• warning: htmlspecialchars() [function.htmlspecialchars]: Invalid multibyte sequence in argument in /var/www/web/html/includes/ on line 867.
  • warning: htmlspecialchars() [function.htmlspecialchars]: Invalid multibyte sequence in argument in /var/www/web/html/includes/ on line 867.
  • warning: htmlspecialchars() [function.htmlspecialchars]: Invalid multibyte sequence in argument in /var/www/web/html/includes/ on line 867.
  • warning: htmlspecialchars() [function.htmlspecialchars]: Invalid multibyte sequence in argument in /var/www/web/html/includes/ on line 867.
  • warning: htmlspecialchars() [function.htmlspecialchars]: Invalid multibyte sequence in argument in /var/www/web/html/includes/ on line 867.
  • warning: htmlspecialchars() [function.htmlspecialchars]: Invalid multibyte sequence in argument in /var/www/web/html/includes/ on line 867.
  • warning: htmlspecialchars() [function.htmlspecialchars]: Invalid multibyte sequence in argument in /var/www/web/html/includes/ on line 867.
  • warning: htmlspecialchars() [function.htmlspecialchars]: Invalid multibyte sequence in argument in /var/www/web/html/includes/ on line 867.
  • warning: htmlspecialchars() [function.htmlspecialchars]: Invalid multibyte sequence in argument in /var/www/web/html/includes/ on line 867.
  • warning: htmlspecialchars() [function.htmlspecialchars]: Invalid multibyte sequence in argument in /var/www/web/html/includes/ on line 867.
  • warning: htmlspecialchars() [function.htmlspecialchars]: Invalid multibyte sequence in argument in /var/www/web/html/includes/ on line 867.
  • warning: htmlspecialchars() [function.htmlspecialchars]: Invalid multibyte sequence in argument in /var/www/web/html/includes/ on line 867.


The ‘Phi Books’ Project is a collaborative endeavour between Alexandra Antonopoulou, a designer and children’s book writer-illustrator and Eleanor Dare, a fine artist who works with code. The Phi Books use the house as a metaphor for interdisciplinary collaboration. The two researcher-artists use narrative, audience participation, code-writing, and performance to explore how borders, walls and doors facilitate collaboration.



E. The Phi books is a collaborative project between Alexandra Antonopoulou, a designer and children’s book writer-illustrator .

A. and Eleanor Dare, a fine artist who works in code.

E. The Phi books use the house as a metaphor for interdisciplinary collaboration. This will be outlined and clarified in an article that is somewhat unorthodox in form, reflecting how our collaboration has become more and more performative. The article is therefore produced here in script-form, where we, as agent-actors (A= Alexandra E= Eleanor) take it in turn to read out and perform our themes and findings.

A. The project evolved in different stages from the initial formulation of written algorithmic fictions to technologically mediated and embodied systems for collaboration. It uses stories, theory, drawings, maps, charts, found objects, photographs, dreams, spies, keys, overheard conversations and meta-critical observations.

E. The Phi ‘neighbourhood’ or ‘territories’, representing our expanded practice, has extended into wider collaborative practices in which ‘house stories’ have been written by participants at our lectures and performances while using reiteration of mediums.

A. We were lead into more performative and interactive forms using real-time interactive programs. For example the ‘Phi Film’, software that played with people’s consent and participation and the use of motion capture technology where we asked people to physically perform their house stories as actors and active agents exploring collaboration.

But let us tell you bits of our story.

E. Our first presentation together was in 2008 when we both presented our individual projects at a regular interdisciplinary event called the 'Thursday Club' at Goldsmiths. During the discussion we found ourselves interweaving the passage of our research projects as if they formed one bisected, inter-dependent narrative.

A. Back then I wrote: Stories were like a secret code, a silent and camouflaged set of communication rules. We needed the stories to continue to communicate with each other, we needed to have a project as a mask to fulfill our thirst for telling stories. But wait a second that means collaboration! We were both odd and we did not even want to admit that we were already collaborating, we were scared of the spies, we were scared of losing our freedom, terrified that we will end up in uncomfortable situations. [1]

E. Our research fields seemed similar and yet they are different in many important ways. The common ground we share is fiction.

A. My research focuses on the educational-social-participative-heuristic role of story-making in designing. It involves partnerships with designers and children, facilitating them to author their own material and learn through play fiction and design, while using story-making as a design concept stimulus. I also create digital and physical tools for interactive story-making and I am interested in the use of story-making as a research methodology.

E. My practice centres upon the meaningful capabilities computation has to offer the arts. Throughout the last five years I have refined my practice into one that interrogates both the collision and synergy of digital and analogue art forms. My PhD research was primarily concerned with programming situated and responsive book forms that react dynamically to contextual and subjective moments in time.

A. We used English terraced houses as a metaphor for our research. Those houses have the same architecture and seem identical, but they are different since different people inhabit them.

E. We bought two identical books which were the metaphor for our houses. We wrote stories for each room in the houses and then we swapped the books to write a response to each other’s stories. This seemed to mirror an 'extreme programming' methodology in its agility and rapidity and in our attempts to 'break' each other's stories.

A. We used a mathematical algorithm to write a precise number of words for each room. The numbers of the words in each room were following the logic of the phi ratios, this was the foundational structure for our collaboration. Room one is 100 words. Room 2 is a room of 200 words, Room 3 is a room of 300 words. Room 4 is a room of 500 words. Room 5 is a room of 800 words. Room 6 is a room of 1300 words. [2]

E. To explain our writing algorithm: Ignoring the seed values, each remaining number is the sum of the previous two or F(n) = F(n-1) + F(n-2), for integer n > 1.

A. Room number 1 story: Room one is a tiny room just 100 words. What could it fit in a tiny space of 10x10 words? ‘The little prince was pale with anger, for millions of years flowers have been growing thorns and for millions of years sheep have still been eating flowers, and is it not worth trying to understand why they do go to such lengths to grow thorns which are of no use to them?’ (The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint- Exupéry). We are all sheep flowers, we eat and being eaten. [2] I used the idea of sheep flower as a metaphor for the collaboration process. We all have thorns to protect ourselves, but it is inevitable to be inspired by others and give inspiration to them as well. In our turn we are sheep taking from others even though they have thorns themselves

E. The stories are followed by note pages that reflect upon our thinking and link our stories with theoretically referenced texts.

A. By the time we reached room six, I had already instigated a full scale rebellion against the phi ratios, bursting out of their numerical constraints and inviting readers to do the same by writing their own stories. Eleanor joined in the rebellion by reverting to code, which is, of course, a type of language. At the same time she wrote in my territory, tunnelling into one of my rooms, and leaving words as provocations. She used stardust in her illustrations and these specks of shiny little dots where transferred into the whole book. That was the collaborative contamination. We used tight structures in order to define our individual territories which were eventually merged, giving birth to a wall-free collaboration.

E. In public we performed the Phi books, blurring the distinction between academic presentation and storytelling by playing the part of our fictional characters, drawing the audience into our ambiguous narratives of research and story-telling.

A. We wanted to maintain the logic of the Phi ratios in our performance as we did in our writing. We aimed to connect the linguistic to the sonic and to the spatial constraints of our collaboration.

E. We used sound to maintain the logic of the Phi ratios and to punctuate the performance. Each sound progressively expanded to reflect the increase in size of each room in the Phi house, according to the ancient Phi ratios. In the books each story’s word count corresponded to the ratios of the room it was based in. We modelled the room sizes computationally to get a reverberation that was fitted to the geometry of each room.

A. In Berlin we said: This performance is based on our interpretations of the project, characterising their joint work as a paradigm for joining individual practices, leading to a result that celebrates both collaboration and individuality. We are going to take our audiences inside our Phi houses, where they can interact with the installation of our Phi neighbourhood, looking at our houses and creating their own research houses in this neighbourhood. [1]

E. A participant wrote this: My study is full of books. I try to keep them on shelves but there isn't enough space so some are on the floor under the shelves, some on the furniture, and when I write gradually they circle me, on the desk round the lap-top and round my chair on the floor. Then I have to return them all - there is a system or rather systems. 

A. We chose to put this contribution into this article, but we couldn’t put them all in. How are we supposed to choose? We put them in a bucket shook them up and pulled one out. We didn’t like the first one so we did it again.

E. In London at the Inter-Art Symposium (2010) we devised an interactive application to comment on consent and participation, combining the physical space of writing performance with virtual space.

A. While the application was running we said: ‘Please attach a sticker to yourself. Please adhere a green sticker to signal your consent to participate, and a red sticker for dissent, meaning that you do not wish to participate in this performance. Place the sticker in a position that is clearly visible yet tasteful. Are they all in place? Then we can begin (…).Did you hear a smooth, metallic mechanism over by the door? A series of automatic locks have been activated. You are now confined in this room. Your detention gives you all ample opportunity to enjoy the fruits of participatory performance.' [3]

E. The Phi Meta Film was an interactive computer program written in Processing. It enabled us to project our own film of the Phi Books while grabbing colour values from live CCTV images of the River Thames, filtering those into the film and then gradually merging live images of the audience into that film and saving the new version. Here we have very quickly revealed our methodological foundations. Like many houses in London, the Phi houses have water flowing beneath them. The water that flows beneath our houses is an interface to the mutability our visible structures suppress. [3]

A. But is there really an ‘interface’ between us, a set of doors through which we will walk towards each other? Or is the concept of an interface a fallacy as Matthew Fuller has written? [4] Can there be such a thing? Right here, right now? If so, what form does it take? Is it an object or an event?

E. Our next destination was Stockholm
We stayed in a strange house in Stockholm. It had doors that lead to no where, multiple staircases. geometry was playing a large part everywhere, it all tied in somehow with the logic of the Phi Books.

A. We realized that we don’t just make stories, our lives are the stories.

E. We gave a talk in the library at Stockholm University, surrounded by books, in a sort of book womb. Alexandra and I both have a past of working in libraries, we share this silent occupation with our favourite authors, Georges Perec and Jorge Luis Borges. We see libraries as neighbourhoods of story-telling, much like the terraced houses of the Phi Territories.

A. ‘The only thing that remains is diving in the alleys of the books, sleepwalking guided by the books’ numbers. I feel like a blind mouse guided by the book voices. I have to put them all in place otherwise I will be punished. Sometimes I put them in the wrong place on purpose to separate them from their friends and family. They are suddenly between other books with different interests; they hesitantly talk to them. When they return to their right shelves they have new stories to tell. Certain books fall all the time in my head, they want to fill my mind with words, they scream, read me you fool...but I am just blind mouse.’ [2]

E. In 2010 we asked participants to perform their own stories. With the help of Marco Gilles and Andrea Kleinsmith and the 12 camera motion capture system at Goldsmiths we began to record the gestures and body performances of ourselves and others in recounting narratives of the rooms where we work, rest and create. The cameras translate people’s movements into lines or points detaching the self. In that case the participants become agents however their movement can still reveal who they are. We also aim to record the participant’s house stories with video-cameras in order to compare their graphically represented movement with their psychical self-represented performances. This will enable us to extrapolate new layers of embodied narrative and subjective articulation.

A. In our latest presentation at the Thursday club in 2011 after we performed our stories, we asked our participants to perform their own stories in real time. Even though, the Phi books became spatial (physical-virtual) neighborhoods and territories, we still want to call our project the 'Phi Books' as we believe that a book can be spatial, performable and independent, detached from its ordinary form.

E. We value, rather than problematize the difficulties of communication and mutual understanding. We looped with our participants through dizzying cycles of research and re-evaluation. The project is also a response to the inadequacy of historical models for both theorising and practicing creative research collaboration, and to an apparent lack of theoretical mobility across diverse disciplines.

A. The Phi Books entail research-by-practice in keeping with the complex and multi-faceted meanings the notion of research-by-practice evokes, and as evidenced by theorists of research and practice such as Graeme Sullivan, [5] Paul Carter, [6] Barbara Bolt. [7] and Henk Slager. [8]
Both our individual research activities and our collaborative work has contributed to our view that storytelling tools, whether analog or digital, must deploy the materiality of mediums, while also drawing upon the situatedness and subjectivity of human storytellers or story-makers.


E. As Stephen Wilson states, [9] we contribute to research by defining new questions, but also, at times, by ‘using systematic investigative processes to develop new technological possibilities or to discover useful new knowledge or perspectives’. One of the consequences of this project has been the questions we have generated for our collective and individual research, such as:

A. How can artists/designers/researchers communicate openly with each other during collaborative processes?

E. How can people learn through performing and making stories?

A. What is a book? Is the book-form performable? ‘I am the voice of the book you are writing on, your thoughts belong to me, you are part of the white pages, plain material, ink and paper. I am the carnival, I am what others see, I belong to everyone and you belong to me.' [2]

E. Can books be written by humans via methods and procedures more familiar to computer programmers?

A. How can making in conjunction with narrative lead to design innovation? How can story-making be used as a methodology for research projects?

E. We consider the Phi Books a system and a method that was embedded with the productive possibility of its own destruction. The possibility of destroying our own methods might be framed as an aspect of the Phi Book methodology, or ecological intersubjectivity, which, to quote Graeme Sullivan ‘acknowledges that the self and others are reflective and reflexive beings. This suggests that meaning is not contained within a form itself, say a person, painting or a poem, but exists within a network of social relations and discourse.’ [4]

A. The Phi Books project has illuminated naturalized, internalized notions of what Bill Gaver and Phoebe Sengers describe as ‘single, specific, clear interpretations of what systems are for and ‘how they should be used and experienced.’ [10]

E. This recognition has enabled us to step away from the ‘presumption that a specific, authoritative interpretation of the systems we build is necessary, possible or desirable.’ [10]

A. This is a voice from the flat next door. I am not a human; I am just a utopia machine, a placebo for my neighbours. I am helping them to hear their thoughts; they justify them through my existence. I might be an artificial pulse for the person living on the right of my flat, something completely different for someone else. I only wish there was another machine elsewhere, to hear myself ... the machine. [2]

References and Notes: 

1. Alexandra Antonopoulou, Eleanor Dare, Berlin Freie Universität,"InterArt" Berlin,16-18 November 2009. 

2. Alexandra Antonopoulou and Eleanor Dare, The Phi Books, 2008, Single edition artist's books.

3. Alexandra Antonopoulou and Eleanor Dare, Presentation at London, Inter-art Symposium (Goldsmiths-University of London, London, March 2010).

4. Matthew Fuller, "The Impossibility of Interface," in Behind the Blip, Essays on the Culture of Software (Brooklyn, NY, USA: Autonomedia, 2003).

5. Graeme Sullivan, Art Practice as Research (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2005).

6. Paul Carter, Material Thinking, The Theory and Practice of Creative Research (Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne University Press, 2004).

7.Barbara Bolt, Art Beyond Representation (London; New York: I.B.Tauris, 2003).

8. Henk Slager, Art and Reasearch, (accessed 29/06/11).

9. Stephen Wilson, Cultural Importance of Scientific Research & Technology Development, 1996, (accessed 29/07/11).

10. Bill Gavers and Phoebe Sengers, Staying open to interpretation: engaging multiple meanings in design and evaluation, 2006, (accessed 28/06/11).

Leave your stories-comments in our blog


T/Act - social empowerment through interaction with media artworks

This paper presents results from research made through a collaborative design process with selected individuals with severe physical disabilities. The work encourages and enables creative expression by the participants beyond everyday norms. Can a disruption of institutionalized conditioning according to class, education, gender and physical abilities be orchestrated by careful design and presentation of interactive artworks?


Our current lifestyle is focused and reliant upon media technologies. Our lives are organised through and by technology, such that we can easily forget the importance of physical social interaction rather than which are mediated by online social networks. Instead of being empowered by technology, humans are enslaved to its seductive powers. Is it possible to move away from this focus on the technological and rather discuss the act of using the interface and the product of that action and the content? Does access to media technology in itself empower the participant, particularly if that person is herself on the margins of society? The Eye Writer project is a superb example of open source media technologies being used to empower a specific individual (Tempt One) and others with a similar disabilitating disease (ALS). [1] As Tempt One himself states:

“Art is a tool of empowerment and social change, and I consider myself blessed to be able to create and use my work to promote health reform, bring awareness about ALS and help others.”

It is clear that the act of empowerment for Tempt One comes through a combination of access to the technology, the ability to once again create graffiti art, and his possibility to have a presence in the public city environment through the large scale urban projections of his tags. Each element is very specific to the individual in question. In the research described in this paper the author attempts a broader area of investigation. Can the use of media technologies enhance the possibilities for people with disabilities to express themselves creatively on equal terms with able bodied people?
This paper presents ongoing research into the effects of physical interaction with audiovisual systems through a discussion of the results and observations from collaborative design workshops organised for a group of people with disabilities. The author, as a media artist, had not considered working with people with disabilities until a visit by a group of students from Beaumont special school to the Lanternhouse International arts centre in the north of England where he was undertaking a residency. As these students with severe cerebral palsy were encouraged to touch and interact with the installation which was on display for them, it became apparent that the colour, form, sound and overall interactive environment they were confronted with provided a powerful and provocative stimulus, causing emotional reactions which surprised their carers. A follow-up visit to the college showed that although well equipped with musical instruments, media and audio software, most solutions were generalized rather than individually tailored to each student’s needs. This approach may work for the able-bodied person where we all have approximately the same physical abilities, but for a person with disabilities this can be totally inappropriate and very frustrating for all involved. Together with musician Alan Fitzgerald the author proposed to develop bespoke electronic interfaces for a small group of students. In particular it was hoped to examine the following question: If a unique interface is created specifically for a particular individual, can an examination of the use of this interface lead us to answer questions regarding interface design in general? Unfortunately at the time it was not possible to carry out this project in England, but since the beginning of 2011 the author has been investigating similar themes through participatory design workshops with people with disabilities belonging to the Taika Dance group in Turku, Finland. The majority of the participants are electric wheelchair users and have severely limited use and control of their physical bodies, while some have more mobility. They have their own social networks, yet as a whole they can be regarded as on the margins of society with little voice or visibility. Does access to media technology and the ability to create visual and audio performance lead to a wider social empowerment in society for people like these with disabilities? Does the same effect happen for the wider public at large when they are able to interact deeply with a media art work?

Through a participatory design process, the aim of the workshop sessions has been to develop personal interfaces which might be thought of as bespoke electronic musical instruments made for each individual. Due to the practical difficulties involved with all aspects of the collaboration – logistics, communication, and basic bodily needs – progress has been slow, but fruitful. As this group of people have had no prior possibility to make sound or music, the process started with getting to know each other via “off the shelf” solutions. A midi keyboard and controller were used to provide an immediate experience of actually creating different sounds. Using Max/MSP and Reason software, samples and sound parameters could easily be modified. Sounds were also recorded from the participants own voices and mobile phones to use as samples. Even at this simple level, the experience of hearing one’s own voice played back and modified to create interesting or weird sounds was stimulating for the group. Participants soon felt confident to contribute their own ideas and suggestions for the sounds.

The next level of interaction involved gradually introducing different types of electronic sensors and interfaces, allowing the participants to experiment and play with sound in ways that were totally new for them. The author is familiar with using analogue sensors for data collection, interfacing through the Arduino microcontroller to PCs. Now it was necessary to develop methods of using the electronics so that they would not restrict the users’ limited physical movements. Fortunately there are many small footprint solutions readily available on the market. The selected solution was to use short range radios to send the data to remote PCs. The X-Bee radio together with an Arduino Fio has so far proven to be the best solution, as radios can be networked to send data simultaneously to one PC. The type of sensors used range from simple flex and pressure sensors, accelerometers, and compass modules, to perhaps the most useful, the 9 DOF Razor IMU which provides angle of orientation data in all directions. [2] The emphasis on hardware development had been on the novel use of existing electronic components and not the actual development of new technology per se, although this does include the creation of custom sensors and switches using soft circuitry for example. The exploitation of small wireless devices means that the usual restrictions caused by signal wires are removed, and any impediments to the physical body are minimized. The approach used is to concentrate on the movements that the participants are able to make, rather than design an interface that they would have to adapt to.

The focus is on ABILITY rather than DIS-ability. They play according to their own abilities, and can focus on developing that skill. The aim is to discover appropriate forms of interface and sound according to each person’s physical abilities and musical interest. The dynamics of social interaction between the members of the group is also mediated by the technology. It can be observed that there is an eagerness to be the one performing. At the current stage of the project only one or two people have been able to use the interfaces simultaneously. Now that the physical abilities of each of the members have been understood, appropriate personalised interfaces are under development.

As much as possible the motivation for the design of these interfaces comes from the participants themselves as they experiment with the prototypes. One example is a control interface made as a cushion for a wheelchair user – she can control media and play sounds by shifting her weight on the chair. Made with Arduino and Open Frameworks, the interface is very sensitive, intuitive and fun to use. It can be thought of as a dance mat for wheelchair users, yet it is equally useable by the able-bodied. This is at the core of the research: through the development of new media interfaces for a small group of very particular people, gain insight into empowerment through human interaction with audio visual systems in general. Even though the participants have sensory systems different to the regular population, the goal is to make this difference invisible through the medium of the art performance. With the Taika Dance group the aim is to perform publically at the end of 2011.

The use of computer mediated technologies opens up further possibilities for social interaction. Networked technologies, such as video, audio and telematic control of devices allow these physically challenged participants to interact with others over large distances (such as Finland-UK). There is the potential to enable people with disabilities to collaborate remotely and perform highly advanced works to a geographically dispersed public audience. The use of telematic and virtual spaces allows flexibility in developing personal navigable space for each participant – finding the comfort zone for each individual is extremely important when they may not feel comfortable exposing their physical self to a live audience, but a tele-mediated performance maybe an exciting and liberating alternative. The author can foresee other groups of users/participants such as older people making use of these same systems to create their own networked performative works, mixing the security of their personal space with the empowerment of performing to a virtual audience online.
Collaborative performance shifts interaction and participatory behaviour onto a social level. The research aims to develop a methodology for observing the changing role of creator-interactor-viewer and the effects on the social interaction of the participants. How does narrative structure and a shared sense of social space lead towards development of temporary community? In the case of the Taika Dance group, the participants are already known to each other, but through the performative act they are able to transform their own self-image and their perceived role in society. They become activators of their own destiny for that moment in time – they are no-longer abject objects on the margins of society but proud performers in their own right. These works enable investigation of enactive engagement in collaborative activity with playful, participatory artworks, environments and performances. These include accessible and easy use – easy control interfaces that give inexperienced users control over creative acts and allow them to explore artistic experience through their natural body movements and perceptually guided actions.
The dialectical method facilitates the benchmarking of the generalist approach with that of the highly defined individually focused approach. By focusing on people with special needs (brain damage, physical handicap) in this case, the research adds to the discussion of reactions to interaction stimuli and control in the average adult human. Just as the blind person’s sense of hearing is amplified, so it may be that someone with severely limited movement can actually have an acute sense of control over a range far too limited for the normal person to perceive. Work by Saranjit Birdi with special needs patients in the UK supports this proposition. [3] The bespoke device or environment designed for the individual also acts as a window into their world, as we are able to experience the physical or virtual world through their interface, their experience. In particular Merleau-Ponty’s discussion of the body schema illustrates how examination of a unique individual helps us to understand the wider landscape. [4]

As is alluded to in the title of this paper, the motivation for the research is to understand if and how social empowerment can be orchestrated through interaction with media artworks. Can a disruption or disturbance of institutionalized conditioning according to class, education, gender and physical abilities be affected by careful design and presentation of the interactive artwork? It is vital that the interactive experience invites and encourages social interaction between the participants themselves, as it is only through social activity that the self-image can be positively developed. Can the artwork create a community of presence, an opportunity for living in the moment leading to unpredictable (inter)activity within the social group? The artistic TAZ (Temporary Autonomous Zone) acts as a revealing agent within society using the tools of poetic terrorism to disrupt the status quo. [5] Hakim Bey’s concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone has been proposed by Geert Lovink as a model for network based communities of interest. [6] Having worked extensively with 3D virtual communities in the past, the author can say that the behaviours observed in physically interactive environments can be identical to those seen in the TAZ of virtual communities. The physical artwork (environment, installation) becomes a point of focus for social interaction AND empowerment, as the normal rules of engagement within the public (museum) space are temporarily ignored in favour of those created by the participants themselves.  We are forced to reappraise the traditional models for spectator vs. artist, as new tools and technologies allow the barriers to interaction to become transparent. The role of the artist or designer changes to become that of a facilitator or producer for a larger group of participants. In fact, the artist creates the situation, and the possibilities for others to bring to life, and accordingly the role of the artist as the author becomes less significant. Curator and theorist Nicolas Bourriaud regards that we have passed into a new “altermodern” era where artistic production is concerned with the weaving of “relationships” between people and things, where the artist “viatorises” objects to build narratives through “post production” techniques – the re-use of artefacts, sampling, a mixing of cultures and signs. [7] The discourse, the social activity, becomes the work itself.

By contrasting the generic with the specific, this research has set out to uncover new information about the benefits, desire and motivation to interact with complex technologically driven systems, as well as proposals for rules and methods for the creation of artistic communities of presence. The work together with Taika Dance encourages and enables creative expression by the participants beyond their everyday norms. The eventual goal is to have an understanding of how to enable deep audience participation in live performative events and interactive environments through their interaction and control of audiovisual and robotic systems.

References and Notes: 

1. The EyeWriter Project website. Free Art and Technology (FAT), OpenFrameworks and the Graffiti Resarch Lab: Tempt1, Evan Roth, Chris Sugrue, Zach Lieberman,Theo Watson and James Powderly. (accessed June 28, 2011).
2. An inertial measurement unit, or IMU, is an electronic device that measures and reports on a craft's velocity, orientation, and gravitational forces, using a combination of accelerometers and gyroscopes. (accessed June 29, 2011).
3. Saranjit Birdi, Thisability (2010) Online documentation and artist statement, (accessed July 4, 2011).
4. Maurice Merly-Ponty, “The spatiality of one’s own body and motility” in Phenomenology of Perception (Abingdon and New York: Routledge Classics 2008, 1945, eng 1962), 112-177.
5.  Hakim Bey, "The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism" (Autonomedia 1985, 1991) (accessed July 4, 2011).
6. Geert Lovink, “The Data Dandy and Sovereign Media, An Introduction to the Media Theory of ADILKNO,” Lecture for the Fifth International Symposium on Electronic Art, Helsinki, 24 August 1994.
7. Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Paris: Les Presses du Reel, 1988, eng 2002); Altermodern (London: Catalogue Tate Triennial, 2009).


I want to touch you: Transreal Aesthetics in virus.circus

virus.circus follows the viral as a transversal line of inquiry that intersects with the militarization of medical authority, microscopic transnational migrations and global economic inequality. virus.circus is an episodic series of performances using wearable electronics, soft sensors and live audio to bridge virtual and physical spaces.


Due to recent viral outbreaks, protective latex barriers must be worn at all times.

Skin to skin contact may result in viral contamination.

Failure to comply will result in a minimum of 10 years in a federal penitentiary.

Touching, and illness, are prohibited by law.

The virus must be contained.

virus.circus follows the viral as a transversal line of inquiry that intersects with the militarization of medical authority, microscopic transnational migrations and global economic inequality. Consisting of an episodic series of performances using wearable electronics, soft sensors and live audio to bridge virtual and physical spaces, the performances explore queer futures of latex sexuality and DIY medicine amidst a speculative world of virus hysteria. The history of queer politics shows that the rhetoric of viruses such as HIV are used to control marginalized populations, while the response to viruses such as H1N1 reproduce these structures of power.

Transnational Inspirations

virus.circus was conceived on our flight back from the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics Encuentro in Bogotá, Colombia, as we reflected on the inspiring performances we saw and the news of President Uribé’s infection with H1N1. Deeply inspired by performances by La Pocha Nostra, Nao Bustamante, Tania Bruguera and Danza Contemporánea Integrada ConCuerpos, we decided to create a series of performances focused on an imagined future narrative where the virus hysteria of today and the resulting militarization of medicine in airports, hospitals and other public spaces, was even more omnipresent and legalized.

Living in the US/Mexico borderlands, living in San Diego and collaborating with artists in Tijuana, the effects of H1N1 were perhaps more apparent to us than in many other parts of the country. In April of 2009, the World Health Organization declared an outbreak of a new virus strain, Influenza A (H1N1), which raised great concern for its ability to move from pigs to humans.[1] On April 30th of 2009, the government of Mexico declared a 5 day shut down of major parts of its economy, and we watched the streets of Tijuana completely empty of people as businesses suffered. [2] By June 11th of 2009 over 10,000 cases of H1N1 were identified worldwide and the World Health Organization declared it a global pandemic.[3] 

Our inspiration for virus.circus came from witnessing the intersections of the response to the virus with structural racism and control over people’s movement. A notice to students sent out campus wide suggested three ways to avoid the H1N1 flu: “1. Use good personal hygiene… 2. Avoid close contact with people who are ill… 3. Avoid non-essential travel to Mexico”.


The notice clearly reinforced structural racism against Mexico by choosing the ability to stay out of Mexico as one of its three main strategies for people to avoid illness, in effect making the students, staff and faculty who attend UCSD and live in Mexico invisible and secondary in efforts to maintain the health of the UCSD population. A second notice, sent only to a single research unit at UCSD said the following “A… researcher has a confirmed case of the H1N1 flu.  He came into… to work on his research project yesterday, 10/14.  He is now confined to his home until he fully recovers.” The implication here is that employers, in this case Universities, can choose to restrict the movement of their employees based on an evaluation of their health. 

The political effects of the H1N1 virus resonate with the ways that the HIV virus was associated with gay men. As the performance “Let the Record Show” by Gran Fury / ACT-UP re-performed and documented in 1987, a disturbing confluence of religion and nationalism with homophobia was prevalent in the US. With virus.circus, we sought to revisit and explore the implications of virus politics by imagining a future world in which the precautions against a disease like H1N1, spread much easier than HIV, were a part of daily life. 

Erotic Politics, Erotic Affect

virus.circus asks how erotic affect can be a form of resistance to hegemonic narratives of embodiment reproduced by western medicine. Our strategy was to show that the erotic could still be a form of resistance in a world controlled by virus hysteria. As queer erotic practices have been the subject of structural oppression in modern western society, we sought to understand how the energy of erotic affect can be a source of resistance to forms of power which seek to extinguish it and also how erotic practices are shaped by the conditions of power under which they exist. To explore these possibilities, we imagined a world in which skin to skin contact is completely prohibited and, in reference to the condoms used to avoid HIV and the gloves used to avoid H1N1, latex barriers are required to be worn at all times. An initial gesture to create the scenario was to take a number of standard Center for Disease Control posters, which had become very prevalent after H1N1, and to modify them with our imagined future restrictions, including “failure to comply will result in a minimum of 10 years in a federal penitentiary”, pointing to the convergence of medicine with the Prison Industrial Complex. We then distributed these posters throughout San Diego in public spaces and also displayed them throughout the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, where we performed an episode of virus.circus.

Through a series of erotic experiments, virus.circus explores erotic forms of expression that do not involve touch, or which minimize touch, creating a deterritorialized erotics that appears unfamiliar to the viewer and allows them to imagine new narratives of erotic embodiment and new possibilities of sexuality and gender. In virus.circus.touch the two performers first weave throughout the audience and then face each other from across the room. We then walk towards each other slowly, focusing on the erotics of expectation, focusing on trying to arouse each other with eye contact and the way that we are walking. For this performance, an infared distance sensor was sewn into our costumes, which allowed us to move our Second Life avatars closer to each other as we walked, mirroring our physical distance. Our multiple simultaneous embodiment through our Second Life avatars is a transreal gesture that further deterritorializes our embodiment and adds dimensions of gender including transspecies, cyborg and mythological characteristics.

In virus.circus.breath, we focused on three types of breathing. The performance begins with rapid hysterical breathing as we attempt to bring the audience into the alternate reality by telling them, with great distress, “for your protection and the protection of others, please wear your mask” and “the virus must be contained”, and handing them a medical mask commonly used to avoid H1N1. At this point we often faced concerned audience members who demanded to know why they needed to put on their mask and at times left the performance. We then proceeded to erotic breath control, in which Cárdenas wore latex gloves and slowly restricted the amount of air that Mehrmand could breathe. For this segment, we used a hand made pressure sensor constructed from neoprene, conductive thread and conductive fabric that detected the amount of pressure applied to Mehrmand’s neck and changed the quality of the sound of our breathing, amplified with microphones inside of our masks


. The final part of the performance sees us lying on stage, below the projected image of our avatars having sex, doing tantric breathing to induce simultaneous energy orgasms. Here we are performing as two characters who are living within the restrictions of their society but still find ways of having erotic moments together. We imagine the fear of the rhetoric viruses as a trapping of logic that can be shaken off by the excess of orgasmic affect within the context of resistant practices creating their own new narratives of erotic encounter. 

In virus.circus.probe we see the characters begin to resist the hegemony of western medicine and the narrative of fear of infection that is so central to it by developing their own Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Medicine and Femme Science. The authority of western medicine is coded into laws preventing acts such as practicing medicine without a license and which threaten years of imprisonment. Yet the amount of medical knowledge available to people is rapidly expanding both with the advent of websites such as and with the widespread access to personal biometric technologies. The cyberfeminist collective Subrosa has pointed out in their book Yes Yes that “the rise of the University-educated male medical doctor” coincided with “the banishing of common (female and people’s) knowledge gained from centuries of inquiry, experimentation, and practice, represents one of the greatest losses to the medical and scientific world in Western history”.


In virus.circus we imagine two queer femmes who resist the system of knowledge known as Western Medicine, a system that their society uses to define their bodies and sexualities, by creating their own medicine.

Performing what we imagine to be Femme Science as proposed by Lisa Duggan and Kathleen McHugh


, in virus.circus.probe Mehrmand uses a metal instrument to test Cardenas’ body, learning the contours and limits of her body, violating the hegemony of doctors as the only agents with power of knowledge of the body. Queer femme here is imagined as an affect created through embodied gestures that resist a claim that femininity is passive, and in contrast reflects an intentional construction of gender and forms of pleasure. Using conductive thread, we created a touch sensitive dress that responds to Mehrmand’s various touches by changing the pitch of the bass sound emanating from the sound system. Wearing Polar Team 2 heart rate monitors allows us to display on a laptop the R-R interval values for our heart rate, a number representing the number of milliseconds between the R peak of our heart beats which can be analyzed to determine breath rate and which areas of the autonomous or parasympathetic nervous system are in use. Continuing on, Mehrmand tests Cardenas’ limits by inserting the testing instrument into her anus. An accelerometer sewn into Mehrmand’s glove detects the speed of each thrust, applying a proportional amount of vibration to her vagina with a strap on motor also wired to the glove. As the performance unfolds, the audience stands in a circle around the testing moment, recalling the medical amphitheater and implicating them as voyeurs in a shared intimate erotic moment of medical testing as foreplay and sex. As the scene unfolds, a graph of our heart rates is also drawn in Second Life, above our avatars looping in a sexual penetration animation. 

Mixed and Alternate Reality

Wearable electronic garments allow the performers to experiment with transreal embodiment, extending their physical bodies sonically and virtually. virus.circus attempts to immerse the audience/participants in an alternate reality by creating a slippage of perception. Code switching between mixed and alternate reality, virus.circus asks how we can use reality as a medium, resonating across a number of modes including public space interventions, performances in museums and galleries, and networked performances to create augmented, alternate and mixed reality scenarios. 


Across episodes including virus.circus.touch, virus.circus.breath andvirus.circus.probe, New possibilities of embodied knowledge unfold through the sonification and visualization of biometric data including heart rate and R-R intervals, as well as data from an ultrasonic rangefinder bra, a pressure sensing choking collar, touch sensitive dress and a motion sensitive glove that controls a strap-on vibrator. We have developed open source hardware and software to facilitate new forms of erotic expression, deterritorializing our everyday erotic practices to make them nearly unrecognizable in order to facilitate imagining them as future narratives of resistance to the confluence of medicine and structural oppression. 

Source Code

The following code is an excerpt from a patch for Second Life that reads from a local file and moves two objects in the virtual world of Second Life. We have used this code for numerous performances, including virus.circus.touch and drawing a heart rate graph in virus.circus.probe. We use Puredata as a bridge to read the data from the arduino and write that to a local file and then we use this code to read that file and move objects in Second Life. The patch applies to llappviewer.cpp in the Second Life 2.0 codebase. The complete patch can be found at 

// virus.circus patch 


//set the UUID of the object to move

LLViewerObject *objectFound = gObjectList.findObject(LLUUID("38ee12bb-...-fa23e356e8a2"));


if (objectFound)


LLVector3 objectPos = objectFound->getPosition();

objectPos[2] = numFromPd;            //home z - 278.575;



LLViewerRegion* current_region = objectFound->getRegion();     


if (current_region && (! gMessageSystem->isSendFull(NULL)))



      U32      *type32 = (U32 *)&update_type;

      U8 type = (U8)*type32;

      U8      data[256];

      S32 offset = 0;




      gMessageSystem->addUUIDFast(_PREHASH_AgentID, gAgent.getID());

      gMessageSystem->addUUIDFast(_PREHASH_SessionID, gAgent.getSessionID());


      gMessageSystem->addU32Fast(_PREHASH_ObjectLocalID,      objectFound->getLocalID() );

      gMessageSystem->addU8Fast(_PREHASH_Type, type );


      htonmemcpy(&data[offset], &(objectFound->getPosition().mV), MVT_LLVector3, 12);

      offset += 12;

      LLQuaternion quat = objectFound->getRotation();

      LLVector3 vec = quat.packToVector3();

      htonmemcpy(&data[offset], &(vec.mV), MVT_LLQuaternion, 12);

      offset += 12;   

      gMessageSystem->addBinaryDataFast(_PREHASH_Data, data, offset);           







References and Notes: 


  6. The pressure sensor was constructed based on documentation from Mika Satomi and Hannah Perner-Wilson,
  7. Subrosa Collective, Yes Species, p. 53,
  8. “A Fem(me)inist Manifesto”, Lisa Duggan and Kathleen McHugh, in Brazen Femme, edited by Chloe Brushwood Rose and Anna Camilleri





Recombinant Fiction theoretical Paper and Manifesto.

Recombinant Fiction defines a unique transmedia storytelling genre able to drive tactical activism and dramatic purposes.


Recombinant Fiction Introduction

In previous ages, mediums for narrating fiction such as theater, literature, cinema and television have defined languages, models and formats; each media development provided an expressive shift in forms of storytelling. Nowadays, media are multiplying, hybridizing, and mutating. The way they are used alters continually, potentially creating new ways of producing fiction and spectacle. 

Networked digital media merge as a productive vehicle to create new forms of fiction. In fact, the rise of forms of storytelling such as ‘Transmedia Storytelling,’ ‘Alternative Reality Games,’ ‘Transfiction,’ ‘Dispersed Fiction’ and ‘Viral and Guerrilla Marketing’ is a clear sign of an important revolution in ways to tell stories.

Recombinant Fiction emerges as a political and aesthetic fiction genre of this new immersive and participative form of art. By identifying valuable, distinctive characteristics and objectives, Recombinant Fiction defines a unique genre able to drive tactical activism and dramatic purposes.

Our contemporary media environment era is characterized by the explosion of Personal Media [1] (devices with platforms for email, instant messenger, blogs, photo and video sharing services, etc.) resulting in new modes of personal expression and interpersonal relations. Nonetheless, Mass Media continues to grow as well. Networked media generates new channels and interconnected devices for consuming entertainment and news (proprietary web platforms, digital TV, portable video/reader players, screen billboard, etc.). This results in the deregulation of advertising restrictions and privacy policies by the corporate media complex to boost the flux of information. Additionally, networked digital technologies accelerate and facilitate the production of offline and analog spaces of information (print-on-demand, production of manufactures, organization of public assembly, mapping public spaces, etc.). This results in a new mass of active prosumers, and a general increase of information in interior and urban landscapes.

All of the above listed media are digital in origin, and therefore easily reproducible and transmissible through networks (Internet, GSM, Wi-Fi, etc.). Networked digital media generate an intensification of flux, interactions and processes of communication. The informative environment, created by all those media that broadcast messages, is defined as the Infosphere. [2] This conceptual sphere is the space in which modern society is immersed; where people express themselves, build their own realities and manage societal organization.

In this context, a modern form of fiction should be narrated by networked media and staged in the Infosphere, which can be used as the medium to dramatize reality and find a way to change it by a dramatic representation, as humanity has always done.


1) The fiction is told through traditional news media, online social media and public space interventions. The pieces of the fiction converge and evolve in one rhizomatic stage, synchronized and organized by networked digital media.

2) The fiction has conflicts and resolutions amongst characters with engaging personalities. There are no challenges or gaming aims for the audience, it must be pure fiction and its nature should be obscured but not hidden.

3) The fiction penetrates reality by including real entities in the narrative. The created fictional reality is made from contemporary real-world patterns, which are semiologically relinked and mutable in the narrative elements.

4) The fiction is interactive and participative. It is unfolded with the active interaction of an audience that can participate in it by creating characters and reshaping the storyline through their personal media and by public interventions.

5) The fiction has activist and educational qualities to achieve social change goals, by spotting controversial identities or organizations, or by increasing awareness of real world plights. It must at all times be without commercial or promotional purposes.

Theory for practicing Recombinant Fiction:

Recombinant Fiction is composed of layered mediums, spaces, identities and modes, which can be seen as formally interconnected as a rhizome. [3] The rhizome reflects the abstract network structure, the configuration of the Infosphere. The fiction is told through the convergence [4] of narratives broadcast by networked media. Organized and synchronized, these media create a rhizomatic space of narrative information that audiences can unfold and participate with.


The convergence of narrative elements broadcast by the media is facilitated by the semiological links that can be created among them. Each media of the rhizome is directed organically to broadcast narrative elements of the story that refer to each other. The networked convergence of scenographic elements creates a rhizomatic totality, recognizable as single stage, where the story is told and evolves. This stage embodies the Infosphere, denoted by the media that broadcast messages and by the messages themselves. The broadcast narrative signs are linked together in a network of signifiers, which constitutes the rhizome in which all the signs used in the narrative build the environment of the fiction. As in semiotization [5] in theater, in the Infosphere, signs present in the narrative rhizome became functional to the construction of the fiction.

The fiction is unfolded by links that refer to each other, creating a semiotic, networked storyline within which the audience can be actively surrounded. This unfoldment should not have challenges or ludic elements. Instead, it should simply be easy to interact with and readable by the audience.

Furthermore, this process of semiotization through linking, quoting and cloning signs of reality is thought to integrate real entities into the fiction, transforming real-world patterns into fictional ones, and vice versa, fictional patterns of the story can be perceivable as real.


Characters in Recombinant Fiction use networked media to enter into dialog and articulate their messages. Characters show their digitally created masks and tell their stories through the disseminated media of the Infosphere that fit   and build their personalities.

General identities and entities are made by pieces of information broadcast; which build their existences in the Infosphere and influence directly their presence in the ordinary physical world. The informational body that is broadcast in the Infosphere through media can materialize the representation of the self, a general agency and any activity. This state of being empowers the characters of the fiction to enact their roles with masks that appear realistic and familiar to the audience. Hence, the way characters use these media reveals personality traits and intensifies the emphatic effect on audiences.

Considering the audiences present in the rhizomatic stage of the fiction, they are able to unfold the story and follow the characters’ revelations with immediate ease, because characters and audience members share the same tools of expression and communication. This enables the audience to participate in stories by converging their mediated identities of the Infosphere into the rhizomatic narrative stage through their Personal Media (or other media of the Infosphere) and by having direct conversations with the main characters – or even creating new characters - and adding new elements to the dynamic storyline.

The audiences know how to have control over their own characters, since they build their identities and related relationships with others through networked digital media in everyday life. Often the projection of the self onto the Infosphere is characterized by the attempt to appeal to others. This sort of internalization of the spectacularization of representation of the self facilitates the personal reinvention for the performative acting in the fiction.

Through their participation, audiences turn into characters of the fiction. As they develop their personas and create new narrative aspects, the storyline takes shape and opens to new dramatic concepts. In their new participatory role, the audience consciously performs a responsible act in the fiction's dual being, which is both inside the actual social reality and in the fictional story. As the audience shapes the story, they become aware of its fictitious double identity.


The fiction uses variable forms of dramaturgical structures with interweaved situations among characters. The story is told with dialogs, statements, monologs, public interventions and actions about a fictional scenario that take place in a storyline over the Infosphere’s stage.

Characters tell of discoveries, conflicts, reversal, resolution and twists of their existences, through background dramas of interior feelings and foreground plots of public fights. The fiction should trigger the original aims of dramatization of the human condition for cathartic functions, representation of possibilities, and escapism from daily pressures through engaging stories.

In the first person narrative voice, main and minor characters communicate their experiences and claims directly to the audience with their masks. Characters’ voices are broadcast over social and any media functional to the expression of the characters. Concurrently other media broadcast information to build the scenography and the atmosphere of the drama.

The fiction is broadcast live. Narrative situations happen in real time. Narrative information is communicated simultaneously with the characters’ declarations and dialogs, creating a spectacle that occurs during a concentrated span of time. Audiences permeate the story as they find themselves engaged with the progress of fiction or as they attend scheduled dramatic events.

The action line oscillates on a variable mutable timeline. Multiple references among situations and characters on the timeline make it unbroken and comprehensible as a complete reticulated sequence of narrative occurrences. After the live broadcast, the final documentation of all the narrative elements allows audiences to browse the fiction permanently.

The drama is set in the present, with scenarios contextual to the contemporary society and scripts similar to the ordinary behaviors of the audience. In order to thoroughly penetrate reality with an active fiction, the topic of the main conflict in the fiction should be a real world social matter familiar to the audience and engaged with mainstream media content.

The fictional nature is declared; the audience must notice or perceive to attend at a fictional drama, through narrative patterns blurred with real patterns, to involve the audience in an immersive fiction. Real and illusory events come to inform each other. Memory and associative processes are subtly moving and shifting at all times in relation to the present context.

Tactical functions of the fiction

Over the course of human history, stories have always been used to understand and interpret reality, from religions to ideologies, beliefs and identifications in large narratives have defined civilizations. However, it is in our mediated society that stories replace realities in creating fragmented artificial worlds and capturing people’s minds and imaginations within them. Reality continues to be redefined not only by its narrated image as fabricated by the entertainment and media industries, but recently also by the single individual who thinks and produces his/her own image to fit the artificial worlds.

Only by dramatizing the artificial reality of the Infosphere can audiences understand and then change their physical reality, over which they have recently lost control. Recombinant Fiction is about staging a drama inside the hyper-reality and spectacularization of society to engage participants in a process as political agents.

The endeavor toward an efficient modern drama with effective outcomes requires strategy on stages and mediums as well as the employment of a language and aesthetic that speaks to the mindset of an individualized audience. The educational, informative and transformative purposes of the dramatic actions should be developed for motivating and transforming audiences usually indifferent to social issues and for mobilizing victims of oppression. This can be accomplished by infiltrating the audience’s language and environments with stories and characters that tempt the attention and interest of the target. Through identification with the characters’ dilemmas and public claims, Recombinant Fiction becomes a useful tool to reach new and large audiences whilst creating concern for social issues.

Tactical Recombinant Fiction is a powerful art form to exchange in human consciousness, demystify absurd beliefs, undermining unethical powers and inform on social problems.

Theories that have inspired Recombinant Fiction:

"Recombinant Theatre" by Critical Art Ensemble
"Invisible and Forum Theatre" by Augusto Boal
"TransMedia Storytelling" and "Convergence Culture" by Henry Jenkins
"Dispersed Fiction" by Jason Nelson
"TransFiction" by Alok Nandi

References and Notes: 
  1. “The digitalization and personal use of media technologies have destabilized the traditional dichotomization between mass communication and interpersonal communication, and therefore between mass media and personal media.”
    Marika Lüders, "Conceptualizing personal media," New Media & Society Vol. 10, No. 5 (2008): 683 - 702.
  2. “The infosphere denotes the whole informational environment constituted by all informational entities (thus including informational agents as well), their properties, interactions, processes and mutual relations.”
    Luciano Floridi, "Ethics in the Infosphere," in The Philosophers' Magazine 6 (2001): 18 - 19.
  3. Related to the theory of Rhizome as “Principles of connection and heterogeneity: any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be.”
    Giles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, A thousand plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004).
  4. “‘Convergence’ must be understood as a process that has several different manifestations." Henry Jenkins, "Convergence? I diverge." MIT Technology Review, June 21, 2001,
  5. “The semiotization of an element of performance occurs when it appears clearly as the sign of something. Within the framework of the stage or the theatrical event, all that is presented to the audience becomes a sign that 'wishes' to communicate a signified.”
    Patrice Pavis, Christine Shantz, Dictionary of the theatre: terms, concepts, and analysis (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998).
  6. Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death (London: Sage, 1993).
  7. Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed (London: Pluto Press, 2008).

Extra bibliography:

  • Nicholas Abercrombie and Brian Longhurst, Audiences, Sage: London, 1998.
  • Konrad Becker, Strategic Reality Dictionary: Deep Infopolitics and Cultural Intelligence, New York: Autonomedia, 2009.
  • Doyle Canning and Patrick Reinsborough, Reimagining Change: How to Use Story-based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World, Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2010.
  • John W. Gosney, Beyond Reality: A Guide to Alternate Reality Gaming, Independence, KY: Course Technology PTR, 2005.
  • Janine Marchessault and Susan Lord, eds., Fluid Screens, Expanded Cinema, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.
  • Richard Schechner, Performance Theory, London: Taylor & Francis, 1988.
  • Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.
  • Paul Watzlawick, The Language of Change, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1993.

Robots as social actors: audience perception of agency, emotion and intentionality in robotic performers

This paper looks at the different ways audiences perceive and respond to anthropomorphic and bio-mimetic qualities in robotic characters, specifically their perceptions of agency, emotion and intentionality. The author argues that it is audience perception rather than the innate qualities of the robot that determines successful robot-audience interactions.


Analyzing Robotic Performance

This paper analyzes robots as performative entities that create themselves in the moment of their performance and also looks at how audiences perceive and interpret those performances through observation and interaction. Interactions between humans and robots take place in a variety of different contexts. Some of these contexts are explicitly performative or theatrical, including Honda’s ASIMO conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Hiroshi Ishiguro’s female android Geminoid-F acting in the Japanese play Sayonara and Louis-Philippe Demers’s robotic performers in Australian Dance Theatre’s (ADT) Devolution. These performances are all tightly scripted and rehearsed. Other human-robot interactions take place in more open environments, such as art galleries and museums where audiences can interact with robots in unscripted interactive encounters. Nevertheless, I would argue that there is a theatrical performative element to all public displays of robots. All robots are in essence performers: they are designed to act and interact in the world and are programmed (scripted) to perform in particular ways.

How then can we best analyze the performances of robots across both theatrical and non-theatrical environments? Moreover, how do audiences respond to these robotic performances? While there are a growing number of studies analyzing robots as performers, particularly from the domain of performance studies, [1] [2] [3] [4] it is the work of sociologist Erving Goffman that proves to be particularly useful in analyzing robotic performances and interactions with humans across both theatrical and non-theatrical contexts, such as art galleries and museums.

In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman views all human social interaction as a type of acting. We don’t have to be on a literal theatrical stage to act, we are all actors who craft and perform different versions of ourselves in our everyday lives depending on which social situations we are in and who we are interacting with. Goffman uses the metaphor of the theater to describe how we move between back stage and front stage arenas using various techniques of “impression management” such as selecting different modes of dress, speech and behavior to perform these different presentations of self to our different audiences. [5]

Using Goffman’s theatrical framework, we can analyze the physical appearance and behavior of the robot along with its staging and theatrical mise-en-scène to see how these all play a part in framing the robotic performance and how it is perceived and interpreted by audiences. The back stage preparation of the robot’s appearance and behavior includes its design, fabrication and assembly, as well as more conventional types of costuming and dressing up. How the robot is then presented to an audience, whether this is in a theater, gallery, museum or trade show, also contributes to the overall impression the robot will make.

We can break down these aspects as follows:

  • Appearance (robot morphology, for example machinic, biomorphic, zoomorphic, anthropomorphic, and costuming)
  • Behavior (the robot’s movement and actions including its interaction with its environment and with other actors)
  • Context (this includes the environment within which the performance takes place and aspects of theatrical mise-en-scène such as setting, props and lighting)

Goffman’s description of back stage and front stage arenas and the team efforts frequently involved in these everyday presentations of self marries itself very well to the production context of robotic performance, which typically includes the artist as well as literal teams of technologists, assistants and handlers who work behind the scenes in the presentation of the robotic artwork. In this team effort, the agency of the performance may be distributed in a variety of different ways between the members of the team and the robot itself. The robot may perform completely autonomously and have its own emergent agency and behaviors (albeit programmed by the artist/technical team) or it may be controlled in more direct ways through automated performance scripts or teleoperation.

Some Case Studies

Wade Marynowsky, The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie Robot (2008)

There is something of a camp aesthetics evident in Wade Marynowsky’s cross-dressing robot Boris in The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie Robot. Although Boris playfully references human attributes in his voice, clothing and behavior, he is still clearly a robot, he is not trying to pass as human. The robot is dressed in an old-fashioned Victorian black dress trimmed with lace but his glass-domed head with its camera eye clearly proclaims his identity as a robot — a robot playing dress-ups. As gallery visitors enter the space Boris whirls in circles and engages them in conversation. Marynowsky’s robot is reminiscent of the robot in Lost in Space, the Daleks in Doctor Who and Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet, but its historical lineage also includes the famous chess playing Turk, an automaton built by Wolfgang von Kempelen in the late 18th century. Von Kempelen’s automaton astounded its audiences with its uncanny chess playing ability until it was revealed that the Turk’s prowess was in fact attributable to unseen human operators hiding in the stand that housed its mechanism. Marynowsky’s robot is controlled by similar sleight of hand — in this case it is an unseen human operator (the artist) who remotely observes the actions of gallery participants and direct Boris’ movements and speech via the Internet.

The mise-en-scène of the performance — the lace-trimmed black dress and the old-fashioned gramophone horns lining the gallery walls — combined with the robot’s uncanny whirling when visitors enter his space evokes the feeling of a Victorian séance; especially combined with the spirit possession inherent in his channeling of his master’s voice through the Internet.

Simon Penny - Petit Mal (1989-2006)

There is nothing human-like in the appearance of Simon Penny’s Petit Mal. The robot is completely machinic in appearance. It sits on two bicycle wheels joined by an axis with an upright pole supporting three ultrasonic sensors and three pyroelectric (bodyheat) sensors in the front and a fourth ultrasonic at the back. However, although not ostensibly anthropomorphic or zoomorphic in appearance, the constellation of sensors nevertheless acts as a sort of ‘head.’ A colorful vinyl print covers some of the metal tubing which acts as a counterpoint to the utilitarian machinic appearance of the robot and gives it a more playful and frivolous appearance.

The robot moves around the gallery performance space generally avoiding walls but sometimes lightly glancing off them. It rocks back and forwards on its base as it pursues and reacts to people in its performance environment. It will approach audience members who are directly in front of it up to a distance of about 60cm and try to maintain this front-facing position and distance as its audience interactor moves. If the person comes closer than around 60cm, Petit Mal will retreat. However, the robot’s behavior can become confused if there are multiple people in the performance area or if it gets cornered. The appearance and gently erratic movement and behavior of the robot contribute to its playful demeanor. The robot’s name derives from a neurological term that describes a momentary loss of control or consciousness. The naming of the robot provides its behavior with a psychological frame. Is this robot out of control? Is it psychologically disturbed?

Petit Mal has appeared in many gallery performance environments, sometimes in an open gallery space and sometimes in specially constructed enclosures. The robot (when it was exhibited at Transmediale 2006 in Berlin) performs in a rectangular arena enclosed on all sides by hip-high white walls. This performance area is reminiscent of a zoo enclosure with the audience standing behind the wall to watch the actions of this strange creature. The robot is contained in this space with no other objects or props but audience members are able to enter the space to interact with the robot.

Audience perception of robotic performers

We can conduct a rigorous semiotic analysis of a robot’s appearance and behavior and the staging of its presentation as I have done above but this is only part of the equation. The key question remains: how do humans understand and interpret the performance of robots?

In his analysis of the everyday presentation of self, Goffman also places particular emphasis on the role of the audience in receiving and judging the performance. A successful performance is one where the audience views the actor as he or she wants to be viewed. We all test and judge each other’s performances. If robots successfully perform the behavioral signifiers of animacy, agency, emotion and intelligence, audiences will respond to those cues. However, the intention of the performer and the intended meaning of the performance is not necessarily what will be received by the audience. Both human and robotic performers are subject to performance mistakes and unintended behaviors. These gestures and behaviors (for example, the jerky movement of a robot or responses that are too fast or too slow) even if they are not an intentional part of the performance will be interpreted as meaningful by the audience and become part of the performance effect.

As Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass [6] have shown, human responses to computers and virtual characters are informed by deeply ingrained physiological and behavioral tendencies and habits. These instinctive physiological responses (such as reacting to facial expressions, body language and movement) and social responses (such as a tendency to be polite) are carried over from the physical world into our interaction with robots.

When robots display machinic, bio-mimetic or anthropomorphic characteristics, these performative signifiers (sign-systems) are measured against the audience’s own experience of other similar entities (human, animal, insect, machine, art) that they are familiar with. The robot’s movement and behavior are just as important, perhaps even more important, as its physical appearance in this regard. What the robot does, how it does it, and how it responds to its environment and other entities including audience members are key factors in how it is perceived.

Behaviors that look too controlled and automated can appear machinic and unexpressive. Unpredictable behaviors by the robot in response to its environment and to other objects/people in that environment give an appearance of agency, personality and even emotion. Hesitations, frailties and inconsistencies make the robot appear more like a living organism than a programmed machine. The active interpretive role of the audience is a key factor here. It is the audience's projection of their own meanings onto the performance that generates much of the expressiveness of the robotic performance. This, after all, is how audiences read and respond to the performances of human actors. We interpret each other's performances including perceived intentions and emotions through reference to our own experience and emotions.

In this scenario, whether the robotic performer is intelligent and has emotions or not is not the key issue, it is whether we can tell the difference or not. Human perception and emotional and cognitive responses are more important than epistemological ontologies when it comes to robotic performance. The successful performance of the robot, judged from the audience’s point of view, is determined by what the audience can directly perceive in the robot’s appearance and behavior rather than by the intrinsic qualities and abilities of the robot (for example, whether the robot is ‘truly’ aware, intelligent and socially responsive).

As Sherry Turkle comments in her book Alone Together, “Computers 'understand' as little as ever about human experience […] They do, however, perform understanding better than ever.” [7] Robots may not be truly alive, but according to Turkle, they are becoming “alive enough” for humans to have relationships with.

The intrinsic qualities of the robot including the sophistication of its manufacture, its sensing systems and Artificial Intelligence (AI) programming are only relevant to the audience to the extent that they impact on the robot’s observable behavior and performance. These factors may be highly relevant to scientific robotic research and robotic development but in terms of audience response, careful staging, programming and even trickery may be just as important factors in achieving an effective performance for the audience. Robotic performances may be completely autonomous or assisted by human operators. From the audience’s point of view, it may be difficult to tell the difference. Creative staging and showmanship along with elements of deception and trickery have a long history in machine performance, as in Von Kempelen’s chess-playing automaton. Wade Marynowsky’s Boris has automated sequences and is also teleoperated by the artist and other guest operators, making the robot appear to be much more intelligent and aware of its audience. This hi-tech puppetry and remote operation of robotic performers is also the case with Hiroshi Ishiguro’s teleoperated Geminoid robots, which are controlled by the humans operating them rather than acting as autonomous performers. In this process, agency and social intelligence is transferred and delegated from the artist/operator to the robot even though from the audience’s point of view, the intelligence and awareness appears to be coming from the robot performer itself.

Successful acting is all about simulation and making what is unreal appear real. For a robot, this is the ability to persuasively simulate or pass as human, or alive, or intelligent. Alan Turing’s famous test used to determine machine intelligence and social performance is essentially an acting test. It measures not whether a computer is intelligent or can think like a human, but whether it can perform as if it is human, or at least whether it can perform well enough to fool a human audience. Turing set out this test for machine intelligence in his influential 1950 essay Computing Machinery and Intelligence [8] where he describes the scenario for an ‘imitation game’ to test whether a computer can successfully imitate a human being. Turing based his test on an earlier game where an interrogator tries to guess the gender of two participants (one male and one female) by asking them questions and assessing their typewritten replies. In Turing’s version of the game, he replaces one of the human participants with a computer and suggests that if the interrogator cannot tell the difference between the human and the computer purely from their answers, then the computer can be said to be intelligent. In this way intelligence becomes a functional attribute achieved through persuasive simulation or ‘passing’ rather than an inherent attribute.

‘Passing’ or successful simulation means getting it ‘just right,’ but over-performance and under-performance are more common features of machine performance. Over-performance and under-performance may be perceived in a variety of different ways and can have both entertaining and unsettling effects on audiences. Exaggerated appearance and behavior, including over-emphasized facial features, expressions, gestures and movement are common features of cartoon animation and animated films, where these techniques are successfully used for comic effect and to enhance emotion and drama. More unsettling are the uncanny responses evoked by robots and digitally animated characters that are ‘almost but not quite’ human in their appearance and behaviour; these responses have been described by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori as the ‘uncanny valley’ phenomenon. [9] [10] These unsettling effects occur when the mimetic aspiration of the work falls just short of achieving a perfect simulation. While audiences generally find lifelike or human-like characteristics in a more abstracted form appealing and empathetic, when these characteristics become more realistic (but not quite right), audiences tend to focus more on the disparities and what is not working about the simulation. The human brain perceives these imperfect simulations as defective versions of the real thing.

As we have seen, audiences judge robotic performances in the same way as they judge any other type of performance interaction whether they occur in everyday social settings or in more staged theatrical environments. The success of the robotic performance depends on two key factors, the intended performance, the robot’s appearance and its ability to enact or simulate behavior, movement and interactive responses (to its environment and other entities/actors) and the perceived performance, the audience’s perception and interpretation of the robot’s appearance, behavior and interactive responses.

References and Notes: 

  1. Philip Auslander, “Humanoid Boogie: Reflections on Robotic Performance,” in Staging Philosophy, eds. D. Krasner and D. Saltz, 87–103 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006).
  2. Louis-Philippe Demers, “Machine Performers: Neither Agentic nor Automatic” (paper presented at the 5th ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction, Osaka, March 2-5,  2010).
  3. Steve Dixon, Digital Performance (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007).
  4. Yuji Sone, “Realism of the Unreal: The Japanese Robot and the Performance of Representation,” in Visual Communication 7, no. 3 (2008): 345–62.
  5. Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York: Doubleday Publishing, 1959).
  6. Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass, The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television, and New Media Like Real People and Places (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
  7. Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2010), 26.
  8. Alan Turing, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” in Mind 59, no. 236 (1950): 433–60.
  9. Masahiro Mori, “Bukimi No Tani [The Uncanny Valley],” in Energy 7, no. 4 (1970): 33–35.
  10. Kathy Cleland, “Not Quite Human: Traversing the Uncanny Valley,” in What was the Human?, eds. L.E. Semler, B. Hodge and P. Kelly (Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, forthcoming). Available at

LocoMotoArt: Interacting Within Natural Setting Through Performance Using Pico Projection

LocoMotoArt is a creative field backpack that gives the user the capacity to explore and make digital art from, and in, the natural environment. Liquid Crystal on Silicon pico projection technology was studied during the production of two live technology-mediated experiments on the island of Hawai’i. We question whether different experiences of technology in nature can subvert preconceived notions of the human-nature-technology relationship.



The LocoMotoArt field system has four capacities: independent power, capture of sound and visual media, laptop for production and Liquid Crystal on Silicon (LCoS) pico projection technology for visual display in a natural setting. Various interactive components such as Wii controls and XBox Kinect compliment the system.
We define nature as the realm of the non-human made world. We refer to technology as this human made digital devices that comprise the LocoMotoArt system detailed herein. It is our position that much of the digital technology currently used by humans (mobile phones, GPS, electronic books, portable pads and pods, and computers) are more than appliances because “we experience them.”  Digital artifacts “are now part of our world as much as trees, animals, and other manifestations of nature”. [1]
In his book “Spell of the Sensuous - Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World,” environmental philosopher David Abram postulated that Westerners are disconnected from the natural world, partially due to the intensiveness of interaction between humans and technology. According to Abram, humans still have the chance to re-connect to the magic and sensuous phenomena of the natural world within which “our technologies are rooted,” because the implication of our symbiosis to technology does not make it necessary to "renounce our complex technologies.” [2] 

Through the use of LCoS pico projection in outdoor natural settings, our initial research seeks to provide insight in the area of mobile projection as a method to inquire our lost connection to nature that Abram posits. We question how the human experience of the non-mediated sensorial awareness of the natural world can be perceived and possibly changed through the experience of using digital mobile projection technology in outdoor settings. We further question whether values, behaviors or preconceived notions of nature and the use of technology can be changed through the user experience when placed in the context of a natural setting. What is the change, if any, and what caused it? To facilitate the study, two artists on the Big Island of Hawai’i were provided with LocoMotoArt for a period of ten-days.

Related Work

While some artists are using projection in nature, most of the research on mobile projection has been limited to indoor laboratory environments or urban settings. [3] They studied users in multiple environments such as a train station, bars, public transport, a museum, and shared public spaces during a three-day trip in Lancaster (UK). The scenarios tested included map interaction, media browsing, and projection onto alternative surfaces such as a wall, or the roof of a public bus. Vlahakis et al. [4] developed an augmented reality system users can wear to access visual and historical information regarding a specific ancient ruin while on site. We note that there is limited research on outdoor use of pico projection specifically in artistic practices in the natural landscape.

System Overview

LocoMotoArt is a creative field system that provides the capacity to the user to make digital art from and in the natural environment. All digital devices for LocoMotoArt are transported in a standard backpack. The system weighs 20 pounds without the portable battery pack and 40 pounds when users choose to include the portable 12V SLA battery. The components for the backpack system are listed in Figure 1.

Despite the very low lumen capacity, the Aaxxa P1 Jr. pico projector was specifically chosen for this project because of the multiple features in relation to its affordability. The unit is quite small which is ideal for using as wearable projection. The LocoMotoArt user, therefore, may use the Aaxxa P1 Jr. for small scène graphic lighting design or exhibition of photography using the slide show feature. The Tunebug was chosen because it is compact and can turn any surface can become a playback source.

Detail of Study

The research during this small-scale pilot study employed interpretive ethnography, participation observation methods and incorporated field notes, photographic and video documentation. Norman K. Denzin, [5] citing Abram, defines his vision of interpretive ethnography as that which “…seeks to ground the self in a sense of the sacred, to dialogically connect the ethical, respectful self to nature and the worldly environment.”

Background of Study Participants

Anne F. Bunker, choreographer and director of OTO Dance, a multi-media aerial dance company and partner, musician and multi-media designer, Gerald Chuck Koesters participated in the initial research study. The artists have expertise through their combined extensive professional background in lighting, performance and sound.

The spectators studied consisted of two nineteen year old males. Unexpectedly, one spectator indicated that he was purposefully educated at a private school that emphasized a non-digital school environment, in which the use of computers, cell phones, Internet and e-mailing was absent. His current use of digital devices is extremely limited. He indicated that he uses an electric typewriter instead of a computer and a cell phone ten minutes per day. Unlike the non-digital user, the second male’s digital technology use had been closely monitored by his parents. He is currently a user of digital technology. He stated he uses the computer, e-mail, Internet, cell phone, and social networking on a daily basis.

Pre Interviews and Biases

When asked if they thought that humans could use digital technology to experience a connective sense to nature, the participants from both groups voiced skepticism. No one believed that they would be able to recognize a personal connection between their use of digital technology and the sensorial realm of nature because nature is so “unique” and “special” while technology is separate and apart from nature. One artist and the non-digital user spectator indicated that digital tools were “annoyances” and “disruptive” of the human condition.
Unexpectedly, the non-digital user spectator stated that digital technology made him feel “angry” because “people use them over human contact”. However, the other artist and other spectator stated that they used digital technology on a regular basis and considered digital technology a positive influence on human factors, but emphasized that the digital artifacts should be used with restraint rather than "take over” a person’s life.
All of the participants claimed not to have addictive tendencies towards digital technology. All participants indicated they have existing personal attunements to natural settings, through hiking, camping, and trekking.

Field Work

The artists used LocoMotoArt in a lava field, near the ocean, inside a lava tube cave, a grove of trees near a swimming area, and a forest on the Big Island Hawai'i.

The artists chose to stage a live technology mediated performance in a forested area at the end of a road near the coastline of South Hilo, commonly used by local fishermen. The performance took place at nightfall so the projections would not be washed out by light. Koesters used photographs taken during previous field excursions. Koesters manipulated the images using High Dynamic Range techniques for image processing. Additionally, natural ambient sounds such as the pulse of ocean waves crashing upon the lava rocks and the Coqui frogs' robust chorus of chirp song were incorporated into the soundscape.

An additional soundtrack from Koesters’ footage of Kilauea volcano eruptions played on the mono speaker of the LCoS projector as a hissing crackling sound. During the performance, a light misty rain fell.

The second site, Kaumana Cave, is situated in the foothills above Hilo, Hawaii. The cave is a lava tube that was created when the volcano Mauna Loa erupted in 1880. This site was chosen for a brief exploration of sound and video using pico projectors because it is a dense and dark environment. It had no echo, and there was water dripping from above.

Results Coastal Forest Performance

Live dulcimer and recorded original music compositions were played using a Tunebug Portable SurfaceSound™ Speaker and an iPod. Koesters also introduced a Roland COSM battery operated amplified speaker into the LocoMotoArt system.
Bunker and Koesters handheld or fixed the projectors onto their wrists. Bunker moved the images along the tree trunks and canopy of trees, onto rocks, and the ground. Bunker used two projectors and layered projected images simultaneously in a collage effect. Koesters was lying on the ground, hidden in the darkness, projecting video footage of Kilauea’s volcanic lava flow onto Bunker's moving white clad figure as if she was a human projection screen. She would occasionally shut off the projectors, retreat under a large black cloth, move unnoticed to another location of the forest, drop the cloth and start the projectors again. This imagery gave an impression of a ghost or spirit moving about the forest. This uncertainty of when or where the entity would appear again portrayed a body without identity.

Limitations in the brightness of the projectors and sound playback were overcome because the spectators shared an intimate proximity to the artists, which became an immersed stage setting.

Results Kaumana Cave Experiments

Bunker positioned one of the projectors overhead at an arms-length and pointed it at an angle. She projected images and video footage onto her hand. The scene was observed as a hand or entity suspended in space, moving, existing otherworldly and spectral. The projected visual content got combined with the material textures of the natural environment when Bunker moved the projectors along the wall, floor, and ceiling of the cave. Content became form. Like the camera, the relationship of LCoS pico projector to the body operated as a prosthetic extension and provided the user with an enhanced extension of self. In this embodied experience, Bunker transformed self as theatrical apparatus.

Overview of Post Interviews

Artist-bias prevailed early in the use of LocoMotoArt. However, through their use of mobile projectors during the performance, the artists became more engaged as they discovered that the technology offered new ways of seeing and understanding their art practice, both temporally and corporeally.

The artists also indicated that they were amazed by a new sensorial awareness to “place, time, and body movement”. Both artists remarked that pico projectors worked like “mini-gobo stage lighting” effects and would be fun to use in costuming. The artists also indicated they felt a closer connection to nature when they used technology in a natural setting. Koesters: "I had doubts at the start of this project and was surprised how well it worked to tell the truth. As a performer, there were moments I felt completely connected to the environment, Anne [Bunker] and the technology. All those things came together in a surprising way." Bunker: “Space was altered when shining the projectors up and down the trunks of the trees and into the canopy, it flattened out the canopy, became two dimensional, a very different kind of surface. I was able to carve space with the projections and move space around in the darkness which was interesting.”

Spectator Experience Forest Performance

The spectators both conveyed marked changed notions from their pre-interview positions, specifically the non-digital user. When asked to comment on the event and the spectator experience, the responses were as follows: Spectator non-digital user commented, "Peaceful, nice." Spectator digital user: "I don’t know, I saw a stage, really that is what it was." When asked whether the technology detracted from their sense of nature. Spectator non-digital user: "No made you notice it more, I don’t think I would have sat there in the trees in the dark without that going on. Not really sure, kind of why it appealed to me, not exactly sure what I got from it physically." Spectator digital user: "When I saw it, I didn’t think digital technology. It did not separate itself from the environment, which was nice. It was a very symbiotic relationship."

Conclusion and Future Research

Despite the initial biases and skepticism of the artists and the spectators, both study groups indicated a new appreciation of digital technology as a means in sensing interconnectivity to raw nature and natural settings. Because of the change in attitudinal perspective, these initial results indicate that the hypothesis that digital technology may serve as unexpected sensorial pathway to interact with nature warrants further research. Although small in scale, our study gives insight that may be of importance in the study of locative mobile projection because it assists in understanding the human relationship to digital technology which consequently informs their design.

Future research includes the study of the LocoMotoArt enhanced field power system, which operates higher powered electronic equipment. This portion of our study includes both artists of soundscape composition and video arts practice displaying their work in natural settings.  The purpose of this study seeks to understand the values of reorienting environmental arts practice by placing New Media works directly in the natural landscape. We are reminded of Arnold Berleant’s idea of the “aesthetic field,” and the importance of how his concept of the “aesthetic engagement of nature” may bare upon the future of electronic environmental art praxis. Situated at the intersection of human societal concerns for the environment and interests in the human-machine relationship, our research responds to both, and to the particular demands of the dialog between them.

References and Notes: 
  1. Jay Bolter and Diane Gromala, Windows and Mirrors - Interaction design, digital art and the myth of transparency (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003), 112.
  2. David Abram, Spell of the Sensuous Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (New York: Pantheon Books, 1996), ix, x, 60.
  3. Andrew Greaves, Panu M. Akerman, Enrico Rukzio, Keith Cheverst, and Jonna Hakkila, "Exploring User Reaction to Personal Projection When Used in Shared Public Places: A Formation Study," in the Proceedings of the Mobile HCI Workshop: CAM3SN (2009).
  4. Vassilios Vlahakis, Nikolaos Ioannidis, John Karigiannis, Manolis Tsotros, and Michael Gounaris, Didier Stricker, Tim Gleue, Patrick Daehne and Luis Almeida, "Archeoguide: An Augmented Reality Guide for Archeological Sites," Computer Graphics and Applications, IEEE 22, no.5 (2002): 52-60.
  5. Norman K. Denzin, "Interpretive Ethnography," Zeitschrift für Erziehungswissenschaft. 1, no.3 (1997): 401-409.

Biosensing and Networked Performance Workshop

The Biosensing and Networked Performance workshops led by Anna Dumitriu and Tom Keene enable participants to build and calibrate their own iPhone compatible Galvanic Skin Response Sensors (GSR), which enable recording of subtle changes in the user’s emotional arousal. Participants then collaborate to develop a networked performance that engages with the ethical implications of disclosing such personal information within the public realm.


Participants learn to solder and connect their own GSR sensors, connect them to their iPhones and share their sensor data online. The workshops create a framework for debate around the of the implications of new social networking and pervasive computing technologies and the increasing issues of privacy as, increasingly, our most personal details can be recorded and shared. Finally participants work with the workshop leaders to improvise, plan and rehearse an intervention performance work that is be performed at the end of the workshop. This performance may be very subtle and not immediately obvious to any (unwitting) audience members that may be around, playing with ideas of what we do and do not reveal to those around us both in the physical and digital sphere.

The project builds upon artistic research undertaken by Anna Dumitriu in her role as artist partner on an EPSRC funded project “Supporting Shy Users in Pervasive Computing” working with an interdisciplinary team of sociologists, computer scientists and human-computer interaction specialists at The University of Sussex.  The project is investigating how pervasive computing is changing the ways social interactions occur, how we are becoming socially present in an increasing number of ways (sometimes without even realizing it), what our digital presences say about us through the data that is being recorded and how that data can be used.

Whilst in some ways technology may enable a reassuring sense of invisibility and anonymity (in terms of creating digital avatars and being able to use false names) it can also lead to obsession with self-image, fears about how one is perceived and confusion about how to present oneself or how to behave. This can lead to a feeling that there is a need to ‘perform’ and a sense of being laid bare, even provoking a form of ‘stage fright’ as described by sociologist Susie Scott an investigator on the project:

“…feelings of shyness arise when one perceives oneself as relatively incompetent at interaction, and fears being exposed as a poor team player. If we anticipate that we will say or do ‘the wrong thing’ and face embarrassment, surely it makes perfect sense to defend oneself emotionally by remaining quiet and avoiding the spotlight of a front-stage performance.” (Scott, 2006)

Interactive digital art is a useful example of a piece of technology that is intended to promote high levels of engagement but can often evoke feelings of shyness in visitors, as the works presume that visitors are actively engaged and willing to ‘find their own ways’ through a work and explore how to playfully interact with it. Ironically sociologists’ findings from this large-scale project show that the majority of visitors feel they lack the competence to actively engage with interactive art (and this includes artists and gallerists), especially in front of others that they perceive to be more confident performers. Intimidated, they tend to feel that there is a set of rules that others are aware of and that they do not have access to. So they prefer to fade in to the background rather than let the side down by failing to perform ‘in the correct way’. Scott argues:

“Shyness is a normal, socially intelligible and communicatively rational (Crossley 2000) response to dramaturgically stressful situations. Shyness involves a feeling of relative social incompetence: of ‘not knowing the rules’ of social situations, as if there is a ‘right’ way to manage them. This is accompanied by a perception of ‘Competent Others’ around oneself who do appear to understand these rules and seem better equipped to perform appropriately. When faced with this risk of ‘getting it wrong’, being embarrassed, being scrutinized and judged by a critical audience, inhibition makes absolute sense as a dramaturgical response.” (Scott, 2007)

In response to this research, the Biosensing and Networked Performance workshops seek to engage participants not only in the hands on building of the technology they are working with but, importantly, in the creation of a set of rules that will be used to generate new performance work of their own making.

The simple biosensor device used in the workshop is a Galvanic Skin Response sensor (made using easy to find components and a ‘hardware hacker’ approach) that measures the electrical conductance of the skin and can be attached to a wearer’s finger to measure subtle changes in sweat levels. Sweat glands are controlled by the sympathetic nervous system so skin conductance is a useful indication of fluctuations in psychological or physiological arousal. The data produced by the device is then input into the iPhone via its headphone socket and uploaded to an online sensor data sharing facility using a method developed by Keene. 

As arousal levels reach certain thresholds they can be used to trigger text messages and other outputs via a software interface written by Alex May (based on work done by Eskindir Asmare as part of the wider research project). These text messages are part of a predetermined script for a generative performance written by the workshop participants. Based on the GSR data from one member of the group, the others can enact various ‘flash mob’ style behaviours. For example members of the group may drop their knees in unison on receiving a certain text message cue, others around them having no idea what the trigger for this was. However actions may be far subtler such as participants yawning in unison or even just touching the corners of their eyes, almost imperceptibly. The rules, the behaviours and the text messages are invented as part of the workshops.

In many ways the idea of sharing your emotional states online is a difficult issue. Technically GSR is not an ideal method. The only genuinely effective method for scientifically describing emotions is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and this is not in any way portable. But the most problematic issue is already with us: pressure from others to subscribe. It is already the case that some employers insist that employees register with location tracking systems such as Google Latitude. Not only that but parents also use the same software to track children and partners to track loved ones. It is difficult to extricate oneself from being tracked if it is not desirable. How do you tell a loved one ‘I no longer wish you to know where I am”? It would be even harder to say ‘I no longer wish you to know how I feel’ even if at the start of a new relationship you enjoyed sharing every inner secret, this may not always be the case.

Reflection on key issues around developments in pervasive computing is central to the development of the work and the workshops consider what the future possibilities and implications of ubiquitous biosensor data sharing might be; they look at what ethical issues need to be considered; how technologies impact users on a personal level? (This includes the impact on “shy users”) and what the technical difficulties of implementing the automated sharing of emotions via ubiquitous technologies are.

This work was supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, grant EP/F064330/1.


References and Notes: 

Susie Scott, Shyness and Society: The Illusion of Competence, (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007)

Supporting Shy Users in Pervasive Computing Official Project website, May 2008 (accessed June 28, 2011)

Anna Dumitriu’s project website “Shyness project”, April 2011 (accessed June 28, 2011)



Unnecessary Research, what's the point?

This panel outlines “The Institute of Unnecessary Research”(IUR) and presents a new paradigm in the way artists are engaging with the world through transdisciplinary practices. It brings together art, science and philosophy by creating participatory audience experiences. Sometimes humorous and sometimes grotesque, our work pushes boundaries and critically questions the means of knowledge production in the 21st Century.


Artists are innovators, if a new piece of technology or a new medium, becomes available; artists want to try it, to experiment with it- from microbiology to robotics; from tissue culture to neuroscience. Some artists take on the role of a scientist in almost a performative way and some scientists become artists themselves. Philosophy and ethics is always at its core and the work unpacks the instrumentalization of science and art for commercial and political ends.

Forms of “connective aesthetics” (Gablik) are used to engage audiences in participatory experiences that extend and generate new outcomes through exhibitions and events going beyond simple interactivity, throwing authorship into question, as members of the audience are inspired to become Unnecessary Researchers in their own rights.

The IUR was founded in 2005 by Artist Anna Dumitriu following discussions at the “Rules of Engagement” Conference on the nature of Art and Science collaboration, held at York University, UK and organized by Arts Council England. The original ‘blue sky’ vision for the IUR was a major research facility where scientists were employed to work with artists, thereby avoiding the common situation of scientists’ lack of availability/time when engaged in art/science collaborative projects. Scientists tend to view a collaborative art/science project as extra-curricular to their ‘day jobs’, whereas to an artist the collaboration is often key to their ‘day jobs’ in terms of being either a grant funded project, commissioned piece or artists’ residency. This inconsistency is one of the biggest hurdles for art/science collaboration to overcome, often far greater than issues, such as funding, audience engagement and linguistic incommensurability. Key to the notion of art/science collaboration are these reoccurring questions, “What is the purpose of it?” “What can an artist offer to science”, “In terms of art, why engage with science at all?” “What levels of cross-fertilization should happen” and most importantly “what has art got to do with knowledge anyway?” The IUR attempts to work with these questions.

There are obvious financial issues with building a major research facility for artists to work with scientists (the IUR favours a underground facility carved out of a rocky island that can only be reached by boat or helicopter (for purely aesthetic reasons)) so it was decided that The IUR should initially be started as a hub for artists or scientists working a high levels of trans-disciplinary practice, strongly concerned with the philosophical implications of their methodolologies, interested in public engagement and practicing in ways that could be described as ‘performative’ in nature. A web site was set up in 2005 and a very low-key performance event took place in Dumitriu’s studio above The Phoenix Gallery in Brighton, England. Since then the has project attracted wide interest and has grown form there, including further performances and interventions at Sussex University, The Whitechapel Gallery in London, ETH in Zurich and as part of many festivals.

The Institute of Unnecessary Research is now an international hub for researchers and artists working experimentally and deeply engaged with their specific research areas. We present our research through performative and experiential methods, engaging the public and new audiences in our ideas.

The IUR uses performance as a means of conveying research; often events have an interactive component, the audience taking part in experiments and research activities thus changing the direction, development and final outcomes of the artwork. Critical theorist Suzi Gablik discusses in her essay on “Connective Aesthetics” that the traditional relationship of the artist to the artwork has come to be superseded, and that this social role of art has become increasingly important, since there is:

“.. a rejection of modernism’s bogus ideology of neutrality. Many artists now refuse the notion of a completely narcissistic exhibition practice as the desirable goal for art”. (Gablik)

Artists have now come to see the process as equal to, or even more important than the outcome, or the performance is more important than the documentation of it. So the means of production of the artwork as a dialogical and collaborative process is also the outcome of the artwork in this model, which is what makes it so relevant to Art/Science practice, it is an analogue of the typical, natural relationship of the artist to the scientist (and vice versa), the journey rather than the destination. Although not inherent in all Art/Science practice it would seem logical to include the audience in the collaboration, with their own vast tracts of knowledge and experience. Gablik states:

“..there is distinct shift in the locus of creativity from the autonomous, self contained individual to a new dialogical structure that frequently is not the product of a single individual but the result of a collaborative and interdependent process”. (Gablik)

This influence of performative, dialogical aesthetics, which comes from the collaborative structure of Art/Science practice makes it a useful technique for reaching out to new audiences in a non-hierarchical way. But these forms of collaboration are not easy and require huge conviction, and effort from all partners involved.

The IUR mimics and subverts the Institutional model it is based on. There are various ‘departments’ each ‘headed’ by an unnecessary researcher. The ‘department’ names are created by the individual artists, scientists and philosophers and based on their personal research areas. When a researcher joins they come up with a ‘department’ name, if they leave (and the IUR is a dynamic group in this sense) it is likely that the ‘department’ is discontinued (at least for a while)

For instance the Head of Crockery resigned his role (from within the online cyber world Second Life in 2006), as part of a multimedia performance at Sussex University, the position of Head of Crockery currently remains unfilled.

There is no official selection procedure for department heads, unsolicited enquiries are responded to with a warning that selection procedures  “are entirely nepotistic”, in fact the IUR grows organically through increasing networks of international contacts.  Current departments include: ‘Projective Geometry’ (Alex May), ‘The Digital Simulacra’ (Luke Robert Mason), ‘Neuroplastic Arts’ (Gordana Novakovic), ‘Textile Abuse’ (Bettina Shuelke) and ‘Viral Contagion’ (Tagny Duff). There are currently 25 departments across distributed locations and the project is directed and co-ordinated by Anna Dumitriu (whilst working on her own research interests which cross microbiology, artificial life, robotics and ethics).

The name “The Institute of Unnecessary Research” is, in many ways, confrontational. It raises the question what is necessary research? Unnecessary does not imply pointless, it often means going beyond the normal (in the Kuhnian sense of ‘normal science’) and crossing boundaries, asking where do we draw the line with what we study or with what can be studied? Unnecessary Research encourages eccentric, obsessive, creative working practices and is an antidote to the stranglehold placed on research by central government and the gatekeepers of academia.

References and Notes: 

Suzi Gablik,, Connective Aesthetics: Art after Individualism in Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art. Ed. Suzanne Lacy (Bay Press, 1995), p85

The Institute of Unnecessary Research official website  (accessed 23 June, 2011) 



Parcival Goes Digital: New Media as Part of a Gesamtkunstwerk

We describe the results of an evaluation concerning the spectator's reception of and experience with digital media within the interdisciplinary performance Parcival XX–XI of the dance Company urbanReflects and the University of Bremen. According to the qualitative interviews conducted, the audience experienced participation as 'disruption'. Four reasons can be registered: language, rhythm, limited exploration and shift of the spectator role.


Once upon a time...

there was an Arthurian hero called Parcival who was searching for something called the 'Holy Grail'. But what has this story of an old cup to do with us? The Company urbanReflects in cooperation with the University of Bremen associatively bases the new transdisciplinary dance performance Parcival XX–XI (2011) on the medieval legend of the search for a better world by showing quests for the redeeming Grail in the 20th century and by portraying their own version(s) of utopia.

Striving towards a new means of dramatic narration, Parcival XX–XI incorporates contemporary dance and digital media into a non-linear narrative with social implications. Not to bear up against but to converge with more traditional media such as dance, digital media shall be altered to an equal protagonist within the frame of theater. Designing digital media as an interactive experience allows not only the dancers to cooperate in the creation of Parcival XX–XI but also the audience. This paper describes results of an evaluation concerning the spectator's reception of and experience with digital media. One major finding of the evaluation is that the audience experienced participation as 'disruption.' We have analysed the following four reasons for it: language, rhythm, limited exploration and shift of the spectator role.

Parcival XX-XI

What is it about?

The narrative of Wolfram von Eschenbachs Parcival provides the frame for our interactive search for a better world. Analogous to the knight Parcival, we are on a quest for what is called utopia. Over time, humankind has discarded many ideas formerly held to promise a new world – the egalitarian ones of communism as well as the elitist ones of fascism. Interpreting capitalism as yet another 'wrong grail', the production tries to delineate current visions of utopia. It becomes a hatchery of ideas for a 21st century quest for a better world by questioning the concept of the Grail. The performance is built as a non-linear collage of atmospheric tableaus and structured into three acts: the first act 'celebrates' the breakdown of capitalism, the second act is a retrospective on totalitarian systems, and the third act envisions our very personal utopias.

Why the audience shall play along?

Central to the production's interactive quest for a better future is the use of digital media. Talking about political systems and our personal visions of new human communities, audience participation is of principal interest in Parcival XX-XI. Parallel to our main subject, the individual in society, we thus design interactive experiences, in which the audience can witness the limits and rules of a system in a very basic way.

Digital media carries out a double role in Parcival XX–XI: On the one hand it is incorporated dramaturgically and aesthetically in form of interactive and / or live video sequences and on the other hand it is used as a 'tool' to allow interaction. In the latter case, Nintendo Wiimote controllers were used for various reasons. (cf. [1]) With the help of this tool, passive spectators are invited to merge into active performers to collaborate in designing the experience of the play for themselves and the other spectators. As technology-based interfaces always come with certain restrictions, also do the Nintendo Wiimote controllers. In this paper, however, the focus is not set on discussing these practical boundaries but rather on its major dramaturgical impact to Parcival XX-XI.

Designing Interaction

While designing Parcival XX–XI and its participatory moments, the two following questions were our constant tutor: First, how to design such opportunities in order to make the audience's action and its effect for Parcival XX–XI understandable for all 'players', and second, how to communicate the fact that the audience shall participate in the play and when. Talking about the first, a differentiation into three major tendencies of understanding can be summarized: understanding on a technical level, where one learns how to command via Nintendo Wiimote controllers, on a consequential level, where one understands the causal relations between command and consequential performance, and on a dramaturgical level. Thus, designing participation appears to be a rather complex task which comes with various demands. (cf. [1]) As for making the use of the 'tool' understandable to the audience, we designed a pre-performance which is described in the next paragraph.

Learning to Swim

In reference to J. Murray who in [2] describes that "in a participatory medium, immersion implies learning to swim, to do the things that the new environment makes possible", this paragraph explains how the audience of Parcival XX–XI was taught a lesson.

With the help of the pre–performance, everyone was given the chance to learn how to handle the provided interface, in our case Nintendo Wiimote controllers. These events included a 'Wii fairy', a jingle, a dancer on a diagonal wall, projections, and the audience. Every five minutes, the audience would be requested by a jingle, saying "it's time for intervention!" Miming, the Wii fairy would now show the audience how to use the controllers and sort out difficulties. Ultimately, the audience was taught two ways to use their Nintendo Wiimote controllers during the performance of Parcival XX–XI.

The first gesture (mote being moved down) would introduce a new clothing item to the diagonal wall. The performer would then adjust her body accordingly. The second gesture (mote steadily in front of the body) would remove all items formerly applied. Repeatedly practiced in the pre-performance, these two gestures would reappear in the main performance, only with different implications. The two scenarios of Parcival XX–XI, in which the audience is asked for intervention, are described in the next paragraph. Further discussions about to what extent the audience reached not only the technical but also the consequential and dramaturgical level of understanding follow in chapter 'Qualitative Research'.

To Swim

The first scenario includes four audience members, each charged with dressing one dancer and (therefore) undressing another. The catch: Only three clothing items are available for the four dancers – always leaving one dancer naked. Participants can use their Nintendo Wiimote controllers to either steal an item or securing their own item, sometimes resulting in inactivity of one or the other participant. The second scenario includes three audience members charged with controlling an avatar. These avatars fight against the dancers. Participants can use their Nintendo Wiimote controllers to either let their avatar attack or defend themselves. Whilst no text is used during Parcival XX–XI, the audience interaction operates with words. It is introduced by the jingle "it's time for intervention!" and the starting point of the interaction is marked by the projection of "3, 2, 1, go!". During the participatory scenarios, the words "Steal/Keep/You are already dressed!" (1st scenario), and "Defend/Attack" (2nd scenario) come along with the projections to deepen the understanding of the interaction.

Substantial to the dramaturgical aim of the participatory scenarios is the aspect of interaction within a closed and prescribed system. As we deal with social systems in Parcival XX–XI, such as communism or fascism, we wanted to design an experience for the audience, which makes them feel as a social subject. Our scenarios are thus created as an analogy to society – both constitute a closed system in which citizens are allowed only a limited amount of freedom of action, since they are given only a limited amount of options for action: 'dress/undress' and 'attack/defend'.

Qualitative Research

30 short guided interviews have been conducted with ten females and 20 males between 24 and 63 years old. Most interviews were held in German and are here translated by the authors. Interviewees were chosen by chance. For statistic purposes, name, sex, age and occupation were also collected. Each interview took between five and 20 minutes and implied the same three short questions:

  1. Which aspects especially caught your eye?
  2. How did you perceive the use of digital media?
  3. How would you rate the use of Nintendo Wiimote controllers?

To Sink

Evaluating these first 30 interviews, one decisive term recurs again and again: disruption. Regardless of their professional background, many recipients describe that they experienced the two participatory scenarios not as part of the performance but as disruption in form of a "a break-entertainment" (interviewee 1: int 1). According to the audience, these two sequences do not seem serious, more like an "audition" (int 2), or like „physical education” (int 3) – "a gimmick." [3] One woman even stated that – contrary to what the jingle presupposes – she does not experience the interaction as a real intervention but as "being degraded to a robot" (int 4). It thus seems, according to Benford et al., that the "performance's continuity is at risk," [4] during the participatory moments for several reasons. As paper length is constrained, we cast only a short glance on the following four: language, rhythm, limited exploration and shift of the spectator–role. Contrary, there are a few interviews of which we assume that disrupting the flow of a performance can also be seen as a promising design strategy, as here: "It was different to the rest, with the jingle, text etc., and this is exactly why I remember those moments best" (int 5). However, in this paper we will not provide an in–depth discussion about it but indicate that this topic leaves space for future work.


"(...) out of the sudden there is text and the jingle. It is confusing. It appears to be more separated from the rest of the performance than it was planned, right?" (int 6)

Various interviewees remark that first, the jingle „it's time for intervention!“ and second, the written text of "3, 2, 1, go!", "Steal/Keep/You are already dressed!" and "Defend/Attack!" has set the participatory scenarios aesthetically apart from the rest of the performance. According to the audience, by using language, an emphasis is produced which does not find its analogy on the content side. Using text elements in our piece without language was an attempt to make the interaction clear, quick, and easily understandable for the audience.


"These participatory moments are interesting, too, but not as smoothly integrated into the rest of the performance as it could be." (int 7)

Many people judged the participatory scenarios negatively as not fitting into the rhythm of the performance. The interviewees thus communicate an important element of contemporary dance: timing. From a dramaturgical point of view, the first participatory scenario is scheduled to an appropriate point in time. Before talking about the totalitarian system in the second act of Parcival XX–XI, we offer the following experience to the audience: The political system we live in does not happen to us but is chosen by either confirmation or non-rebellion. But choreographically, the first participatory scenario is scheduled to an inappropriate moment in time as it follows after a quite long scene without music and projections, focusing on the materiality of the styrofoam cuboids. At this point, the audience expects something very dynamic and energetic to follow. Instead, the jingle as an introduction for the first participatory scenario intensifies the stagnation to a break. Further, members of the audience have to step on stage, take their Nintendo Wiimote controllers and get in position. This all takes a while in which we often 'lost the audience'. To overcome this problem, we are considering rearranging the participatory scenarios in order to find an appropriate timing for Parcival XX–XI.

Limited Exploration

"I was disappointed about the fact that only two gestures would cause any action!" (int 8)

The two gestures are often described as too simple, not opening any kind of freedom of action. Interestingly, nobody reflected upon the fact that we wanted to produce exactly this feeling of restricted action in a set system to further encourage individual solutions. In none of the performances of Parcival XX–XI, a spectator sought for solutions beyond the prescribed system to overcome the constraints: For example, for the second scenario one could have denied to fight, as a test person did in the general rehearsal or as interviewee 9 says, "we all could have acted more impulsively by e.g. falling down to the floor, as the dancers did". But they didn't. As the participants follow our rules, there is no other solution than 'playing' against each other.

Interviewee 8 and many others seem to not come across the technical and consequential level of understanding: Even though participating in the play, they can not produce further meaning for the context of Parcival XX–XI. They appear to be frustrated and disappointed about the limited freedom of exploration offered by the controller itself. In order to release the audience from this rather sidetracking technical aspect of how to handle the controller, we are considering changing the technology from Nintendo Wii-controllers toward a more self–explanatory option (such as camera–based tracking solutions, motion capture suits or Microsoft Kinect). However, all suggested options come with various other challenges which are, in fact, of a rather practical nature. (cf. [1])

Shift of the spectator-role

"It is very boring to watch people in their winter coats, doing the same action over and over again!" (int 10)

Although the declared aim of the authors of Parcival XX–XI was to not create a traditional audience situation of 'leaning back in the seats', the audience described the participatory scenarios as a disturbance to the (seemingly!) previously established traditional way of watching. According to the spectators, on the one hand, they were pulled out of their coziness by the possibility to go on stage and 'play' with the Nintendo Wiimote controllers, and on the other hand, they were supposed to watch other spectators (non–professionals) to act on stage which resulted in different reaction such as e.g. schadenfreude [cf. 5] or boredom (int 10). Similarly, Benford et al. [4] suggest that "beginnings must be designed to introduce the narrative, brief participants (…). It should be designed to be an integrated part of the experience." For Parcival XX–XI, we might have failed in taking the chance of the pre–performance to not only brief the audience how to handle the controllers etc. but also to introduce the main subjects of the play. We only teach the mechanism of the interaction as such and do not communicate relevant hints to the audience by means of dramaturgical impact for the experience of the play itself.

Benford et al. [4] further define traversals between physical and virtual worlds and temporal transitions between episodes as moments in which the flow of the play is on risk. These points clearly bring us to the major issue of our participatory performance as we invite members of the audience to not only progress from spectator to active participant and finally performer, (cf. [1, 6]) but we also expect them to fall back into their seats and lean back again after "they have done what we expected them to do" (int 11). One can say, we prepared the audience for the shift from a passive spectator to an active performer in the pre–performance but we 'forgot' to design the back–shift from a performer to a spectator. [7]

By the use of participation, we cause different categories of audience at the same time: passive spectators and active performers. This results in the fact that there are various opportunities to miss parts of the performance as one is moving between the passive physical world and the active virtual world. As Parcival XX–XI does not provide a linear narrative but works with fragmented atmospheric tableaus which are then free for interpretation to the audience, one could think that the above mentioned aspects are of no consequences (and we partly thought so). But one major problem here is that most people expect to be served a story with a beginning and an end. And as they do not get 'the explanation', they feel baffled. All other challenges, such as 'participating', seems to be the icing on the cake.

To be continued

Summarizing, we can say, that part of the audience does not experience our interactive quest as 'real' but as 'fake' by calling it a disruption of the 'real play'. Reflecting on why they felt disrupted in the flow of the performance, they name reasons such as the use of text in a fully textless performance, the wrong timing, the limited freedom of exploration with the Nintendo Wiimote controllers, and the shift of the spectator role in an otherwise traditional piece. Still, there is a small group of people that felt encouraged to participate and got caught by exactly the disruption as it appears contrariwise to what one would expect of the 'common flow of a performance'. We might need to ask ourselves how to establish a rather smooth frame of expectation to find the right moments to break with it again. In this context, and what comes for us with surprise, our advertisement campaign seemingly promised the audience a 'proper' story and more 'real' interaction. We thus have to look into the need of helping the audience to trust themselves in their reception – to strengthen them in being an emancipated [8] and postdramatic spectator.


This work was funded by the Klaus Tschira Stiftung. We further like to acknowledge the support of the Ministry for Science, Research and the Art and Federal Cultural Foundation of Germany, Senate for Culture Bremen, the Landesverband Freier Theater Baden-Württemberg, Sparkasse Freiburg, Landesbank Baden-Württemberg LBBW, Cultural Office Freiburg, and FOND Darstellende Künste e.V.

References and Notes: 
  1. Gesa Friederichs–Büttner, Johanna Dangel and Benjamin Walther–Franks, "Interaction and Participation – Digital Media and Dance in Interplay" (paper presented at the Conference on Interactive Media Arts, Copenhagen, 2011).
  2. Janet H. Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck. The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1998).
  3. Marion Klötzer, "Interdisziplinäre Visionen Odysee," Kulturjoker, June 2011.
  4. Steve Benford, Gabriella Giannachi, Boriana Koleva, and Tom Rodden, "From Interaction to Trajectories: Designing Coherent Journeys Through User Experiences" (paper presented at CHI '09, Boston, 2009).
  5. Gesa Friederichs–Büttner, "Don't Duck Your Head! Notes on Audience Experience in a Participatory Performance" (paper presented at the International Symposium on Smartgraphics, Bremen, 2011).
  6. Jennifer Sheridan, Alan Dix, Simon Lock and Alice Bayliss, "Understanding Interaction in Ubiquituos Guerrilla Performances in Playful Arenas" (paper presented at the BCS HCI, Leeds, 2004).
  7. Stuart Reeves, Steve Benford, Claire O'Malley and Mike Fraser, "Designing the Spectator Experience" (paper presented at CHI '05, Oregon, 2005).
  8. Jacques Rancière, Der emanzipierte Zuschauer (Wien: Passagen, 2009).


Computer networks and cities both are social spaces that have emerged as material spaces where lives are lead and work gets done. While extensive studies on the Soundscape have been undertaken in the past, the sonic properties of network spaces have been left unconsidered and thought to be without sonic properties. The panel is an investigation towards an Acoustic Ecology of Networks and the WWW as interface and material for live performance.


Soundwwwalks are an emerging genre of live browser-based performances using <EMBED> improvisation, plugin sound-collage and multitab mixing, shamelessly blending the traditions of pro-surfing, Soundwalk composition and laptop music.

 The performances take the audience on a sonic Detour through the World Wide Web. A Soundwwwalk considers the act of surfing the World Wide Web as form of sonic action.

The artists either perform their Soundwwwalks themselves on stage or transmit their notation, sometimes in real time, to a local interpreter operating the browser.
All performances follow the Soundwwwalk One-Line-Manifesto: "All sound sources must be played in a browser, must not be self-produced and must be publicly accessible."

The above description was part of the invitation I've sent to selected artists in the past, along with details about the date and other circumstances of the performance. So far Constant Dullaart, Joel Holmberg, Peter Moosgaard, Julian Palacz, Jamie Allen, Will Schrimshaw and Ceci Moss have performed the format at various events throughout Europe. [1]
Soundwwwalks were the beginning of an investigation towards the possibility of browser based sound performances. As an artist interested in internet art, sound collage, soundscape theory and improv performances, I started to understand that the World Wide Web has become the largest possible library of sonic artefacts and recordings, considering any sound and video file uploaded to the web any given day as material for sonic ideas and actions. I wanted to explore a way of working with this resource the same way I've used turntables for improv sound collage performances with Albert Allgaier in the past, or I've seen other artists using various objects, tools and instruments. But I wasn't interested in just sampling, ripping, downloading and then mashing with those materials as sound files in standard digital sound workstation environments, detached from their original ressource, as mere material outside the context of its source medium. I've found it to be much more interesting to work with the specific qualities, characteristics and phenomena related to the world wide web as a sound source, the network as intermediate space with quasi-acoustic properties and the desktop browser as the interface.
We developed different approaches to Soundwwwalk performances, especially because the invited artists often couldn't physically be at the site of the performance. While the performer would usually come on stage and perform the Soundwwwalk using a standard computer connected to the PA system and a projector, this can also be done through real time communication from anywhere else. A local performer will then execute instructions sent by the "composer" in real time. These come in the form of hyperlinks and instructions regarding for example volume settings or particular timing requirements. What follows is an excerpt of a performance composed by Constant Dullaart, transmitted via text chat and interpreted by Bernhard Garnicnig live on stage at a Soundwwwalk performance at the interactive Media Art Laboratory Brussels in November 2010. [2]

[12.11.10 22:23:38] constant dullaart: New TAB:
[12.11.10 22:23:55] bgarnicnig: k
[12.11.10 22:24:00] constant dullaart: dont press speak
[12.11.10 22:24:11] constant dullaart: new tab COPY 3rd LADY GAGA ASCII FROM
[12.11.10 22:24:27] constant dullaart: Back to  2nd tab: PASTE! DO NOT CHANGE VOICE, JUST PRESS SPEAK
[12.11.10 22:24:42] constant dullaart: paste in the att one
[12.11.10 22:24:52] bgarnicnig: running
[12.11.10 22:25:10] bgarnicnig: 2nd loop
[12.11.10 22:25:18] constant dullaart: Open New TAB
[12.11.10 22:25:32] bgarnicnig: running
[12.11.10 22:25:50] bgarnicnig: -00:20
[12.11.10 22:26:10] constant dullaart: open new tab:
[12.11.10 22:26:24] bgarnicnig: k
SELECT QUICKTIME! and press "make midi file"
[12.11.10 22:26:52] bgarnicnig: running
[12.11.10 22:26:59] bgarnicnig: still loop lady gaga btw?

The sound ressources on the World Wide Web are ephemeral, much like the sounds exist in our habitat and environment. Briefly appearing signals and notes, their existence on the archive-in-motion is fluctuative for various reasons: YouTube takedowns enforced by copyright owners, users correcting their represented identities and editing their archives, servers failing, connections dropping, geographical access restrictions etc. Like a train passing and chatting couples passing by on the sidewalk, they appear and disappear. The Acoustic Ecology and the Soundscape Project have studied exactly the specific phenomena, histories and properties of sound found in our habitats. Yet so far, this type of research has not been expanded into the field that is now also a de-facto space where our lives are led, work gets done and social structures emerge: Although the spatial metaphors have been used for networks since a while (think about the volume of a MySpace, the length of a YouTube or the diameter of a CyWorld). The space of computer networks has been regarded as being a space without acoustic properties and sonic phenomena.
Since the 1970s, the World Soundscape Project used the practice of Soundwalk [3] and the term Soundscape [4] as analytcial tools for their research of the sonic environment of the human habitat. These terms and methods since then have become independent and widely used artistic practices, Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller Soundwalk projects [5] and Luc Ferraris Soundscape compositions ("Presque Rien ou le lever du Jour au Bord de la Mer" [6] being popular examples. Through a process of reverse engineering, the Soundwwwalk project is an initial effort towards establishing an analytical framework for an Acoustic Ecology of Networks, starting with an artistic practice. The experiences and discussions this yields will contribute to a more elaborate jargon and finer differentiations to the field of network acoustics and the browser as potential platform for sonic expression.

References and Notes: 

Special thanks to Jamie Allen for the discussions and contributions, which resulted in a collaborative workshop on Net Acoustics at Mullae Art Space Seoul, Korea in June 2011.

  1. Museumsquartier Vienna in May 2010, WORM Rotterdam November 2010, iMAL Brussels November 2010, Klangmanifeste, Echoraum Wien Dezember 2010, Mullae Art Space Seoul June 2011, ISEA Istanbul September 2011.
  2. iMAL - interactive Media Art Laboratory Brussels, 2011: moddr_ exhibition pening programme (accessed 10.09.2011).
  3. Barry Truax, Handbook for Acoustic Ecology, Second Edition (Vancouver, 1999).
  4. Murray R. Schafer, The Soundscape: Our sonic environment and the tuning of the world (New York, 1977).
  5. Janet Cardiff and George B. Miller Online Project Archive (accessed 10.09.2011).
  6. Wikipedia, Biography of Luc Ferrari (accessed 10.09.2011).
Syndicate content