Back to the Future

by Titus OBrien September 29, 2008
Dallas-ites and friends David and Amanda Hanson were up in Chicago this weekend. David used to work for Disney, and later Paul McCarthy. Now he designs robots, recently collaborated with David Byrne, and once again was just featured at Chicago’s Wired-magazine sponsored Nextfest . Nextfest is the preeminent US “see the future – today!” expo, and I took advantage of David and Amanda’s invitation to attend a preview before the public was allowed in.

Though this was the first time I’d been, I can’t say there were many surprises, and once again I’m reminded why I remain so skeptical of the futurists and techno-wizardry in general, especially when it pretends to be art. It brought to mind a great passage from Albert Oehlen I was reading on the L train just this week. Talking about why he chose to paint rather than other options he explored as a younger artist he says “[content in art can] be overshadowed by technical issues…you have to realize that these discoveries, made at the forefront of technological science, are basically achievements of the military and the powers that be. So if you rush out to provide some corresponding form of literature or, like today, computer art, you…renounce art’s option of doing something different, and end up panting along behind. The only real possibility is to use precisely what has been weakened, like the novel or painting…to use the second-most-modern medium, the second-most-modern means…and continue working from there.”

Panting along behind, no doubt thinking you’re way ahead – such appears to be the case with the “paintings” of Eric Natzke, the sole featured 2-D artist. He creates them using Flash algorithms somehow, and the results resemble really sexy teched out 14th generation abstract hotel art. I loved looking at some of them (for 15-20 seconds), but mostly they end up revealing a fundamental vacuity, initially obscured by the shimmer of technical novelty. They are very nice, pleasant, swirl-y and futuristic, with some of the undertones of soul-loss that lineage implies. While infinitely tasteful, there’s no meat; I sensed no depth behind the ink-jet printed façade.
Nearly everything else suffered from similar gaps in concept or development. Walking around became an exercise in seeing what wasn’t really working properly – robots, games, displays, demos, one after another clunking, gasping and collapsing, humming in some kind of static state of melt-down; or just dumb. The biggest dud of all had to be the big Toyota pavilion star attraction, the dubiously named i-REAL. It’s just a suped-up wheelchair, that reclines at increasing speeds, I guess to just moderate your chances of dying by hitting a pebble and rolling over. Videos and demos indicated they expect this thing to begin to compete with cars, showing it on the road in traffic. A big group of us just stood there gaping at each other with “They can’t be serious?” looks on our faces. It’s the perfect solution if you feel actually standing up on a Segway takes too much effort, or you have a hankering to imitate Dr. X, Dr. Evil, or some Dr.Who interstellar baddie circa 1973. It even has senseless throbbing light show displays in its plastic shell.

The Immersadome artlessly simulates multi-sensory experience, with a vibrating chair, wrap-around curved video screen, and a fan in your face that blows headache-inducing, questionable simulations of oranges, flowers, cherry pie, and the wind in your face on a rollercoaster. None of it was anything more than a silly, somewhat annoying diversion. One day I suppose artists might get their hands on something like this, and actually create an experience that is something more than an ineffectual imitation of reality. Realism’s dead end is endlessly seductive to the techies. Hanson hopes to create robots realistic enough that they can develop humanistic values so that they don’t end up eating us. Ambitious, noble, and probably prophetic. But I wouldn’t call them art.
(David Hanson and Zeno at Nextfest LA, 2007)

The thing I did like: Brain Ball! “Win by relaxing!” the booth banner proclaimed. You sit at an air-hockey resembling orange table, with a small ball in the middle and two small circular goals at each end. Each player straps on a black head band studded with sensors. These detect brain wave activity, and the player who can shift most effectively from typical daily stress-revealing beta waves to alpha, and then theta (reflective of relaxation and sleep respectively) are able to mentally push the ball toward their opponents side and into their circle. Aware of my years of Zen training, Amanda was excited to see how I’d do.

I’d had some trouble finding the place and had just gotten there, feeling fairly well bombarded by lights, noises, whizzes, and bells, and I promptly lost to her other meditatively inclined friend 4 times, then Amanda herself twice. We watched others play for a few minutes before taking another shot. The first round I had tried to change my breathing, think relaxing thoughts, circulate my chi, etc. I lost, over and over.
So sitting down again, I shifted into proper “shikantaza” posture, meaning sitting on my sit bones at the edge of the chair, lengthening my spine, and breathing deeply into my abdomen. I closed my eyes, cleared my head, and a few seconds later, someone said “Titus, you won.” This was against the same guy who’d beaten me four times in a row. I proceeded to “win” four more times against him, three against Amanda, and a dozen more against everyone else who sat down opposite over the next few minutes. The last was the tall, rail thin but pneumatically enhanced date of a wealthy looking gentleman; she was barely contained by a short bright magenta dress, looking as if ready for the Playboy Mansion prom. She seriously had the biggest tits I have ever seen, proportionally speaking – they were like basketballs wrapped in pink satin. A living Murakami fetish. The ball veritably shot toward her each game. I felt sorry for her. She looked really disappointed – so what else does any red-blooded, hormone-adled heterosexual guy do? I tried to be chivalrous and lose; an opportunity to test the machine. I thought of traffic, dead Iraqi children, Sarah Palin, and a McCain presidency. I succeeded in slowing the inevitable, but it was such hard work, I eventually had to let go, and the ball plopped into her goal. As I got up to walk away, she said to the gathered crowd “This thing must be broken. I’m, like, so totally relaxed!”

The thing that I found cool was not that I discovered some new game that I could dominate, though admittedly winning is usually more fun than losing. What amazed me is that what 1500 years of teachers in the Zen tradition have taught bared itself out, namely that to just assume the right posture and to “think not-thinking” is to induce the very state called “Buddha mind”. When I tried, I lost. When I just did what I’d been taught, sitting properly and breathing deeply, letting go of any thought of gain, the brain naturally shifted, without any effort or intention. What a perfect sport for our conquest and triumph-addicted culture.

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