SenseSurround: Empathy Between Human and Machine

The artists featured in ACMIs latest exhibition of new media work, SenseSurround, both use and develop cutting edge audio/visual technology to enhance sensorial experience for the spectator. The idea was to use the film soundtrack to trigger massively boosted low frequency signals, below the audible threshold, in the theatres. This would cause vibrations of the ear-drum and the body of the spectator and provide the sensation of earth tremors.

Jon McCormack Granular Synthesis Form 1999, dancer: Michael Ashcroft, image courtesy the artists.

The artists featured in ACMI's latest exhibition of new media work, SenseSurround, both use and develop cutting edge audio/visual technology to enhance sensorial experience for the spectator. The title, as aficionados of outmoded technologies will be aware, is a reference to Sensurround, the audio technology developed by Universal studios in the early 1970s to help market the film EARTHQUAKE (Dir. Mark Robson Universal Pictures 1975). 'You'll feel it as well as see it' the poster said. The idea was to use the film soundtrack to trigger massively boosted low frequency signals, below the audible threshold, in the theatres. This would cause vibration of the ear-drum and the body of the spectator and provide the sensation of earth tremors.

If there is any connection with the new media work at ACMI it is to be found in the piece Modell 5 by Granular Synthesis described by the artists as a 'live performance featuring a choir of cyborgian clones'. The work features a pulverisingly phat base driven techno sound track which feels like it is doing permanent damage to your hearing even through the ear plugs provided. Apart from the audio shock the work has a four channel video component featuring digitally re-edited footage of the Japanese performer Akemi Takaya. Shot in extreme close up, the video was reworked using non-linear editing and motion-control videotape systems to create the effect of a stammering or stuttering image in which the face can be seen in between durations. The facial gestures are re-ordered at a micro temporal level so that even the blink of an eye is disrupted and a scream is fragmented into component intensities.

The live component of the performance consists, apart from the cyborg choir on screen, in the mixing of images onto the four screens and the sound into the speakers and controlling the levels of sub-bass. It's hardly the stuff of conventional performance aesthetics but it is nonetheless linked to the notion of presence. In Modell 5 presence is reinforced by the power of the sound, but serially subverted by the temporal disintegration and restructuring of the audio and visual data. It is a performance based on the digital recomposition of presence, micro-durations, smaller than the experiential present, are endlessly repeated and phased in and out. Constructing the event as a performance also means that the spectators stay for the duration of the work so the component phases of the work can be experienced in all their visual subtlety and sonic brutality.

Jon McCormack Universal Zoologies 1999, interactive installation

Eavesdrop by Jeffrey Shaw and David Pledger is perhaps more recognisably performative in that it is made up of discrete scenes with continuous narratives rendered as dramatic dialogues. The spectator here is surrounded by a 360 degree curvilinear screen or cyclorama on which each of the scenes is projected. The user/director operates a mobile rotating console in the centre of the viewing space which selects the scenes and zooms in and out of them. Zooming in on a character triggers an alternate scene in the form of a dream or memory sequence making visible the subtextual motivations of the characters.

Despite the experimental technology of the presentation, the structure of the piece is a closed narrative as one of the characters is a bomber who will end the lives of all the characters in the piece. What we are seeing as an audience is the last nine minutes in the lives of each of the characters. You have to spend some time familiarising yourself with the scenes before you can determine this and given the demand for access to the console (one operator at a time) its unlikely that most visitors would be aware of the structure. Does this matter? Viewer interactions with media artworks tend to be dynamic and spontaneous as if to counter what Lev Manovich calls 'totalitarian interactivity', the way that new media art manipulates viewers' subjective engagements to follow an established network of links rather than make their own associations with an image or an artwork. (

Jon McCormack Turbulence: An Interactive Museum of Unnatural History 1994/2004, image courtesy the artist.

In this sense the development of the coherent narrative form in this interactive artwork is a gesture in the direction of the cinema rather than video or performance art. This seems to work at cross purposes both to David Pledger's background as a performance maker and director of the not yet its difficult performance group and also Shaw's background in interactive installation. Technically, Jeffrey Shaw's device is a beautifully smooth and user-friendly rotating projector which nods in the direction of cinematic immersion while it is also 'intended as a means of achieving a semantic and experiential extension of the cinema's narrative space.' (Shaw, Eavesdrop Press Kit 2004) In fact it represents more than this. While Sensurround, for example, was a technology fundamentally connected to the cinema's commercial and technical requirements, the 'panoramic and interactive augmentation of the image' in Eavesdrop is a significant departure from cinema even cinematic narrative space. Its multiple perspectives and subtextual complexity associates more readily with the kind of powerful image-based theatre that not yet its difficult are known for and the interactive cave-based installations of Shaw's other i-cinema work which are fully immersive 3D environments.

The immersive environments and experiential spaces of Jon McCormack do not seek to engage with other media but extend the parameters of digital aesthetics through exclusively computational methods. Turbulence: An Interactive Museum of Unnatural History, (1994) a widely acknowledged masterwork in the tradition of new media art, was created on software developed by the artist to replicate nature, not in any representational aspect, but in 'her manner of operation' as John Cage put it. The alarming vitality of the multiform synthetic protuberances as they launch themselves at the viewer captures something of this quality of the natural world, to escape system and restraint.

Jon McCormack Eden 2000, interactive, self-generating artificial ecosystem. Image courtesy the artist

The interface is friendly and the interactivity involved in selecting a new hybrid creature and watching it take over the screen is peculiarly satisfying while still leaving room for one's own associations and interpretations of the screen activity. The artist himself traces the work's development to his fascination with evolution 'as a process, a metaphor and a philosophical foundation' and to the processes of 'nature and artifice, design and synthesis'. (
The idea of media art as the site of a performance of evolution is taken further in the more recent work Eden (2000) described as 'an interactive, self generating artificial ecosystem'. Sensors trace the movement of visitors which alters the sonic and kinetic activity of a colony of 2D creatures who scuttle about a cross-screen. Without visitors they wither away and die since they feed off human presence. The conceptual power of this work is matched by the simplicity of the design which unlike all the other pieces would not work as a DVD. Interactivity, as it is generally understood, is essential to Eden, though McCormack prefers the term 'reactivity' since it permits of 'a more complex subtle and open ended mode of engagement& between person and machine.'

The curator of SenseSurround, Alessio Cavallaro, suggests that its title reflects its deliberate staging of 'multisensory perceptions' and 'synaesthetic effects' (rather than 70s high concept cinema). A mix of performative, reactive and interactive systems, it is work built out of the perspectives enabled by an enhanced and empathetic engagement of the human and the machinic.

Dr Edward Scheer is Senior Lecturer in the School of Theatre, Film and Dance at the University of New South Wales