Art’s conceptual expansion beyond object and form to becoming experience, sphere, and environment, nurtured by the growing interest in affective experience, has launched both excitement and concern with digitally-afforded experience. With immersive art environments, artists explore what it feels like to be present in our contemporary world of particular temporal-sensorial conditions. Artistic concerns with representation, with what is represented to us, seems to transfer to a concern with how we are present and what factors condition our sense of presence today.
Some artists seem to explore a mode of subjectivity rooted in their own embeddedness in digital conditions in society. 1 Human sensing takes center stage as both an ontological and epistemological premise for art. Ideas of materiality, subjectivity, relationality, and ecologies related to art are being recast while implicated in a fast-paced cultural evolution.
The celebration of ‘presence’ that seems to have liberated ‘art’s experience’ from the emphasis on the construction of meaning and interpretation, and instrumentalization of the program and discourse of art in the hermeneutic grip, is nonetheless met with skeptical accounts of art’s new alliances with the ‘memory industries.’ The concern is with art’s contingent evolvement with immersive technology that offers experiences of virtual, augmented, mixed, and other realities. Critics question speculative takes on (and sometimes industrial application of) art’s immersive experience when it offers ‘alternative scenarios’ mediated in various modes of ‘sensorial experience.’ They question what kinds of anticipation such experiences might stir, what future grasps of reality they may support, and with what durational and technogenetic effects.
This conversation seeks to take a deeper shovel to what (if anything) is actually ‘new’ about art’s environments when conditioned by digitally-afforded experience: What might the imaginary pursuit of the ‘new’ in art’s environments eventually promise, demonstrate, and feed forward? 2
- This text continues a conversation on art as environmental and sensorial configuration that sprung off at the Media Art Histories Re:Sound conference 2019.
Participants of the conversation include (in order of responses), Jamie Allen, Lundahl & Seitl, Ulrik Schmidt, Budhaditya Chattopadhyay, Ulla Angkjær Jørgensen, and Jøran Rudi. It is initiated and edited by Tanya Ravn Ag.
Jamie Allen is a Canada-born researcher, artist, designer and teacher, interested in what technologies teach us about who we are as individuals, cultures and societies. Lundahl & Seitl are a Swedish artist duo whose work embodies immersive and antidisciplinary practices within contemporary art and performance. Ulrik Schmidt is associate professor in Performance Design and Visual Culture at Roskilde University, Denmark, working at the intersection between contemporary art, architecture, sound studies, media philosophy and audiovisual aesthetics. Budhaditya Chattopadhyay is a contemporary artist, researcher, writer and theorist who incorporates diverse media to produce works for large-scale installation and live performance works that address urgent issues such as the climate crisis, human intervention in the environment and ecology, migration, race, and decolonization. Ulla Angkjær Jørgensen is an art historian who has written on women, embodiment, and immersion. Jøran Rudi is an artist and scholar with a background in social science who has written extensively on the history and materiality of sound, and with a background in music as a former member of the rock band Kjøtt (‘Meat’).
The Conversation took place between September 1-15, 2019.
Tanya Ravn Ag: What drives and conditions artistic pursuit of sensory environments today?
Jamie Allen: I would immediately relate this question to the growing sense we all have that life within the thin slice of survivable zones on planet earth is rapidly changing. Whether or not we choose to name this a ‘crisis,’ it is most definitely a ‘new’ phenomenon in human time scales, that we are beginning to sense and feel the conditions of livability change on this planet. This can be simple things like “hotter summers” in North Europe, or the tensions of migration and economy that are resulting from the exhaustion of our petrochemical ways of life interrupting or accelerating the ways that planetary systems regulate themselves. All this by way of saying that I don’t think artists, or anyone, have a choice but to regard ‘art’ or anything else as a ‘sense system’ or ‘sense environment’ – because of the growing sense that all environments (industrial, digital, domestic, ‘natural’) are somehow linked and responsible to “The Environment” or the ecologies and environments that support the various beings of planet Earth.
Ulrik Schmidt: To me, a key question in this context regarding art’s environments is how art stages and articulates the ecological conditions between different levels of relations: subjectivity/individual sensation, social-political involvement and art’s techno-material conditions, both in regard to individual artworks and to the art world more generally.
Indeed, ideas and ideals about environmentalizing art have been explored and thematized artistically for many years, notably, for example, in the ‘expansions’ of experience in quasi-psychedelic, total environments during the 1960s. Somewhat ironically, such experiments later expanded into all ecological levels of the art world, shaping the art environments on a general scale from effects of sensory immersion in particular artworks to the exhibitory totalization of contemporary international art fairs, festivals, and biennales. This is the contemporary art environment as a form of total mass-pop-psychedelia, a pseudo-collectivized spectacle of total immersion. Overwhelmed by the very affective intensity of the techno-material possibilities available, environmentalization is here often presented and staged, – in both contemporary art works and art criticism – as a key to a ‘democratization of the art space’ into a form of sensory collective.
And yet, immersion as a sensory effect is, per definition, the quintessence of an individualization of art’s environment into isolated spheres of subjective sensation. Together with dreams of democratization of the art environment, individualization of the art experience into isolated immersion has never been more profound.
Lundahl & Seitl: Perhaps the concept of negative capability comes into use in relation to the idea of art as environment. This involves viewing the art-installation or environment as a re-organization of structural influence on the individual in order to induce previously unknown experiences, which can lead to realizations that fundamentally question how we habitually and unconsciously relate to and react in the world.
This is important in that it may offer a bridge between structure and agency. It does not lock individual visitors into prescribed roles or assumed capacities while it acknowledges the constraints and affordances of the structure of the system. At the same time, it grants individual visitors the freedom to complete or define their role as well as the context in which they find themselves.
In advanced immersive installations or mixed-reality environments it is precisely the resonance between the system and its visitors that defines the environment.
Below is a section from an essay by Ronald Jones about that aspect of our own work which we find helpful to understand what actually is at stake here:
Useful to understanding the art of Lundahl and Seitl is Hume’s distinction between “impressions,” or what we “perceive” flowing from our senses, and how these impressions take form in the mind as “ideas.” Our impressions are, in and of themselves, partial and fleeting, a fair description of your blinded experience within a Lundahl and Seitl. You are guided by the incorporeal, a mysterious, whispering voice, as your senses become immediately heightened to any impression, your only guide towards perception. Accumulating these impressions with time, Hume would tell us, we begin to construct “ideas” from the bleeding edge of spontaneous sensory experiences, and from that emerges a narrative, and a narrative of the same sort that unfolds immersed in a Lundahl and Seitl. At first, to try and anticipate this experience is as useless as misleading, but it is equally if oppositely true that the “image-forming” in our mind negotiates between sense and reason, as a stable and constant image of the world begins to take hold in the firmament of our minds. And what facilitates the negotiation between sense and reason amidst this flux of perception? And here, Hume agrees with Lundahl and Seitl, for the philosopher would have answered in a word: imagination. Imagination is what Hume would have said. 3
- Ronald Jones, A Voice Comes to One, publication for Berliner Festspiele. 2017, file:///Users/zxn873/Downloads/Lundahi_Seitl_Agnosology_Essay_12_0_EW.pdf
Budhaditya Chattopadhyay: Drawing on my encounters with artists (e.g. the artist testimonials in the book Digital Dynamics in Nordic Contemporary Art, and through an interview project I am currently developing) I can sense an intention for providing a wider spatial experience (adhering to what is known as ‘realism’ in art history) in contemporary (media) art.
Frances Dyson, in her book Sounding New Media (2009), observes some key “rhetorical maneuvers” that accompany the transition of media from the analogue phase to the digital realm, stating that, “[T]he shift from ‘looking at’ to ‘being in’ […] is reflected by the artful dropping of analogical markers: the ‘it’s as if you are there’ of screen-based media is truncated to a ‘you are there’ […] By ‘being in,’ rather than ‘looking at’ […] the viewer is said to occupy the space and time, the here and now, the virtual present of a separate but ontologically real space.” 4 This perspective indicates not only an inclination towards providing an immersive space, but also a spatially surrounding environment where the viewer/listener is confronted with more information and more ‘space’ to actively navigate through.
- Frances Dyson, Sounding New Media: Immersion and Embodiment in the Arts and Culture, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.
Ulla Angkjær Jørgensen: From the artist testimonials we have gathered for the Digital Dynamics book mentioned by Budhaditya above, it transpires that what is essential and interesting about the digital as a technology for making art is the fact that digitalization is ubiquitous.
“The digital is in everything we do, it is how we exist in the world,” states Jacob Remin. 5 And Mogens Jacobsen is quoted as saying “I don’t think there is any such thing as the digital anymore”, meaning that it makes no sense to talk about the digital because it is everywhere. 6 The digital interferes with all spheres of life and is therefore fundamentally different from modernist aesthetics, where the artwork relied on the picture frame and the art gallery to define it, to put it simply. Digitalization paves the way for an aesthetics that transgresses borders between the art institution and the social world, and between nature and culture.
- Tanya Ravn Ag (ed.), Digital Dynamics in Nordic Contemporary Art, (Bristol: Intellect, 2019), (p. 34).
- Tanya Ravn Ag (ed.), Digital Dynamics in Nordic Contemporary Art, (Bristol: Intellect, 2019), (p. 34).
Through digitalization it is possible to gain access to phenomena that cannot normally be perceived by the human sense apparatus and thereby produce new aesthetic events. My example here would be Jana Winderen’s deep nature recordings. Digitalization stimulates new aesthetic formats and means of engagement. One is a much greater focus on the physical body. The digitalization of society (or the omnipresent computer) has created a focus on what we often think of as “the loss of the body” by which I refer to the idea that the computer “take-over” of everyday life has turned us into bodiless brains. So, when producing sense environments, artists challenge the notion of the computer as merely brain-machine, and in so doing they explore possibilities in computer technology that may, or may not, be innovative for society. Art is not a reaction to a given, but a co-creator of the thoughts and phenomena of its time.
Art is not a reaction to a given, but a co-creator of the thoughts and phenomena of its time.
Jøran Rudi: I agree with the point about the ubiquity of digital technology, but we should also consider that the affordances of technology open up new arenas for exploration, and among them is immersive technologies.
Digital technology makes it much easier to create artificial environments. Complex sets of parameter values can be changed dynamically, also by artists. Technology has in many ways become trivial, and few react negatively to digital representations. This implies that artists (at least in sound) are not punished for severing the links to the physical world as they were only fifty years ago when digital sound was in its infancy. With availability and easy user interfaces, immersion is easily available in commercial sectors like architecture and gaming, and the common understanding and acceptance of technology has increased radically. All of this contributes to why artists have increasingly become interested in immersive technology.
There is also another perspective that I think might weigh in: the iconic work and the hierarchies of preserving this mode of understanding has been weakened and replaced by process and social participation. In sonic art (both music and sound art) real-time interaction has been a wet dream for technologists since digital infancy. Creating immersive sound environments fits well with real-time performance and participation and allows social perspectives back into the equation, but with the powerful new twist of virtual and augmented environments. In music, we have a renewed interest in advanced 3D techniques such as ambisonics among technology developers and sonic artist alike.
Tanya Ravn Ag: What (if anything) is ‘new’ about art’s environments and the digitally afforded experiences they offer? How do they implicate cultural, ecological, and technogenetic perspectives?
Jøran Rudi: I think that it might be fruitful to look at the affordances of digital technology in comparison with those of analog technology. I think that migration of all types of information into binary data is crucial – and that means that representation is more important than before. Material is no longer sounds or pigments, they are digital representations of sounds and pigments, for example. Complexity is easier than earlier, allowing more complicated and involved processes to be controlled, and this opens for more conceptual flexibility, in particular when data from other arenas can be included in a more or less quasi-scientific manner. The artistic palette has been expanded, as has the palettes of listeners and viewers.
6/9 Jamie Allen: I do not understand the notion of ‘digitally afforded experiences’, really, as experiences are fundamentally linked to genealogies and histories of sense, perception, meaning, myth, etc. There is never anything wholly ‘new’ about experience as it resides in human histories, natural histories, bio-political histories — “the digital” is not separate from this, not a ‘new realm’ but a continuation of the always-implicated, co-evolving and co-constitutive forces and energies, practices and thinking of cultural, ecological and technogenetic perspectives.
It is possible, if there is a ‘new’ sense of ‘arts environments’ that it emerges from the rift that is created from what are projected as new forms of representation and meaning-making. In this sense, digitally afforded experiences could serve to make us more aware of the ways that different mediums, techniques, and representations create environments of thought and action.
Ulla Angkjær Jørgensen: There is nothing new in art making sense environments. Artists have been making immersive environments since the baroque, however from analogous means. What is new is the way digital media blurs old dichotomies, the form/content-divide, the nature/culture-divide, the nature/technology-divide, the active/passive-divide, the subject/object-divide. With digital technology it is not always easy to determine who the producer is, or what s/he produces, or what is produced, leaving art very much in the “hands” of the experience of the viewer. The art object is not clearly fixed.
Another important thing is that form and content are also hard to separate. No message is communicated, it is what happens, or appears, that is important. It is the fulfilment of the Fluxus idea of the event. In the case of Jana Winderen’s soundscapes, any clear line between nature and technology also gets blurred. What is nature and what is technology is rather difficult to establish. So, you’re left with your own sense experience to ‘feel’ where the art is.
Lundahl & Seitl: It is interesting to think about what Jøran says about representation here; that with digitalization, representation becomes an even more important aspect of the art. We would agree to that especially when seeing how many VR artworks made today are visually informed by a sort of default ‘screen aesthetics.’ We wonder if that is partly because of the way these digital spaces are built – in meshes, or with low-resolution photogrammetr. Or, if this is a choice, that – as Tanya states in her intro – artists explore what it feels like to be present in our contemporary world and how we are present today.
We would also like to add a focus on identifying qualities of presence that seems to be lacking within the current paradigm of technogenetic environments. That today, in order to remain connected at an accelerating speed of communication, we depend on representations and systems (intentionally designed to circumvent individual awareness and increase ignorance) that make us accept living in a reduced level of reality, and to cover this loss we change the basic categories we use to interpret the world:
“...call tree plantations forests, and you will not have to see your own culture level the last forest to the ground; call nature the environment, so that you can forget that it has ever been anything but a buffer for the destructive effects of human progress. Correspondingly, we learned to understand digital presence as presence and the absence it causes as a presence in another, more real, context - learn to understand the loneliness we are never allowed to fully perceive as meaningless, and the community we tentatively can perceive as merely a more primitive form of the bodiless community of the digital sphere”. 7
- Helena Granström, In Search for the Other, Cloud Studies - Part 2, published 19 July, 2017, https://blog.berlinerfestspiele.de/cloud-studies-part-2/
The increasing gap between what we can measure and represent, but which we cannot comprehend with our senses, is widening. This inability to process and engage with our environment in a meaningful way seems to have induced an alienating, paralyzed state. Although we are dependent on water, soil, and on breathing fresh air, we are pretty much living outside of the natural cycles and our relation to nature treated as a resource that we control and consume, which is exactly how we also relate to our own sense experience. Concluding that, in order for us to care and act in a world, we need to be in resonance with it.
VR and Art as immersive environments has the possibility to go beyond the representational image and instead move the focus closer to the bleeding edge of experience – bring visitors’ attention toward the processing aspect of perception, interpretation of signs, and how different sensory modalities are bound together, isolated, interpreted, and reacted to.
With the potential to create realism and simulating real emotions, the technogenetic nature of sense environments may amplify our anthropocentric bubble. So rather than leading to Walter Benjamin’s iconic horror at a loss of “aura” and the authenticity of the aesthetic, perhaps when creating these spaces the care should rather be on not losing reciprocity and resonance with our environment.
“In the age of digitality, the boundary between myself and other is being muddled. When I believe myself meeting the other through a machine, I simultaneously meet the machine, I simultaneously meet myself in front of the machine – this machine, which in a sense is also my own creation”. 8
- Helena Granström, In Search for the Other, Cloud Studies - Part 2, published 19 July, 2017, https://blog.berlinerfestspiele.de/cloud-studies-part-2/
Budhaditya Chattopadhyay: If we consider digitally-afforded experiences as compared to analog systems, it is crucial to understand how presence was conceptualized within an analog context and how it gains currency in the ways contemporary media negotiate and establish the ‘presence’ in mediated experiences in the (post-)digital era. Reading these trajectories of understanding presence, one primary theme emerges, namely a contribution to the sense of embodied experience through a perceived notion of realism. Art’s newer environments may strive for realism as we have seen in media arts – a more documentary-driven approach to reality and the world we live by, using the affordance of digital technology (as Jøran already pointed out) that proliferates a sense of realism (for example, higher resolution images, wider frequency range, lower frequency reproduction capacities, surround or Atmos sound systems, etc.). Catering to this sense of realism, the role of the viewer/listener might also have come to the fore, as the barrier between the arts’ so-called ‘producers’ and ‘consumers’ blur due to the more interactive and responsive environments.
Ulrik Schmidt: As indicated by both Lundahl & Seitl and Chattopadhyay in their earlier comments, the sensory expansion of the contemporary art environment seems to involve a paradox regarding the state and sense of ‘presence’ involved. To be present in today’s advanced, immersive techno-spheres is a sensation stretched out between opposite ideals of hyperrealism, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, a “reduced level of reality” (Lundahl & Seitl). It combines effects of immediacy and connectivity (realism) with effects of hypermediacy and isolation (non-realism) into an environmental experience that is both highly individualized and social at the same time, often merging immersive effects of sensory isolation with ’realistic’ effects of expanded communication, interaction, and (media)ecological interconnectivity. This merging of realism and non-realism seems to invest contemporary environments with a sort of mediatic double bind between mediation and non-mediation. Hence, current mediatic environments often function through what you may call a double mediality between mediation and non-mediation. This is characterized by a simultaneous combination of mediatic openness and involvement with the socio-material outside and encapsulation in isolated subjectivity.
Tanya Ravn Ag: Eventually – how might art’s ‘new’ environments re-route art’s histories?
Jøran Rudi: It is early to have a clear idea about possible re-routing, but in general, the past is reinterpreted through the lens of new knowledge and new practices. I would expect the same here, that a renewed focus on technology will result in a reinterpretation of the past of sonic art, but perhaps more importantly, that the broad development of surveillance capitalism that transforms the lives and actions of all inhabitants into raw material for a new economy will result in reinterpretations of things until now taken for granted – such as individuality, self-determination, and democracy.
Jamie Allen: Art’s histories, I think, will forever be rerouted by the means of inscription and mediation that are available. I also think that we can be better at telling more complex stories as these means proliferate. And that these could address infrastructures, materiality, and the ecology of thinking and matter that informs all art making as historical and genealogical narratives that could be much more multifarious, complexified, and problematized.
Budhaditya Chattopadhyay: Subjectivity, selfhood and poetics could be strong areas of focus in the future of art history rerouted by art’s new environments, where a post-immersive tendency is already in sight. Here ‘post-immersion’ indicates a shift from being immersed within the power of the media environment towards more self-awarely being able to engage with it. This conceptual shift may trigger knowledge around selfhood, and subjectivity, which might illuminate art histories to be written and problematize the emergent thread of new materialism in art as a counterpoint, for further discourse.
Ulla Angkjær Jørgensen: It is early days, but art history will have to open up a trajectory that considers the live character of digital environments. In my capacity as an art historian, I would like to identify a historical root to this. Can we identify an understanding of technology that can be said to anticipate the digital sense environment in twenty-first century art? Not as a motive. I’m not thinking about modernism’s fascination with the mechanical machine and industrialization, which is at the level of a representation. I’m thinking of digital technology as an idea, a principle that artists may have experimented with even before they knew that they were doing so. Happenings of the nineteen-sixties may be such precursors, Fluxus art for one. These art events were all about being part of something that happened as you sensed it in an environment at a specific time.
Ulrik Schmidt: The spectacular in-between character of contemporary art and media environments – between inside and outside, between isolation and relation – may be a key to understanding the wider cultural and political implications of the ways present technologies smoothly integrate multisensorial stimulation with surveillant means of communication. Thus it is not only crucial in articulating what is new about contemporary art environments but also how art can engage more deeply in critical explorations of the onto-aesthetic and social-political conditions of our current commercialized and mediatized society on a general level.
Too often the double-mediatic ecological complexity of interconnectivity and isolation, and the differentiation between the ecological dimensions of the subjective, the social, and the techno-material, is not sufficiently addressed in contemporary art environments; neither in individual works nor in large-scale events. By clearly articulating the specific entanglements of the subjective, the social, and the techno-material, art can open up for new ways of exploring and potentially criticizing the digital capacities for affect regulation and information capture. Hence, tangled up as it is in the ethico-aesthetic paradoxes of our contemporary condition, art may directly address the ever newer and more subtle power structures, new forms of informed matter, and new modes of surveillance capitalism and technological perception management. This would be by directly exposing the mechanisms of spectacular controllability, immersive sociality, and anti-social or post-social forms of communication. Art, if anything, should and could show us how to engage in a form of critical immersion beyond the lost dreams of a sharp distinction between spectacular immersion and calm, self-controlled anti-immersion.
Tanya Ravn Ag, Ph.D., is a curator and scholar focused on perceptual experience with art and aesthetics in perspective of contemporary technogenesis. She is the editor of Digital Dynamics in Nordic Contemporary Art (Intellect, 2019), a publication based on artist interviews that maps and explores how contemporary art is changing in perspective of digital culture and technology. Her curatorial engagements with especially urban, media-based art include the Screen City Biennial 2017 in Stavanger, the SP Urban Digital Festival in São Paulo in 2013 and 2014, and Nordic Outbreak presented in New York City and across the Nordic region by the Streaming Museum in 2013-2014. She is currently a postdoc researcher at the Institute of Arts and Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen. www.tanyaravnag.net