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Fascinate showcase

Dominick Allen responds to the Fascinate Showcase - part of the Fascinate Conference held at UCF, August 28th-30th 2013. Photos by Jono Whitehead.



Unlike the slightly more famous 'Mechanical Turk' constructed by Wolfgan Von Kempelen, Jacques
de Vaucanson's Canard Digératuer could not be said to be definitely a hoax, but equally it was (from our
informed perspective) clearly incapable of digesting food in any real sense. The mechanical duck appeared
to have the ability to eat kernels of grain, and to metabolize and defecate them, the reality was that the
contraption through an elaborate and beautifully engineered mechanism was doing nothing more than
collecting and storing grain and periodically depositing pre-stored 'faeces'.

The Fascinate showcase (28 August, The Performance Centre, UCF) aimed to present a selection of projects
“exploring technology, design and experience related to ubiquitous computing.” These where primarily
performances and installations. Maybe 50 of them in one night. Most, like our mechanical duck, was a
celebration of technology. This may not have been each artist's intention but it is hard to avoid this at an
event reminiscent of the 1951 'Festival of Britain' . Again like the Canard Digératuer, but unlike Ronseal
wood varnish, it wasn't always clear that each project was “doing exactly what it said on the tin”.

Ollie williams' 'Tangible Sequencer' (left) seemed to typify the event. Blue Lights flashing away, a projector displaying changing constantly shifting geometric shapes , and ambient sounds. Three lazer-cut wooden boxes contained the blue lights and a total of 12 recesses into which the audience were invited to place wooden cubes each face of which had a simple geometric pattern (reminiscent of the Sony Playstation branding) lazer-cut into it. This was our 'Tangible Sequencer'. The Cubes where moved about, the geometric shapes on the projection moved about, ambient sounds floated about. Presumably there was some correlation between the alignment of the wooden cubes and the audio/video, but like much work of this kind we will never know given the 139968 ([6 to the power of 6] x 3) possible combinations of the 12 cubes.

My other criticism, of this work and of the whole event, is simply that I have seen it and variations upon it
many times before. In the 1990's object-orientated and data-flow programming languages were developed, followed in about 2005 by the first Arduino boards, DIY rapid prototyping and what could be considered as a new period in what is often referred to as hacker or DIY culture came about. Since then it is comparatively easy and cheap to create projects like this. We've seen the hardware and the software and now I think it is time to beyond saying nothing more than “this is possible”.

'Scattered Light' was a 'realtime audiovisual performances' in which the artists attempted to explore “the possibilities of music as an ecosystem”. In a large theatre space on an empty stage bookmarked by the gentle and ubiquitous glow of laptop screens, a large projection of constantly mutating CGI cuboid shapes is accompanied by the type of self-consciously “Intelligent Dance Music” that I remember John Peel
bemoaning in the early 2000's. Apparently the mutating cuboids respond to the music, or maybe the other
way around. It's hard to tell. Perhaps it doesn't matter. John preferred Happy Hardcore, or Napalm Death.

Similarly Sara de Santis and Emanuel Andel's performance 'Transmission of Body-Time into Computer-Time' used a dancer along with impressive sounding technologies- projection mapping, “3d tracking and motion analysis”- to combine a digital environment and reality, but unlike the audience for Vaucansen's duck we have seen this technology before and this performance seemed to be about very little else. A local sculptor was very impressed by the attractive dancer and the flashing lights. Several other pieces involved attractive dancers (of both sexes) and flashing lights- two universally popular subjects. However some uncomfortable moments throughout the whole event demonstrated a clumsy approach to issues surrounding gender stereotyping.

It was Jestern's brain-controlled performance that initially made me think of the mechanical Duck
in relation to the whole event. Was it a fake? What exactly were we watching? Just how spectacular was
the technology? What we saw was a a naked man in white body paint move extremely slowly from one
side of the stage to the other accompanied by some projections of a pac-man icon which slowly navigated
a simple maze and more “intelligent beats”. The premise, was that the performer would control the pacman
using the power of thought alone, or more accurately brain signals.

The most interesting aspect of this performance was the suspicion that this could be an elaborate hoax,
especially after a false start blamed on computer problems. But false or not, the various elements of this
performance seemed disconnected and didn't really make much sense to me. The nakedness seemed to be
about vulnerability especially with the live feed directly from his brain, but even after talking to the artist, I
still don't understand why the music, or the iconic computer graphics, or the body paint were involved or
what one element could mean next to any of the others.

However the installation most closely relating to our duck was a Buckminster Fuller-inspired shape onto which multiple videos from you tube where projected. To me this piece proclaimed “The Future... Today!” which is hard to avoid with white geometric shapes. It also proclaimed “The Internet, it's vast and often banal”. I spent some time with this piece, and talking to the artist, and it transpired that the videos were not being streamed directly form you tube, but randomly picked from a library of video clips that had been previously selected and downloaded from the internet. In one sense this changes the work's second message into something more personal maybe “Here are my favourite clips of Russian telly and toothpaste adverts”. Conversely I'm not sure that this really matters so much and am reminded about stage magic. We know the magic is fake but we want to believe in it, and yet I'm always desperate to discover how the trick is performed. It might be the ability to pick up two cards and make it look like one, or it might be a bit of string or a hidden pocket. However the moment we find out, the magic is lost.

The processes in Benjamin Cerigo's 'Rebound Drum' were very clearly visible. You hit an electronic drum
pad with a stick and with a loud bang, one of two paint ball guns shot a small yellow rubber ball at a pile
of junk, road signs, suitcases etc. Sometimes the mechanism jammed. Small rubber balls bounced off the
walls and were stolen by small children. It was messy, thrilling, fun and succinct.