Keith Armstrong Metro Arts, Brisbane 26 May - 19 June 1999
Interactivity and collaboration are buzzwords in the arts at the moment, and it interests me how these two concepts are manifested through the work of contemporary artists. Multi-media artworks often draw on the traditions of other artforms (film, music, dance, and performance) to create new visual and aural languages.
Consequently they encourage collaboration between differently skilled individuals. Keith Armstrong worked with a team of creative and technically skilled people, including other multi-media artists, dancers, sound artists / technicians, costume designers and set designers to produce Transit Lounge: an Adaptive Multimedia Installation, during his time as an artist-in-residence at Metro Arts. This project represents a year and a half of work for Keith and about six months full-time work for most of the other participants. Like many multi-media installations it is deceptively simple in appearance, yet the actual scale of the work is massive. It is a complex assemblage of different elements, and fortunately the time and preparation involved in producing it has paid off for Armstrong and the team. They produced an entertaining and potentially transformative experience for visitors to the Transit Lounge.
An intimate lounge space was created on the ground floor of the Metro Arts centre for visitors to enter and get comfortable before they absorbed what was happening on the two screens. The large screen displayed an animated film projected high in the space, while a smaller computer monitor was situated at eye level. The film follows a woman's search for a better life. During the journey Ling Change (performed by dancer, Lisa O'Neill) negotiates difficult terrain and struggles to identify with eight bizarre characters to build a new life together in Strawberry Cloudlands. The characters and mise-en-scene are reminiscent of game-girl aesthetics, and the potential to play with the lives of the characters is an integral aspect of the work.
On the smaller screen, the same film was displayed in a small window accompanied by other pictures, icons, and an ever-changing digital garden. Light, temperature and movement were monitored in the space during the day, and were indicated by icons and graphs on the right side of the computer monitor. The condition of the virtual garden was influenced by the combination of conditions in the real world. The flowers could grow and flourish or wither and die, depending on the fluctuation of movement, light and sound in the space. The computer system also used these conditions to choose pathways for the film presented on the main screen. Characters and plot information altered in relation to environmental conditions in the installation space, and Ling made the most proactive and positive choices when the flowers and garden were alive.
Visitors to the Transit Lounge had a fundamental influence on the state of the digital garden and indeed the script of the film. It required a conscious restraint of action and interaction between visitors to maintain the health of the garden. Visitors were required to enter into a dialogue with the computer to exchange information about how the virtual garden and main film character would be treated. This machine / human interface created an information loop which affirmed the importance of adopting a holistic approach to the (virtual) world. Symbolically it represented the unconscious impact humans have on the environment, and the potentials of an ecological culture, where individuals are conscious of their actions and work collaboratively to sustain a healthy, livable environment. The possibilities of coexistence and cooperation were stressed humorously through the interaction of film characters and visitors in the installation space.
The interactivity of this work compares to other digital artworks, in that viewers only had partial control of pathways and consequences. However, it rejected the usual direct cause and effect strategy. The changes which took place in the Transit Lounge were subtle and influenced by the ambience and conditions of the installation space and building. It emphasised a more implicit process of change.
In recent years there has been some debate about the value of content driven art and the capacity of art to deal with political and social issues. The most common complaint seems to be that content-based art promotes an issue to the detriment of aesthetic and conceptual concerns. Transit Lounge counters these arguments by providing a sophisticated example of how an issue, such as ecological awareness, can be addressed effectively in art without sacrificing aesthetic elements. Furthermore, the concept is an essential element of this work, and the multiple artforms used in its making indicate the influence new technologies and multimedia arts are having on contemporary art practices. A shift is occurring in creative cultures, where emphasis is moving away from the solitary achievements of creative individuals, towards models of collaborative creativity which stress shared inquiry, exchange and production.