Machines will watch us die – symposium

On the 11th May 2018, I was invited to take part in the machines will watch us die symposium at the Holden Gallery in Manchester. Curated by Patrizia Costantin as part of her PhD at Manchester School of Art, the event was part of a wider exhibition exploring how the idea of digital decay can be rethought following the material turn in media studies. The symposium introduced a number of ideas in relation to notions of digital materiality and temporality, exploring themes in exhibition practice, art and media history.

The speakers were brought together from a range of disciplines and backgrounds, each giving their very own unique take on the subject. I particularly enjoyed learning about the work of artist Shinji Toya, which encapsulates the precariousness of digital culture and technology. Toya’s single-channel video work, 3 years and 6 months of digital decay (7 April 2016 – 7 October 2019) features in the exhibition, reinforcing the programme’s themes of storing, remembering and forgetting in relation to digital decay. The film co-exists online, and has a screening period that reflects the average lifespan of a CD-R, three and a half years. As the video grows in age, its surface begins to aesthetically fragment, exploring the idea of decaying data online.

3 years and 6 months of digital decay (7 April 2016 – 7 October 2019) Project was commissioned by arebyte.

Data was explored through a variety of themes, ranging from Diana Angoso de Guzman’s insight into artistic representations of human vs technology, to Amanda Wasielewski’s expansion of William Holford’s notion that data is, in a very literal sense, a monument. I am now going to focus on the research presented within my own presentation, which explored the neurological effects of our engagement with data, and its relationship with exhibition environments.

I opened with an analysis of neuroplasticity, a term used to describe the brain’s ability to adapt to its environment. Although our brains are biologically relatively the same as they were in the stone age, the characteristics that they develop from birth are rather different. Our everyday experiences and the environment that we place ourselves in, regulate the strength or long-term effectiveness of the connections in our brain that shape who we are and how we behave.

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In the digital age, our environment is no longer confined by geographical barriers, as it has been opened through the unlimited spaces of our virtual worlds. So although neuroplasticity can be read to interpret the effects of our physical world on our brain, we must also consider the effects of our cultural influences. My lecture served to illustrate the technological plasticity that we experience through the constant immersion of screen technology, and how this in effect can influence our experiences in exhibitions. As gallery spaces are no longer confined by physical walls, curators must consider the impact of visitor’s digital devices and virtual lives that are brought into the exhibition environment. How can exhibitions be shaped to capture the attention of their visitors and maximise their enjoyment and understanding of the show?

Within my discussion I focussed on the experience of encounter, drawing on examples of how the visitor, artwork and physical environment can be connected in exhibitions. The organisation of a space not only encompasses the power to dictate its inhabitant’s physical path, it also has the capacity to psychologically influence one’s emotional and mental state.

Claude Parent – The function of the oblique

A key example that I found successfully achieved this was the 2014 Tate Liverpool exhibition La colline de l’art, curated and designed by the architect Claude Parent. Parent is an architect who created the architectural principal, ‘the function of the oblique’, alongside Paul Virilio in 1960, a theory that explored the body’s physical experience of a space.

Using the rules of the oblique, Parent re-designed the Wolfson Gallery at Tate Liverpool with a structure formed from an array of angles, slopes and heights, combining to create a gallery space that invited visitors to connect to their environment. The featured artworks were selected to mirror the physicality of the exhibition through their formal arrangement and narrative. One example was Edward Wadsworth’s woodcut, The Port (date), which formally encompassed the geometry of Parent’s space through its strikingly bold lines depicted in contrasting angles. The clear relationship between the exhibition and artwork collaborated to form a visually memorable exhibition, encouraging visitors to think about spatial and sensory relationships.

Memory & Sensory experience

Using Parent’s exhibition as a discussion point around exhibition design and sensory experience, I then reflected about the condition of memory and how it is affected by our interaction with our digital devices. 

The digital age has possessed its inhabitants with an incredible ability to multitask and manage activity across a number of forms of media. In this sense, our brains have adapted to keep up with the world’s changing technologies and increasingly fast pace of information. However, by multi-tasking across a number of tasks, we are often unable to truly engage with our subjects, as the rapid nature of the notification stimuli seize the user’s attention, but only to scatter it. Spreading your attention decreases the brain’s ability to focus on a single task, making us less able to consolidate information into a long-term memory.

An aspect of la colline de l’art that I found enhanced the quality and memory of my experience was the way in which I was made to feel more aware of my body in the space. Memory formation is largely influenced by the quality of our experience and state of mind.

Research shows that a key stimuli in increasing memory retention of an experience, is the inclusion of a number of the body’s senses. Bound together, these sensory perceptions act as a combination of neural brain patterns, creating a stream of new ‘mega patterns’. As well as the five senses we are all familiar with, research has identified other aspects of bodily senses including proprioception and the vestibular sense, both of which give us an awareness of the body’s movement and balance in space. This is highly relevant to the planning of exhibition environments that can centre visitors within an experience, slowing them down so as to make them more attentive of their surroundings. How can the layout and presentation of exhibits be applied as a key method of visitor engagement, enhancing memory and sensory experience?

What next?

The focus of my discussion was to analyse curatorial techniques which could maximise visitor’s attention spans, whilst enhance their memory and quality of exhibition experience. Through various examples, I analysed how the visitor, artwork and physical encounter can be considered through sensory and spatial relationships. My next step is to consider how virtual experience can be incorporated within this encounter.

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