Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The New Space

The New Space

By: James Donovan

The evolution of "artificial" space began, in part, as a progression
of sophisticated technologies developed to meet the demands of an ever
more complicated human society. When the first cities grew up out of
Samaria in the Fertile Crescent and along the Nile delta, it was
precipitated by the advent the enormous accomplishment of the
agricultural revolution. In effect, man had designed an artificial
environment for the cultivations of crops. The spread of farmland
across the world increased dramatically and increased the human
population substantially as the need to find food became a peripheral
concern. This type of grandiose transformation only happens rarely in
history, but the affects they have on society are always felt for
generations after their inception. When the Industrial Revolution
began in North America and Europe in the late 19th century the world
began to see a migration of people from the farm to the factory.
Factories began mechanically reproducing vast quantities of goods in
ways the world had never seen before. The mass urban development that
the world has seen in the past century marks another transformation in
the way people experience life and information. Most recently, with
the proliferation of computer technologies, the number and range of
channels people use to share information increased tremendously,
making information accessible in unprecedented density, volume, and
speed. The information revolution has created yet another facet of
space in the human experience, virtual space. After each great
revolution in human history, society begins tremendous upheavals as
the rules of the past must give way to the workings of the day. It is
a matter of addressing the jobs of today with the tools of yesterday.

Electronic technology has built upon the foundation of interaction.
From the television, to the radio, to the personal computer,
electronic devices are a principle form of communication between
people everywhere in the world. These technologies have become
interwoven into the fabric of our societies. Electronic billboards
ensconce the facades of buildings; individuals carry cellular
telephones which are capable of high speed internet, while radios
signals sound with the latest news and music from every car stereo.
The flow of information, regardless of its quality or content,
bombards the senses of every urban dweller. The complexity of the
urban landscape has only just begun to reflect these new reformations.
Both in the architectural planning and physical construction of
buildings, information technology and new media have begun to play
more intricate rolls in the synthesis of the urban environment.

The new media city as an all inclusive environment can be seen most
vividly in the world's most recently developed cities. Shanghai,
Mainland China's main financial center, has grown by leaps and bounds
in the past thirty years, and because thirty percent of the city has
been built within the last three decades public, commercial, and
virtual space have been seamlessly integrated into the fabric of the
urban environment. From the outset Shanghai was a city that modernized
with the world. Since the late 20th century Shanghai's architectural
identity has become the epitome of futurism in form and function. The
Oriental Pearl TV Tower, located in the Pudong financial district, is
a dramatic reinterpretation of Chinese history in the form of a modern
skyscraper. The tower rises 468 m high into the neon lit Pudong
skyline. The symbolic design of the building originates from a Tang
Dynasty poem named Pipa Song by Bai Juyi. The short poem likened the
song of the pipa to the chiming of pearls falling upon a jade plate.
Eleven spheres comprise the building's inspired form. One enormous red
triangular-faced ball rests atop three interlaced pillars, creating
the effect of a kind of toy-like spaceship. The building serves as a
monument to the ultra futurist appeal of the city. The tower continues
to capture the visual imagination of people who interact and dream
about Shanghai's great potential in the coming decades. Although, the
tower was eclipsed as the tallest building in China by the nearby
China World Financial Center in 2007, depictions in popular media
publications such as billboards and web advertisements perpetually
feature the Pearl Tower as being the taller of the two.

The two most dominant new styles of architecture in Shanghai are the
futuristic and the pre-fabricated. A symphony of buildings fluctuate
between the tall skyscrapers that strive for individuality in a sea of
bombastic novelty and the ready to repeat Lego like building who's
unvarying floors stack one on top of the other. These buildings become
a legible text both in terms of their stylistic form and function as
well as their incorporation and sheer volume of signage which gives a
depth of transient meaning to the buildings themselves. The
architectural facade of Shanghai is a complicated interaction between
the historical precedence of cultural transformation that grips the
city every time China as a whole changes. Shanghai is a global city,
and as such with each new wave of globalization Shanghai flowers.
Today it is as if Shanghai has come alive in the light of a new
technology assisted era of globalization.

Approximately seventy percent of Shanghai is composed of older
buildings, many of whom are remnants from the previous era's great
transformation which transmogrified Shanghai into a world class city
at the beginning of the 1900's. During this time in Shanghai's past,
European and western influences swept through the city, bringing with
it the culture, style, and perspective inherent in those cultural.
Despite being inexplicably Chinese, the buildings along the Bund are
more reminiscent of European cities then anything else in China. Many
other old buildings in Shanghai have begun to be revitalized in a
phenomenon commonly referred to as the creative cluster. The
unofficial arts district at 50 Moganshan Road, for example, was once a
large compound of vacant warehouses and factories along Suzhou Creek.
However in recent years the area has become a sprawling maze of white
cube galleries and studio spaces. 50 Moganshan Lu has become an
epicenter for fine art in Shanghai. The installation of the compound
was a joint venture between the Chinese government and a commercial
developer in order to revitalize the failing industrial area. Since
that time the tremendous success has lead other cities and areas use
this method of gentrification and urban renewal.

The ability of artist to gentrify and revitalize failing commercial
and industrial zones has only just started to be utilized by the urban
planners of Shanghai. The unofficial commercial use of artist in the
promotion of different area is akin to a mass advertisement. Artist
create additional value to land, buildings, and property, not because
they are necessarily improving the hardware of the area, but more
because artist encode multiple levels of valuable information into the
forms themselves, and because the value of the information if higher
then the cost of the materials to apply it. The artist increases the
value of invaluable land by expanding the informational dimension of
the place. When a room is painted it becomes a fraction of an inch
smaller. The paint adds density to the wall, however slight it may be.
The gain, however, of color information is worth the small loss of
space. The space becomes an informative text and therefore valuable.
After all, the new informational revolution has made information king.

The proliferation of advertisements in the physical vernacular of
urban life has generated new outlets for the sharing of information,
including extra-commercial. Advertisements are no longer simply
created to convince people to buy products and merchandise.
Advertisements engage our physical sensibility, they mirror our
desires, they bring us news and current information, they are symbols
of personal and civic duty, they are political, and often times they
are artist and aesthetically appealing as they convey these concepts,
ideas, and products. The plane of commercial interaction has expanded,
as has the boundaries of the city. Computer technologies permeate our
homes. In the most remote towns and cities of the world the
interaction of people is facilitated by the informational proximity
created by the internet. These new interactions have created value in
the most mandate of activates and text we read and engage with. These
new kinds of media have become a space for interaction. They are real
and powerful, and as of yet still untapped in terms of creative and
dynamic realizations.

Shanghai's Xujiahui is a milieu of billboards, video screens,
interactive displays, and interwoven pedestrian walkways that lead
through the mélange of high tech electronic stores and fast food
eateries. This is the new media city. The engineering of the spaces
has been meticulously designed to maximize signage, and minimize the
effort of shoppers. Escalators lead from street level up to outdoor
elevated platforms which overlook a sea of signs and animated video
screens of all shapes and sizes. These platforms connect the
sidewalks of three opposite streets, and open onto elevated store
fronts. The subways stations are part of shopping complexes that rise
several stories and incorporate luxury high rises into their
structures. These are the new human habitat. Shanghai has more
elevators then any other city in the world. These are the ligaments
and tendons of the city, while the electrical and internet system form
part of the nervous system. The enormous computer farms that compute
the billions of bit of information flow from the city are the brain,
and the public video screens are the eyes of this evolving new media

The video screen has integrated itself so fully into society that a
new space has grown out of them, it is as if we have created wormholes
into a new virtual dimension, a dimension which exists in time rather
then space. Systematically, lights flash and encode data for depth and
form color and motion. In 2008 The E-arts Festival and its curators
coordinated an outdoor exhibit of new media art on the video displays
of Xujiahui. The event featured several new media artist from across
Asia and lasted a week as the numerous tourists and shoppers saw a new
vision of this virtual space. The video installations created for the
area perceptually expanded the space as the audience was challenged to
look deeper into the spaces which they frequent. The exhibit was also
linked to a series of outdoor performances which emphasized the
collaboration of new media artist, musicians, and dancers to interact
in the public domain. These kinds of artistic interventions are a
necessary check on the rampant progression of urban space. Without the
artist to reinvasion and expand boundaries a complacency and blind
acceptance to the status quo ensues. As the sheer number and size of
transient media outlets such as public video screens multiply a
question arises of what is to be shown on this multitude of viewing
surfaces. Can hundreds of thousand of square feet of video viewing
space be responsibly dedicated to simply commerce alone? When is it
more valuable to reallocate this space for the pursuit of cultural
enrichment or public education? And what roll does the artist,
commercial artists and fine artists, play in defining this innately
creatively demanding new space.

In 2003 in Melbourne Australia, the artist James Geurts constructed a
multi-screen video installation sponsored by the Australia Council for
the Arts in a public square. The project featured looping video on
view in a public square. The project was so popular that the council
decided to extend the exhibit and eventually took it over as a
platform for delivering public speeches and announcements. Instances
such as these demonstrate the complexities of new media in the public
domain. The sharing of information has become almost more important
then what information is being shared. The content of the video
installation proved to be less important then the fact that there was
a public platform for the screening of information.

Cao Fei, the Chinese new media artist, has taken advantage of this new
virtual stage in an allegorical parody of the Red Detachment of Women
which she has been choreographing in the second life avatar gaming
environment. Her work as an artist has often centered on the creation
of alternative narratives, disrupting the space and time in which
people live by carrying out scenarios or performances which are
unusual or unprecedented in public space. Although, the play she is
performing is relatively common and popular in Chinese theater the
fact that it will be performed in the digital sphere removes the play
from its contemporary standing and repositions its former political
message with a new meaning. The media is the message. If Cao Fei were
simply to choreograph and perform this play in a Chinese theater it
would have little appeal apart from its aesthetics and the minor fame
of the director, however because the work is being exhibited in an
artificial environment it is imbued with new significance.

Second life is, by all modern gaming standards, a graphically
unsophisticated on-line multiplayer avatar based system which receives
a large amount of media attention because of its grandiose mission to
engineer an entire world of internet based human interaction. However,
because the platform design is relatively hard to personally design,
the most sophisticated and aesthetically pleasing environments are the
product of artists and other creative minded individuals. This
fundamental conundrum of engineering expertise and unbalanced creative
style is seen in many fields, especially when the development of the
system outpaces the creative output of the individuals involved.
Culture is the soft power that makes an environment like the ones in
second life interesting and worth while.

The artist Ai Weiwei has been a revolutionary in the Chinese art world
from the beginning of Chinese Contemporary. The works of Ai Weiwei
remained reactionary and controversial for the better part of his
career, but despite his often hyper-critical position Ai has earned a
level of utmost respect by the Chinese government as is exemplifies by
his collaboration on the new Olympic Stadium, the Birds Nest. The
ubiquitous interlacing form of the Birds Nest in modern Beijing
architecture has certainly been a visionary innovation in some sense.
The fact that the Chinese government included an artist such as Ai
Weiwei into the planning of the structure is a promising venture in
the political collaboration of the artist and the socio-political
environment. Ai Weiwei's feelings on the project remain as critical as
his outlook on the government. He has made this point clear in his
popular blog. However, this inclusionary step is step by the
government of China toward a greater vision of what an aesthetic and
functional environment can yield when collaboration with the creative
class is involved in the prossess. In a demanding metropolis, the
integration of artistic vision and functional realization serves the
public by generating a more harmonious state of interaction.

The current state of globalization in the world is a product of the
rapid digitization of information, making it possible for the
instantaneous transmission and retrieval of information. The
unfathomable amount of energy required to maintain these new systems
is often not thought of, but as organizations such as Google expand in
response to the demands of information hungry denizens of the digital
world new land and resources are diverted to the sustenance of these
server farm. The digital dimension does have a density, and
information does have a weight. The exploration of this new space
should be handled with care, as the influence it has on the physical
world is more relevant then is immediately evident.

The exploration of digital spaces will increasingly become the visual
and physical realities of our world. In an age ruled by information
and a population of urbanites, the influences of new media in our
lives will continue to be presupposing as a passive element in our
societies for the fact that it is ever-present. However, because
digital technology is completely a human invention, and is composed of
information, both creative and empirical, rendered by human hands, the
future of digital architecture and the connections it gives way to are
very much in our hands. Information technology is the ultimate tool of
the government, architect, artist, and engineer. The ability to use
these forms of digital commerce to exchange and collaborate as well as
create and incite are almost endless. The synchronicity of light speed
information will continue to be the challenge of an evolving human
existence. This new space is infinitely dynamic, and its effects are
wide reaching. What forms grow out of it is the venture of the
creators and the builders. Our environment is one nearing new
frontiers and complexities. To collaborate, and bring into these
spaces the needs and wants and desires of the many is to enrich the
offerings of today with the tools of today.

What is "artificial" is real. Virtual reality has a density, and

It spills out of the confined windows of video screens and fills the
real world.

It becomes political, it becomes physical, and it becomes artistic.

It is already all of these things.

These are the new space.

Contemporary Art and New Media

Spring 2009, Shanghai, China


Works Cited

"A Conversation with Koon Wee." Personal interview. 4 June 2009.

Marshall, McLuhan,. Medium is the massage an inventory of effects. San
Francisco, CA: HardWired, 1996.

Venturi, Robert. Learning from Las Vegas. Cambridge, Mass: MIT P, 1972.

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