[ISEA2011] Paper: Dew Harrison – Can Digital Objects Behave Well (if we let them)?


Within my research-led art practice I continue to explore ways of delivering complex concepts in an immediate and engaging way through digital mediation. I therefore pursue a computer-based practice that can support complexity through the associative trails permitted in semantic media. I persist with my interrogation of the ideas of Marcel Duchamp that formulated the trajectory to a contemporary Conceptual practice. Earlier works have moved from projected interactive pieces with mouse-click and roll-over access to a hard-linked hypermedia system, to more intuitive interfaces with open directional choices and less obvious connections between the digitised Duchampian objects. These latter works have involved endowing those objects with ‘flocking’ behaviours to observe them clustering into families of sense.

The idea of ‘flocking’ digital objects gave rise to that of giving ‘animal’ behaviours to virtual objects, and a change of focus from Duchamp to Darwin. From the convoluted ideas of Duchamp re art’s function and future, it was a natural progression to the current culture and human activity to which art responds.  Thinking around Darwin’s ‘big idea’ in light of our future as a current pathway to self-destruction via climate change, the hands-on installation ‘Shift-Life’ arose. Shift-Life is a virtual world of bug-like ‘candy’ creatures that exist quite contentedly if left alone, however physical human intervention can alter their environment into a volatile state where they have to adapt to survive. There are many computer games that let you play God in letting life-forms live or die -starve, thrive, fight, procreate, overpopulate or become extinct, but my intention is always to explore the complex concept and exhibit this in an accessible way.

The limited behaviours given to the Shift-Life fantasy creatures would be enough to allow them to evolve if left uninterrupted in their everyday existence, we might, for instance, be able to witness patterns of sociability emerging. However, the participatory nature of the work means that without interacting with the piece, that understanding cannot be brought to bear, here human intervention causes basic survival behaviours only.  Our meddling nature prevents us from seeing the creatures and their world developing as one sustainable life-system.

  • Dew Har­ri­son is a Pro­fes­sor of Dig­i­tal Media Art and Di­rec­tor of CADRE, the Cen­tre for Art and De­sign Re­search And Ex­per­i­men­ta­tion at the Uni­ver­sity of Wolver­hamp­ton, UK, where she works as the As­so­ci­ate Dean for Re­search and Post­grad­u­ate Stud­ies in the School of Art and De­sign.  As a prac­tis­ing artist with a PhD from CAIIA (Cen­tre for Ad­vanced In­quiry in the In­ter­ac­tive Arts), her work con­tin­ues to ex­plore a the­o­ret­i­cally in­formed com­puter-me­di­ated ap­proach to the ter­ri­tory be­tween art, tech­nol­ogy and con­scious­ness stud­ies in order to po­si­tion a par­tic­i­pa­tory con­cept-based art prac­tice. This in­volves se­man­ti­cally as­so­ci­at­ing ideas and con­cepts into non-lin­ear mul­ti­me­dia form and dig­i­tal out­comes have been shown both in the UK and in­ter­na­tion­ally.  She con­sid­ers the di­a­logue be­tween the vir­tual (dig­i­tal) realm and the real world, as a se­man­tic space for cre­ative ex­plo­ration.  With over 50 pub­li­ca­tions to date, she is reg­u­larly in­vited to pre­sent at con­fer­ences con­cern­ing Con­scious­ness Stud­ies, Cu­ra­tion and Archiv­ing, Dig­i­tal Art, Art His­tory, In­ter­ac­tive Gam­ing, and Muse­ol­ogy. Her prac­tice is often col­lab­o­ra­tive as ex­am­pled in her most re­cent in­stal­la­tion work ‘Shift-Life’ where she worked with two pro­gram­mers and an an­i­ma­tor. This piece was com­mis­sioned by Shrews­bury Mu­seum Ser­vices for the In­ter­na­tional Dar­win Bi­cen­te­nary, and funded by Arts Coun­cil Eng­land.        pva.org.uk                  wlv.ac.uk/research/institutes-and-centres/cadre—centre-for-art-design-research-and-expe/

Full text (PDF)  p. 1123-1126