Yuko Hasegawa: New Sensorium

Exiting from the Failures of Modernization

A dancer wrapped in plastic wrap
»New Sensorium – Exiting from Failures of Modernization« focuses on the sensory realms and shapes of human beings / existence / universe that have newly emerged in the era of globalization and digital technologies. The exhibition features mainly Asian and Arab artists – from the countries east of Europe within the Eurasian continent that we shall hereafter refer to as "the Asian region" – who represent different perspectives on the Western framework of thought where the subject is central and non-human regimes are peripheral to that center. The accelerated overgrowth of human activities as directives of modernization is exerting pressure on our planetary coinhabitants. The Western worldview governed by the subject-object division/split and anthropocentrism has contributed to materializing this landscape. The plethora of hybrid forms of this orientation that we have witnessed during the course of modernization have already proven, as Bruno Latour argues, to turn out failures of the epistemological-ontological enterprise of the nature-society dichotomy, at least in terms of its functional promise.

This is the framework within which »New Sensorium« aims to intervene. The exhibition focuses on state-of-the-art methods of sensing the world, characterized by the idea of de-subjectivation and acknowledging objects as agents. The works presented here smoke out current issues mobilized from a new perspective, suggesting new escape paths from the failures of modernization, and proposing alternative ways of utilizing abundant potential elements. The "sense" in the term "sensorium" refers not only to the human faculty of sensation and perception but also to judgment, or consciousness. Sensing is a process requiring sensitivity, which should be updated accordingly, in order to capture and cope with such predicaments as biological, political, or ethical crises. The exhibition, one may also note, seeks to understand the "sensitivity" that we – as subjects living within media ecologies – have come to acquire in the course of traversing the infosphere and real space, and which is radically transforming our existence as sensory machines.

The changes in our informational environment, as well as the developments and permeations of digital technologies, are altering the relationships between matter (material), information, and our own physicality. New materialism and Actor-Network Theory, which have both emerged as arguments against a Western modernism that separates the human from the material, attempt to (re-)adjust the balance between man and his surrounding environment by placing humans and non-human entities on the same value platform.

In addition, what has been categorized in those words and phrases devised in the enterprise of modernization devised in the West and circulated in non-Western countries, such as "pantheism," "animistic world views," and "intuitive, embodied knowledge," is beginning to be exposed to reconsideration; the engines of knowledge working in union with the body through a circuit not operated entirely by logos (where the faculty of intellect is the sole path to understanding) – are in operation in the Asian region – also help to (re-)adjust this, new problematic of global reshuffling the epistemological-ontological foundation. To which this exhibition is expected to contribute.
The artists in this exhibition discover, select, and invent potential media (intermediary tools of communication) or mediality, in a much larger, comprehensive context that includes physicality, emotions, and relationships with the surrounding environment. Here, the term mediality is not based on the idea of "mediation," where exchange happens between two communicating agents, or "interaction," where things act upon one another. Rather, mediality is grasped to be discussed on the premise of media ecologies where everything is pre-connected, and that "intra-actions" (a neologism introduced by Karen Barad) [1] occur from within subjects and objects comprising that ecology.

Take for example, the fetishism of such new commodities as the smartphone, which can be discussed as a kind of contemporary manifestation of animism, or neo-animism, if you will. Alexander Zahlten points out that animistic thinking arises when the relationship between people and objects reaches a turning point, a threshold of human cognitive and perceptive faculties, at which the existing sensory regimes of understanding the lived world start to shift its configurations. Now is perhaps the peak of one such time.

The artists of this exhibition present practices in which digitality and physicality/emotionality are not dichotomous concepts, but merge, overlap, and intra-act. They explore materiality based on the idea of effective mediality. In doing so, by ceasing to be a "representation" of ideas or information, their work becomes itself an object of interpretation.

The coherence of knowledge and body is connected to the sensibility behind the physicalization and materialization of information. This generation of Asian artists exemplifies a highly unique and innovative process that is more than, say, sophisticated infographic design: They have the ability to mobilize all of the senses when understanding, interpreting, and giving form (materiality) to data and information. The "integrated wholeness" of their practices, applied not only to the physical but also to the material, echoes cybernetics, or unified control.

Some of the artists featured here employ technology and digital information organically and with feeling, in an attempt to guide audiences to a new level of emotion or realm of experiential engagement. They understand design as something that "works on" people on conscious and sensory levels. Here, "affect" and "affordance" are employed more actively, as strategic concepts, and made into artwork/products. Artists explore alternative sensory realms by overlapping human perspective onto robots and machines (Sputnikol's »Menstruation Machine« and her Lunar Girl character presented as a cyborg), insects and animals (Mirai Moriyama's movements mirror those of animals and insects unbefitting humans, and Nile Koetting creates small creature-like organics assembled from various elements), and genetic information (Rohini Devasher's work resembles the creating process of new creatures through genetic operation), developing them into innovative proposals and visions.

Leaving the subject, the artists recapture the environment / objects and information from a new perspective, in order to vitalize or bring out the potential of the subject-object, human-object relationship. They create work based on the worldview that we are not independent entities existing prior to exchanges, but are phenomena under the control of the environment and objects.

Born in the late 1980s, many of the so-called "digital-native" artists were exposed to the unstable, yet dynamic situation of connecting and disconnecting pre-modern or traditional cultural memories with the "contemporary" in the context of Asia's rapid capitalization and urbanization over the past twenty years. As methods to retain their sanity amid this turmoil, they utilize digital media as tools for creating new living environments. They conduct operations in digital space, which serves as a platform for collaboratively devising survival methods against political, social, and environmental crises. Born from such a process, sensation, sensibility, perception, and cognition potentially have productive, critical, poetic power within the context of media ecologies, within the environment encompassing and affecting actual space.

Aspects of the world and our surroundings have undergone drastic changes that have complicated the way we perceive things. The disparity of speed between our agents of cognition, i.e. our bodies, and digital media often leads to misperception and triggers bugs in our minds, causing inner anxiety and confusion. The artists here, however, take objects and information, place them in different relational contexts, and observe them from a new perspective, to fix situations whilst continually incorporating, but not ignoring, such noises and slippages. Their methods include, for example, enhancing the idiosyncrasies of materials, giving physicality to digital information, and suggesting new ecosystems.

Among the works of the sixteen contributing artists and artist groups in this exhibition we can make out four themes: New Media Ecologies in the Post-Internet Condition; New Forms of Mediality, Materiality, and Cognition in Infospheres; Objects and Alternative Futures; and Experiments in Organics.

New Media Ecologies in the Post-Internet Condition

The process of searching for new "environments" emerging from the relationships between digital information and materiality can be called "sensing." For artists engaging in this sensing process, the ultimate purpose is to test and construct a viable ecosystem.

Valia Fetisov, Nicolay Spesivtsev, and Dzina Zhuk's »Paranoiapp« invites viewers to experience the "dark" side – the anxiety and alienation hidden in the ecosystem of the Internet and multimedia directly hyper-connected to our lives – by reconstructing the disturbing fictions revealed through surveillance cameras and tracking applications.
In his new work, »Auspex«, Bruce Quek offers a kind of horoscopic reading by combining aircraft contrails and weather patterns. Certain animistic signs are shared as readings by the passengers of the air-crafts flying at that moment who collectively constitute a community or "nation." Quek's work reveals the phenomenal data of the number of people in the air at a given time, which he refers to as a "bubbly" nation, momentarily and continually updated by new residents. By tactfully combining statistical research with affective and emotional elements, Quek gives rise to a new ecology.

Lin Ke continuously downloads sceneries streamed live from nature to his computer, update his own "environment" for the day. For the audience, he is essentially a resident of and beyond the personal computer screen. And yet, weather phenomena ranging from thunder to tropical downpours are controlled not only by nature but also by the computer, and together with the artist's physical presence form a new ecosystem brimming with fresh sensibility, which is almost difficult to label artificial.

New Forms of Mediality, Materiality, and Cognition in Infospheres

The significance of giving materiality and physical form to digital data is: The outcome awakens emotions in audiences and produces an active effect on the world. In »Traders«, Rhizomatiks has converted real-time changes in stock quotes into an elaborate visual installation. In »chains«, a new work for this exhibition, Daito Manabe (Rhizomatiks Research), Yusuke Tomoto (Rhizomatiks Research), and 2bit Ishii (buffer Renaiss) will visualize blockchains, permissionless distributed databases based on the bitcoin protocols; thus attempting to visualize the examination of a new system for decentralized free trade and collective data mining.

In Tara Kelton's »Time Travel«, the moving landscape seen through a train window is synchronized with the moving image on a personal computer screen sitting on the edge of that very window. Like tracing the unfolding landscape by hand, real space is "scanned" digitally and thereby given a new sense of materiality. Shiro Takatani also transforms the materiality of digital images by translating two-dimensional objects into lines. The process is akin to converting space into time.

Nile Koetting treats body and material »equally«, as the subject of his performances. In his Hard in Organics, the subject of his performance is a speaker in the form of a film sheet. Texts from a letter are printed on the film, while the voice we hear reading out the text is also played from it.

Kohei Nawa reflects on the sensory consciousness formed by digital environments, while also attempting to critique and resist it by using tangible materials to visualize, and thereby inversely dynamize this consciousness. Following his series using crystal beads, which reflect on our sensory perception of pixels, his new work »Force«, where metallic streams of black silicon oil fall like rain and intercept space (because the droplets drip by gravity without bouncing off surfaces). Such twentieth-century political allusions as oil, an influential factor in world economy, or the black rain following a nuclear bomb, as well as bar codes, all converge within this unidentifiable materiality.

Objects and Alternative Futures

Critical Design suggests that functional objects can encourage the imagination of alternative versions of the future, through and beyond their popularized usage.

Sputnikol's products, which respond to the concept of new materialism through the lens of feminism, include a machine that emulates menstruation and a moon rover designed to leave high heel marks on the moon's surface. In her work, the human body collides with everyday contexts and objects, deconstructing pre-existing systems and consequently suggesting alternative concepts. This section also introduces Tarek Atoui, who creates instruments for hearing-impaired people, developed in conjunction with his architectural research on space designed to enhance their senses.

Experiment in Organics

Artists also apply experimental methods to explore the inner functions of organisms and visualize diverse possibilities of evolution.

Rohini Devasher's work spawns fictitious, self-evolving organisms using a unique methodology called video feedback. Magdi Mostafa uses the effect of sound transmission loss, which is a phenomenon that occurs unnoticed. He operates sound instruments and elements in an organic way so as to remind us of the absence of time and sound.

In his performance »Upload a New Mind to the Body«, dancer and actor Mirai Moriyama installs a new "operating system" on his body by applying a special substance to his skin. Once this membrane dries, it tears and peels off as Moriyama's intense movements cause his skin to twist and quiver. The way in which elements break away from his body is comparable to the failure of a new operating system conflicting with default settings. This process of elimination on Moriyama's skin thus embodies a negotiation process of evolution and selection far more complex than a simple switchover.
What is the nature of the new mindset being uploaded into our bodies?

Carefully building brick patterns in acrylic paint on canvas laid out on the floor in an act seemingly devoid of awareness, Maria Taniguchi's practice is, in fact, one of sensing an ambient plurality of elements including digital signals, consciousness, and information. The same sensing process is evident in her video work »/ See, It Feels« in the slowly changing appearance of a still life being scanned in shifting hues. Her proposition that, through being observed, the object of observation starts to feel, quietly and quickly unfolds areas of sensitivity somewhere between traditional concepts of cognition and perception.

In contrast, Guan Xiao's works »Reading« and »Cognitive Shape« show her discovering a limitless variety of relations between meaning and objects, insisting on information as primary environment. Her cognitive experiments open up processional logic of the cognitive self.

The Raqs Media Collective's »Dyeing Inayat Khan« animation presents an ambiguous threshold between life and death, person and thing. This too is a different aspect of the sensorium. By stepping into this new, third domain of sense, »New Sensorium« – a coexistence which continues to mutually recognize, sense, and interact – gives further depth to both the physical substance of information and to its collective: the ecology.

»New Sensorium« does not propound Utopia as an ideology but attempts to present Utopian practices based on our negotiation with the here and the now. The practices are grounded in reality and stem from a close observation and delicate mining of the world. And this awareness summons the consciousness that we are integral parts of a new media ecology.

[1] "Intra-action" (and not interaction) between the rhythms of objects, algorithms, and humans can be most banally detected in the instance of the Apple Watch, a phenomenon resulting from an attempt to technologically layer rhythms, biological or machinery – but, this way of categorizing in itself might be very "modernization"-oriented  – of objects and humans.