Fiona McIntosh guest blogs on her entry into the realm of pure research and the future of imaging at iCinema… I entered the twilight zone, or that is what it felt like. I knew about iCinema at UNSW but hadn’t had the pleasure of being properly inducted. Last week was my chance. There was an opportunity to view 2 projects: T-Visionarium and Scenario, both by artist/academic Dennis Del Favero.
Del Favero is based at COFA UNSW, as Director of iCinema. COFA is College of Fine Arts which is a faculty of UNSW and iCinema falls within the research arm of COFA: NIEA – the National Institute for Experimental Art. Universities are about research and NIEA is art as research, rather than decoration, technique or concept. It is experimental art with relevance and applicability to a broader contemporary and future world. The other research groups within NIEA cover fairly broad physical and conceptual territories which are most pressing in our contemporary world. Each research group devises and oversees projects which focus on creative solutions to, for example, urban environments (Porosity Studio), public art and design and its relationship to urban design and environments (Holography Lab); alternative energy systems via electronic technologies (Environmental Research Initiative for Art); the development of creativerobotics (Creative Robotics Lab); medical imaging (3D Visualisations Aesthetics Lab) and a think tank which brings together art and cultural theorists, artists and curators to respond to issues around the contemporary global political climate (Contemporary Culture, Art and Politics). In other words, NIEA is about the power of creativity in all its forms to pave a way for positive change. Powerful and out there sort of stuff, but how real and relevant it is, is the question. iCinema’s full name is The iCinema Centre for Interactive Cinema Research. It was established in 2002 (in the digital dinosaur age) and is a joint venture between COFA and Faculty of Engineering at UNSW. And here is what is exciting: iCinema brings together researchers and postgraduate students in new media, aesthetics, cinematic theory, multimedia design, computer science, cognitive science, software/hardware engineering and robotics. It is cinema in 360deg, with digital technologies which enable punters to be more than passive viewers and experience and interact with the screens to create stories and scenarios, be they real, virtual or imagined. It is not easy to get your head into or around it: it is mind-bending stuff. I don’t do underground dark spaces and thank goodness that was not what I had been invited to. It was a circular and yes, darkened room, open to a small number of people at a time (limited to the number of 3D glasses available at the time), to experience an alternative way to watch the telly. T-Visionarium is interactive and immersive and gives the viewer an opportunity to watch an existing pre-recorded database of TV programs, in a completely different way. This is where a possible future for TV is suggested. What was on offer was not the typical soapie with a beginning/middle/ end, rather a plethora of videos and stills which could be clustered according to whatever associative categories the algorithms can come up with: in this case, predominant colour of background, movement or gender of figures. The viewer takes the lead in what to watch and how to watch it, rather than being spoon fed the story. It begs the question of why you would want to watch a combination of, say, men running across a field of green, as a combination of videos rather than an existing Channel 4 bodice-ripping bonnet drama. The idea is that you have the opportunity to create your own version of events, your own story. You can create your own current affairs, music channel, even toy with your own version of a bonnet drama and edit in and out only those bits which you find relevant and interesting. Surely this is not far off with providers replacing broadcasters who will stream data which you will filter and sift through, at random, to look, listen and possibly learn. The key difference though, is that the streamed data is generally a finished production; with the ideas around T-Visionarium, you become writer, editor and producer. But what happens to your world view if you only choose to take in what you think is important? Many would say we live in this world already with the duopoly of political and media power bases (in this country particularly) only presenting set opinions and polarised views. And given the amount of information we are already exposed to and which we already sift through to suit ourselves, this is already happening. T-Visionarium presents a sophisticated next step with a higher level of interaction and engagement. Technology for monitors and screens is being developed (at the moment apparently by Google) so that viewing can exist in a personal space in the round, with sound and images seen on screens simultaneously from in front, behind, above and below.
But in the meantime, at various locations and times, you can experience this, in its experimental format, at iCinema. Scenario was the 2nd presentation at iCinema. This is more a digital art installation by Del Favoro, rather than more technology research. To go from the clinical, organised/ disorganised experience of T- Visionarium to Scenario was quite extraordinary as the latter offered me a better understanding of the potential for this technology. Scenario was premiered at the Sydney Film Festival in 2011. The title is a Commedia dell’Arte term, which refers to how dramatic action is dependent on the way actors and audience interact. This idea of interaction is at the core of this film/ art experience. The images on the screens around the room take us to a place of evil darkness, in which a dismembered baby whispers to us – the group of random viewers – to save it. There is a story to this, reminiscent of a gruesome fairy tale, which was written by playwright Stephen Sewell. The gruesome becomes extreme when I learnt that the story is based on the atrocious Fritzl case, in which an Austrian father held his daughter captive for 2 decades in a dungeon, fathering children with her and then killing a number of them. The stuff of nightmares. Each viewer wears the 3D glasses which pull the humanoid images and dismembered baby closely into each one’s personal space. It is dark and ‘rains’ down on us; it also ‘snows’ on and around us; no sunshine here. There is an eerie whispering which surrounds you and which escalates the suspense and disorientation. We, as individuals and as a group, were given a task: we had to save the baby and right the wrong, triumph over the evil. We are dependent on each other and must work together to save the day. There are no seats, we are walking around, talking to each other, with our bodies somehow interacting with the images on the screen, to make the story happen, to find the happy ending. We find the bits of the body and return them to the gigantic baby and yes, it is saved. It was an all-consuming experience and that we triumphed, left us satisfied. I guess any other ending would have been traumatic for a more sensitive soul.
iCinema has credible commercial applications beyond those of the art or film world. It has been adopted by mining companies as a training tool for instance, to allow simulations of real mining environments to teach miners how to navigate through the mine, operate equipment in them and generally, become completely familiar with the environment – without heading underground. Dennis del Favero has been working as photographic, video and new media artist and academic since the mid 1980’s. His work in all its forms continues to explore memory, particularly those memories which linger just below the surface; memories which continue to shape the present and those memories of trauma which haunt our present. His credentials as both artist and academic are impressive. He has been awarded numerous Artist-in-Residencies and Fellowships, including an Artist-in-Residence at ZKM, Karlsruhe (since 2000) and an Australian Research Council Queen Elizabeth II Fellowship (2005-2010). He is now Chair and Co-Director of the iCinema and Associate Professor at UNSW. With his other practising artist hat on, Del Favero has an exhibition Firewallat William Wright Artists Projects in East Sydney. It is an ambitious digital media installation which has transformed an elegantly white, light filled small terrace/ gallery, into a series of foreboding dark almost inifinite spaces with projections which take you beyond the room and day-to-day. Firewall is an exploration into the concept of doors, in 4 parts and how doors are the thresholds into other worlds, real or imagined. It sounds simple but the ‘doors’ he chooses open onto worldly scenarios which are at once, conceptual, physical and imagined.
“[The four scenarios] are the vaporous upper atmosphere, the cloud cover of the lower atmosphere, the corridors of the basement killer and the walls behind which we lead our lives.” Stephanie Hemelryk-Donald, catalogue essay, 2014
Beginning at the beginning of the multi levelled and layered experience, I enter the gallery and acquaint myself with the first projection via a small slide viewer. Cassandra (the prophetess doomed to be disbelieved) is this first projection: a whispery voice-over narrates the passageway of a female figure as she moves nervously through deserted underground corridors and storerooms, into basement, gates and doors opening and closing around her. I feel the figure is not safe, by the way she moves, the places she moves within and by the whispery voice which speaks of death and lurking threats. Discomfort and suspense coil within me. I step away. Alongside this projection is Dolomites which is a series of black & white photos of doors in Venice. This is a point in which to catch your breath and consider the beauty of the photographs, the uselessness of these doors, none of which can be accessed, opened or closed, and dream of recent times in Venice. Ready again, I move into the next room, via a door/curtain, which is completely dark. In the centre of the room is a sloping crooked staircase which takes you nowhere, just up. It is like a stage setting but one which is unsettling, almost like a silent, eerie Coney Island. At the top, I turn around. Descartes is not an unfamiliar view –I am now 3kms above sea level, wafting along the top of the clouds. We’ve all experienced the top of the clouds from the safety of the plane and relished the idea of floating along on top of them. But this image is larger, black & white and I am alone, without the comfort or pleasant distractions of a plane interior. The familiar becomes unfamiliar.
Onwards and upwards to Lenz. I head carefully down the crooked stairs of Descartes and up to the top floor. Another curtain door, another darkened room, though this time with a circular projection on the floor. I have to climb another set of stairs – claustrophobia & vertigo aside – and stand atop looking down. Lenz is a number of things but also a novella fragment written by Georg Büchner in Strasbourg in 1836. “The voice … echoes the lost madman of the mountains, Georg Büchner’s Lenz, looking for comfort in the remote vastness of snow bound idyll …..” Stephanie Hemelryk-Donald, 2014 Here I am, now 33,000kms above the earth looking down – no oxygen, no safety harness and no hands – just me and my imagination. The circular floor screen is a projection of a swirling mass of cloud, not the fluffy cumulus kind but a maelstrom of whipping cloud tails and swirls, which cover the earth completely. After a while, with no other references, the mass becomes ambiguous, and takes on an almost visceral feel. It could be as expansive as looking down from 33,000kms or as finite as peering deep into a channel in the body, as fluid pumps through it. I wondered what would happen if I stepped off the platform into the imaginary abyss …. Del Favero toys with the power of the image and its presentation to intensify and distort emotion. My own foibles bubble to the surface to shape how I see and respond to these controlled scenarios. Then it is back to reality: back downstairs (safely) and an interesting chat with Gallery directors Bill Wright and Hilarie Mais and the artist, Dennis del Favero. Then the front door opens and the streets of East Sydney are revealed.