Engagement and contemplation: communicating data in media art installations

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  • Engagement and contemplation: communicating data in media art installations

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  • Artists Statement

    Australian artists Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski have collaborated on a variety of new media arts projects that incorporate interactivity and play as strategies for engaging with the social and political contradictions inherent in contemporary society. Their artworks are situated at the juncture of cinema, information visualisation and data mapping, playing off the tensions between the large and small screen, and between information and sublime landscape.

    Their installation Seeker won an Award of Distinction in Interactive Art at the prestigious Ars Electronica festival in Linz, Austria 2007. Seeker explores the themes of diaspora and displacement under late twentieth and early twenty first century pan capitalism. The installation consists of three large projections with an interactive touch screen component. Viewers can drag and drop nodes representing episodes of their own personal family migration history onto a global map. Contributing a history triggers an abstract animated visualisation of all previous visitors’ pathways. Seeker enables the viewers to engage with statistics through poetic, animated sequences that represent information about economics, natural resources, human populations and migration flows. The statistics were gleaned from various sources and then translated into animated curves looping over desert landscapes projected onto large screens. Representing statistics in this creative way allows the viewer time to contemplate the imagery while taking in the information.
    In 2008 Starrs and Cmielewski created a sound and video installation for the Third Guangzhou Triennial in Guangzhou China. This work included panoramic colour projections of the ‘Walls of China’ in Lake Mungo, Australia. Lake Mungo in Western New South Wales is Australia’s oldest Aboriginal archeological site as well as being used as a sheep station where Chinese indentured labourers worked in the 1800’s. The dunes and eroded sand formations on the eastern rim of the dry lake were named the ‘Walls of China’ by the labourers. The viewer’s movement around the installation space is tracked by sensors and an ambient spatial audio soundscape responds to this audience movement. Entering the space the visitor views a large suspended screen showing panoramic images of nightime desert landscapes. Each image floats gently back and forth across the screen, and as it moves it reveals another sublime landscape image. The visitor hears a subdued ambient soundscape evoking a desert night. As the visitor walks to the other side of screen the audio changes to evoke daytime in the Australian bush, and the screen shows panning images of Lake Mungo at sunrise.
    The sound incorporates field recordings from the Lake Mungo site, as well as voices speaking various texts, such as ship passenger manifests, excerpts from court reports and the names of Chinese immigrants who contributed to Australia’s early colonial development. These are not stories per se, but their accumulated affect is of an overwhelming sense of the flow of people. The audio on each side of the screen has a different ambience, reinforcing the distinctively different image tone and mood. On one side the ‘Walls of China’ at sunrise evoking new beginnings, and the other at sunset symbolising the subsequent restriction of Chinese immigration to Australia. In this installation data is communicated through sound, with the viewer’s movement driving the audioscape. When the viewer stops moving, the voices gradually fade away.
    Starrs and Cmielewski’s latest project, Downstream employs light box images and video projections on the floor to evoke river beds degraded through climate change. Colour coded spherical inflatibles thougout the space represent the carbon emissions of the world’s countries. Downstream is a media art installation that responds to climate change in ways that are mythical, biblical and chemical.