Civility in a Mediated Society
Karen Lancel & Hermen Maat
Lancel / Maat

Tutor

Open Set Seoul Sessions 2016

Workshop

20/02 — 22/02

Location

Kookmin University, Seoul

interview by Noortje van Eekelen

The challenging and exceptional projects by Lancel/Maat invite the public to experiment and play with social technology. As a team, the artists Karen Lancel and Hermen Maat, design objects, projections and digital networks to create meeting places in city public spaces. With these initiatives the audience is welcome to reflect on their perception of the public space, experience of body, identity and social cohesion. Lancel/Maat’s universally shown meeting places are located in dynamic urban public spaces such as museums, squares, and theatre halls. You might recognise their sophisticated installations and performances of the past few years. Works such as E.E.G. KISS, Saving Face and TELE_TRUST are so impressive that you want to know more about the expertise behind them. Our following interview explores Lancel/Maat’s artistic approach and their speculations regarding emerging future scenarios and possible alternative environments.

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E.E.G. KISS | The End of Privacy Festival (photograph by Anna van Kooij, 2016)

We all know E.E.G. KISS, Saving Face, TELE_TRUST and Master Touch. Could you tell something about the social attitude and motives behind Lancel/Maat? How far does it go?

We design objects, projections and digital networks to create reflective Meeting Places in city public spaces and the digital domain. In carefully hosted, techno-social Presence Rituals, we invite our public to experiment with social systems and to reflect on their perception of the city, and their experience of body, intimacy, presence, identity, privacy and social cohesion.

With Saving Face you allow an audience to collectively combine their faces into an amalgamation of moments, identities. Could you explain a little more about the new kind of environment that emerges from these aggregated interactions?

First About the project Saving Face:

  1. Tele-presence technologies extend our bodies beyond biological boundaries in time and space, but prevent us from touching (Arjen Mulder) 
When we meet in the public domain, we trust each other based on reciprocal body language, face-to-face connection, and touch. However, in today's social structures, these sensory experiences are increasingly replaced by identity scanning technologies. In the digital public domain, we are faced with the paradox of ‘the higher surveillance, the lower trust’. How do we experience our bodies and identities, technically being measured and turned into fixated, controllable ‘products’? How does this interfere with our identities as social constructs, constantly appearing and disappearing when interacting with others? Can touch based perception play a role in 'tele-matic trust'? Can I touch you online?
  2. Touching is the new Scanning The artists deconstruct and turn around control technologies, to facilitate intimate meeting experiences: “Saving Face is an experimental technological bio-feedback system for a poetic meeting-through-touching ritual. With the help of a personal Touching Face Scan, participants caress their own faces, to connect online with family, friends and strangers worldwide. In Saving Face, we are digitally tangible and visible for each other, in a relational process, a ‘social sculpture’; to endlessly meet, caress, mirror and merge.”
  3. Saving Face is a Smart City Meeting Ritual, and exists of 1. Come close 2. Caress your face 3. Merge and Mirror.
  4. Saving Face uses your face as a tangible social interface The ritual includes an interactive city sculpture with a camera and face-recognition technologies, connected to an urban screen. In front of the camera, you are invited to caress your face. By caressing your face you ‘paint’ your portrait on the screen, where it appears and then slowly merges with the portraits of previous visitors. The portraits merge further through every face-caressing act of following participants, co-creating transparent, untraceable, fluid, networked identities. Each composed identity is saved into a user generated database, to be printed as a Saving Face Passport.
  5. In dynamic public spaces such as museum hall or city square, all co-created identities appear on screen as ’digital personas’, sharing with us our contemporary public domain. When traveling to various geographical and cultural contexts, SF playfully connects — both online and offline — different personal historical and cultural backgrounds. Participants in cities worldwide ‘Tele-Touch’ each other to meet.
  6. The portrait on screen is part of a social process. Within the tradition of the composed and 'morfing' portrait, the artists orchestrate 'a social process to create a portrait'. This process connects the physical ‘realness’ we feel when touching our faces to the interaction with a virtual identity. Each identity on screen appears as a digital ‘persona' in our contemporary public domain. As a alternative social construct, it constantly appears and disappears in the process of merging with others. We imagine ‘The right to be forgotten’ could be realized by creating multiple identities. We would disappear by merging with others. This would absolutely confuse a control system.
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Saving Face | Bauhaus Dessau (2012)

We regularly see a great variety of works from you as Lancel/Maat. Projects such as E.E.G. KISS and Saving Face have received a quite some international attention. Were they difficult to produce? Can you tell us more about your way of working?

  1. We develop our works as artistic research. In our Meeting Spaces and Meeting Rituals we deconstruct automated control technologies (surveillance, social media, brain computer interfaces, quantifying biometric technologies) to rethink and inspire sensitive and reciprocal relations based on intimacy, relational presence, tacit knowledge, digital synesthesia, bio-synchronisation, sensory and aesthetic perception.
  2. In an iterative process, we deconstruct disrupted communication models and social systems. This process is both social and technical. It is inspired by audience dialogue; developments in media-theory, art science and technology. The works are labor intensive. They exist of long preparation periods of research and sequences of presentation stadia. Each presentation is like a stepping stone in the development of the final visual an interaction concept.
  3. But even when having finalized the visual and interaction concept, the works keep changing. Each cultural geographical context evokes a specific tension and meaning. For example, when showing our interactive, full body DataVeil on a square in Istanbul, audience reactions are different from showing in Banff Canada. And kissing in E.E.G. KISS is a different challenge in Amsterdam then in Hong Kong.
  4. Furthermore, each public presentation space creates a different context. For example, at Venice Biennale 2015, IASPIS Stockholm, De Appel Amsterdam and Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, our work is part of a museological experience. But at Media musea, festivals and conferences we show our work in the context of media history and it’s societal impact; for example at ISEA Hongkong, Helsinki an Istanbul; Zentrum fur Kunst und Medientechnologie, Ars Electronica Linz. And while showing our work in dynamic city centers the visual orchestration changes again; as well does the audience viewing behavior, for example at Festival ad Werf Utrecht, NABI Art Center Seoul and Connecting Cities Berlin, Dessau. At Art Science & Technologie exhibitions such as TASIE Beijing the audience focuses on experience of social systems, technology and innovation. And for Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, we created a specific ‘Saving Face’ version called ‘Master Touch’, to question and sensitize the reflective mode of the museum visitor.
  5. So on many levels each presentation is context specific, and inspires the dialogue. The research and dialogue takes place in a varied partner network. Many of the works are co-supported by art funds, such as Mondriaan Fund, AFK, Stimuleringsfonds. Not only we work with art related institutions, but also with Universities, research groups, sponsors. Our works emerging from the artistic research are further conducted at Delft University of Technology in the context of Lancel’s PhD trajectory (Promotores: Prof. dr. Frances Brazier, Dr. Caroline Nevejan). For the research we collaborate with programmers, often at (artistic) media labs such as V2_Lba, STEIM and Waag Society. Various research steps within one project can take place at artists in residencies, for example TASML Beijing, Digital Synesthesia Group Vienna, IASPIS Stockholm and Bannf Center Canada. E.E.G. KISS was also tested at TNO; and sponsored by Fourtress and Philips in Eindhoven, invited by Baltan Laboratories. 

  6. Many of all various steps in these processes are invisible in the end. At one hand, we would love to open up this information, and all the specific exciting findings in the research; for example in books and blogs. At the other hand, this would be very elaborate. More importantly, we appreciate the seeming effortless quality of the works, as if in fact the act of interfering in systems is a ‘light’ and accessible gesture. We hope this ‘lightness’ inspires and communicates the possibility as well as the individual power and responsibility to interfere.

It strikes me that you as artists predominantly research the interactions between humans and technological development? How do you view the tension that currently exists between the ever present memory and the "right to be forgotten”?

We are interested in the connection between physical, embodied memories and digitally, networked memories.

  1. First about memory in relation to our bodies. Our bodies incorporate memories. The body can be seen as a container, or a carrier, of memory. Our memories are embodied. Our embodied memories ground our individual and collective understanding of ourselves in the world around us. They direct the way we collectively make sense of our performance and relationships. They shape our individual gestures, habits, and (un)conscious reactions. Our embodied memories are foundations for our scanning mutual trust - through spoken words or with a handshake. Now, how do embodied memories emerge? Neurologist A. Damasio1 describes how memories emerge from emotional interaction during reciprocal communication and mirror behaviorbehaviour. This process builds on sensory perception of face-to-face connection, body language, being close and touch.
  2. How do digitally, networked memories work? Today, technology spectacularly extends our bodies beyond biological boundaries in time and space. We meet in multi-layered infrastructures, based on various, merging forms of on — and offline communication. In these merging realities2, we meet each other in labyrinthic, fragmented realities. “New forms of intimacy, privacy, togetherness and loneliness emerge”, writes Sherry Turkle in her book ‘Alone Together’. In merging realities, we extend our physical memory by Google, Wikipedia and Social Media. We store our memories in commercially contexted databases. Acts of social interaction and identification are placed outside our bodies, into digital control systems and networks. Scanning, controlling and trusting each other (and ourselves) is partly performed by automated technologies. We meet and remember as ‘users’ and ‘participants’ via screens, smart objects and interfaces. So I ‘Like’ you on Facebook, but where is ‘Hug’ button? Biometric scanning (such as Quantified Self) creates an even more distant intimacy with our own bodies. We measure our heart rate, sweat and brain activity — but how can we share a networked kiss? How will I remember the tension of coming close — and touching your lips?
  3. How do networked technologies influence the trustfulness of our bodies as containers of memories to relate to? At one hand, technology extends our memory space. Most of our life events are saved in databases. More and more memories are always present. At the other hand, memories are taken out of the interactive process Damasio describes. Instead of emotional interaction during reciprocal communication, we make memories appear in a technological process. Memories appear by clicking around. By clicking, my memories can appear or anonymous memories. I can see your history, within a misleading context, for example with in a prison context. I can learn about your prison history as if you are still in prison today. Digitally networked memories are always now.
  4. In future, what will be our emotional interaction with technologically, popping up ‘always present’ memories? And how will this influence our relation with our world around? In short: What happens with the ever present memory and our understanding of the world around?

In previous works we compared the ‘ever present memory’ to the working of a post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSS). In PTSS, disturbing, painful life events that happened in the past seem to be ever happening again, for ever ‘now’. They seem to happen again in the presence — but no longer within the right context. Someone suffering from PTSS, is haunted by memories. In ‘The body keeps it in mind’ (2005), our work in former Yugoslavia, we researched how war events for ever color the streets of the city, for it’s today’s inhabitants. In ‘TraumaTour’ (1999 - 2008) we compared PTSS with feelings of safety and control experienced by our digitally ‘networking bodies’. In dynamic city public spaces worldwide we created spatial, screen based, dirsuptive networked orchestrations. We invited the audience to participate as ‘co-researchers’ in works called ‘Agora Phobia (digitalis)’ and ‘StalkShow’. We felt truly touched to see the audience exploring their confusion between their present bodies, memory and data.

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E.E.G. KISS | De Brakke Grond (2015)

What projects we're going to see in the future from you? And where do you see challenges in achieving this?

  1. Currently we feel ‘the right to be forgotten’ shows a somewhat defensive attitude. Of course we see the problematic moral implications in a democratic society, when we need to judge and balance between 'privacy' and ‘piracy’. The problematized “right to be forgotten” can concern the intention to become truly ‘invisible'. To achieve this, going offline, can be the best strategy — although this will be increasingly difficult and eventually a luxury.
  2. But more often, “The right to be forgotten” concerns the wish to design one’s own visibility. Can we turn around this defensive attitude — and create radical, alternative techno-embodied realities? 
In E.E.G. KISS we do no longer protect our private data. Instead, we create with these data new rituals allowing for public intimacy and relational rituals. E.E.G. KISS invites for a shared neuro-feedback kiss ritual in today’s merging realities. In this way, we aim to create a shared sensitive public space, response-ability for the power of synchronizing through touching, breathing, kissing, dancing, sharing presence. Worldwide, we invite our audiences for this on going artistic research; and to participate in a communal, networked E.E.G. KISS. We are convinced that artists are key in the research and design process for these new participatory ‘trust-systems’.

What are possible alternative environments that could be introduced in the future? How would these environments be linked? In what way would we manipulate them?

We research social systems in a mediated society; systems merging humans and technology. There will be a lot more seamless invisible as well as status expressing technologies developed in the near future. For us as artists it will be a challenge to deconstruct, visualize and rethink the implications of the use and design on and in our bodies. Instead of looking for prosthetic interfaces, we focus on alternative possibilities for mirror processes, brain interfaces and neuro-feedback. How do archived data permeate our personal lives, and behavior?

Current bio-feedback technologies (such as brain computer interfaces) allow us to create networked set ups, to artistically design and reflect on the communal, networked experience of social and biometric devices. It allows us to orchestrate public feedback-system rituals for data-reflection.

In E.E.G. KISS we ask: Can I kiss you online? Can we transfer a kiss and it’s intimacy online? Can we measure a kiss and what kissers feel together? Can we trust our E.E.G. KISS? And in terms of ‘The Right to be forgotten’: Do we want to save our private kisses in a transparent database — to be used by others?


  1. Damasio 

  2. Today, all “we enter a world of ‘merging realities’”, C. Nevejan and F. Brazier write in their ‘Participatory Systems Initiative’ statement (University for Technology Delft). They describe a complex of (social) relational systems of networked men and computers. 


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