Archive for the 'Memory' Category

If it Bleeds, it Leads

September 18, 2006

Caleb Larsen’s Monument (If it Bleeds, it Leads), scans XML news feeds for references to deaths and death-tolls, then “memorializes” these events by squirting little yellow BBs onto the floor of the gallery where the project is installed. Larsen describes the project as a playful exploration of the “media’s fixation with tragedy:”

In this piece a computer program continuously scans the headlines of 4,500 English-language news sources around the world, looking for people who have been reported killed. Each time it finds an article, an algorithm determines the number of deaths, and instructs a ceiling-mounted mechanism built from Legos to drop one yellow BB per person. During the course of the installation, BBs will accumulate on the floor, contributing to an ever-growing constellation, ultimately forming a sort of monument. At the beginning of an installation the pellets will be sparsely scattered around the space, and by the end they will form a dense and chaotic arrangement, with errant BBs traveling throughout the building.

There is an inherent dichotomy between the playfulness of the materials: the Legos, the bright yellow balls, the cake-pan BB hopper, and the sobering reality of the subject matter. This tension is combined with the viewer’s natural inclination to expect and desire activity from a kinetic sculpture. However, that desire represents a morbid reality in that every time the mechanism drops a ball, a real person has died. Thus a confusing ethical situation exists; the viewer finds himself secretly and selfishly waiting for someone to be killed only so that he can watch a little yellow ball bounce around on the floor. On the same note, there exists a certain reassurance when the piece displays little activity. (


Mass Observation

September 12, 2006

Caleb Crain’s New Yorker article on the Mass Observation Movement, a fascinating mid-20th century hybrid of sociology, anthropology and flanerie, is well worth reading. Mass Observation sought to reveal poetic truths about life and culture by connecting the threads of individual and social history with the fabric of the everyday. The movement itself eventually became “history,” but I wonder if it really went away or just lay dormant until the web got up and running. After all, learning about our culture from “mass observations” like website traffic trackers or product recommendation systems is becoming just as much a part of the everyday as driving a car or telling a joke.

On January 30, 1937, a letter to the New Statesman and Nation announced that Darwin, Marx, and Freud had a successor—or, more accurately, successors. “Mass-Observation develops out of anthropology, psychology, and the sciences which study man,” the letter read, “but it plans to work with a mass of observers.” The movement already had fifty volunteers, and it aspired to have five thousand, ready to study such aspects of contemporary life as:

Behaviour of people at war memorials.
Shouts and gestures of motorists.
The aspidistra cult.
Anthropology of football pools.
Bathroom behaviour.
Beards, armpits, eyebrows.
Distribution, diffusion and significance of the dirty joke.
Funerals and undertakers.
Female taboos about eating.
The private lives of midwives.

The data collected would enable the organizers to plot “weather-maps of public feeling.” As a matter of principle, Mass-Observers did not distinguish themselves from the people they studied. They intended merely to expose facts “in simple terms to all observers, so that their environment may be understood, and thus constantly transformed.” (New Yorker)

Via the incomparable didactique.

Orit Zuckerman’s memory machines

August 9, 2006

Orit Zuckerman‘s “Moving Portraits” — animated photographs that interact through gesture with the viewer — are bold statements about memory and technology. Zuckerman’s site describes how one of these portraits — essentially a slim LCD screeen connected (wirelessly, it appears) to a computer — at first looksto be a picture of a little girl covering her eyes. But if the viewer looks long enough, the little girl starts peeking out, eventually smiling. If the viewer leaves, the little girl in the portait again covers her eyes.

Equally exciting are Zuckerman’s multi-portrait arrays that interact with each other. Like David Rokeby’s seminal (n)chant, what we have here is essentially a network of autonomous software agents interacting with one another. But where (n)chant used words and sounds (and the influence of the viewer) as the medium for the software agents to interact with one another, Zuckerman uses her moving portrait technology to create “…an interactive artwork visualizing how collective behavior emerges from decentralized interaction in a small social network.”

Recently, Zuckerman has been experimenting with haptic systems such as TapTap (with Leonardo Bonanni, Jeff Lieberman, and Cati Vaucelle), a scarf that “allows nurturing human touch to be recorded, broadcast and played back.”