Riding Through Walls (Megan Smith)

By January 7, 2016archived

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Riding Through Walls is a new research-creation project in durational performance in physical computing (a mash-up of terms drawn from fine art and computer science that express the hybrid space that the work sits within). The performance takes shape as a cross-Canada expedition through Google Street-View from behind the bars of a stationary bike. This 18-month performance takes place on an ‘Air Wing’ (a networked stationary bicycle that propels me visually through Google map layers at pedalling speed). I wear a Google Glass, and the performance is broadcast via live stream on YouTube and Google. This physical endurance test and new media performance is, through process, forming an archive of a contrived visual experience and a collection of human sensory data.

The creation of the piece is born from a research practice tied to DIY & Maker Culture and a desire to develop a real-time performance that could humanize the complexity of socially networked space through attempting to physically and metaphorically pierce through the Internet.

The project aims to explore the impact of visual and data driven performance and the social and cultural implication of caching body statistics generated from wearable technologies. It tests new physical computing methods for extension into networked culture.

Objectives

  • Produce an innovative new art work that generates original knowledge for the area of media arts about creative technology computational research that engages with the situation of living within the networked age.
  • Pushes the limits of how artists are exploring and critiquing major information stakeholders, such as Google.
  • Tell a story about crossing Canada from coast to coast via the Internet.
  • To engage with and contribute to DIY and “maker culture”.
  • To facilitate the formation of new community through the creation of a performance

Timeline

The project is currently in both performance and continuous development. The journey began on December 1, 2015 on Dallas Road, Victoria, BC (the tip of the Trans-Canada Highway).

The performance is accessible here: http://ridingthroughwalls.megansmith.ca/

#ridingthroughwalls test post pre-departure

A photo posted by @cawsand on

Context

This research project draws from DIY and “maker culture” – a rapidly expanding network-based subculture that is contributing to the evolution of contemporary art practices and economic systems globally (More than Just Digital Quilting). Makers place emphasis on honing practical skills whilst working with a hive philosophy in order to distribute knowledge and access to information for building and inventing new technologies and creating new applications within society (Sharples, M., et al. 33). Consequently, this movement has increased access to affordable electronic components to produce new tools and economies that support growth within this industry. This industry includes stakeholders such as: Etsy.com and Tindie.com; peer-to-peer web-commerce marketplaces that host the hardware and craft of makers; Instructables.com, and web platforms that offer “places to share… projects, connect with others, and make an impact on the world” (Our Story); MakerMedia.com; Adafruit.com; and SeeedStudio.com (who combine the distribution of free online education with sales of their maker kits, components and products).

Maker culture and artists embedded in its practices and philosophy are maturing into an important powerhouse that amalgamates knowledge across science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics to deliver rich and creative content, solve highly complex problems and to deliver more powerful results across the spectrum of fields. This new area of research practice (advocated by artist and designer John Maeda) is STEAM – a revision of STEM research networks ‘Innovations and Research’. It is now ‘a movement championed by Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and widely adopted by institutions, corporations and individuals globally. The objectives of the STEAM movement are to: transform research policy [and to] encourage integration of Art + Design in K–20 education, influence employers to hire artists and designers to drive innovation’ (What is STEAM?). As knowledge and problems are communicated across these fields’ creative solutions and innovate work is being achieved and shared within the public domain, which has a ripple effect that is enabling progress in immeasurable ways as knowledge and result circulate through the network. Artwork within this new research sphere is rarely produced from beginning to end by one individual. By contrast, it is through processes of working within the network of hackathons, maker labs, online groups, engaging with DIY forums, and seeking specialist knowledge. The final products are therefore the result of a collective mind evolving within a cooperative system.

Together to the rise of “maker culture”, a remarkable growth in artistic practices that responds to and engages with the effects of post-internet life, is simultaneously occurring. This evolution is heavily influenced by aforementioned systems, new screen culture, access to new tools and knowledge, and the social experience of living within the networked age. In this sense, post-internet art uses the social web as both a tool and a source of inspiration. This leads to re-visioning of established approaches, an uncovering of latent narratives, and the creation of new works of art shaped by both new tools and cultural formations. This evolution also helps to build communities of practice around the making of work – places in which where artists work in teams together with professionals in other fields of research in order to accomplish complex works of art. As a consequence of this exchange and knowledge distribution, practice and research-creation is exposed to and subsequently experienced by far broader audiences and demographics. Artworks produced within this still emerging sphere routinely critique the system from which they are generated. This circular process has led to an astute area of practice situated within a New Aesthetic. In the words of James Bridle (artist, academic and a key figure in identifying this cultural shift):

New Aesthetic [artwork] reproduces the structure and disposition of the network itself, as a form of critique… and why is it important to critique the critique as well? Because we live in a world shaped and defined by computation, and it is one of the jobs of the critic and the artist to draw attention to the world as it truly is. (Bridle: ‘The New Aesthetic and its Politics’)

“New aesthetic” artistic practices typically reference the web and digital culture whilst operating and exhibiting within the same system. Artists working in this way are characteristically imaginative, critical and systematic in terms of technological choices used to tell and distribute human stories. Consequently, it is about learning to creatively perform within data and networked culture in order to amplify and project the situation, to test the limits, advantages and disadvantages of post-internet culture and communal space, and to meticulously tease out of the web new narrative structures (Ruth Catlow).

Riding Through Walls employs a multi-layered approach to pushing through the infrastructure of the corporate web and its tools accessible to the general public. This is exemplified by creating a dramatized, live and participatory performance space. A series of public events will further augment the 18-month durational performance (which utilises Google’s search engine, maps, Internet services and products such as the Google Glass as mechanisms for communicating experience en-route with a worldwide public across multiple social media platforms). Accordingly, I will be concurrently making work, connecting with new communities worldwide, and socially testing the economic system of building art works within this industry force by incorporating YouTube monetization throughout the real-time performance.

Dallas Rd, Victoria, BC., Beginning, December 1, 2015. https://www.instagram.com/p/-xfnE9xTiz/?taken-by=cawsand

Why ride through walls?

For researcher and open-source advocate Catarina Mota, “[a]cquiring preemptive knowledge about emerging technologies is the best way to ensure that we have a say in the making of our future” (Play with Smart Materials). To this end, artists possess an ability to tackle problems from unconventional angles and to contribute or uncover new dialogue.  Such possibilities are exemplified in work being done in new media institutions such as Eyebeams & Rhizome (NY) Ars Electronica (Linz) and Furtherfield (London). In each instance, innovation occurs within networks fostering collaborative exploration across new media and the articulation of experiences of making from within media. Working at this frontier is about accepting that the computer, social networks and interfaces are at once tools, medium and content, with which to produce rich narrative aids for decoding this new era. Bridle describes his processes for understanding the images he produces:

“It is impossible for me, with an academic background in Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence, with a practical background in literary editing and software programming, with a lifetime of interacting with the internet and other systems, not to look at these images and immediately start to think about not what they look like, but how they came to be and what they become: the processes of capture, storage, and distribution; the actions of filters, codecs, algorithms, processes, databases, and transfer protocols; the weight of datacenters, servers, satellites, cables, routers, switches, modems, infrastructures physical and virtual; and the biases and articulations of disposition and intent encoded in all of these things, and our comprehension of them.” (Bridle)

Riding Through Walls employs a methodology that chronicles and creatively embeds itself in data driven and real-time web-based performance. The project draws upon histories of artists working within performance and body art (such as Chris Burden and Wafaa Bilal, Jeffrey Shaw, Vera Frenkel, Lynn Hershman Leeson, and Thomas Hirschhorn) and also makes theoretical connections with emerging artists working to reveal layers of situational experience negotiated and forced by networked society (such as Jon Rafman and Kyle MacDonald). Riding Through Walls contributes to this rich emerging arena by working to form an interpretation of navigation through both physical performance and the Internet, whilst at the same time developing a story about the social and cultural implications of such spaces. It also contributes to this medium by working creatively with new technologies that test new methods for extension into networked culture while building communities of practice within the region and across the globe. It is envisaged that this will be accomplished by sharing the project as the performance develops, distributing the design and Arduino code files for building a similar networked bike, and by engaging with diverse publics as I travel across Canada. Bridle describes the identification of “new aesthetic” works in terms of the maker’s conscious choice to reciprocate the research within the networked system from which it stems:

…the New Aesthetic project is undertaken within its own medium: it is an attempt to “write” critically about the network in the vernacular of the network itself: in a Tumblr, in blog posts, in YouTube videos of lectures, tweeted reports and messages, reblogs, likes, and comments. In this sense, from my perspective, it is as much work as criticism: it does not conform to the formal shapes – manifesto, essay, book – expected by critics and academics. (Bridle)

Ideas such as “new aesthetic” and “maker culture” are still relatively uncommon within academia and contemporary art more broadly. It is however becoming clearer, particularly as society increasingly functions within networked cultures, that research that specifically critiques and explores such social systems is essential. Operating within the system that produces such communities is by extension fundamental to the task of studying and making new artworks. Here, the artist researcher’s role is to test the limits of computer, platform, and interface alike in order to develop works that identify and critique networked and computationally augmented lived experience. In turn, this process will help us to better understand humanity and the spaces that the web has made symbolically tangible.

Riding Through Walls is live here: http://ridingthroughwalls.megansmith.ca/

Riding Through Walls is funded by the University of Regina

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Bibliography

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