Freefall: Mediated Questions and Answers on the Digital Experience of Real and Virtual

John Francescutti & Lanfranco Aceti

London, April 20, 2007

This is an interview with Dr. Lanfranco Aceti, Honorary Research Fellow at the Slade School of Fine Art and Leverhulme Artist in Residence at the Department of Computer Science, Virtual Reality Environments, UCL.

Dr. Aceti is an international artist and academic who explores the issues of representation and technocultures in contemporary digital media.

And it is right that you should learn all things,
Both the steadfast heart of persuasive truth,
And the beliefs of mortals, in which there is no true trust.

Parmenides of Elea, Fragments, 28-30.

John Francescutti: Ideally how would you like viewers to experience your work - as a real, virtual or mixed reality construct?

Lanfranco Aceti: The modus in which the viewers should experience my work has become part of the artwork itself and a determinant element of it and it doesn't fall necessarily in any of the strictly defined categories you have presented me with. Having a choice I would prefer for the viewer to understand the complexities of the process of production as well as the historical development and cultural layers of the media used to produce the artwork. Recently I was part of FRAMED, an exhibition of electronic media that took place in London, and the issue of how to 'frame' a virtual reality image within the context of classic media representations returned to haunt me. The final decision was to create a classic print and let the image speak for itself, although all the information relevant to the process of its creation and transfers between media had been lost.

I guess that, ideally, I would like the viewers to witness the complicated process of creation that, through complex trans-media transfers, generates final images that become objects which can not be simplistically defined... an interactive experience, a video, a print, a painting, etc. This is to say that 'ideally' the viewer would have an understanding of what the background of the artwork is: e.g. the perspectives of the artist as an author, the relationship between the artist/author and the artwork itself and the context... I am speaking of a complex matrix of relationships that cannot be simplistically revealed by the 'intention' of the artist/author, the intention of the viewer/reader and the intention of the work itself. It is a new aesthetic that is determined by the historical language of each medium and by the mixing of these media.

Figure 1. Pandora Boxed, Lanfranco Aceti, 2005, (photography, digital media and VR). The grain and colors of the artwork as well as its blurred representation stimulate particular sense-perceptions. The image was constructed initially as a Polaroid photograph and then digitally altered. It was printed and drawn on with charcoal, scanned, transferred in 3D Studio Max and then programmed into DIVE as an environment backdrop based on neuroscientific visual analyses. At this stage it was photographed in the CAVE, then printed, sketched with charcoal and finally scanned and balanced in Photoshop. The image was then printed with a digital printer on glossy paper. (Dimension 180 cm x 110 cm, exhibited at FRAMED). For this project the artist was inspired by the myth of Pandora's Vase and of the word Pandora that means 'all gifts.'

In the recent developments of intelligent autonomous artworks, the construct of an autonomous behavior of the artwork, disjointed by the intentions of the reader and the author, is becoming an interpretative reality. The complexity of these forms of experiences makes it difficult to 'frame' the innovative context of the artwork with the sedimented forms of interactions of classic media.

A work that, in my case, is inspired by the contrast between reality and illusion and constructed on neuroaesthetic applications in the field of the visual arts 'ideally' stimulates the viewer to feel by playing on the fine line between inspiration and manipulation. The viewer becomes a part of the artwork, an extension of its existence, the viewer is the element of an autonomous chain reaction that, from the world of the illusory, alters and disrupts the world of reality.

If it is possible to imagine, from a neuroaesthetic perspective, an artwork that alters the way we feel, the way the synaptic patterns are constructed, then it is possible to imagine an artwork that alters the way we think, engage and relate. This is either an incredible opportunity or the road to damnation created by the contemporary mediated reality. This duality is what I strive to have the viewers experience and become aware of.

J. Francescutti: From what you have just described your work is not limited to its 'objectual' manifestation but is an element that generates behavioral manifestations and as such is in continuous development in the contemporary evolutionary transmedia framework. How do you see your work having an immediate and/or mediated relationship with this ideal viewer?

L. Aceti: The relationship of immediate and/or mediated engagements is a structural part of human existence and human art productions. The engagement with reality is mediated through the physiological interactions of the body. The brain acts as a 'medium' and the feeling of 'presence/consciousness' is a form of perception that acts as a personalized perception of the medium and/or filter of something that is only a personally mediated interpretation of reality.

In this sense the 'immediate' perception is just that, the instantaneous relationship with the artwork, which does not exclude the fact that the engagement is not at the same time highly mediated. My work is constructed on the awareness of these issues and consciously attempts to modify and alter the sense of perception of the viewer. The viewer for me is an extension of the artwork and I would like to ideally manipulate the visual perceptions of the viewer as an extension of the artwork.

The contemporary condition has reduced the art perception to an homogenized form of engagement that becomes a 'fake' participation in 'aesthetically pre-approved and fake interactive' journeys. The mediated relationship presents the 'immediacy' or instantaneity of the engagement as its outmost achievement, when, in reality, this is an outcome based on lengthy processes of creation. The 'immediate' experience of a 'technologically free' reality is only an illusion or the element of an engagement based on a representation of the 'natural' constructed with a 'highly mediated and technological' reality. The ideal viewers would be able to fight back and/or alter and control the manipulative representation of reality that they are presented with.

J. Francescutti: You appear to present the viewer with a very deterministic representation of the world and even the artwork, as a consequence of this, appears to be the product of a mediated system that does not leave space to the soul...

L. Aceti: The attempt to describe the subjective interpretation of the viewer of the artwork away from the 'preformatted' and mediated structures of the work of art appears to be simplistic and a bit na•ve. The assumption denies the necessary engineering that happens with the construction of the artwork and has always happened in the past. These aesthetic constructions are based on the development of an aesthetic language that is medium specific. From Phidia, to Michelangelo to contemporary art applications, Stalinist art for example, the 'engineering of the human soul' happens with the framing of the landscape, the human figure or the choice of colors and shapes that frame the viewer's perspective and form the aesthetic interactions with the artwork. Every work of art has the responsibility of its engagements and the structural motives and the choice of offering a framework of 'self-serving' art is a structural imposition on the perspectives and interpretations of the viewer. If one element of art is communication, then the definition and construction of an artwork, similarly to that of a phrase, is a process of mediated communication.

Figure 2 Pixie, Pixels and Fairy Dust, Lanfranco Aceti, London 2005, digital print from Virtual Reality Environments and VHS Video, 200 cm x 250 cm.

J. Francescutti: You appear to depict a fairly grim outlook for both artist and viewer. Is your work a response to what you pose as the anti-humanist condition of our society?

L. Aceti: My position is certainly not based on the conflicting representation of utopia vs. dystopia, but on a complex mediated social existence and the ethical value of technology, which, if inserted in the social context, has the onus to participate in a social and civilized evolution. Having said this I need to clarify that the 'grim outlook' is based on the contemporary ideological frameworks that have generated an anti-humanist social condition. Part of my work focuses strongly on the multiple facets of this process, analyzing both the relation to 'a fascist genetic inheritance' of technology as a human product and the necessity of understanding the relation between the relative and absolute existence of perceptions and truths. On this second point I am philosophically and, from a neuroscience point of view, close to Parmenides and therefore perceive 'the universe' as an existence of levels of truths and realities, both accessible and not accessible.

The anti-humanist condition is a renewed contemporary digital structure that, once having swapped the social model for the economic model, becomes a reality of engagement. On this model the construction of the digital has been based on the reduction of 'humanity' in sellable datasets: it brings to mind at the same time both the utopian Futuristic approach to technology as a form of liberation and the use of technology to 'catalogue' and deport Jews in WWII.

My artworks attempt to demonstrate the level of control exercised in apparently innocuous forms of mediated interactions. The representation of the instantaneous is a 'fake' and the mediated existence is a filter that structures, conditions and controls forms of expression and behaviors. If we are mediated by our brains' neurological structures, in today's transmediated reality we are also mediated by the digital neuronal networks. The engagement is no longer that of Burroughs' free and automatic artistic expressions, but one of continuous assertion and re-assertion of self-control and self-determination under the digital mediated experience that surveys and controls the external and internal existence of the human body.

J. Francescutti: In order to postulate the disappearance of the artist and the viewer, it seems you have a definitive idea of how to define these roles. How would you define them? Do you think that net art, in particular, asks us to rethink the nature of these categories?

L. Aceti: I wish I had a 'definitive' and orderly definition, but that is not in my nature or in my abilities... [laughter] The idea of having a definitive something is exactly what worries me about the human incapacity for an instantaneous and mediated experience, which today has become the instantaneous mediated reality. This instantaneous mediated reality provides engagements that are based on the glossing of existence, interactions and visual representations.

The print work at Framed, titled Pandora Boxed, was glossed several times to take the shape of a real glossy print similar to the mediated visuals that surround our daily existence. At the same time the hidden neuroaesthetic agenda of the work, the constriction of the visual aesthetic/neuronal experience, was invisible. I have some knowledge of the new role that mediated artworks are taking, a role of enhanced 'autonomous' existence that, similar to the cyborg of Haraway, lives by itself. Therefore, there is a disappearance of the traditional roles played by the artist and the viewer.

My issue is that I do not believe that these artworks will be liberators in a neo-futurist approach. Although this approach may preserve, through its mediation, a genetic human cultural inheritance, an aura that is the imprint of its creator, as Benjamin would say, the forms of engagement are different.

Therefore the relationship to these new forms, in particular net art, are altered. There is a necessity to understand that the artist is a creator of behaviors and cultural parameters in the viewer and that the viewer is obliged to behave within the software parameters set by the author. For me this is a form of control of the viewer, and in much of net art, the interactive engagement is an ordered and definitely controlled one.

I think that net art is obliging us to rethink how old forms of enslavement and social constrictions are empowered in the digital realm, wiping out the old categories and generating new forms of action/interaction in the real that are definitely removed from the visual and hidden in the structural component, almost often invisible, of the artwork presented.

Brief Biography

Dr. Lanfranco Aceti is a Leverhulme artist in residence and researcher at the Department of Computer Science, Virtual Reality Environments at University College London. He is also an Honorary Research Fellow at the Slade School of Fine Art.

John Francescutti has an MA EMCA (Enterprise Management for the Creative Arts) from the London College of Communication. He works as an arts manager and curator for digital and Internet art.


This research was made possible through the support of The Leverhulme Trust, the Department of Computer Science, Virtual Reality Environments at UCL and the Slade School of Fine Art.

Special thanks go to Prof. Mel Slater, Prof. John Aiken and Dr. Susan Collins.