Thursday, May 19, 2016

On View: "Refining Realities" by VolvoxLabs

VolvoxLabs is a new media design studio run by Kamil Nawratil, Pa Her and Javier Cruz. “Refining Realities” was created in conjunction with VVOX collaborators, Ryan Kilpatrick, Zyia Zhang and Mariusz Navratil, Kamil’s father. Today’s post is written from the perspective of Benjamin, our Department of Publications intern, about the installation currently on display through June 19 on the Patsy Dudley Pate Balcony.

VolvoxLabs, Refining Realities, 2016
As an art student at the University of Georgia, I particularly enjoy delving into the complexities of obscure and intellectually challenging works of art such as “Refining Realities.” In this case, I find it fitting to address the installation through the lens of an individual’s evolving experience. Through this personal journey to find meaning in the work, I hope to explicate paths of understanding to emotionally connect with an installation with a life as complex as our own.

The jarring complexity of “Refining Realities” overwhelmed me, and I was so absorbed by theory that I lost sight of the underlying themes. With Kinect sensors placed above each screen, it was easy enough to understand that my interaction with the installation was significant, but the odd patterns only seemed to quiver in response to my sporadic, and sometimes embarrassing, movements. I felt powerless to really manipulate the images even though I knew they were dependent on my actions, but I slowly realized my movements were being dwarfed by a greater influence. Real-time data drawn from undisclosed locations (randomized every 15 minutes) supplies changes in temperature, wind values and cloud coverage; in reaction to these observations, the installation undergoes multiple shifts that add up to a grand, emotional metamorphosis. For instance, when wind speed increases, the LEDs become more energetic. When the temperature rises, the LEDs turn pink. Similarly, when the warm sun begins to shine through the clouds, the ambient music sounds more optimistic and all the panels seem to resonate with a renewed sense of vitality and energy. Upon this enlightenment, I realized it wasn’t just me that was subtly influencing the installation, it was also the fleeting characteristics of the environment that were subtly influencing me through the installation. Additionally, not knowing where the real-time weather data came from universalized that sensation, as though I was being affected by the entire world as a grand idea.

As hinted at by the title, the installation is designed to reduce and repurpose what its sensors describe to it, and this is where “Refined Realities” became increasingly perplexing to me. The way the screens react is simple enough, but the complex, formal mathematical algorithms used to fabricate the initial pattern, followed by the synthesis of the pattern with live data, are something on the forefront of technology. In fact, the computational demands were so extraordinary that the Kinect sensor above the central panel is no longer in place due to limited processing capacity. Several of the monitors were assigned a Voronoi system. Most simply, Voronoi systems are shapes created by the space closest to a particular point on a plane. For clarity, each line in the image below marks locations that are equidistance between a black dot and its closest neighbors, and the space within those lines represent the locations which are closest to the black dots.

Voronoi systems are important because the approximation is useful in understanding complex distributions in real life, such as your very skin’s cells. And that is part of the point of “Refining Realities”: to manifest the forms and patterns underlying life. When I move along the installation, I am reduced to become part of the image, and because of the way it “refines reality,” I am assimilated into the environment. With this came a humble feeling of oneness with nature and art, a wondrous insight into my connection with the surroundings.

After gaining more understanding of the content within the screens, I sought an understanding of how the digital realities presented by the screens related to the intricate frame surrounding them. Most noticeably, the hexagonal patterning created by the Voronoi diagrams and the wave pattern in the central screen is echoed in the frames. I originally perceived it as design for the sake of cohesion, but I later considered it a comment on the difference between the digital and the physical. I began to think about our digital age and how our realities have become increasingly distanced from the physical world. Even as I write this, I consider the intangibility of my words and their loose representation of something real. Here, the environment being monitored is only a digital suggestion of reality, while the frame establishes a connection to the physical environment of the museum. There is also a contrast between the depth created by the frame and the illusion of depth established by the line drawings of Mariusz Navratil. I later learned that the line drawings were spontaneous responses to the forms of the frame, including the shadows the frame casts on the wall. Whether geometric versus organic, digital versus physical or real versus illusion, “Refining Realities” addresses many characteristics of what constitutes our surroundings.

Still, the prevailing influence remains the transitory emotions created by the dynamic environment, and as I tried to dissect my role as viewer in the work, I abandoned my thoughts and surrendered to the influence of how it made me feel. I can get caught up in the idea that art is meant to cater to the viewer, but “Refining Realities” was independent; it became a meditative experience to consciously allow myself to be influenced. Much as the undisclosed source locations were reduced to data points for this installation, I felt reduced by the Kinect sensors until the landscape and I merged into an engulfing singularity on the screens. Some abstract and baffling forms, at once stupefying and unwelcoming, began to take shape as the most poetic reduction of life itself. Sometimes, I irrationally convince myself that I’m some sort of entity outside the system, but my inevitable influence on the environment and the environment’s influence on me inundated my self-centeredness until I felt a sort of engrossing oneness that simultaneously diminished my concerns and assimilated my being into a greater entity of existence.

Benjamin Thrash
Publications Intern

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