Machines of the Unreal: Mapping the Passage between the Virtual and the Material in the Attraction
My dissertation and book project, Machines of the Unreal: Mapping the Passage between the Virtual and the Material in the Attraction, creates a theoretical framework for understanding popular technologies of perception conventionally studied as separate media practices in terms of their common basis in the concept of the attraction. By comparing the epistemological affordances of older platforms such as cabinets of curiosity with contemporary platforms like computer graphics, Machines of the Unreal examines how the creative relationship between the technical operation and the phenomenological effects of these attractions challenges us to think of spectatorship as an act of engagement with the world. Specifically, my project locates this participatory mode of spectatorship in the attraction’s capacity to stage processes of emergence and simulation. In doing so, the attraction acts as a translator between the virtual and the material, by realizing imaginary regimes of perception in the form of sensible images, and conversely, by establishing itself as a procedure or system for the production of physical phenomena. In this process, attractions illuminate the frontiers of our relationship with objects, becoming sites where exteriority – defined as the spectator’s sense of the world outside herself that is not subject to her control, which she cannot assimilate, but that also physically incorporates her – is expressed and negotiated.
Critical theory has often associated attractions and the spectacular in general with the loss of the subject’s intellectual and emotional autonomy. Machines of the Unreal contends that this preconception fails to address the mechanism of spectatorship particular to the attraction and its impact on the aesthetics of cinema and new media. As emerging entertainment platforms like virtual reality and sensor-based networks increasingly question our rapport with our own exteriority, as well as our utilitarian conceptions of technology, the attraction becomes a theoretical tool for modeling contemporary modes of engagement with the material world. “Garden of Machines: the Emergence of Robotic Art”, published in the Techno-Ecologies II issue of the journal Acoustic Space correlates this imaginative practice of technology with a cognitive shift in how we perceive our environment as a community of humans and non-humans. I discuss how this practice manifests itself in effects of recursion in cabinets of curiosities and the uncanny phenomenology of the phantasmagoria in “Expanded Cinema as Universe-in-a-Box: the Neo-Baroque Poetics of Space” published in the Re-New 2013 Digital Arts Forum Proceedings.
Fragments of Life: Ethics and the Aesthetic Value of Emergent Complexity
My next book project, Fragments of Life: Ethics and the Aesthetic Value of Emergent Complexity, explores how exteriority, our internalized relationship with the material world, is currently being renegotiated as a problematic interface between human and non-human domains. In dialog with Gilbert Simondon, Emmanuel Levinas and Jane Bennett, I address how media representations from locative media art to games and nature documentaries articulate the aesthetic value of life in the face of increasingly rogue systems of human and non-human actors such as the warming climate or the global surveillance apparatus. This work proposes that aesthetic representations of the emergent complexity that characterizes both living and technological systems also constitute ethical statements that compel us to redefine how we understand our own capacity for agency.
As it becomes difficult if not impossible to disentangle natural ecosystems from human processes, how do we value competing forms of life, whether these are pre-existing “native” life-forms or technologically produced ones? As individual agents, including private citizens and endangered species, are increasingly subsumed in opaque political, economic and environmental systems, their aesthetic visibility in media and art takes on a sense of ethical urgency. This common visibility highlights new alliances between human and non-human agents that supersede the old division between culture and nature, entwining us in new forms of emergent complexity capable of resisting the larger systems of control, like global warming or mass surveillance, that threaten us. In this context, how we express and negotiate our exteriority – our internal interface with the material world – takes on a political as well as a personal significance.
My practice-based research project Polyangylene (2014-2016) stages this emergent complexity as an unfolding attraction that draws attention to the spectator’s habitual immersion in concatenated systems of objects. The spectator engages with the “liveness” of the inanimate through a kinetic sculpture of found objects whose identities are cyclically collapsed and transformed by projections of other objects mapped onto the sculpture.
Peer-reviewed Journal Articles
Lauren Fenton. “A Garden of Machines: the Emergence of Robotic Art”. Techno-Ecologies II. Spec. issue of Acoustic Space 12.1 (2014)
Publications of Conference Proceedings
Lauren Fenton and Clea T. Waite. “Selenology and the Curious Topology of Narrative”. Proceedings of ISEA 2014: the 20th International Symposium of Electronic Arts. (2014)
Lauren Fenton. “Expanded Cinema as Universe-in-a-Box: the Neo-Baroque Poetics of Space”. Re-New 2013 Proceedings/ Digital Arts Forum. Gunalan Nadarajan and Edward A. Shanken (Eds.). ISSN 2245-7801. (2013)
Lauren Fenton and Clea T. Waite. “Cine-Installation: The Book of Luna”. Proceedings of ISEA 2013: the 19th International Symposium of Electronic Arts. Kathy Cleland, Laura Fisher, and Ross Harley (Eds.). ISEA International and the University of Sydney, Sydney. (2013)
“From Tropical Fish to Fantasy Museums: the Theme-ing of Space”. The 7th International Conference on Design Principles and Practices. Los Angeles, California. 20-22 January (2012)
“Toy Logic: Experience and Design”. ISEA 2011: The 17th International Symposium of Electronic Arts. Istanbul, Turkey, 14-21 September (2011)
“The Emergence of Baroque Entertainment Worlds”. Kitsch, Curios, Camp Comparative Literature Conference, University of Southern California. Los Angeles, California. 22 April (2011)