Design And Performance Lab

Johannes Birringer, Klaus Behringer, Uschi Schmidt-Lenhard (edtors)

 

Wechselwirkung

Internationales Interaktionslabor, Goettelborn


Interaktionslabor proudly announces the publication on July 1, 2004, of its first book-catalogue, Wechselwirkung: Internationales Interaktionslabor (in german/english), the first in a series of research catalogues with illustrations of the lab process.

 

For this who have not visited the Lab, please go to Interaktionslabor

 

To give the readers an introduction to the contents of the book and the issue it will treat, we publish below the report on the first international lab held at the former coalmine.

 

Interaktionslabor Göttelborn initiates new research venture at former coal mine in the Saarland

A Report

An international laboratory on interactive media convened at the former Coal Mine Göttelborn in the Saarland, Germany, from July 1 to 14, 2003.

On the concluding weekend, the work of 20 artists and technologists was exhibited during late night performance-installations in four different buildings in the pit; during the day, guided tours through the laboratory were offered to the public.

German-American choreographer Johannes Birringer had designed the interdisciplinary fabric and philosophy of the Lab for the Industriekultur Saar (IKS), a regional commission which oversees the infrastructural redevelopment of the Mine. The Waag Society (Amsterdam) joined as a partner, and other regional high tech firms provided equipment and technical assistance. Choreographers, musicians, composers, architects, media and network artists from four different continents arrived to set up shop in the Schwarz-Weisskaue, one of the largest and most unusual buildings on site, formerly used as dressing-washing room (first and second floor) and central office (third floor) of the Mining Company and the 5000 coal miners who worked here for many decades.

The Site:

Mining in the area of Goettelborn is documented since 1446, but the actual systematic development of coal mining, the building of the technical facilities, occurred during the height of the industrial revolution, circa 1887, under the Prussian government. During that time the miners' dwellings, in the village of Göttelborn, were also built. The whole area has the look of countryside, with luscious trees, pastures, interspersed with the mining area and slag heaps, and a new power plant built there in the 60s, its smoking chimney widely visible. In 1995 the Mine added the new white tower (Shaft IV), with its colossal pyramidal framework considered the tallest mining tower in Europe. Paradoxically, the mine closed a few years later when coal was no longer considered profitable. In 1995, there were still about 4200 workers on location. IKS director Karl Kleineberg administers the "future" of the site and the research into the sustainability of regional industrial culture; he sees the vacant site as a 'town' with an urban topography.

The Laboratory

The Laboratory was designed to help initiate the re-utilization and conversion of the abandoned site which now anticipates economic and architectural development. The role of new media/technology is considered vital in this changing landscape of industrial culture. The Lab sees itself as an innovative platform for integrated research projects in media arts and technologies, with a special focus on interactive interfaces and telecommunications. On the one hand, the Lab team knew that it had gathered under non-familiar circumstances, on a site filled with heavy machinery and still guarded by the Mining Company which is responsible for security and the decontamination and dismantling of the engines and extraction equipment. The team used the first days to familiarize itself with the environment, the Mine's engineering history, and its own task of setting up laboratory conditions under which it could establish Goettelborn as a test-site for several networked performance, sound recording, and film projects, and as a "shop" for building interactive wireless sensor applications to be presented to the public during the visitors' days. On the other hand, the simultaneous presence of the Schichtwechsel Festival, a regional organization which had programmed a theatre touring production to take place at the Mine, raised interesting questions about the role of artists using the industrial ambience as backdrop for spectacle-entertainment. The Lab defined its role mainly as research-oriented, while also seeking to establish connections with the community to find out how software and media applications could be used to motivate and inspire new ideas for creative infrastructure-development.

The work phases:

1. Workshops During the first 10 days, the group held daily workshops during which members shared their diverse practices, methodologies and current project-ideas for collaboration. Jim Ruxton and Jeff Mann, for example, offered workshops on sensor technology and micropocessors. Arri Keesmaat demonstrated the Keyworx real-time multiuser platform after installing a local server. Kelli Dipple introduced her work in network technologies and telepresence performance, and Paulo C. Chagas suggested creating an interactive soundwork based on texts and recorded voices from the group. Orm Finnendahl demonstrated the PD patch on his Linux system which he had prepared for real-time processing of recorded sound on the site. Alan Smith showed films from his previous work in the lead mines in Northumberland and emphasized the need for poetic encounters with historical residue.

2. Site Work

On any given day, members went on excursions into the mine to gather materials, record sounds and shoot film, to extract information and to examine the architecture and topography of the mine as a resource and inspiration for new ideas. Alan Smith and Kelli Dipple shot and edited several short films on location, and both Marija Stamenkovic and Koala Yip created dance performances that were filmed on the roof of one of massive concrete buildings (the sinking pond). Webcams were set up, and a digital archive and website developed and updated every day (http://www.iks-saar.net). Affiliations were made with several cultural locations in the region, including the Stadtgalerie, the children's museum (Saarlandmuseum), and the K4 Forum in Saarbruecken, the regional capital. Klaus Friedrich, a graphic artist from the region who joined the lab, volunteered to create an "outpost" in the K4 Forum, installing videos and photographic collages from the lab process as well as setting up a network connection. The Lab also communicated with the Schichtwechsel Festival, the non-profit organization which produces theatre, dance and music concerts in former industrial plants.

3. Team-work and Programming The creative energy of the Lab resided to a large degree in the fortuitous combination of transdisciplinary knowledge and expertise brought together for the common good by participants who came from very different backgrounds and brought their artistic techniques, cultural and linguistic sensibilities, and many suitcases full of tools. Very soon smaller teams found themselves and worked together on specific investigations; there was space for individual ideas and pursuits but the full group always adhered to a common ethos of collaboration. During the daily meetings it was decided to develop three or four interactive media scenarios on the basis of architectural sketches, design plans and programming carried out on site. Convergences between the various interface scenarios were examined, and locations sought out for the public installation of these scenarios.

4. Outreach

The Lab did not seek to operate in isolation or as a private enterprise nor rely on the media and press to broadcast its presence. As a new venture it lacked staff support, organizational and other logistical infrastructure (there were no phones, and no water or electricity in some of the buildings), but it tried to define a public function for its operation, and to communicate its open-source work to the community. We had cell phones and network access. Camille Turner led the effort to establish connections to the local population, to invite citizens to visit, and to start a dialogue. She used the performance of a character ("Miss Canadiana") as a tactic to participate in a local village festival, bringing gifts to the children and inviting the villagers to be photographed and interviewed with the fictitious beauty queen. The interviews focussed on the local people’s ideas and hopes for the future of their community. The large contingent of Canadians in the Lab team was due to the fact that Birringer had presented a short preview feature on the Mine project at Subtle Technologies (Toronto), the unique arts and science conference organized annually by Jim Ruxton. The Interaktionslabor followed the integrative principle of Subtle Technologies but provided a small transdisciplinary factory for interactive tools in art and everyday life. The guided tours on the final weekend were held to demonstrate to the visitors how the lab team had tested new media applications (data archives, wireless sensors, mobile computers, telepresence, interactive real-time processing systems involving sensors and motion tracking, etc) and the relations between new media and everyday life. The team asked itself how such applications can be made accessible to users in sensual and attractive ways, and how interactive media can become exciting, creative learning tools in education. A class of 14-year-olds from a high school nearby was invited to visit the lab and get a first-hand look at the tools.

 

The Results

 

The Interaktionslabor proceeded to explore three areas of research: communication technologies, interactive media, virtual environments. The urban architecture of the Mine became the material source for interactions defining Göttelborn as a transitory space: the location was treated – with regard to sustainability research - neither as something to be preserved (museum of industrial culture), nor as a theatrical setting for festival entertainment, but rather as an open place of transformation processes. A laboratory mediates knowledge processes that can be used in other areas of training. This transferability is particularly meaningful in view of new communications strategies that involve internet, video and cellular conferencing technologies and wearable computing. They have an impact on new concepts of urbanity, life styles and mobility, and they offer a perspective for the younger generations growing up in the region.. A study of networked environments takes up questions implicitly raised by the IKS and its search for investments into new infrastructures. In a basic sense, the lab provided a workshop for skilled labor and artisanship, it converted existing spaces, generated stories, images, sound(radio broadcast), hardware and software design and network solutions. The team moved around a lot, dancing, making music, scavenging, constructing.

Canadian artist Jeff Mann, for example, constructed a special antenna that enabled wireless access from the top of the Tower, Shaft IV. From that towering vantage point he was able to send a video stream to Sher Doruff (Waag Society, Amsterdam) who created a Keyworx configuration that displayed the images from Jeff's camera mixed with an audio visualization of their conversation on walkie-talkies. Queries from the audience, communicated via text messaging from Blackberry PDA's set-up by Renn Scott and chalk drawings made by visitors on the pavement were further displayed in the image mix in the Winding Engine Building. The Interaktionslabor thus challenges the restructuring plans of the IKS. Investment or the creation of new jobs can not only mean the importation of artistic product into the abandoned industrial facility or the leasing of real estate. Interactivity means setting in motion, programming a sensitive interface and an active space that requires agency to generate new realities. Interactive media art here implies above all performative processes that involve communicative action with different resonances in public and social environments, in the sense of that interaction is social process requiring feedback, and design is the invention of new cultural interfaces. Interaktionslabor, Inc.,could function as a company. It could develop the already emerging partnerships within the team (between the WAAG Society for Old and New Media, Amsterdam, REM in Toronto, the blueLab in Dresden, Nottingham Trent University's Live Art program, etc) as well as with partners found in the region and the Goettelborn community. Such a network creates practical alliances between art, science, technology and the life world, not satisfied with the short-term magic of theatre in abandoned factories, but dedicated to long term research in active media applications.

 

The Performance

How are we to view the late night performance, then? It might be best to call it a "virtual environment," a hybrid installation displaying the potential of creative media design through demonstrations and performances, through play and chat, through participation. The demonstration would not have been possible without the chemistry that existed between the artists who had come here from many different backgrounds and countries (Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, England, Spain, Canada, the US, Latin America and China). What connected everyone was a shared interest in creativity and critical thinking, interface development and tinkering, and a passion for discovering resonant dimensions in the social interface arising from real-time virtual environments that connect bodies and sensory technologies. Finally: some examples from the late night performance which aroused the positive reactions of the public: some audience members returned the next day to take a closer look at the interface design and express their interest in the continuance of the Lab.

Architect-performer Marion Traenkle had reshaped the 10 “cells” of the Schwarzkaue (the 70 meter long south dressing room) into different “apartments”, available for different purposes and to be used by the audience in their encounter with cameras, sensors, monitors and objects (found or newly constructed). Most of these objects invited the audience to rely on trusted perceptional mechanisms, involving various aspects of story-telling, photographs and videos functioning as an archive of the physical interfaces between lab team and local population. Traenkle had also designed a “discussion table”, with interactive apples, which solicited questions, when touched, about the future of Göttelborn, and Julia Baur had built a memory game-table out of her photographs from the site, hinting at the imaginative and playful use (for leisure time activities, inline skating, etc) of the large open areas on the south side of the pit.

Jim Ruxton had helped Tränkle and others to construct the different sensors and microprocessors which were used in the building, including those for the “glowing soap” in the dark washrooms, which “spoke” to the visitors if someone stepped through the ultrasonic beam. In this building we used all the sensing devices commonly used for interactive design: haptic sensors (pressure, touch, flex, and proximity), non-haptic sensors (distance sensors such as ultrasound), and microphones. In the Weisskaue (the north dressing room), composer Orm Finnendahl used the entire space as a gigantic "sound production room", suggesting to the visitors that they could generate the sounds (recorded via microphones) themselves which were then processed by the computer in real-time and spatially distributed via an 8-channel speaker system. Two dancers, Koala Yip and Marlon Barrios Solano, then performed a movement improvisation with sensors that demonstrated how sound textures could be dynamically developed in new and surprising manifestations.

During discussions with the audience, Yip referred to the physical interactive experience and how movement feels in such a resonant and responsive space when each gesture can instantly alter the tonalities of sound and make moving clusters of music (in the psychoacoustic perception of space) seemingly appear in different parts of the building. She also pointed out that she did not rely on a choreography but explored the nature of such processual interactivity, which is its instability, emergence, and mutability in the present moment. Interactive dance, in this sense, is never merely a stimulus-and-response behavior, but a psychophysical and emotional experience which engages the entire body sensing system in motion, and in continuity, which creates layers upon layers of affect that of course cannot be measured by the sensors. For the audience, the intensity of these affects is experienceable as sensation, there is a synaesthetic and energetic exchange, and the emotional intensity of Koala’s and Marlon’s dance was of course heightened by the extraordinary setting, the thousands and thousands of steel baskets that hung empty and suspended in the air of the Kaue. The coal miners had used these baskets to store their clothes before going down to the shafts.

At the end of the south corridor, a small, intimate bathroom that had been used by the mining engineers was transformed into a silent installation by Marija Stamenkovic Herranz. Reflected on two sides by mirrors, a small video monitor sat on a rusty chair and showed the ghost-like appearance and disappearance of a woman walking a circular path around the “eye” or vortex of the sinking pond – the lowest point of the circular building where the water used for cleaning the coal dropped down into a pipeline. Marija’s video, "Do U C Me You," was a quiet but disorienting poem; shot with a webcam in grainy black and white, it had the look of overexposed film. The figure-ground relationship changed constantly insofar as we could never be sure how many Marijas we would see: doppelgänger images appeared suddenly and then faded away as the women in black silently enacted their ritual perambulations, like monks in some long-forgotten cloister.

A similar transformation, here in the sense of an ebbing and flowing momentum, was heard in the "Verlesesaal" (the reading room where miners received their daily task sheets). Brazilian composer Paulo C. Chagas had installed a layered composition of voices (4 channels) designed to change interactively when the audience would step into a specific area. Simultaneously, this portion of the ground came alive with projected text in an interactive design by Arjen Keesmaat. Words appeared on the surface, as if from nowhere (projected from above), and then faded away, and these words only became visible and grew larger depending on the velocity of movement by an audience member stepping into the purview of the infrared camera. This room displayed, in its quiet and even magical way (lit only in blue light) a kind of lunar cycle, a whispering night, mental maps and superpositions of possible communicative meanings, women's voices in several languages telling stories.

Before Chagas started the loopular program, a ritual poem performed by Camille Turner and addressed to Santa Barbara (patron saint of the Mine, Yoruba deity) in memory of her parents introduced a spiritual dimension which was altogether unexpected, by the lab team as well as the audience. Camille took everyone by surprise, except her special guests, a local men's choir she had befriended and invited to join her that night. The choir, steeped in local and European song tradition, responded to her poem by offering several songs in German, Russian, and Ukrainian, and interaction here gained cultural and social meanings that point beyond the technological interface design, perhaps to the sense of "transduction" as a collective process. As a "communication design", the song and the ritual repetition of Camille's rhythmic intonation of her poem functioned clearly as a collective cultural infrastructure, like a prayer for survival, a reminder of our mortality. The song also reminded us that even the newest electronica and digital sound are only an instrument like other cultural technologies.

The Verlesesaal became the poetic core of the evening, with saxophonist Hartmut Dorschner entering the space later on to play his acoustic instrument, after he had processed some digital samples of the sound of a creaking door earlier on, while Alan Smith projected a sequence of six short films he had composed of his personal interactions with the landscape and the found signage of the Mine (e.g. "Safety begins in the Head"; "Order is Safety", “Eve loves Professionals”, etc). His films were full of poignancy and humor. Near midnight the audience was guided further north along a quiet avenue to the winding engine building for the Tower (Shaft IV) where the final performance-installations took place. Renn Scott, who works as user experience architect for REM (Research in Motion) Company in Toronto, had brought several new Blackberrys (cellular computer telephones) to hand out to the audience, and the walk to the engine room turned into a navigational game and audience intercourse with the "Control Tower," where Jeff Mann sent SMS instructions to the users, inviting them to send messages back and carry out some activities at a particular location where the camera on the tower could capture them. The camera pics were then sent (via Apple airport) to the laptops, and by the time the audience entered the engine room the pictures from the game of the participants were ready to be processed...

The gigantic dark engine room received the public with an experimental arrangement that almost literally took their breath away, and I mean this in a visceral and vicarious sense. Upon entering a door leading to a staircase, the audience would glance down 30 or 40 feet to an empty space where one of the two winding engines of 10000 horsepower had stood, the remaining one now facing our "opera" auditorium, a deep resonance body, with the western wall serving as film screen. The collaborations between Lynn Lukkas/Mark Henrickson (Minneapolis)/Paul Smith(Bristol)/Marija Stamenkovic (Barcelona), Kelli Dipple (Australia) and Yip/Birringer/Barrios Solano pointed to other possibilities of the sensation-technology, emphasizing the interactivity between visual media and performance, corporeality, amplified sound and resonant space.

In the first interface environment, programmed by Lukkas, Smith, and Henrickson, the body's actions are measured not only as sound (via microphone), but rather as the most subtle variations in the biomechanics: the pulse, breath, and heart rhythm in the body itself (by means of a Bioradio attached with electrodes). The electrically measurable signals are transmitted wirelessly as data to the computer. There they change not only the sound processes in real time, but affect the rhythm of the image movement of the projected film sequences stored in the computer (via Macromedia Director and Max/Msp). Marija Stamenkovic Herranz performed this dance of breath, first improvising softly with extended vocal techniques as she descended the staircase in midst of the audience, then purely with heavily amplified breathing as she moved onto the flat plain of the engine room, and finally with her whole body and staccato voice as she propelled herself into a wild trance-like flurry of movement. Her voice crept under our skins, the resonating sound in the huge room entering through our pores and stomachs, and as we listened we realized how her breath controlled the image movement and thus the dramaturgy of the story. If Marija stops her breath, the film's motion freezes. When she breathes, we see her (on film) walk across the slack heap of the Mine, descending into a hollow path. Lynn had also filmed her movement outside differently in each section, the third one using a hyperactive zoom. In conjunction with Marija’s accelerated breathing, this final segment materialized as pure hyperkinetic sensation, transforming the entire space into a irregular pulsating bodymachine of continuously unfolding exhaustive (libidinal?) intensities.

A performance of this kind is hard to describe, but the spectrum of the evening demonstrated the variety of interactive interfaces (sound, image projection, body, voice, writing, acoustic space, wireless communication, etc) at the threshold between pure sensation and theatrical expression, where a performance dramaturgy and a poetics become anticipatable if one were to develop and structure a full work for presentation rather than an interactive installation for the audience-user. In the case of Marija's performance, her interaction of course was also with her own image (on film), and thus with a remembered movement-trajectory she had enacted outside.

Kelli Dipple, on the other hand, showed a short interactive improvisation (on the theme of "absence") with a triptych of Quicktime movies she had shot of herself in the Mine, and then invited the audience to join her and do the same, leaving something of themselves (as trace) in the space. In her films, she focused on the Mine as a space of disappearing bodies, and her treatment of the interface itself seemed to comment on the disappearing effect of programming that allows for randomness and certain kinds of recognition, not others. Her interface was set up with a video camera as input device for the interactive system (BigEye): it could see space and track motion and color. Her parameter defined dark colors as a "present body," and the dynamics of the movement decided which film of her disappearances we would see (and in which direction, forward or backward). Kelli’s “game,” which simultaneously involves spoken passages activated by certain gestures or movements, implicates the audience and thus potentially motivates and integrates its movement and the interpretation of the collective moment (someone is being disappeared from our midst). Perhaps it is possible to argue that such an interactive design animates the audience user to negotiate a game of relationship to the image, and to take responsibility.

Like Kelli, Birringer had also filmed in the Mine and created a 6-minute movement study of a dance by Koala Yip on the roof of the colossal sinking pond rotunda. Entitled "Oracle," the film was not shown in its edited form. Rather, Johannes asked Koala to question the Göttelborn oracle again in her native language. Her voice (via wireless microphone) then animated sections of the film in real time, processed in a Max/Msp/Jitter patch programmed by Marlon Barrios Solano. The algorithmic process translates Koala's voice into new digital objects -- distorted, pulsating, curved, exploding and shrinking picture-animations that bear little relation to the original dancefilm, even though one can still recognize Koala standing above her mirror reflection in the dark watery vortex of the sinking pond. The film became a virtual film; no predictions of the future were provided except the echoes of Koala’s vocal intonations pulling, stretching, and scratching the digital emulsion of the filmstrip.

 

The Interaktionslabor of course pointed its finger at the future and asked what kind of influence virtual environments might have on our imagination, and what intuitive associations people make with such technically mediated interactions. How can architectures of virtual image-sound-spaces emerge to form meaningful sensual experiences for social interaction, allowing us to recognize our bodily activity? How is the virtual felt? What relationships are forged between portable/mobile media and the persons who use them? How do relations between body and media develop into symbolic actions or interactive games which we understand as meaningful collective cultural behavior? What balances can we achieve between nature, industry, digital culture? Digital nature? With these questions in mind, the laboratory plans to continue its work and regroup next year, while strengthening the partnership with the IKS that has been initiated now. In order to develop continuity for the research in Göttelborn, Birringer and project coordinator Uschi Schmidt-Lenhard (Saarbruecken) have devised a long-term R&D plan that examines further convergences between media technologies and art education, learning systems and cognitive processes, design and ecology, science, sustainability studies and everyday life. The Interaktionslabor, Inc. will be available as a dialogue partner for firms and cultural organizations in the region; it will also serve as a network partner to interested parties elsewhere.