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Interactive Installations : International Feel (2011)

International Feel in Toronto on the left and Rotterdam on the right

International Feel is a new work created in 2011 as part of SAI 2.0, the 25th anniversary of the Strategic Arts Initiative, a pioneering telematic exhibition in which I participated in 1986.

Int the original work, I installed Body Language installations in two cities, and connected them via telephone. Each system sent simple indications of what was happening in its space to the other installation. Each installation then looked at the relationships between the movements in the two locations and created a soundscape that reflected this relationship. If a person in one space moved while the other space was empty, both spaces heard a simple sound reflecting the dynamics of this movement. If a person moved in the remote space, while no one moved at the local one, both spaces heard a sound distinctly different in timbre from the "local" sound, but with similarly reflective of the movement dynamics. If people were moving in both spaces at the same time, the sound opened up and reflected the degree to which the people in the two spaces where relatively in or out of sync (simply whether they were beginning and ending movements and gestures at the same time or not). Synchronization caused a rich harmonic sound while lack of sync generated noisy sounds of friction. By paying attention to the changing sounds, it was possible for people in local and remote spaces to engage in a dance across distance.

My favourite experience of this work would happen when I was moving alone for a while in the space, coming to identify with the sound my body was making in the installation. If someone in the remote space started moving at this point, I felt the sound of my body transform, and had a haunting sense that someone had just walked through my body.

An interesting thing about this work is that it used sound as a medium for telematic communication. When you see an image of a person on skype for example, you are immediately reminded of the fact that they are not physically present, even though they may be very engaged and engaging. Vision tends to enhance a sense of distance, while sound is immediate and intimate. As a result this work created a very special kind of non-visual telematic intimacy.

For the 25th anniversary, I wanted to create a work that further explored what was most interesting about the original piece, but that used the much more powerful tools available to us today. My primary goal was to recreate this experience of having someone walk through you. I decided to use kinect sensors, as the most up-to-date version of the simple camera tracking I was doing in 1986. The kinect sensor gives you a depth image that allows you to understand the location of the body in space that was not at all possible back then.

For "International Feel" I created identical 2.8 x 2.8 meter spaces in Toronto at Inter/Access and in Rotterdam at V2. The kinect sensor in each space captured the depth image of whoever was in this space, and translated it into a "bubble-body", a set of spheres that built up an approximate representation of that body in space. This body data was transmitted over the internet to the other location, allowing each installation to place both virtual bubble- bodies into an imaginary shared space. The spaces where outfitted with directional sound, and this was used to give a sense of the location of the other person in your shared space. If there was no contact between the bodies, there was the sound of breathing, coming from the exact direction of your invisible partner. By moving toward the sound of breathing, you could attempt to touch the other virtual body. On contact, other sounds emerged, with the sounds changing to indicate how much of your body was in contact with the remote body, and the directionality of the sound intensified to give precise cues as to the direction to move to maximize contact. The sense of physical engagement was very powerful. One found oneself almost bouncing off the remote person's body on contact.

While there was a display showing the two bodies in the virtual space, it was not visible to the person in the space. I encouraged interactors to close their eyes, which intensified even more the tangibility of the remote presence and the ability to determine the direction of the sound. It was interesting to have your eyes closed in the spaceā€¦ it was very easy to start to trust the sound, as you knew that moving towards the sound would never lead you out of the space and into physical danger. (Next)


"Strategic Arts Inititative 2.0", InterAccess, Toronto, Canada and V2, Rotterdam, Netherlands.

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Copyright 2011 David Rokeby / very nervous systems / All rights reserved. 1/22/12