Testing New Ground: An Interdisciplinary Discussion on Hybrid Habitats

This panel contributes to new ways of thinking about habitats by involving artists working with mixed reality technologies and thinking through the ramifications of their research for issues of self and embodiment.
Sunday, 18 September, 2011 - 09:00 - 10:30
Chair Person: 
Leonie Cooper
Patricia Adams
Andrew Burrell
Angela Ndalianis
'mellifera extensions'at the DRI Virtual Reality Centre, RMIT University, 2010
temporary self portrait in preparation for the singularity (detail)
Astronauts unpacking Robonaut 2 on the space station as viewed from Spaceport Alpha in Second Life
City Centre, Las Vegas, 2011

Chair: Dr. Leonie Cooper

The media environments we now inhabit are hybrids: both material/virtual, actual/imaginary, scientific and science-fictional, futuristic and yet also fundamentally grounded in media histories. This panel will consider the issues at stake as we shift from thinking of the screen as a portal to other worlds that mirror those we corporeally inhabit to figuring out alternative ways of thinking about technologically mediated forms of inhabitation. It aims to contribute to new ways of thinking about habitats by involving artists working with mixed reality technologies and thinking through the ramifications of their research for issues of self and embodiment. The issues of self and corporeality that emerge from sites that are ‘virtually’ inhabited are considered alongside other habitats where screen technologies are interwoven with material geographies. Theorist-historians who have researched contemporary urban environments and off-world habitats such as space stations offer insights into the historical conditions from which they have emerged as well as what they reveal of contemporary  modes of technologically mediated inhabitation. Otherwise invisible synergies between practice and theory will emerge from an interdisciplinary debate on hybrid habitats guided by the following questions:

How are new technologies impacting upon the imaginary and material formations of ‘habitats’ –  as material sites, as screen-worlds and hybridisations of both.

What ethical and aesthetic considerations do these habitats raise? Are they atopias (nonplaces), utopias or something else entirely?

Who inhabits these worlds and how? Are they considered viewers, participants or do these habitats invite other modes of engagement?

How might alternative -  even interspecies -  habitats reflect different understandings of corporeality, consciousness and identity?

How does nostalgia and the past inform and intersect with the construction of new, utopian-inspired habitats?

Do these alternative habitats have histories? How might such histories be reconstructed?

Paper Abstracts

Shivering Boundaries

by Dr. Trish Adams

My research explores the nature of corporeality in the biomedical sciences and queries the status of our “humanness” at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In this panel I will present the intersections between art and bio-medical practices that are illustrated through my research. I will give an overview of the groundbreaking biomedical experiments I carried out to ‘change the fates’ of adult stem cells from my blood into beating cardiac cells ‘in vitro’ and link this corporeal malleability with my on-going explorations. My recent investigations into the small brains of the European honey bee and their communal ‘hive consciousness’ will also be addressed through the virtual and real-time interactive artworks that have resulted from this research. I will demonstrate how my overall emphasis on hybridising virtual and real-time experiences create alternative habitats that place the viewer in the role of a participant who can examine the ‘shivering boundaries’ between mind-body-self at first hand. 

…towards a natural history of the virtual realms 

by Dr. Andrew Burrell

A unifying thread that runs throughout Burrell’s theoretical and practical research (which include mixed reality and virtual art projects) has been one of exploring and searching for a potential site of the self – and to dare to wonder if this site exists at all. In his presentation he will focus on observations of the natural history of the physical world and ask what a natural history of a habitable virtual environment may be and how one may emerge as we move into this environment and make it our own, and indeed how this may differ from those of the real world. In doing so he will also ask how the post-human self is starting to inhabit these spaces and how it will fit into these new ecologies. The presentation will take the form of a poetic journey focusing on the artist’s own phenomenologically perceived self. He will move from a poorly recalled past (as a personal narrative of his own history) and into an imagined future - as vividly illustrated and anticipated through the artistic imagination – with particular reference to his own creative projects and to the works of the Australian writer Greg Egan.

From Weightless World to Hybrid Homes

by Dr. Leonie Cooper

A space station is not just a weightless world designed to acclimitise astronauts to the conditions of living in space – it is a habitat, both real and imagined. Drawing upon my research into the historical conditions that enabled the imaginary constitution of the space station as a habitat, I will examine how NASA now employs augmented and mixed reality technologies to blur the boundaries between the virtual worlds accessed via the computer screen and the world inhabited by the astronauts. Since building on the International Space Station began, astronauts have played at housekeeping in space, their rituals meant to be witnessed by those who access NASA’s web portal and its streaming media broadcasts. If these home-makers have been agents designated with enacting the epistemological conditions for emerging technologies, then has their function shifted with the introduction of the first robot astronaut, Robonaut2, into the crew? And what of NASA’s use of Second Life, has this virtual world become the site at which the same spatial imaginary that sent ‘men to the stars’ is merely reenacted? Working in the interstices between space station and virtual world, I aim to articulate an ambivalence that haunts these hybrid habitats, one that might open up alternative ways of imagining the relations between self, screen and world. 

Spectopolis: from Disney’s Project City to Dubailand 

by Prof. Angela Ndalianis

My research examines the recent urban development of spectacular, hi-tech cities such as Las Vegas, Odaiba, Abu Dhabi and Dubai that market themselves as cities of the future; these cities present potential visitors with their unique utopian visions, which vary from technological advancements to escapist retreats from the ‘real’ world. What binds all of these spaces – in addition to their reliance on sensory engagement and technological innovation – is their connection with the past. Focusing on examples that will include the City Center in Las Vegas, the Palm Islands and Dubailand in Dubai, Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, and the artificial island of Odaiba in Tokyo I will also turn the clock back half a decade or so by visiting Walt Disney’s early research and experiments with constructing a utopian city of the future. In this presentation I will explore how the theme park Disneyland became a testing ground for Disney’s obsession with realizing science fictional futures and with transforming the urban environment into a utopia that was both technologically innovative and spectacularly entertaining.   

Bios of the Participants 

Trish Adams

Trish Adams is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow, RMIT University School of Art, Melbourne and a visiting artist at the Visual & Sensory Neuroscience Group, Queensland Brain Institute, The University of Queensland. She has worked at the art/science nexus for over ten years and her doctoral research project involved a cross-disciplinary collaboration with a biomedical scientist during which she explored the impact of experimental techniques in biomedical engineering on expressions of corporeality. In addition to her artworks Trish has presented her research outcomes through publications and at conferences such as: New Constellations: Art, Science & Society, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2006; Perth Digital Art & Culture Conference, 2007; ISEA2008,  Eye of the Storm, Tate Britain, 2009 and ISEA2011.

Andrew Burrell

Andrew Burrell is a Sydney based artist and writer. He is exploring notions of self and narrative and the implications of virtual worlds and artificial life systems upon an individual’s sense of identity. A unifying thread throughout his practice of the last years, has been one of exploring and searching for a potential site of the self – and to even dare to wonder if this site exists at all. In observing the natural history of the real world, and in asking what a natural history a virtual environment may be, he has been extending this ongoing investigation. He has also been creating fanciful structures that investigate new possibilities for a post-human self, and narrative constructs in which to contain them. He holds a PhD from the University of Sydney and exhibits, presents and publishes locally, internationally and online.

Leonie Cooper

Leonie Cooper is a Lecturer in the Faculty of Art & Design, Monash University where she mentors graduate students undertaking research in media arts practice and theory. Her approach to research and teaching draws upon expertise in the history and theory of film, television, digital media and screen arts with an interest in their intermedial relations. Her doctoral thesis investigated the figure of the astronaut in the context of contemporary screen media including film, theme parks attractions and virtual worlds. She has published on the astronaut and critical theory and been invited to speak on these areas. Current research extends establishe work on science fiction aesthetics into contemporary digital networks as predictive media.

Angela Ndalianis

Angela Ndalianis is Associate Professor in Screen Studies at Melbourne University. Her research focuses on contemporary entertainment culture, media histories and the transmedia collisions of films, computer games, television, comic books and theme parks. Her publications include Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment (2004), The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero (editor, 2009), Science Fiction Experiences (2011) and The Horror Media Sensorium (McFarland. In press, 2011). She is currently completing the book Spectopolis: Theme Park Cultures, which looks at the historical and cultural influence of the theme park.