Report from ISEA 2004

Report From ISEA 2004
Published on - 9/13/04
Baltic Sea, Helsinki (Finland), Tallinn (Estonia)
August 14-22, 2004
by Jonah Brucker-Cohen (jonah(at)

Held over a week and located in Helsinki, Tallinn, and a Baltic
Sea-roving cruise liner, ISEA 2004 was a marathon media arts
conference like none other. With over 1,500 artists taking part in
panels, performances, fashion shows, keynotes, and installations,
there was little time for sleep among all of the commuting between
venues. The conference's theme examined the crossover between
wireless culture, wearable or fashionable technology, and networked
experience. ISEA 2004 aimed to explore themes surrounding critical
notions of interaction design, open source software culture, and
geopolitics of media. This approach attempted to challenge accepted
notions of interaction by focusing on possibilities of
re-appropriation instead of mere re-evaluation. Although the
conference schedule was an often strenuous journey through multiple
cities and events, the discussions, interventions, and realizations
that manifested contributed to an exhilarating experience.

The festival officially began aboard the "Networked Experience"
Baltic sea cruise (I missed the Koneisto sound event the night before
in Helsinki), where the focus was on how networked culture iterates
human understanding through shared experiences such as email lists,
collective performance, interactive narrative, and GPS sound
installations. The panel entitled "The List: The mailing list
phenomena", began in the Metropolitan ballroom of the ship, with a
panel of list-serve moderators such as Melinda Rackham of Empyre,
Kathy Rae Huffman of Faces, Axel Bruns of Fibre Culture, and
Charlotte Frost who is studying list culture for her Ph.D. thesis.
Examining networked culture, the debate centered around the nurturing
of lists and what types of communication technologies are appropriate
for specific communities. I spoke on the challenges of my BumpList
project as an example of an email community that focuses on shifting
the structure of a system to change its participants behaviors. Other
panels and events focused on community awareness in digital media
projects like "E-Tester" and UNESCO meetings with African and Asian
award winners and participants.

Arriving bewildered and tired in the city of Tallinn, Estonia, the
"Wearable Experience" theme of ISEA began with a keynote from
Concordia University's Joanna Berzowska. Her talk was an overview of
wearable trends and projects that aimed to challenge traditional
notions of strapped-on gadgetry by emphasizing the integration of
sensors and displays into clothing. Her own research on "Memory Rich
Garments" showed how everyday emotions and intimacy could be
projected and enhanced through computationally enhanced clothing that
stores non-personal data about people it comes into contact with.
Other panels focused on the how technology and fashion can integrate
into networks, how clothing can act as a display for portable
signage, or how intimacy could be conveyed over distance. This
discussion continued to Helsinki's "Wireless Experience" theme, which
began as hundreds of ISEA attendees were stuck in passport control
after arriving on the SuperSeaCat ferry from Tallinn. Machiko
Kusahara of Japan's Waseda University opened the conference with a
keynote address on mobile phone culture in Japan. Her focus centered
around how "socially acceptable" mobile phone or "ketai" use had
become and how advertisements for services emphasized how "left out"
of mainstream culture people have become without a phone. Although
her talk emphasized the social pressures of technology, it left out
dangers of extended mobile phone use or the advent of surveillance
culture. These questions were made more evident through the many
parallel sessions over the next few days.

The second keynote by the Sarai New Media Initiative's Shuddhabrata
Sengupta focused around the conference theme of "Histories of the
New" and how reinventing the future is often tied to lessons from the
past. His talk "The Remains of Tomorrows Past: Speculations on the
Antiquity of New Media Practice in South Asia", presented the history
of technical networks from the telegraph to the Internet. His talk
referenced Tom Standage's book "The Victorian Internet" to illustrate
how these information networks are not new and how they simply
provide frameworks for a centralized space that expands global
discourse. UCLA's Erkki Huhtamo, followed this talk with his take on
the "Archaeology of Mobile Media", or how media does not exist
independently from the social framework that envelops them. He showed
imagery of the amateur photographer of the early 20th century
comparing the public perception of this "nuisance" to the current
mobile phone camera phenomenon: both seen as invasions of privacy and
unwanted surveillance in the hands of the people.

Following this theme, the GPS art panel, moderated by San Francisco
based-artist Marisa Olsen, attempted to ground location-based media
projects into a defined genre. The current ghettoization of media art
into technology-defined categories like GPS or Wi-Fi tends to counter
creativity at its roots. Instead the focus should be on crystallizing
an idea so that the technology becomes less awkward and central to
the output. Projects discussed included Pall Thayer's "Hlemmur in C"
that tracked taxi movements through GPS and composed real-time
soundtracks based on their position in the city, Joel Slayton's (of
the C5 collective) mapping of altitudes on the Great Wall of China to
plot where it could have been built in California, and Teri Rueb's
"Trace" which allows people to discover location-based sound clips
embedded into positions on a nature trail in Canada. In a sense, most
of the work in this area centers on GPS enabling you find or discover
things in your environment or enabling people or devices to find you.
Little was mentioned about the surveillance aspects of tracking or
the social aspects of why this technology is becoming pervasive?

Filling in the hard theory was keynote speaker Wendy Hui Kyong Chun
of Brown University who spoke on "Control and Freedom: Interactivity
as a Software Effect". Her talk was probably the most seminal moment
of the conference as it connected up the central themes. Chun
emphasized the role of technology as a contributor to social stigma
especially in networked culture and outlined how surveillance is
becoming a visual and territorial metaphor for control. Her breakdown
of the utopian view that current software assumes that users cannot
understand computation showed explicitly how layers of mediation
between code and interface are getting thicker. Nina Wakeford of the
University of Surrey spoke on "Identity Politics of Mobility and
Design Culture", focusing on the importance of local knowledge with
examples of projects that emphasized aspects of mobility as a driving
force in design.

The exhibitions scattered around Tallinn and Helsinki showcased
everything from fashion tech and accessories to social and political
projects, to interactive installations and data visualizations. Some
impressive projects included Bundith Phunsombatlert's "Path of
Illusion", a series of street lamps with rotating LED displays that
passerbyers could type into rounded keyboards at the base of the
lights. Also meant to display information in public space was Steve
Heimbecker's "POD (Wind Array Cascade Machine)" which consisted of
sixty four air flow sensors in Montreal that transmitted data to
towers of LEDs that resembled a large-scale graphic equalizer. Also
interesting was Diego Diaz's "Playground" which turned a kids
merry-go-round into a collective joystick to navigate a shared 3D
space. I think someone got overexcited and broke the piece midway
through. In Tallinn, the wearable showcase features Tina Gonsalves
and Tom Donaldson's "Medulla Intimata", video jewelry that changes
depending on the emotional state of the wearer and the conversations
in which they are engaged. Other projects such as Kelly Dobson's
"ScreamBody" which consists of a bag you scream into and release the
sound later, Sabrina Raaf's "Saturday" which used gloves with bone
transducers to hear sampled CB radio conversations through your
cheekbones, and "Seven Mile Boots" by Laura Beloff, Erich Berger and
Martin Pichlmair that allows people to traverse chat rooms by walking
around a physical space. Overall the projects in the show examined
how wearable technology can impact and change our environment,
personal experience and social landscape.

As ISEA ended, most people were thoroughly exhausted. Although the
constant shifting of venues, cities, and themes might have
contributed to this, the questions raised by the presentations and
exhibitions remained strong throughout the event. Why is interaction
engaging? Is there a larger message involved? How do creative systems
and practice filter up to decision and policy makers to provoke and
result in global action? With diverse speakers such as the Sarai
Collective's challenge to the hegemony of the digital art canon and
Mark Tribe open-sourcing his presentation online so that people could
"remix" it after his talk, the conference presented a wide array of
contrasting opinions that attempted to make sense of the current
media arts landscape. With so many perspectives, the endpoint seemed
scattered but also manageable. The more we question the fundamental
reasons why technology is important, the more we discover why we
cannot live without it. Only through events like ISEA can we really
come to grips with this realization.

- by Jonah Brucker-Cohen (jonah (at)