MirNs at New Media Gallery, New Westminster
By Yani Kong
Visiting MirNs, an exhibition of interactive technology-based art at New Media Gallery in New Westminster, was one of the most enjoyable afternoons I have spent looking at art. Curators Sarah Joyce and Gordon Duggan have taken ideas of identity and reflection, and the workings of the mirror as their points of departure. The exhibition is grounded in psychoanalysis and the formation of self through mirror processes, but the experience of these works emphasizes an embodied flow that should not be dismissed. Through robotics, coding, artificial intelligence, facial recognition, and motion capture and sensor technology, works by Mario Klingeman, Random International, Louis-Philippe Rondeau, Shinseungback Kimyonghun, Daniel Rozin, and Klaus Obermaier use technology’s responsive capacities to create a kinetic relationship between their artworks and the viewer. The result is delightful and exciting. Each individual piece is a moving body that follows the viewer’s actions. Unlike a mirror, this movement is never quite parroted back; instead, it is sometimes beautifully and almost always humorously reinterpreted by the machine. The works are delightfully conversant. You don’t have to touch them to feel seen, not as a perfect reflection, but as an image that shows how the art understands you.
Uncanny Mirror by Klingeman executes this idea exactly (that is, imperfectly) by using artificial intelligence to produce a semi-reflective image of the viewer based on what the machine learns when they stand in front of it. According to the artist’s description of his medium: GANs, short for generative adversarial networks, are a particular architecture of deep neural networks which turned out to be very effective at learning how to generate new images based on a set of training examples… Initially [the] networks know nothing about the task they have to do and produce very unconvincing results, but every time one of the models makes a mistake…they learn from that and slightly improve their methods. As I shift in front of the Uncanny Mirror’s lens, the screen changes to show how it thinks of me, manipulating my image into a swirled and melting version with lips that inflate and retract or cheeks that soften and bulge. If I were to spend more time with the machine, the better it would learn to see me.
The exhibition generates real pleasure through distortion. Rondeau’s work Liminal uses slit-scanner technology and interactive hoops that you step through. As you send your body through the hoop, it projects a moving image of you that reflects your duration through the scanner. Hold your arm from one side of the circle to the other and it elongates your limbs. Move your head in and out of the hoop and it conjoins your faces.
Obermaier’s Ego, made with Stefano D’Alessio and Martina Menegon, equally reinterprets the viewer, animating them as a playful stick figure of ambiguous gender (a little like the heavenly helpers in Pixar’s Soul). The figures sonically chatter. This quirky excitement encourages you to play with yourself. I made a plank, jumped around, and tried some rude gestures. Because it reflects your movement but not your body, there’s a nice tension produced between performance and identity formation.
The three works by Rozin, Random International, and Kimyounghun play with the fallacy of the mirror through experiments with low-resolution, hyper-sensitivity, and refusal. The art moves as if to have its own breath. In particular, Rozin’s PomPom Mirror undulates and sways with the viewer. The mechanism controlling this motion buzzes and swarms as black and white feathered “pixels” burst and withdraw. The effect is both loving and intimate, as if to caress something essential in their movement.
There is a challenge in remaining critical of new media art because the technology is often too fascinating. I admit I experienced this in trying to write this review. Yet, I found the works in this exhibit gifted back to me a kind of embodied pleasure where machinic interaction threw me back upon myself. The title of the exhibition refers to the mirror neuron, which plays a central role in the development of our human empathic responses. I often write about how art can bring us to a place that opens our senses towards the world; in this exhibition, it turned me towards myself. Perhaps because of the distracted way we typically use our electronic devices, this was a welcome change.
Yani Kong is a SSHRC Doctoral Fellow of Contemporary Art at The School for the Contemporary Arts at SFU. She is the managing editor of the Comparative Media Arts Journal, a freelance writer and critic, and an instructor and TA in Art History and Communication.