Are you programmed to speak?

Are you programmed to speak

…was the inscription on a stone house I made for an exhibition at Breanäs Cultural Centre in 1997. A number of artists were asked to make proposals for a stone sculpture park. At the time of the invitation, I was working on an animated movie fully created in 3D. The difference as to both material and modality was enormous, and I immediately decided to make a direct translation of a single frame of animation into a massive stone house; a conversion of one 25th of a second to a time span of at least a hundred years.


“I have found myself returning again and again to a single problem: the intricate interplay between temporality and representation in human existence. A paradoxical problem in human life, I have long believed, is not how to overcome time but how to affirm its passage by embracing the arising and passing away that does not arise or pass away. Nothing lasts because all is in endless transition. Time, in other words, is the inescapable medium of our existence.”1

In my own practice, I always had a very close relationship with the material that I have used for investigating and executing my ideas. In all my works, no matter what stuff I have chosen for its realization, the establishing of a ‘substantial’ dialogue has been of uttermost importance. There should be no difference between the critical mass of the idea and the final outcome, the artwork as such, but an interwoven unity between theoretical and formal matter. Since 1984, the computer has played a major role in enabling precisely that. So, what have I personally learned from this ‘new’ material? In an attempt to answer, I will use parts of Sol Lewitt’s Sentences of Conceptual Art. Pointing out possibilities and problems that I also have encountered, these sentences illuminates how you, as an artist, may set up, stage, and pursue different projects, either on your own or together with others in a multidisciplinary environment.

“If the artist changes his mind midway through the execution of the piece he compromises the result and repeats past results.”2


In many of the workshops which I have organized and participated in, the overall theme has been to show the participants that they eventually can create versatility in a specific situation by putting up various constraints and rules that – when played out – will evoke results differing from those generated through thinking in general.

Drawing Maps – Walk your Talk

I will give an example. In order to provide maps for a future visit to Berlin, we encouraged interaction design students to document their everyday movements during a week in the form of drawn maps. These maps were later transcribed onto the map of Berlin. Once in Berlin, we suggested two possible directions. One was to find a part of Berlin that fitted underneath the pre-fabricated map like a double exposure. The other one suggested reading of their walks as a set of instructions that told them in what direction they should walk or turn. The execution of the maps, the actual walking of the streets guided by them, resulted in an unforeseen and surprising experience.




Sampling and scenarios


In the early ’90s, I tried to combine different images and objects on the computer, and then translating them into physical objects again. Here, the role of technology was not only that of the obedient tool but that of a co-producer. Electronic media has in this sense raised our consciousness of an incidental flux in our culture, where cultural production implies dislocation of fragments and a re-combination of them in new ways. The “cut-up” of Burroughs or the Surrealists game of exquisite corpse is no longer weird even for ordinary people. Similarly, the technique of sampling takes its precedent, the montage, some giant steps further. While montage or collage are kinds of juxtapositions, de-, and reconstructions, sampling works on a more genetic level, actualizing the principle that, since all media objects share the same foundation,3 they can establish another kind of interpolation. The virtual object may in this respect challenge the physical object with qualities hard to achieve in the physical world. Through this conflict, new expressions can be fruitfully developed.

As a result, hybridization has emerged as a method for cultural production, not only in terms of a merging of different formal elements but as a blending of creative identities as well; a dissolution of authorship. In this sense, there is a demand for a deeper challenge of the difference between the virtual and the physical object; a will to explore rather than diffuse incompatibilities. Evolving through different media and materials, the final hybrid will host an interesting comprehension of the two perspectives; incorporating surprising visual and technical qualities, both unusual, enriching and engaging.


At that time, the tools were still very simple, and the different computational outputs were limited. Instead of actually writing my own sampling software, I, therefore, started to write scenarios and simulate various computer programs not yet written. For an exhibition at Malmö Konsthall I also wrote the text “BOOM.” It served as a source of inspiration for a series of paintings with the software’s outcome in focus.

“Here you can manufacture a world for its future inhabitants in a couple of hours since it will not take you any longer to enter BOOM into your computer. In the years to come the program will undoubtedly have a great influence, especially upon the thinking and lifestyle of man. The principal reason for this is the fact that the concepts and methods of the program are so tantalizing and accessible. What you do is that you provide a data memory with a set of facts, then you load this memory with mathematical data. There are an infinite number of parameters to set for the user; everything, from the way in which the cholesterol level of a certain president will develop during a certain period of time, to the background-radiation of the universe. The mathematics, which is to become the persons’ or places’ “daily habitation,” is not completed but is, almost as if not fully formulated, deferred, latent since it only constitutes certain possible chances and certain routes that are determined in the appropriately programmed subroutines of the program. It is recommendable to work in a scale which you find comfortable, otherwise you might lose your intuition rather quickly, and in a program like this, intuition is of decisive importance.”5


“Successful art changes our understanding of the conventions by altering our perceptions.”

The method I mostly employ here refers to what Claude Levi-Strauss called bricolage:6 a thinking-experimenting, which, rather than devising something brand new, solves problems by re-organizing what is available, what is at hand. It is an approach which does not explicitly define and reduce objects to a sole function,7 but which instead enables objects to continually generate something else, to develop hidden potentials. It is furthermore a method whose applicability in no way is confined to resolute, practical problems, but a method that may as well be used theoretically, poetically, hypochondriacally, hallucinatory, phantasmatically.8

Such a “wild thinking” aiming at undermining the present must nevertheless have a starting point and a location, where this laborious work can take place. Such a location was unintentionally conjured up in the mid-seventies, when the Swedish Public Broadcasting Company, educating their listeners in how to manage the new stereo technique, was stating the following:

my voice will now be coming from the right loudspeaker

my voice will now be coming from the left loudspeaker

my voice will now be coming from in between the loudspeakers

my voice will now be coming from an indefinite location in space


This ‘indefinite location’ is a dimension completely different from the distant, ‘outside’ location of the natural sciences, the exterior point from which reality is measured and translated into objectivity.9 Instead, we are here confronted with an indefiniteness in our nearness, within the room, as well as a voice imperatively calling forth its own elusive presence. Present within the room but not clearly localized, the voice in many ways actualizes a potential in the prevalent; a floating possibility, latent in the persisting present.10

“The artist cannot imagine his art, and cannot perceive it until it is complete.”


Creativity is often looked upon as a value separate from process or method. But creativity detached from the rendering of an intentional outcome is meaningless. For the artist, creativity is a ‘tool’ with a purpose. It is therefore subordinated the artist’s intentions and ideas. One tends to forget that the actual realization of the artwork in a specific material often is a very monotone and demanding process. Therefore, the artist soon learns how to handle the timeframe between idea and completion – as well as the importance to spend time there. The finished artwork will then signal creativity precisely because it has managed to bridge the uncertain space between idea and completion, and because of that, has not given up the artworks intentions, which easily could have ended in predictable, foreseeable objects.


“Once the idea of the piece is established in the artist’s mind and the final form is decided, the process is carried out blindly. There are many side effects that the artist cannot imagine. These may be used as ideas for new works.”


In 1997, together with a colleague, I realized a project called “from an indefinite point in Cartesian space”. Here, we literally travelled around the world, visiting different places and locations that were the result of specific ideologies. These ideologies might have been abandoned but they had still left traces in terms of monuments or buildings. After nearly 18 months of traveling and collecting material, we tried to get an overview. It was not a success but it led us in another direction of considering a method for staging and navigating a complex body of data.

My computer is 36 square meters

At a certain point, after having visited over 20 locations, we concluded that now was the time to stop collecting new material. The material had mostly been immediately digitized into a single computer, which at that time had become a quite extensive database. One day, my colleague said to me:

– I do not know what is inside that computer anymore, let’s print everything out.

So we did. It covered a 4 times 9 meters big wall and it kept us busy for four days, going through every image, sound, 3D model, video sequences and animation. However, in the end, we did not manage to create the desired overview; that which had looked so promising in the beginning. Nevertheless, the overall structure presented on the wall was still very inviting for people that came and went in the studio. They stopped for a while, they started to look at the material and read the text, and by moving parallel with the representation, they created their own stories and routes of navigation through disordered references.



Five years later, this way of navigating through a physical database was concretely realized in the exhibition project “fieldasy.” Slightly different from the interaction with the 36 square meter computer wall, the spectators here stepped from shelf to shelf, arranging their own stories. The shelves and body movements would here create disruptions and rhythms; a spatially augmented experience analogous to the one Kurt Schwitters wanted to convey, when he, in a meeting with Hans Richter, introduced himself with the phrase “I’m a painter and I nail my pictures together.”11 Painting and nailing seem to belong to different domains, but were integrated in Schwitters’ Merzbau; a gigantic project giving physical form to an assemblage of objects and spatial configurations. In a similar way, the body in the “fieldasy” exhibition would situate the viewing – moving, nailing – at the same time performing an act of imagining, combining the objects into visual stories – painting.




“The process is mechanical and should not be tampered with. It should run its course.”

In order to broaden my range of interaction methods and also in order to work with more nuanced interaction techniques, I also looked at how to use the body as an interface in relation to 3D modelling. In the “Kung fu design” project, which in many ways was a failure, I tried to set up a system that could translate the dynamics of drawing into an appropriate software. The focus here was to establish a situation that supported many synchronic inputs, enabling the 3D object to be manipulated in real-time and at several points at once.

But when I tried to go from idea to realization in digital media and interaction design, I underestimated both the timeframe and my own technical skills. With a background in the practical fields of art and 3D animation, entering an almost exclusively conceptual environment was a very disappointing experience, and for me, an experience from which I learnt a lesson. I soon found out that technical issues cannot be solved solely by developing new concepts and vice versa. This led to the conclusion of never entering the domain of technical development all by myself again. The question remains: what kind of strategies can one adopt if one wants to work in the forefront of art and digital media in a more refined way than just proposing poetic pushbuttons?




My reaction was that I simply had to come up with a programmable space other than the computer. Hosting and facilitating artistic development in a complex production environment such as the one of digital media required a methodological space that could be supported by invited artists, researchers and students; a space enabling diverse parties to continuously transfer their knowledge into the project. The “fieldasy” exhibition in this respect provided the answer.

“fieldasy” became my method for engaging multiple perspectives in the creation of a world, as well as in the mapping of its virtual space. While the final outcome of this project still lies ahead, the space already gave rise to a series of artistic expressions driving the overall project forward. “fieldasy” combines field work and fantasy, invoking imagination by using physical objects. The objects constitute a shared ground for collaborative creativity; they serve as nodes in a complex narrative and as a basis for the creation of a world. Here, I will shortly describe the process, methods and artefacts developed. I will also discuss how this approach can promote and foster artistic development in a composite setting, sustained by invited artists, researchers (computer scientists) and students (in interaction design), allowing for a continuous transference and exchange of experience.

There are three aspects of the project: The Framework, which was called “The City of Abadyl”; The Method, which was the above described “fieldasy;” and the Output, which consisted in a series of artefacts, eventually displayed in a series of exhibitions.




The framework 

Have you ever wanted to build a world of you own? In 1999, when we had finished the art project “From an Indefinite Point in Cartesian Space,” which had generated 2000 low-res and 550 high-res models of buildings, interiors, objects and exteriors, all of which were split up in over 50 scenes, we saw a unique possibility to do precisely that; creating a world of our own. With that in mind, we extracted all of the models from the separate scenes and placed them on top of a superimposed infrastructure of sixteen different Formula One tracks. Using personas, role-playing (GURPS), and conceptual mathematical formulas, we were then able to explore and furnish our world. We named this virtual world “The City of Abadyl” and made it the initial venue for the project. Many peoples’ dream is to enter a world of their own creation; a dream which seldom leads to action. The task is much too complex, too demanding, and the risk of being disappointed about what you could achieve is evident. But since we already had generatedso many models of buildings, interiors, objects and exteriors, we saw a unique possibility to at least provide a promising start. The basic idea was to establish a space where we could practice a constructive critique, of art, of culture and of society, and this in a dynamic material and in a mixed reality space.

To be able to create an infrastructure that could host the already developed models we came up with the idea to set up a closed, yet complex space; an area whose borders towards the surrounding unknown were blurred. To support this, we looked for metaphors that could describe such a delimited space. The analogy with racing tracks was obvious; roads that just looped themselves through their environment. Still, we had to find, write and draw a set of characteristics for every part of the city in order to be able to see what of all our gathered material that would correspond to its different parts. A sort of simplified pattern language12 had to be developed.


The numbers 7, 16 and 100 

16 Formula One tracks became our point of departure. They were put on top of each other, thus shaping an interesting ornamentation of roads just waiting to be driven on. The city was then divided into sixteen parts with their own separate ideology, architecture, fashion, lifestyles etc.

7 scale systems were introduced in order to handle the the city’s event spaces, described as different levels of action.


  1. Environment
  2. Building
  3. Room
  4. Furniture
  5. Tool
  6. Interface
  7. Idea



100 objects representing the city or the world were introduced, inspired by Peter Greenaway’s encyclopaedic approach: ”This one mocks human endeavour by seeking to be totally representative encyclopaedically –but in brief. It takes care of scale and time, masculine and feminine, cat and dog. It acknowledges everything – everything alive and everything dead. It should leave nothing out – every material, every technique, every type of every type, every science, every art and every discipline, every construct, illusion, trick and device we utilise to reflect our vanity and insecurity, and our disbelief that we are so cosmically irrelevant. Since every natural and cultural object is such a complex thing and all are so endlessly interconnected, this ambition should not be as difficult as you might imagine. And in its vain glorious self mocking ambition to be so embracingly encyclopaedic lies perhaps the greatest representation of the human endeavour that has got us so far”.13 The objects would help us shape the differences in every part of the city and serve as a series of obstacles. The purpose was to interfere both with objects already built and with activities that were going to occur later on.



The Method

How do you go about exploring a complex digital space in a setting that invites to participation? We wanted to show how a detailed and complex, yet open world can be utilized in order to generate scenarios for the temporary co-creators of Abadyl, who would then interact in an optional environment, in the end producing new artefacts. This combination of interactive situations and artefactual production we called “fieldasy.” While the major part of research on interactive narratives has aimed at exploring interactivity as consumption of finished art works or end-products, “fieldasy” concentrated on developing collaboration in the production of new media.

While artistic collaboration and interaction in digital media have been the topics for a huge amount of research over the last few years, the focus has mainly been on the reception of art works that are either fixed or evolving, while methods for asynchronous, collaborative creativity yet have to be thoroughly explored. Another aspect of research has been how digital technologies support collaboration and interaction in physical space. Here, ”fieldasy” reverses the question and asks how real life collaboration and physical art objects can support the creation of real-time virtual characters and worlds. Using representations of real objects and movements for creating 3D worlds is not new, but has not been used that frequently for the development and represention of psychological features of characters.




While the role of scenarios in design has been restricted to the providing of narrative descriptions of use, other cultural domains have generated more speculative methods for collaboration, where the scenario have functioned both as a constraint and as a generator in a chain of associative artistic work producing artefacts. An interview with one of the participators of “fieldasy” revealed that ”imagination was tickled by the fact that I was a part of a networked mapping I didn’t know in detail. The scenario got me going, but I felt no repressing obligation towards it and also felt more liberated than in the situations of my own work, where I’m the responsible and potential object for critique.” The “fieldasy” method of using scenarios as probing for co-creative imaginative efforts aimed at establishing a platform for collaboration that was not dependent upon control of the communication channels. Rather, the idea was to establish an openended way of working, where scenarios originated in the very encounter with the beforehand unknown artefacts assimilated into Abadyl.

Unforeseen and composite results were central. As British architect Neil Spiller has argued, representing the complexity of a city is an impossible task for individuals or homogenous teams: ”[F]or there is a powerful analogy between the mind and the city. Is it not true that the city is also a collection of specialized homunculi, each conjoined in fluctuating strategies and hierarchies, each with a past that can be traced, both geographically and biologically? Society is about a type of human connectedness: The complexity of the city or a global system is massive: consider the charting of our human module’s simple geographical location and interaction with the fabric of the city, let alone that of its infinitely more complex neural (perceptual) counterpart.”14 Another generative possibility is to let cocreators deal with problems of another scale than the normal. In the book Art and Design: Art meets Science and Spirituality, a series of interviews with different authorities in the field is presented: The Dalai Lama, Fritjof Capra, Robert Rauschenberg, H J Witteveen, and David Boom.15 The opening question is very interesting but also pretentiously and provocatively wide:

— What is your vision of the world in which we live?

By placing such ”hard-to-answer questions” in a scenario, where the respondent is not fully in control of or responsible for his or her actions, he or she can eventually take on responsibility for such questions and find ways and means to act out the given problem in a given material. In the novel “The Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino, Marco Polo presents such complex scenarios to Kublai Khan, furthermore in the shape of cities: ”Even I have elaborated a model of a city that could be legible for every city. It is a city made up only of exceptions, obstacles, constraints, incongruence and non-existence”16. What potentiallymakes this model a generative one is the fact that it relies upon negatives that can hardly be foreseen by a single creator.

A co-creator imports qualities into the world, which do not and cannot stem from the world itself.

The assimilation of objects into Abadyl is not done by simple rendering of the artefactsinto virtual shapes, but instead by letting them form the basis for the rendering of characters inhabiting Abadyl. This creates a multi-levelled structure of meaning out of the objects, adding to them an active dimension. On the one hand constitutive of the virtual characters, they are on the other hand still art objects in their own right. Thus, the method for collaboration also creates a platform for co-operative expression.




The output 

How do you stage involvement and continuous development? We tried to point out the specific qualities unfolding in the transference of artefacts and scenarios from physical to virtual space. In a series of iterations, we tried to show how a multi-threaded open work consisting of mixed materials can be communicated amongst its participants as a kind of exhibiting or furnishing. The Output could thus be described in terms of the recreation and use of a ‘furnishable’ structure; as much an exhibition of artefacts as a participatory playground. There is a demand for unprejudiced examining of the gap between virtual and physical objects. Rather than bridging the divide, one should explore incompatibilities. By letting the virtual and physical evolve in different media and materials, the final hybrid will host an interesting comprehension of the two perspectives. Incorporating the surprising and the unusual, this hybridization will ultimatelly result in proposals that are enriching and engaging both visually and technically. Abadyl is in this sense a kind of urban utopia. Similar to Michael Sorkins “Local Code,” it attempts “to imagine a city via a code, a regulatory prescription for an urban fantasy.”17 Such theories lodge on the one hand in a space between nature, culture, technology, politics and economics, and on the other hand in a set of physical visions. All cities are formed by this relationship, whether simple or complex, acknowledged or unconscious. But where Sorkin ends, we actually started; in the creation of a mixed reality space –The City of Abadyl.




“Against the self-evident – a thorough indefiniteness, a defined obscurity. Where there is architecture there is nothing else. And this “nothing else” is spreading. The built buildings, the laid-out streets and marked-out parking spaces are not just taking place, they take over the place. As we, with Walter Benjamin’s words, usually experience architecture in a distracted way, the result is a universe which in its persistent presence excludes, even precludes, all other things. A kind of everyday totalitarianism, whose frontier towards the potential is not a ban, but a persevering negligence. The frontier towards that which is difficult to imagine is so fine, rendering the self-evident the only conceivable. I am driving down this street, parking in this space and entering this building, not because I wish to, but because, obviously, there are no other alternatives. If nothing else, then a conspiracy of the safe and snug against… well, against what? Maybe against the never realized. Even frustration and expectation are channelled into ever-narrowing and ever more directed furrows. I want/do not want (to do) this, turns into a choice between total acceptance of the given and militant extremism against it. What this given is or could be must not be a question of doubt. That the conjugations “be (it so)” and “were (it so)” in just two generations have achieved a ring to them so antiquated that they hardly can be casually pronounced, demonstrates how fast this works. For what has become antiquated is nothing less than the ability to think “something else” within that which is apparent. The Utopia is forfeited, irrespective of whether it is unthinkable for historical reasons, or whether it is realised in history.”18




“fieldasy” subsequently comprises attempts to understand and redefine our world in a situation where exhaustive and thorough information is lacking. This lack, or negative, is then transformed into a resource. With the departure in the ambiguous, the fragmentary, or the incomplete, the scenarios will put no constraints on imagination. Based upon the architecture of a city, “fieldasy” serves as a generative force, unfolding as a space where we can be in constant dialogue with a large database of material, regardless of its incompatibilities. A continuously evolving platform for staging both immediate and long-term projects, the “fieldasy” method establishes a multidisciplinary common ground for art practice, interaction design and technological development; an unprejudiced philosophical and critical investigation both of and in a dynamic material.

A dialogue rather than a method, “fieldasy” proposes an open-ended way of working, where original scenarios unfold through the confrontation with beforehand unknown artefacts. The scenarios’ relation to the overall project is loosely defined as to allow for the creation of art works that – although enriching the database – still stay autonomous from the mother project in the sense that they can be exhibited by themselves. While engendering new and unforeseen processes, they also act as generators of new and likewise unforeseen contexts. While the participators disseminate their knowledge throughout the platform, they also extract something, which can inform their own future practice. As a conclusion, working with the exhibition as format for enhancing both internal and external communication may provide a viable, yet surprising and eventful approach to innovation and design.


Notes and references

1 Marc C. Taylor (1999), The Picture in Question, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

2 Sol Lewitt, (1969), “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” Art – Language: the Journal of Conceptual Art 1:1.

3 Lev Manovich, (2001), The Language of New Media, Cambridge: MIT Press.

4 Exhibition “Sydnytt,” 1991 at Malmö Art Hall.

5 From the “BOOM” text, 1991 exhibition catalogue Sydnytt, Malmö Konsthall

6 Claude Levi-Strauss (1966), The Savage Mind, Chicago: University of ChicagoPress.

7 The fact that it is possible already on the blueprint of the house to write in ”bedroom” and ”living room”, and that we normally adjust to this, is showing how deep ”functionalism” has penetrated our minds.

8 When there – as in my case – are no fixed references behind the text or when the references at hand have evaporated or become transfigured and can no longer be traced, they ask themselves: where does he come from? But also where is he heading? And from where is he speaking? But my starting point has, as I have said, never been a tradition of theory or the history of ideas. I always start out from objects and situations, particularly objects. Most of all I have been fervently occupied with objects. In other words my notion of theory as not being there to explain or analyse objects, but to face them – the theory and the object in frontal collision, like trains on the same track, in opposing directions. Facing the object, the theory should explode, it has to explode, it has to blast, blow up. Same strategy I assume in relation to other theories, intellectual suppositions, ideas. I regard them as objects, try to lash out to them – more or less as when you try to hit the molecules in a laboratory – when you try to hit them as objects to shift them according to their logic to a point where they lose their meaning, where they somehow are disarmed or made defenceless. But we are no longer speaking of metaphors, in terms of moving an import from one area to another. We are talking about poetic extrapolations lacking the metaphor’s values. The metaphor is admittedly serious, seriously intended, it has an effect in meaning. When transferring concepts from other areas, I don’t intend achieving a certain import, rather I try to create a surprise effect, cause an unexpected collision, right where everything seemed lucid and hazard free. (Jean Baudrillard (1987), Det fatale (Fatal Strategies), Copenhagen: Gyldendal. Freely translated from Danish version.)

9 This point too has proven itself absurd. [This point too has proven itself absurd (even if strikingly efficient). Gödel, Heisenberg, Bohr etc]

10 Extract from The City of Abadyl exhibition catalogue by Niklas Söderberg.

11 Mansoor, J, Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau: The Desiring House, in Invisible Culture,Issue

12 Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein (1977), A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, New York: Oxford U.P.

13 Peter Greenaway (1992), Hundred Objects to Represent the World, Stuttgart:Verlag Gerd Hatje.

14 Neil Spiller (1998), Digital Dreams: Architecture and the New Alchemic Technologies, London: Ellipsis.

15 Papadakis, A. (1990), Art and Design: Art Meets Science and Spirituality, Academy Editions: London.

16 Italo Calvino (1972), Invisible Cities, San Diego: Harcourt Brace.

17 Michael Sorkin (1993), Local Code: The Constitutions of a City at 42 N Latitude, Princeton Architectural Press

18 From the exhibition catalogue text “Abadyl: Maps Scales and Objects” by Niclas Söderberg.