17 September 2010

Miso Susanowa's "code dreams"; or, "if (gAvatar == misoSusanowa) { state Identity; }"

Having picked on Miso Susanowa a little bit in a recent post, it turns out she's given me another morsel of food for thought, an intriguing one in the form of her piece at the Pop Art Lab's Art Breaker show, "code dreams." To understand it -- and certainly to make your way through it -- you can hardly do better than to read Miso's own blog post about it.

Miso is unusual among SL artists because sound is a -- perhaps the -- primary element in her work. (Her discussion of this is one reason her post about "code dreams" is so valuable.) It's crucial to turn up the volume on sounds, and probably the master volume control as well (you may want to turn down the UI volume if you do that). If you don't, you won't hear much of anything, which is how I missed almost everything in this piece the first time I visited it. Wearing earphones is a good idea, since the installation has stereo effects. Note that some objects play sounds only when you're nearby (camming isn't sufficient, though it's often valuable in order to increase volume); sometimes there is a bit of a delay before sounds play, probably due to SL sluggishness. Also, there are a lot of objects with sounds, and you may find it helpful to adjust their volume or turn one or two of them off temporarily (a click usually opens up a menu).

At first glance, "code dreams" looks like a random jumble of plants and objects and odds and ends, and perhaps not very interesting. But once you've adjusted the volume controls, "code dreams" clearly emerges as the immersive environment it is meant to be. It should be said, this quality is less pronounced in the first part of the installation, on the right side, which Miso identifies as the "input" side. (True to form, the first time I went, I unwittingly entered on the wrong side. The installation works better her way.) Here Miso introduces the most explicit codes in this work, starting with a cube at the entrance which gives a notecard about the piece, and has an image hidden within it.

Most of the codes in this part of the installation are of the computer sort: her SL avatar's unique alphanumeric key, an assortment of everyday identifiers such as her driver's licence number, audio waveform graphics, hexadecimals, and so forth. One object dispenses a notecard with a pure binary sequence of ones and zeroes. (I won't translate the computerese for you, but I'll reply to Miso by quoting Bertolt Brecht: "ein Mann ist kein Mann" ["one man is no man"].) However, "code dreams" also incorporates the fundamental code in the biological world: the four nucleic acids (as represented by letters) that combine in a dizzying array to create every living creature's ultimately unique DNA.

In the middle section ("processing"), the computer codes are subordinated to the more personal codes of memories and dreams. A couple of plants play bits of dialogue from the movie "The Wizard of Oz"; in one Dorothy declares that she'll stay where she belongs, in the other she defends the reality of her dream. A dog barks. A "guardian angel" sculpture plays a muffled recording of a child reciting a prayer. Bytes of computer and DNA code are scattered on the rug. A small table cluttered with childhood objects (some of which respond to touch) stands next to a girl's bed -- complete with Disney headboard -- which invites you to sleep. There, the sounds of the installation blend together in an intense and dynamic surround.

Aside from the soundscape here, which is wonderful, I have some mixed feelings about this part of the work. The focus on Miso's personal "codes" is problematic since there's not much to elucidate the context or the references, or even to indicate that these are references; Miso's post identifies them, but that provides only a little bit of help and one can't expect most people to read it. On the other hand, that focus fits with one of the work's other themes, identity. However, as if to alleviate this very problem, the bed table holds the "key" to the work, in the somewhat literal fashion of a golden key which delivers a poem called "code dreams." (It also tells Miso who touched it.) In the poem, Miso tells us that she both dreams in code, and codes dreams.

Miso's post calls the last section "output"; I'd describe it as "out into the world," where one can think big. The section is dominated by large "blossom tree," above which is a model solar system. Sit on the sun, and click planets on and off in order to play Miso's "Solar Symphony." The music is similar to Steve Reich's (especially his "18 Musicians") in its use of repeated and layered musical phrases and rhythms. (I love Reich's music, so frankly this was my favorite part of the installation.) Another piece on this side of "code dreams" is Shijin, a mechanoid "poet" who utters a number of poems into chat. And near the exit there's a "data" cube (with the word "data" repeated everywhere on its sides) that shrinks when you approach it to reveal an "information" sphere that will give you a copy of Miso's painting "The Artist as a Binary Process" -- a parallel to the cube in front of the entrance. These three pieces seem oriented toward the question of finding and expressing one's place in the world.

There are many more pieces in "code dreams": I'm only picking out the most prominent. Also, the elements in the three sections aren't nearly as discreetly separated as my description may suggest: binary, hexadecimal and nucleic code is scattered everywhere, a drum on the right seems to presage the themes of memory and dreaming in the middle section, and so forth.

The soundscapes of "code dreams" are impressive. However, I have to say, I'm not enthusiastic about computer metaphors for human thought and experience. Our minds are not computers: scientific research into cognition increasingly demonstrates that thought is emphatically an embodied activity -- the body is very much in the mind. Cognition and experience are emergent capabilities, simultaneously different from flesh as such, yet deeply rooted in it and existing only on its terms. We do not process inputs and produce outputs the way a computer does: our environment and our physical interactions with it structure the conduct of thought itself, in particular the way we create associations and metaphors (which are, it turns out, intrinsic to human cognition). The close of Miso's poem "code dreams" epitomizes what bothers me: the statement "physical world / only masks on the core of self" (or in the version in her blog, "the core of experience") articulates a dualistic view of the body/mind relationship, positing a deep division between them, in which our thoughts are Cartesian ghosts in the machine, our corporeality a mask shrouding our selves. I don't believe that.

And I'm not sure Miso really does either, precisely because she's an artist. Art depends on materiality just as the mind does. The codes dominating the first part of "code dreams" are more or less isolated abstractions rather than the ground of the work (although they are important to the theme of identity). They actually have a more concrete quality -- functioning less as interesting curiosities, and more as integral components -- in the dreamwork of the middle section, surrounding the bed of the little girl; and I say this, despite the problems of having work that alludes to but does not represent private experiences. So the codes and dreams of "code dreams" are in a difficult tension; perhaps the point is irony, though it feels more like ambivalence. In either case, when the codes become the background and not the focus of "code dreams," the work takes off. The dynamic is exemplified by music itself: yes, you could say that in music, "here's a note, here's another note, here are three at once" ... but you would be wrong. Thus the two strongest moments of "code dreams" are the most symphonic: bed and planets. The artist's professional code is to dream big.

It should go almost without saying that I'm poking at "code dreams" because I think it's a really stimulating work and I think you (O Reader) ought to haul yer ass over to the Pop Art Lab pronto, because the installations are supposedly going to be removed on 4 Oct. And there are seven more besides this one. So go -- NOW!

There are a number of interesting issues regarding the theme of identity, which is central to "code dreams," but I'm leaving the subject aside for another time.

Oh, and in tribute to Miso's themes of codes and identity, the alternative title to this post is an invented snippet of Second Life script (LSL). It means, "If the current avatar is Miso, set the program into the state of Identity (and do whatever you do in that state)."

1 comment:

  1. Miso wrote a comment in response to this post, but is accidentally went onto to wrong post and Blogger doesn't seem to want her to add a comment to this one! So I'm copying it here for her. DS


    Miso Susanowa said...

    We have no argument, contrary to your second half. You are making my points for me; it is my failing to communicate clearly. You have thought about the issues crucial to the installation and that is the point of artwork - dialogue and discussion.

    Our minds are NOT computers; agreed. Nor are our minds "merely electrostatic discharges between synapses." The point of INPUT, as you remarked, is that "this is the label the machines have for the person running the avatar named "Miso Susanowa" but it is not ME, anymore than the sound of my name is me; these are labels.

    The application of old-world computer metaphors of strict binary/dualistic processes echo the outdated thinking of Man-As-Clockwork-Orange theories that recur throughout history. We know now in computing as well as in biology that there is no sharp demarcation, no "dividing line" that can be applied to organic and cybernetic systems.

    So the final lines in 'code dreams' refer to opposing forces in the same way a taijitu ('yingyang symbol' for you gaijin) expresses opposing forces, which in fact are an illusion and compliment each other to create a larger whole.

    My life in code is a compliment to my life in flesh; neither one is "more real" than the other; merely... angles of view and perspective; only useful metaphors, not "the truth."

    You mention "the codes and dreams ... are in difficult tension; perhaps the point is irony... or ambivalence." The approach/idea/conceit was to show these things as toys of the mind; toys to play with, to think about and dream about, but ultimately only toys; words to describe the wordless. It is the same theme stated by the initial Tripartite Key/Input area, where various labels and facts and characteristics applied to me are only fragmentary labels, not really "me." That a person is more than an assemblage of their facts and figures, in a database or in a casual stranger's eye. For the same reason, all objects in the room are phantom but for the Bed and the Poet (storyteller) - my worldview is subjective and not authoritative to anything but itself.

    "when the codes become the background and not the focus of "code dreams," the work takes off." Beautiful! THIS IS THE ENTIRE POINT of the installation and you found it!!! The scenery, the objects are PROPS. The installation, like the rest of the Artbreaker pieces, is about SOUND. It is also about who i REALLY am, to myself; I HEAR. I make music which I hear in life, in objects and things and the rythmns of life. That is what is most "real" to me in my everyday physical life. The code is definitely supposed to be in the background; both sets of code, biological and computer.

    "you could say that in music, "here's a note, here's another note, here are three at once" ... but you would be wrong. " You see? We are agreeing :) I apologize for stating my thesis in such a muddled way. Reductionist theory would have you break down Beethoven's 'Moonlight Sonata' into quarter-, whole and half-notes, or even further to scratchings of ink on paper. But it would not tell you why it can make you cry, or make you think deeply about the man who composed that music, or what he is saying about the condition of Man everywhere, in every age, at some time in her life. It would not be music.

    Thank you so much for such a thorough and interesting exploration of my world (the other gentle mock in the entire build; it is not so nearly neat as input/processing/output; it's messy, like my mind, like life itself).