This proposal outlines a project by James Charlton for the Künstlerhaus Bethanien Residency, Berlin. It provides a clear conceptual framework and a set of goals for work to be undertaken during the residency and speaks to the benefits of the residency in terms of developing professional networks in Berlin.
Catch/Bounce is the culmination of an extended body of work exploring exactly what a conceptually driven, non-technologically constrained digital-art practice might look like. It questions what we actually mean when we say ‘digital art’. For surely, in line with contemporary conceptual practices, this is not simply a matter of doing “stuff” on a computer, any more than making “sculpture” is about just making objects. Surely the concept of the digital transcends medium? These questions arise from popular misconceptions surrounding the idea of the internet of things that have conflated bits and its, blurring the distinction between the digital and physical, and revitalising questions of materiality that were so central to early conceptual art practices. However this approach has rarely been employed to inform digital art practices. Instead the digital is treated here as a structural method rather than a media type. In the context of revitalised sculptural/material concerns Catch/Bounce seeks to develop a new understanding of digital art as, fundamentally, something that must be practised in the work. Such a digital practice must necessarily embody the discrete functionality of the digital[i] within the analogue continuity of the work as practised by both the artist in making and the audience in engaging with the work. It is the challenge of realising these concepts that the project focuses on disruptive interactive and action based systems. Catch/Bounce, however, is not an interactive work in the now ubiquitous sense of standing in front of a screen and waving your hands in the air. Rather, it uses the activity of the event[ii] – both physical and computationally mediated – as a means of materialising the digital within the work as discreet event. Thus events are treated as part of a continuous holonic system, yet are not compromised as isolated instantiations within that system.[iii] The aim is to achieve this through spatial and temporal strategies that locate the viewer consciously within discrete events.
During the residency a new three-part installation will be developed. While conceived of as a single work, each element of the project is distinct from the others in nature. As the project develops in response to the gallery space and context, this will be achieved by either constructing separate spaces within the gallery or using separate venues for each part. Installing the work sequentially within the same space as a means of temporally separating them is also an option I have already used in previous works. The intention is that each part of the project functions as a discrete (digital) element, becoming conceived of as a continuous whole – an analogue – within the audience’s own practice. The assertion is that only in the interrelationship of the parts do the ideas become fully articulated in the inter-subjective practice of the audience. The three different components Drop, Draw and Point, are currently in different stages of development, with the first having been prototyped while others are still in refinement or ideation phases. These are outlined below.
Drop comprises of a series of ceiling-mounted mechanical systems that raise and drop basketballs from the ceiling via a spooled yellow rope. The number of units is dependent on the size of the space but it is envisioned that a grid of them will fill the ceiling plane. See fig1. These microprocessor-controlled mechanisms are triggered to suddenly “drop” a ball based on the activity of viewers in the space. Motion tracking software looks for the presence of a viewer in the gallery and waits for them to remain stationary for a short period of time. It is only by “doing nothing” that the work “does something”. One ball is released at a time, requiring the viewer to remain stationary to activate more balls. Shortly after each ball is dropped the mechanisms slowly rewind the ball to the ceiling. The movement is so slight that, depending on the height of the ceiling, this takes some considerable time. In fact, it is scarcely observable – only when one looks away for a while does one notice the ball has moved. This work directly addresses concepts of temporality and being – a transcendent Dasein[i] of sorts, in which the audience is held in an ontological revealing and concealing dynamic that questions what it means to be present – to be discrete in time. The initial 3D-printed prototypes of this mechanism have been produced and are currently being tested. See fig2. This process has identified some further design improvements that will increase the robustness of the system. It is envisaged that the mechanism will require further iterations of this nature. The individual motor driver and microprocessor control systems have been programmed to enable testing; however the motion-tracking software and networking of the work has not been developed at this stage. Drop is the most resolved of the three works proposed and it is envisaged that a fully functional prototype including motion-tracking software will be finalised before the residency. The units themselves would be fabricated during the residency using 3D printed parts printed in Berlin, and off-the-shelf electronics. (Access to 3D printers is addressed under Professional Development.)
Draw is a simpler installation consisting of only three elements – a single ceiling-mounted rope and pulley mechanism, a swipe-card activated thermal printer and a long blue-scrolling LED sign. Draw is in the conceptual development phase with “studio interrogations”[i] having being done to inform the ideas. Initial feasibility tests have been done on some aspects but the work is not yet as advanced as the Drop prototypes. See Fig. 4. The work will still be under development during the residency but will quickly move into production and testing mode. In contrast to the density of the multiple mechanisms in Drop, Draw is a relatively sparse environment. In the centre of the space, mounted to the ceiling, a pulley mechanism draws up a thick yellow rope – gently depositing it again in a pile on the floor nearby. The mechanism is activated by gently pulling on the short end of the rope. At which point the mechanism smoothly draws the rope through the pulley coiling it again on another part of the floor. This system is simply reversed every time the rope is pulled but does nothing unless activated. By swiping any magnetically striped ID card through a custom-built reader, the audience prints out a short paragraph of text. The action of swiping the card acts as a reciprocal “transaction” between two parties of mutual influence. There is no monetary exchange; rather, the transaction is simply a communicative action between audience and artwork.[ii] The text printouts are excerpts from a catalogue essay discussing the concepts outlined above. Although the text is fragmented into discrete numbered “tickets” it is possible to print off the entire body of text, which amounts to the equivalent of a catalogue if someone has the patience to continue swiping their card. In reality, the audience is unlikely to print out the entire text; instead they will likely walk away with a small fragment of a whole that they might share with others gallery visitors or friends, while being aware that other text circulates across the city. The single line of text scrolling constantly along an LED sign that runs the length of the space requires no activation. The bright blue sign is in contrast with the yellow rope hanging from the ceiling, yet repeats the same linear motion as the rope moving through the mechanism. The text again is a continuous feed from a body of text, yet its cohesion is lost in the temporality of the scrolling motion. The text for both the LED sign and the receipt printer will be written during the residency.
Still very much in the ideation phase, this element of the project uses live pigeons to control elements within the work. Its purpose is to introduce a non-human agency within the framework of the entire project, and to extend the work into the public domain. The pigeons themselves serve multiple conceptual functions stemming from their distinctive bobbing movement, and their historical function as messengers in relation to both contemporary email systems and Michel Serres’ Hermes. That is, they are the go-betweens that generate inter-subjective quasi-objects[iii] and enable the digital to be realised in the Dasein of the event. The use of pigeons has evolved out of having kept doves for a number of years, and recently deepened through liaison with the Auckland Racing Pigeon Federation. I have been working with them in regard to the use of race data and tracking methods. It is hoped that this part of the project will be developed during the residency in conjunction with the Verband Deutscher Breiftaubenliebhaber (German Pigeon Association). In addition to using live pigeons in the gallery, this part of the project also extends the work into the community by engaging with community non-arts organisations. The aim is to run pigeon racing events as part of the project in order to generate GPS data that controls screen-based content in the gallery. Pigeon races involve transportation of pigeons on mass to “liberation points” up to 300 km away from the pigeon’s home lofts. The birds are released simultaneously and the speed of the birds is calculated. Depending on the duration of the exhibition, a number of races would be held. I have used similar methods in earlier projects whereby the GPS coordinates of performer/participants in the urban landscape were used to generate forms. See iForm.This element of the project also continues an engagement with non-gallery based events that have been a core part of my practicesince Constructing Purgatory, VROOM, Istanbul 2005 and more recently Waiting Event 64 Bytes, Lisbon, 2014. [i]See Methods. [ii]The audience uses his or her own magnetically striped cards such as those typically used for ID, membership or credit card. Although is possible to read data from the card for privacy reasons no data is downloaded or recorded. The card reader simply acknowledges the presence of the card in order to activate the printer. [iii] A term coined by Michel Serres and developed by Bruno Latour. Quasi-objects are the go between that negotiates between subject and object (Serres, 1982). [i]The “entity which each of us is himself and which includes inquiring as one of the possibilities of Being” (Heidegger, 1962 p28). This neologism inadequately translates into English as “being-there” (Harman, 2007). [i]David Lewis 1971 definition of the digital as a discrete representation as opposed to analogue as a continuous representation serves as the basis for this position (1971). [ii]Events as articulated by Martin Heidegger (2013). [iii]Holons as first proposed by Arthur Koestler in The Ghost in the Machine, 1967, are entities that function simultaneously as both a whole and a part.
(left) Neubranner’s pigeon mounted camera
(center and right) Aerial photographs taken on pigeon photo flights. Note the wingtips showing in the center top image of the castle