What do we really mean by ‘digital culture’? It’s a problematic phrase. It’s kind of like ‘digital marketing’ or ‘digital technology’: the actual landscape that these terms operate in is so thoroughly digitised that the ‘digital’ in it is becoming redundant.
Between 20-29 October (rn) Frequency Festival 2017 is bringing ten days of free digital art and events to the medieval streets of Lincoln, loosely based around this idea of ‘digital culture’. The lead project, Log Book by Assemble and Common Ground, is somewhat not-so-digital, but hypnotic nonetheless. It involves four woodworkers slowly and solemnly turning a pile of felled logs into roofbeams in front of an audience in an ancient cathedral.
The ‘performance’ is theatrical without any sense of forced theatrics. Some of the stages in the process are explosive (i.e., hacking axes) whilst others are tender, borderline loving even – the careful, measured movements of smoothing the surface out, dancing with the grain. It’s seductiveness lies in the same impulse that’s driving us towards slow TV, that electrifying point at which something becomes so meditative that it’s thrilling. The roofbeams will form a new piece at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and the entire process is being documented to produce a book.
The rest of the programme has much more bytes, pixels and 1s/ 0s. Digital art often makes a point of using emergent technologies to try and expose the problematic relationships we often have with all things digital. The problem with this is that it’s predicated on the idea that there is a ‘human’ world and a ‘digital’ world, and that the extent to which we participate in it is something that is entirely up to us, without any repercussions for how we live in the ‘real’ world. Realistically that’s not the case.
We’re already so tangled up that we’re far past the point of going back; ‘human’ and ‘digital’ are not a binary but a codependent system (as good sci-fi has always understood). The art operating in this realm that really does something to us already understands this, and seeks to augment the way that we use and understand the digital aspects of ourselves. It encourages us to move towards emergent technologies mindfully rather than running from them blindly.
One of the pieces that did this best was Living Sculpture (Virtual) by Laurence Payot (coded by the far-too-humble Ashley James Brown). Two people stand either side of a glass table fitted with sensors, and use their hands to bring together an undulating sea of projected stars into long strands, that eventually form a gorgeously rippling fabric made of hundreds of floating points. The catch was that trying to move too quickly or out of sync broke the spell and redispersed the stars, encouraging us to slow down and focus. It showed something beautiful and entirely digital, that could only be revealed through slowly and patiently working with somebody else.
Whist (by AΦE) is an hour-long VR experience in which you are subjected to a variable sequence of 360 videos that literalise bits and pieces of Freud, performed by a dance/ physical theatre troupe. To cue the videos, you walk around a church wearing a VR headset (with a live and extremely disorienting feed of what’s in front of you), searching for different sculptures that will cue the videos when aligned with an overlay of the sculpture in your field of vision.
The best part about it is this blend of the virtual and the exterior realities, creating a warped relationship with the space you move through. You’re in the physical space of the church yet the digitisation of your vision places you outside of it, and that distance creates a heterotopic space in which you become more susceptible to the violent Freudian probings of the 360 videos, which are pretty difficult to describe here but basically an RGB colour space rendering of Twin Peaks’ Red Room.
The final highlight is Deep Data Prototypes _1, _2 + _3, set in a stunningly lit bunker. This piece, that straddles astrobiology and art, consists of three living ‘experiments’, in which basic (yet very hard) living organisms or plants are subjected to different environmental conditions taken from real planets outside of our own, such as magnetism, gravity and light colour. It’s got that uneasy beauty of Alien, with a blend of cold and warm light washing over cleanly designed lab equipment very much like Krzysztof Wodiczko’s lab design work; all soviet function yet stunning to look at. These ‘experiments’ are obviously morally problematic on paper but it does raise big questions about the viability of Life on Mars, our role in intervening in evolution, and the space between the biological and the technological in information systems.
Although some of the programme felt a bit sprawling or disjointed, Frequency delivers enough solid installations and experiences to make it worth the trip over to Lincoln. As we become more and more synchronised with all things digital, it offers a good playground for us all to work out what we can do to keep that relationship colourful.
Frequency Festival 2017 is taking place in venues around Lincoln until 29th October. It is produced by Threshold Studios, the University of Lincoln, Lincoln BIG, Visit Lincoln, and Lincolnshire One Venues.
Jacob Bolton is a writer and music producer based in Liverpool. T/I @bacobjolton.