Appropriately, for an artist whose work has long been about exploring boundaries and intersections ( of media, artforms, of technologies ), Julian Oliver‘s latest work is situated in that long celebrated interface between art and nature, between order and disorder, the garden. Across cultures, throughout time, the garden has been designed / created / explored / experienced as a place resonant with meaning, our relationship with the world probed through the use of symbolic themes and features. In Packet Garden, we are invited to map the world of our daily screens, to create our personal media landscapes. Creating order from our own disorder, we discover our own topologies, media patterns, our habits.
Structuring that disorder partially explains Packet Garden’s appeal, the allure of rendering a tangible world from the messy abundance of currently available media and communications technologies and protocols. Another way to make sense of the information ecology we wade through daily. Widespread adoption of the mediasphere as ecology metaphor in part informs Packet Garden’s sense of inevitablity, and one aspect of this metaphor is worth exploring in relation to the trajectory of Julian’s earlier works. In ecosystems the productive and most diverse areas are believed often to be found in boundary zones, where one ecosystem meets another ( eg where land meets the sea). Browsing Julian’s work prior to Packet Garden, it can be seen that his preferred terrain is that contained by overlapping boundaries, be they of art, software, games or performance.
Code = Poetry?
“By calling digital art “[new] media art,” public perception has focused the zeros and ones as formatted into particular visual, acoustic and tactile media, rather than structures of programming. Software art means a shift of the artist’s view from displays to the creation of systems and processes themselves; this is not covered by the concept of ‘media.'”
– Florian Cramer and Ulrike Gabriel (1)
Explore enough electronic arts email lists or online forums, wander through enough digital arts collective manifestoes, collect enough ‘new media’ calling cards – inevitably this means swimming in slogans that argue for software and programming to be considered an artform. For every digital artist who uses off the shelf software with limited palettes, to create wonderful works of media, there’s another artist who wishes to redefine the palette itself, who recognises the art in extending the range and limits of software, its nuances and interface design, the merits in creating overall systems capable of delivering uniquely customised possibilities. Julian Oliver falls into this latter category, a group of artists whose work is too often critiqued on the merits of the media it outputs, as noted by software art theorist Florian Cramer:
“The software which controls the audio and the visuals is frequently neglected, working as a black box behind the scenes. “Interactive” room installations, for example, get perceived as a interactions of a viewer, an exhibition space and an image projection, not as systems running on code.”(2)
Understanding that the analysis of a user’s network traffic is what makes Packet Garden compelling, is not to deny that it’s stylised rendering of that network traffic is visually beautiful. The project’s merits however are in it’s underlying principles, reinforced by the appropriately chosen visual metaphor for displaying our net travels. As a project which scrutinises our relationship with data, the distribution licensing of Packet Garden is worth looking at more closely. At an explanatory homepage, Julian takes care to point out that Packet Garden is not ‘freeware’, but is distributed as ‘free software’ under a legally binding license which allows users to modify and redistribute PG as long as the license terms are followed. As an artist who likes to get under the bonnet Julian’s work often builds on the shoulders of coders before him. His long connections with the free software movement make visible both the ways his “>projects are indebted to modular components provided for use by others, as well as the ways in which Julian provides access to his own developed code for others to use.
Audiovisual Remapping & Synchrony
“…if we simply mimic the existing conventions of older cultural forms such as the printed word and cinema, we will not take advantage of all the new capacities offered by a computer: its flexibility in displaying and manipulating data, interactive control by the user, and the ability to run simulations, etc.’
Lev Manovich, Cinema As a Cultural Interface (3)
As well as sharing large threads of connectivity to the free software movement, the panorama of Julian’s work is inescapibly intertwined with the computer game. As an artist with programming skills, Julian consistently exploits the rich availability of game construction software to create opportunities for artistic exploration, interactive installations and performance. Game engines otherwise used for creating virtual architecture where players seek to shoot each other, are modified, customised and repurposed to develop innovative ways of generating sonic and visual material.
Amongst Julian’s earliest repurposing of game software was a series of ‘Quake hacks’, including ‘q3aPaint’ – a series of paintings and an automatic painting system made with QuakeIII Arena, and q3apd ( made with Steven Pickles) – a free software project that turned QuakeIII into a music-making system. Julian’s sonic experiments continued with the free 3D software package Blender, exploring ‘positional audio mixing’ and using ‘collision events’ to trigger and control sound generating processes in music making software ( Pure Data, which in turn used the OSC protocol to send information between the software applications ). Another sonic interactive study was Tapper, which explored positional audio and 3D mixing for a hypothetical installation, six machines manipulated to change the bounce cycle of a puck that emits sound on collision with the ground.
Aside from exhibited installations, these experiments are also used in a performance environment by Julian ( under the moniker ‘delire’ ) to harness the real-time capabilities and responsiveness of game engines for generating music. In practical terms, this means an inner-city bar filled with electronic music fans, a make-shift table covered in computing debris, a tangle of cables, an occasional crash and reboot screen, and then the launch of customised software. Unlike other acts simulating audiovisual synchonicity, Julian’s projected imagery and amplified sounds exert a real crackling synergy, movement and events in an abstract 3D space immediately and clearly defining the sounds, their sequence, their composition.
Computer games, as noted by Lev Manovich(4), are an area of computer culture that has been dynamic in its use and extension of cinematic language. One example of this is the incorporation of virtual camera controls and privileging the user with dynamic points of view and the capacity to enjoy several perspectives at once or switch between these at will. Julian has long held a ‘fascination with multiple viewports’, for both the ‘visual compositional possibilities and for the divided object/subjecthood’, and explores these to great effect within ‘Trapped Rocket'(2006), which built a ‘prison’ out of six virtual cameras, containing an aggressive rocket trying to get out. Together all six cameras form an inward facing cube, jailing the rocket as it toils trying new trajectories indefinitely. 2ndPS continues the fascination with perspective, attempting to move beyond the computer games traditional first and 3rd person shooters by building a ‘second person shooter’. In 2ndPS, ‘you control yourself through the eyes of the bot, but you do not control the bot; your eyes have effectively been switched. naturally this makes action difficult when you aren’t within the bot’s field of view. so, both you and the bot (or other player) will need to work together, to combat each other.’
Experiments which explore Julian’s explorations in sound and vision can be found at Selectparks.net, ‘an online archive of divergent and artistic game-development practices’ founded by Julian in 1998 and now established as a key destination for game-art related news and research. The site includes a dedicated ‘sonichima’ category (sounds produced with computer games) and experiments which combine audio and vision – such as Max Miptex (2001 with Chad Chatterton), an experimental ‘glitch’ machinima film, and the very well received game based audio/visual performance engine ‘Fijuu2’ (2006 with Steven Pickles).
Playing In The Garden
Designed to enable musicmaking using cheap Playstation 2 style gamepads, Fijuu2 is music improvisation software with a difference – it simultaneously generates abstract 3D graphics, and these visual representations can be manipulated on screen, an innovation that allows the exploration, anticipation and generation of music through visual means. Fijuu was performed at the Sonar festival in 2004, received an Honourable Mention at Transmediale 2005, then CyberSonica06 commissioned the development of Fijuu2, and the continuation of its attempts to transcend the limits of electronic music performance interfaces.
Fijuu2 foregrounds the poetics of navigation, allowing 3D space and shapes to be played with in an instrument like manner. The tight real-time responsiveness of game engine software brings a real immediacy to the process, and the setting offers unique ways to respond to the unfolding music and visual display, uncovering accidental pleasures along the way, the user able to harness the system’s inherent quirks and glitches for musical benefit. By getting under the bonnet, new performance possibilities are created, and the scope of computer game as interface has been expanded.
Aside from abstract and performative explorations, computer games are regularly utilised by many artists seeking to create immersive worlds pregnant with provocative meanings, ripe for profound discovery and expression. Selectparks.net regularly profiles (5) such game-art, including an array of politically inspired games tackling issues from the war on terrorism (September 12th ) to the fast food industry ( McDonalds the videogame ), the history of Latin America ( Tropical America ) and apocalyptic religious cults ( Waco Resurrection – C-level ). If any doubt remains about computer games as a legitimate, powerful form of cultural expression, able to uniquely engage contemporary audiences, even the briefest of interaction with the above games should settle that.
Escape from Woomera was built by Julian Oliver with Katherine Neil & Kate Wild in 2002-3 as a response to the inhumane treatment of refugees in Australia. Set in remote desert, the harsh conditions of the Woomera detention centre are far from the public spotlight, something the makers of Escape from Woomera sought to remedy. Using extensive photographs of the compound and a modified version of the Half-Life game engine, the detention centre conditions were transformed into a 3D game – the user taking on the persona of a detainee in subhuman conditions, having escape as the ultimate goal. The refugees at Woomera have had to endure imprisonment for years at a time without knowing their ultimate fate, and raising awareness of this situation and their appalling conditions was a goal of the makers. This was achieved on a number of levels – through the engagement of gameplayers around the issue, through International publicity generated, and through even further publicity received when the Minister for Immigration Phillip Ruddock publicly condemned the game ( which had received some Government arts funding ). In a similar fashion, the Guantanamo Bay cell of Australian prisoner David Hicks ( who has been waiting many years for a trial as an alleged terrorist) has been recently recreated as a 360 panorama for users to navigate, similarly providing a fresh and intimate perspective on a political issue.
Aside from raising awareness of issues, computer games with an overtly political message have also helped contribute to an improving perception of the computer game platform. By leveraging sophisticated immersive and interactive to provoke players into considering particular issues, these games introduce gamers and non-gamers alike into further accepting on some level the merits of the computer game as an artform in its own right. This new batch of believers also includes media theorists, McKenzie Wark in his most recent book ‘Gamer Theory‘, stating that ‘computer games constitute the dominant cultural form of our time’.
Stepping back in history, playful information representation has long been alive in the garden. his book ‘Gardens of the Gods: Myth, Magic and Meaning‘, Christopher McIntosh cheerfully delineates the ways in which the garden has been used across many cultures to convey meaning – landscapes designed and manicured to reflect various belief systems and mythologies. And a rich history it is, from which today’s landscape architects, town planners, ecologists and horticulturalists draw on heavily when designing or seeking to conserve parks, gardens or landscapes.
McIntosh identifies three basic ingredients which give a common structure to the language of gardening – the form of the garden as a whole, the objects that are created or placed in the garden or existing landscape features to which specific meanings are attached and the plants in the garden and the meanings they are given. From this platform, the symbolic language of gardens is explored widely, from the renaissance gardens in Europe, that sought to search for, or recreate Eden (horticulture as reflecting the mingling of new scientific theories with older ideas and beliefs), to the Chinese & Japanese gardens that sought to balance the forces of nature ( with the influences of feng shui and taoism, balancing of yin and yang), to the Christian motifs in European gardens (renaissance magical and memory systems as a possible basis for the iconography and design of certain gardens), to the dense mythological symbolism of baroque and rococo gardens ( theatres of transformation ), the symbolism and allegory of gardens of the 18th century (reflecting ideas of 18th century enlightenment) and the foretaste of paradise suggested by Islamic gardens ( recurring features such as four water channels representing the rivers of Eden). Which brings us to our current tangle of light and wires.
A wild and woolly network of computer networks, the internet’s world-wide operations are made possible by the use of a common set of communications protocols. Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocols ( TCP/IP) enable globally understood interaction between machines, and each machine must have an Internet Protocol number or address for it to communicate with others. An IP address is a unique number consisting of 4 parts separated by dots, e.g. 126.96.36.199 ( which is also the type of address ultimately found when looking at a web address such as http://www.google.com ). In addition to these protocols, another layer of protocols enable software applications to send messages between these addresses.
Packet Garden generates a unique, explorable 3 dimensional world based on your internet use, and operates by monitoring the above protocols and noting which servers you have visited, quantities of traffic, geographic locations and which protocols were used. As Julian points out:
“Uploads make hills and downloads valleys, their location determined by numbers taken from internet address itself. The size of each hill or valley is based on how much data is sent or received. Plants are also grown for each protocol detected by the software; if you visit a website, an ‘HTTP plant’ is grown.”
Visualisation of such traffic is inherently interesting to the user, illustrating patterns and habits and often drawing attention to surprises – heavier than expected usage in some area, or by some application. Daily files or worlds can be stored and compared later to observe changing habits over time. In revealing the users internet usage in this unique way, an understanding of the underlying structure of the internet is necessarily nurtured – for example, wondering why some ‘plant’ is so prominent, might lead to discovering that some supposedly bandwidth benign application is using much more traffic than it should.
Space is the Place
â€œthe space of flows… links up distant locales around shared functions and meanings on the basis of electronic circuits and fast transportation corridors, while isolating and subduing the logic of experience embodied in the space of places.â€
– Manuell Castells (Informationalism and the Network Society)(7)
Eminent sociologists ( Hi, Manuel ) are great for mapping the contours of a networked society across its various dimensions ( social, economic, political ), and with fine-toothed detail ( quantitative analysis of changes in labour market demographics across decades??? anyone? *). In his comprehensive three-volume series, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, Manuel Castells carefully outlines the impact of advanced communications and information technologies, and the ways in which they have facilitated globalisation and transformed identity and society. He argues that ‘information technologies foster a networking logic, because it allows one to deal with complexity and unpredictability, which in itself is increased by these technologies’ (8) and introduces the ‘space of flows’ as a key way of understanding the importance of networks. The second volume, The Power of Identity is dedicated to the core tension behind Packet Garden, the juxtaposition between our lives in the space of places, and our jostling for position in the ethereal geography-less networks, the space of flows.
It is often the cultural creatives who can best illustrate these tensions and nuances of our times, providing unique vantage points from which to gauge information technology’s continued transformations of our personal and collective identities across the globe. As Edward Tufte (9) might argue, well visualised information can make a strong contribution to helping distill the complexities of our aged. Lateral attempts to convey our times abound online : Richard Hodge’s rollercoaster version of the graph of US home prices adjusted for inflation (10), Carlo Zanni’s Ebay landscape which generates mountains from ebay stock market charts (11), and many mappings of global blog activity eg the Twingly screensaver which visualises global blog activity in real-time (12). See also Discover Magazines ‘Charting the network of jocks, gadget hounds, political junkies, and porn aficionados’ (13 ).
Beyond simply good graphic design and well chosen visual metaphors however, strong conceptual software design can engage the reader / viewer’s participation on deeper levels. An excellent recent example of using contemporary visual interfaces to promote understanding of complex issues, would be the inclusion within Google Maps, of densely overlayed information relating to the genocidal atrocities happening in Darfur, Sudan(14). Within an information software manifesto of sorts, ‘Information Software and the Graphical Interface’(15), Bret Victor puts forward that information software ultimately serves the human urge to learn:
“A person uses information software to construct and manipulate a model that is internal to the mindâ€”a mental representation of information. Good information software encourages the user to ask and answer questions, make comparisons, and draw conclusions.”
5. References / links
(1) Florian Cramer and Ulrike Gabriel, ‘Software Art’, August 15, 2001.
(2) Florian Cramer:
“The software which controls the audio and the visuals is frequently neglected, working as a black box behind the scenes. “Interactive” room installations, for example, get perceived as a interactions of a viewer, an exhibition space and an image projection, not as systems running on code.”
(3) Lev Manovich, Cinema As a Cultural Interface
(4)Lev Manovich, Cinema As a Cultural Interface
Computer games, as noted by Lev Manovich, are an area of computer culture that has been dynamic in its use and extension of cinematic language. One example of this is the incorporation of virtual camera controls.
(6) Christopher McIntosh, ‘Gardens of the Gods: Myth, Magic and Meaning’ ( I.B. Tauris 2005 ).
(7) (Informationalism and the Network Society. In: The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age. New York, Random House pp. 155-178, Himanen, Pekka 2001. )
(8) ‘information technologies foster a networking logic, because it allows one to deal with complexity and unpredictability, which in itself is increased by these technologies’ (1996: 60-65)
(9) Edward Tufte is a leading advocate of intelligent information visualisation and author of many books on the topic.
(10) Richard Hodge’s rollercoaster graph of US home prices adjusted for inflation: http://www.speculativebubble.com/videos/real-estate-roller-coaster.php
(12) Twingly screensaver which visualises global blog activity in real-time: http://twingly.se/ScreenSaver.aspx
(13) Discover Magazines ‘Charting the network of jocks, gadget hounds, political junkies, and porn aficionados’ ( http://discovermagazine.com/2007/may/map-welcome-to-the-blogosphere
(14) “Educating todayâ€™s generation about the atrocities of the past and present can be enhanced by technologies such as Google Earth. When it comes to responding to genocide, the worldâ€™s record is terrible. We hope this important initiative with Google will make it that much harder for the world to ignore those who need us the most.” â€” Sara J. Bloomfield, Director, USHMM. http://www.ushmm.org/googleearth/
(15) Bret Victor, ‘Information Software and the Graphical Interface’ http://worrydream.com/MagicInk/