Voyage Into The Unknown

Enter_Unknown Territories, a new digital art festival in Cambridge, believes in putting the “active” into interactive, as Eliza Williams discovered

Enter_Unknown Territories, a new media art festival and conference directed by Annette Wolfsberger, landed in various venues across Cambridge for four surprisingly sun-drenched days at the end of April. The hub of the festival was on Parker’s Piece, a square of parkland at the centre of the city, and was appropriately futuristic in appearance, with the main events held within four inflatable “domes” that from a distance appeared like UFOs amongst the classical architecture of the city. The festival aimed to present innovative art that has its basis in technology, primarily from designers and artists residing in and around the Cambridge region.

Technology, gaming and new media often has a reputation for encouraging sedentary, lonesome behaviour and, prior to the release of the activity-friendly Nintendo Wii, has been held up as one of the primary causes of obesity among the nation’s youth. So it was refreshing to see that one of the major themes of E_UT was about physical interaction with technology and the use of it to promote collaborations with each other and the world around us. These ideas manifested themselves in many of the artworks at the festival. Ere Be Dragons, an adventure game-cum-art piece by design group Active Ingredient, saw users rigged up to a hand-held heart monitor that tracked your heart-rate as you toured around the city, claiming territory from other players, while Polar Produce utilised that very Oxbridge of symbols, the bicycle, providing participants with custom-made bikes that harnessed energy as you rode about town.

Other pieces allowed viewers to influence the way the artwork appeared. Hinge_Dimension, held in the charmingly crumbling Leper Chapel just out of town, saw the church filled with a series of fabric screens that could be rearranged by visitors to create an ever-changing maze within the space, while the movement also triggered changes in a light and sound display that played continuously. This work seemed somewhat a triumph of idea over execution however, with the screens being rather cumbersome to move and the interior of the chapel not large enough to ever give the feeling that you could lose yourself within the maze. Similarly, Forest of Imagined Beginnings, an interactive online environment, was ultimately slightly disappointing. The website contained a landscape filled with elegant graphic trees (which were somewhat reminiscent of Digit’s Typographic Tree) and users were encouraged to leave messages hanging on the trees’ branches, where others could then read them. While aesthetically pleasing, the site ironically seemed ultimately let down by the messages themselves (not least my own, which, written in haste, read “Hello – what a pretty tree”) which stretched from whimsical poetry to rather teacherly questioning, such as “What has been your favourite Enter event and why?”

Perhaps the best work at the festival used technology to subtly alter the surrounding environment. Aura – The Stuff That Forms Around You saw artist Steve Symons laboriously map an “aural system” over parts of the city, which could be accessed via headphones and the use of a computer system carried in a backpack. The work had multiple effects – users’ movements created a trail that was mapped at the base computer and also impacted on the sound heard by other participants, while the humming, droning sounds heard over the headphones allowed access to a hidden world that made the leafy environs walked through seem strange and mildly unnerving. Symons used entirely Open Source software to create Aura, a methodology that was also adopted in the Temporary MediaShed, held within one of the domes, which also utilised only recycled computers. A similarly copy-left approach was taken by Spanish art-activist group Platoniq, who left portable “burn stations” across the town. Despite their appealingly retro appearance, the stations contained modern computer technology that allowed users to build their own playlists of music (all of which was previously downloaded free online, naturally) and burn CDs to take away.

A recycling approach of sorts was also used by James Coupe in his work (re)collector, where he used intelligent software to collect CCTV footage taken around the town. The software was programmed to pick out certain gestures that correlated with scenes from classic movies, with Coupe aiming to recreate these moments with the unwitting participants. The results were only partly successful – it was difficult to really pick out any sense of narrative from the end footage, yet it undoubtedly served to emphasise the relentless surveillance of our lives.

Enter_Unknown Territories is the first of what is hoped to become a biennial festival, and joins events such as Lovebytes, held annually in Sheffield, in covering an area of art and design that seems likely to rapidly grow in scope. This first incarnation was not without its teething problems (where technology goes, gremlins follow), and some of its “unknown” territory may have felt decidedly familiar to those well-versed in digital art. Yet, despite these quibbles, it firmly proved that technology and new media is no longer only of interest to a marginalised audience with the requisite know-how, and instead, most importantly, can be surprisingly good fun.

More info on Enter_Unknown Territories can be found at www.enternet.org.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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