What if your entire body could run a program? Looking at the Body, Senses, and Imagination in relation to Creative Coding

With a multitude of writing projects going on simultaneously, I didn’t want this one to get left on the virtual stack under the virtual paperweight. I’m hoping to perhaps lengthen this piece and bring in some research. For now, I’ll share it with the world and for anyone interested in reading it. It’s about the work of Nik Hanselmann now based in New York. He graduated with his MFA in Digital and New Media Studies from UC Santa Cruz and received his BA from UC Berkeley in Art History. In any case, he’s one of the artists I would like to include in future research projects and writing. For now, gnaw on this text and let me know what you think. I’m curious how you feel about the body within new media arts. What role does the body play? Or, with technology capturing organic forms and life, does it matter whether or not what you see is a simulation or not? Heady stuff. I know but would love to hear what you think…Enjoy!

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Working Title: Body and Imagination: The Work of Nik Hanselmann

I am a big believer that work should perform and be as it is — that whatever phenomena you are trying to describe be embedded in the work itself. But I also think that the somewhat anachronistic attributes of past media have a significant weight on how work can be put into conversations today. ~ Nik Hanselmann, Artist

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With the release of latest touch screen devices, consumers gather in droves as if making a sacred pilgrimage. Not only do these devotees want the privilege of partaking in the latest technology but these very devices are ways to socially engage and entertain. The multi-layer instantaneous retinal stimulation of our youtube-flickr google-able culture makes participation in society highly accessible. Everyone possesses the ability to create. This is where the artist creates distinctions and a much-needed discourse. Video art, specifically, has taken on countless iterations of the relationship between filmmaker and viewer. In recent years, new media artists have used technologies requiring the viewer to become a part of the production. But what happens when the artist intervenes by taking away the right of interaction and inter-connectivity away from the participant and relegates them to mere viewer?

The creative use (programming) of language to design and, sometimes, fabricate a specific reality or experience is when the medium becomes the subject. Similar to the abstract expressionists, some new media artists find ways to repurpose the tools and techniques in an unorthodox fashion. The alternative method of producing film footage featuring organic forms may not be a foreign idea but programming language as the basis for creating a new format for video art is suggestive of how new media artists push the boundaries of defining the art object. Nik Hanselmann’s work uses the body in different ways and piques the imagination as a point of departure for inquiry into the separation between artist, artwork, and observer in his works, bodyfuck and Observations.

In bodyfuck, Hanselmann created a unique programming language involving use of the body as a means of production. In this scenario, the artist becomes the spectacle. The piece entails a short video of the artist jumping and moving side to side within the frame of the screen. Grandiose gestures and exaggerated movements result in a specific character or symbol revealed to the viewer. As the artist moves, another character flashes on the screen. The cause and effect experience is not too dissimilar to a keystroke on a keyboard. Yet, Hanselmann’s breathy smile results in script that produces a short greeting – Hi. The entire body produces the programming language, the symbols, and the text. In speaking with the artist, he states, 

…bodyfuck was comic “virtuosity” or bodily absurdity – something which ended up being a lot more physically punishing than I imagined before I set out to do the project. I think this is really important – and it’s not something that I would wish upon the audience. On a pragmatic level, it wouldn’t really work to have a bunch of non-programmer gallery-goers to be suddenly faced with the challenge or programming. ~ NH

It is the body, in the end, that exerts (maybe even suffers) to some degree, which harks back to the days of experimental video art where the artist performed for the viewer. Yet, bodyfuck serves as a metaphor for the artistic process. Complexity within a process somehow seems to constantly produce something simple that may seem absurd to the viewer but it is the complex set of ideas that lay the foundation for innovation. The serendipitous discoveries lay dormant and only in the artist’s domain. They are revelatory and representative of the way we watch and perceive the existence of the art object. Fictitious forms and organisms in Hanselmann’s piece, Observations, serve as another example of innovative tools used to build a work that reveals something separate and outside of ourselves through abstraction.

For Observations, the decision for non-interaction is to tinge the whole thing with hegemonic mystery. I’m fascinated by the idea of being an agent in science – most of us have little-to-no first-hand experience with most of the concepts that we take for granted. I think the video/screen in this context works like it did on the moon landing or the drop of an atomic bomb. The whole experience is so abstract but told with such authority. That is not to say of course that I think about the fictional phenomena I created on the same level of profundity – I’m merely calling back to this idea that the screen can be a frightening disconnect. In an age of interactivity, I think this gap is widened even further, as most of us can’t wait to get our greasy paws on something to pan, zoom, and eventually hit the home button to go tweet about it. ~ NH

Hanselmann’s works open up the discussion and examination of new media arts multi-faceted and rapidly evolving nature. Definition eludes new media (even though it’s been around for close to 40 years) in large part due to its resistance to fit snuggly into the canon of art history. It remains a vague topic primarily due to its ever rapidly evolving virtual landscape, meaning, and structure. The term new media alone connotes something discovered and innovative but what happens when there is constant flux and change in that very thing we are looking to define. How do we create a taxonomy for this? It becomes a task and a challenge for the artists to look at ways in which the tools can be used differently and perhaps with one another to create abstraction from what is seemingly finite and concrete.

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Author: Dorothy R. Santos

Dorothy R. Santos is a writer, editor, curator, and educator whose research areas and interests include new media and digital art, activism, artificial intelligence, networked culture, and biotechnology. Born and raised in San Francisco, California, she holds Bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and Psychology from the University of San Francisco, and received her Master’s degree in Visual and Critical Studies at the California College of the Arts. She is currently the managing editor for Hyphen magazine. Her work appears in art21, Art Practical, Daily Serving, Rhizome, Hyperallergic, and Public Art Dialogue. She has lectured and spoken at the De Young museum, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Stanford University, School of Visual Arts, and more. Her essay “Materiality to Machines: Manufacturing the Organic and Hypotheses for Future Imaginings,” has been published to The Routledge Companion to Biology in Art and Architecture in 2016. She serves as executive staff for the Bay Area Society for Art & Activism, board member for the SOMArts Cultural Center, and teaches at the University of California, Santa Cruz in the Digital Art and New Media department.

2 thoughts on “What if your entire body could run a program? Looking at the Body, Senses, and Imagination in relation to Creative Coding”

  1. I’m giving my site an overhaul, so this will be a welcome respite.

    (I’m gonna have to look up ‘taxonomy’ and hegemony’ later., though.)

    Whenever there’s talk about the infusion of art and technology I like to recall Gordon Moore’s prediction about the exponential rise (doubling every) in the speed of microprocessors, and of course the transistor and the introduction of the integrated circuit which made it possible. (He didn’t tell us how he knew that, either.)

    I’m also think of George Boole’s mathematical concepts that were useless in his time, but now our digital communication, the language of computers is based on the application of his mathematical concepts.

    Also, I remember Einstein’s concept about how the observer and the observed being one in the same, and how that very activity itself impacts upon or perhaps leaves it’s ‘residue’ s on the fabric of space-time.

    What does this blabbering have to do with anything? The quantum strides in such progress is a result of artistic, creative, and unconventional thinking.

    Please let me know what this means, though, because I’d like to understand. What does this mean, or can I have an example of this:

    “The term new media alone connotes something discovered
    and innovative but what happens when there is constant flux
    and change in that very thing we are looking to define. How
    do we create a taxonomy for this?”

    1. Thanks for the great comment! I’m still working through this piece of writing. Let me try and explain. In the explaining, I may come to a different thought or conclusion so please bear with me.

      Regarding my statement and question, “The term new media alone connotes something discovered and innovative but what happens when there is constant flux and change in that very thing we are looking to define. How do we create a taxonomy for this?”, I am referring to some popular (albeit nebulous) definition of new media (arts). Usually, people think of innovation and interactivity BUT new media art includes robotics, programming, data visualization, hybrid of traditional and digital arts. Basically, we’re at a really interesting time and I’m wondering how we even begin to create a way to categorize (or provide a taxonomy for this type/genre of art and art practice). It’s easy to look at paintings and pigeon hole them. It’s not easy to do that with new media work and it shouldn’t be. It should be difficult because that means there is a richer and more robust discourse at work (at the very least, in the making)…

      Again, thanks for asking and engaging. I really appreciate the feedback, the questions, and comments. 🙂

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