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Reflexiones sobre Performance, Cultura y Tecnología
Mayo 10-11, 2002 HyperMedia Studio, UCLA, Los Angeles

Part I


ReportRePerCute (Reflexions on Performance, Culture & Technology) set out with a clear goal in mind: to invite Latin American artists into a dialogue with practitioners in the U.S. in order to exchange concepts and ideas about new media technologies and the impact of the current technologized condition on our respective cultures.

The project, which took place at UCLA's HyperMedia Studio over the weekend of May 10-11, was initiated and organized by Fabian Wagmister (Program on Digital Cultures/ Latin American Center), with administrative assistance by Dara Gelof. Among the invited guests were several artists and researchers affiliated with the HyperMedia Studio (Jeff Burke, Jared Stein, Adam Shive, Eitan Mendolwitz, David Baudry, and Mariano Sardon [Buenos Aires]) or neighboring institutions (Vibeke Sorensen [USC]) who joined the visitors from Mexico (Tania Aedo), Argentina (Margarita Bali), and Brazil (Heitor Capuzzo, Renato Cohen, Bia Medeiros) in presentations of their work in progress.

Wagmister initially introduced a broad notion of "technological art" and performance process, suggesting that contemporary computer-based art has moved beyond our traditional understanding of the stage arts and visual arts. The computer, he noted, is a performance based machine, used not for the creation of objects but of live, dynamic aesthetic processes. This was clearly reflected in the most of the artists' presentations. While some of the practices still utilize dance or theatre forms and are derived from the presentational aesthetics in the performing arts, music, and film/video, most current work being produced with digital media follows new conceptual frameworks and tends to incorporate interactive software design, real-time signal processing, and sensing technologies. It is devised for installations and online telematic communications involving audience participation and feedback.

The first day of the international workshop was dedicated to the exploration of these processual dynamics of digital arts environments, with special emphasis on the specific cultural location of the producers. The Latin American artists in particular were asked to address the contexts in which they create, how they absorb digital technologies into their work, and how their experience of the world in their respective countries shapes the reception of cultural biases that are built into technologies generated in the First World. The evening concluded with a lively debate of the different levels of institutional support, funding and infrastructure, or lack thereof, that presently exist in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and other Latin American countries. Compared to the growing institutional and corporate support of new media arts in the major cities in Brazil or in Mexico City (e.g. the creation of the Centro Multimedia at Centro Nacional de las Artes), the extremely difficult economic situation in Argentina led to a more pessimistic assessment, and it was noted how the absence of digital arts programs at universities or the lack of understanding of the technical exhibition requirements for digital art in museums impedes the development of new technological art practices. While everyone agreed that technologies redefine us and what we are as human beings, no consensus could be found about cultural differences or similarities in the application of new media tools and softwares.

In discussing the issue of globalization with members of the audience who had attended the open meeting, Capuzzo and Wagmister strongly insisted on the necessity of a political viewpoint on homogenization and dependency. We need not only remember the history of technoscience, and why technologies of control, automation and computation were developed in the first place, but we should be aware of cultural biases built into hardware and software in order to then examine how every new tool generates tendencies/reactions within a culture and its embedded perceptions. Using technology means one cannot be independent, but artists can find and express positions within dependency.

The second day, which started off with Mariano Sardon's presentation of his complex interactive/telematic installation project "X (t) - Y (t) = 0, " was dedicated to a closer examination of the aesthetic specificities of the individual artists' practices. Introducing Sardon, Wagmister emphasized the importance of research in art and offered some very suggestive propositions for a broader definition of "performance," one that clearly exceeds the notion of a performer-body on stage. In Sardon's case it includes cities, geographies, the web, textual environments, and people who experience how they become part of a "performance system" that is evolving and unpredictable. Composer/programmer David Baudry, speaking about his "Tango Electronica," expanded on this idea by illustrating a complete outline of his performance system, how he starts incorporating digital technologies into musical performance, what codes and interfaces he uses, and why he uses "systems." Baudry sees the computer as a translator which -- in an interface design using Max/Msp, for example -- can continuously and recursively sample input data and generate output, modify initial behavior and sample the modified behavior, and so on. The computer, in this sense, becomes an interpreter of processes.

The other artists who showed concrete samples of their work took the audience on a journey across vastly innovative and electrifying territories of the imagination. Margarita Bali's long and distinguished career as a choreographer and artistic director of Grupo Nucleodanza has now reached a point, with the recent "Naufragio in Vitrio" and "Los Flotantes," where she is increasingly re-applying her knowledge of digital video editing and interactive technology to her choreography, redesigning and continuously modifying her movement ideas and sculptural imagination for dance installations or performances that involve projections, sensors and wireless transmitters. Avoiding national or cultural stereotypes, much of her work is highly kinetic and abstract, but she also admits that surrounding global events have invaded her recent work.

Explaining his collaborative work in experimental theatre, Renato Cohen emphasized his interest in phenomenology, "human technologies," ritual, and different frames of consciousness, as they come to the foreground in his recent projects with shamans and schizophrenic people with whom he created a complex theatre piece ("Gotham SP") structured like a hypertext and drawing from myths, archetypes, and the actors' responses to stories from Italo Calvino's "Invisible Cities" or popular-cultural icons such as Batman.

Tania Aedo first spoke about her research and earlier work on virtual reality, "navigational space" (using avatars), and VRML environments in which visitors interact with fictitious personae. The trajectory of these explorations of visual representations of one's presence in space led to her current project, "Drag.02," which further delves into questions of subjectiviy construction, regulation, and fiction. Her fascinating new work involves the construction of interactive costumes (with wearable sensors) that function as "inscription technologies," allowing the wearer to explore prefabricated subjectivities or "identities" in the interface. In her interactive installations, she or a performer will first demonstrate this wearable interface, creating a reference point, and then invite audience members to try out the "costumes." Similar interactive paradigms characterize the installation work of Vibeke Sorensen, for example her recent work "Morocco Memory II" which creates a kind of refuge of cultural memory, a tent-like enclosure around a centrally-located table on which the visitor finds various spice boxes that, when opened, trigger projected combinations of image, music, and story. These projections form the skin of the enclosure, with real-time processed images, sounds, and texts generating the liquid architecture enveloping the visitor. Sorensen describes her work as dynamic environments which strive to be inclusive of diverse cultural memories, enabling connections and associations that can be made between cross-cultural symbolic objects. She has been collaborating with Heitor Capuzzo and other Brazilian artists on a new interactive installation "Sanctuary", and her transdisciplinary work ethic -- she is trained in photography, architecture, film, video, 3-D graphic environments, music, software development, real-time music synthesis and analysis -- is perhaps indicative of the astonishing breadth of "languages" that contemporary digital artists speak.

Bia Medeiros' collaborative work with her group Corpos Informáticos highlights this other important dimension of current art and technology research, namely the emphasis on collaboration, theoretical and conceptual reflexivity, and the range of almost paradoxical approaches to performance, enacted as local, site-specific intervention (as in the piece "Rodoviaria" at a local bus station) or as telepresence communication with participants in remote locations. Furthermore, Medeiros drew attention to her artistic use of the internet as a non-linear, distributed medium with its own specificity, showing us how to enter into her website and its "folds" and "layers" -- a continuously changing space of images, words, translations that does not let you return to where you were before. Her current work explores telepresence as fragmented interconnection and "interlocution," but more importantly her work on the web and on the question of "bodies" in the web (que corpo e este?) now begins to interrogate the disabling side of technology and the relations between softwares (e.g. Flash) and vital flesh-bodies.

The concluding roundtable discussion at the RePerCute workshop helped to summarize some of the positions that were stated by the artists, and a very engaged search for a compendium of terminologies used in our contemporary digital culture of artmaking resulted, first of all, in the compilation of a small catalogue of key terms. Understandably, each of the discussants wanted to contribute to this "archive" by drawing on his/her aesthetic predisposition, but no clarification of the content, meanings and applications of the terms (techné, mediation, transformative instrument, etc.) was possible in the remainder of the time. Different aesthetic approaches clearly exist, and artists working in the theatre and dance paradigm still rely on the (virtuosic) performer for the creation of content. Bali stated that she uses digital technologies as a tool to create dance, and if she uses Midi or interactive software she need not necessarily understand the underlying software code. Others, like Sardon, are interested in their relationship to machines and systems and how it redefines what artistic process is, how the machine is the object of the work. At the same time, the designing of interactive interfaces that involve the unwitting audience or presume an active "user" to engage the system raises a number of vexing aesthetic issues; it also invites new criteria for the evaluation of such installation works which were barely addressed by the workshop participants. The example of Medeiros' web-based work also shows that using digital technology and the network as a specific medium tends to make the work more self-reflexive about technology. Others insisted that it's not important what the program or medium wants but what we want, how we can creatively play with "imperfections" (Wagmister) or subversions of the code.

When technocratic concepts of "being digital" (Negroponte) or "becoming virtual" were discussed, or when Aedo mentioned feminist notions of the cyborg (Haraway) or current biotechnological discourses on the "posthuman" or "postbiological," strongly articulated political or ideological viewpoints did not emerge. Capuzzo and Sorensen did point out their concern about the destruction of natural environments and their resistance to military applications of technology; working for the game, entertainment or educational software industries, this belief affects their choices for content design. Wagmister sought to connect potential forms of digital resistance to the radical aesthetic politics of Latin American filmmakers in the 60s (Fernando Solanas, Octavio Getino, Jorge Sanjinez), while others deplored the lack of such vanguard historical consciousness in today's mass-mediated societies. Cohen and Bali pointed out that the use of the web and chatrooms by youth cultures in Argentina and Brazil does not constitute a counterculture, and that there are still many infrastructural difficulties for any mature development of digital art that could be transformative. Cohen insisted that people working with digital art form a small tribe, and that their interest in mediated realities is polemical, since Brazil cannot be considered a computer-mediated society.

Wagmister's most insistent question -- is there a distinction between uses of technology in North or Latin America? -- was not ultimately resolved. Aedo admitted that she is not necessarily concerned with questions of cultural identity when developing a new digital artwork. It is when she travels to the U.S. that she realizes her difference. Bali added that one becomes conscious of one's cultural identity when there is an economic or political crisis.

At the end of the workshop, a common ground between the participants had been established, above all through the willingness to engage critical questions about our practices, our cultural location, mobility, access to technologies and the kind of choices we make in using them. In a first workshop of this kind, there were many possible avenues to explore, given the participants' wide variety of interests and working methods. It was agreed that this meeting could be the catalyst for further meetings, to be held in different locations in Latin America on an annual basis, and that the workshop could spawn the development of collaborative projects and new coalitions and exchanges between research labs or cultural institutions, as they for example exist between Capuzzo's Multimedia Laboratory at the School of Fine Arts at UFMG (Federal University of Minas Gerais) and Sorensen's Division of Animation and Digital Arts at the School of Cinema-Television (University of Southern California).


Wagmister announced that he has secured funding for the creation of a new Multimedia Research Center in Buenos Aires, dedicated to research and experimentation in art and technology. It is called "cheLA" (Centro Hipermediatico Experimental Latinoamericano), and he has already secured funding for equipping and operating one of its performance and technology components (TaPeTe: Taller Performatico Tecnologico). He hopes to establish research fellowships and workshops in the new building. Everyone agreed that it would be an exciting challenge to pursue the dialogue and the sharing of resources and knowledge so that artists, teachers and students in different Latin American countries can benefit from this international alliance of research on performance and technology.


Johannes Birringer 05/20/2002

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