How re:mote am I?

Posted by Helen Varley Jamieson | Sat May 28th 2005 10:05 p.m.

How remote am I?

What does it mean to be remote in an electronic art world? This was
one of the questions posed by re:mote (http://www.remote.org.nz), a
gathering of digital artists and theorists in Auckland, Aotearoa (the
Maori name for New Zealand) on 19 March 2005. Held in a
geographically remote country, the event was an opportunity for local
wired artists to meet face-to-face as well as an invitation to ponder
the meaning of "remote" in the 21st century.

Re:mote was an event by and for artists, organised by r a d i o q u a
l i a (http://www.radioqualia.va.com.au/) and ((ethermap
(http://www.ethermap.org/). The first in a series of one-day
experimental festivals, it was run "on the smell of an oily rag" (as
we say here) and made possible in part by Adam Hyde's residency at
the University of Waikato. Questions posed by the organisers
included: are there 'centres' and 'peripheries' within a world
increasingly bridged, criss-crossed and mapped by digital
technologies? Can technologically mediated communication ever be a
substitute for face-to-face dialogue? Is geographical isolation a
factor in contemporary art production? Is remote a relative concept?

Fourteen presentations from new media art practitioners and theorists
in Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand were squeezed into eight
hours and ranged from a cosy midnight feast in Finland to a glimpse
of the expansive Antarctic wilderness, and from musings on
information from outer space to the virtual escape of a death row
prisoner. Various methods were employed to connect remote (as opposed
to re:mote) participants with those at the Auckland venue - the Elam
School of Fine Arts lecture theatre. A live MP3 audio stream enabled
the off-site audience to hear everything from the venue, and they
could communicate through a text chat which was also used to convey
an impression of what they couldn't see. QuickTime, Skype, IRC,
iChatAV, iVisit and the Palace were among the applications used in
different presentations.

The international speakers were scheduled first to accommodate their
time zones, with Steve Kovats and Graham Smith from Rotterdam kicking
things off. Visible via web cam, their presentation nicely
illustrated their discussion on how telecommunication transforms the
concept of distance from space to time. They were in the dark of
Friday night, while we in Auckland were well into a sunny Saturday.
Also still in Friday night and dressed in her best pyjamas, Sophea
Lerner (an Australian new media theorist and artist currently
studying in Helsinki) tucked into a midnight feast while elaborating
on the promises and assumptions of remote communication. She proposed
that the most interesting thing about a remote location is not the
remoteness, but the location. This contrasted with the previous
presentation's focus on time as the distancing element rather than
space or location. Any location, whether it's the heart of a teeming
metropolis or an empty beach in southern Aotearoa, can be remote when
you're outside it, rendering it exotic, intriguing and desirable.
It's the differences, rather than distances, that make a "remote"
location interesting - and the unexpected similarities.

Lerner also addressed the concept of peripherality and how one can
experience being peripheral in many different places, depending on
one's perspective of the "centre". Finland may appear peripheral to
Europe, but from the New Zealand perspective it's almost in the
middle of that centre. Contemporary politics place Europe and North
America in the centre, but as the power balance shifts that centre
may relocate to Asia or even cyberspace. Today's technologies release
us from the geographical definition of centre, creating globally
dispersed "peripheral centres" and "central peripheries". Technology
has penetrated even the periphery of Antarctica, as shown by Phil
Dadson's presentation about his recent artist's residency there. A
looping video of his shadow crunching across the endless white
landscape, broken only by the bones of some unfortunate beast,
removed not only all sense of place but also time. The simple act of
filming his shadow on the ice placed Dadson at the centre of a
peripheral environment.

Japanese radio pioneer and artist Tetsuo Kogawa spoke about
technology and the body and gave a history of Mini FM, a project
which aimed to tactically deregulate the Japanese airwaves by
teaching people how to create and broadcast from their own free radio
stations. During the 1970s and 80s, Kogawa held radio parties in
Tokyo apartments where he taught people to build transmitters,
broadcasting from the domestic periphery to the centre of the
airwaves. Footage from these events reveal the political act of
taking ones own space on the airwaves as also entertaining and
community-building. His goal was to use radio technology not as a
substitute for face-to-face communication but as a means to bring
people together and to propose political and social alternatives.
During re:mote, Kogawa also gave an audio performance and the
following day led a mini FM transmitter building workshop.

Pre-recorded appearances were made by New Zealander Sally Jane
Norman, who has lived in Europe since the 1970s, and Zina Kaye from
Australia, who discussed her project "The Line Ahead", which gathers
data from airports to create LED signs in a gallery. Sally Jane
Norman began with pre-internet architectures of performance, asking
how physical gesture can invest digital space, and described the
remote manipulation of space probes as "advanced puppeteering".
Achieving physicality within digital spaces alters the concept of
remoteness; how remote am I if, from Aotearoa/New Zealand, I can
physically move an object on the moon? Both air and space travel
create bridges between centres and peripheries, destroying the
relative remoteness of New Zealand in the space of a few hours and
offering instead the greater remoteness of outer space.

The trials and tribulations of remote collaboration were addressed by
a number of presenters including myself, Zina Kaye and Trudy Lane.
Zina had encountered some difficulties in working with technicians
located elsewhere, while Trudy's ongoing collaboration with mi2 in
Zagreb (on the online magazine ART-e-FACT) works smoothly. Physically
meeting your remote collaborators may make some things easier, but
it's also possible to work successfully without meeting, as
demonstrated by Avatar Body Collision. This work was presented by
Leena Saarinen (in Finland), Vicki Smith (in NZ's South Island) and
myself at the venue. Our greatest difficulty is in finding times when
the four of us can be online together for rehearsals, but the
advantages are many. We taste each others' geographical and social
locations and are telematically transported from our peripheral homes
to the centres of arts festivals and conferences. Returning to one of
the questions posed by re:mote - Can technologically mediated
communication ever be a substitute for face-to-face dialogue? -
during four years of artistic collaboration, Leena Saarinen and I
have never met, so technologically mediated communication is an
excellent and necessary substitute for face-to-face. Our "remote"
relationship is as real and valuable as if we had met, so how remote
are we?

The variety of local presentations given during the afternoon
illustrated the diversity of concepts of "remote": a web site about a
fictional nation state; universal nomadism and the generic city;
"glocalisation"; and a multi-locational artistic picnic were among
the projects discussed (for more information on all presentations see
www.remote.org.nz). While these presenters were all New Zealanders
living in New Zealand, their presentations had connections all over
the globe - Lithuania, Croatia, Amsterdam, the USA. As an artist in
the electronic world, living in an isolated location doesn't mean
that your work must be of that location. There will always be some
degree of local perspective, but sources and context are often
global; this combination of local and global is "glocalisation".

Live improvised audio performances were given by Tennis (London) in
the morning, and at the end of the day by Tetsuo Kogawa, Adam Hyde
and Adam Willetts. Tennis (Ben Edwards and Doug Benford) performed
with a web cam showing them seated at their computers. As our
off-site audience could only hear the audio stream, I provided them
with a commentary of what we could see on the screen in the IRC chat.
This created another level to the performance, and an extrapolation
of remoteness: I was interpreting and relaying my visual observation
of an audio performance back to a twice-removed audience, some of
whom were in the same country as the performers and on the other side
of the world from me. For the Auckland audience in the same room as
me, I and my commentary became a part of the performance as well -
yet the performers themselves were not aware of this. Thus at least
three different performances were taking place: the audio performance
given by Tennis; the sound, text and images experienced in the venue
in Auckland; and the online version, consisting of sound and text.
Reading the chat log several weeks after the event, the remoteness
doubles again - comments on now unheard sounds and descriptions of
vanished images are like shadows cast by an invisible body. This
fascinating unplanned metamorphosis was a result of the event and our
various layers of remotenesses. A briefer but related "performance"
had occurred earlier in the day when Adam Hyde and James Stevens were
speaking over Skype, but James had left his computer speakers on,
generating an echo loop that took on an unstoppable life of its own.

My personal experience of re:mote was bound up with the technologies,
both in my presentation (using the Palace and iVisit) and in my role
at the keyboard as a "chat wrangler", delivering commentary to the
off-site audience. The off-site audience's responses to my
descriptions of the visuals and the audio stream they were hearing
are preserved in the chat log and offer a surreal perspective on the
day. Once again, re:mote was answering its own questions, as the chat
substituted face-to-face communication reasonably effectively and
rolled our individual peripheries into the centre.

As someone who communicates and collaborates remotely on a daily
basis, I always value the opportunity to work and collaborate in the
same physical space with others. Creating such gatherings in far off
places like Aotearoa/New Zealand is especially important, as
sometimes we're so busy worrying about what's going on in the rest of
the world that we overlook the wealth of activity happening locally.
How remote are we when we know what our colleagues in New York,
Amsterdam or Belgrade are doing but we don't know what's going on in
Dunedin or Wanganui? Our perceived remoteness is embedded in the
identity of the people of this small, distant and relatively
insignificant country, and fuels a need to be a part of the wider
world to counter this feeling of isolation. Yet one of the ideas that
came through strongly during re:mote was the possibility to feel
peripheral in any situation, and the individual relativity of a
myriad of centres and peripheries which are now becoming bridged,
mapped and interconnected by digital technologies.

Congratulations and thanks to Adam Hyde, Honor Harger, Adam Willetts
and Zita Joyce for making re:mote happen; it was an intense,
enjoyable and thought-provoking day. The second re:mote has just
taken place, in Regina, Canada - unfortunately I was "remote" in the
sense of being offline while on holiday so I was unable to attend,
but I'm told it went well. Documentation of both events should soon
be online at www.remote.org.nz, and I'm looking forward to re:mote 3.

http://www.remote.org.nz
http://www.soilmedia.org/remote/
http://www.radioqualia.va.com.au/
http://www.ethermap.org/

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helen varley jamieson: creative catalyst
helen@creative-catalyst.com
http://www.creative-catalyst.com
http://www.avatarbodycollision.org
http://www.writerfind.com/hjamieson.htm
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