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ISEA 2008: Sourcing Water, Gendered Loitering
Regine Debatty, 29 Jul 08

Born 20 years ago, ISEA, the International Symposium on Electronic Art has the objective of discussing and showcasing creative productions that apply new technologies in interactive and digital media. While i'm spending my last hours in quiet and sweaty Turin, Brisbane-based artist Priscilla Bracks is in Singapore because that's where ISEA takes place this year.

She kindly wrote this report from the main exhibition, AIR (Artists In Residence):

The juried show features 16 works arising out of a 3 month residency each selected artist undertook in Singapore, working collaboratively with local organizations.

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Images Priscilla Bracks

Finally, We Hear One Another is a work by Kelly Jaclynn Andres that enables people to experience each other's soundscapes. Collaborating with the Mixed Reality Lab, Kelly made bonnet's fitted with a speaker and an extra 'ear' - a cone at the back of the bonnet that funnels sound to a microphone embedded in the fabric. Signals are transmitted to a speaker in the bonnet of a partner user, via mobile telephone blue tooth. This is a really cute idea that could - for a moment - draw users out of our regular ocular-centric approach to the world (though I would really have like the volume on my speaker to be louder as it was difficult to hear the sounds over the input of my own sonic environment. We can often readily remember things that we see, events that happen, or even the tastes of food, but how often can we recall sounds that we experience, beyond those deliberately injected into the soundscape such as music or words?

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Images Priscilla Bracks

Run Silent; Run Deep by Nigel Helyer (UK/Australia) & Daniel Woo (Australia) collaborating with the Marine Mammal Research Laboratory, provides an 'audio portrait' of Singapore - in particular the area around the harbour. The interface of this work enables you to move through a stylized 'map' of the city, listening to sound recordings made using hydrophones in areas corresponding to coloured circles on the map. Surround sound in the installation space, gives the sense of a 3 dimensional map, and hand drawn images laid over the map gives it cartographic feel.

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Images Priscilla Bracks

To create DIY GORI: seed_1216976400, Jee Hyun Oh (South Korea) collaborated with the Laboratory of Control and Mechatronics. The work focuses on the open source culture of the internet, and experiments with the idea that 'objects exist as evolving pieces of digital data in cyberspace where they are continually remixed by users.' To create the work, the artist selected the word 'Gori' - which in Koean means 'open hook' or the fastening and loosening of human relationships - and planted it as a 'seed' on the internet by posting the word and details of the project on a wiki. The word was then propagated on various sites. The many instances of its use on web pages was then printed on rolled corrugated for display in the gallery. The visual effect of the card is reminiscent of rolls of paper, and more conventional means of storing information.

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Image Priscilla Bracks

Quartet by Tad Ermintano collaborating with HOMEVR at the Institute for Infocomm Research is an interactive quartet of instruments which are played by the audience acting as orchestral conductors. 4 video screens and photo-sensors are mounted above beautifully crafted traditional instruments. An audience member standing in front of the work is seen by photo sensors that trigger the conversion of their movements into sound.

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Image Priscilla Bracks

Aurora Consergens (2008) is a collaboration between Hora Cosmin Samoila, Marie Christine Driesen and the Mixed Reality Lab. Gorgeous patterns are created on a video screen from visualizations of electro-magnetic energy given off by audience members wearing head sensing gear. I spent a long time playing with this artwork and found that the patterns do actually change radically, as I thought of different things. I was told that it works better with two people, so I sat with artist Clea Waites and we tried to think of similar things at the same time. The finer patterns apparently come from detecting the brain's alpha waves, and funnily enough thoughts about the beauty of the patterns, and other beautiful things like trees and sex, seemed to generate clear, defined, unusual patterns, which the attendant remarked he had not yet seen generated by other users of the work. At other times patterns ranged from noise to bigger less defined patterns.

There were a couple of works in the show dealing with water as their subject matter. One might be forgiven for thinking that has something to do with the fact that it rains all the time here, and the assumption is that water must therefore, be plentiful. But in truth water is as scarce here in Singapore as it is an many more arid parts of the world. A huge percentage of the water used is recycled back into drinking water, but much of the new water released into the drinking supply, is imported from Malaysia. Whilst there are a few storage reservoirs, Singapore simply does not have enough room for a centralized water catchment area, and tanks are built into apartments (though I have seen it done in Brisbane where I usually live).

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Images Priscilla Bracks

The Sourcing Water project by Shiho Fukurara, Georg Tremmel and Yousuke Nagao in collaboration with the Singapore-Delft Water Alliance looks at the ancient practice of dowsing to find water across the island. Dowsing is a practice of using a forked rod (usually wooden) to find underground water. A dowser walks around with the rod which responds by tilting up or down if water is present (in response to magnetic energy). In this work the dowsing rods were enhanced with GPS and motion sensors, with a view to collecting data and creating a map of potential water sources. This map, and other interesting visualizations of data relating to Singapore were presented as a video projected map laid over a three dimensional plinth in the shape of Singapore island. However, the artists were not able to make any findings about the scientific validity of dowsing as they discovered that all maps of Singapore's ground water are 'classified' documents which authorities weren't able to release.

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Image Priscilla Bracks

Clea White's The Water Book: An encyclopedia of water, looks at all water's properties both creative and destructive. The artwork is an interactive film installation where words relating to water are projected through a tank of water. This projection changes as people touch the water's surface. The effect is visually beautiful as the light streams through the water and up onto the darkened ceiling above the tank. Even the ripples on the water surface caused by touching can be seen in these reflections, and on a screen projection also in the gallery space. This clever use of light transforms a tank of water - a substance often taken for granted and rarely considered in an aesthetic sense - into a precious object of beauty.

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The Eastwood - Real Time Strategy Group (Vladan Joler and Kristian Lukuc) have created another modification of the commercial version of the game Civilization. In this work, Civilization V, game play centres around the contemporary dream story of building a technology company empire. Players choose their company and instead of warriors and generals, employ CEOs and lawyers to build an army to win the war for market-share dominance.

The work critiques the use of affective labour by gaming companies and social networking sites, to produce profit for shareholders without any real benefit to the creator/user. These concepts are brought to the fore in the games various interface options such as Advisors where you can build your company's proficiency in Folksonomy (the art of classifying people into demographics), Viral Marketing, and Love Bombing (heaping love onto new members of a social group ( a technique most often associated with religious cults that is now used increasingly in social networking web forums.

The underlying code and logic of this game is the same as the original commercial version so the underlying strategy remains essentially the same: find the resources in the economy that make you successful. However unlike the original game these resources go beyond the obvious to include resources of the new economy such as loneliness, depression and boredom, which are a key to the popularity of social networking sites. This version was completed just 11 days ago so it's not yet available for download, but I'm told that it will be available from www.eastwood-gropu.com within a week or so.

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Another great work in the show is Gendered Strategies for Loitering by Shilpa Phadke, Shilpa Ranade and Sameera Khan. This work features dual video screen images, a game and a sound recording of the artists discussing the differences between women's freedom to loiter in Singapore and Mumbai. I felt the sound recording was actually the best part of this work as the artist's discussion prompted me see a gendered approach to being in public space I had never thought about before. Their basic premise was that in Mumbai whilst men regularly loitered in café's, on the street etc, smoking, chatting and enjoying the act of doing nothing, women were generally denied this pleasure because a woman seen to be doing nothing in public was viewed suspiciously, or worse, as a prostitute. This attitude I think speaks volumes of the objectification of women when a women cannot simply 'hang out' without casting doubt upon her respectability. To be in public, women must be seen to be moving with a purpose. Ie she should have some reason for being there. So if a woman is waiting for a friend on the street, she would stand at a bus stop and not on the street corner, to clearly demonstrate she is waiting for something. The artists contrast this with loitering behaviour in Singapore which is apparently gender neutral. The difference in Singapore they say, is that no-one loiters. Everyone must have a purpose and move about the city in a very defined, well regulated way. Extra cold air pours out of ducts above the entrances to railway stations to discourage loitering at the doors. Little footprints painted on paths direct on which side one should walk. Even foreigners living in the city who have a culture of loitering, do so in regulated way - the Indonesians gathering in City Plaza on a Sunday, the Indian and Tamil constructions workers in Little India on a Sunday. I actually experienced this work on a Sunday and went out to Little India to test the theory. Though the streets were a sea of humanity, I was one of only 4 women I saw walking around Little India that evening - an uncomfortable, but revealing experience.

Thanks Priscilla!

AIR (Artists In Residence) runs at the National Museum of Singapore, through 3 August, 2008.

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