datamatics

Japanese sound and video artist Ryoji Ikeda’s datamatics (version 2) feels at points like a time machine speeding us into the future, or, at least, like a time machine that allows us to be in a sort of future.

This is curious for a work that purports, in its content and its form, to tell through the audio-visual medium a sort of history of technology, of computer aided design, and (to a much lesser extent) of electronic music. Thus datamatics obliquely and non-linearly stages a progression from comparatively primitive 2D 8-bit visuals to multi-layered, rotating 3D views (mostly in black and white).

But how can we be in the future if we spend time looking to the past? This might be how: The condition of history over the last few decades has, if we are to allow a certain process of metaphor into our reasoning, been dispersed and diffracted to the degree that the contemporaneousness of a work like datamatics, far from being threatened by the use of antiquated technological modalities and artistic forms, is actually precisely secured by that technique. In other words, we currently view our future in terms of a reflexivity with our past.

Another way that futurity might be seen to co-exist with the backward glance in datamatics, more straightforwardly, is that within the context of the work even the most primitive of visuals quickly give way (datamatics features a dizzyingly fast frame rate) to complex geometric and abstract visual syntheses, and thus is the old infused with the new – and vice versa – in a tight process of symbiosis.

But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here. Let me explain a little more about the nature of the piece. datamatics seeks to capture and depict, at least suggestively, the data streams that undergird contemporary life. In Ikeda’s own words, datamatics is ‘an art project that explores the potential to perceive the invisible multi-substance of data that permeates our world’.

In the piece itself (as noted above I am responding to version 2, an expansion of the 2006 piece of the same name) this means that one after another and in strange configurations computer programming source codes, apparently random fields of static, models of DNA, lists of names and other text, and geometric projections that look like strange monochromatic versions of the kind of CAD models of nebulae and galaxies and other such cosmic phenomena that you see on programmes such as Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe, are all presented to us, in this case on a very large screen that took up the whole central field of vision on the Barbican’s vast stage.

Accompanying the visual presentation was an exotically loud soundtrack of drones, static and white noise, bleeps, and, occasionally, looped glitch (i.e. of prime number periodicity) beats and warmer electronic tones, which soundtrack is closely synced to the visuals so that at times it appears that we are following an alternately straightforward and hieratic form of digital musical notation. The two fields – the musical and the visual – thus engage in a sort of mimesis, the former delineating, ‘perceiving’ for us, Ikeda’s invisible multi-substance of data, whilst also moving away much of the time to delineate only abstractly the data being presented to us visually. datamatics, in other words, understands that its interpretation of the data is, at best, suggestive, metaphorical, and as such seeks in the main to engage on the level of poetics with how data such as that on which it focuses might be captured and represented in audio-visual terms.

I have described the material of the presentation without quite getting at its aesthetics. Whilst hardly without precedent in the field of experimental film and video art (Hans Richter’s Rhythm 21 and Rhythm 23 and some of the Whitney Borthers’ work are inevitable reminiscences), Ikeda’s piece, primarily I would suggest in its wild intensification and magnification of previous techniques – and in the technical prowess by which that intensification and magnification is achieved – nevertheless feels fresh and unique, and even demanding (particularly for its dromological demands on cognition referenced above in the mention of the dizzying frame rates). It is also extremely well put together in terms of basic mechanics: silence, for example, is used well to aid comprehension of the natural dynamics of the form, whilst single movements of seemingly unified material would rarely last more than about eight or nine minutes before giving way to a new visual and/or musical space. Basic artistic building blocks such as these, as much as conceptual advancement and technical wizardry, are extremely well managed in datamatics.

Ikeda’s presentation at the Barbican to a packed and demographically mixed crowd sitting thrilled and stunned (it would have seemed by the occasional whoop and the common look of wonder) in the dark whilst the future happened all around them called up certain tensions to which it is always fascinating to be exposed: though this is an ostensibly high culture conceptual project, the aesthetics of the music and the abrasiveness of the visual form, not to mention the sheer Warp-like danceability of the whole package, means that datamatics feels pitched between various stalls. If this had been Barcelona’s Sonar festival, for example, where the piece was staged in 2006, people would have been drunkenly throwing themselves around the place. Confined to our seats in the Barbican as we were, we had to restrict ourselves more to enjoyments that emanated from the head.

This displacement of the body did not, though, feel regretful; to the contrary, the constant channelling of energy from the body to the mind allowed a certain palpation, a focussing of erotics, that had a charm and intensity all of its own compared to the all-body pleasure that might have been derived from a performance given in a freer atmosphere.

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2 Responses to “datamatics”

  1. Sean Clancy Says:

    I experienced this piece sometime last year in Birmingham and I have to say I disagree with your conclusion. For me the restrictive nature of its presentation, everybody sitting in regimented rows of seats and midlessly gazing at a large projection screen (which I imagine was the same in the Barbican) far from chanelling pleassure to the mind at the expense of the body had an incredibly fascist feel to it. I was bombarded with loud disturbing music and forced to watch uninteresting monochromatic images from which I could not escape, without a) being shunned by the rest of the audience members (for disturbing their experience) or b) not being let back in for the remainder of the ‘performance’.
    I think this kind of artistic enterprise needs to be experienced on an individuals own terms (the way I imagine it was presented at Sonar), where people are free to either come and go as they please, be still and channel all the energy to their mind if they so wish, or dance like a drunken buffoon if that is going to enhance their experience. However, in this kind of presentation one is not given the choice. Instead I sat for 48 minutes (or however long it was) being disturbed by a kind of music that I normally enjoy, watching images that seemed completely at odds with the music, knowing that I had to endure it for the next x amount of time. I was constantly reminded of that scene in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ where Alex is forced to watch Nazi marches etc. whilst listening to Ludwig Van (here again, the music is a non-representation of the image).
    I think projects like this really highlight the gulf between the presentation of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art (if there is such a thing), which many arts organisations are trying to bridge. Whilst this piece was obviously conceived as a piece of ‘high art’ one’s experience of it would have benefited immensely from a ‘low’ presentation. A piece like this doesn’t need any of the conventions that have developed around ‘high art’ There are no performers, it’s really loud etc. However, by presenting it in this context it is trying to be elevated beyond something that it is not. Events like this, to avoid being tarred with this pseudo totalitarian brush should be presented in a freer context (much like KK Null at supersonic) and to paraphrase a political term: let listeners vote with their feet.

  2. robotsdancingalone Says:

    You know I agree about the general feel, but I quite enjoyed the tension between content and situation. There have been many times in the past where the tension, which is often more embarrassing or unintentionally awkward than I felt it was here, has caused me to want leave at the silliness of it all. But, like I said, I could tolerate it here, I’d say chiefly cos of the ferocity of the spectacle, and because of the technical competence of a place like the Barbican.

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