Finite State Fantasia at De Brakke Grond

The Finite Stata Fantasia is on exhibition at the moment as part of On Alchemy and Magic, a continuation of the original The Act of Magic show at STUK, Leuven now at De Brakke Grond in Amsterdam. I've made some pretty significant changes to the functioning of it for this iteration

The format of the installation has been changed to fit the space. From the beginning we were faced with the problem of not actually being able to fit the room inside De Brakke Grond. Including projector throw, the full installation requires around ten square meters of space. Instead the project had to be refigured. This was an opportunity to address some of the failings in the original installations. The most significant being that it was hard to 'get.'

Following the installations at STUK and STRP I'd interviewed the curators and various people associated with the project to gain feedback. This problem of not 'getting it' was addressed both times and is a self-contradictory problem. The piece is, to a degree, intentionally meant to alienate viewers. The sounds it makes are harsh at inhuman, the space is illegible. The project is meant to put the viewer inside the sensorium of a machine and for them to experience alienation and cognitive dissonance as the machine represented its interpretation of the space. I've always been hesitant as to how much explanation need to be given. Sometimes 'an invisible machine is moving around the space and making a point every time it hits something, including you' is enough to indicate what the audience is seeing and hearing, sometimes it requires deeper explanation. One thing that always came out was a need to understand what this process added up to. It's clear from the motion and dynamics of the presentation that something is happening, but what is the end result?

An example of a remeshed simulation from the second iteration of the project at STRP. 

At STRP I took the data produced form each simulation and ran it through an incredibly arduous rendering pipeline to produce re-meshes of the space. These meshes were made by taking the points produced in each simulation, calculating their normals - roughly, the direction the point faces - and running various different remeshing algorithms in MeshLab to get a model out of the other side.

This had a significant effect on audience interaction with the piece. During the last weekend of the STRP Biennale, the outputs were printed and, according to the feedback, the audience were immediately drawing comparisons and similarities between the two spaces. Both are inherently cuboid and indicate a relationship and it once the idea of the invisible machine is seeded, it's easy to see the connection.

For De Brakke Grond I decided to make this process live. This would give me the opportunity to break the process down into its constituent parts and draw a direct connection between them. For the Unity parts; the simulation and the point cloud, this is a relatively simple procedure of moving cameras around. The remeshing was more complex and relied on a lot of Python to connect Unity's output to Blender (I'm forever grateful to whoever instigated the idea of being able to right click on any Blender object to grab its Python code.) Additionally, a script is running in FFMPEG, which packages the images produced by each Blender render into a video file every day.

One simulation sped up 600%. The real simulation time is one hour. 

An example of a remesh, sped up significantly.

The obvious loss with this setup was the interactivity. Without the room to enter, there was no way to introduce human obstacles that play with the mesh and affect the way the machine is interacting with the space. To make sure that the simulations were varied and interesting, we introduced a script to the simulation that generated between zero and three random objects every simulation. These are simple shapes - cubes, cylinders, cones, spheres - generated at random that interfere with the space. In the above video you can in fact see the two spheres that were generated for that simulation in the last few seconds of the remeshing.

The piece therefore became more 'explanatory.' It's easy to see how the first screen leads to the second and the second to the third. As previously noted however, there are significant deviation which make little sense from the programming side. In the video above for instance, the machine appears to become 'stuck' to the surface of one of the spheres in the simulation. This results in a knotting of the space around increasingly smaller and denser movements. The way the Blender Point Cloud Skinner algorithm works is that it weights points that are closer together heavier and gives them preference, so the entire mesh appears to start knotting and contorting around the trapped machine.

The concern here is also that the piece is too explanatory. The conceptual basis of building an experiential installation that intentionally tries to alienate human beings is lost on something that is essentially a debugging tool for human legibility.

Next year The Finite State Fantasia may be worked up into a much larger version but for now, after De Brakke Grond it's being parked. Working with simulation tools as a way to bring ideas of computation into an experiential installation was an interesting new approach but I'm not entirely satisfied by the audience-facing nature of it. All the iterations are a way to create dialogue with other humans, using the machine as a prop, and I'm more interested in examining the critical structures of the machines themselves in a wide historical context - why certain machines are a certain way, what does this indicate about future shapes of human space?

FSF I have no idea

I'm just setting up the new Finite State Fantasia ready for the who next week at De Brakke Grond. It's something that I've had my stuck in for the last few months while I've been building it and taking it around Europe.

Due to the space constraints here it's had to be radically reimagined for exhibition and so I've ended up taking a bit more of a systematic, 3rd-person way of showing it. Something that is maybe a little less experiential and mysterious but tells you more about the work and its process.

The irony is that I've been looking at it for the last few hours and I had no idea what it's doing. Everything's calibrated and working properly but the emergent properties of this new setup mean that it's almost totally illegible to me. I can see things happening, but I don't know why they're happening or what's making it work in a way that is completely unexpected. I suppose having set it up I had a real strong idea of its function and so was never really that in awe of it. I would struggle to explain its actions now if someone asked. Which is genuinely great.

Blackout In Render Street

I've recently been thinking about the structural and computational limits of rendering. I've written a lot previously about how this media is rapidly become a key popular orientating mechanism for the future, but unlike print, it obviously has dependencies. Then I was going to write a blog about it, then I wrote a story. ...

The flickering lights on the nearby crane, diffused by the thick city air, caught her attention. It was coming up to 9pm and the evening brownout would be up soon with power cut to non-vital services. During winter there were four a day, each for an hour and she was constantly amazed at how quickly the city had adjusted and normalised this dramatic infraction over the last two years. Gazing out of the window over her laptop into the never-dark of the city she glared pointedly at the ever-shifting urban landscape. The rapidity of construction was staggering but it was hard to remember it being any different, adjusted and normalised as everything in the city was.

She examined the site in front of her block; a massive pit of gravel and half-finished foundation that extended to the next street over. Trucks and machinery littered the site and huge halogens illuminated the ground casting harsh and perfectly black shadows under the machines and concrete and wire. All ringed by the defensive palisade of the standard 8 foot construction hoardings. ’What used to be there?’ she wondered. Last week there was one crane, now three, next week… six? Who knew?

She walked past the site and others like it everyday. The buildings grew and changed, were demolished again and rebuilt all over again. The city was pockmarked with pits and piles of rubble and foundations forever. Her streetscape was mostly digital hoardings; glaring and glowing LED screens proclaiming property lifestyle choices. Smiling families catching frisbees in opulent green spaces that never seemed to materialise in the ceaseless churn of construction and deconstruction.

She flicked open a new tab in her browser and went to Street View. Entering the time machine, she scrobbled back through bookmarks from the last few months when the Google cars had been through; hoarding, hoardings, mesh fence, hoardings, hoardings, hoardings.. all the same but different. Eventually she found something. Five years back, the time before the hoardings had arrived. A nondescript, squat concrete block of two or three storeys receded from the road with a ramp leading up to the heavy wooden security door. No indication of what it was. A community centre or hall, maybe some shops or classrooms. It didn’t actually matter. She felt no personal nostalgia for the boring building. It’s just.

It’s just that it’s been five years since anything on this street had been real. Not a promise or a speculation, a future, a rendering or an investment opportunity. A future ever receding behind the CGI towers and greenscape. Five years since that squat concrete bulk of sink-estate architecture had been replaced by ‘City Living With A Wholesome Lifestyle’ or ‘Urban Choices’ or ‘Metropolitan Family Quality’ or ‘Quality. Efficiency. Living’ or ‘Completely Global. Completely Local’ or ‘Live Your Dream’ or ‘Living: Redefined’ or ‘The New Face of Iconic’ or ‘Celebrating Heritage, Creating Opportunity’ or, or, or…

She studied the concrete block on her screen. It sat, blissfully unaware of its fate, obscured by a mix of vegetation and the stretched distortion of the Google car’s camera. The trees were gone for sure. The block eradicated, how was it the same place? Google’s rendering made it so she supposed. Using her mouse, she tried to rotate around and zoom, find out more about the hideous little thing but to no satisfaction. She was stymied by Google’s limited data capture of the time and a generation of architecture that refused to broadcast any intentions.

She looked back out of the window. The hoardings on the site oppostie were still going, looping their kitsch little animations, the gleeful renders and future promises unaware of the brutal power cut on its way. Her laptop battery was charged in advance as always, the blackouts were scheduled and she was well-attuned to making time for them and normally she’d continue through the hour. But. She hesitated.

After a few moments she closed her laptop, put on a coat and left the flat. She descended the stairs and crossed the street.

She concentrated on the hoarding on the other side of the road from her apartment building door. From this perspective she could see none of the concrete foundations, rubble or machinery behind it’s dimming digital glare. In front of gleaming towers, on a glorious sunny day a young woman in sunglasses, gliding down a non-existent gravel path smiled back at her, her hand reached out, she laughed, beckoned and turned around. The CGI view panned up to the sky, the promised apartment towers gleamed in the rendered skybox, constructed from some foreign atmosphere. The view faded to white. ‘Live in Tomorrow’s City.’

She stepped over the road in the chill and quiet and walked over to the hoarding. The animation restarted. The woman walked towards her, smiled, laughed, beckoned, turned, the view panned. ‘Live in Tomorrow’s City.’ Fade to white. The animation restarted.

She moved closer, following the woman’s face as she smiled, laughed, beckoned. ‘Live in Tomrrow’s City.’ Fade to white.

Closer still. She reached out with both hands and touched the dirty surface of the hoarding layered with grime and soot from the street and the site. Smiling, laughing, beckoning. ‘Live in Tomrrow’s City.’ Fade to white.

Closer. Smiling, laughing, beckoning, ‘Live in Tomorrow’s City.’ White.

Closer. The image became blurred, the laughing, the beckoning, the tag line became enmeshed and blurred with the bright LEDs.

She felt the cool plastic of the hoarding touch the tip of her nose. In front of her eyes, a handful of impossibly bright LEDs struggled to maintain focus, blinding her and filling her vision. Somewhere else there was laughing, beckoning, ‘Live in Tomorrow’s City.’ White.

And then just gone. Just black. Her eyes adjusted. Her ears suddenly attuned to the absence of the gentle buzz of electricity. In front of her eyes, the LEDs resolved to dark grey bulbs and she could see the smudged brown of the dirt. No one laughed or beckoned. The future had turned black.

She stepped back, all along the street, the hoardings had cut leaving nothing but grimy screens. She was alone and the street was empty but it was more and less than that. It was empty of itself. As if she was looking at the shell of the street. It came form nowhere and belonged to anywhere. Cracked pavement, unmarked road, black walls. With only the blank LED screens becoming obelisks in her eye line she felt trapped. She looked at her hands, her fingers rubbed with the grime of the LED hoarding. Her hands were grey. She tried to remember the concrete block that stood here five years ago but could only summon Google’s rendering, an overcast day, trees, blurred edges where the software stitched the mediocre panorama into reality. She turned around in the grey, everything suddenly real between renders of past and future.

Then the most brilliant illumination. She saw her hands cast in shadows and white then blues and greens. Colours so bright and real, impossible reality.

Smiling, laughing, beckoning. ‘Live in The City of Tomorrow.’