Strategic Arts Initiative 2.0 (Text)
A text by Derrick de Kerckhove about the 2011 exhibition Strategic Arts Initiative 2.0.
Twenty-five years later, it feels both like yesterday and something so very distant in the past. However, I can still see us (David Rokeby, Graham Smith, Carl Hamfelt, and I) looking in dismay at the single telephone line dropping through the huge second floor window of the Palazzo di Citta in Salerno. The miserable thing was hooked straight from a city line passing by. Needless to say it wasn’t reliable for any of the five performances that required it, and those were to be international connections on voice and modem links. Because of the weakness of that line (and for other reasons) the pieces didn’t work very well, but that didn’t seem to matter a whole lot. The metaphorical levels were so strong and evident that nobody cared whether the arm-rod of Transatlantic Arm Wrestling stayed limp most of the time when it wasn’t jerking up suddenly for no apparent reason. As Graham points out in the catalogue of the 1986 edition, “this ability to see, and control a machine, across the Atlantic is the most visible part of the piece, yet conceptually it is only a surface element. The true power of the piece lies in its definition of communication as an interactive explorative process which results in the construction of a three-dimensional mental model.” That was certainly one of the most exciting aims of the first SAI, to create new mental models, new perceptions about what kind of world we were getting into.
The point then was not what the pieces would demonstrate, but what they were saying about the effects and potential human impact of what we saw as the rapid expansion of communication devices and practices. At the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto, where Graham became Director of the Virtual Reality Access Program, I ran weekly seminars with a team of artist-engineers such as those who are featured in the re-edition of SAI. The idea was to test our hypotheses in performance and push the envelope as far as we could.
It turns out that each piece contained much predictive value. Telepresence is now a fact of life via Skype and other real-time video media. Our body language is expressed with Wii and other airborne interfaces, as seen in Very Nervous System. Our present time is one of ambient magic. Ordinary people are now acquiring powers that would be associated with wizardry in the later Middle Ages. And they might even be persecuted for it! Little wonder Harry Potter enjoyed such a worldwide success - people are fascinated by the imagination of new powers.
SAI 2.0 is a remake, not a replay; it puts the dots on the technological ‘i’. Our challenge is also to think about the next twenty- five years. What I foresee from the weak signals of the future already present in the technological, the artistic – and even the commercial – scenes is that technology and sensibility are converging on the conditions of total surround, and instant physical as well as direct mind-machine communications. The Internet is rife with offers of inexpensive mind-reading headsets that are beginning to allow people to simply think something up and have it executed on a screen or in another display technology. “I wanted to send a tactile sensation over the phone,” wrote Doug Back for the previous catalogue. We will probably witness the rise and spread of transintimacy technologies, by which I do not intend necessarily new experiences of promiscuity, but new sensations of proximity in a variety of different contexts. Soon enough we will be able to ‘feel’ the world. And how about reading and dictating in braille over the iPad? Another area foreseen in Displaced Perspectives will be that of displaced subjectivities. Artists (for example, Eric Joris) as well as scientists are already working on prototypes that allow one to experience someone else’s subjectivity as one’s own.
What can be accomplished immediately by SAI 2.0 is recognition of the ground of this developing culture, the figures will come later.
Derrick de Kerckhove, 2011
Derrick de Kerckhove is the former Director of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology from 1983 to 2008. He was the curator of Strategic Arts Initiative (1986) and is a contributor to Strategic Arts Initiative 2.0 (2011).