Next Memory City - Toronto: Venice
Curated by Michael Awad and John Knechtal
Canada's entry in the 8th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, 2002. Presented by InterAccess Electronic Media Arts Centre and Alphabet City. Works by Michael Awad, Eve Egoyan and David Rokeby. Commissioned by Kathleen Pirrie Adams. Co-curated by Michael Awad and John Knechtal. More credits available below.
Our traditional physical cities, newly brimming with digital information, have spilled over into a global inter-city. This Inter-city is built of high-bandwidth contacts between people and spaces. Recent capital investments in communications infrastructure have advanced this unfolding dimension of contemporary life, a place we experience as information charges on all kinds of screens. Currently barely visible at its full urban scale, but quickly developing, the Inter-city demands new strategies of perception and production. Next Memory City presents a deep glimpse into this uncanny locale. Three works – a very large-scale photograph of Toronto, video images of Venice, and sound recordings from both cities – form a triptych, and in its folds we encounter a place that is neither Venice nor Toronto. By displacing our experience of time and location, Next Memory City reveals previously invisible aspects of our shared urban existence. The fabric of emergent urban forms is here made momentarily real.
Next: It’s About Time
by Rodolphe el-Khoury
The curators of the Canadian exhibition in the 2002 Venice Architecture Biennale have taken a risk. The work they selected by Michael Awad, Eve Egoyan and David Rokeby would make a lavish, winning contribution to any art show but their frugality with literal architectural content is bound to raise more than a few eyebrows.
The architects are the most conspicuous omission. With the notable exception of Awad, the show features artists who have had but a marginal investment in architecture. The fact that they are interested in the city as subject matter doesn't bring them any closer to the discipline than a Manet or a Canaletto.
The unconventional choices may be taken to reflect an ambition for interdisciplinary breadth. But this is not the kind of show where architects hope to expand their scope with timid excursions beyond disciplinary boundaries. This one brings artwork, done by artists, to an architectural arena. It confronts architecture directly with something external, alien.
The virtual spaces of video and sound installation are familiar and of course welcome in a show on architecture. They are by now regular extensions of the "built environment." In a media-saturated world, the assumption that architecture primarily deals with physical objects is no longer tenable. It is increasingly hard to think of buildings independently of magazines, television shows, video games and surveillance cameras that alter and process them for consumption. The urbanity delivered in sitcoms like Seinfeld and Friends often precedes and inevitably inflects the experience of the "real" city. These shows have in fact been credited for the urban renaissance in North American cities; like a TV commercial, and far more effectively than buildings, they have sold the city to suburban consumers.
The pieces by Awad, Egoyan and Rokeby invent new forms of mediation to construct a different experience of the city. They demonstrate a capacity to design and control the reception as much as the production of the urban environment. The show suggests a series of potential shifts in architectural discourse – from fabrication to inhabitation, things to phenomena, promising a refreshing relief from the tyranny of the object and of formal innovation.
This is not to underestimate the formal ambitions of the show. The curators/artists have capitalized on the curving perspective of the Canadian Pavilion to orchestrate an animated sequence of visual and aural effects. The rhetoric of the Pavilion and the installation combined deliver a riveting mise-en-scene of urbanity. An architectural tour de force in its own right that speaks of the dynamic and complex nature of cities, if not of Toronto and Venice specifically.
But if there is a critical edge to this show, beyond a skilful deployment of unconventional media in the staging of urban atmospherics, it would have to be sought in the temporal rather than spatial features – features that are not readily recognized as architectural.
There are no buildings to speak of in Michael Awad's Chinatown. They have vanished behind the iconic red-and-white streetcars of Spadina Avenue and some pedestrians in the foreground. The monumental figure of Plaza San Marco is outstaged in David Rokeby's video projection where only moving objects are highlighted by means of digital processing. The installation by Eve Egoyan and Rokeby is strictly aural. Any building here would have to be inferred from the acoustical qualities of the soundscape.
Where static building masses are muted, evanescent characteristics of the living city are emphasized. This is most evident in Awad's work. His innovative technique reverses expectations inherent to photography – whose camera obscura origins are partial to immobility: anything moving is in sharp focus while the static is blurred beyond recognition. This is a consistent device in the show that defamiliarizes the ephemeral and fluid features of the city by imparting to them the kind of presence and solidity that is expected of architecture. The device is particularly effective in enhancing the perception of change in Rokeby's Seen. All change, even as minute as in a pigeon’s flight across the square, is picked up and registered in pyrotechnic trajectories. Seen is a documentation of time rather than space.
This show must then be recognized as a provocation: an assault on the hegemony of space, and the concomitant occularcentrism. It challenges the domination of space as both, the self-evident medium and all-inclusive subject of architecture.
Time has made sporadic and not so challenging appearances in architectural theory and practice, such as in radical instances of the picturesque and the Cubism-inspired experiments of modernism. But only recently have new media and technology begun to provide the tools that would allow designers to engage it dynamically. With Awad, Egoyan and Rokeby, it is now possible to expand on recent investments in program, event and scenario, to think of time as a workable medium where one could manipulate the vital but elusive fluidity of the city.
In an age where space offers no resistance to communication and when efficiency is measured in lag time and processor speed, architecture is poised for the conquest of time, the next frontier.
by John Knechtel
Let me reiterate: water equals time and provides beauty with its double. By rubbing water, this city improves time's looks, beautifies the future. That's what the role of this city in the universe is. – Joseph Brodsky writing on Venice in Watermark.
Venice is no mere city. The tight "cellular proximity" of its daily life and the dense stone of its physical forms encrypt a code that makes this city more than a city. For Brodsky that "more" is the ability to burnish time with its stones, to condense it into a cosmos through which a plentitude of temporal possibilities is released.
Brodsky's insight opens the triptych of artworks by Michael Awad, Eve Egoyan, and David Rokeby in Next Memory City. The triptych reads Venice in conversation with Toronto, a city of a profoundly different time and temporality, as the artists construct, almost one pixel at a time, an urban stage that fuses the life of two cities through high-bandwidth recordings of various types. Each piece torques our time-sense, and together they form a mise en scene which performs the times of both, and yet neither, city. Here we discover an Inter-city, a place we may have intuited but until recently could not have seen, experienced or even imagined.
Each of the three pieces has radical ambitions for pixels. In Awad's Chinatown, a photograph of Toronto's Spadina Avenue, the pixels move in tandem with the world they are recording (a moving-film camera winds the film, movie-style, ensuring the exposure, but the resulting image, filled with nothing but movement, is a "still") and trace the vectors of the atoms they represent. In Rokeby's Seen, pixels possess memory and affinity. They die off according to algorithms. In streams of video signal, these hyper-pixels shed a kind of temporal x-ray on the flows of Plaza San Marco. In Egoyan and Rokeby's Channel, arrayed pixels of sound preserve the physical volume of the objects the artists recorded in each city. The comparative dance and interpenetration of these sonic figures reveal the complex temporal character of both cities.
Awad's Chinatown is installed as a life-size, urban-scale photograph (2.5 metres high by 40 metres long). It performs three kinds of time. The mechanical time in which Awad's camera (designed and built by the artist, adapted from aerial reconnaissance and high-speed photographic technology) operates is the basis for the work: the film moves through the apparatus, exposing one at a time each vertical strip of chemical pixels on the negative. The chronological time of life on the street takes place around and in front of the camera. Awad's technique is the overlap of these two modes: only those things that move relative to the plane of the recording (people, streetcars) are captured. Stationary things (buildings, structures, background) are not recorded – they are smeared into oblivion by the movement of the film. So the last kind of time is the time diagram this photograph is, where we see revealed the relative vectors of the scene's mobile components.
Passengers on a streetcar, passing at a steady rate, register accurately. Pedestrians register according to their speeds and directions – an arm balloons into a spinnaker of fabric, two legs become a pair of tiny stilts. Someone streaks across the entire photograph in a banner of blue motion; another person is caught in a still moment peering inquiringly at the photographer. Her curiosity slowed her down and determined the shape of her recorded image.
When Awad's image was printed for the first time at the scale required for this exhibition, he was shocked to discover how much information it contained. Awad's technique – mechanical, analog, chemical – captures vast and subtle data fields. But it required the digital intensification of high-resolution scanning and a large-scale laser enlarger to make these intensely saturated pixels bloom.
Independently of Awad, and using only digital techniques, David Rokeby has spent recent years creating video images that separate what is moving from what is still. Rokeby builds perceptual machines, and Seen is just one iteration of one strand of his work. Each of his devices engineers a subtle and often disturbing experience for viewers. A machine plays music "plucked" by body movements in an otherwise empty room. A computer speaks uncanny poetry about objects it has never seen before. Computers, suspended in mid air, chatter and chant to each other.
Rokeby's visionary palette – a plastic, dynamic, roving rage of technique that blasts away obsolescent categories like "life" and "machine" – is driven by and grounded in his technological mastery. By designing new programming languages and building his own circuit boards, Rokeby invents de novo devices that push our perceptual range outward. Awad builds his own cameras by hand-tolling metal parts and mastering optics, and Rokeby does the same with software and soldering gun. Both generate images out of hyper-pixels engineered to include such things as memory and algorithms beyond their usual range (which is simply red-green-blue).
The strategy of saturating pixels with information comes spectacularly to life in Rokeby's Seen. Video signals are subjected to a variety of processes to track time's variants through the urban spaces of Venice. A broad shot of San Marco, for example, is split into two images: one shows only the dynamic, the other only the stationary. On the first screen, streams and whorls of human activity, their recent movements ghosting behind them in a fading trail, articulate the crowd and incite the nervous jumps and twirls of the square's other occupants, the pigeons; each pigeon's flight leaves a frame-by-frame track of its wing beats. On the second screen, the seemingly empty square is occasionally streaked with ghosts of activity.
If the time-pictures in Chinatown and Seen visually stage the large-scale temporal relations of life in urban settings, and reveal fundamentally different patterns in each city, Eve Egoyan and Rokeby's Channel achieves a complementary result in sound.
Using high-definition recordings of the urban soundscapes of Toronto and Venice, Channel creates an aural juxtaposition of the two cities. Eight speakers are suspended from the ceiling along the curved arcade. Within this space, Channel awakens the place-making potential of Next Memory City. With an involuntary compulsion, the viewers and listeners have no choice but to impose the sounds of Channel directly into the images on the surrounding walls, projecting an integrated world. Place-making is at that moment complete.
Each acoustic object – streetcar, gondolier, playground, café, cell tower, siren – is preserved as a four-dimensional sonogram. In the seamless architectural space of the installation, Channel builds structural sound.
The sonic figures penetrate both one another and the observers, disturbing the integrity of their bodies. Suddenly we are vaporous spectres – streetcars pass right through us, the voices of others appear to come from our own bodies. Next Memory City reveals the permeable, plastic contemporary life we are already experiencing but not registering – urban reality may be more, or less, than we had thought.
We increasingly live in places that are undergoing processes of cultural fusion and collision – our individual worlds have been irrevocably altered by the mixing of experience through travel, migration and now technology. And what we share, the public world, takes place substantially in a landscape of screens – screens embedded in every device and structure, screens projected on our pupils (or directly into our cerebral cortex). Even Kant's "starry heavens above" no longer mark a limit to experience – they are just another surface for projection.
The experiential framework created by Next Memory City offers an opportunity to more clearly perceive the current fluctuating realities of our life in common, and gestures towards an emergent public realm shaped by the technological, economic and social forces of urbanization and globalization. Next Memory City suggest what cities might be embedded in the pixels to which all of our fates are tied.
Next Memory City Credits:
Kathleen Pirrie Adams, commissioner
Kathleen Pirrie Adams has been the Program Director at InterAccess since 1997. She also teaches at Ryerson University in the New Media program. She received an honours BA from the University of Toronto and an MA from York University's Social and Political Thought program. Kathleen has published widely in the independent arts press and has curated many screening programs and new media exhibitions including: Appearance Machine by Willy le Maitre and Eric Rosenzveig (InterAccess), + Flesh: Augmentations of the Female Form (Pleasure Dome), Game Girls: Variations on the Holding Theme (InterAccess), Prior Art: Art of Record for Personal Safety: The Work of Steve Mann (Toronto Photographers Workshop). She works on the installations component of the Images Festival with Amanda Ramos and Deirdre Logue as Field Office, a collaborative team that develops urban exhibition strategies for media art.
John Knechtel, co-curator
John Knechtel is Editor of Alphabet City, a non-profit media company he founded in 1991, which is currently in the last design phases of its new volume, the 680-page Lost in the Archives (due out September 2002). In its first decade, Alphabet City has produced seven volumes as well as international conferences and now exhibitions. Knechtel has led the organization through a dynamic decade that saw the project develop from a newsprint tabloid to a visually sophisticated large-format book distributed internationally by DAP of New York City. He has been recognized in such venues as Vanity Fair, The Globe and Mail, and CITY-TV's Media Television as a leader of the cultural avant-garde.
Michael Awad, co-curator/artist – Chinatown
Michael Awad holds a Bachelor of Architecture, Master of Architecture and a Master of Urban Design from the University of Toronto. He is an Assistant Professor adjunct at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design. He has professional architectural experience in the offices of Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects and Shim/Sutcliffe Architects, and was curator of the 10 Schools of Architecture exhibition in 1995, commissioned by the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada and the Canadian Collegiate University School of Architecture. The exhibition travelled across Canada, the US and Great Britain. He later served for several years on the editorial board of the RAIC. In 1997, Awad was architectural advisor and Creative Director of Immersion Studio's first digital panoramic film. His first self-directed architectural project has been published in both the popular and academic press. As a professional architectural photographer, his client list includes many of Canada's leading architectural firms, institutions and publishers. Awad's landscape photography has recently been translated into a 3 metre by 300 metre-long public train station mural. His experimental urban photography has been exhibited at Toronto's Power Plant Gallery – Canada's preeminent contemporary gallery.
Eve Egoyan, artist – Channel
As a concert pianist, Eve Egoyan specializes in the performance of newly commissioned music. She is known for her ability to listen and communicate the unfamiliar directly to her audience. She has appeared as a soloist in works by many Canadian and international composers in numerous festivals across Canada and around the world; many performances have been recorded and broadcast by the CBC. Her first solo CD, thethingsinbetween, was included in The Globe and Mail's 1999 "Top Ten" list and her second CD will be released by CBC Records in 2002. She has created the sound world for Hedda's House by video installation artist Gunilla Josephson and has collaborated improvisationally with Michael Snow, Malcolm Goldstein and Martin Arnold. Egoyan has also been a member of the multidisciplinary ensemble Urge and is presently touring The Satie Project nationally and internationally with Dancemakers. Channel is the first collaboration between David Rokeby and Eve Egoyan.
David Rokeby, artist – Channel, Seen
David Rokeby is a Toronto-based installation artist and a winner of Canada's 2002 Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts. His works reflect his interests in visual perception, language, surveillance and the human body’s relationship with technology. These works have been exhibited extensively in a broad range of international venues. Rokeby's pioneering installation Very Nervous System has evolved into a system used by composers, video artists and medical facilities in many parts of the world. This September, Rokeby will be presented the Prix Ars Electronica Golden Nica, the most prestigious international award for interactive art.
Gilbert Li, graphic designer
Jennifer Harris, communications manager
Scott Berry, production manager
Ania Gorka, production assistant
Lisa Kiss, production assistant