Branch/ing (2001)50" x 28" x 20"
Tree branch, LED matrices, wiring, sensors, software
In branch/ing, the twining of electronic text around a limb displays an uneasy melding of nature and machine. The dense circuitry on the branch simultaneously suggests overgrowth and symbiosis. Glowing characters flow along the branch, following its contours and bifurcating where the branch itself splits. The text flowing along the branch shows a language that is both human and machine - the programming code that is running the piece itself. Technological evolution influences language itself: compound pseudo-words propagate, typography becomes deliberately fractured, instant messaging breeds compulsive abbreviations. As the viewer moves closer, however, the text deconstructs and disintegrates itself, further complicating our efforts of comprehension.
This piece deals with several issues critical to me about the juncture of art and technology. First, the synthesis and blurred boundaries of natural and artificial that are becoming ever more common in our technologized era. Second, the nature of the artistic process behind creating technologically-enabled work, not just exposing its technical framework, but foregrounding how technology is now beyond tool, a medium in and of itself. Third, the nature of programming code as a major underpinning to new media art, one that is often hidden, a strange meeting place of human and computer, one that can be equally awkward and elegant. Fourth, the state of interactivity in new media art, specifically questioning or problematizing what are already the tropes of interactivity - find out what the thing does, then try to make it do it, a pattern that breeds a short attention span and a reward-based mentality rather than one of aesthetic and intellectual immersion and contemplation.
Technology as a medium is exposed here by showing the technical underpinnings of the work - microcontroller, circuitry, sensors, wiring - and the viewer will eventually figure out that these all are asssembled in the service of revealing the other crucial underpinning, one that is usually hidden: the programming code that drives the entire piece. The code literally displays itself. In this way the whole piece seems to be a self-reflexive celebration of its own technology - which it is, in one sense, but it is also about something more uncertain, almost uneasy. For one, there's the tautology of that self-reflexive loop and the our fascination with technology for its own sake; secondly, the organic nature of the tree, its power and primacy as a symbol of nature, and the dense circuitry on the branches suggests a future of hybrid nature-machine forms, and could be viewed here as (intertwined) symbiosis or (invasive) overgrowth. With co-evolution it's hard to say which is which.
Technological evolution influences language itself: compound pseudo-words propagate, typography becomes deliberately fractured, instant messaging breeds compulsive abbreviations. Programming elements, like non-standard capitalization, or the HTML tag <>, cross-over into popular culture. Code is a hybrid language, both human and machine, an overlooked fulfillment of cyborg theory: but this is not a fusion both human and machinic, but something else that, although it has traces of both, is really neither. By displaying its code, this piece displays the form, and the process, through which a programmer, an artist - a human - communicates with a computer in its native tongue. The language, in this case BasicX, is fairly "human-readable" (as the expression goes), but still mostly opaque to a non-programmer. If one reads the code for a bit, something else appears – commented statements made by the artist/programmer, that is, normal language used in programming to explain obtuse code. But it also the residue of the strange conversations most programmers have with themselves – notes about things to improve, questions to research later, sometimes entire blocks of old versions of code, abandoned strategies, what is called "commented out" code – like layers covered over in an oil painting. Normally this is cleaned up and never seen in a finished work, even in software art that explicitly reveals its code. So this piece asks us to consider the grammar, the rhythm, the formal structure of programming, and thus besides exposing code as a hidden medium behind new media art, and suggesting that - or asking if - the code can be considered aesthetically, it also lets the true nature of the process of creating with computers show through.
Interacting with this piece is not a satisfying action in the conventional sense. Because the act of viewing is destructive, the viewer enters into an uncertain dialogue with it, complicating the instinctive act to comprehend. And so viewers are usually unable to choose between the satisfaction of a visible response, the pixels disintegrating as one moves closer, and the need to decode the meaning of the text which requires standing away from it so the characters are legible. But if you stand far enough away that the text is perfectly displayed, the letters are almost too small to see! So this a deliberate inversion of the normal mode of interactive art, where the viewer's engagement causes the piece to perform, to fully become itself.
While some viewers try to read the meaning of the text, others find that its trace, the deconstructed pixels, are more beautiful or more interesting. Many go back and forth; not sure whether to stand in one place or to move around to get the piece to do something. This tension is part of the point: our relationship to our own technology is still murky, confusing, and unstable. This piece attempts to present a mature use of interactivity in installation art, where the responsiveness of the piece is one element used judiciously in balance with its other constituent parts, as opposed to being an element used for it own sake, i.e. its "newness." Ultimately branch/ing presents an engagement with technology that aspires to be both aesthetic and intellectual, as well as uncertain and mysterious - and asks us to consider how the evolution of technology, nature, and language will intertwine in the future.
The first version of the piece, shown here, consisted of one disembodied branch suspended in space. The next version will have several significant improvements. First, the piece would be enlarged to a full tree standing alone in a gallery space, approximately 10 feet tall, planted and living inside. Second, the microcontroller system will be upgraded so that the text disintegrates as one, heightening the responsive feel of the installation, and making the overall aesthetic more liquid and alive. Lastly, an italics font will be programmed to distinguish the program "comments" from the bulk of the code.
A BX-24 microcontroller parses out fragments of its own code into individual letters and symbols, and sends 5x7 pixel maps for each character into the LED displays. The BX-24 is programmed in compiled BasicX and functions as a complete embedded processor (the branch is a self-contained piece, needing only an electrical outlet). An array of Sharp infrared sensors constantly read the positions of nearby viewers and send these values to the BX-24. The microcontroller then gradually disintegrates the character pixel maps depending on how close the viewers are. Another version of the piece also has ambient and reactive sound using a hidden PC running Max/MSP to perform real-time sound synthesis based on positions of viewers and the type and frequency of each displayed character.