Come summer, come Sonar – and with it SonarMàtica, the interactive art exhibition that is part of the annual electronic music festival in super sunny Barcelona. This year, it featured a bunch of international and Japanese artists (some we may have encountered before) that played around with digital arts and especially with all sorts of processed shadows. PingMag will try to give you the complete picture (but will leave out the sorted details of our experience in the party section…)
By the way, this year’s Sonar logo was a smiley with a matching video spot. Once again, a not-too-subtle shout to Nu Rave!
Written by Nana A.T. Rebhan
Not only is the Sonar festival a line-up of hot electronic music DJs and live acts, it also presents an approach to electronics and the interface of technology and art: Sonarama was the innovative programme for high-tech performances. Take New York-based Austrian Kurt Hentschläger, who produced dense fog in which he placed 3D projections, accompanied by stroboscopic lights and super-low bass sounds – a combination that causes a complete loss of spatial orientation. With his experiment, Hentschläger wanted to explore human perception and its limits in a modern society overly rich with sensory stimuli.
However, one of the most exciting programmes was certainly the SonarMàtica exhibition: Curators José Luis de Vicente, Oscar Abril Ascaso and Advanced Music set out to explore the Third Law of famous British science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke which states that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Let me explain:
Modern communication media began as fun fair attractions. In its beginnings, for example, film was less a form of art than a magic trick. The early director Georges Méliès, who made the fantastic A Trip to the Moon, had a background in stage magic. At the end of the 19th century, the Lumière brothers shocked their audience with images of a train entering a station. Terrified spectators threw themselves to the ground to save themselves from being run over by the “magic” train on the screen. In the early 20th century, the first Kodak camera was advertised with the slogan “You press the button, we do the rest” – which ironically was later to be recycled for promoting Windows95.
… that sit down with you for a nice cup of virtual Earl Grey.
SonarMàtica´s curators are interested in the manipulative character of modern user interfaces, which try to hide the underlying complexity of technical systems, and in the topics of democracy and control in modern technology. Magic only shows the illusion, never how it is done, and thus technology turned into magic always bears the danger of manipulation…
However, the emphasis in the exhibition was on user interaction:
Everybody remembers stories of elves, pixies, goblins, and the like. Thanks to Kobito: Virtual Brownies we can now see these creatures: on a table! This table, set for breakfast with tea and biscuits, looks completely normal at first glance. But little invisible Kobitos move the tea caddy around. Now, we can watch them at their secret work through the Kobito window developed by a Japanese artist team from the Tokyo Institute of Technology. When we push the tea caddy in the opposite direction (so evil!) the Kobitos will try to keep pushing against us. If we push hard, they are forced into retreat and we see them tumble…
Let’s go on to the processed play with light and shadow forms:
In Portray the Silhouette by Japanese artist Masaki Fujihata, you can sit down at a tea table opposite what seems to be an invisible man. A spotlight projects the visitor’s shadow onto the wall. The seat on the other side of the table is empty. Nevertheless there appears to be the shadow of a person who is seating in that chair—a shadow that interacts with the visitor.
Another Japanese processing work by Tokyo-based Plaplax and their art subproject minim++ was recently shown at Tokyo’s ICC for their 10th anniversary. Now at SonarMàtica, the shadows of their “Tool’s Life” magically spring to life: Various metal items are placed on a table in a darkened room. A spotlight focuses on the table. When the objects are lightly touched, their shadows dance whimsically, while the objects themselves remain in place.
Next enter our long-time fave: British Philip Worthington’s Shadow Monsters were already a magnet for visitors at last autumn’s Designtide in Tokyo, where everybody simply had to lay their hands on this processing installation. It alludes to a well-known children’s game in which the hands create shadows resembling animals on a wall – transferred to a digital world, this allows him to add such fine details as teeth and ears to his monsters in real time.
Not interactive, but nevertheless fascinating is the short Carlitopolis, by Colombian artist Luis Nieto. He wanted to include his cute hamster Carlito in his graduation film work and converted the pet into a Tex Avery-like character. The poor animal had to endure a number of torments: First sitting in a black box, he is cut in two with the sharp edge of a glass plate! Then he gets inflated to his double size! And finally, the poor little one is pulverised by a bomb! It is both heartbreaking and comical to watch the small hamster trying to blow out the fuse of the bomb, without success. Of course, no real animals were hurt in the piece. The technical equipment put in place for this simulation (a black box containing a vivarium was filmed by a camera activated by a computer) accomplished the illusion of the work.
“Digit” by Julien Marie traces a writer’s finger movements and materialises them as written thoughts.
A another example of magic shown at SonarMàtica was “Digit”, a performance by French artist Julien Marie. Here, thoughts mysteriously materialise on paper when the finger of a “writer” slides across the magic paper.
Also, American Jeff Lieberman made a lighted light bulb hover in the air, without any wire providing electric energy and not fixed to any stand.
Last but not least comes the beautiful “Balloon Exploration” by Takeshi Ishiguro (yep, previously featured here). He realised one of his daydreams and created a silver balloon that floats in the middle of the room, avoiding any contact with other objects. When people try to catch the balloon, it escapes to another corner. [Picture above]
At SonarMàtica, vistiors were obsessed with music as usual, as this is part of a music festival. They, could play and marvel at the exhibits and left with a wonderful feeling of magic – ready for new musical discoveries.