How remote am I?

a review of re:mote
Auckland, 19 March 2005
commissioned by Rhizome

What does it mean to be remote in an electronic art world? This was one of the questions posed by re:mote, a gathering of digital artists and theorists in Auckland, Aotearoa (the Maori name for New Zealand) on 19 March 2005. Held in a geographically remote country, the event was an opportunity for local wired artists to meet face-to-face as well as an invitation to ponder the meaning of “remote” in the 21st century.

Re:mote was an event by and for artists, organised by r a d i o q u a l i a and ((ethermap. The first in a series of one-day experimental festivals, it was run “on the smell of an oily rag” (as we say here) and made possible in part by Adam Hyde's residency at the University of Waikato. Questions posed by the organisers included: are there 'centres' and 'peripheries' within a world increasingly bridged, criss-crossed and mapped by digital technologies? Can technologically mediated communication ever be a substitute for face-to-face dialogue? Is geographical isolation a factor in contemporary art production? Is remote a relative concept?

Fourteen presentations from new media art practitioners and theorists in Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand were squeezed into eight hours and ranged from a cosy midnight feast in Finland to a glimpse of the expansive Antarctic wilderness, and from musings on information from outer space to the virtual escape of a death row prisoner. Various methods were employed to connect remote (as opposed to re:mote) participants with those at the Auckland venue - the Elam School of Fine Arts lecture theatre. A live MP3 audio stream enabled the off-site audience to hear everything from the venue, and they could communicate through a text chat which was also used to convey an impression of what they couldn't see. QuickTime, Skype, IRC, iChatAV, iVisit and the Palace were among the applications used in different presentations.

The international speakers were scheduled first to accommodate their time zones, with Steve Kovats and Graham Smith from Rotterdam kicking things off. Visible via web cam, their presentation nicely illustrated their discussion on how telecommunication transforms the concept of distance from space to time. They were in the dark of Friday night, while we in Auckland were well into a sunny Saturday. Also still in Friday night and dressed in her best pyjamas, Sophea Lerner (an Australian new media theorist and artist currently studying in Helsinki) tucked into a midnight feast while elaborating on the promises and assumptions of remote communication. She proposed that the most interesting thing about a remote location is not the remoteness, but the location. This contrasted with the previous presentation's focus on time as the distancing element rather than space or location. Any location, whether it's the heart of a teeming metropolis or an empty beach in southern Aotearoa, can be remote when you're outside it, rendering it exotic, intriguing and desirable. It's the differences, rather than distances, that make a “remote” location interesting – and the unexpected similarities.

Lerner also addressed the concept of peripherality and how one can experience being peripheral in many different places, depending on one's perspective of the “centre”. Finland may appear peripheral to Europe, but from the New Zealand perspective it's almost in the middle of that centre. Contemporary politics place Europe and North America in the centre, but as the power balance shifts that centre may relocate to Asia or even cyberspace. Today's technologies release us from the geographical definition of centre, creating globally dispersed “peripheral centres” and “central peripheries”. Technology has penetrated even the periphery of Antarctica, as shown by Phil Dadson's presentation about his recent artist's residency there. A looping video of his shadow crunching across the endless white landscape, broken only by the bones of some unfortunate beast, removed not only all sense of place but also time. The simple act of filming his shadow on the ice placed Dadson at the centre of a peripheral environment.

Japanese radio pioneer and artist Tetsuo Kogawa spoke about technology and the body and gave a history of Mini FM, a project which aimed to tactically deregulate the Japanese airwaves by teaching people how to create and broadcast from their own free radio stations. During the 1970s and 80s, Kogawa held radio parties in Tokyo apartments where he taught people to build transmitters, broadcasting from the domestic periphery to the centre of the airwaves. Footage from these events reveal the political act of taking ones own space on the airwaves as also entertaining and community-building. His goal was to use radio technology not as a substitute for face-to-face communication but as a means to bring people together and to propose political and social alternatives. During re:mote, Kogawa also gave an audio performance and the following day led a mini FM transmitter building workshop.

Pre-recorded appearances were made by New Zealander Sally Jane Norman, who has lived in Europe since the 1970s, and Zina Kaye from Australia, who discussed her project “The Line Ahead”, which gathers data from airports to create LED signs in a gallery. Sally Jane Norman began with pre-internet architectures of performance, asking how physical gesture can invest digital space, and described the remote manipulation of space probes as “advanced puppeteering”. Achieving physicality within digital spaces alters the concept of remoteness; how remote am I if, from Aotearoa/New Zealand, I can physically move an object on the moon? Both air and space travel create bridges between centres and peripheries, destroying the relative remoteness of New Zealand in the space of a few hours and offering instead the greater remoteness of outer space.

The trials and tribulations of remote collaboration were addressed by a number of presenters including myself, Zina Kaye and Trudy Lane. Zina had encountered some difficulties in working with technicians located elsewhere, while Trudy's ongoing collaboration with mi2 in Zagreb (on the online magazine ART-e-FACT) works smoothly. Physically meeting your remote collaborators may make some things easier, but it's also possible to work successfully without meeting, as demonstrated by Avatar Body Collision. This work was presented by Leena Saarinen (in Finland), Vicki Smith (in NZ's South Island) and myself at the venue. Our greatest difficulty is in finding times when the four of us can be online together for rehearsals, but the advantages are many. We taste each others' geographical and social locations and are telematically transported from our peripheral homes to the centres of arts festivals and conferences. Returning to one of the questions posed by re:mote - Can technologically mediated communication ever be a substitute for face-to-face dialogue? – during four years of artistic collaboration, Leena Saarinen and I have never met, so technologically mediated communication is an excellent and necessary substitute for face-to-face. Our “remote” relationship is as real and valuable as if we had met, so how remote are we?

The variety of local presentations given during the afternoon illustrated the diversity of concepts of “remote”: a web site about a fictional nation state; universal nomadism and the generic city; “glocalisation”; and a multi-locational artistic picnic were among the projects discussed (for more information on all presentations see www.remote.org.nz). While these presenters were all New Zealanders living in New Zealand, their presentations had connections all over the globe - Lithuania, Croatia, Amsterdam, the USA. As an artist in the electronic world, living in an isolated location doesn't mean that your work must be of that location. There will always be some degree of local perspective, but sources and context are often global; this combination of local and global is “glocalisation”.

Live improvised audio performances were given by Tennis (London) in the morning, and at the end of the day by Tetsuo Kogawa, Adam Hyde and Adam Willetts. Tennis (Ben Edwards and Doug Benford) performed with a web cam showing them seated at their computers. As our off-site audience could only hear the audio stream, I provided them with a commentary of what we could see on the screen in the IRC chat. This created another level to the performance, and an extrapolation of remoteness: I was interpreting and relaying my visual observation of an audio performance back to a twice-removed audience, some of whom were in the same country as the performers and on the other side of the world from me. For the Auckland audience in the same room as me, I and my commentary became a part of the performance as well – yet the performers themselves were not aware of this. Thus at least three different performances were taking place: the audio performance given by Tennis; the sound, text and images experienced in the venue in Auckland; and the online version, consisting of sound and text. Reading the chat log several weeks after the event, the remoteness doubles again – comments on now unheard sounds and descriptions of vanished images are like shadows cast by an invisible body. This fascinating unplanned metamorphosis was a result of the event and our various layers of remotenesses. A briefer but related “performance” had occurred earlier in the day when Adam Hyde and James Stevens were speaking over Skype, but James had left his computer speakers on, generating an echo loop that took on an unstoppable life of its own.

My personal experience of re:mote was bound up with the technologies, both in my presentation (using the Palace and iVisit) and in my role at the keyboard as a “chat wrangler”, delivering commentary to the off-site audience. The off-site audience's responses to my descriptions of the visuals and the audio stream they were hearing are preserved in the chat log and offer a surreal perspective on the day. Once again, re:mote was answering its own questions, as the chat substituted face-to-face communication reasonably effectively and rolled our individual peripheries into the centre.

As someone who communicates and collaborates remotely on a daily basis, I always value the opportunity to work and collaborate in the same physical space with others. Creating such gatherings in far off places like Aotearoa/New Zealand is especially important, as sometimes we're so busy worrying about what's going on in the rest of the world that we overlook the wealth of activity happening locally. How remote are we when we know what our colleagues in New York, Amsterdam or Belgrade are doing but we don't know what's going on in Dunedin or Wanganui? Our perceived remoteness is embedded in the identity of the people of this small, distant and relatively insignificant country, and fuels a need to be a part of the wider world to counter this feeling of isolation. Yet one of the ideas that came through strongly during re:mote was the possibility to feel peripheral in any situation, and the individual relativity of a myriad of centres and peripheries which are now becoming bridged, mapped and interconnected by digital technologies.

Congratulations and thanks to Adam Hyde, Honor Harger, Adam Willetts and Zita Joyce for making re:mote happen; it was an intense, enjoyable and thought-provoking day. The second re:mote has just taken place, in Regina, Canada – unfortunately I was “remote” in the sense of being offline while on holiday so I was unable to attend, but I'm told it went well. Documentation of both events should soon be online at www.remote.org.nz and I'm looking forward to re:mote 3.

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