Eric Gunther, John Rothenberg e Justin Manor are 3 ironic, smart guys of 30, protagonist of the Sosolimited project, an art and design consultancy formed in 2003. The group specializes in interactive installation, audiovisual performance, live remix and immersive environment, all strictly based on self-programmed softwares and technologies and on a high, very high technical/ realization level. MIT grads, with a solid background in physics, computer science, architecture and music, they have hit the headline and become worldwide famous artists, in a way that only a Country like USA makes it real and effective.
Consider for example an important global political event with a remarkable interest from world media like 2008 USA TV Presidential debates. Remember that people all around the world were deeply stirred by the presence of a black Senator with the Muslim name of Barack Obama. Add then the idea of a live performance, that through a free software could deconstruct the audiovisulal information flow of the broadcast to re-arrange a multimedia event, in which the debate’s linguistic pattern, the body language, the gestures and tones of voice, more than the expressed political concepts, are the main narrative and aesthetic element.
Imagine then the presence of 3 performers sitting at their laptops, wearing elegant black suits and black sunglasses. They appear like Kraftwerks, omniscient news anchors, or FBI agents, in front of their curious viewers, always a little naïve when whatching a pure code exercise. Don’t ever fail to consider the ability, which is not Italian at all, of transforming an idea into a long-range cultural and artistic event (the tour Re-Construction 2008, performed by the Sosolimited in art galleries and other cool venues in Boston, New York and Washington, has reached an audience of over 1500 people and has risen the attention of the most important American newspapers and reviews). At last, consider the important help given by the “character” Obama, who has been recently awarded the Peace Nobel Prize, and you will see that the 3 good Sosolimited will take home the 2010 Transmadiale Prize (in fact they have already been nominated from Berlin; there was not a shadow of doubt). And to think that our Fabio Franchino performed something very similar in 2004 with his Toogle project(http://www.abusedmedia.it/toogle2/)…
To tell the truth, the idea of instant software analysis of audiovisual data for the re-construction of performances and immersive environments is not new to the Sosolimited. In fact, during the 2004 Presidential debates between John Kerry and George Bush, they had already come up with the idea of the Reconstitution project, using a lighter and less powerful version of the same software now in use.
In the same way, it has been already a few years since Eric, John and Justin have been working as audiovisual artists with live performances, both in Boston and surroundings and in international clubs and events, in which they slice and dice data and information from the TV flow and rearrange it in real time with taste and improvisation (the performances Evening News Remix in Boston and the Nomadic Nights in Paris are some examples of this kind of performances), or in which they remix in real time films and film-clips following the rules of an extremely advanced “cut&paste” with regard to the possible sound and image effects (like in the Steal a Million or the Grindhouse projects), developing specific film concepts and narrative themes (like Sosoconception or Sosonoir).
But the technical ability, capacity planning and ingenuity of the undisputed Sosolimited, better not to join in live performance, especially in the work of interaction design. With individual specific skills (Eric more interested in the relationship between body, sound and technology, John more closely to software and codes of architectural models, John moved to the side perhaps more creative and design), the Sosolimited exist as part of the day Small Design Firm, consultancy and design, which has signed several important projects to date (in a context is always relevant and interesting as the museum, where there is a strong need for a large car in an interactive way flow of information to the public visit the museum itself) as the Museum of Sex, the Churchill Lifeline, the ICA Digital Signage, the Nobel Peace Center, the Boisterous Sea, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Pledge Wall.
Without forgetting basically artistic works, like The Loops Project (a typographic representation of the dance work movements of the grat Mercy Cunningham, recently gone), They’re Live (a 2 week installation based oa real time TV remix), Liberal Form (public installation using architectural sound properties at a technological level to create participatory public spaces), Octophonic (multichannel audiovisive performance).
Marco Mancuso: In some of your artistic works, you manage data and information flows. Concepts like “dynamic typography” (The Loops Project) and the “cartographic maps” (02139 Downsapled) are a fundamental part of your research and analysis. I assume you use self-developed softwares and, if so, how do you think your MIT studies and previous experiences in the field of physics, information technologies and architecture have been essential to you?
Sosolimited: In most of our work, we write our own software from scratch. Our backgrounds in science and engineering are instrumental in problem solving. MIT places a big emphasis on abstraction, on being able to deconstruct a problem-n any domain-nto smaller solvable problems and then work your way back up to a solution. This kind of thinking is enormously helpful in going from idea to paper to code. I was always surprised at how similar a discipline like typography looked to that of engineering; different goals and different materials, but often similar routes from question to answer. This kind of cross-domain thinking is also what inspires many of our projects, which often involve playful mappings from one realm of information to another. I’d say many of our earlier projects-s is common with technical people who get into art-making-ere seeded by technological ideas that grew into larger artworks.
Marco Mancuso: In other works of yours, the sound is conceived as a material, as a sculptural presence in the space (Octophonic), as a source of data and architectural expressive material. Among you, who is the one, who is working with sound and what is the difference between using physical instruments, which allow a real contact with people, and using immaterial data, sofywares, codes and videos?
Sosolimited: Eric does most of the sound work, although our approach to and integration of sound is collaborative. In our current live-remixing work, we are looking for new ways to work from the sound of the content. This is partly a matter of designing audio that gives the underlying content space to breath. This issue was addressed in the early part of the twentieth century by modern dance with regard to movement. Music was viewed more as part of the stage rather than the driving pulse of the dance. We are now asking ourselves: in the transformation of live content, what kinds of things can we do to preserve and build off the affective nature of the original material? Alternatively, what can we do with sound to remove emotional from the underlying audio, to turn it on its head and manipulate it?
Marco Mancuso: The concept of live remix represents another important key-concept of your work. Why do you give so much importance to the instant transformation of media events, both trough installations (as in They are live) and live performances (Reconstitution 2008, Evening News Remix, Reconstitutions)? And again, speaking of self-created softwares, also in this case you operate with open source libraries, in which you intervene directly, don’t you?
Sosolimited: It was very important for us, when we were starting to work together as Sosolimited, to be able to transform realtime broadcast media and use the underlying data in an aesthetic way. We felt this was important because as far as we could tell no one else was doing this for live performance. David Rokeby and a few others had done some things with live TV for installations, but we were very interested in introducing memory and meaningful analysis into the signal. The focus of a large portion of television and the internet is on what’s happening “NOW, RIGHT NOW! Forget what I said five minutes ago, what I really mean is…” If we can start adding some layers of history and logical rules as to how the signal was transformed we hope that our audience sees new meaning that was previously hidden. To elaborate more on our software, we program our own tools in C++. We use many different libraries already out there, both open source and commercial, in addition to creating our own when they do not already exist.
Marco Mancuso: The way you play your audiovisual live performances could be interpreted as a playful, not too much sperimental technique, above all by those working in the field of live cinema research, of live media and of immersive audiovisual concerts. You aim not to obtain a strict aesthetic graphic, nor to work at new narrative forms, or to develop a study on machineries, instruments or even the physical reaction of the audience. Your approach to live performances seems that of a web developer, not that of a musician or a visual artist: it is not a hazard that your performances are not real concerts but they are rather performances. What do you think about it and which kind of experience have you had with “Steal a Million” or “Grindhouse”, in which you put your ability to the test with the creation of a new narrative, the remix of video contents and the testing of ideas of vjing and sound footage.
Sosolimited: We see much of the “liveness” of our performances originating in the immediacy of the source material. It is a kind of real-time appropriation, where we cannot know the details of the material because it does not exist until the moment of the performance. Our can be seen as an intervention into a common experience-hat of watching a movie or television-n situ, as it is happening. Reconstitution was a big factor in this design-centered approach to a performance. We started out doing visuals in a club setting, so this was a serious exercise in restraint for us. Due to the vital role of the debates in informing voters, we imposed strict rules about preserving legibility. Each of our transformations set out to modulate the consumption of this information in a specific way.
It was a challenging space to work in, often taking into account the distraction-factor of our design decisions. At times we chose to remove emotion from the broadcast, to expose the kinds of biases with which people consume televised information. If you start with info-graphics in televised sporting events, then our performance might appear more experimental. If you start with Ken Jacobs, then maybe not so much. The first wave of video artists covered so much ground in criticizing and deconstructing television-ne of the differences is now we can do it live, as people are watching. We are preparing for a live remix performance in Berlin in February that will afford us far greater artistic license with the material, which is an extended twelve-hour series of lectures.
Marco Mancuso: Can you explain me your idea of computational interaction? How do you work with softwares, codes, and how they become a part of your programming process? How do you share then the different tasks among you? Do you work together on a project or does each one of you work on a specific part? Which installations have been more stimulating for you?
Sosolimited: Computation has become a completely integrated part of our design and implementation process. Most importantly, we approach design problems as programmers. It really is a way of thinking and managing large, complex problems. Karl Gerstner and Josef Muller-Brockman we great graphic designers who understood this and developed systems and architectures for their visual solutions. Almost all the work we deliver to clients or display in museums are software applications that run live, around the clock. We initially wrote everything in our own C++ OpenGL graphics libraries, but now we are using OpenFrameworks and Processing and are hoping to contribute much more to the open source community. The most challenging part of any project is finishing it. Debugging all of your code, accounting for all kinds of weird conditions, and installing the software on a foreign machine takes an enormous amount of time.
Marco Mancuso: Justin, as you state in your website, you are the first employee of the Small Design Firm, and also Eric and John had been working there from 2001 to 2009. Your last project, The Pledge Wall, is a collaboration between Small Design Firm and Sosolimited. How important is to you melting professional activity with artistic activity? Do you think there will be other collaborations in the future? And how important is for designers and contemporary artists working at the edge between the two worlds and the two disciplines?
Justin Manor: Up until September 2009, Eric, John, and I all worked at Small Design Firm as art directors, engineers, and producers. During that time, at night we would perform and create artworks as Sosolimited. So there was no ‘collaboration’ in a literal sense between the two entities because SDF was the ‘day job’ and Sosolimited was the ‘night job’. Now that the three of us have left Small Design Firm and made Sosolimited our full time employment, we have started collaborating with SDF as peers, rather than as employees. And we plan on working with Small Design Firm on projects well into the future. As for other artists and designers, I think they need to each individually find their own balance of self-expression and paid work. For those lucky enough to have outside/family financial support in their early creative years, maybe the best thing for them is to focus exclusively on their art. But most people have to use their skills to do work for other people. If someone isn’t happy with the balance in their lives, change it up!
Marco Mancuso: Eric, in your artistic activity recurrs the concept of body. In Affected Structures for example, you work with body in dance performances, using anatomic elements for movement. Moreover, body represents an essential concept of your studies on vibrotactile surfaces, tactile sound and body maps of sound. Was all this a part of your research programme at MIT? And how can you match this experience with your activity as Sosolimited, in particular considering the new possible interactions forms, bodily and emotional, between computers and human beings?
Eric Gunther: The vibration work started as my Masters thesis at the MIT Media Lab. It began as the simple question: Can we create an aesthetic language of composition for the body? I am most interested in the palpable aesthetic artifacts of this process-omputers happen to currently be the best way to produce these artifacts. There is a growing body of literature on the haptic nature of visual perception in the arts, but there is still a bias against manifesting the haptic on the body for real! All of these artistic activities-hree dimensional visualizations, musical and body composition-ook more and more like choreography to me as I continue to learn about dance. Their prominent use of three dimensional space all seems to eventually return to the body-space of the audience.
Marco Mancuso: John, you have experience in architecture and computational programming. I had a look at your website and I have found out the WetSpace project. You call it a “gestural physics modeling” project: can you explain us better how does the code work and how have you developed the inteface and the IMU device? And also, how important has been your attitude to work trough interaction in order to develpo the gesture based software?
John Rothenberg: My original role at Small Design Firm was as a hardware developer and although my Maters’s degree at MIT was through the Computation group of Department of Architecture, but I had a desk in the Media Lab and spent time developing sensor and microcontroller projects. Wetspace was an architectural modeling program developed by Jimmy Shen and Kaustuv DeBiswas. The best description of the IMU is from my site: ” The IMU is a wireless interface device that registers acceleration in three directions (x,y,z) and rotational velocity about two axes (x,y). A custom circuit has been designed that conditions the analog signal from accelerometers and gyroscopes and streams the digital data over a bluetooth network. Within the software, this data is parsed into useful values, such as the absolute rotation of the device, as well as translational ‘notes’ in each direction”.
Wetspace used the IMU as a drawing tool in a physics-based simulation. The designer’s role was to program a series of forces and then draw edges that would float through the forces and create surfaces. The IMU provided a second layer of interaction, allowing the designer to select regions of the surface and transform them.
I always envisioned using the IMU as a performance tool, a physical controller that would help get us up from behind our screens. This is a project I’d like to return to, although at this point it would be much easier to use Wii controllers. I designed the IMU before the Wii launched, but now accelerometers are everywhere.