Data Flow

From Data Flow.
Lizzie Muller.
Column 5. Artspace. Sydney . 2010. ISSN 1835-3487.
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James Charlton’s TradeAir creates an even more visceral connection between the flow of life and the flow of data. A tangled network of black rubber bladders, made from the recycled inner tubes of truck tyres, spreads over the gallery floor. By blowing into a suspended mouthpiece the visitor produces a digital signal that will go one of two ways. It might route straight to an air compressor in the gallery, which in turn will inflate one of the rubber forms with approximately the same amount of air as is held by a human lung. Or it might route from Sydney to the artist’s studio in Auckland. If he is there, Charlton can return a signal that triggers the air compressor in the gallery. On exhales hopefully, looking for a response. Cause and effect destabilised by the vicissitudes of data, distance and circumstance.
In many cultures the breath symbolises a conscious connection to the flow of experience. In meditation, attention is brought to each breath to help link consciousness to the present moment. Like a snapshot, bringing attention to the breath creates an anchor point, however fleeting, to a particular moment, an instant within the tide of all instants. Each breadth is unique, but simultaneously part of an endless cycle of interaction between organisms and the world. In TradeAir Charlton creates an elaborate networked apparatus that gives each breath donated by the participant special significance. By isolating one breath, and playing out its effects across time, his system draws attention not only to the flow of experience but also the complex flow of biological and environmental interaction that is the basis of life. More than this, it creates a compelling parallel between the endless global circulation of ait molecules and the similarly pervasive global flow of data.
At the conceptual level this connection between ait and data speaks, of course, to the global issues of climate change, pollution drift and carbon trading. It is clear that the causes and effects of changing weather patterns are linked irrevocably to the geo-economics of international trade. As Asia becomes the manufacturing hub of the world, its exports are not limited to goods but drift across the pacific, affecting atmospheric circulation across the world, and dramatically altering weather patterns. The flow of money, raw materials and commodities around the world is closely connected to the flow of air. This intimate entanglement reaches apotheosis in the vexed issue of carbon emissions trading, in which the right to pollute air can be bought and sold. The stink of rubber and the steam-punk mechanical entrails of the installation extend this conflation of trade and air further into the future, to post-apocalyptic black market, where breath itself becomes a commodity to be captured and sold.
The intimately physical nature of the breath-based interface raises another issue of personal and global interaction: the flow of disease. In an era of multi-drug resistant, species crossing infections, the danger of an international pandemic is a scenario that haunts our collective consciousness. As artist Gina Czarnecki showed in her interactive art work Contagion (2008), the visualisation of epidemiological data can spread fear as quickly as population movement can spread disease. This fear is aught up in our breath, in the inescapable interaction between ourselves and the world, which breaches over and over again the boundaries of our bodies. Blowing into the mouthpiece of the art work is not without its own small infectious risk. For this art work to exist it is a risk, with its moment of distrust and unease, that we as an audience must take.
The audience is implicit in both Miller and Charlton’s works. Both reconfigure the relationship between artist and audience and art work, creating complex systems of data flow in which the audiences actions have a shaping effect. At the same time the participant in both work is refused the reward of a clear response to their actions. Both artists play with the aura of expectation and disappointment that surrounds, and often confounds, much interactive art. Our role in these works is essential but opaque; it is impossible to interpret definitively the effect we are having. As such the participant becomes inescapably implicated in the complex dynamics of cause and effect constructed by each work, one source among many in an open system of flowing data.

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