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Seeing Outside Our Selves
Johannes Girardoni

TIME. SPACE. EXISTENCE. number 2
Karlyn De Jongh, Sarah Gold
425 pages
Edited by Global Art Center Foundation
Cornerhouse Publications, 2013
ISBN: 978-94-90784-13-3


Since I think that most rel­e­vant ques­tions in art mak­ing today are asked in between defined dis­ci­plines, I tend to orga­nize my work at ambigu­ous inter­sec­tions. Can sculp­ture func­tion as archi­tec­ture, and if it takes on that role, where is the line that archi­tec­ture ends, and art begins? Are there oppor­tu­ni­ties to cre­ate new def­i­n­i­tions of space by link­ing phys­i­cal and dig­i­tal infor­ma­tion? Can an art­work be an exten­sion of our per­cep­tion, and how would that impact our def­i­n­i­tion of real­ity? Can new rela­tion­ships between light and mate­r­ial be cre­ated through an algo­rithm? Is there still a place for rad­i­cally non-technological work, and what con­di­tions can it cre­ate that dis­con­nect it from exist­ing knowl­edge? Are inquiries into the rela­tion­ship between sculp­ture and paint­ing still rel­e­vant, and if so, how do they relate to life and cul­ture today? What­ever the answers, they are all per­ti­nent ques­tions because of one inevitable evo­lu­tion in our time: the dis­tinc­tion between our phys­i­cal envi­ron­ment and vir­tual space is rapidly frag­ment­ing. Our nat­ural selves are cross-pollinating with dig­i­tal sys­tems. I tackle this novel con­di­tion – with all of its prob­lems and oppor­tu­ni­ties – by cre­at­ing con­di­tions in my work that respond to, and shape this new reality.

My expe­ri­ence has been one of flux. Grow­ing up in the deep freeze of cold-war Vienna in the 1970’s, I went through a com­plete cul­tural re-acclimation when I moved to South­ern Cal­i­for­nia in my teens. I left behind the shadow the Iron Cur­tain cast over the small medieval towns of east­ern Aus­tria for the thick, pal­pa­ble light of the Amer­i­can West, the hard radi­ance of the open desert, and the nov­elty of no imme­di­ately appar­ent his­tory. I was fast-forwarded to the present. By way of Maine, and some time at M.I.T in Cam­bridge, I even­tu­ally made my way to New York, a city that epit­o­mizes the 24/7-reinvention cycle. For some twenty-two years it was the per­fect place for a cul­tural nomad as myself to feel at home. The one con­stant of Man­hat­tan is its per­pet­ual re-rendering of itself, dri­ven by the hard-edged blend of desire, cre­ativ­ity, com­merce and greed its inhab­i­tants unleash on their island in an effort to sur­vive and thrive. I recently replaced this sat­u­rated fab­ric, one that leaves no square inch un-designed or un-commodified, for Los Ange­les. Less pre­dictable, more loosely artic­u­lated, and more com­pli­cated to grasp than its East Coast sib­ling, L.A. is a decen­tral­ized plat­form of nature and urban­ity, full of grit and intox­i­cat­ing beauty all at once. Los Ange­les is a state of mind, one that can be con­stantly reimagined.

I have used the con­tin­u­ously shift­ing con­di­tions in my life as a point of ori­en­ta­tion. I move flu­idly between photo-based work, sculp­ture and instal­la­tion art, never let­ting a sin­gu­lar medium in any of those dis­ci­plines act as a sole pro­tag­o­nist. I con­sis­tently rely on a con­ver­gent archi­tec­ture: my pho­tog­ra­phy is dig­i­tally decon­structed and phys­i­cally over-painted; my light instal­la­tions are phys­i­cal envi­ron­ments that merge nat­ural and arti­fi­cial light and re-articulate that infor­ma­tion as sound; my beeswax sculp­ture is char­ac­ter­ized by it’s heavy mate­ri­al­ity, yet it is work about light, and results from an act of paint­ing; my Meta­space instal­la­tions are spaces about space. They are large phys­i­cal struc­tures that are about the immer­sive and redefin­ing con­di­tions they cre­ate rather than the space they occupy. All the work is con­nected by a reduc­tive inquiry into the rela­tion­ship of light and mate­r­ial, through which I explore the con­tin­u­ously evolv­ing rela­tion­ship between our sen­sory appa­ra­tus, real­ity, and image.

After spend­ing time in West Africa in 2008 on a research expe­di­tion with a group of archi­tects, sci­en­tists and other col­leagues, my focus broad­ened into a crit­i­cal inquiry of con­tem­po­rary cul­ture. I left Mali with com­plex and indeli­ble impres­sions – with unre­solved thoughts about a peo­ple, whose exis­ten­tial con­di­tion is shaped by one of the world’s most inhos­pitable cli­mates and whose cul­ture, which is phys­i­cally and spir­i­tu­ally designed purely to main­tain sur­vival, exposes life in it’s rawest, most un-aestheticized form. As some­times well-meaning, some­times arro­gant first-worlders, we have man­aged to develop and use knowledge-systems, tech­nol­ogy and infra­struc­ture, to move refuse, dis-ease, and death a lit­tle bit fur­ther away from our­selves than some of our less-privileged fel­low inhab­i­tants. We are often obliv­i­ous to the fact that we have done so at the expense of those who have not. I could not help but land back home with the notion that tech­nol­ogy as a solu­tion to every­thing serves merely as a tem­po­rary dis­trac­tion from the inescapable real­ity of our own mor­tal­ity. And yet, tech­nol­ogy cre­ates new per­cep­tions of our selves, and even has the capac­ity to extend and pre­serve organic knowl­edge. After a month-long immer­sion into a cul­ture com­pletely off the grid, I was struck by the vast, albeit some­what dete­ri­o­rated infra­struc­ture vis­i­ble from my plane on final approach to Newark. More arti­fact of 19th cen­tury post-industrial rev­o­lu­tion, than our 21’st cen­tury information-linked real­ity, it brought me to think­ing about where we are right now. We occupy a hyper-connected world, one that meshes phys­i­cal and dig­i­tal infra­struc­tures on a scale that is dif­fi­cult to per­ceive. The core of our dis­course takes place at the inter­sec­tion of dig­i­tal infor­ma­tion and ana­log mate­r­ial. In the cur­rent cul­tural con­text, where the real and the vir­tual are con­verg­ing and cross-pollinating in unprece­dented ways, I face this new real­ity by cre­at­ing con­structs that com­bine dig­i­tal and mate­r­ial express­sion in spa­tial, atmos­pheric and con­cep­tu­ally immer­sive work.

Com­ing back from Mali, I was con­tin­u­ally reminded how our cul­ture is sat­u­rated by dig­i­tal sys­tems. We use our phone’s intel­li­gence to get us to the right place. That alone, has shifted how we under­stand and read our envi­ron­ment. The algo­rithm behind Google searches detects behav­ioral pat­terns, the sum of which yields a dig­i­tal iden­tity that knows more about us than our friends; or worse, more than we know about our­selves. We make deci­sions based on infor­ma­tion pro­vided by algo­rithms. My focus on the inter­ac­tion of light and mate­r­ial brought me to the idea of real­ity aug­men­ta­tion in art. With the use of sen­sors and tone gen­er­a­tors, I could use an algo­rithm to make light audi­ble and push the whole par­a­digm of phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal art into the cur­rent con­text. If we are expe­ri­enc­ing a work by James Tur­rell or Robert Irwin, for exam­ple, we encounter per­cep­tion in its purest form. We expe­ri­ence our­selves sens­ing. Even now, artists like Ola­fur Elias­son work with per­cep­tion as the medium itself. The whole his­tory of art cul­mi­nates there. As with the “death of paint­ing,” how­ever, there is no end. The evo­lu­tion, and this is where we break with his­tory, is that we are now occu­py­ing a cul­tural con­di­tion in which we are not the only ones sens­ing. Arti­fi­cial per­cep­tion extends our own sen­sory appa­ra­tus at large and cre­ates a new real­ity. An envi­ron­ment that we sense while it also senses us, and then changes as a result, her­alds the end of the supremacy of our per­cep­tion. This is the new now.

The notion of a physical-digital con­ver­gence is at the core of my light and sound instal­la­tions. Much of my work is focused on turn­ing light into sound, based on map­ping the fre­quen­cies of the vis­i­ble spec­trum onto the sound spec­trum. I call this soni­fi­ca­tion of light Spectro-Sonic Refre­quenc­ing. I use sen­sors to pick up an array of light infor­ma­tion and use that infor­ma­tion to gen­er­ate sound. Why is this trans­po­si­tion rel­e­vant? First, this is a dif­fer­ent idea than play­ing a sound to visu­als for dra­matic effect, as in a sound­track. It is also dif­fer­ent than a record­ing. The leap here is a form of real­ity aug­men­ta­tion. In my work, light is made audi­ble in real time, and changes based on what the sen­sors see. The shift is from rely­ing on one’s sen­sory appa­ra­tus, to expand­ing per­cep­tion through tech­nol­ogy. Our per­cep­tion remains fully engaged, but we are also hear­ing light. Depend­ing on who you speak with, the use of real­ity aug­men­ta­tion in art, or its pres­ence in the wider cul­tural con­text, is con­sid­ered prob­lem­atic, con­tro­ver­sial, an oppor­tu­nity, or all of the above. Regard­less, I am focused on cre­at­ing an art that sees view­ers in their envi­ron­ment, changes its behav­ior based on what it sees, and reartic­u­lates all of what it sees as sound, in real time. That cre­ates a con­di­tion which rede­fines the role we play as par­tic­i­pants in art and in life.

My first instal­la­tion that addresses these ques­tions fully was The (Dis)appearance of Every­thing, shown at the 54th Venice Bien­nale in 2011.  The (Dis)appearance of Every­thing is an inter­ac­tive instal­la­tion that explores the con­ver­gence of phys­i­cal mate­r­ial and light by reartic­u­lat­ing light as sound through Spectro-Sonic Refre­quenc­ing. The installation’s archi­tec­ture ques­tions the lim­its of per­cep­tion and acti­vates the bor­der area of nat­ural phe­nom­ena and dig­i­tal sys­tems. Nat­ural and arti­fi­cial light merges inside five pur­ple cast resin ele­ments that appear to sub­tly shift in color and lumi­nos­ity depend­ing on the viewer’s posi­tion within the space. Two sen­sors, cal­i­brated to mea­sure both the pur­ple and day­light fre­quen­cies, drive a tone gen­er­a­tor, which con­verts the fre­quen­cies of light into fre­quen­cies of sound, mak­ing light audi­ble. The sen­sors also reg­is­ter the pres­ence of the viewer mov­ing through the space, which addi­tion­ally mod­u­lates the sound. In this set-up, vir­tual and phys­i­cal infor­ma­tion is processed both by the viewer and the work, fur­ther blur­ring the bound­ary between phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal and vir­tual events.

I am cur­rently involved in map­ping the entire vis­i­ble spec­trum, trans­pos­ing it on the audi­ble sound spec­trum, and devel­op­ing sen­sors and proces­sors that read video data, color infor­ma­tion, move­ment, light fre­quen­cies, as well as other light para­me­ters, all of which con­vert to sound fre­quen­cies. This research is applied in a new project, titled Meta­space V2. A raw alu­minum shell pro­vides the frame­work for the sculpture’s seam­less ellip­ti­cal inte­rior skin. The sculp­ture is entered through a low and nar­row open­ing. Inside, the space expands into an immer­sive light and sound envi­ron­ment that con­tin­u­ously evolves. Mono­chro­matic LED light is pro­jected into the space through a resin lens at the top of the sculp­ture. The curvi­lin­ear geom­e­try of the work scat­ters the col­ored light inside, in effect dema­te­ri­al­iz­ing phys­i­cal bound­aries and cre­at­ing a pure color space. Sen­sors mea­sure the light fre­quen­cies of the spe­cific color and drive tone gen­er­a­tors that con­vert the fre­quen­cies of light into fre­quen­cies of sound. The vis­ceral sound vibra­tion shifts and mod­u­lates as the light con­di­tion changes. The sen­sors also reg­is­ter the pres­ence of vis­i­tors’ move­ment in the space, which changes the pro­gres­sion and speed of the color sequence and hence the sound. Vir­tual and phys­i­cal infor­ma­tion is processed both by the viewer and the instal­la­tion, cre­at­ing a feed­back loop between the two. Nat­ural and vir­tual struc­tures, lay­ered on top of one another, cre­ate a multi-sensory, immer­sive envi­ron­ment of phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal events and dig­i­tal sys­tems. Mat­ter becomes light and light becomes sound. Ulti­mately, at the core of this set­ting, Meta­space V2 ques­tions the bor­der of nat­ural and arti­fi­cial phenomena.

Meta­space V2 is a space about space. The sculp­ture not only chal­lenges exist­ing def­i­n­i­tions of space and how we per­ceive it, but also pro­poses how mea­sure­ment of wave­forms, the space between peaks and val­leys, and dig­i­tal sys­tems extend per­cep­tion to enable the for­ma­tion of new real­i­ties. Equipped with sen­sors and tone gen­er­a­tors that make light audi­ble, Meta­space V2 ques­tions our cur­rent cul­tural par­a­digm, one in which tech­nol­ogy and nature find them­selves at an increas­ingly blurred intersection.