NAVIGATING THE COLLECTIVE UNCONSCIOUS
Arjen Mulder / April 2013
Exploded Views 2.0
Exploded_Views 2.0 by Marnix de Nijs is a masterpiece. No doubt about it. It is the most beautiful work of interactive media art I have ever seen. But its most peculiar aspect is that neither its beauty nor its meaning reside in the interactivity of the piece. The visitor or user needs to engage only in ordinary actions. You walk towards a wall on which the imagery of the work is projected and navigate the continuous image space by stepping a bit to the right or left. That's about it. There’s no fancy interface to enter, no sophisticated movements or gestures to learn or explore. You stroll in a natural way, except that the space you cover is a few yards at most.
This simplicity of interactivity is a new element in De Nijs' oeuvre. Most of his works, including Run Motherfucker Run (2001/2004) and Spatial Sounds (100dB at 100 km/h) (2000/2001), have become interactive media art classics precisely because of the surprising behavior these installations compel the visitor to engage in. The imagery in Run Motherfucker Run may be full of suspense and surprises, yet for the audience the work’s interest resides mostly in the way you have to walk on the treadmill that functions as the physical interface between you and the imagery. If you don’t understand how to interact properly with the piece, the conveyer belt starts to run faster and faster, until finally you’re ejected off the back of the treadmill. Once you’ve found the right walking speed, you have to learn to move left and right on the conveyor belt in order to navigate the empty streets and lots projected on the huge screen in front of you. It requires considerable effort, as the title of the piece suggests.
Spatial Sounds evokes wonderful, amusing behavior in its interactors. They run around the piece, pursued by a heavy machine arm that, if they manage to find the right speed of movement and gestures, will increase its speed to100 km/h, growling and whining at 100dB through speakers affixed to its end. When the arm finally comes to a stop, as if to catch its breath like the visitors, quite a few of them will give the speaker a knock, as if to say, "Are you OK?" or even, "That was better than sex." The machine as an object is imposing when at rest and seductive in action. It lets its visitors know that it is willing to interact with them and encourages them with a graceful wave or an aggressive rush towards them.
This behavioral interest is all but lacking in Exploded Views 2.0. In fact, one could call the interactivity in the piece modest, if not clumsy, since the work functions best when only one interactor at a time approaches the huge projections on the wall. This compels the other viewers into the passive role of an audience, even though you’ll often hear them say things like "Go over to the right a little - there's something reddish over there." The peculiar thing is, as I suggested above, that this passivity is the best way to look at and experience the unique qualities of the work. Although an interactor is needed to activate the work and make the images move, it is the audience as a whole that gets immersed in its beauty without hesitation or shyness. And as the interactor moves, the beauty of that imagery is staggering.
Exploded_Views 2.0 heralds the coming of a new age in interactive media art, in which images not only make sense but are far more interesting and layered - in function, meaning and beauty - than any found in contemporary museum art. The images in Exploded_Views 2.0 consist of point clouds generated from huge Web 2.0 photo collections like Flickr. The work is basically a database of 350 reconstructions of the most famous buildings on five continents, derived from 100,000 web images, rendered in real time as a person moves through the interface.
When the work is navigated by an interactor (who functions as a deputy for the onlookers), you recognize these archetypal temples, cathedrals, museums, city gates, palaces, facades and whatnot as the sort of places you visit in your sleep at night. It is a dark, nocturnal world that is evoked. The buildings seem to be made of whirling stardust, of the unstable, glowing, ever-transforming stuff dreams are made of. It is a realistic world, yet an utterly artificial one because of the absence of real-life distances between the floating, bubbling, sometimes exploding buildings.
The imagery is deeply moving because you rediscover the specious, amorphous, vague, fluttering material your mind is made of, brought together in an arrangement that both is consistent and dances gracefully to the music of time. It is a world of soft buildings and squares, tender walls and windows, gentle colors and suffering hues, fully recognizable yet far beyond words. This is what the world looks like when we navigate the virtual space of our inner life, before the material of our subconscious memories crystallizes into solid forms or discursive meaning.
In Exploded_Views 2.0, Marnix de Nijs has made an interactive media art installation that combines 100,000 mediocre photos from a public database into a mass of imagery of staggering, singular, public yet private beauty. This is the sort of affirmative imagery we need to keep our souls alive and sane, healthy, indeed happy. It goes far beyond a critique of the poverty and shallowness of most contemporary museum art and sets a new 21st-century standard for what art can do.
Arjen Mulder is the author of a number of essay collections and works of art criticism. Based in Amsterdam, he edits books and curates events for V2_organisation, teaches media theory in the Communication Design master’s program at the Utrecht Graduate School of Visual Art and Design, and serves on the editorial board of the cultural and literary magazine De Gids. With his wife, Maaike Post, he translates nonfiction, theory, and art criticism for a range of publishing houses, periodicals and museums. Themes in his essays vary from biology, anthropology, literature to media theory.