Dis-Play, 2002

A one hour long live video mix performance which contemplates the meaning of locality and place in contemporary society, presented first at Magazin 4, Breganz, Austria, and then as part of the 10 year anniversary of the Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna, Austria


Project Description:
Imagery and sonic details of the local space are meticulously recorded. This includes everything from stair rails, handles, and window joinery, to snippets of street conversation. Following this details of the street level built environment in the city and the surrounding vicinity of the place to be contemplated are documented. This imagery is then mixed live in real time on the evening of the performance, along with live cameras, text about place and architecture, and performative elements evoking the nature of recording, inscription, and display.

Despite its use of carefully gathered documentary detail, the live mix and filtering process attempts to devalue contentism or focus on narrative elements. Instead it evaluates the raw visual and aural content, and reconfigures this to tell its own story, more as nonfigurative painting is understood to convey meaning. Multiple simultaneous video projections created by mixing a host of inputs including videotape, infrared cameras, and computers are employed. The work brings the energy and structures of the club and alternative happening scenes into play with a slightly more contemplative and philosophical approach to generating meaning. The work is an attempt to use the current tools available in new media to explore the age old question of what it means to be, to inhabit.

The work also has a strong ludic component. A reshaping of the interaction of the individual with the environment – not following a normal culturally dictated path or set of instructions. Not even directly accomplishing a culturally prescribed or proscribed goal. Discovering. playing. Like a Trickster figure, the artist comes to your “place”, like the very first human being, like the character of Coyote in Native American myth, loving life, sharking around and looking for things, not following the rules or even aware of them, gouche and unschooled, what does he see? What gets recorded? What can be revealed? …and then there it is, its all on display. Displaced and played with. Creating a sacred event or performance, a celebration, where the core qualities of a place may by chance be revealed. Dis-Play.



Some Background Theory about Dis-Play

How natural and man-made places embody meaning – the spirit of place:
“There was a house made of dawn. It was made of pollen and of rain, and the land was very old and everlasting. There were many colors on the hills, and the plain was bright with different-colored clays and sands. Red and blue spotted horses grazed in the plain, and there was a dark wilderness on the mountains beyond. The land was still and strong. It was beautiful all around.” – N. Scott Momaday

Native American plains peoples have a huge respect for land and place, born partly out of harsh environment, but much more from thousands of years of tradition. They understand the value of knowing a place through deep lived experience. We, also, can feel deep meaning in volume and expanse in the natural environment. Everyone who has been to mountains, deserts, forests, and oceans knows this on a visceral level.

In addition there are small localized physical forms in the land which bespeak place on a gut level. In Iceland there is a belief that “Hidden Men” or spirits exist in places that have a special character. Roads get built around significant boulders or depressions in the environment lest the spirit of the place be disturbed and cause bad luck. Why is this the case? Simple-minded folk tradition? Maybe not.

We can feel the specialness of the place around the boulder, and if it is removed the valuable experience is gone. The feeling IS a manifestation and can be understood as the spirit of the place. Removing the boulder disrupts the spirit, with grave consequences for those who will have an emptier life as a result of its loss. The mystical invades directly into our 21st century experience. As film director Hal Hartley put it after shooting there: Try to use the rules of what you believe. In Iceland, they don’t apply. You can attempt to fight the volcanoes, the ice, and the sea – but you will not win. These things have a truth far beyond our meager knowledge.

Aboriginal peoples in South Asia carry a sacred stick with them as the community travels from place to place. They understand the stick they carry as a direct connection between heaven and earth, and that the stick is at the center of the world, or rather, IS the center of the world. The center shifts and travels with them as they go. They are always in the spiritually vital center place.
Similar spatial meanings to those we experience in the natural environment are also conveyed to us, in varying degrees, through architecture – but in the case of architecture we are making the boulders and sticks.
Architecture as natural human excretion:
James Turell once said to me he thought people were much like hermit crabs. Having no shell of their own, but needing one always, they would go from one empty shell to another as they go about their business, home, to car, to building, finding/making new shells and staying protected.
He also said he didn’t believe we had much more control over the urban sprawl of Manhattan, than coral do over the Great Barrier Reef. It is a process we are a direct and active part of, but do-not/can-not control. Architecture is a physical manifestation of our “being” on the earth. The outcome of a system we only think we regulate, an actual material excretion of our collective physical organism, a trace of who we are. What information is contained in that trace? How does how we conceptualize what it constitutes change what it actually is and means for us?
Inhabiting – Home and the center of the universe:
“In every dwelling, even the richest, the first task of the phenomenologist is to find the original shell” – The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard

We can feel the same gut level responses to the volumes of the built environment as those of the natural if we but allow ourselves to be attuned to them. The marking of the passage from the world of the secular to that of the sacred and back again, feeling the little openings onto some other kind of experience, the sense imbued in us by structures and the expression of physical and design forces within them, the reach and extension, the amplitude of a space, the vaulting and volume, the materialization of ideals. Yet, as Bachelard says, conveying the meaning of place is not simply about describing the architecture and built environment of an area, not a kind of travel brochure enumerating the picturesque features. Rather it is about getting down in between the crevices in the cobblestones, the alleys between the sky scrapers, and getting to the liminal core: what does it mean to inhabit, to have a place which is home? What does it mean to be in a place which is yours, or to go to a place that is someone else’s? To navigate memory as well as the physical environment in the street.
Mapping and addressing, limits of the 3D Western perspective:
In the documentation for an artwork Laura Kurgan did at Storefront for Art and Architecture, a GPS manufacturer’s brochure is quoted as saying “GPS receivers are fast becoming small enough and cheap enough to be carried by just about anyone. That means that everyone will have the ability to know exactly where they are, all the time. Finally, one of man’s basic needs will be fulfilled.” Part of the failure of insight on the part of the brochure maker is the belief that dividing everything into a Cartesian grid and plotting points on it constitutes knowledge of place. It is far more than a geographical question. Knowing where you are is not just a matter of orienting one’s self in Western 3D space, but of having a sense of one’s relationship to ones surroundings and the universe. When someone faints and they don’t remember at first where they are, they do not regain an understanding from being told a GPS location, they know as they remember the circumstances of their life up to the present moment.
Screens, Media Networks, virtual architecture, and augmented space:
Answering the question of what place means is further complexified by our current ability to operate telepresently across aural, visual, and textual networks and to be at play in a set of ever shifting data nodes across a variety of fields from geopolitical, to corporate database, to global market.
In order to handle this additional layer of place the developed world is becoming increasingly display-centric. We rely on displays in our phones, PDAs, computers, televisions, cars, digital audio players, and domestic appliances to help envision, direct and control the necessary flows of data. These aspects of place are more and more being integrated into architectural design, so that the design contains both physical and data space. It is currently referred to by a variety of names including Virtual Architecture and Augmented Architecture. It should be noted that this is not a reference to 3D models used as a design guide for building, but rather to screenal and data space directly incorporated into the finished architecture. A new part of the built environment.

As Lev Manovich notes in his The Poetics of Augmented Space: “Going beyond surface as electronic screen paradigm, architects now have the opportunity to think of the material architecture they are normally preoccupied with, and the new immaterial architecture of information flows within the physical structure, as one whole…the design of electronically augmented space can be approached as an architectural problem.” So the question of how data travels and impacts place gets addressed through architecture.
Travel, morals, and cultural flows:
Data isn’t the only thing that travels and effects meaning. The physical movement of people also has a huge impact on place and tradition. There are effects on both those who travel and those who are visited. There is an aspect of societal escape in travel. College kids on spring break in Florida operate on an entirely different set of moral standards than they do at home. There is a traditional Japanese saying which translates something like: “Shameful acts committed away from home may be forgotten.” Travelers, when away from their “place” lose certain cultural restrictions still in force for those who stay at home, because the forces of place no longer hold full sway.

Interestingly, this liminality, disruption, or displacement actually takes place for local residents of a place which is visited. Flows from one way of thinking meet with local internal flows blending or bubbling up in fluid dynamic. The outsiders bring a disruption of world view, a change in the status quo. Local moral and cultural disruptions can occur, a complex combining of things jostled together and not yet sorted out. A sometimes uncomfortable reframing of point of view is forced on all concerned. Many things are kludged on top of each other that exist temporarily or temporally in mixed form – keyed cut and layered on top of each other in crazy, unorganized, not yet properly mediated form – the new world view, not yet sorted, and the liminal areas dangerously exposed. Hidden truths about unquestioned assumptions are brought vividly into focus. Things spiral dangerously out of control only to be brought back into new kinds of patterns. Secret trysts with travelers which go unreported to wives or boyfriends. A longing for the artificially conceived exotic place of the travelers origin, or where they have passed through, and a wish for release from local cultural responsibilities and oppressions. An expansion of who one can be. Real places taking on iconic meanings for visitor and visited.
Tricksters and ludic behavior:
Travelers can take on qualities of the trickster figure from Native American myth. Paradoxically, the trickster helps to define place by failing to follow the normal locally-dictated path or set of instructions. He will not even directly accomplish any culturally prescribed goal. The figure of Coyote is a good example. Typically arriving on the Earth just before the first human beings, he is gross and not yet fully formed. Though utterly uncultured (because he has arrived to invent it) he runs about goofing off and causing problems, a bad boy, but in the process he lays the groundwork for what people will make, and how they will need to behave in order to get along. It is his undirected energy, ludicrous and ludic, which helps define how things should and should not be. A visitor discovering, playing, inadvertently revealing the qualities of culture, and place.
Observation and recording:
For the visitor interested in exploring and capturing these qualities of place, recording poses an interesting dilemma. Recording impacts negatively on ones ability to experience and understand, and yet is vital to help fix the observations one is able to make. Recording, say for example through video or photography, is a very shallow or hollow capturing of the total truth of place. It disrupts the process of actually being there and participating, and in no way comes near to describing the full view of those visited. The camera can’t track back far enough to get the smell and the fact that your daughter skinned her knee here three years ago, or that you secretly dream of owning a house on that hill one day, and in your mind it represents the fulfillment of the life you were meant to have but have not yet achieved. That when you see that tree, or that corner Bodega, you feel a tiny almost buried thrill in your heart because you KNOW you are home. As visitors, we can’t be in the shoes of the people, we can only do “participant observations” from our own perspective.

In attempting to record someone else’s place, one inadvertently gets documentary based on the momentary ephemera of one’s own lived experience. So be it. With luck, one can also capture a bit of the economics and metaphysics of the built environment. What is gum on the sidewalk like? How do traffic systems work. Where should cars stay out of? Where should they stay inside of? What materials are used to build and how do they get joined together? Showing the functioning of contemporary culture on a physical/anthropological level. Again, what are the traces, and how can the more ephemeral meanings which do get recorded in this shallow, pale, or freeze-dried form, be most effectively reactivated and displayed?
Live video mixing, mediatic criteria, and the politics of filters:
Converting media into digital data creates “the unforeseen option of addressing not only images (by frames) but even every single picture element (pixel). Images and sounds thus become calculable and can be subjected to algorithms of pattern recognition – procedures which will “excavate” unexpected optical statements and perspectives out of the audio-visual archive which, for the first time, can organize itself not just according to meta-data but according to its proper criteria – visual memory in its own medium (endogenic).” “not only images become addressable in mathematical operations, but their ordering as well can be literally calculated.” – Wolfgang Ernst, A visual archive of cinematographical topoi: Navigating images on the borderline of digital addressability

Though Ernst is discussing of the philosophy of archives, the algorithms he refers to are exactly what video mixing is based on. Filtration of video signals devalues subject and instead favors formal elements such as volume of luminance, hue and chroma, contrast, and scan line or pixel variation across time. The artificial conceptual structure of line drawing can be applied as filter by selecting edges and augmenting or flattening them. All of the filtering is based on the mathematically analyzed visual properties of the images, on what Ernst calls the genuine “mediatic criteria” of the image.

Visual properties are further complexified by The blending of multiple live video streams so that they mutually infiltrate one another and exhibit permeable boundaries, the primacy of the individual frame broken through keying, cutting patterns, and other algorithmic means of compositing. Paradoxically, this seeming obscuring of the image through manipulation actually opens up a whole range of meaning-generation similar in some way to non-figurative painting. It thus reanimates the ephemeral messages, allowing us to bring them to the fore, and to add depth, to amplify the weak signals, to make these simple things full again, to allow them to be multi-vocal once more. It makes it possible to put back meanings which get lost in the shallow process that video recording constitutes, to reconstitute, and to add new meaning as well.

The meaning of display:
To display is to expose to view or allow to appear, to reveal. It is the presentation of signals or data in visual form, or the physical object on which the data is manifested. Display is a revelation of things which are already there, but need a mechanism, a guide or some letting-loose in order to be fully seen or understood. Video not as screen but as extension, architectural, intellectual, amplified light, but not only in terms of lumens. Amplified across a whole series of Axes, datacly, mediatically, socially, poetically, to reveal not only mass and structure but a narrative of the soul. The screen as gate of heaven, as entry point, passage, membrane, a plane or liminal transition moment onto the sacred beyond. An opening onto, an event horizon.
The sacred and the everyday:
“People sometimes get good at blotting out the sights and sounds and smells around them…perception, when it resurfaces, can catch them by surprise.” – Tony Hiss, The Experience of Place

The possibility of a special encounter, a moment’s awareness, exists at any given instant and can be triggered by encounters with physical places. It’s where these spirits or potential moments of contemplation and awareness reside. In spaces. In localities, in a particular place. A billion little gates to heaven, waiting to be discovered. The values of the sacred reside deep in the heart of the everyday, in the cracks in between categories, in the things we make. the spiritual is directly embodied in physical form in the built environment. It contains our “hidden people”. the extruded aluminum of the prefab window sills in Tokyo or the molded plastic fender of a bus in New York City contain, in physical form, the triggers of familiarity, the qualities of volume and form, the manifestation of the spiritual value of home and place, of our deepest unvoiced feelings. Talismans of the built environment. The hidden can come out and speak to us.
“People tend to suppress that which they cannot express. If an experience resists ready communication, a common response…is to deem it private…and hence unimportant…relatively few works attempt to understand how people feel about space and place, to take into account the different modes of experience (sensorimotor, tactile, visual, conceptual) and to interpret space and place as images of complex-often ambivalent-feelings.” – Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience

With Dis-Play we celebrate the mundane and often overlooked qualities and meanings in the built environment, the things you can’t quite put a finger on. We honor the importance of locality and site, bringing everyday experience to the plane of the sacred and contemplative. Looking at a hand, a brick, a street, a piece of chewing gum, we see the world we have created.

“That’s why we seize the moment try to freeze it and own it, squeeze it and hold it, cuz we consider these moments golden” – Eminem

It is an attempt to get a grasp on, or gain insight into – who we are, to get in touch with ourselves through the portal of architecture and the street level lived experience. Architectural details, interior and exterior elements merge and mutually infiltrate one another, the screen becoming a mediation plane between the secular and the sacred, a permeable membrane our souls can pass through to see beyond the detail – to the whole of the picture of who we are, at this moment, on the planet. What is it that we are? And where are we, not just in the universe, but directly, right now, locally? To define where we are in a way that you can know it, not just conceptually, but on a gut level, in your heart. Like a taste on your tongue. Like a scent memory that takes you right back to the moment. Like a place you know. Like home.