Los Angeles is a unique place in the way how the realms fiction and reality are blurred. Home of the biggest industry of fictional narratives, Hollywood, it’s also the area with the highest number of plastic surgeries in United States. It’s a place where restaurants have fake table candles equipped with LED and people wear Obi One Kenobi suits to go the grocery store. Last night I went to a restaurant near Topanga beach; we were immersed in the woods, majestic trees appearing through the windows, birds whirring in the shades. Sounds of the outside wildlife were mixing with the chatting of the customers, in a quite bucolic setting. Suddenly the birds stopped to sing all together. The waitress ran in the backroom, and after few seconds here the whirring back: he forgot to set the cd player in loop.
Los Angeles is also one of the most hyper-mediated urban experiences in the world, with its a distributed and de-centralized urban mesh, its advertising billboards as huge LED screens, its GPS handset-equipped habitants setting up appointments via twitter. Even the city Cemetery has a Funeral chapel equipped for live worldwide webcasts of funeral services.
Even if the Knifeandfork were not raised in Los Angeles (Brian House is from Denver and based in NY, Sue Huang currently lives in LA but was born in Saudi Arabia) their art seems to me quintessential to such odd place.
They designed an user-oriented fictional narrative inspired to Kurosawa’s film Rashomoon based on the algorithm of the /Prisoner’s Dilemma /game theory model (5 ’til 12, 2006); transformed a contemporary art museum in a golf club (Emptiness is Form (golf and donuts) at MOCA, 2009), and staged a public continuous reenactment of the infamous Maradona’s goal that leaded Argentina to victory at the 1986 World Cup (Trying the Hand of God, 2009).
They also produced various mobile-technology based projects dealing with the construction of individual narratives in urban spaces (Hundekopf, 2005) and in relation to artificial intelligent agents (The Wrench, 2008), for which they forged their own open source text-messaging language, TXTML.
I had the chance to meet Brian House and Sue Huang and I thought their work was perfect for an article on Digimag. This conversation clearly shows Knifeandfork wrk flow, and their modernity in placing on an intermediate, and extremley potential, border between software art and design
Mattia Casalegno: Let’s start speaking about your last mobile technology artworks. In the Hundekopf project (Loving Berlin Festival, 2005), you used the city’s Ringbahn (the urban train line surrounding Berlin’s city centre) as a literal vehicle for moving through a text-message based narrative: once a participant is invited to get on a train of the Ringbahn, a system you developed delivers him a message after each station he pass on their way. Every message is place specific, and what I found interesting here is the overlap between private experiences and public spaces. How did this concept fit into the context of such a peculiar city as Berlin? What was the content of the text messages you used?
Knifeandfork:Berlin feels very multi-faceted, full of cracks. We’re not particularly well-versed in its history, but the shifts are sudden and palpable as you walk or ride around. It’s hard to conceive of in totality, which is what makes the Ringbahn so nice as a survey of perspectives in the course of its circumnavigation. All cities should have that. As you ride you peer into all these worlds from the train windows, courtyards, interrupted streets, fences, water. The perspective on those spaces is inaccessible otherwise, and though they’re in plain view, it can feel very private, very lonely, to be a hidden voyeur, on the train that’s almost a panopticon. So what if those spaces actually sent messages back to you? If each shift in the feel of the city came with a different voice that supplied a narrative for the space (even if a totally fictional one?). That’s what we were getting at. As for the actual content, people ask this a lot, and we are generally reticent to give direct answers. Because they mean nothing and make no sense if you’re not looking out of the window of the train.
Mattia Casalegno: Mobile technologies are largely impacting how we relate to space and with each other: what are in particular your concerns and interests regarding such techno-cultural transformations?
Knifeandfork: Mobile phones are a really compelling medium to work with because of the intimacy they permit with the participant. Instead of having to explore some other, louder means of getting someone’s attention, here you just make their pocket buzz in the same way that their friends and lovers do. And because normal communication with other people is mediated by the device (its form factor, interface, reception, bandwidth, text vs speech) in just the same way as are messages from Hundekopf, the traditional contextual cues of where participation in an art piece ends and and engaging in your personal life begins become unstable. The relationship of activity to physical location is eroded as well– there used to be a place for everything, but now it’s everything in any place. So the aesthetics or cognitive state of a place intended for one type of activity is regularly hijacked by the device for another; we’re looking to understand what new formal aesthetics might be able to exploit those transformations.
Mattia Casalegno: You often refer to your mobile projects as “subversive (mobile) storytelling practices”. What you mean by that?
Knifeandfork: Well, it’s SMS. Imagine walking down the street and then you get a text which says “I’m watching you”. you keep walking down the street, and it’s the same street, but suddenly the meaning and relative importance of everything has changed. You’re hyper-aware of your surroundings. So your de facto mode of perception of your own environment has been subverted by those 160 characters of text to serve some narrative purpose. It’s about really minimal intervention to allow the story to flesh itself out with your own surroundings, your state of mind. Not at all unlike the work of Fluxus in the 70′s, instructional pieces by George Brecht and others, who’s poems weren’t so much intended to be beautiful in themselves, but provocative when the instruction is carried out (or even just imagined to be carried out). But since we have the network, we can play with the delivery of these instructions dynamically, in the moment, personally. And in the process try to point out the undue power this little device has sequestered for itself.
Mattia Casalegno: What is TXTML (TeXT message Markup Language)?
Knifeandfork: The Wrench was built on ideas from our other mobile projects, but was a great deal more complex in its implementation. For such a project, there’s an ongoing dialectic between the structure of the narrative and the structure of the system which delivers it. We have a particular interest in creating meta-languages, programming tools which are general in the sense that we can use them to constantly tweak and reconfigure the content of our projects, but specific in that they embody our particular artistic bias.
TXTML is a way to simply specify complex, non-linear conversations between a system and a participant. It’s like writing a choose-your-own adventure screenplay, where one-half of the piece is unwritten. From a technical standpoint, it’s just like written HTML for webpages. And it comes with a platform for sending and receiving text-messages, so the complexities of dealing with all that are abstracted.
Basically, you write a TXTML document, load it into the messaging engine, and then you can message back and for with the system and try out your ideas. We wanted to release the tool as open source, and have done our best, though only about half its features are documented, and it does take some technical knowledge to get up and running (for more info check out http://txtml.org).
Mattia Casalegno: In one of your first projects for the Engagement Party events at MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Arts, Los Angeles) you recontextualize the popular game of miniature golf, recasting it as a community social event, where visitors are encouraged to team up and utilize balls outfitted with RFID tags to show off their skills. I’ve been mostly intrigued by the title of this work, Emptiness is Form (Golf and Donuts). Why you choose this title?
Knifeandfork: Emptiness is Form is a simple Buddhist equation that tries to illustrate the plasticity of conceptualization, that any idea we have of some thing is not absolute. And golf and donuts are both about creating and destroying holes (i.e When you play a hole in golf, you are in actuality filling a physical hole, thus destroying it. When you make a donut, you are also making a hole, but when you eat it, you are destroying it). So in our piece you literally score holes — you get a physical donut hole when you complete a golf hole. Golf is about negative space (fairway) as desirable and positive space (obstacles) as to be avoided. So in the museum, in which one is typically staring atwalls in the gallery or objects in the space, now you’re trying to clear your ball through empty space.
Similarly, our course took people through marginal spaces in the building, storerooms and stairwells, emphasizing these over the galleries. It’s all about understanding and shifting how we inhabit space. But people got it in an entirely fun and natural way — to hear people getting pissed off that their friends weren’t following the proper rules of golf /while swinging putters through an art museum/, that was the best.
Mattia Casalegno: In the project Trying the Hands of God, you recontextualized a word-wide mediated narrative into a personal and subjective micro-narrative, repeated again and again for each participant, like in a “web 2.0″ fashion where the experience is highly personalized. I see in this a kind of “broadcast” vs. multicast” parallel, almost if you wanted to “re-distribute” such a mass-communicated event to an individual level: why did you choose this specific popular and mediatic “gesture” ?
Knifeandfork: It might have worked with any number of events of sufficient scale; we just wanted it to be historical, widely experienced, and repeated ad nauseam on TV or internet. But Maradona’s play had a lot of interesting features– it broke the rules of soccer, it was highly skilled, it was a political statement of sorts with political implications, it was international rather than American, it was religious (in Diego’s use of the word “God” and his deific status), it was beautiful, it’s all over YouTube. Angelenos are international and love soccer, and also it was a nice play on words as we were wrestling with ideas of chance and fate vs skill, and those ideas are nicely encompassed in the term “the hand of God”. We were unfamiliar with the play before the piece and uninvested ourselves, and it was slightly more pragmatic to attempt than say a Hail Mary from football or a home run.
Mattia Casalegno: How the context of a Contemporary Museum has affected this project ?
Knifeandfork: Well, it meant we had a giant Nancy Rubins sculpture in the middle of the field! Compromises to a ‘faithful’ recreation such as that added to the imaginative potential and once the audience has suspended their disbelief, the transformation of the space adds another layer (a theme of all the MOCA pieces), and it demonstrates the permeability of the ritual we set up. Also just visually it was an interesting mashup of Azteca Stadium and MOCA. Some funny things came out of that like when we were deciding how to set up the goal, but there was no room for an actual goalpost, so we decided to just tape a white frame on the museum wall to have the goalpost in 2D. We thought it might be an issue, but people immediately understood what it was meant to be and didn’t even question it. A great moment happened the day before the actual event, when we’d finished installing the AstroTurf and a class of third graders happened by. To the horror of their teachers we mischievously kicked a ball to one of them: suddenly it was a free-for-all soccer meleé. A bunch of kids were standing in front of the tromp l’oeil goalpost trying to be goalkeepers. That’s what going on a field trip to an art museum should be about.
Mattia Casalegno: Any plans for the future? What are you working on at the moment?
Knifeandfork: We just did a series of small events with the Brooklyn band “Live Footage”: during their shows we took several video feeds from the players and audience, and projected them with various improvised filters, trying to create feedback loops between the audience and performers. Now we’re going to make a book, some noise, and travel somewhere