Augmentology"...is a concise manual of reality for our digital age."

Mark Hancock,_Augmentology: Interfaccia Tra Due Mondi_

[Sponsored by The Ars Virtua Foundation/CADRE Laboratory for New Media]


…(a Tojolabal, two and a half years old, born during the first Intergalactic) is playing with a little car with no wheels or body. In fact, it appears to me that what Pedrito is playing with is a piece of that wood they call “cork”, but he has told me very decisively that it is a little car and that it is going to Margaritas to pick up passengers…The plane makes a pass over Pedrito’s hut, and he raises the stick and waves it furiously at the war plane. The plane then changes its course and leaves in the direction of its base. Pedrito says “There now” and starts playing once more with his piece of cork, pardon, with his little car. The Sea and I look at each other in silence. We slowly move towards the stick which Pedrito left behind, and we pick it up carefully. We analyze it in great detail. “It’s a stick,” I say. “It is,” the Sea says.

- A story from Subcommandante Marcos retold by Ricardo Dominguez

One of my recent attempts at exploring and establishing liberating spaces between realities is a series of performances called technésexual. In technésexual, myself and Elle Mehrmand (my partner/collaborator) perform erotic acts simultaneously in a geophysical space and virtually in Second Life. Using electrocardiogram heart monitor chest straps, Lilypad temperature sensors and Arduino/Freeduinos, we capture heart rate and body temperature data to transmitt to our avatars in Second Life. These transmissions act to bridge the physical space and the virtual environment via the use of audio. This type of linking is often experienced when having a conversation that involves different, yet connected, physical locations. Technésexual provokes questions concerning the representation of sexualities that lie outside restrictive LGBT/homo/hetero categories: such categories are rooted in binary gender assumptions. The mixing of realities in this project are a way of queering new media which parallels our own experiences of mixing genders and sexualities.

Virtual/Synthetic worlds like Second Life facilitate the development of new identities which allow for (as yet) unimagined relations and relationships. Technésexual looks closely at these new relationships and the potential they embody. There is a flipside to the potentialities inherent in the subversive use of Second Life, one that acknowledges that Linden Labs – the creators of Second Life – are attempting to create a walled garden and permanently lock in users. Similarly, the university is beginning to reveal itself as a self-perpetuating obsolescent institution as sites like aaaaarg.org provide instantly searchable digital texts. Any exclusive expertise involved in pinpointing particular topics becomes obsolete when the process is as simple as using a “find” command. If we can begin to understand the university as “managed death[, ] a machine for administering death, for the proliferation of technologies of death”, the need to remove or modify such institutions becomes urgent.

In a recent panel conversation concerning Alex Rivera (the director of Sleep Dealer), Cauleen Smith noted how science fiction is a genre that promotes critique of extant systems of oppression (including class, race and gender).

Mixed and Augmented Reality could likewise be employed subversively to modify Capitalism through the infiltration of entertainment – this would, in turn, present deep critiques of extant systems of power. In Protocol, Alexander Galloway discusses the need for protocological resistance under global Capitalism, where practical implementations are shown in the occupations of universities and virtual worlds. Second Life creates a desire for a free metaverse. Free Software (such as Open Sim) begins to offer a space beyond Second Life and its tightly controlled reality.

Aimee Mullins proposed in a recent article that:

…the generation of children growing up today has a distinct advantage in this realm of identity, thanks to their daily interaction with the internet and video games. It’s commonplace for them to create avatars and parallel representations of themselves, and they see their ability to change, transform, and augment those bodies to best suit their surroundings as beneficial.”

I would, however, suggest caution rather than pure optimism regarding choices available in identity creation: many of these selections can just as easily reinforce forces of social control as offer an alternatives to them. There is no inherent freedom implied in Reality shifting. In her recent book Simulation and its Discontents, Sherry Turkle describes a 13 year old girl who informed her interacting within SimCity taught her that “raising taxes leads to riots”. What lesson did the girl learn – how to be a better ruler or how to take part in a riot? It isn’t clear. What is clear are the reality cracks opening up in front of us every day. As we proceed to navigate (within) these cracks, we must be prepared to imagine, create and bridge these new realities.

“Yes, the university is a graveyard, but it is also a factory: a
factory of meaning which produces civic life and at the same time
produces social death. A factory which produces the illusion that
meaning and reality can be separated; which everywhere reproduces the
empty reactionary behavior of students based on the values of life
(identity), liberty (electoral politics), and happiness (private
property).”

- Anti-Capital Projects, The Necrosocial

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.
And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will –
we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study
too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . .
and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
- Presidental Aide to George Bush, New York Times

Institutionalized Reality is currently cracking, splitting and multiplying. In the last few days, students across California appear to have transformed from apathetic alienated youth (seemingly in search of a grade and an exit) into a powerful force occupying university buildings cross the state. A few months ago, the University of California seemed an unlikely avenue for genuine social upheaval. The geophysical actions of many in the last few days have substantially altered that.

The student unrest presently occuring at the University of California prompts the question: can the gaps between geophysical and virtual realities actualize as spaces of liberation and transformation? If Augmented Reality is going to manifest simply as a better way to find real estate, then I would say no. However, if people can create uses for Augmented Technologies that move beyond the demands of capital and corporate interests, then maybe so. Projects such as Can You See Me Now (Blast Theory) illustrate how Mixed Reality can unleash latent potential found in urban spaces, as well as operating as distracting forms of entertainment.

Ricardo Dominguez describes some of my recent collaborations as Minor Simulation. One such collaboration between myself, Ricardo Dominguez and Elle Mehrmand is http://ucop.cc, a project that presents hacktivist-modified website copy of the University of California Office of the President. The ucop.cc project was created as a protest against the recent University budget cuts, layoffs and tuition increases (totaling 44 percent this year alone). The main difference between the hacktivist and original websites is that in our version, President Mark Yudof announces a new $0 Tuition program with the tagline “A return to core values – a fresh start”. In an interview with the UCSD Guardian, Dominguez comments on the ucop.cc project: “For at least a moment, the circuit was disrupted. It allowed another possibility to occur — and that’s to reimagine what the university can be.”

The goal of the ucop.cc project was to create a space of disruptive possibility and to use cracks in mainstream understanding of net protocols to present a truly free University of California. Perhaps this can be seen as a way of using the space between “traditional” reality versions, between truth and fiction, and as a way of inspiring action and imagination. Part 3 will offer conclusions regarding using Mixed/Augmented Reality as a strategy for finding and creating liberating spaces.

http://occupyca.wordpress.com/

“There are many worlds and many realities in our universe. When one reality, or one world-view is superimposed on another, it is inevitable that social, economic and cultural problems arise. Hierarchies of worlds are constructs of a bygone era. Ecologies of worlds should guide us in considering our future… We can begin by designing environments that can respond to physical, environmental, or social needs. Not only the needs of human beings, but also of the organisms and elements with whom we share the Biosphere.” – fo.am

Rezzing occurs in the space in-between worlds. Rezzing happens in the moment we switch from one reality to another: where the structure of synthetic worlds is unveiled. We see these spaces appear gradually – textures, alpha channels and audio appear in layers. Forms start as simple grey patterns that morph and evolve via emergent detail. These patterns resolve as final forms that adhere to in-game physics and flop into “place”.

Rezzing 1

When I begin rezzing – and am between avatars – my body disappears. Then, the simple basic shape beneath is exposed with pitch black skin and bizarre proportions. Finally, my body parts materialise.

I stand naked: staring ahead as my clothes begin to appear, one piece at a time. As the textures of my skin are downloaded, my blurry body is redrawn in photorealistic detail. In Second Life, Linden Labs has added a feature where rezzing avatars are surrounded by a cloud whilst forming. This cloud presumably covers the moments of nakedness while an avatar’s clothes are appearing and bare pixel genitalia are exposed.

There is no geophysical equivalent to the act of rezzing. The closest phenomenon is the act of awakening from – or falling into – dreams. When an object or avatar is rezzed in a synthetic environment, its data representation is downloaded from the database into the local client. On screen, a visual “something” is created from synthetic “nothing” – an ontological novelty out of the pure void. This act reveals a flaw in the materiality and persistence of these worlds or a type of virtual ontology similar to Deleuze’s Spinozan plenty without void.

After encountering the whooshing sound that indicates teleporting, I am dropped into an incomplete world. Often during this phase, my avatar manifests in a falling animation. First, all is sky and water which faithfully glistens with the sun (according to environment settings). Then, distant objects appear. In complex areas this can take minutes as particle scripts initialise and begin to swirl and glow before the details of architecture appear.

555 KUBIK | facade projection |

During the rezzing process, as a user’s body begins to form they step into a swirl of affect. This affect may induce feelings of identification with the avatar or a revulsion from it. This emotional polarisation may produce a sense of pleasure in seeing or a sense of disjunctive discomfort. The activity of the database creates its own unreproducable order dependant on the speed of the bytes transferred. Hair or pants/skirt may take minutes to download, with the avatar blinking into space with a bald head or exposed thong in the meantime. At this juncture, the avatar hover-stands in an unfolding environment and waits for the expected transactions of the “normal” synthetic world to begin.

How do we come to understand the resonances, affects and effects of rezzing into synthetic environments? With augmented reality making headline news, can we think of other ways of entering other realities which are not limited to visual modes? What about pain? Sound? Smell? Can Mixed Reality Performances be used to develop and explore these methods of realityshifting? If we can think of ways of finding spaces between realities, then can we think of the space between realities as similar to the space between genders and sexualities? Could entering a space between realities free us of certain rules, be a strategy of liberation and transformation? Part 2 will explore these questions.

Becoming Dragon

I am becoming something else. In this moment, this being-in-transition, I am willfully stepping into the unknown. I am between realities. I can only imagine what I want to become, and then choose to become that new thing, but it is radically ungraspable, inconceivable. I can never know the reality of what I am choosing to become, desiring to become. My decision to transform can never be the right one, because it is always based on an illusion, a fantasy, a false conception with only a few points of data, not the rich details of an embodied life. As the transformation unfolds, those unknown events begin to occur, like seeing my breasts in the mirror for the first time after shaving my chest closely, feeling the movement in my orgasm change into something new or just walking down the street for a moment as a girl, unnoticed and not needing any special attention. My decision to become something else is always a decision to become mythopoetic, because the reality of the new state is always unknown, imaginary, a construct, a fantasy. Yet I don’t seek to decry this radical state of uncertainty but to embrace it. The very moments of everyday perception are also simply intersections of a real materiality with my symbolic and imaginary processing engines making sense of them, down to the way that I understand what pleasure is and what pain is and when the two become too close so as to be confused. And a choice to not transform is of course still a choice to transform into a different state, as our bodies are all in permanent transition, aging, training, consuming, producing, perceiving, creating new folds in our craniums.

Becoming Dragon Day 6

Through this process, I am also becoming an artist. Yet this is simply another fantasy which I use to structure my desires and find direction. Artist, porn star, student, professor, father, mother, husband, wife, lover, child, priest, these are all simply performances of being, yet their being a performance makes them no less real, nor more real, just another fold in the swirling interplay, the kaleidoscope of realities that is our being.

A mixed reality performance using an online 3D virtual world simply highlights the fantasy nature of our everyday interactions, of the physical world, by referring back to the physical, stirring up our memories and conceptions of embodiment. A mixed reality performance is a misnomer, as every step of our waking lives is a mix of realities, our self-perceptions, muscle memory, proprioceptions, others’ perceptions of us, our perceptions of their perceptions of us as they look at us, or don’t, our understanding that we are walking, taking on a step, on a sidewalk, by a building. A mixed reality performance simply highlights this fact, or this fiction, and allows one to see and begin to question the mythopoetic structure of reality. While performance sought to get closer to the real, to escape mediation, I embrace the pleasure of bits projected on my skin and the flickering of digital lights in my eyes, of the simulacrum of my own fantasy which creates that same fantasy. The mixture of real and imaginary is more real for being so.

While one can draw one’s fantasy, or write it out in words, 3D virtual worlds bring us one step closer to seeing in front of our eyes the fantasy films which play behind our eyes, yet there are many more steps to bring us closer to dreams. In my dreams I smell, I feel my body in action, I have visceral emotions, yet software such as Second Life is far from emulating such unreal realities. Still, we can make steps closer to dreams, with motion capture, head mounted displays, tactile interfaces, wish pressure interfaces. I wish for another reality, the electricity on my skin changes, transferring the new desired location to the system, and the pressure interface responds, as my chair morphs from a car seat to a comfy recliner in my skybox…loading world…arriving.

I am transreal. Look at me. When you do, a million iridescent scales across my dragon hide flick, move and align to create a multiplicity of perceptions, transversal illusions and realities cutting through each other, intersecting, dancing. Look at me. You see a shimmering of my fantasies and yours, a convergence of your minute sensory events, your imaginary constructs and my desires. Look at me. The mythopoetic elements of your reality and mine come into contact, unwind and become a recombinant event of male and female and something else, something more, for just an instant. Perhaps after that initial instant, one of your myths takes over your perception and you decide that you understand, but before that, I instill confusion and doubt. I can see it on your face.

I am becoming mythopoetic, a shapeshifting creature of legend, a dragon. Standing here, on the border, the sunlight through the clouds defeating the fence, I am transreal, between realities, moving through layers of the symbolic, the imaginary and the real, simultaneously quivering, swapping out and swapping back in, too fast to find the border between them. I am existing between my fantasies and desires, which are driving the changing form of my body, and the moment of perception in which you see me and call me maam, sir, dude, miss, or avoid choosing a category. Speaking, being with different people throughout the day, my body and name changes, my realness or unrealness oscillates. You see me standing here, but really, you see my avatar, my body, which is under construction. We bring our illusions together. You see soft skin. I see the pills and the bloody razor that made it soft, making me feel happier, more feminine. You see scales, I see textured prims and their glow values.

A dark moment in the street at night, your illusions of masculinity swirl up against the confusion I install in you, and you attack. My reality becomes a blur, a flurry of motion, and a sharp chemical emotional reaction, as I strike back with pressurized chemical weapons. Yet even in that moment, I am transreal, between my reality and yours, only finding a hard fissure between the two.
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In bed with my lover, we are transreal, deep in our illusions of each other, feeling our very real emotions for each other, between bodies, looking into her eyes, slipping out of myself and my concerns and out into the bright nebula of pleasure…