Synthetic Experience and the Continuum of the Authentic: A Contribution, by Andrea Ackerman, speaker and featured digital artist at the conference Synthetic Sensations - The Five Senses and New Technologies ,  June 30, 2006, organised by Niran Bahjat-Abbas and Stephen Barber, Kingston University, London, UK, webcast and catalog forthcoming.


Our senses - taste, smell, sight, hearing, touch, and how we process our perceptions  to form meaning , have evolved relative to the physical world as we ordinarily know it.. This physical world is one of more or less solid objects in three dimensional space - Euclidean space. relatively stable over time  is what we usually call the real world. The digital world, on the other hand the world of information seems to our senses a clearly different sort of world-  invisible or nearly so, a world of disembodied objects which are  very fluid or even unstable over time. This virtual  world has been thus by implication the "unreal" world.


Now I think the boundary between  these two worlds has seemed  clear cut- a linear,  simple absolute boundary, but  I think now we see now that is an illusion and in fact  the virtual and real world, are part of a whole continuum of OUR world. At this point They are both the real world. In fact there is a constant transformation happening back and forth between the virtual and the real world.  This fluid transformation from virtual to real  can be seen as different states of the same thing like the transformation of  solid ice to liquid water to steam vapor and to gas. The virtual is just as "real" as the physical, just a different state of the real. We are not becoming bodiless. Bodied and bodiless are transformations in a continuous system.*


In characterising this system, I am very influenced in this by complexity theory and string theory. Very simply said, I think of space time is an 11 or 12 dimensional way with all but three of these spatial dimensions being curled up, interior small.  Space time itself is dynamic expanding and contracting. Complexity/chaos theory has shown that living systems grow and develop  based on relatively simple algorithms, applied recursively. Both theories suggest boundaries between events or objects are infinitely complex in a fractal sort of way, so that the world can be thought of in much more of a sense of a continuum and with similarity than before - between "real" and "virtual" worlds.  There is also more of a continuum, with complex boundaries between the organic and inorganic, alive and not alive worlds.  I use the sense of complexity inherent in these theories to connect a visual sensory complexity in creating my art work with the sense of the complexity of the inner psychological world and the world of meaning.


The goal in my work has been to make digital art that is as real, as sensuously compelling, as humanistically meaningful, as natural and physically based art. People want the virtual to have this capacity to impart meaning, to be experienced as authentic, desperately I think, but there are anxieties about it too. These anxieties as a group relate to its "dehumanising" effects. We are in a state of  conflict about the direction we are moving, but we are moving there nevertheless, inexorably. Since we increasingly artificially creating our own environment of adaptation it behooves to create it with as much richness, diversity and beauty as the natural environment and to maintain the connections  however complex or attenuated.


I have made a series of landscapes, Synthetic Landscapes which are intended to function as synthetic portable gardens in the context of  the extreme urban environments that many of us inhabit. These landscapes have a complex beauty and a depth of information that is mysteriously satisfying. In these landscapes I imbued objects with qualities not ordinarily occurring in nature, creating a synthetic nature.  I take specific aspects of  2D and 3D still and animation software and apply them in ways they were not intended, like using effects meant for fluids on rose petals or skin. These images have been visually genetically engineered and animated with cross species qualities. Finding meaningful ways to use these cross category effects is essential to the evocation of a seamless transformation - digital to human.


The first Synthetic Panelling which I made using a video of an abandonned slate quarry in Vermont. I intended it to transform into a wall covering (repeating module) suggesting the rich grain and emotionally comforting feeling of natural wood. It also evokes such landscapes as the time when the earth was forming vast canyons etc.


Synthetic Pond was made using video images of a pond and waterfall from a Bronx Zoo monkey exhibit, in which the monkeys live in an entirely synthetic world except for the other monkeys. While making it and for a while afterwards I kept it on the floor of my studio and as I sat by it as I would a reflecting pool in a garden and found my state of mind would be transformed to a contempletive one  in the same way. 


Weeping Hemlock  is a  treed landscape, when output is about 11 feet by 22 feet it becomes about life size.,. It was made from a video of a Weeping Hemlock in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. I was attracted to the complexity and interiority of the tree space, and also the fact that the weeping characteristic comes from a naturally occurring mutation that has been cultivated.. It was fascinating to me that while I was making this piece, which took a few years, I found watching the video over and over, grabbing and transforming individual frames, recreating and transforming the landscape,  i became very intimate with it,  and it was more interesting than visiting the tree itself. The are various sub landscapes within this vast landscapes, and make more blatant reference to mathematical fractal forms around the edges. In other place it transforms to underwater, intergalactic and subatomic landscapes. Although it is a 2D digital image, it retains its video history and is experienced as 3D and animated on the wall.


This sense leads to the last synthetic landscape which does actually move, it's a 3D computer animation called Rose Breathing. In Rose Breathing, a synthetic rose rhythmically opens and closes in human like respiration, the idea being that is has cross species qualities, a plant breathing with human respiration, the petals evoke skin or muscle, the rose has locomotion. etc..This animation is deeply affecting. The viewer's own breathing and their thoughts become entrained with the undulating rose. On full screen it evokes ocean waves or streaming protoplasm, on a small screen it transforms into a tiny beating heart. For a 3D character this is a radical new subject as most 3D characters are action figures with essentially no emotional life. This character has a subtle slow, deep and complex emotionality . This leads up to the final two works which you will see in a minute.  Now in the form of a synthetic virtual woman  I continue to develop the concept of a subtle slow, deep and complex emotionality to a 3D computer animation


 The two newest animations are Yawn, and Woman Waking_Paper Dissolve a virtual woman, as you can see is in monochrome gray. She is mysteriously natural yet obviously artificial. She undergoes a series of ambiguously but deeply expressive transformations, and in the process blurs the boundaries between inner worlds and outer worlds, between the experiences of the different  senses, visual, auditory, and kinesthetic, between the natural world and the synthetic one etc. This is reinforced by the transformations and projections of a the sound of crinkling paper happening in the sound composition by composer Matthew Greenbaum.  At times she looks almost human, at others she looks more canine or reptilian or like a planetary body orbiting in space. In any event, the success to me is measured in the fact that the viewer is induced to wonder "What is she thinking?", "What is she feeling?" I think because she embodies the virtual in an authentic way.


With that I'll end my talk and you can experience the three animations for yourselves.


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* The economist Edward Castronova author of Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games "in a recent interview stated that "In virtual worlds-or synthetic worlds, “virtual” having lost much of its meaning-only the icons around which human interactions flow are nonreal (and i would argue with that). The interactions themselves are as real as any we have outside synthetic worlds. When six soldiers take out a machine-gun nest at Fort Bragg, the machine gun is real and the teamwork is real. When the same six soldiers take out a dragon in a synthetic world, the dragon is not real but the teamwork is. In synthetic worlds, the things we trade may be fantastic, but the process and value of the trade is real." another example, in second life players are startng to buy and sell commodities in the virtual world for real"physical" world currency .