Three Stings for Ryoji Ikeda

Thu 01 Jan 1970

Three responses to Ryoji Ikeda’s datamatics [ver.2.0], 18 April 2011
It starts like this; it starts with a beep and a flash, lines, dots, falling from the top of the screen on the stage in and out of phase with each other. There is a screen on the stage and speakers beneath our seats and I begin falling, I’m not sure what I am falling into yet, but I’m tired and I’m moved, I’m moving and falling in and out of phase with the work before me. Into the image and then out of it and strangely it feels a little like love, like you can’t quite catch the movement of things, as though you are deep inside something and then suddenly outside again, in and out of phase, like it might be… static…
A feather falls in front of the projector and I’m transfixed by this new phasing, a dead presence, imitating life, it falls as if to test the weight of the other falling, this falling has weight, it is in space and falls with a purpose separate to the electronic movements on the screen, static, feather lands, loud noise, pulse, head snaps up… static…

And now I’m experiencing a different sort of falling, as I’m falling into short sharp sleeps, I hear a pop song playing loudly through a wall, as though there is a party in another room. I open my eyes, and on the screen a void and intersecting lines, then… micro sleep, I’m a host opening a door to greet people and another song plays, I strain to hear it properly through the… Beep, I’m awake, I sit up and there on the side of the screen is a list of 22 + X +Y chromosomes and I’m aware of an enormously complex series of systems endlessly communicating, and even my sleepy system on the verge of it, continually communicating, in and out of phase.
– Madeleine Hodge

Specks collapse into swarms, grids recede into galaxies.  We are hurtling through space.  In Ryoji Ikeda’s datamatics [ver.2.0] data moves fast – lines and dots of light on dark, or dark on light, career through infinity on a giant screen.  The visuals are matched by abstract electronic sounds, rhythmic pulses so deep and loud they make your bones shake.  And the effect of the whole is truly bodily – a technological landscape that stretches as far as your eyes can see and your ears can hear; right to the edges of your imagination.

The concert hall is full of people with their faces turned earnestly to the screen.  We are bathed in its eerie, computer light, and for a moment it’s easy to believe we’ve all been hypnotised by a technological superpower.  But there is something comforting about this technology – something nostalgic in fact.  It reminds me of the filmic treatment of computers – a flashing cursor on the brink of dramatic denouement, an impossible process to reveal hidden secrets at the touch of a button.  Ikeda’s ordered, geometric shapes and purposeful beats are a metaphor for knowledge, without carrying the burden of information itself.  Each time you see a number or a letter you might recognise it flies quickly out of sight.  Here, information dances so fast that it leaps over representation.  It belongs to the mysterious order of pleasure of standing on top of a hill and watching a city spread wide beneath you – there is intelligence (of a kind) in there, but from this perspective, all you can see is a beautiful pattern.

Unlike a landscape, but like all other types of technological abstraction, the visual content of Datamatics has an implicitly diminished relationship with its human origin.  Or in other words: it must have a human origin, which means that its intelligence is not the same as ours.  Perhaps this is why the audience feels relatively free, in the formal setting of the Barbican’s main theatre, to speak alongside the performance, and to whoop and cheer when the frenetic pace gives way, for a minute or two, to the relief of white noise.  Instead of a collection of musicians or dancers on stage, this technological landscape is ours to roam through, interpret and discover as we will.   Precisely because it is inhuman, data does not compete: either with itself or with its audience.  Complicated streams of abstracted information scroll across the screen to form a display, rather than a performance.  The liberty comes from realising this display of computed patterns could stand for a universe or a cell, and because of that suggests both, and everything in between.

Another type of freedom dwells in the soundscape of Ikeda’s piece, which is not as abstract as it may seem.  In fact, it’s made from the collected beeps and whirs of daily life.  As such, it draws poetic attention to the constant noise of our ever-present technological guardians.  At one point, a low hum sounds while dots spiral on screen.  The dots melt into the milky way – but rather than the image, this illusion grows from the hum, which sounds just like the buzz of an aircraft’s air conditioning system.  And this, of course, is the sound of flying; I just never listened to it before.   Specks collapse into swarms, grids recede into galaxies.  We are hurtling through space.
– Mary Paterson

We have two maps.  Inside each of our brains, we have two maps of the world.

One is created out of sensation: textures, images, sounds, all running along neural pathways to distinct parts of the brain.  This is all the stuff we don’t have to think about: how we know how to avoid traffic, how we know that it’s a close friend whose voice we are hearing, how we keep from falling while we’re walking down the stairs into the Barbican concert hall.  And then there’s another map, our conceptual map.  This is the picture we build of the world when it’s not immediately at hand.  It’s this map that you access – that you are simultaneously ‘writing’ and ‘reading’ – when you give directions to a stranger, or as you’re learning a new city, or when you’re trying to figure out if that person partially reflected in the window of a passing car is you, or else someone who just looks like you and who is standing exactly where you are.

The first of these is how we are hard-wired to the world around us: electrochemical impulses from our skin and organs to the brain, or waves of light bouncing off objects and cascading through a sensory array, or the tingle of tiny filaments dancing in our ears.  The second is the realm of abstraction: that supposedly pure realm of reason and the Cartesian ordering of the world – though more recently recognised as a complicated overlapping of memories and desires.

In datamatics, these two realms are short-circuited.  My senses are over-capacitated with ordering systems that are at the limits of their processing speed.  My mind tries to reconstruct the source from the data, to build a picture of the original on which the on-screen information is based.  What is it representing?  How can I read this?  This one is a sequence of chromosomes; that data-set is correlated to the sound I hear by a rule that I ought to be able to perceive; this one is a map of the centre of our galaxy.  The data is a model of the world, and my brain tries to use it to build its own cognitive model.  It is a model of a model.

But it is not just information: it is information turned into energy, into sound and light.  Into sound so deep that I can feel it squeezing my ribcage.  Into light so rapidly patterned that I am aware of the chemical nature of my optical pathways.  Faced with all this information, as always, my brain tries to make its own map. But at the same time, Datamatics is mapping me: the contours of my physical body, the limits of my being, and my permeable presence in this room packed full of human organisms.
– Theron Schmidt