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Leaping into the Bluetoothed Maw of the Future

I write this post from the massive WIRED NextFest that is taking place this weekend. The fest is a technological orgy and covers developments in the fields like healthcare, energy, transportation, entertainment, and of course, robotics. Droves of gawking onlookers, eyes glazed with childlike fascination, flock between exhibits and demonstrations in the massive Javits Convention Center. In the foyer, about a dozen people strum the invisible laser beams that serve as chords of a “lunar harpsichord” to make an eerie collective sound. Past that, videos documenting medical breakthroughs in molecular probes that identify diseases directly from genealogical makeup preemptively remind me of Gattaca. Next to that, a man runs his hands across a table, which is in fact an interactive desktop, to easily and seamlessly manipulate a birds eye view of Manhattan, as shown in Google Earth. On the other side of a curtain, a video simulation shows a man in his virtual kitchen in the year 2037, with a completely integrated interface that renders manually frying eggs a thing of the past.

These first few examples were among the more logical and impressive applications of technology to our daily lives as shown at NextFest. As I continued, though, I was somewhat disillusioned to find that the future of design lies in gratuitously interactive vending machines on which, if compelled, one can solve puzzles that upon completion play a congratulatory video. NEAT! The representative was quick to point out that the machine had two vending bays when one gentleman asked, “Isn’t this just going to piss off the guy behind me that wants to buy a soda?” Good thing, that.

Immediately adjacent to this technological wonder was the “Hug Shirt,” a futuristic, skin-tight, Bluetooth enabled garment with a network of sensors that, theoretically, simulate a personalized hug for the wearer. Designed for long distance relationships, distanced lovers adorned with their own Hug Shirts will soon be able to hug themselves to record and send eachother virtual embraces via cell phone. The implications are staggering.

One thing that cheered me up was seeing the designers of a future doorway scramble frantically to remedy a series of malfunctions that made their contraption utterly useless.

After spending an hour or two on the floor, I was filled with mixed reactions from all of these indications of our technological trajectory. On the one hand, advances in medicine, from three dimensional CT Scans to prosthetic augmentations designed to aid the sick and disabled as well as greener energy solutions that better utilize natural resources like wind, hydrogen and solar energy. On the other, completely useless novelties thinly disguised as progressive and beneficial that fed off of the wide-eyed enthusiasm of technophiles wooed by shiny gadgetry. Another disturbing element to the show was the corporate presence: young, entrepreneurial companies trying to stake their space in the financial markets of the future as well as the central General Motors exhibition advertising genuine interest in greener, cleaner vehicles for the benefit of the globe. I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that they were operating off of a different motive generally associated with the color green.

Nextfest was the violent collision of man’s ceaseless pursuits towards progress, self-preservation, efficiency, elimination of boredom, and absolute power. What I question is the deep conviction in our societal progress through what struck me as technological masturbation.

In a brief conversation with John Schott, he explained to me his vision of the future of the art world in conjunction with all of the wondrous breakthroughs on display. I wasn’t sure how to respond to his statement, perhaps out of a current sense of contentment or a lack of foresight or I don’t know…but the more I think about it, the more it strikes me that he is probably dead on in his assertion. It will take time to warm up to the idea after being a little overwhelmed today, but at the same time, part of me belives in the vast spectrum of possibilities using the tools of the future. My apprehension lies with the intention of the engineers, artists, and visionaries who will harness the power of our collective imagination and lead us onward - hopefully into a future that focuses on the well being of the planet and its inhabitants instead of the wanton elimination of minor burdens and advancement of consumer novelties. Time will tell..
Highlights from the Frick & the Whitney :

The Forge by Goya

St. Jermane by El Greco

Girl with a Beach Ball by Roy Lichtenstein (shitty image quality does this little justice)

Woman in an Armchair by Picasso

Artist's Studio by Picasso

Sound Art (of Various Sorts)

After a day of rest on Monday, we met with sound artist and scholar Alexis Bhagat for a stroll around the city. When we arrived at our first destination, smack in the middle of Times Square, Alex sat down on a grate above the subway and beckoned us to listen to a sound that was eerily resonating from somewhere within the bowels of the city. As it turns out, sound artists of old had installed a transmitter somewhere under the streets that emits, to this day, a constant pitch that most people either a) assume comes from passing subway trains or b) don’t notice at all. Despite a rather distracting photoshoot that was taking place on the same traffic island, we took ten meditative minutes to bask in the din of Times Square and reflect solely on the sounds that were shifting around us as well as the tone emitting out from under the grate.

We then took a train for a session in the mysterious Dreamhouse, a sound art installation sealed up in a second floor apartment above Tribeca. Inside, the space was completely bathed in violet light and contained two rooms. In the smaller room, a rectangular sculpture was mounted beneath a red and a blue light that were aligned to disorient the viewer’s sense of geometry and depth perception. The main room was completely empty except for four large speakers in each of its corners and a shrine for a bearded mystic who was explained to be the former guru of the installation artist. The sound art of the installation came in the form of a very precisely conceived and invasive frequency that has not ceased in roughly twenty years. I observed my unusual surroundings, laid down on the carpet, promptly fell asleep, and woke up an hour and a half later, before we came to our senses and trudged down the stairs.

Now, due to unfortunate aural and visual distractions, I was unable to pay as close attention as Alex deserved, so I remain incredibly confused as to the nature and purpose of sound art, but he had a great deal to say of other matters. Alex’s enthusiasm for the poetic and the esoteric carried him through lengthy and lively discourse, ranging in subject matter from the definition of music to the impossibility of presenting an authentic voice due to the collective, interactive nature of humankind. Several students went on to dine with him and, as I understand, compiled material for a sort of documentary which I will eagerly await, but I had a prior engagement: an eagerly anticipated Dirty Projectors & Grizzly Bear show at the Bowery Ballroom.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the Dirty Projectors on stage, but their haphazard, structure-defying sound translated remarkably well. They kept things interesting with lots of maddening time signatures, the odd, whiny wail of the singer, who plucked at a right-handed guitar upside down and left-handed, and irregular drumming that lead the group through the peaks and valleys of their inverted soundscape.

They fit quite well with Grizzly Bear, who came on and played a modest but absolutely beautiful set. Clarinets, flutes, and for one song, the violin of Final Fantasy’s Owen Pallett culminated in breathtaking harmony with the swooning arrangements and vocals of frontmen Edward Droste and Daniel Rossen. Grizzly Bear’s elegant restraint shined in songs like “Colorado” and “Knife” before exploding in the blissful closer “On a Neck, on a Spit” and an untitled new song that had me begging for more.

Up next, on our last night in the city, an evening with John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats…


Saturday, more or less

This past weekend, our group served as volunteers for a festival of urban games called “Come Out & Play.” Expectations were admittedly low going into this program, and most people adopted a wait-and-see approach to the weekend’s festivities, with descriptions ranging from widespread games of tag to stock trading simulations to intricate cloak-and-dagger games of cellular espionage. Many games were inventive adaptations using wi-fi and cellular technology, but not mine. I was assigned with leading two teams through a makeshift minigolf course that ran from Tompkins Park on the Lower East Side to Union Square.

The game was called Manhattan Megaputt. Its creators, Dave and Dustin, plotted a 10-hole course that ran through the colorful streets of St. Mark’s. The more interesting holes included what was essentially a footrace between the two teams, a live “goalie” that deflected putt attempts with a hockey stick, a NERF gun ambush, and the grand finale, a race through the first floor of Barnes & Noble to find the answer to obscure clues dealing with surprisingly obscene children’s books. Dave and Dustin were not without a sense of imagination, but I couldn’t help but question the academic merits of what I did for three hours that afternoon, especially after the novelty of commanding geeky grown men and women to race after bright little pseudo golf balls began to wear off. I felt like a summer camp counselor leading children through tasks that were almost as time-consuming as they were menial. Even after being immersed in New Media’s various iterations and applications for two weeks now in New York, I couldn’t for the life of me relate what I was doing to anything remotely resembling the advancement of my New Media knowledge.

This isn’t so much a complaint as it is a lament. As our time in each city is as limited as the direction we are given with our projects, it was a fairly frustrating afternoon as a Manhattan Megaputt volunteer, and I left the Come Out & Play festival with a sour taste in my mouth.

After the academic day, however, I tried made the most of an evening downtown by seeing the French equivalent of Sin City, Renaissance. Despite a fairly conventional storyline that echoed themes of fellow New Media-y features The Matrix and Minority Report, the film took advantage of the theater’s technical capabilities with breathtaking animation and loads of ear candy. Overall it was nothing to write home about, but worth seeing nonetheless.

After the movie and a failed attempt to see Akron/Family who sadly sold out the Tonic, the night began anew back at iHouse. Word of a party of an immense scale in East Williamsburg had spread and at around 1:30 in the morning I found myself in a cab speeding across the Williamsburg Bridge before finally arriving at the warehouse-type loft that held no less than 750 frenzied partakers. There were multiple sources of live music, huge video screens, art being destroyed as quickly as it was created, a lot of walking around dumbfounded, no shortage of spontaneous scenes of romance, and even a bit of dancing, but by 4 in the morning we decided to call it a night and staggered back to the nearest subway stop (about 45 minutes away) before finally arriving home, just in time to watch the sky start to turn to dawn.

Man, this city sure finds ways to keep one busy…