Intersubjective Engagements Via Media ArtIntersubjective Engagements Via Media Art

An essay written for press pack for Playware exhibition held at Laboral, Asturias, Spain

Dr. Henrik Ehrsson (1), a researcher at University College London’s, Institute of Neurology, claims to have induced ‘Out Of Body’ experiences in volunteers under laboratory conditions this August, for the first time. Using head-mounted displays, participants watched real-time film recorded by two video cameras located behind them. The image from the left video camera transmitted to the left-eye display and the image from the right camera to the right-eye display. The stereoscopic image that the participants saw created the illusion for them of seeing their own back, displayed from the perspective of someone sitting behind them. Ehrsson argues that in these experiments, the participants' perception of self shifts from the first person, to a position outside of the corporeal. While the study seems not to question notions of individual subjectivity, it does at least posit alternative spaces within which this might exist. Artists have for some time, been creating and exploring spaces for intersubjectivity. Enabled by networked technology and informed by the cultural of gaming, much of this work seeks active collaborations with its audience.

Debate has been raging online (2) about Ehrsson’s research. There have been discussions about what the nature of this simulation is, questions as to whether it replicates or simulates an OBE. There have been further disputes about whether OBE’s can be classified as, religious, psychological, physiological, or some other phenomena. The research team themselves have resurrected the topic of virtual reality and ponder on the implications of their work for gaming. While science often attempts to explain particular phenomena by ascribing functions to them, there is a developing artistic practice, which seeks an affective engagement with its audiences. This work asks us to consider perceptions of self and to explore social relations. The OBE experiment as described by Dr. Ehrsson is a perceptual illusion, induced by external stimuli. Artists are increasingly playing with technology, using it to create metaphors for social relationships, creating systems of communication and asking their audiences to make new connections in new spaces with other users, through human-to-computer and group interaction, to conceptualise new ideas of agency.

Playware is Laboral’s follow-up exhibition to Gameworld, and is curated by Gerfried Stocker; Director, Ars Electronica, Lintz, and Carl Goodman; Deputy Director and Director of Digital Media, Museum of the Moving Image, New York. The exhibition examines the intersection between gaming and art and foregrounds a rich seam of creativity that explores our relationships with one another and questions how these are being transformed by networked technology and gaming culture. Eight installed artworks that reference gaming and gaming culture will be exhibited alongside twelve ‘art games’. The exhibition reveals a series of connections and influences across this increasingly blurred intersection: highly engaging and accessible to a wide range of audiences, the works seek affective and kinaesthetic encounters.

Bump, by Assocreation, is one such artwork and consists of two interactive pavements sited at remote locations and networked together. For Playware the intention is to use the work to connect Laboral with the nearby city of Gijon. Pressure created by the footsteps of passers-by on each interactive pavement is relayed to the alternate site. Pneumatic pistons within the walkways then produce a disembodied 'bump', this rise in the pavement mirrors, or recreates in reverse, the pressure of the original footfall. These physical connections made between disparate locations disrupt the normal pedestrian flow. As people become aware of another thoroughfare networked to their own, they are forced to engage with and consider these remote others. They must either renegotiate their route accordingly or have their passage dislocated by this intangible interchange.

Freqtric Project by Tetsuaki Baba similarly creates a setting for physical, ‘body-to-body’ communication. Physical contact between users’ skin, the touch of one hand against another, triggers the sound of a drumbeat. Freqtric Project comes in several versions and among these are Freqtric Drums and Freqtric Drums Home. Freqtric Drums enables users connected to the work to become a drum-kit for an individual player. With Freqtric Drums Home, four users hold a large puck like device in one hand with their free hand they engage with one another in playground style clapping games, and in so doing create complex drum patterns. The works require audience members to overcome their aversions to physical contact with others, and rewards this newfound physicality, by providing a collaborative space for public music making.

Toshio Iwai is an artist famous for creating just such spaces; a previous work Resonance of 4 opened up to public scrutiny the act of social collaboration within a gallery setting. Resonance of 4 combined the creation and performance of music in a simple interface, technologically enabled communication and collaboration being the work’s subject. Electroplankton is a ‘game’ that will be exhibited in Playware the ‘aim’ of which is to create music through the manipulation of tiny sea creatures. Iwai designed Electroplankton for the Nintendo DS platform. It was released last year and develops further many of the concepts he first considered with Resonance of 4. Using a highly visual interface, gamers are able to create and play self styled musical compositions.

Electroplankton sits clearly within the Playware exhibition at the very intersection of art and games. Toshio Iwai has designed a game that has gained a commercial release, but which also questions what gaming is. Other games exhibited in Playware, such as flOw by thatgamecompanny and mono by Binary Zoo follow this lead and extend the boundaries of gaming beyond traditional notions of adversarial competition. Iwai’s work is an influence on and is referenced by other installed exhibits, works such as Reactible by Dr. Sergi Jordà and the Interactive Sonic Systems team at the University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona and Iamascope by Sidney Fels. Both these works create spaces for the creation of music through their audiences’ physical engagements, with the works and with one another.

Metafeild Maze by Bill Keays continues this theme and asks its audience to take physical control over a room sized, projected version of the traditional 'marble maze' game. The tilt board takes on human dimensions as participants’ movements across the projection tip the virtual game and steer a projected marble around the board. The interaction is immersive; user, interface and work joining seamlessly. With these projects, interfaces disappear as participants engage physically with the works and become integral to them. Could we describe these experiences as ‘out of body’?

Rather than prompting reactions to optical stimulation, many of the works in Playware ask that we meet them halfway and respond to their provocations and engage in a playful exchange. Toshio Iwai is interested in how his work falls between the virtual and the physical. For him while installations have physical weight and temperature “sound and light we cannot touch” (3). Playware is a highly engaging exhibition, often requiring audience members to use their sense of touch. In so doing, they will affectively experience an altering of their perceptions of creativity, communication, and collaboration.


Accessed 9th September 2007
Accessed 9th September 2007
3) As stated by Iwai at the launch of the Tenori-On musical instrument,
4th September 2007 at Phonica Records, London.