HomeseperatorAboutseperatorThe Infrathinic Moment of Stream

# The Infrathinic Moment of Stream

By Stephen Kovats

By employing the structure of electronic networks a wide ranging practice of real-time art and critical communication projects have been established. Collaborative network practice, telepresence projects, interactive performances, simultaneous linked-space dialogues, hacktivist wireless mobility experiments and many others have long ago staked out the domain of the New in electronic media culture. The chat room, the reflector, the stream server, as well as numerous peer to peer modes of interaction have served to create the space within which such activity can take place. Often the emergent expression is based solely on the user experience or as a product consumed by third party recipients, lurkers or even scattered live audiences. The character of the collaborative space of artistic enterprise as a social space is no longer a major factor of innovation in itself, but instead the technological means to achieve the connection between participants becomes a focal point of departure.

What is the nature of the inter-face between the artists and media practitioners using and creating such tools, spaces and events? Streaming systems, for example, used for collaborative and performative events rely on the role of the connecting protocols which link the interstitial zones of collaboration between users and technology. We are generally confronted with the product of the connection, the content of the communication and sometimes the space constructed by the interaction of the users. Where, however, lies the artistic and critical moment of the connection itself? What role or space does the act of connecting occupy? As opposed to simple and traditional one-to-many 'broadcasts' the peculiarity of the internet stream as a collaborative venture relies on a sharing of software interfaces and codecs based on predetermined protocols which both users and viewers must embrace. When examined in the context of the 'handshake' - the elementary moment of signal link-up when two or more users connect in any online event, the multi-layered and cross-media configuration of the collaborative stream evokes the notion of an all encompassing embrace - a lingering moment of indefinite length and depth. Whereas the handshake marked a minute slice of time and electromagnetic resonance, the streaming embrace occupies a much more complex interrelationship of usages and protocol structures which themselves are to be considered acts of artistic and theoretical investigation.

In the early 20th century the paradigm of the artwork being a collaborative act between the viewer and the artist led Marcel Duchamp to refer to a virtual layer of separation between the artwork and the artist, combined with the effect of the viewer's perception upon the artwork, as the emergence of an infrathinic moment. When asked for a conceptual definition of the infrathinic, Duchamp replied that the notion is impossible to define, "one can only give examples of it: the warmth of a seat (which has just/been left) is infrathin" or that "two forms cast in the same mold differ from each other by an infrathin separative amount." All identicals as identical as they may be (and the more identical they are) move toward this infrathin separative amount.

In this context I would like to examine the protocol as being the inducer of an infrathinic membrane between users and technology and identify an infrathinic moment as carrying the materiality of expression of the artistic act of communication.

The 1993/94 HANDSHAKE project by the former Berlin based art group LuxLogis, was such a venture. Packaged as an art based telecommunications construct HANDSHAKE used the pre-browser internet of 1993 as its field of execution. The work was realized as an installation where CPUs, dial-up modems and monitors formed the actual physical manifestation of an artistic interaction which exposed itself to the newly plumbed space of global telecommunications. The intersections between electronic and real (physical) space illustrated the moment of connection as the product of artistic enterprise. The ensuing dialogue however between artists and media practitioners around the globe discussing the proceedings of a live event space, where the installation was set up, became frivolously negligible.

The project addressed, in an early webchat and pre-stream environment 'the human capacity of making communicative action itself the subject of communication.' As such HANDSHAKE was not to be seen as a finished work of art - rather as a continuous process that 'intended to observe the behavior of humans and automats in an electronic network', where each handshake evoked an artistic element leaving a critical trace within the expanding, self-generating system-space of the pubescent Internet. In HANDSHAKE, connections sparked and snapped, channels of communication opened and closed dependent on the 'stability' of the connection. Outwardly the project manifested itself primarily through the dialogue achieved by the participants, however the true artistic essence of the project lay in the incapturable substance of the handshake protocol. Its depth and materiality created an infrathinic membrane that is difficult to perceive, but may be imagined, by setting another action, that of the desire to 'communicate' into motion.

Why is this pertinent when taken in the context of multi-cast streaming? The notion of communication - of the linkup - within streaming projects is one strongly rooted in desire on the one hand (to do so across great distances, in real time, without power structures, bureaucracies and borders) and of fear (of separation, lost spontaneity, of not quite getting 'there') on the other. The stream becomes 'a cognitive prosthesis - a computational tool that amplifies or extends a person's thought and perception, much as binoculars are prostheses to extend vision. They magnify strengths in the human intellect rather than correct presumed deficiencies in it.'

As an attribute to the culture of streaming we need to better define the spatial presence or materiality of the protocol as a medium itself coupling and uncoupling actions. Where the embrace of connectivity is an indicator of the artistic paradigm of network communication - the very medium of expression - its uncoupling leaves behind a quasi-Freudian sense of loss and disengagement. Is the art work then also lost in the protocol's failure to mediate? The binding element of the communication, the meme of the protocol, defines the infrathinic membrane enabling network based collaboration. Within the abruptness of the disconnect, energy is released, and becomes irretrievably lost within the electronic ether of the network. The infrathinic membrane which held the spatial configuration is destroyed, and thus the artwork. Breaks and discontinuities within the constructs of communication may also become moments of minute absence, in which lapses of perception are masked by the attempt of the system to 'buffer' or reconnect the spatial linkage. The buffer acts as a third party interlocutor, dispatched by the systems of protocol in order to avoid that disappearance so that 'conscious time may come together automatically, forming continuous time without apparent breaks.' Projects that engage in such flow and based on non-predetermined action rely on systems to create such continuity in space and time. Their success depends on the simultaneity of both elements, space and time, intrinsically functioning as a whole. The success therefore of the expression is not only dependent on the human actors but also of the system employed, the machinic binding the action.

Networks, and the projects which exploit their structure, rely on a series of performative embraces to occupy these spaces of disappearance. These are the infrathinic moments induced by the collaborative experience. In a recent nettime communiqué on the 'State of Networking' Geert Lovink and Florian Schneider point out that the 'hype of networks reveal a conceptual crisis of collaboration and cooperation.' This is particularly true of the chasm between the desire to expand artistic practice into the real time territory of simultaneous communication and the fleeting forms of often exuberant expression that are resultant upon connection, the streaming embrace in this case. Streamed collaborative practice 'rather than using a simple application to improve life or increase efficiency, becomes intrinsically only about networking, and networking comes alive as an unconditional attribute of social existence'.

Conceptually V2_Jam, the Exstream project of the V2_Lab, seeks to address these layers of collaborative instability. As an on-going research project dealing with the possibilities of mixing various forms of media, software, hardware and alternative interfaces, V2_Jam addresses the relationship, connectivity and space between its users. In its software iteration it does not propose a set standard of artistic output, but rather negotiates elements of input dependent on its users. It plays up the infrathinic curve by addressing points of reference and interaction by those playing or 'jamming' and create points of departure, inclusion and separation. By expanding the project towards the use of physical and tactile interfaces, with the inclusion of mobile computing, it sets up scenarios within which protocols themselves could be defined and fixed as integral pieces within the artistic endeavor. In such a system the protocol has the potential to become the objet d'art, defining the experiences and desires of differing groups of users ... by becoming infrathin. V2_Jam seeks therefore to define the practical and creative essence of 'interoperability' within the contexts of both an open source and a multi-directional streaming environment.

However, for the time being this is a posit. The true infrathinic still lies in defining a vocabulary for the essence of networked, real time collaborative expression. According to a Buddhist saying, the difference between reality and truth is that truth is what we believe reality to be, not what it actually is. So perhaps Exstream, as both project and process which has developed a body of works and tools, marks the handshake, or in this case the embrace, which will allow theory, as Lovink put it, to come into being in the age of real-time events. We have skimmed the infrathinic, but have yet to become the masters of real-time, of our time.

References, by LuxLogis Berlin, 1994


Stephen Kovats (CN)
Initiator and director of international projects in the fields of media arts, culture, architecture and urbanism

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