Monday, June 23, 2008

Alas, the curtain falls - the last official post

The new media course is over, the Spring semester has ended, the first year is down and only one to go in the MFA in Documentary Media program. It's time to bid farewell to required blogging for DM8106, Documentary Production III. I pushed myself into it. Will I drag myself away? I rather doubt it, it's been a great experience.

I purposefully added a subheading that could allow me to go further if I wish. As I continue I may link to another site and expand my posts to include learning and teaching. As the curtain falls on this edition watch for it to rise again.

Thanks to Professors Alex Bal and Steve Daniels and all the students who made six weeks fly, especially Elaine, Gail, Inger and Ernie who I worked with, but also everyone else whose work I enjoyed.

Suddenly, three unanswered questions?

1) The organization and design of a shoot to accommodate user driven narrative depends on a number of considerations. The shots themselves should be able to stand on their own, that is, they should each cover a bit of business of the whole event, experiment or story. I design each shot with it's own signature, which could be focused on composition, content, colour, etc. The shots should be able to connect, that is, there should be start and end points that join seamlessly, which could be designed as transitions (fades/wipes, etc.) or similar commonalities like texture, colour, etc. The final thing to consider is structure and how each shot helps to fulfill the structure in moving the whole piece along. So shot composition, shot-to-shot transitions and structure are the three areas I design to accommodate user driven narrative.

2) I tend to organize and design both user and distributable narratives in much the same way. The only thing I might add to my design is which type of distribution outlet I'm aiming for -- mobility, theatres, television, etc. The main variable in designing the narrative for different formats and media players is pace. I tend to have a slower pace for larger screens and a faster pace for small screens. And this has worked for me, although I've seen people do the opposite.

3) Ahh, Second Life, media and documentary considerations. Let's see.... My avatar is named Gia Parx and she is a cyber-extension of me, Janis Cole.

I designed her to be far more groovy than me but she doesn't come close to having my groovy lifestyle.

She watched some music and met a punk who said no to becoming her friend. She found two people who would become her friend, and it turned out they were both student friend/avatars. She tried to talk to a statue that had a Mona Lisa smile because she thought (s/he?) might give her the "magic pill" -- so that she could "get it" in this strange land -- but that didn't happen. She was hungry and got no food, thirsty and had nothing to drink, wanted to meet people but was pretty much on her own and eventually she sighed and no one much seemed to care, except me, and I couldn't hug her.

Before I let her go off the Island I determined she couldn't spend any money - which neither of us had - on art or other stuff she couldn't bring out with her. She didn't come upon any shopping encounters that I needed to control for her and this was just as well because personally I like shopping. (NOTE: Gia was never off my apron string in Second Life, she didn't run away and make me (wo)man-track her down (by Mike Sage's avatar perhaps?)

Gia didn't learn how to get around well enough to make a photo book, film or new media project in Second Life. If she had been able to make any of these things it may have been more interesting for me than watching her walk and fly (this being my favorite thing that she did), the only activities she learned to do with confidence. But had she managed to make a media art piece my next question would be how to get it out of Second Life to show my (her?) friends who don't have an avatar in there.

Being an avatar not only changes the notion of media engagement, it changes the notion of all forms of engagement. I have written in past blog posts on this topic but I'll quickly summarize for convenience. While I appreciate the concept of Second Life, I didn't like the idea of all the computer hours necessary to be really good at getting what I (Gia?) want, and when it comes to global networking I see possibilities for that with technologies outside of Second Life. I love other people's enthusiasm for Second Life, but did not find my own, with one exception....

The best documentary dissemination purpose I can see for avatars in Second Life is the idea Heather and Marie brilliantly conceived of for their new media project -- putting avatars of fallen soldiers into Second Life. This could be expanded to include others who have been taken from this life. I think that Heather and Marie should design an exclusive "After Life" site where we can visit avatars of our lost ones. (NOTE: an idea worthy of copyright perhaps?) Their fertile imaginations and deep rooted compassion for the lives of others gave me goosebumps about the Second Life concept. I like this After Life idea, hmmm. Should we talk? Call me!

I was just told about these questions today, moments ago, and I've answered to the best of my ability, and with tongue-in-cheek about Gia, the groovy, lonely avatar I have not visited in Second Life for more than two weeks. To be continued.........

Sunday, June 22, 2008

"Watching" -- Project notes and critique

Gail, Elaine, Me, Inger, Ernie -- the morning of our presentation, Wednesday June 18, 2008

The presentation of my group's new media project "Watching" gave me the anticipated outcome I'd hoped for. We heard several layout suggestions in the critique that were interesting for consideration and there was a lively discussion, which is always a good sign of the work having an effect on the audience. Here's a summary of my thoughts on our project, the concept, development, class presentation, expectations, outcomes, learning experience and critique feedback:

Description and Concept -- I posted a description of my project in my blog on June 9th. We were playing with notions of watching and what it means to be in a private environment but not certain you are alone. As the project developed we considered notions of the surveillance sign on the washroom door that states "This area under security surveillance". (play the film clips at the end of post). The project incorporated a three-camera multiple perspective of a live performance and a projected random playback order of the performance narrative through a MaxMSP patch. Our idea was to take the audience through three steps that turned them into the watcher, watching themselves.

We filmed Mike in a washroom stall, being watched from three cameras and played the clips through the random order playback patch.
The projection of the random clips was intended to move the viewer to a box with a hole that replicated the peephole view of Mike in the clips. Originally we were going to have the clips play on a 20" monitor but in the end we projected them on an AV projector. I liked the look and I'm glad we did it this way, but the size may have taken away from people wanting to go to the box. Having them side-by-side, and roughly the same scale may have worked better than what we did for the presentation.

We had to encourage the audience to go to the box initially, and I think this may have been because of the layout. However, people did eventually make their own way there and the result was much as I'd anticipated. A small light was set up in the box so that when someone peeped in they could see the same magazine that Mike had been reading in the washroom clips, and a camera mounted in the box would record the eye peering into the box and seeing the magazine. The image of the recorded eye was then fed to an AV projector that projected it on the wall behind the person peeping, which completed the watching cycle.

The idea was to watch Mike in the washroom being watched with cameras, and be encouraged to peep in the box to see the prop, which would then complete the cycle of looking when the person's eye projected behind them. That was the concept, and the trajectory of the project cycle but of course concepts are subject to change as they develop...

Development and Production -- I learned about electric circuits, arduinos, and MaxMSP. But without Professor Steve Daniels to write the code there would be no time to mount such an ambitious project. After casting Mike Sage as our washroom performer we determined the look, location and camera coverage. The film shoot of Mike went well and gave us good results. We cut a two minute narrative and then made 28 individual clips intended for the MaxMSP random order patch. We tested it and it worked the way we had anticipated. This part went smoothly.

Meanwhile we attended workshops, built our circuit and constructed the box to hold the sensor, small light, camera and the magazine from the performance. There were a few things that didn't work but I considered them small because they didn't alter the anticipated outcome too much. For instance we couldn't get the sensor to work so the light and camera were on all the time instead of being triggered by an eye filling the hole in the box. Along the way we got interested in sound conversion of emails into music, which became Quicktime files in a sort of effect soundscape by using a software called Soundhack. We attended two workshops and the rest of our time was spent figuring things out, building them and refining them. There was no time for a trial run. We tested both setups the night before the presentation, and we came in early to set up our installation in the RCC presentation room. At 10:00 a.m. we had everything ready for our 11:00 a.m. installation to be viewed by the class. At this point we walked to the Image Arts building for a different presentation and had our photo taken on the way.....

Presentation and Feedback
-- It turned out we were the first ones to present because the other presentation wasn't ready. I enjoyed showing the class our project and having them try it out. I thought our "mock gallery" setup looked good, especially given the regular classroom aesthetic. We worked on this project for two weeks, grappled with several new media techniques from lessons we'd taken just prior to making it, aimed for documentary relevancy with notions of watching, being watched and becoming the watcher, and worked at making the projection environment appealing and a bit off-the-wall to suit our main theme of looking at Mike being peeped at through the keyhole and then moving on to become the peeper looking through the peephole in the box. I thought our soundscape created from adapting our visuals through soundhack was complimentary to the visual presentation. I think we were successful in creating an environment that looked and sounded professional. If I walked into a gallery with the look, sound, feel and interactivity of our presentation I would enjoy it. I think there are problems in some smaller details, but overall I liked the result.

I learned that the path we wanted the audience to move through was not necessarily the path they immediately took and some encouragement was needed.
If we were to reshow the piece we would all likely agree to try some things differently to move people into the experience of the clips more personally and connect the clips to the box through a better floor plan. These were some of the helpful suggestions from the critique.

Several people felt the piece was more voyeurism rather than surveillance rather than seeing both as being notions of watching, who is watching and who is being watched. There was a lively discussion and it was great to see people getting excited about the topic. I wish in retrospect I'd had a pad to take notes, both to keep track of bundled questions and to have more clarity on the feedback because it went quickly. I like the suggestions I remember.

If time had allowed there would have been a midway presentation to get feedback prior to the final presentations, because it offers a chance to make changes and see how they work. (So in fact, the presentations were all midway in that regard). All things considered I learned a lot about the intricate detail of making an installation. I have made notes on spacial changes to consider to move the audience through the components more effectively. We also discussed the magazine not being much of a payoff and I wonder about the different ways to bring this to life-- a computer screen with the same clips we played of Mike, or Mike no longer being the subject that is watched, but instead having a camera pointed at the peeper. I don't know the answers but I see room to adjust and strengthen the flow to the box and the end point in the box.

I'm intrigued and considering an installation component in my thesis. I'm not sure if it would be intended for a gallery show or be a site specific intervention, but some form of projection or human triggered movement would be involved. I'm also interested in considering an interactive website presence.

Expectations vs. Outcome
-- My expectations and outcome were pretty close. From the feedback I believe we could find a different layout and make a more dynamic use of the box. These shifts might have improved the audience's experience and if I'm ever to revisit the project they are the main things I'd work on.

Summary -- I thought the course gave me many options to think about. I liked the fact that we were told early on to experiment, because failing at making something wasn't seen as a failure, it was preferred that we aim big and learn from our mistakes rather than be safe. Our group followed this advice as did many other students in the course. The projects by other students were imaginative and and their critique feedbacks were engaging. I enjoyed this course and have only one suggestion. Taking new media for twelve weeks instead of jamming it into six would have been preferred. I was introduced to more tools in this production class than photography or film/video production and I wanted more time to use them.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Week Six - Workshops and Presentations

Week Six: The final week of classes was spent in electronic workshops, working with my group to prepare our project, presenting our project in class and attending other critiques. Classes are officially over and the course winds down with this post and a few final blog entries.

New Media Production was a compact course that introduced me to an array of ideas and ways of thinking. I may find some of the techniques we worked with useful for my thesis, but haven't determined in what way.

Classes were held two times per week. We moved at locomotion speed and sometimes I would have liked to reflect more in class on some of the concepts and themes that accompanied the readings or questions that arose from our hands-on learning environment. Along with the course readings I purchased two books - one on blogging and the other on convergence culture. I learned about social networking and Web 2.0, became an avatar, experimented with the MaxMSP software and gained some basic knowledge about working with arduinos and electric circuits. The highlight of the course was working with fellow students to create a video installation entitled "Watching" (formerly "Watching the Watcher"). The part I'll take away was seeing the new media projects unfold and the wide range of approaches students imagined.

The final two weeks were dedicated to our final projects. I'll provide further detail about the development and presentation of my group's project in an upcoming post.

The Spring semester has ended. We have also completed the first year of the program - one down and one to go. There's a big pot luck party at Elaine's for all the MFA students, faculty and staff. After I attend a live performance of Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg at the Royal I'll try to join the fun. I'm sure many of my friends in the program will agree that this has been a swift, productive six week course with some fascinating project outcomes.

Virtual reality and visceral realism

The Virtualization of Art Practice: Body Knowledge and the Engineering Worldview, by Simon Penny

This article covers themes such as embodiment, the "digital revolution", "convergence (arts)", "mind" over "body", (behavioral) artificial intelligence, artificial life and pedagogical issues.

Overall there are large sweeping statements in this article that one can wrestle with and choose to agree with or not. Two agreeable thoughts pop out for me (quoting the article):

-- "To make conquering strides across cyberspace, we sit, neck cramped, arms locked, tapping a keyboard, our vision fixed on a small plane twenty inches ahead. As the image becomes more mobile (VR), the viewer becomes less mobile." I'm in this cyberspace position right now to write this post. Getting good at Second Life requires hundreds of hours in this position. It's this immobility more than anything that gives me pause to move my art in the direction of online activities, as this locked-up position is not where I wish to be and it causes back cramps if I stay too long. New vow -- scale down to a maximum of five computing hours/day.

-- "Why do we believe that the consciousness is located exclusively in the brain, when, contrarily, we put so much faith in "gut feelings"? Why do we describe some responses as "visceral"? Why do ancient Indian yogic and Chinese martial traditions locate the center of the will in the belly? We believe we think with our brains because we've been taught that this is the case. What if we believed otherwise? How differently would we live our lives?"

I subscribe to a world of intuition and feelings. I engage my feelings, assess them through logic, and draw on wisdom and intellect to figure out the best way to act on them. My approach is not for everyone, but I swear by it with few exceptions. In rule-rigid environments and spheres of logic I try to hover behind the words I wish to speak instead of blurting them out (and not always successfully), aware that feelings and passion are generally out of place in such spaces. Whereas in open, expressive environments I freely raise my voice in song, without constraint.

These are general terms to describe forms of complex physical engagement articulated in this article. The main thing I take from it is a confirmation that being a sponge to the full range of human experiences, including my own and those of people in vastly different environments, allows me feel and think concurrently, rather than just imposing my thought, which can be dry and absent of passion. In my artistic practice my gut instinct is part of the intellectual rigor that makes my work distinctly mine. New vow -- in the second year of the program I'll work with advisors who understand and support my intuitive, visceral process in making art work.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Telepresence Art and Public Surveillance

Telepresence Art -- Eduardo Kac

telepresence |ˈteləˌprezəns|noun
the use of virtual reality technology, esp. for remote control of machinery or for apparent participation in distant events.
• a sensation of being elsewhere, created in such a way. (see Webster's Online Dictionary)

This article discusses a pragmatic form of telepresence research by scientists that can equate robotic and human experience, aiming to have features of the robot matching nuances of human gesture. This is a concept I try, but don't yet succeed at wrapping my head around. There's something missing for me in the experience of being an avatar in Second Life or witnessing an art show with a fluorescent bunny. Not that I don't value educational concepts being developed in Second Life or Kac's art, I do, but using live animals in art blurs boundaries of ethical practice for me. Admittedly, this is a personal thing. And while I have had fun scooting around in Second Life I don't feel confident about knowing my way. My gut instinct is that one must spend significant time tied to the computer to have a meaningful Second Life and I don't have enough time to do all that interests me as it is, and this might be my main factor in not getting it -- lack of time. Also, the idea of building a community in Second Life does not stimulate me the same way building communities around student life at Ryerson, cultural life in Toronto and Wilberforce, OCAD teacher/student life, neighborhood life, Thesis project life and so on.

I prefer human nuances and gestures to be shared between humans, not between me as a human 'type' mingling with other human 'types'. Art works that experiment with altering humans or animals is not going to be something I pursue soon, if at all. Art that replicates the human body or animals has not yet caught my imagination. I can reconsider these things down the road and see if it change but for now I've tried it and confirmed it's not a fit.

surveillance |sərˈvāləns|noun
close observation, esp. of a suspected spy or criminal : he found himself put under surveillance by military intelligence. Watch, view, inspection, supervision; spying, espionage, infiltration, reconnaissance; informal bugging, wiretapping. (see Webster's online Dictionary)

"Today, remote surveillance is found in public areas, such as the subway, or in private environments as office and apartment buildings." -- quote from the article

"The use of remote surveillance for social control is already rooted in our public space, and now its scrutinizing gaze invades the privacy of the home." -- quote from the article

The Toronto police have been scanning surveillance tape since the brutal shooting deaths of two 25 year old men, Dylan Ellis and Oliver Martin on June 13th while they were parked in their vehicle waiting for a friend. There is no known motive. Could something this horrific be random, and if so, what does it mean for increased public surveillance? I learned through news reports of police activities that there is a large volume of tape from the crime scene and surrounding area to go through. This is good news on the one hand because it might help to solve this crime, but on the other hand who uses the surveillance cameras and tapes on a regular basis until the police require them? Spy cameras are becoming ever present, in public and in private, known and unknown, and what does this mean to our daily movements in life?

I have friends who live on Richmond Street within a few houses of where the shooting took place. I'll now be aware that as I come and go to visit them I could be taped by surveillance cameras. The same is true about coming and going anywhere -- perhaps even in my own downtown neighborhood. How do I know when I'm being watched? It's something that can happen anywhere.

As society continues to break down more people are likely to subscribe to surveillance as a means of property protection. I find this spooky. Yet at the same time, having access to surveillance tape after a crime is invaluable. For instance, I remember a case reported in the Toronto Sun about a year ago in Toronto where the murder of a prostitute was solved due to a surveillance camera in a stairwell.

Have you ever necked in a stairwell? A store? An underground garage? On the street? The public and the private merge, understandably, but not for the pleasure of a camera the lovers are not privy to knowing is trained on them and can capture their actions for use beyond their control. I don't subscribe to a world of surveillance, and yet, tape that captures any part of a crime and can lead to solving crimes is invaluable. In the unsolved murders of Dylan Ellis and Oliver Martin I'm glad the police have surveillance tape to go through and I hope it helps them solve the tragic murders of these two young men.

The Movements of Life

Why New Media moves me to new heights of visceral, theoretical and personal expression...

New Media social networking strategies such as blogging and tagging, and technologies such as arduinos that allow us to communicate through authorship/parameters/feedback and repeatability of actions in a room -- or half-way around the world, have taken over my days and nights. I look forward to blogging. I am thrilled to be working on a new media project with a group of student friends. We will present our installation tomorrow (see invite above and come if you can!). Our group is working with surveillance, multiple cameras, random narrative structure, MaxMSP, arduino circuits with a sensor activator, AV projection of an interactive audience participation movement and a soundscape that includes soundhacking some of our video clips into audio samples to replicate nature (Elaine being the lead mother nature soundhacker). And as awesome as all this knowledge and taskmaking is, it's not even this part that moves my spirit to the euphoric place that I speak of.

My imagine has been called upon in order to work with New Media tools. For almost six weeks of learning I've been imagining the world as a better, kinder, more caring, loving place, and wondering how best to express this through intangibles like cyberspace and electric circuitry. The friction of tangible and intangible have forced me to open to potential, to look and listen, and to pry open the sometimes lax recesses of my imagination. My feet are on the ground but my head is so high in the sky I can feel my skin breathing. The aliveness of breath fueling imagination, ahh... what a wonderful time for creativity.

While this process of becoming new media((ed) - educated) is taking place, I have also delved deeper into my thesis topic which opens me to the pain and suffering of innocent people who were murdered primarily because of their vulnerable lifestyle. I have also thought about overcoming pain and suffering from losses in my own life through my determination to succeed. And I have mourned for the fifth day now -- (but what feels like much longer) -- the lives of two young men shot last Friday in Toronto, all the more affecting because one of them is the relative of a dear friend. Loss of any kind is simply that, it disrupts the movement of life, and begs the question why is the world this way?

Is there an answer to pain and suffering and the loss of innocent lives? I rather doubt it. The most obvious one -- a world where only acts of kindness take place and we don't treat people as disposable and we turn away if we feel anger -- feels far, far away. Our role as artists, communicators and citizens is not to judge people, but rather to imagine, through new media and other practices, how to make the world a more equitable place for everyone. I'm talking for myself here, but with my usual dose of idealism, what can I say.

I was sent a beautiful poem last night, "Fallen Angels", a tribute to the missing women in Vancouver and a gift for a mother who lost her daughter. Today I'm carrying the words of this poem with me and I'm seeking out acts of kindness that mirror my thoughts, imagination, dreams, hopes, expressions and artworks for a safer, gentler, kinder world of imagination fueled by breath.