Internet Wind

Video shot at Holden Gallery Manchester Metropolitan University September 2011

internet wind
internet wind
internet wind
 
Stephen Calcutt - A Retrospective on The Notions of Telepresent Perception
 
"What are the effects of physical distance on aesthetic perception? Physical distance is at once erased and reaffirmed by new technologies. Erasure results from the sudden familiarity with and access to ideas and objects once beyond reach. Reaffirmation of distance is clear once one becomes aware of one's own subject position, prompted by the recontextualization of ideas and objects and the cultural filters inevitably used in their reception. This new condition implies that telecommunications technologies - including telerobotics, the Internet, and the coupling of both - profoundly affect our sense of self and other." -Eduardo Kac
 
Internet wind is a research project which explores philosophical debates on a number of levels, particularly those that relate to Telepresence and their associated theories of the manipulation of physical distance through the extended space of the internet.
 
This essay is split into two parts. Part one discusses the interface that defines the work and considers the piece, including its function, within the wider framework of telepresence and telecommunications art. Part two debates the role of the audience and how the project is contextualised, not only from a sense of how physical distance is rationalised through the Net, but also from epistemological and ontological viewpoints.
 

**Part One**

In the Suburban environment of Greater Manchester there stands a venerable old Central American-style folkart Weathervane - its rooster motif that adorns the steel casting of the sculpture swings with grace and elegance as it attempts to point to the origin of the invisible force that directs its activity. For the unwitting audience (those passersby who acknowledge its existence for the sole reason of its cultural displacement) that is where its function ceases. To many, this weathervane merely aspires to locate the origination of the wind that blows through the environment and then proudly announces to us the details of its direction. This particular weathervane however, not only advertises such information to those individuals in the immediate vicinity, but also broadcasts its collected data freely across the internet.
 
This particular weathervane has been modified with specialist custom-made sensors that allow it to capture, record and process environmental 'events' (such as wind speed and direction) and with the aid of a tethered computer, it has the additional means to upload the data to a central webserver. The data that it collects is logged in realtime and stored in a digital format which is freely available for devices to make use of anywhere in the world (providing an internet connection is present). This internet enabled weathervane now forms part of the Pachube online community for the hosting of internet enabled devices - a community who both study and nurture the concept of The Internet of Things (a system that empowers people with the faculty to share and make use of information generated from the environments that they inhabit). This is an important feature of the project, and although it could simply be considered as a background application to the work, the notion of network communication and the semantic developments of the future web, must not be understated. The system of The internet of Things opens up this project for a more postmodern debate. It is important therefore, to work with and master the potential of this electronic media and explore the prospective collaborative opportunities and aesthetic capabilities that this emerging online open system presents us with. The Internet of Things promises to connect cities, its devices and its inhabitants together, a notion shared by John Naughton who describes this concept as...
 
  "When objects can both sense the environment and communicate, they become tools for understanding complexity and responding to it swiftly. What's revolutionary in all this [developments into the Internet of Things] is that these physical information systems are now beginning to be deployed, and some of them even work largely without human intervention."1  
 
My current project explores the aesthetic potential of this informational landscape and reformulates our relationship with objects and how we communicate with them - or more significantly with regards to the philosophical debates central to both the development of the future semantic web and of post-human theory, how they communicate with us.
 
The aesthetic sensibility of the telematic process of communication is, in this project, explored visually in the exhibition space through nine electronic devices atop white plinths - with each device being connected to a central microprocessor. The devices are made up of two motors which sit within a lasercut acrylic housing. They use the realtime data feed from the weathervane's remote sensors to explore a notion of perception and mediate simulations of telepresence by gently swaying and spinning in the virtual breeze which is carried across the internet, through the wires and into the space. The steel spinning blades (folded into pinwheel-type windmills) are designed to represent the whimsical, early folkart kinetic sculptures - a metaphor for mans long time association with the wind. An association originating as far back as the first century AD, with the weathervane Triton which stands above the ancient Greek structure The Tower of the Winds. The electronic devices that are on display in this project have however, originated largely through experimentation thus relying on the process of communication and the exchange of data to steer the development and overall aesthetic of the piece.
 
Whilst there is clearly a conviction of thought and a sense of design in the process of the manufacturing of the devices, these sculptures are not intended as the ultimate goal or indeed as the sole purpose of the work. Rather, the aesthetic debate must extend beyond the individual devices and into the media or vehicle that allows this network communication to take place. In his essay Aspects of the Aesthetics of Telecommunications, Eduardo Kac argues that Telecommunications art is "a culmination of the process of the dematerialization of the art object epitomized by Duchamp and pursued by artists associated with the conceptual art movement, such as Joseph Kosuth"2. In this sense, my project is extended into this shift from sculptural form and representation, to convey a sense of communication between two spaces across a network. The sculptural objects in this project are somewhat lost in their own triviality, as they stand against the mass of sprawling wires that continually carry the data which defines their very purpose. The aesthetic therefore, is of the interface as a whole, rather than any one of the single components that go into making it.
 
The physical effects of a breeze that blows through an environment can clearly be seen as it drifts through the trees, forcing them to sway back and forth with every sudden gust. Yet the visual aspect of this process is not the only representation explored through my project. The ambient sound that is generated through the operation of the motors holds its own significance and is just as relevant to the piece as the sculptures on display. A sense of the remote environment is not only depicted through the visual kinematics and animatronic experiences of the sculptural devices, but also through the sound that they create. This perception can be engineered through the audible changes in the speeds of the motors as they drive the ornamental steel windmills according to the strength of the distant breeze. In many respects the significance that is attached to the audio generated by the work is played upon and reaffirms the process of data exchange and network communication in this telematic mediascape.
 
The dependency for the devices to find their own direction through the information generated by the remote environment is reflected in their manufacturing, and whilst the objects are designed to reference whimsical garden ornaments that are operated by currents of air, their industrial rigidity suggests that in reality, they could never be driven by the physical or actual wind that may blow through their space. The scientific apparatus used in this project (windspeed anemometers, potentiometers and servo motors) would normally be used for data-collection and evaluation. In this artwork however they are used as a means to address the complexity of our perception of space, distance and proximity. They are the means by which the data is carried, delivered and interpreted by the work and subsequently, the viewer. The assemblage of the technology (the servers, wires and actuators that drive the piece) force us to consider the very nature of the methods necessary to augment our sense of distance, spacial awareness and communication.
 
**Part Two**
 
The notion of telepresence is, in this project, played upon from an unfamiliar approach to that of accustomed interactive telepresent works. Installations such as Ken Goldberg's Tele-Garden, where users can directly interface with remote environments through the internet, are considered as telepresent works by introducing the user with an opportunity to interface directly with a remote environment. In the case of Goldbergs Tele-Garden, users can control a robotic arm and instruct it to sow seeds and water plants - "For there to be a sense of presence in telepresence one must have to be involved in getting a grip of something at a distance"3 explains Hubert L. Dreyfus in his text Telepistemology: Descartes Last Stand.
 
Yet, this project makes no such attempt to offer the viewer a direct experience of interactivity or gain feedback that would otherwise be achieved through the remote contact with, or manipulation of another space or reality. What this work does achieve however, is to determine a set of circumstances for the viewer to experience a perception of an extended space, a new, emergent ecology where data flows through the wires of the network in the same sense as streams sweep through the valleys. The scientific instruments that capture the data deliver this information to the devices in such a way that heightens our awareness of what is acutely nonexistent in the space - the natural, physical force of the wind that would otherwise turn the devices' windmills. In consideration, this work is perhaps less about the investigation and application of notions of telepresence and more about telecommunications, although the boundaries of such genres are increasingly blurred. If teleoperation is defined by the application of technologies that allow telerobots to exert an individuals physical presence in a remote environment, then this work could certainly be described as a telepresent one. The focus of the telepresence in this case however, is not the actual viewer or the human operator, but the wind itself. The breeze that blows through the remote environment and its subsequent flux of information is the very fabric of the piece and in many respects it is the wind that is telepresent in our space, rather than the user being telepresent in another.
 
There are a number of levels in which the role of the audience is explored and considered through this project. On entering the space, the viewer is faced with the sculptural object which is, at this point, seen within the more isolated perspective of aesthetic expression. The audience are initially regarded as an onlooker, as the spectacle of the piece originally disconnects the viewer from the exploration of communication and its relationships concerning the extension of physical space through the internet. The initial question in the development of this piece therefore, was ultimately a sculptural one, and how the audience would engage with the work knowing little about is commentary. This was to be addressed in the development of its physical form, with the aesthetic sensibility of the work being reaffirmed by setting the devices on top of their own individual plinths - rendering them as a sculptural object in their own standing, regardless of the narratives which attempt to define them.
 
In contrast to the viewers experience as a detached spectator, there is an alternative aspect of the work which characterises the audience as a more passive reader in the communication process and substantiates the move from simply a sculptural representation to an actual experience of mediated perception. Mediated perception is described as "the experience of a real event or object that is not proximal"4 and through viewing this work, the audience is invited to decode or interpret the visual statement that is communicated by the narrative of the piece - yet they are not considered to be an active participant in the information and subsequent meaning of the project as in Telegarden, by Ken Goldberg. By contrast, Telegarden would offer the viewer a telepresent encounter of mediated agency or action upon a remote physical object, rather than the more subjective experiences of mediated perception.
 
In researching and developing this work, I stumbled across an interesting problem concerning how the audience perceive the piece in terms of its authenticity. The notions explored through this project do not lie solely within the debates surrounding the mediated perception of remote environments, or indeed with the experiences of exerting a sense of presence in an extended space brought about via telecommunications. Additional considerations for debate can also be made from evaluating the changing experience of audience perception. A perception and an experience that would differ greatly from one viewer to the next depending on the individuals own skepticism on first viewing the work. By audience skepticism, we are referring to whether or not the viewer genuinely believes the work to be true - is the wind really driving these devices? and how can we be sure that the work is not simulated and there was in fact no external physical force driving the sculpture? This is a problem I have rarely faced with my previous interactive work (where the aesthetic of the piece responded directly with the actions of the audience) and is one that has gradually revealed itself as the project developed and I started to gain feedback. The area of debate that relates to authenticity is not usually associated with the evaluation process of an artwork, yet in the case of my current project (where part of the communication process is inferred by the interface with no direct participation by the viewer) it can be seen as a necessity and there are numerous epistemological issues relating to audience experience that are raised here.
 
It is certainly plausible that a microcontroller or computer chip has been carefully programmed to create the appearance of remote natural forces interacting with the piece - so in this respect, would the spectacle of the work become any more or less appealing to the audience depending on their own level of skepticism? A live webcam feed that displays the remote environment could indeed accompany the work, and this may go some way into reaffirming the authenticity and, in due course, reinforce the experiences of telepresence explored throughout the piece. If a viewer could see the wind blowing the weathervane via a live stream, and at the same time see the effects of this action on the physical devices in the exhibition space, then any doubts surrounding its perceived reality may be suppressed - it would be obvious that once the weathervane swings, and the devices move accordingly, then the two are inherently inter-connected through a network. Yet this is not necessarily the case, and the rationale of "I can see it happening - therefore it must be true!" can not be habitually applied to telecommunications art - particularly in the age of the internet and subsequently this project.
 
There is a more Cartesian view that may be applied to the narrative of the work that changes the audiences perception of it further still. Even though a webcam feed that visualises the remote environment may indeed sit next to the work, we still have no reason for explicitly believing that we are experiencing omnipresent notions of a real physical space. No matter what instruments are used (scientific, industrial or otherwise) to achieve the experience of telepresence - reasonable doubt could always be argued by Cartesian skeptics. As Dreyfus explains
 
  "...instruments like the telescope and microscope [extend] mans perceptual powers, but along with such indirect access come doubts about the reliability of what one seemed to see by means of such prosthesis...there were serious debates as to whether globules seen through a microscope were artefacts of the instrument or genuine elements of living material. Clearly such doubts were pragmatically motivated and realistic."5  
 
With the emergence of tele-technologies such as internet video-conferencing applications (skype and Apple Face-Time for example) that make use of the popular telecommunication protocols (web cameras), we are resurrecting Descartes's epistemological concerns regarding man's private and subjective experiences of the world. In justification of his theory, Descartes would call into question even our most seemingly direct knowledge of our own bodies by referencing patients who reported experiences of a phantom limb.
 
  "I have been assured by men whose arm or leg has been amputated that it still seemed to them that they occasionally felt pain in the limb they had lost - thus giving me grounds to think that I could not be quite certain that a pain I endured was indeed due to the limb in which i seemed to feel it"6  
 
Cartesian philosophy originated from this research and Descartes concluded that if an individuals perception and knowledge of the world stemmed from data that was transmitted by nerves from sensory organs and interpreted by the mind, then all we know of this world is fundamentally unreliable. If Descartes concluded from his research that all we can be certain of is the content of our own minds, irrespective of the evidence put forward by means of scientific apparatus, then the audiences appreciation of my project (and indeed of all telepresent works) would almost certainly be a wholly subjective one. Unfortunately this philosophy can not be applied to just works that explore technology, in fact, if we evaluate this work by citing Cartesian theory, then we are faced with the added problem of questioning everything around us, and not just an artwork.
 
Perhaps the problem that we face when attempting to evaluate audience interactions and their role within telepresent works emerge not from Cartesian philosophy alone, but from a more general mistrust of technology, particularly those that originate from the Web. This past decade has seen the rise of a multitude of scams, forgeries and illusionists, that hide behind the faceless soul of the internet. Such organisations might operate under the pretence of offering one thing, yet fail to deliver their assurances, or worse still, use acquired data for more sinister purposes. Technology has so often been demonised by many quarters of the media, and in particular those philosophies debated in the essays of the Critical Art Ensemble, to such an extent that we can no longer make assurances for what is in fact real and what is simulated.
 
In recognition of this, it is difficult to determine exactly how the audience are to engage with telepresent works and indeed how artists are to respond back. Do we simply leave the audience to make up their own minds? Do we present the work as it stands and allow the audience to believe whatever they want to believe based on what they can see, rather than what they can not? Or does the artist have to cast away any Cartesian doubts before the audience can relate to the full telepresent experience that the work attempts to achieve?
 
To some, the spectacle of technology alone is enough for the viewer to absorb themselves into the notions of telepresence that it creates. It is undeniable to even the most Cartesian audience that the level of experimentation and the opportunities for aesthetic potential which emerge from working with such tele-technologies, go far beyond the significance of what we believe we are experiencing is a simulation. Research in the area of telepresence and network correspondence is necessary for the advancement in how we use communications technology (in particular the Web) in our everyday lives - how we interact with each other, how we conduct our commerce, how we live our lives and ultimately how we are supposed to feel. Imagine the picture of the future that was painted by E.M Forster in his short story The Machine Stops (1909) where people would spend all day, holed up in small hexagonal rooms, communicating only through the mediated use of machines.
 
  "...Then she generated the light, and the sight of her room, flooded with radiance and studded with electric buttons, revived her. There were buttons and switches everywhere - buttons to call for food, for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature and there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world."7  
 
If we can imagine this future then we must decide for ourselves how far away we actually are from Forsters perceived destiny. Whatever the audience's skepicism or questions relating to the perceived reality of this project, or indeed that of any artists exploring telepresence, then it is in fact quite insignificant...the real question emerges of why as artists should we try to prove it?
 
  "Oh, tomorrow - some fool will start the Machine again, tomorrow." "Never," said Kuno, "never. Humanity has learnt its lesson."8  
 
copyright stephen calcutt
 
 
1. John Naughton, The internet of things: its big but not very clever. Published in the Observer, Sunday 20th March 2011
2. Eduardo Kac, Aspects of the Aesthetics anf Telecommunications. Originally published in Siggraph Visual Proceedings, John Grimes and Gray Lorig, Editors (New York: ACM, 1992), pp. 47-57
3. Hubert. L Dreyfus, Telepistemology: Descartes Last Stand. Published in Robot in the Garden, Telerobotics and Telepistemology in the Age of the Internet . Edited by Ken goldberg (MIT Press 2001)
4. Catherine Wilson, Vicariousness and Authenticity. Published in Robot in the Garden, Telerobotics and Telepistemology in the Age of the Internet . Edited by Ken goldberg (MIT Press 2001)
5. Hubert. L Dreyfus, Telepistemology: Descartes Last Stand. Published in Robot in the Garden, Telerobotics and Telepistemology in the Age of the Internet . Edited by Ken goldberg (MIT Press 2001)
6. Rene Descartes, "Meditations on first Philosophy", Descartes: Philosophical Writings, ed. and trans. Norman Kemp Smith (Modern Library, 1958)
7. E.M. Forster, The Machine Stops. First published in the Oxford and Cambridge Review (1909)
8. ibid