History and Theory, Bezalel //   Issue No. 1 - Parallel Lines, Winter 2005
The Actual and the Imagined
Susan Collins

In this essay, 'the actual and the imagined' refers to a collision that can occur in artworks between the real and the artificial, the tangible and the ephemeral.



I will discuss three recent works - In Conversation, Transporting Skies and Tate in Space which use networking as their primary 'material', and the role of illusion in their construction and interpretation. Each of them relies on the expected or predicted behaviour of viewers, participants or pedestrians within a range of contexts in relation to what could be described as an open structure or system. They also question in a wider sense the role of the viewer in the realisation of the work - as being simultaneously subject and object, observer and observed.
In this essay I am aiming to show how a networked context can act as a catalyst for generating interactive narratives and collective fictions, and how a desire to ‘believe’ on the part of the viewer can become critical in the enacting of the work.

In Conversation - Establishing the Actual

In Conversation exists simultaneously in three locations: on the world wide web (www); in the gallery, and on the street. It was first installed in Brighton in 1997 and since then has been restaged several times. It connects participants on the street with users on the Internet in a real-time experience. [1]

In November 1997, on Duke Street in Brighton, passers-by encountered an animated mouth projected onto the pavement. Through loudspeakers they could also hear a voice trying to strike up a conversation (the voice was made up of text to speech conversions of messages sent by Internet users to the installation). When pedestrians in Brighton responded to the voice and/or the projection, a concealed microphone and surveillance camera witnessed and transmitted their actions via streaming media onto the Internet allowing the net participants to observe the street in real-time and send further messages - in effect to strike up a conversation. The surveillance image was simultaneously conveyed to a large screen inside the Fabrica Gallery in Brighton framing the action taking place on the street outside cinematically, as a drama unfolding in real-time. One intention of the work was as an observational experiment, an opportunity to explore what might happen when distinctly different kinds of public spaces and communities (internet, gallery, street) were brought together. I was keen to include this act of observation – this 'secondary' viewer - as a ‘live’ and intrinsic part of the work.

While researching the (then very new) tools for video streaming in early 1997, I discovered that the sites at the cutting edge of these technologies were for live net pornography. Nude ‘models’ would sit in front of webcams responding to user messages which appeared in a chat window adjacent to the webcam image. [2] There was an inevitable time delay between the viewer receiving the image, the ‘model’ receiving the message responding to the image, and the viewer witnessing the ‘model’s’ response to the message. This delay could range between twenty seconds and one minute, also depending on how many requests the model might be receiving from other viewers. [3] Perhaps surprisingly for an Internet porn site, the majority of the virtual tête-à-têtes I witnessed, were mostly asking the model to ‘wave to prove you are really there’ (or similar). The delayed response tended to frustrate the viewers in their attempts at verification and so the question would be continuously repeated in different forms with slightly different demands. The whole operation appearing to become more engaged with establishing the truth or reality of the situation rather than an opportunity to create an intimate/erotic exchange (assuming this was the initial intention).

I became increasingly interested in this particular act of verification - this effort to ‘establish the actual’ - and the way in which it appeared to take over from the original aim of the communication and, as a result, of the website itself. I began drawing a parallel between this phenomenon and the methods visitors to a séance would apply to confirm the true identity of the person they were ‘making contact’ with:
One well-known psychic medium, the late Leslie Flint, described himself as a ‘direct voice medium’. [4] He performed this role in the following way: While Leslie Flint was holding sittings (séances) as a medium in the real world, he would have a counterpart in the spirit world, a medium on the 'other side' called Micky. Micky would make himself heard in the physical, bodily world with the aid of what one might best describe as a virtual ‘voice box’ that he had learnt to operate. Other spirit voices could also come through using this method or alternatively have their messages relayed to the gathering by Micky himself. On listening to tapes of the sittings, it soon became clear that the majority of each session was taken up by establishing trust through verification, the ‘voice’ having to identify itself through a series of verbal tests, which never seemed entirely conclusive. The exchange rarely became more than a kind of verbal hand waving as, by the time some trust had been established, either another voice had come through or the session was just finishing.

In Conversation aimed to examine the boundaries and social customs of distinctly different kinds of public spaces - the street and the internet - each with its own established rules of engagement. When chatrooms emerged as a popular communications tool on the Internet it soon became apparent that whilst people were understandably reticent about striking up a conversation with a stranger on the street, there was little or no such reserve on the Internet.
A key intention of the work was to develop a transparent, quirky and yet accessible interface for a two-way process of communication which would enable both sets of viewing parties (with and without access to technology) to 'inhabit’ the work. While I expected In Conversation to function on a technical level, I had no such expectations of it working as a socially functional medium for actual or useful communication between these two situations.

The piece gained popularity on the web very quickly with well over 1,000 hits a day by the end of the first week and with visitors to both the website and the street in Brighton from all over the world. [5] Participants engaged in diverse ways with the project, ranging from the pedestrians who simply walked past to certain individuals returning repeatedly to the street location and making dates with their new 'virtual' friends. Many net users took to introducing themselves by their home town or country:

‘Hello, this is Florida‘; ‘Would you wave to us here in New Jersey’; ‘Hi guys, my name is Eric from South Carolina’; ‘Hello from Nova Scotia, Canada!’; ‘Roy from Norway speaking’; ‘Can anyone please notify me on hearing my message…Herman in Malta’; ‘Hello from Laurie in Australia’; ‘Hello Brighton from Orlando’; ‘Hello from Holland’; ‘Aloha from Hawaii’; ‘Hi, it's Mike in Miami how are you doing’; ‘Hello there from Malaysia’… are just a few characteristic messages of hundreds that were sent to initiate a chat with the public audience. [6]

The 'voice' performing these messages could be quite persuasive, if not manipulative. A man on his way home, while the piece was installed in Amsterdam, found himself captivated. On the recorded surveillance footage he can be viewed repeatedly trying to leave only to be called back, compelled by this computerised disembodied voice. The online visitor (quite possibly made up of more than one person in more than one location) eventually asks him for a kiss, following which the man is seen bending over to kiss the projection of the mouth on the pavement.

On occasion, for instance if it was raining and there were no pedestrians, the online users would also take over the piece, communicating directly to each other and turning the whole street into a chat channel. On other occasions they would encourage their partners in the street to perform - quite literally – to sing a song or dance - sometimes using the text dialogue to create percussive, rhythmic 'music'. Whilst the street participants would only hear one computer voice, Victoria [7], chosen for its apparent androgyny, this spoken text could be have been sent from many different users and identities. Slippages and imperfections became integral to the work as sometimes words stumbled out on top of each other forming an unintentional collective sentence - usually irrevocably altering the original intended meaning. Average time delays of 10-20 seconds, similar to an online text chatroom, often forced the dialogue to go ‘out of sync’.

In Conversation can be seen as a descendant from a work created in 1980, Hole-in-Space, by Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz. This ‘public communication sculpture’ connected the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City and The Broadway department store in L.A. via a live video satellite link over a three-day period. Large screens placed in both locations enabled the passers-by to see and hear each other. Over the course of the three days - encouraged by a combination of word-and-mouth communication and reviews in the mass media -'meetings' were set up between long lost friends and relatives using the artwork as a medium to re-establish contact. This effect could also be seen with In Conversation, where for instance a woman in Japan arranged to 'meet' her sister in Brighton. However unlike Hole-in-Space, these communications were asymmetric, with the Internet participants remaining invisible and the encounters depending largely on an attempt to establish and verify identities, relying in no small part on a desire or impulse to ‘believe’ that the voice is telling the truth.

In Conversation existed across not only different spaces but different kinds or forms of physical and non-physical (virtual) public space - the WWW, the street and the gallery. These spaces provided not only the ideological context for the piece, but became part of the work itself, requiring an active engagement from viewers in order for the work to exist. Accordingly the project was perceived very differently depending upon where it was experienced from, posing questions of both authorship and multiple perspective.
So where, ultimately, is the work? Is it the very architecture, the fabrication of its 'open structure' or rather the events that unfolded once the structure was in place and the work 'inhabited'. [8]
Or both.
Uncontained and with no fixed viewpoint, the work becomes effectively located everywhere and nowhere. [9]


Transporting Skies - Transforming the Real

Transporting Skies (2002) linked Site Gallery in Sheffield with Newlyn Art Gallery in Penzance via the internet. As the title suggests, a video image of sky was captured in real-time from each location, and sent, via streaming video to the other.
In Sheffield the sky from Newlyn was projected on a large scale on the wall of the gallery, and in Newlyn the image from Sheffield was integrated into the physical architecture of Newlyn Art Gallery's lantern ceiling. The intention was to introduce some of the virtual, trompe l'oeil installation qualities of Italian fresco painting (for example Mantegna's famous ceiling in the Camera degli Sposi, the bridal chamber, at the Palazzo Ducale, in Mantua, Italy), to the contemporary world of the Internet, streaming media and connectivity. [10]

Cameras and projections were used to draw in and incorporate visitors into the work. In Site Gallery when visitors looked into a bowl placed in the gallery to view a projection of sky contained within it, an image of their face was captured in real-time and combined (using chroma-key techniques) with a live image of the Sheffield sky and transferred to Newlyn where the faces would peer down from the ceiling on visitors to Newlyn Art Gallery. (This process was exactly mirrored in Newlyn, with the faces incorporated with the Newlyn Sky transmitted to Sheffield to be projected there.) In Newlyn the effect of the projection was to make the ceiling appear to be transparent – like taking the lid off Newlyn Art Gallery and in the process revealing the remote Sheffield sky as a fresco unfolding in real-time.

At the time of the exhibition, in November, the days in Sheffield were becoming shorter than in Newlyn, so that the projected Cornish sky in the gallery in Sheffield was still showing daylight after it had grown dark outside. The quality of darkness produced significantly different results in each location. In urban Sheffield the street lighting always creating a slightly illuminated sky, with a reddish hue, whereas the night sky in rural Newlyn became unambiguously pitch black.
The transmission process became exposed and started to form an aesthetic constituent of the work with the digitally compressed crudeness of the streamed sky creating a certain abstract - and on grey days also unchanging - texture within the sky projection. Parts of the image would refresh at irregular rates leaving pixelated fragments lingering, suspended in both time and space.

There was a second work which formed part of the exhibition and also worked with transmission between the two locations, Pixelscape. It exchanged an urban Sheffield landscape with a Penzance seascape. The transmitted images were updated every few seconds with each pixel recording a different second in time throughout the duration of the show. The pixels were captured from left to right and from top to bottom of the image.

The fluctuations in light throughout the course of day, night, sunrise and sunset were depicted in lighter and darker lines spreading across the image. Night time in Newlyn appeared as broad bands of black with the lights of Penzance sometimes visible as a white streak on the left hand side of the image. Stray pixels depict the fleeting presence of a bird, person, car or other unidentifiable object that may have passed in front of the camera lens at the time the individual pixel was captured.

Transporting Skies explored what appears to be a common desire to collapse time and space and to exist in another space at the same time, creating a portal between galleries 300 miles apart - in Yorkshire and Cornwall. The narrative concept of both works relied on an open configuration relative to the natural environment, and its uninfluenced and uncontrollable elements, light, weather and time, to unfold. In Pixelscape time became part of the dynamic fabric of the work as the previous 76800 seconds or 21.33 hours (a 320 x 240 resolution image is made up of 76800 pixels) were displayed pixel by pixel within a continuously updating single frame. In Transporting Skies one frame at a time can be observed, often caught in a staggered moment, and time also playing a key role in both the fabric and unfolding of the work: A wait of ten minutes, perhaps longer for a cloud or another face to appear or a bird to fly through…

Transporting Skies could be summarised as a combination of the tangible and the ephemeral, with the real in one location becoming the virtual in the other. Two networked realities are exchanged to create an illusion in (real) time and (real) space.

Whilst Transporting Skies and In Conversation deal largely with the ‘physical’ or the actual in relation to the ‘virtual’, the following describes a work, which has no ‘physical’ presence at all and becomes instead a questioning of the ‘real’ in relation to the ‘imaginary’.


Tate in Space - The Imagined

In late 2001 I was invited by the Tate (a museum network in the UK, involving branches in London – Tate Modern, Tate Britain, Tate Liverpool and Tate St. Ives) to propose an online work for their website:
In developing the proposal I considered the organisation itself as the subject for the work, and in particular its re-branding; ‘Tate as a consortium’ of different venues, rather than 'the' Tate; its colour coded branches, corporate identity, and what it might be about Tate, the institution and the website that I could respond to in a site or situation specific way. The final work Tate in Space emerged as an idea that might give the opportunity to act as a catalyst, an ‘agent provocateur’ to explore a range of issues and ideas including the nature of cultural ambition. [11]

The Tate in Space website was set up to appear as the online component of a development programme for a Tate in space. It is located within the Tate website architecture at <www.tate.org.uk/space> and for its first year, July 2002 to August 2003, it was integrated into the Tate home page alongside the existing Tates (Modern, Britain, Liverpool and St Ives). Its language, design and site structure is directly drawn from the main Tate site, and its colour code was chosen from an approved Tate palette of colours.

Here the intersection between the real and the artificial takes on a more conceptual form, where the ‘new’ Tate is constructed entirely through its own fictional development programme, supported by a widely ranging cast of participants including space scientists, architects, curators, artists and members of the general public.

As part of the work, I commissioned architectural propositions for a Tate in Space from ETALAB (the Extraterrestrial Architecture Laboratory), Softroom and Sarah Wigglesworth Architects. These included pdf plans for paper architectural models which can be downloaded from the website, printed out and assembled at home.


There was also an international student architectural competition to design this new Tate which took place in early 2003 with entries from several countries. The website presents the proposals and models from the winners, StudioCousins (UK), as well as the runner-up and finalists.

The website incorporates a section on Space Art including an essay ‘Against Gravitropism: Art and the Joys of Levitation’ by Eduardo Kac, plus a listserve discussion forum with contributions from space artists, writers and curators where issues and questions in relation to space art and architecture were raised:

  • Why a Tate in space?
  • Space art or space pollutants? What are the astronomical implications of siting works in space?
  • Space invaders? Cultural ambition and the search for new audiences.
  • How might the function of art change when placed in outer space?
  • Tate in Space and earthcentricity - who and where is its audience?


The sites Visiting Information section includes an interactive 'live webcam' from a fictive Tate in Space satellite plus scientifically calculated sightings data from a range of global locations to enable visitors to view the Tate Satellite from earth.
There is also information on job opportunities at Tate in Space (currently no vacancies) plus an FAQ section, which will expand as the project becomes archived.

The site is a blend of fact and fiction.

The facts:
It is a site on the Tate homepage.
It (the site) was launched on July 1st 2002.
The Space Art history is an essay by Eduardo Kac.
I did work with architects and space scientists from the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London.
The data for the sightings of the satellite has been mathematically calculated and would be absolutely accurate if there was a satellite up there…
There is a discussion list with over 100 real subscribers including some very active artists and curators in the field of space art.
As director of the new Tate, I have taken on a genuinely time consuming role, responding to numerous enquiries from members of the public and the press; fielding CV's from artists keen to have their work shown in the new Tate, and keeping various aspects of the site updated.


The fictions
:
There is no satellite.
The webcam is an interactive construct.
As far as I know Tate have no actual plans to develop a gallery in space.

I think of Tate in Space as an example of what one might consider ‘interactive or immersive’ fiction. If one conventionally images interactive fiction as to comprise a set of choices or narrative pathways, Tate in Space offers an alternative model - a fiction that one can choose to buy into and contribute to - or not.


In recent interviews about her new book the novelist Margaret Atwood has used the phrase ‘speculative fiction’ rather than science fiction. She offers the word ‘speculative’ as a fiction that is rooted in potentiality, with developments in the present suggesting a possible or plausible future. Tate in Space could be seen as just such a speculation, making sense only recently with the advent of space tourism, and a renewed interest in space by both the art community and the wider public. Although Tate in Space remains fictive or speculative, it is well researched and no longer particularly far fetched.

The site has become almost too plausible. Soon after it was launched the information staff at Tate Modern received a call from the British National Space Centre. They had some queries about the new Tate in Space programme, in particular the ‘Tate Satellite’ in orbit, and wanted to know if Tate had proper permissions for their space explorations.


The work has become virus-like, uncontainable - with rumours and fictions spilling out both on and offline and often via supposedly reliable news sources such as Reuters and CNN. What appears to me to be striking is the genuine, and in some cases wilful, desire to 'believe', with each participant bringing their own extra terrestrial cultural fantasies to the project. In some instances - such as the satellite sightings data - the work relied on participants 'wishing' or 'believing' aspects of the work into existence, thereby becoming co-authors, collaborating with both myself and each other in a work of constantly expanding collective fiction.

If trompe l'oeil in the early architectural sense can be seen, in part, as a collage of illusionistic space into real space [12] , works such as In Conversation and Tate in Space, ‘Networked Narrative Environments’ in the context posited here, could be described as an attempt to collage real space with real space, and/or real space with virtual space, where the illusion itself could be as psychological as it might be visual or aural. In creating a ‘Networked Narrative Environment’ this collaging of spaces happens over networks, with time and distance creating the conditions for a further dimension to emerge - a space between.

Umberto Eco describes in his essay ‘The Poetics of the Open Work’ the Baroque period as a breakthrough from a singular perspective to a multiple perspective, one that ‘induces the spectator to shift his position continuously in order to see the work in constantly new aspects ...’ [13] I propose that the very nature of the networked artwork or ‘Networked Narrative Environment’ suggests more than an implicit, inevitable multiple perspective. It offers the potential for developing works where the openness of the system or structure relates not simply to the position of the viewer in reading the work - with interpretations adding another range of pathways, choices or randomised responses - but where the imagination of the viewer adds a further perspective: through contributing, shaping and extending the scale of the work itself.


Notes:

[1]. In Conversation, <http://www.inconversation.com>, was commissioned by Channel for Inhabiting Metropolis, and originally installed at Fabrica Gallery, Duke Street Brighton, from 14 November – 13 December, 1997. It was subsequently shown as part of Avatar, at the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam, 1998; Gallery Otso, Espoo, Finland as part of Encoded Identities, 1998; Chapter, Cardiff in 2000 and at the British Council in Berlin in 2001.
[2]. Due to the transient nature of both the web, and online pornography, the URL's for the initial research are no longer active.
[3]. The time delay would vary depending on the speed or bandwidth at which the images were being streamed, the viewer’s modem, and net congestion at any one time.
[4]. This information is based on my parents’ visits to Leslie Flint in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s and on a number of tape recordings of their sessions.
[5]. In Conversation was featured on many national and international radio, television, online listings and news channels. Visitors to the site came from many countries including: Australia, Germany, France, America, Japan, South Africa, United Arab Emirates and Israel.
[6]. These messages are excerpts from the archived chatlog from the Brighton installation of In Conversation.
[7]. Victoria is one of a selection of Mac OS computerised system 'voices'.
[8]. For a discussion on the histories and approaches to ideas of openness and open systems, see Eco, Umberto. “The Poetics of the Open Work”. The Open Work.
Cancogni, Anna, transl. Cambridge/MA.: Harvard University Press, 1989, pp. 1-23.
[9]. A more detailed analysis of In Conversation can be found in my unpublished PhD thesis: Inhabited Content: An exploration into the role of the viewer through the realization of In Conversation and other works. The University of Reading, 2001.
[10]. Transporting Skies was shown simultaneously at Newlyn Art Gallery, Penzance and Site Gallery Sheffield in November/December 2002. <http://www.susancollins.net/transportingskies>.
[11]. Tate in Space was commissioned by Tate Online and launched in July 2002.
<http://www.tate.org.uk/space>.
[12]. Grau, Oliver. “Historic Spaces of Illusion”. Virtual Art: from Illusion to Immersion. Cambridge/MA.: MIT Press, 2003, p. 46.
[13]. Eco, Umberto, 1989, p. 7.


This essay was first published in

"Networked Narrative Environments
as imaginary spaces of being"

Edited by Andrea Zapp 2004
ISBN 1 900756 24 2
Distributed by Cornerhouse Publications
www.cornerhouse.org/publications

 

About the Author :
Susan Collins (Ph.D) is an artist, and the Head of Electronic Media,
> Slade School of Fine Art, University College London.

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