Ars Accidentalis by Virginie Pringuet

KIT@DEAF 98 - C.O.T.I.S.
 by Mick Burton



Ars Accidentalis, The Art of the Accident, The Aesthetics of the Crash and the Technological Millennialism
Virginie Pringuet
Synopsis On-line Journal, January issue, 1999, Canada

Encyclopedia Universalis, Millennialism: millennialism, the antici-pation of a Kingdom of paradise revisted, is often placed under the guidance of a charismatic leader, a messiah. It exists only among cultures in which myths of paradise-on-earth are prevalent -with the addition of a myth of the "return of cultural heros". Millennialism is the anticipation of a kingdom of rest and peace, yet millennialists often resort to violence to speed the coming of this kingdom. In fact, if millennialism is supposed to occur suddenly and "on its own", if theoretically it requires no instigation, millennialists nevertheless seek to expedite or aid its occurence through revolutionary action. Another glaring contradiction: if the Kingdom is situated in the future, it is nevertheless conceived as the return of an original golden age. Millennialism is almost always both reactionary and revolutionary at the same time. In general, it is made up of preliminary phases and ordeals hailed by celestial and terrestrial portents: comets, meteors, famines, blood baths, epidemics, earthquakes. These calamities are usually orchestrated by an anti-messiah -the Antichrist.

In the fissures of the financial, industrial, and military sectors, the milieu of the electronic arts seems to be anticipating the seismic shake-up of the the end of the millenium and to be succumbing to the seduction of the semantic black hole of Y2K -the mind-boggling bug of the century. Since the fall of 1998, the majority of international electronic art festivals and symposia have abandonned their traditional debates around content or interactive writing to tackle themes more drenched with the scent of millennialism. Last September "Revolution and Terror" were discusssed at ISEA98 in Liverpool and Manchester; at Ars Electronica in Linz, it was a question of "InfoWar"; and finally, in November of last year, the Dutch Electronic Art Festival (DEAF) in Rotterdam ruminated on the "Art of the Accident".

With an anxiety about passing into the year 2000 and the third millennium almost more belated than that of small and medium-sized businesses, artists, theorists and organizers in the new media scene are now attempting to measure the problem of technological breakdown, viruses, computer crashes, and other system bugs in order to reveal their artistic and innovative potential. 1999 has jumpstarted an exploration of the relations between art, technology and society, a seemingly relentless pursuit accele-rated by the countdown to the millennium. In the mad race to understand the mystery of this so-called fatal deadline, the millennium has become the sign and symbol of the total accident, the time bomb. A time bomb which subjects us to the fear of the nuclear mushroom cloud.

The DEAF festival is organized by V2, "the institute for the unstable media" a pionneering organization in new media based in Rotterdam and active since 1987. Unveiling the question of l'ars accidentalis, DEAF98 provided several unexplored routes of specu lation in terms of the creativity that resides in all mechanical dysfunction, whether this be a virus, a bug, or a computer crash. The guiding principles of DEAF were inspired by Artistolian philosophy, according to which the breakdown of our inventions is inscribed in their conception, indeed, in their substance, and profoundly constitutes their essence. As Paul Virilio has frequently pointed out, the invention of the boat, locomotive steam engine and nuclear fission coincides with that of the sinking, the derailment and the atomic bomb. Thus the accident not as an external, unforeseen event in time, but rather as a sudden transformation of matter in space. In this light, Virilio, questioned on the subject of l'ars accidentalis (1), defines the overall accident not as an external force perturbing a certain state or order, but as an intrinsic element of reality, the fate of an internal programme, a radical, uncontrolable mutation of the environment.

Artist projects presented at DEAF, such as the Live Room Transducting Resonant Architecture by Mark Bain, OSS from JODI or C.O.T.I.S. from the KIT collective all reveal the same determination to deconstruct the essence of the technological breakdown, to scope out the dynamic space/time dimensions of catastrophies (aural, visual, and material), as well as the desire to root out the aesthetics of the accident. These three projects consisted of creating, manipulating or capturing a perturbation which insinuates itself into the structure of an object (building, computer, airplane), and after being amplified, takes hold of said object, thereby radically and irreversibly transforming it. An audio, video, architectural, or network system put in place to try out the crash; mould collisions and
parasites; degrade signals, machines, or buildings; confound navigation, lines of code, and javascripts....

The Aesthetic of the Virus

Let's take the example of The Live Room by Mark Bain, a temporary installation, a parasitic device exploiting the specificity of a given architectural site -to whit: a bridge, a building, a boat, etc. Bain deploys a cohort of wave-generating machines, small appliances each with an acoustic intensification that attaches itself to strategic points of a building in order to become synchronized with the resonance of its structure and make it vibrate in the space which contains it. The Live Room uses the principle of seismic induction to activate the interior and exterior surfaces, creating an intense tectonic charge which connects the different parts of the building by making them vibrate. In Rotterdam, the offices of V2, as well as the barge upon which festival-goers found themselves for the closing party (appropriately baptized "Titanic"), became Bain's experimental terrain. A strange experience, both physically and sonically, to feel a building enter into phase with oneself, and to hear the interior song of an inert block of cement. As a virus, The Live Room seeks to reinject a breath of fresh air into these constructions, to reveal their secret life, and to make their internal characteristics and organic structure perceptible -all while putting them in peril and dangerously toying with the laws of demoliton and seismic action.

The Aesthetic of the Bug

For their part, the duo JODI, like good office pirates, have not yet finished exploring the aesthetic potential of error messages, the no-mans land, and electronic impasses which await all computer users on the web from the inner most depths of its operating system. The idea behind their preceding projects and OSS, a web project and CD-ROM, is relatively simple yet effective: when a calamity such as a bug infiltrates a hard drive, the user -just as much as the machine- becomes non-operational. Loss of control of the mouse, two if not three desperate clicks, ESCAPE, F3, Shift+ Control + Apple + Backspace... nothing works. Nerves become frayed, the compulsive clicking, OSS, takes you hostage. Because JODI's forte is writing programmes which simulate models of computer dysfunction, models extolling the irrational, the anti-logical, the non-user-friendly, visual noise, and erratic navigation, the user is obliged to improvise, to unlearn, to break routines acquired by surfing a million web pages and by being subject to a thousand hours of Windows.

The Aesthetic of the Crash

Just as radical is the installation C.O.T.I.S. (Cult Of Inserter Seat) from KIT. It takes form as a kind of human-sized 'black box', abandoned on a road meridian in Rotterdam, and consists of a sanctuary of sounds, words, and images recorded before impact, as well as a geographic and sonic compilation of various plane crashes. Visitors timidly file through the padded universe of this metal container where the last seconds before a plane crash are looped. The black box becomes the sacred object here, having survived the explosion of space-time, a recorded space-time, an accelerated return to the earth, frozen in the form of stammered words, scrambled sounds, and images of the surface towards which we plummet. In contrast to the ejection seat, the black box remains entangled in the entrails of the doomed aircraft, and constitutes a final recording before the ultimate fusion between human and machine, an irreversible and tragic encounter between humans and their tools. Revisiting certain symbolic elements of the Apocalypse (one of the last books of the Bible) which turn the sky into a mirror of the earth and its future scars, C.O.T.I.S.
expresses the impossibility of humans and their inventions to cross certain boundaries (the conquest of space, speed) without mutual annihilation, without transforming their points of intersection and zones of impact and destruction.

The bent of the DEAF Festival was the accident as a source of inspiration, as a point of departure for contemplating the ecology of unstable media, rather than a sense of pervading catas-trophism. The mass media, for their part, seem determined to popularize Y2K, all while cloaking it in mystery: proffering new representations of technological objects imbued with millennial superstition and apocalyptic symbolism. Cognitive shortcuts which impart a natural reference to information systems in order to explain the dysfunctions of economic, social, and political systems -in short, the information society. Having become the dominant metaphor of post-industrial society, computer systems and networks have reformulated the powerful symbols and recurring myths appearing throughout the history of science and technology, as well as during the (rare) periods of transition between millennia. We are thus living on the cusp of the transition into the year 2000 and of the universalization of the 400 MgH processor, an exceptional conjuncture for the exacerbation of beliefs and superstitions which, since the dawn of time, have always accompanied the invention of new tools by the human being - the fragile homo faber struggling to master his environment
and to quench an insatiable need to control his destiny.

On the eve of 2000, the return of Christ has been translated into the sudden looming appearance of a Y2K in which we find the same form of sanction against the arrogant human being. God, divine punishment, and the 'bug' as the new "reincarnation" of an all-powerful God.


(1) Surfing the accident, "The Art of the Accident", NAI Publishers/V2-Organisatie, Rotterdam, 1998



KIT@DEAF - C.O.T.I.S. by Mick Burton
ETC Magazine, June issue, 1999, Canada

The productive potential of the crash, within culture and society in general, and within the new media specifically, formed the basis of the Dutch Electronic Arts Festival '98 showing in Rotterdam. The crash metaphor was extended to encompass rupture, malfunction, unpredictability and instability, viewed often in the negative, but capable of producing desirable, if serendipitous creations, which, especially in the arts, can and should be embraced, even cherished. Consequently, if, as suggested by the DEAF organisers, principally the V2 organisation, the crash is inherent in technology, it would then necessarily be foolish not to expect the unexpected and utilise it accordingly.

To this end, scenes were created, inviting participants to experience, play with, involve themselves in, experiment with or alter the ingredients making up the physical and digital territories, all of which illustrated the complexities and joys of chaos, instability and the resulting crash potential. Perry Hoberman's use of an interior space, furnished with portable furniture, to be manoeuvred manually, and replicated on screen,, where it could be manoeuvred digitally, then synthesised into a single image large scale projection, offered the chance to upset the balance of the traditionally stable environment in favour of a random and chaotic outcome......game playing maybe, where the technical complexities seemed to override the simplicity of the metaphor, though I may have missed something here! More fitting to the nature of the event, in terms of the creation of a techno-chaotic aesthetic, was the installation by dutch web artists JODI. A network of grids and matrices brought up onto a multiscreen interface, via net sites visited, which consequently led to unexpected destinations, involving sound and visuals, which enmeshed the "player" in a web of confusion as they try to make sense of random worlds they find themselves introduced to by accident. This made a convincing case for the inherent existence of illogicallity in a supposed world of logic, highlighting the paradoxical nature of the idea of the 'beneficial' system crash.

On entering the enclosed capsule of Seiko Mikami, which was to be the slightly claustrophobic setting for work entitled, "World, Membrane and Dismembered Body " the apparent apprehension emitting from the 10 to 15 entrants, was reminiscent of doing the scary stuff at a fair, a combination of the slightly unnerving aspects of the unexpected occurring in an enclosed space, and natural curiosity, all moved along nicely by the dynamic of the groups, 'all in it together' attitude. The chamber was really a speaker cabinet on a grand scale, with surround sound capability, and what we listened to, after time lag delay, was the erratic sounds of a willing (ish) participants heartbeat, or the sound of blood coursing through veins, or various internal organs at play. On occasion, this was to prove distressing for the now less than willing participants, as the massively amplified sounds seemed irregular, to the point of being almost random at times, this would in turn induce more rapid 'beats' or 'rhythms' begging questions of mortality, or the distressing scenario of the crash metaphor being applied to the living form. However in terms of an aural experience, there was something haunting, even beautiful in the messy irregularity of the soundscape produced.

Though few contemporary buzz words possess the ambiguity of, 'interactivity' what is apparent immediately with, "Happy Doomsday" is the actual physical effort needed to fuel the necessary navigational potential of the work by Calin Dan. A bastardised fitness machine/alien techno-gismo warrior is the vehicle by which a user manually manoeuvres through digital territories projected on large scale, referencing images depicting facets of European histories and stories. The structuring of the visuals is very much based on the computer game style of graphics, and consequently produces a thrill of the chase effect whilst referencing serious subject matter. As a vehicle for interactive education, his work was a little monumental and possibly a little cumbersome, but there was a playfulness in the methodology which was negated only slightly by the amount of physical exertion apparently required to effectively interact with the work to its fullest capacity. Instability, and the propensity to crash appeared to be inevitable to the piece in similar fashion to the historical events referenced, and the growing reliance on technology as the key to future development.

Located near to the main V2 lab, though far enough away to seem removed and even isolated from the bulk of the work, and placed suspiciously in an urban wasteland setting, was a red shipping/freight container by the KIT collaboration. On closer examination this was indeed verified, the strangeness being enhanced by the large-scale lettering adorning the sides of the vessel reading C.O.T.I.S.....in truth, I did not immediately identify this acronym with, Cult Of The Inserter Seat. This would all be explained duly as participants were made aware of the fictional existence of the fictional cult and global collective of C.O.T.I.S. by KIT. The red container was actually a type of urban black box. The colour scheme mimicking the colour of black boxes on aircraft which are actually red, so that they can be spotted more easily in the event of a crash.

On entering the red container, a single light barely illuminated four walls that were upholstered with prints of aerial photography depicting scenes of air crashes, the space being simultaneously filled with sounds of carnage, well, at least to these ears. The soundscape was in fact recreated from recordings made from the final vocalisations taken from the on-flight recorders, the fabled black boxes. It made for pretty depressing listening, yet possessed strange ethereal qualities given the extreme conditions under which the information and raw emotions were captured.

Attention was drawn to a small optical device embedded in one of the upholstered walls of the container. Peering through this 'looking glass' revealed a hidden chamber behind the wall which had outlined images of air crash destruction projected into the space. The whole environment knitted together perfectly to create a physical vehicle which encapsulated a theoretical treatise, albeit fictional, on the nature of re-insertion and reintegration of the human body back into the earth, through the mapping of the trajectories of air crashes, reversing the idea of the ejector seat in favour of the inserter seat. A doctrine very much at odds with the current developments in technology that drive for what has been termed by Mark Dery as an 'escape velocity'. Thus where attention is focused wholly on escaping the physical, via accessing the virtual, escaping the earth for the purposes of planetary colonisation, or escaping identity through the re- invention of other selves in order to masquerade in cyberspace. In direct opposition, reintroduction, re embodiment and re empowerment ...those features favoured by C.O.T.I.S. will tread a more desirable road to the notion of 'progress'.

In fact the Cult of C.O.T.I.S. have a theoretical basis which sits between black humour, rampant cult style propaganda and researched scientific rationalism which gives the audience a number of inroads into interpreting this complex project. The black humour arises from their proposed search for the ultimate fusion between man and machine, thus the aircrash. The reverential treatment of this symbolic spectacle proposes the inversion of any notion of innocence inherent in the 'return to earth.

C.O.T.I.S. seeks and worships the sacred co-ordinates of the crash site, and insert their dwellings (the freight container) into the earth, within the site which has been revealed and created by the crash. These locations are pre-determined under the guise of innocent progress, they are the inbuilt reversal of technologies efficiency. The dystopia of the crash and failure of travel technology, carry on the narrative relay of travel and communications technology in the form of the 'report'- the evangelical satellites of news media and communication systems carry the story to our front rooms. There is nothing which causes these relay systems to pass the narrative baton as fast as a crash. The spectacle of disaster in the collision between earth and technology becomes the lense through which we try to locate a lost innocence of pre-impact. Obseletion being an integral process of the progress, means the built in crash is where these narratives are born, and here is where the paradox lies. The locating (technological) devices are soiled (part of the same system), contaminating the process from the start.

C.O.T.I.S. attempts to capture and frame the meaning of innocence in the point of impact, their red freight containers being worshipful spaces which reflect upon the site of the crash as sacred co-ordinates. Being the only off-site installation at DEAF gave KIT's project a mysterious and alluring air, which seemed to delight as many as it disturbed. ie. reports of two audience members running out of the container screaming and having to be calmed down by invigilators. All in all it was the project which most eloquently examined and fabricated the symbolic and actual effects of the accident, into a perverse world where the black box provides the black humour.