Otherly Space/Knowledge – Questions of knowledge in the age of data

“A macroscopic view of the past quarter-century reveals that we crossed the boundary from a developmental era, when computers constantly caught up to human demands of informational processing, to computers easily surpassing human memory capacity in its informational processing capacity, speed, and ability. As a result, we are now in the process of transitioning to an era where we engage with enormous digital archives, databases, and AI learning capabilities in real time. Information today is on the verge of becoming elements constituting the world, since AI or machine learning analyzes it without undergoing human subjectivity; the data world that has been referred to as “second nature” is constituting this actual world. Although it is clear we are caught up in this transition to a new state, in a sense it still feels like we are at the very cusp of change.” – Abe Kazunao

Cover photo: Our Muse(See by Your Ears), evala, 2017, Photo by Sarah Kim

Thus reads the introduction (PDF) to the exhibition on display last month at the Asia Culture Center in Gwangju, South Korea – a collection of 12 works questioning the essential meaning and significance of the data world, in the space where media art has surpassed the stage of only utilising media technology as an artistic expressions to optimistically visualize computing processes. More importantly, it questions the meaning of data and knowledge, their interrelationship, accessibility and ownership.

Contrary to more traditional ways of thinking about knowledge – how it is obtained and stored and validated – it is commonly believed that with the advent of the internet, knowledge is something that is free and perhaps sits outside institutional frameworks and critique. We might mistake its accessibility and the chorus of voices that comprise it as a form of truth; this is not to say ‘knowledge’ is necessarily created, a better description of it might be ‘datafication.’ Kazunao Abe situates Otherly Space/Knowledge as positing that art holds an important role in finding and establishing an Otherly Space in the face of technological platforms that aggregate knowledge and experience. The exhibition presents a variety of works tackling questions of space and knowledge production, visualisation, machine learning and social data.

Since its opening in 2015 (which CAN help organise), Asia Culture Center (ACC) has been actively involved in exhibiting, developing and producing works by a wide range of both international and asian artists, and a mandate to raise awareness of both international artists at home and Asia-based artists internationally. This hasn’t been without difficulties for the new organisation, but with sprawling facilities to develop and 50+ artists that have already benefited from both financial and development support, ACC is slowly but surely is positioning itself as a key player in the field of forward looking international cultural institutions.

Otherly Space/Knowledge is the latest in the series of initiatives/exhibitions ran by the ACT Center – the artist development and residence programme at the ACC. Spaces designated predominantly for artist residencies have been transformed into exhibition spaces, together with the The Vault which original function was general storage for the building. In total the exhibition spans three large spaces, including the media wall which is located in the main external space of ACC.

Upon entry into to the main foyer of the ACC Creation (section of the complex of buildings that houses a number of exhibition spaces and creators residencies) we are greeted by the ongoing exhibition of Tomas Saraceno’s Our Interplanetary Bodies in the Space 1 (photo). Although not part of the Otherly Space/Knowledge exhibition, it provides a mesmerising introduction into what will follow. Of course the scale of Saraceno’s works at Space 1 is very hard to compete with (2,300 square meters, 16m high space) featuring nine gigantic, spherical sculptures, subtly lit, but it certainly speaks of ACT’s seriousness and commitment to exhibiting media based artworks (see the previously hosted Kimchi and Chips’s The Light Barrier, Third Editon and Ryoichi Kurokawa’s node 5:5). Turning the corner, and at the entrance to The Vault, we see the new install by Japanese sound artist Evala titled Our Muse (See by Your Ears) 2017, comprised of a anechoic chamber located in a white-cube like space of The Vault (cover photo). Evala has created an entirely dark anechoic room the user completely alone will enjoy an 8 minutes 3D sound piece. Listening to its resonant system carefully, images rise into the mind without the need of vision creating an acoustic illusion of living creatures and sounds that construct various objects. This phenomena is called ‘seeing by your ears’, the sound illusion immerses the audience in a subtle and profound virtual reality. Outside the room, visitors can choose which environments to play. This work is also acompanied by Evala’s audio/visual projection on the ACC Media Wall in the main courtyard of the center titled Womb of Ants (2018). It is based on the same audio analysis as in the anechoic chamber, titled Audio Architectural Visualization (AAV), which Evala independently developed.

↑ Womb of Ants, evala, 2018, Photo by Sarah Kim

The first installation in The Vault is by Lauren McCarthy and Kyle McDonald. Titled Social Soul, it is an immersive digital experience inspired by the question: how does it feel to be inside someone else’s social media stream? The project was originally created with creative agency MKG for Delta Air Lines at TED2014, and in this iteration it attempts to brings to life a user’s Twitter stream on display in a 360-degree stream of monitors, mirrors and sound. The experience starts by asking the visitors to enter their or anyone else’s twitter nametag (only one visitor is allowed at a time) and uses a custom algorithm to match visitors with other people who have visited the installation, displaying their social stream. Once in the space, you are presented fragments of the user’s tweets and of those that they follow. A few minutes later, visitors and their connected ‘soulmate’ receive a tweet encouraging online connections and conversation.

↑ Tandem v2, Harshit Agrawal, 2016, Photo by Harshit Agrawal

Adjacent to  Social Soul, is one of two installs by Harshit Agrawal. First piece titled Tandem v2, the work questions if machines could be intimately involved in the imagination process of creation, offering their own creative interpretations based on visual understanding designed by humans to mirror their own. Operating a machine learning algorithm, Tandem is an interactive art software system where a person draws something, which is ‘imagined’ upon by a machine based on its interpretation of it, thereby indulging the two in a creative dialogue. Visitors can also choose a personality of Tandem, from joyous to sad or angry or dreamy or a combination of more. Right next to this artwork is another piece by Harshit Agrawal produced in collaboration with Sang-won Leigh – A Flying Pantograph (2016). A continuously hovering drone transposes human-scale drawing to a physically remote output canvas in different scales. A quadrotor becomes an ‘expression agent’ – modified to carry a pen and be controlled by human drawing motions, to carry out the actual process of drawing on a remote vertical canvas. It challenges the inherent physical constraints of our being through a levitating, a computationally controlled proxy for our motions. It is a very unusual sight, especially considering that this drone is not battery powered, but connected to the building’s power. The simple notion of endless power versus limited battery life gives the drone dominance over its human counterpart – awaiting and calling for interaction and instructions, seemingly drawing as per its own will.

↑ Social Soul, Lauren McCarthy & Kyle McDonald, 2014, Photo by Sarah Kim
↑ A Flying Pantograph, Sang-won Leigh & Harshit Agrawal, 2016, Photo by Filip Visnjic

Proceeding further into The Vault, we see another artwork by Kyle McDonald, this time produced in collaboration with Jonas Jongejan, and featuring a single projection with a table positioned in front. Exhausting a Crowd (2015) is inspired by the classic book from Georges Perec, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, written from a bench over three days in 1974. The work automates the task of completely describing the events of 12 hours in a busy public space in London, Rotterdam, Utrecht, Birmingham – and now Gwangju. The work explores the potential of a perfectly automated future of surveillance, enabled by a distributed combination of machine and human intelligence – a disturbing peek into the potential for control in a dystopian environment. The final piece in The Vault is Experience in Material No. 58 (2016) created by Ryoji Suzuki, Sho Miyake and Satoshi Furuya and is comprised of a a sci-fi film that focuses on an installation called Experience In Material No.56: Museum by architect Ryoji Suzuki a “museum of debris” that earned a place in the “Japan Architects 1945–2010 exhibit” (2014–2015) at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa. The film features a robotic voyage through a series of spatial frameworks/sculptures in the exhibition – an investigation/recording of what might best be described as the debris of imagined futures.

Down the corridor that connects ACT’s fabrication facilities are the creator’s studios, including the ACT Studio 2 and 3 that are part of the exhibition. ACT Studio 2 features three works by Marko Peljhan created in collaboration with Matthew Biederman. First of these works is We Should Take Nothing for Granted (2016-present), an ongoing exploration in to the current positions and debates about the notions and structuring of privacy, surveillance states, safety and active civic potentials “to engage and re-imagine the relationship between the global citizenry and sovereign actors with the military industrial complexes including their visible, opaque and dark structures”.  The work starts with the Eisenhower Farewell Address (1961), that amongst many other things discusses transparency of governments as something that should be respected and maintained, the death of creative freedom at universities being behold to funders, and the depletion of natural resources and the duo felt captured all the very timely topics. After learning more about the speech, written by Eisenhower himself,  Matthew and Marko started exploring the notion of the electromagnetic spectrum as a public space, questioning its ownership, security and as a vehicle for open/private communication. The installation features the speech by Eisenhower, archive of intercepts of encrypted communication, leaks of military operations,  a machine learning algorithm that invents its own new codenames and a speculative broadcast. The systems as constructed can be utilized as a tool, to gain knowledge of the occupation, use and potential misuse of global mass communication infrastructures.

↑ We Should Take Nothing for Granted, Matthew Biederman & Marco Peljhan, 2016-present, Photo by Sarah Kim
↑ Arctic Perspective Initiative-The Phoenix Declarations And Arctic Perspective Initiative Arctic Map (2014-present), Matthew Biederman & Marko Peljhan, Photo by ACC

On the opposite side of the space, another project/ongoing collaboration between Matthew Biederman & Marko Peljhan is Arctic Perspective Initiative-The Phoenix Declarations And Arctic Perspective Initiative Arctic Map (2014-present). A project that most certainly needs a dedicated post to be unwrapped, it features text, photography, and data and cartographic visualisations. The Phoenix Declaration< was drafted during a three-day open-space conference that was held in Germany, gathering some of the world’s top thinkers, leaders and artists dealing with the Arctic region, its geopolitics and inhabitants. The participants shared ideas concerning the sustainability of the circumpolar region intertwining a variety of perspectives and topics such as: culture, ecology, technology, autonomy and traditional knowledge, setting up a mandate of providing greater autonomy through strategies of open systems sharing.’ API. While the topic of the Arctic is visible in many sectors of society, the declaration stands for the principles of true collaboration and partnership in order to forge a better world. The API Arctic Map was designed in collaboration with the German designer collective LABOR B and is a living map, representing the past and future activities of API and zones of convergence, interest and conflict in the Arctic. It is both a map with historical references and future projections. Adjescent to this installation, is another installation by the same duo titled Arctic Perspective Initiative, Siqinnaaniq (Horizons) (2017) initially commissioned for the 2013 Festival Access (Pau, FR, curated by Ewen Chardronnet) under the theme “Digital Suns”, and is a re- edit of Arctic Perspective Initiative collected footage and audio field recordings from collaborative field exchanges.

↑ Sensing Streams – invisible, inaudible (2014) –– Ryuichi Sakamoto and Daito Manabe, Photo by Sarah Kim

Entering ACT Studio 3, we are greeted by a large projection / a visualisation and sonification of electromagnetic waves. The installation is the result of collaboration between Ryuichi Sakamoto and Daito Manabe, titled Sensing Streams – invisible, inaudible (2014). In this first collaboration between the two, electromagnetic waves, usually undetectable to the human eye, are sensed then both visualised and sonified. The piece focuses on the dense saturation of electromagnetic waves representatively manifested in mobile and other communication technologies that have become integral to modern society. An antenna installed within the venue collects all the electronic waves within 80MHz-5.2GHz originating from cellphones, WiFi, digital TV, FM radio, and more. This enormous projection imagery and speakers allow participants to see and hear electromagnetic waves in real time. As participants adjust frequencies by turning a dial-like interface in front of the projection, they are able to sense the variegate forms of electromagnetic waves that co-exist simultaneously. Furthermore, the use of smartphones and other electronics within the venue itself will dynamically alter the sound and image, reflecting the actively changing electromagnetism present in the surrounding space. Adjacent to this install is the work of Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho, titled Freedom Village (2017) (video from Frieze here). The work examines the political anxieties and conficts that occur due to the division of the Korean peninsula, establishing itself as a space for metaphor and a horizon of imagination by correcting the mistakes in human history as well as revealing the world of contradictions. It is presented at two film, facing each other, simultaneously contradicting and complementing the metaphor of the village located in plains that lie near a river that flows out to the West Sea, and events that took place there. Their work often relies on creating speculative post-documentary film that uses assumptions based on the relics that have been excavated near the site.

↑ Freedom Village, Moon Kyungwon & Jeon Joonho (2017) Photo by Sarah Kim

Very close by in the space adjacent to ACT Studio 3 is the final piece of the exhibition by Matthew Biederman, created in collaboration with Pierce Warnecke and titled Perspection (2015, see CAN’s post on it here). It is an audiovisual installation exploring the perception of space through the use of projection on a series of specifically oriented surfaces and spatialized audio. Trompe l’oiel has been used throughout the history of image making in order to transport the viewer outside their physical location in the same way that contemporary CGI and virtual reality propose experiences outside one’s body through technology. On the contrary, Perspection seeks to embed the physical experience of perception creating a hyperawareness of the act of perception by correlating screen space with one’s physical location. The audio composition uses a variety of sonic phenomena to destabilize the listener’s spatial sensations, creating unexpected auditory situations while reinforcing the perceptual focus of the imagery.

↑ Perspection (2015), Pierce Warnecke & Matthew Biederman, Photo by Matthew Biederman

In Otherly Space/Knowledge, Kazunao Abe has brought together works that address a range of topic including the social research of cities and behavioural patterns, questions of space and knowledge making, visualization, machine learning and social data. While vast in scope, it provides a cross section of views that show us how we might begin to understand drastic cultural changes that are currently underway. In addition to the exhibition there was also an opportunity at the opening to hear first hand from the artists and the curator about the works featured in the exhibition. The exhibition does make us wonder where we might draw the line between art versus art as a vehicle for commentary, and what are there are possibilities that these works might become infrastructure. What was lacking was an opportunity to unpack the tools and methodologies that produced these works via discussion, workshop and more education-based initiatives, that are instrumental to most of these projects. Nonetheless, what is certain is that Otherly Space/Knowledge demonstrates ACT Center’s future-oriented and dynamic potential as a platform for convergent practices and a serious participant in the global forward-looking dialogues about the issues that concern us all.

2018.03.02 – 03.25
ACC Creation Vault, ACT Studio, Asia Culture Center, Gwangju, South Korea.

Exhibition PageAsia Culture Center