Saturday, 16 February 2008

Making the Unreal Real

I haven’t written for a while and that’s because I’ve been very busy with the launch of In Other People’s Skins at Winchester cathedral in the UK. The history of its production can be seen in my previous blogs and there’s even a ‘Making of’ video which you can watch by clicking the link to the right. I hope at a later date to add some video from the open evening at the cathedral, which shows the truly amazing response this piece of work has received. Here though I want to focus on something that was previously a theory and has now become an actuality: High Definition visual elements can be mistaken for ‘real’ things.

My theoretical proposition was that at dusk there is a shifting between two optical elements within our eyes and minds, which can lead to mistaking what is actually happening before us. As the light lowers our eyes have to switch between the cones and rods, the former well adapted from a mammalian past for seeing colour and the latter inherited from our far distant insect past where movement and visual acuity in the dark was most important. During the switch over, the two technologies are switching back and forth in our minds as the ‘common sense’ tries to make some systematic choice about the correct light level to work with and therefore the correct technology.

What happens at dusk is that we see certain things at a far brighter colour intensity than they actually are: The traffic light is too green or amber, the brake lights on the car in front too intense.

Taking this example as an analogy for what happens in high definition imaging, according to my theory, there should be a place where we actually mistake the image for the real. This was confirmed during the open evening at Winchester in two ways: One bright person saw the image of the plates moving on the table and actually thought that the real white plates I’d placed on the table to catch the virtual images, were moving.

Another very visual person that I know saw one of the white plates on the table whilst only the image of the red table cloth was being projected on to it and for a moment wondered where the red plate had come from - before what was previously known by her, that the plate was white and had red projected on to it, came back into her mind to reconfirm that this was an optical illusion and that the plate was in fact white. In both cases the borderline of the real and imaginary was crossed. True immersivity had been achieved.

I’m not interested in parlour tricks at all. It is of no interest to me to ‘trick a viewer. What I am interested in is exploring this borderline place to find out how we may be affected by the technology that we inhabit. It is an ontological enquiry and I realise several things about the work that I have made: essentially it is a work about belief and this is very appropriate given that the work is exhibiting in a space dedicated to a belief – not a place dedicated to knowledge of something, but about faith in belief as a route to knowing. But that’s by the by. In Other People’s Skins is concerned both in terms of form and in terms of content with the act of belief, and the immersiovity and interactivity it engenders should lead the viewer to think about belief and therefore commitment.

This is a philosophical enquiry that should in the end generate a tolerant approach to ideas. We will see.

Also the work as I have just mentioned is also about interactivity – about doing and being. Some people have mentioned that there is no interactive element in the technology. This is after all a projection and it amuses me to think that this work could have been made at the end of the 19th century at the beginning of cinematography with a projector, a mirror and a table and chairs. But actually this is an interactive work. People simply cannot stop moving the plates around the table. It invokes an obsessive compulsive response to reposition the real plates where the virtual plates are projected. Of course the image changes all the time and therefore the plates must continuously be moved to be in the ‘right’ place.

I think this element is similar to the immersive question that virtual reality designers were up against in the 1980’s. It was believed that if you put some goggles on and then project an image of a virtual world you could experience that world. But of course to convince a person of their presence within a virtual space it had to look ‘real’ and of course reality takes no prisoners, it is as high resolution and definition as it gets, so no graphic representation can fulfil the requirements of belief.

Interestingly, immersivity can be obtained without this sort of literal approach. Get 4 people playing monopoly and you achieve immersivity – not the literal conviction that the 4 people are warring capitalists, but a joyful commitment to the game rule sufficient to keep the people occupied in the same way that they would be if committed to a ‘real world’ act. Equally, interactivity can be obtained without this literal element where people have to press Pavlovian ‘buttons’ to achieve a response from the person (i.e. walk into a sound or infra red beam to trigger some kind of event).

So, by allowing people to sit and touch this virtual work they become engaged with the interactive and immersive sides of their own nature and together with the paraphernalia of the artwork itself, table chairs, plates candles, projector, computer, tent – all of it – they themselves are the artwork. This is my first discovery within the high definition medium and as my enquiry proceeds, I hope to understand and articulate what the issues are and then create and make work that inhabits this particular borderland of our experience.