(by Maja Kuzmanovic and Nik Gaffney. first published in the trg book )

When the TRG team first sat down to think about the 'what', why' and 'how' of the project, we contemplated we collectively envision as transient realities and how we can generate them. Passages through semi-permeable layers between spaces of varying density (gaseous/liquid, solid/malleable…) were a popular starting point. We were musing about situations occurring on the periphery of perception, in which our normalised behaviour becomes unbalanced and our sense of reality tricked by mixtures of tangible and intangible phenomena. Quickly the conversations became quite abstract on one hand, while too goal driven on the other (i.e. we have only a few months to build this thing, whatever it turns out to be). In order to avoid becoming both too caught up in conceptual fantasies, as well as too quickly making design decisions, we proceeded to contextualise transient reals in everyday life. It appeared that the occurrences of temporary intrusions, blends and mutations of different realities are quite common phenomena in everyday life;

  • As children, we were often surprised by unexpected behaviours of matter - stepping on a not so solid ice-crust and falling through it into a world of different temperature and viscosity;
  • Moments in which our expectations of what reality is supposed to be are pleasantly, or unpleasantly different - getting lost in a foreign city and ending up in the worst ghetto in the country, but meeting very caring and hospitable people, who gradually change your perception of the place (by showing you their secret gardens and underground labyrinths), at the same time as you becoming an embodiment of a world they will never experience;
  • Amplifying invisible phenomena on a human scale, such as being immersed in microscopic or macroscopic universes, being able to scratch the surface of a molecule, or feel the heat of a distant star;
  • Daydreaming and moments of deja-vu can be experienced as intrusions from other realities, times, spaces, imaginaries, that can peacefully co-exist with some mundane activity, such as travelling the Earthly space-time by taking a bus to school, or washing the dishes;
  • Stronger experiences of mutations of reality can be experienced by ingesting psychedelic substances, where you are not sure what is a shared, 'consensual' reality and what is a perceptual play of chemicals in your bodies;
  • Relationships - spaces in which (more or less temporarily) we exist in a cross-section of each other's realities;
  • Temporary autonomous zones (TAZ, to borrow the term from HakimBey), places established to lift us away from habitual life, for a few hours, days or weeks, such as festivals, parties and markets.

How can we generate transient realities? We can instantiate chemical changes from inside the bodies; through extreme bodily endurance, such as sleep deprivation; prolonged, intensive physical and/or mental activity, ingestion of mood and/or perception altering substances, etc. Alternatively, we can make changes in the environment by modifying sensory input (and thereby influencing the perception and the feeling of reality), destabilising the sense of balance, removing the frame of reference (such as the horizon), restricting/altering motor functions (through clothing and architecture). In our process of generating realities, the empirical research of the changes within the body was conducted only within the development team, while we worked on creating a change from without the body, by making an environment that is more malleable and adaptive on a human scale than what we experience in everyday life.

What resulted is transient reality, or TAZ, developed with a simple intention: grasping that everything is entangled with everything else, although maybe not on a human scale. Every action has an effect on the overall environment, and that everyone is responsible for everyone else's experience, even if the participants are not in the same space at the same time. Following the environmentalist slogan 'act locally, think globally' we encourage the participants to engage in both small, local interactions with different elements within the environment (localised visual 'pools, radical changes in the tactile textures…), knowing that their actions will have a longer lasting effect on the continuous transformations of the transient reality. This means that the computational system generating the dynamics of the space needs to be capable of both discrete responses (such as an easily noticeable change in sonic and visual textures) and continuous transformations (such as growth, decay, climate or pollution). In an ideal situation, all 'players' (and by players we mean humans, but also the environment and any other animate or inanimate entity in the space) would work together towards synchronising their actions, so that the experience becomes a dialogue (polylogue), through which a world/reality comes to existence and is continually shaped. Similar to the concepts laid down by the Speech Act Theory, where the act of speaking is just as important as the content of the speech, we attribute a lot of the creative and expressive power to the dialogue between the players and the environment. The dialogue occurs through movement, gesturing and social play on the part of the human participants, while the space responds through atmospheric changes in sound, structured light and softness of its architecture.

The spaces that we want to develop are situations that are both strange and comforting; in which you can easily get lost, or can be very purposeful; where you can choose to be alone or explore with others… It is a place where you don't 'have to' do anything, but where your attention and motion entices the environment to unfold. For example, when going to a forest you can decide to relax and lay on the grass and let the world pass by you; or you might want to collect mushrooms, or observe a herd of wild animals, or dig through the dirt and find the sediment of peculiarly shaped skulls. All actions are rewarding in a particular way, but the experience of the same journey would be quite different. With TRG, we are attempting to make responsive environments that can accommodate a variety of behaviours and can always respond in rich and compelling ways. However, we also want to plant a seed of wilderness in them, in the form of their own dynamics, a world that does not exist because of- and for the human participants. A world that is aware of itself, and aware of you within it (either as a disturbance, a replenishment or a mating partner). With such approach, we are working against the arrogance of artists and scientists involved in the development process, and the arrogance of the audiences. The individual researchers and developers cannot have complete control of the process in a collaborative setting (that TRG definitely was), the public (individually or collectively) cannot fully control their experiences. However, every individual and collective does have an effect, and their presence and even more action and attention strongly influences the reality around them.

“Think what it would be to have a work conceived from outside the self. A work that would let us escape the limited perspective of the individual ego, not only to enter into selves like our own, but to give speech to that which has no language, to the bird perching on the edge of the gutter, to the tree in spring and the tree in fall, to stone, to cement, to plastic… Was this not perhaps what Ovid was aiming at when he wrote about the continuity of forms? And what Lucretius was aiming at when he identified himself with that nature common to each and every thing?” Italo Calvino

Responsive environments are works that have to be conceived from outside the self. Their realities are shaped through constant negotiation between artistic intention of the makers, and the expectation of the public. They feed on the tension between the dynamics of the physical world and that of a simulated, fictional one. They give voice to gestures, colour to motion, rhythm to invisible vibration. As such, responsive environments have a great expressive potential, where the line between the author and the consumer of the work becomes distorted and torn to pieces. But how does one design for such expression. What concepts and designs can bring forth these 'universes of the irreal', in which reality and fiction become con-fused and actuated?

Calvino's essay “6 memos for the next millennium” suggests that in order to create interesting literature in the coming 1000 years, the texts should embody one or more of the following characteristics; multiplicity, lightness, visibility, exactitude, quickness and consistency. We found these characteristics strongly resonating with qualities that we want to achieve in our designs. The multiplicity of forms, media and materials that are involved in constructing a reality; the lightness and simplicity that the works carry in order to encourage playful behaviour, the visibility, or synaesthetic approach to dispersing signals through different media; the play of exactitude and vagueness of forms; the quickness of sonic and visual phrases and the consistency that makes the environments coherent realities.

Irreal Universes

Another parallel with Calvino's approach is the quest for diverse forms to express visions, ideas and sensations of alternate universes, inspired by discoveries in contemporary science. FoAM's work is similarly inspired by scientific endeavours, especially the ones probing the fundaments of life and uncovering the inherent wondrous, sometimes even alien beauty hidden underneath common physical, biological and chemical processes. In TRG, we ventured to explore more quirky or abnormal phenomena in contemporary theoretical physics, that tend to occur on much smaller and much larger than human scales. One of the rather fertile theories in our research proved to be a very speculative M-theory, or Membrane Theory, proposed by Edward Witten as a contemporary “theory of everything”. The concepts from m-theory (and it's related hypothesis from physics and mathematics) that tickled our imagination were related to ideas of the universe being shaped by minuscule fields of energy (strings, branes), whose actions through time form into world-sheets, a reality being drawn through motion, but also:

  • unfolding of reality through 11 dimensions;
  • time as an inherent substance within matter;
  • malleability of the universe through knotting fluctuations of energy;
  • parallel universes (or branes), in which reality can be shaped by sets of utterly different physical forces, which can occasionally collide, causing massive reality shifts;
  • topological universe whose substance is a mushy dough, articulated by adding holes in the otherwise amorphous space, creating a reality shaped like a landscape of molten, multi-hole doughnuts;
  • continuous transformations of matter on a tiny spatial scale, in many curled-up dimensions;
  • and many more…

We set ourselves a task to imagine the world on a human scale that would have some of the fantastic properties described in M-theory. What would it feel like to be immersed in such a pliant universe, and being able to perceive it with our ordinary 5 (or 6) senses, in real-time, here and now? How can you shape a world by actively participating and conversing with it? The imagination grew wild in the conceptual phase of TRG. Charts of possible worlds were drawn, stories written and visualised in comic strips, conceptual drawings and photographs.

We spent months reading through papers and articles about super-symmetry, shadow-matter, global scaling, gravitational lensing, knots and orbifolds. We tried to make sense of these rich theories, by translating some of the more speculative ideas for each other into stuff that could be touched, heard, seen, tasted and smelled.. Following the techniques of pataphysics, the science of imaginary solutions, the disparate theories and strange dreams formed into a tangled system possible worlds. Slowly, the fog in our heads began dissolving, allowing brief glimpses into an irreal and imaginary universe that could provide a temporary dwelling for anyone with a wish to experience a strangely familiar, but slightly alien world;

The TRG reality is a compacted universe a physical force model. It unfolds, expands and curls based on the energy levels within its perimeters. The more kinetic energy is thrust into it through large movements over bigger distances, the more the world's spatial scale increases, while it's dimensionality decreases - becoming colossal 1-2 dimensional sheet that stretches towards infinity. Featureless, but big. The more potential energy is generated by the subtle movements, touches, iteration and repetition of gestures and meanings, in more dimensions the universe unfolds, increasing in richness and decreasing in scale (similar to discovering the complexity of smooth rock under an electron-microscope).

The dynamics of this world lays in a continuous transformation between 'infinite membranes' through 'entangled worldsheets', to 'charged tissues'; smooth reality skins, slowly undulating through a vast emptiness, which should make the players feel very small, and their influence disappear as quickly as a veil of smoke. Inflated from these thin translucent worlds are the tangled and tentacled landscapes, that sway and knot, repulsed or attracted to the player's movements. Unfolding further reveals a frothing, electrified system, pulsing to reflect the energy of the universe becoming denser and sparser, responding to the play occurring within it…

“Not a dense, opaque melancholy, but a veil of minute particles of humours and sensations, a fine dust of atoms, like everything else that goes to make up the ultimate substance of the multiplicity of things.” Italo Calvino

8 realities

While conceiving the transient reality we looked at different historical conceptions of 'the way the world works' and how it's reflected in understanding what reality is and how (human) consciousness deals with it. The most resonant of recent theories seemed to be the exo-psychological model put forth by Robert Anton Wilson and Timothy Leary in the 1960s. According to Wilson and Leary, there are as many realities as there are neuro-anatomical structures for the processing of signals in the brain. They suggest that our brains, societies and realities evolve through 8 circuits: bio-survival, emotional-territorial, dexterity-symbolic, social-sexual, neuro-somatic, neuro-electric, neuro-genetic and neuro-atomic. Our contemporary societies tend to converge between the 3rd and the 4th circuit, while the developments in science, technology and cultural production should allow the societal organisation to evolve to the 5th (psycho-somatic) circuit. The 5th circuit implies a 'body-consciousness', through which we are more aware of our sensory perception of reality, and learn to respond to direct (natural) signals, unburdened by mere survival or sexual strategies. Reaching the 5th circuit means beginning a dialogue with the environment around us, thereby perceiving that we are necessarily intertwined with all its features and processes.

In this context, we see the TRG environments as thresholds between the 4th and 5th realities, in which the participants can become more sensorialy aware, developing a bodily, or embodied consciousness of the interconnectedness of everything (think of Leibniz's dynamics of monads). In TRG, there is no need for complicated verbal explanations that can often lead to misunderstandings and distance between the speaker and the listener (especially considering the native and non-native language boundaries, that we face each time we develop environments in countries whose languages we don't speak). Bodily gestures and playful interaction are the places (events) through which the rigid borders between people, spaces and imaginations can become semi-permeable membranes sensitive to stimuli from both inside and outside the system (similar to concepts put forward by Varela and Maturana, such as structural coupling and perturbations of two or more autopoietic systems).

The universe that we attempted to shape within TRG in order to make the leap into the 5th reality was designed around 5 main traits; compact, alive, entangled, charged and infinite. By being compact, we implied magnifying a minuscule universe that can be found in a grain of sand, in which every point in one dimension can contain a world so rich, yet so invisible to a casual passer-by. A reality that is alive should be aware of itself and of your presence within it, as well as be able to engage in shaping it's own (emergent) patterns and dynamics. An entangled universe is knotted and continuously tangling and releasing its constituent components, thereby transforming its overall shape. By being in constant fluctuation / oscillation, the transient reality appears charged, so that even when it's locally stable, globally it might be quite turbulent and appear on the verge of descending into noise. The infinity of the TRG environments propagates through it's edges; although the environments are designed as self-contained pods, they leak their substance through their semi-permeable skins, that extend as far as possible into the everyday reality, in order to make the transition between the circuits/brains/realities smoother.

'I think that that 'intelligence' is something that people thought about too much, you hear very often when people start thinking about technology in relation to space, they first think about intelligent environments and environments that think. For me what is a bigger issue is richness and the fact that we can construct systems that are as rich as the world itself. I’m interested in things like spaces that can embody that kind of richness in a more or less literal way, by translating from other natural systems and modifying and changing them, or possibly embodying natural aspects of other spaces. It’s augmenting presence in a meaningful way that we're interested in, rather then reduction of natural processes or movements. So it’s more about transformation and forging connections then about sculpting things or synthesizing intelligent agents.' Yon Visell

The translation

The most challenging task for the TRG team was the materialisation of myriad of conceptual worlds to a corporeal scale and through empirical experiments (mostly based on design heuristics of trial-and-error). Our means of expression were the multiplicity of forms that Calvino talked about in '6 memos…' (sound, image, tactile texture of a material, food, dialogue…). We set processes in motion that would allow this multiplicity to compose together so as to provide a 'total', or 'synaesthetic' experience, stretching through and between the senses.

Our senses mediate our interconnection with the world, dominated by sight and skin, tuned by sound and enhanced by taste and smell. Our skin stretches over the thin extremities of the nervous system, forming a localised interface to the environment. Our sight articulates distinct shapes from a continuous field of reality. Hearing ranges from the low, dampened, tactile vibrations to squealing pulses at higher ranges of frequency. Smells and tastes can be differentiated into illusive nuances, appealing to our subconscious memories. The less defined sensing of emotions (feeling that the atmosphere of a conversation grows angry, bored, excited, relaxed…) weaves an intangible thread through the fabric of an event, thereby influencing our experience of social situations. The synaesthetic manifold that seeps into our bodies through the network of senses, is analysed, modulated and adjusted continuously to such a degree that we perceive ourselves as immersed in the world. We have learned to live and act in this world since our childhood, so that we are able to intuitively grasp the mutual impact between the world and our existence in it. With TRG and other responsive environments, we take advantage of this inherent knowledge and develop systems that can operate in a similar, continuous, immersive fashion. We are interested in systems/environments which can sense (rather than detect) not just presence or absence, but the range and subtleties of human gestures and interactions.

One of the important questions in our design is 'how can a continuum of events in a given space be perceived as an immersive, rich reality?'. Following Merleau-Ponty's writings about perception as a bodily contact with the space around us, we rely on people's perceptual abilities to experience multi-sensory stimuli as a coherent whole. The tools and methods used to shape different media are still separated, and their results still produce separate entities (a visual projection, an architectural element, a sonic wave…). However, we can perceive the environments that contain the mixture of media and materials as a consistent reality, a mongrel between computational and corporeal universes.

Why are we attempting to mix realities in such a way? In order to encourage both the development and the experience of these works to loosen the boundaries of normalised perception and encourage active participation in shaping of each other's experience. We are particularly concerned with disrupting visual perception, that is known to create distance between the observer and its object of observation. Instead, we are trying to amplify to sensory experiences that are inherently responsive - when I touch something, it necessarily, simultaneously touches me back.

The things that are touched, tasted, seen and heard in our environments are of both physical and digital nature, both actual architectures and virtual spaces. These zones may appear vague or indeterminate horizons to a casual visitor, but if you pay them enough attention and commit to a certain amount of time within them, they can become rich and articulate. The key to experiencing a transient reality to its full potential is to get rid of as much cultural baggage as possible and open the passages between the senses, while carefully exploring the space. Slowly, the more detailed and subtle qualities of the reality unfold. For some, in order to experience the transient reality means that they have to understand 'how it works'; for others, they discover the inner workings of the space through social play and learning; for others again, a solitary play, a dialogue between the space and themselves is crucial. Therefore, we make no recipes or instructions that tell you what to do once you enter the space. We also don't test your intelligence, or your ethical background to know what is right and what not. There is no right nor wrong in TRG spaces, but there is always an influence, more or less obvious, more or less discrete.

The TRG core team worked together for several months translating these fragile dreams into a modular, responsive environment, that can be adapted to different spatial, financial, cultural and ecological conditions. We massaged the concepts until they secreted essences that we could use in the design of the soft architecture, the graphics, the sound and the logic behind the world, the costumes, the transition between the everyday and the transient reality in performance, interiors, foods and drinks. Most importantly, we never ceased to strengthen the connections between all the diverse media, materials and events that made up the TRG environment. The glue that made it possible to stick the separate components into a consistent reality-field was the sense of touch. The physical elements (such as costumes, stretchable and inflatable architecture, varied tactile forms and textures) were shaped to amplify their tactile qualities, e.g. smooth, wet, pocky, solid, unbalanced. The soundscape echoed as a multitude of atmospheric vibrations propagating through different volumes and surfaces (as a wind passing through tensed silk, as a swarm of sonic grains bouncing within the vacuous chambers of the rubber blob…). The graphics changed lightness and density of the space, making the air appear thicker or sparser…

Imagine your movement extending into ruptured surfaces and relentless, tentacled curvature. Sonic fields splattering into (re)modulated and (un)structured light. Strange shapes brushing against your skin, destabilizing your motion. You feel your limbs slowing down, until you carefully crawl on a smooth surface of a large pliant membrane and dare to touch the fickle world around you. Through the bumps and craters, pocky skin and viscous liquids, you can feel it touching back, becoming aware of your intentions, opening up its secrets and allowing you to affect its physical forces. Attracting, repulsing, binding and transforming the fundaments of the world, you gradually grasp the dialogue forming through the stormy fingers of this world. You feel a nauseating disruption of your visual perception, as the empty space in between physical objects begins filling up with elusive imagery of bubbling, luminescent membranes, whispering in deep tectonic voices. Unable to orient yourself using your eyes and ears, you rely on your sense of touch begin traversing the space…

Public experiment in Kibla

The first instantiation of this responsive environment was constructed in Kibla's freshly renovated gallery Kibela in Maribor, Slovenia. In the winter coloured town and smoke veiled cyber-cafe, we worked for a month to develop a site-specific experiment, that could accommodate people from all ages, both genders, a variety of social backgrounds, with and without mental and/or physical disabilities.

We presented the experiment as a whole environment, but also an event, that had a particular flow, designed to allow people to relax and open their minds to an unknown experience. The flow began in the bar, with a few drinks, specially designed snacks and cocktails. There was a limited amount of people who could be in the space at the same time, so a hostess would come and get you when your time had come. Behind a stretched fabric wall, you were asked to remove your jackets, bags, shoes and socks. Sometimes we would blindfold people before they could see what was happening inside. We would guide them to a seat and assist them with putting their legs in a warm, bubbly water within a foot-jacuzzi. After several minutes, the massage-girl would dry your feet and lead you to a more comfortable cushion, where she would massage your feet, tell you your foot fortune and put on a pair of fresh socks. Another hostess would take over at this point, explain what you can expect in the space (the space responding to your actions) and that she was going to equip you with a new head, through which you can see only the projected part of the space; that it the space was unstable, but that it was ok to fall. S/he would lead you during your first steps in the space and leave you to explore. Once in the space, people danced, slept, jumped, crawled, got lost, listened, watched, played, touched and laughed (a lot!), while being sensed by the computational system driving the dynamics of the space. Their actions were translated by this system into perturbations of the sonic and visual fields that surrounded them in the space. The fabric architecture was similarly malleable and responsive to every movement. There were no rules (except that violence towards other players and the space was not tolerated), and no time-limits. At the end of the experience, you could re-enter the space and explore it without the 'head' (which gave the players a much more analytical experience of the environment and its constituent elements). After approximately one hour committed to the space, you would exit the entrance area, usually after a good chat to the people involved in the project, lots of hugs and 'thank-yous'.

We explicitly called TRG an 'experiment', knowing that the nature of responsive works is that you require a public to be able to test your initial hypothesis, and that it is often the case that you find a lot of loopholes in both your environmental and technological design that it does not work the way you imagined it. Therefore, even when the environment opened to the public, we were still developing and adapting the system (as well as repairing the too fragile parts of the physical components). Formally, we worked with an anthropologist-designer to find what people really thought of the experience. Informally, most participants were willing to share their enthusiasm and their thoughts with us, allowing us to incorporate their suggestions in subsequent versions of the project. Both these sources confirmed that the gap between our intentions and people's experiences was non existent, which was our aim. The experiences more or less matched conceptual, ethical and aesthetic aims that we set ourselves in the beginning of the project. However, similar to the development process, where all involved felt that we never even approached finishing touches, the participants kept coming back, bringing new people, exploring other parts of the space, or just popping in for a TRG drink. For them, as for us, generating transient realities became a never ending (possibly utopian) adventure.

  • transient_realities_or_verges_of_con-fusion.txt
  • Last modified: 2015-04-06 13:54
  • by nik