaces. This becomes a milestone and in some ways, a cultural achievement in predicting the trend of things to come, as people have continued to attempt to bridge the gap between the Real and the Virtual space. “Hole-in-Space” becomes an example of a hybrid, born from the fusion between the real and the Virtual, where Man makes first contact with himself via medium which is yet to be fully grasped and understood in finite terms.

Click here to access an extended section of the analysis.

References:

Benford, Steve, and Gabriella Giannachi. Performing Mixed Reality. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2011. Print.

Larry press. “A Hole in Space LA-NY, 1980 — the mother of all video chats.” Online video clip. YouTube, 6 December 2013. Web. 27 January 2014.