Quiet Media and Experience Design.
This weekend I experienced two very different works of ‘media’ art united by the fact that writing about them will not only and undoubtedly fail to provide an adequate account but also perhaps undermine their value for the reader’s future experience.
You have been warned.
While I’m here interested in the first of these works, Duncan Speakman’s subtlemob piece As If It Were the Last Time, its relation to the second – James Turrell’s newest Skyspace installation at the National Gallery of Australia, is intriguing. Both are works of experience design. This is not experience design in the sense that we are now seeing as pervasive media tech finds it way into retail spaces and public institutions. This is experience design in the sense that both works are designed for a kind of quiet transformation of the way the viewer perceives the world and our place in it.
Quiet - is key here. Neither of these works are interested in mediation or expression. Even the term modulation seems to indicate a degree of intermediation that simply doesn’t apply. At the least the term ‘modulation’ comes close to the sense of a kind of phase shift in perception that provides for \a new synthesis between bodies and between bodies and their environment.
Turrell’s Skyspace installation is a large scale architectural work in the South Garden of the National Gallery of Australia. The work recalls spaces of contemplation or worship. The Skyspace architecture plays with the perception of space and of natural light. It makes the ‘fabric’ of perception tangible from the scale and frame of the body and its movements through to scale and frame of planet and universe and their movements. There is nothing to say as you leave Turrell’s Skyspace – no interpretation to share, no reading to offer, but something like a necessarily and refreshingly unspoken quietude.
Beyond Flash Mobs.
Speakman’s Subtlemob concept similarly modulates the scale and frame of perception in the service of realising a resonant intensity between bodies.
Subtlemob is based on the concept of flash mobbing. Flash mobbing is a mode of collective performance based on the potential for contemporary technology (mobile phones, internet) to organise a spontaneous collection of anonymous individuals to gather in a public space at a designated time and perform a particular act (normally inane or bizarre).
The invention of Flash mobbing is claimed by Bill Wasik in his excellent account published in Harper’s Bazaar in 2006 (http://www.harpers.org/archive/2006/03/0080963). In that account Wasik describes the project as essentially self parodying the willingness of its participants to act in transgression of norms only within the unanimity of a group. For Wasik the Flash Mob was a performative critique of ‘hipster’ culture based on the production of an event that was its own sufficient reason.
The Flash Mob concept realised a number of variations and innovations. For the most part the increasing ubiquity of Flash mobs saw them become as mundane as they were inane. The most interesting of flash mobs became more determinedly performative – less based on the spontaneous experience of the mob and more on a deliberate and organised performance. In many cases the presence of as many video cameras recording proceedings as participants begged the question as to who the mob was performing – they appeared like an obstinant child acting-out in front of a mirror. This desire to record Flash Mob culminated in a series of performances the execution and filming of which is so elaborately staged
By 2006 the ubiquity of the iPod added another dimension to the potential of Flash Mobs allowing for ‘Silent Disco’s’ -where participants downloaded a playlist to be played on headphones as they gathered at a predetermined and network-shared (public) space and time. The ‘Silent Disco’ realises the potential of audio to produce a locative, augmented, and social media form without the need for anything but the simplest of consumer media technologies. Its also sees the flash mob move back away from the cynical critique of Wisak and from the pretense of performance. In the process, it hints at a less irony laden experience, an experience more concerned with the implication of a social intensity via the production of shared ‘spontaneous’ experience.
Speakman’s subtlemob ‘instance’ As if it Were the Last Time’ extends and capitalises on these later developments. The potential participant is alerted to an immanent subtlemob event by a Facebook group, Email list or via Twitter only days before the event is scheduled. The location of the event is posted the morning prior. For ‘As if it were the last time’ The participant is instructed to download one of two 30 minute audio files based on their birthdate. Each participant is to bring a partner each with their own mp3 player and set of headphones. The content of As if it Were the Last Time seemed heavily biased to a romantic couple- although this wasn’t mentioned explicitly. I’m glad I was their with my wife – rather than a friend – which would have been awkward. The participants amass in the designated space and play the file at the designated time.
Unlike the flash mob -the aim of subtlemob is to remain subtle throughout the event – to not draw undue attention yourself and to follow the instructions delivered in the audio file. Instructions prior to the event explicitly ask participants not to bring video cameras or recording devices. The aim is to be completely absorbed in the moment rather than to be performing for latter recollection or replay. The value of the subtlemob is in the experience itself not in the expressive performance of its participants. Experience of the work is rather akin to being immersed in a cinematic work that has come to life and absorbed the viewers as its protagonists.
As stated, the work consists of two audio files so that roughly half the participants are listening to each file (couples listen to the same file). The files are well produced from an audio perspective with beautifully edited and composed music and professional voice over and minimal (but very effective) additional sound design.
The content of the audio is elusive and ethereal – with snaps of instruction interspersed with near-narrative insights projected onto the people and the space you inhabit. Although these snaps of insight and reflection are very general they become more specific and contextual due to the fact that the actions of the other subtlemob participants fall roughly in sync and are interspersed with the unaware public as they too move through the space.
The content of As If It Were the Last Time isn’t tailored to the space as in an audio tour – its composed to compel your reflection on the space and your place within it, your relation to your partner, and to the other couples, and passers-by that inhabit the space. As participants lean on each other, or look at their reflections, or gaze up at the buildings, or as other people pass by, the narrator will ask you to reflect on what they are thinking and feeling, what possible past, or potential future they each embody in that instance.
The resulting experience is transcendent and dreamlike. I am not usually well-disposed to public performance but in this case it rarely felt like I was performing. I never felt self-conscious during the piece but rather deeply engaged by the work and by the interaction it encouraged with my partner and the space. Like Turrell’s Skypasce installation As If It Were the Last Time never becomes about the content itself, there is no story to take away form the experience other than those that you bring to the space and are invoked by the work. There is no message, only the intense modulation of the relation between bodies and between body and space.
Sydney’s subtlemob was on a friday evening at 6pm in the middle of Martin Place (the middle of post-colonial Sydney). There were 35 couples participating. There is much to be said about the concept of the subtlemob and Speakman’s execution of the concept in the form of As if It Were The Last Time. None of that discussion is really about the experience of the work – beyond the fact that it demonstrates a entirely new form of media art and experience in the use of audio as the basis for truly creative, social, and technically unencumbered augmented reality.
Beyond that -you really needed to be there.
The subtlemob project and the development of As If It Were the Last Time is a project supported by the Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol (Who have also supported the amazing Anti-VJ).