Total Immersion Art | FEED: an ob-scene performance

I’ve experienced FEED in 2006 at at Netmage, in Bologna, Italy. So what’s the point in going three years back in time and talk about it now?

Well, for starters, Kurt Hentschlager‘s performance is one of the most powerful and invasive performances I ever experienced. And it’s definitely one of the most intelligent implementations of the idea of immersive communication. Why is FEED that good? It stresses the visual, audio, olfactory and tactile limits of the human perception telling us a story about the evolution of the media and the evolution of our mediated sensory experience of the world, from a state of frontal detachment to a state of total immersion.

Quite an epic journey actually, which had its own victims during some of the European shows with drop-out cases due to photosensitive epilepsy (only in the subjects already inclined to photosensitive epilepsy). Basically the brain can’t help processing a such intense flow of stimuli and, well, it just crashes… Call it a biological evolution of the Stendhal Syndrome which echoes in the body the sensory evolution of mediated communication. As a Liberation journalist described it after experiencing FEED, “a near-death experience sans consequences”.

The experience itself and the many conversations I had with Kurt over the past three years (thanks Kurt!) played such a crucial role in my understanding of immersive communication that I feel it would be really missing the whole point of this blog if I wasn’t sharing it with you here, now. So here it is, the first review I wrote after experiencing FEED for the first time (yes I’ve done it more than once ;-) , the second time at Sonar in Barcellona one year later). Let’s start from the very beginning, the artist-to-audience intro:

I am writing this introduction to better explain why you are confronted with the rather prominent list of warnings associated with FEED and asked to sign a waiver before attending the show.

My interest lies in creating an artificial landscape or architecture for experiencing a state of vivid contemplation and in so doing, an artificial yet authentic moment. FEED, in its second half, features intense stroboscopic light in combination with thick artificial fog, resulting in an increasing loss of spatial orientation and ultimately no depth of field and 3D vision. Perception of space is collapsing to the plane of the retina. A synchronized sound-scape and sub-low bass (sine waves 25h-50Hz) augments this impression, creating a heightened physical experience for a total duration of approximately 15 minutes. Most people lack reference for the visual events unfolding, which in itself might create a sense of unease. This and the absence of normal spatial orientation make the flickering mass seem to glue one to the spot. It can make some people feel claustrophobic.

So let me start with the essential warnings to assure everybody’s safety:

“To attend FEED is under no circumstances appropriate and can actually be dangerous for anybody with a personal history or even a family history of so called photosensitive epilepsy.

Due to the immersive nature of Feed, which makes stroboscopic flicker inescapably fill one’s entire view field, known phenomena linked to photosensitivity like a feeling of seasickness or motion sickness, fainting and short term memory blackouts can be experienced in various degrees.

The degree of photosensitivity differs from person to person; non-epileptic people, without any history of epilepsy, have been found to experience photosensitive seizures or fainting in dance clubs or events during stroboscopic light shows. You could be susceptible without knowing you are. So ask yourself if you ever felt noxious or dizzy when exposed to strobe light? If your answer is even vaguely yes, you cannot see Feed.

Apart from photosensitivity, anybody suffering from asthma, breathing and heart problems, abnormal (high or low) blood pressure, migraine & headaches, all kinds of eye & ear diseases cannot see the show.

People suffering from claustrophobia or increased anxiety, even people who temporarily don’t feel well, should not attend.

Pregnant women are also strongly advised to refrain from attending.“

Lights off, here we go…

We sit in a completely dark environment, with a black screen and a soundscape interwoven with low indistinguishable frequencies that slowly grow and define themselves.

As the sound assumes barely identifiable shapes the black screen starts showing first one, then many identical 3D human body models, sexually ambiguous, with no face and completely naked. The bodies fluctuate in the black liquid space of
the screen, only moved by sound frequencies that force them into periodical spasmodic contortions.

The movements are “procedural”, i.e. not manually animated but constantly generated by a video-game graphic engine. The power of sound, the number of bodies and of the convulsions grows progressively in rhythm and intensity until reaching an extreme peak… when the system suddenly shuts down. We’re all again immersed in darkness… but what kind of darkness is that?

Many smoke jets suddenly start flooding the room until it’s completely saturated. The fog is so thick that one can neither see one’s body, nor one’s hands. It’s about completely loosing perception. All is touch, hearing and smell.

Now our real, analog bodies begin fluctuating to the tactile stimulations of massive bass sounds, noses are filled with the smell of dry ice, strobe lightning and colored lamps illuminate the space, evenly spreading through the thick white air. Visual stimulations become so fast and violent that the retina can’t even process them and so generates transformative fractals of various colors and shapes. The fog is so dense it feels like touching light.

Thick fog, visual and audio hyper-stimulation shatter the frontal dimension of theatrical spectacle and give us an uncanny, oppressive and sacral sensation all at the same time: we are actually inside the liquid blackness of that screen, totally at the mercy of a powerful flow of sound and light. The audience’s bodies have replaced the asexual 3D models. Or, better, the screen has wrapped up the physical space through a genial amputation of sight, which has completely reshaped the audience’s ”sense-ratio”. The fog cuts out sight and transforms any visual stimulation into a tactile stimulation.

But this is exactly the way media environments evolve, dulling some senses to the advantage of others. This is why FEED is not only a performance but a story of the evolution of media from a screen paradigm to an immersion paradigm that’s no longer based on the detachment of sight but on the ob-scenity of touch which destroys the “scenic” distance between the sign and the audience. To cut a long story short – we witness the history of media from the age of spectacle to the age of experience in fifty minutes. Absolutely McLuhanesque!

Check out the performace video at Meer Tv

Kurt Hentschläger — Chicago-based Austrian artist Kurt Hentschläger creates audiovisual compositions, where audio and video are causing or actuating each other. The immersive nature of his work reflects on ancient cultural forms as well as the idea of the sublime.

Between 1992 and 2003 he worked collaboratively as a part of the duo Granular-Synthesis. Employing monumental projected images and towering sound environments, their multimedia performances and installations affected the viewer on both physical and emotional levels, pushing the limits of how much sensory information audiences can absorb.

A recipient of numerous prizes and large-scale commissions, he has represented Austria at the 2001 Venice Biennial and shown his work internationally for 2 decades. Recently his performance “Feed” has premiered at the 2005 Venice Theatre Biennial.

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