OUTRACE, or Only the Virtual

The recent installation of Kram/Weisshaar’s OUTRACE in London’s Trafalgar Square highlights a peculiar contemporary problem. In the digital age, where interface and screens and portals dictate our engagement with various simulations and representations, where does reality exist? This is not as metaphysical as it may seem. Projection is a long-standing technique to produce virtual representations. Since the first uses, be it architectural drawings, maps, sundials, or geometry, humans have amended and augmented reality with virtual representations. In our contemporary representations, the computer gives us faster communication, complex representations, and, at times, higher fidelity.

So I ask again: if reality is paired with realness, or mediated reality, what is, in the end, the distinction at all?

OUTRACE, installed as part of the London Design Festival 2010, is an interactive installation set up in one of the most trafficked spaces in London. In the middle of Trafalgar Square, eight 7-axis CNC (Computer-Numero-Controlled) Robot Arms sit arranged in a circle. They are robots typically used in automobile manufacturing as automated laborers. Audi donated these arms, and Kram/Weisshaar attached Audi headlights to the ends of the robot arms. People log on to the computer or their portable devices and send a 70-character-maximum message to the robots. The robots spell out the message in light, with one character per robot. Each robot takes turns writing a character until the message is complete, inscribing in light a brief statement around this circular array.

A ring of cameras surround the robot setup to capture, in time-lapse, each letter in succession. The cameras are synchronized to the light-drawing robots. When the message is complete, the cameras assemble the message in a video “marquee” of moving text.

Some examples:

The videos are quite beautiful. Glowing letters floating in the air, the background sky dimmed by the cameras to expose for the glowing headlamps, and passing glances at Trafalgar landmarks like the National Gallery and Nelson’s Column all make for an intriguing series of videos that sustain repeated viewing.

In relation to reality, where is the “art” situated? The view live in Trafalgar Square is that of some robots moving around. Only on the internet does the actual artwork emerge. The impressive sight of robots in the middle of a major public space, all the code and labor to make this happen is incomplete without the necessary mediation of another digital technology. In fact, the only people who cannot experience the artwork are those present at the execution.

Different mediation is required for those in attendance. A person can take their own time-lapse photograph with their digital camera to decode at least part of the message:

Or a visitor can watch the screens installed directly below the robots to see what the robot is drawing:

Both require additional technology to mediate and interpret the real experience. And even still, the experience is not complete without revolving 360 degrees around the installation.

It is a curious net effect. The work perfectly inverts standard artistic, touristic, and participatory expectations. The installation is visible to the entire world provided you do not see it in reality. Rather than augment the real (as in a sporting event, which has both real and virtual spectators), OUTRACE subjugates the real to its virtual counterpart. As strange as it may feel, this may be the legacy of virtual experiences. The Real is only one way to experience, and it may not be required for experience at all.

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