Cognitive psychology is a booming field, which doesn't always make it a useful one. On one hand, it cranks out a lot of schlock books that you see executive wannabes reading at airport gates about how to manipulate people into buying things they don't need. But many of the links between brain function and behavior that neuroscience affords us roust out essential questions about our humanity and identity: Who are we? Why do we do the things we do? Are we really unique?
Born Digital, an exhibition in the main gallery of Raleigh's Contemporary Art Museum (CAM), gathers a constellation of interactive, technology-based artworks into this area of inquiry between capitalist fantasy and common identity. And coming on the heels of the similar ID:ENTITY show at the museum, it reiterates CAM's interest in merging art and design, implying a resultant merging of viewer and user.
On a recent visit to the exhibit, I spent the largest amount of time with Channel TWo's "FIND EACH OTHER. Begin there" (2012), although I'm not sure just what that time investment amounted to. The work consists of two large video projections of the same virtual environment on facing walls. A Sony PlayStation controller corresponds to each projection. Two users stand with their backs to each other facing their screens, navigating the unpeopled landscape of ponds, picket fences, dense undergrowth and towering wind turbines. But it's a game without an obvious objective: The occasional jewels in the ground cannot be picked up; there are no opponents to defeat or points to score; and it's unclear if you can actually find each other, as the title suggests.
What's the content of this work? Channel TWo collaborators Adam Trowbridge and Jessica Westbrook might shrug off the question and say that it simply provides an interesting, interactive experience. Entertainment, after all, is its own objective. But the jewels and turbines may suggest economic systems of control. And the fact that a user can't engage them might express one's powerlessness within those systems. It's either subtle, or a stretch.
While "FIND EACH OTHER" simulates a user's movement, many other pieces in Born Digital translate the user's actual physical movement into imagery or sound. In Karolina Sobecka's "Disruption" (2011), a user brings a silver sphere a bit bigger than a softball into a curtained-off space. Suspended cameras translate the sphere and the user's body into an anamorphic disruption of a grid of small, Matrix-green circles.
Two of Daniel Rozin's works inhabit other curtained spaces. The gigantic "Snow Mirror" (2006) projects a dim, drifting field of dots that change hue enough to render a user's likeness amidst the digital snowfall. It looks like one of those pin-art toys that makes a relief of your hand or face pressed into the back of it.
Rozin's adjacent work, "Brushed Metal Mirror" (2010), gives a cruder but more interesting likeness. A sculpture presents a hexagonal face with an array of 721 brushed-steel discs, each a little smaller than a beer coaster. Each disc is on a motorized spindle that quickly spins to orient the grain of its surface to reflect or disperse light, changing its appearance from bright to dark. As you approach the sculpture, it "sees" you and switches away from a pre-programmed sequence of geometric patterns to mirror your image. Somehow the little click sounds of the rotors spinning the discs are more captivating than the silent, digital snow, even though the resolution of one's image is so much lower. The mechanization of "Brushed Metal Mirror" relates to one's physicality in a way that the cold "Snow Mirror" does not.
Taking user movement one better, Scenocosme's "Akousmaflore" (2007) translates touch into sound through an arrangement of six hanging plants. French artists Grégory Lasserre and Anaïs met den Ancxt have wired this garden so that the leaves, when touched, trigger electronica jungle noises. Once you figure out which sounds go with which plants, "Akousmaflore" almost becomes a musical instrument.
The artist statements in Born Digital make significant claims about a user's interactions with these works. They stimulate creativity or foster a utopian collaboration between artist, designer and user. But after playing with these works, I'm not sure that our movement is always a creative act, or that interaction is collaboration any more than looking at a painting is. I tend to think that one's unique mind and attentiveness make an essential difference between the inadvertent and the intentional.
But this is where cutting-edge neuroscience taps me on the shoulder to point out just how much of my purportedly intended behavior is either social mimicry or hard-wired circuitry. Receding notions of my own uniqueness might be some vestigial Cartesian dream. I watched other people in the museum make the exact same series of motions in front of Rozin's mirrors, and scamper through Scenocosme's garden along the same path.
Ultimately, the wealth of technology in this show reveals our common animal nature. Sobecka's "Sniff," a projection of an animated dog, greets you at CAM's door. It alternately jumps up with friendly enthusiasm and crouches and growls. "Sniff" is a 30-second artifact—you game it that quickly, figuring out all its possibilities and patterns. And it's an obviously virtual dog: white, eyeless and featureless, comprised of geometric planes. But some of us step back when it growls at us. Others scold it. [Watch video of "Sniff" installation in the FILE festival exhibition in Sao Paulo.]
What personality traits do these reactions map to? And how do those same traits inform our behavior in more real situations and environments? Eschewing answers, Born Digital at least provides a platform—and a playground—for these questions.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Playgrounds of the unreal."