Dali Clocks: Time Dimensions of Hypermedia

Dali Clocks: Time Dimensions of Hypermedia

Stephanie Strickland

Stephanie Strickland investigates an epistemological shift in web-specific art and literature, from an understanding that is less about structure and more about resonance.

Salvador Dali’s clocks aren’t wrong or stopped or broken. Their active faces slide like pancake batter over edges of a bureau, bend and hang across branches. Adapted to the shape of every object they meet, these clocks announce that there is no standard time in Dalí’s universe - nor, as Dali knew - in Einstein’s.

In fact, Dali’s clocks are not clocks at all, if we mean bookkeepers that measure unvarying flow. But then the human heart is not that kind of clock either; rather, it is a fractal tempo tracker that runs concurrently to the beat of several highly variable drummers. When that stops being true, when it runs to no beat, under atrial fibrillation; or if it collapses to one stereotypic periodic behavior, losing some of those long-range correlations that tie it to events thousands of beats into the future, then it is about to die of congestive heart failure.

Of the nine system-processes that characterize both life and knowledge in the 21st century - I refer to feedback, hierarchy, bounds, network interaction, scale, cycles, symmetries, evolution, and equilibrium - it is this last that does not characterize the Internet and does not characterize Web-specific literary works. If the last half of the 20th century fell under the spell of linguistics and genetics, I suggest that the spatial understanding of both, “genome as book,” must give way to an understanding that is inherently dynamic, inextricably statistical, and informationally multimedial in its forms of analysis; an understanding that is less about structure and more about resonance, about the ongoing fitting of moving mind to moving world through moving medium.

My thesis is that Web-specific art and literature is where this understanding is being developed. I hope to demonstrate this with regard to works by several renowned Web artists, but to contextualize my discussion I need to explain scale and level. A sense of scale is key to understanding dynamics, the kind of scaling represented by conventional powers of ten, or some other repeated multiple, which is the basis of fractal pattern-persistence or self-similarity.

scale and level

If I look at the tracing of a heartbeat over a period of milliseconds, then seconds, minutes, hours, days, I discover that the pattern I see remains the same. Here, the concept of fractal shifts from self-similar structure in space to self-similar dynamics in time. What this means is that you can’t tell what time-scale you are looking at when you see, or hear, these patterns. Yes, an average regularity, a pulse, can be established, but this measure smoothes and destroys the huge amount of information hidden in the micro-measures, in the fluctuations, the groove, the interbeat intervals.

A repeating fluctuation is very far from conventional ideas about good design and structure. At the time our ideas of scientific order were being developed, the gardens at Versailles and plane-perspective Renaissance paintings set a standard for European design. In these, it is precisely not the case that looking at one square inch yields the same appearance as looking at one square foot or acre. In fact, these works are designed to look as they “should” from precisely one focal or central point. In the case of focalized work, one can theoretically choose any point of view to look or read from, but the intent of the work is that only one point of view is most encompassing. The necessary movement that is involved in circulating around or in front of these works is implicitly negated, as so much dispensable trial and error on the way to the canonical prospect.

levels as evolutionary

The concept of level differs from that of scale in that level is evolutionary, not a simple multiple. Though physics consists of just those experiments you can re-run, enshrining an ideal of reversibility that permits control and prediction, the same is not true of geology or biology. The earth and life on it seem to have been run once. In them, mutations are irreversible. They are understood in terms of organized levels. From sub-atomic particles through biological macromolecules, cells, organs, individuals, societies, and ecologies, what is most important about these levels is that decisive time-based events - jumps between levels - reveal emergent properties, properties that cannot be predicted by, nor analyzed in terms of, the properties of the prior level, even though there is an unbroken line of inheritance from bottom to top, and even though there is always a part/whole relation between the levels. In the transition from any one of these levels to the next, not only is the whole greater than the sum of the parts, but the emerging qualities feed back on the parts and give them qualities they couldn’t have if isolated. Electrons, for instance, indistinguishable at the particle level, become individually important at the atomic level under the Pauli exclusion principle. Individuals exhibit consciousness, a property equally unknown to organs and to societies, for not every trait gets inherited up this chain of levels. These are hierarchies of inclusion - inheritance meaning each is impossible without the other - but they are not hierarchies of merit.

scale, levels and Web-art

Bear in mind your own experiences of reading on the Web as I attempt to bring together the concept of level with that of scale. I suggest that readings of Web-art are evolutionary in form. From a mathematical perspective, in both biology and hypertext, an intractable number of histories is possible, but in fact only one choice gets made, in terms of what emerges. Which choice gets made depends on interactions between internal rules and completely unpredictable gradients in the external environment at that time. The pathway to the present thus makes all the difference. Frozen accidents create history and are the means by which we reveal it.

The Internet itself is a complex system with emergent levels. Because phone calls used for fax and Web access have statistical characteristics dramatically different from a typical voice call, as the phone system shifted from a voice to a data network it also shifted from a fully centralized, fully regulated system to one with fractal, or chaotic properties: the interbeat intervals of its interpacket spacing are as “bursty,” or multifractal, as the heartbeat, and equally threatened with congestive failure.

Levels also relate to Web-art through the neurophysiology of time perception Paul Harris on neurobiology and electronic textuality in ebr10 From the edge of awareness through to speech, these levels are related to scales by the following numbers: one-thousandth of a second for neural firing, one-hundredth of a second for neuronal pattern formation, one-tenth of a second for vocal articulation or action, and more than three seconds for narrative description. Tools from dynamic systems help us understand how humans might develop time concepts based on this physiology, particularly the retrospective and prospective horizons involved with our sense of being in a “now.” The basic event or fusion interval specifies the minimum time between events such that they can be perceived as distinct and not simultaneous. This time is different for each sensory modality. The modalities also interact with each other, and a lot of Web art explores these interactions through the use of micro-manipulated streaming sonic and cinematic effects.

The neuronal level relates to brain operation. Any mental act involves the concurrent participation of separated regions of the brain. The time needed to relate and integrate signals from these separate regions is called the relaxation or holding time, during which perceptual flashes are spread and organized by cell assemblies to create the synchronized firing we need in order to act, to move our mouse for instance. Again, from a mathematically intractable number of possibilities, many competing cell-assemblies, the interaction of external gradient and internal rules yields one particular “now,” without the assistance of either an internal or external clock - synchronization occurring rather by resonance, by what Goethe would have called “elective affinities.”

artists in the signal sea

From this point on in the cognizing process, on the scale of seconds forward, language does finally enter, and with it, all that descriptive narrative assessment entails. Thus the Web artist swims in many seas, fine-tuning neurocognitive and muscular response both to fluctuations in the signal propagation structure of the Net and to the emerging nuances of the way, on another level, Web traffic communicates a social environment. Web literature and art also exploit different aspects of the time-based human perception process, playing with the fusion interval limits, and – because they require a large number of actions from their readers, clicks, mouseovers, drags and drops, shifts of a joystick, scans, zooms, probes of all kinds, maneuvers to be made within a certain time frame in some literary and all game environments - playing also with the synchronized neuronal patterns that must be mobilized for action.

A number of Web works also explicitly address questions of time, history, and memory, often using dynamic means, Web-streaming or telepresence, in order to do it. I believe they contribute, in particular, to enlarging the window of “now.” They do this by offering our perception system new calisthenics, and they do it by bringing into consciousness many more of the microfluctuations and/or fractal patterns that had been smoothed over, averaged over, hidden by the older perception and knowledge processes.

The first artist I’d like to mention in this regard is Tom Brigham, the inventor of morphing. In “The Art of the Morph” (ArtByte October-November, 1998), Brigham explains that in a morph,

an image smoothly transforms…into another with a motion so slow as to be almost imperceptible. Yet, at precisely some specific increment, itself undetected, the content changes utterly and a different pictorial subject becomes comprehensible. (38)

That is to say, an emergent level is experienced. A morph is constituted from a series of discrete images, as a film is made of frames; but unlike cinematic cutting, morph technology allows for the separate interpolation of different attributes of the series, such as shape, color, texture, and motion. Brigham’s work shifts the artist’s emphasis from rendering impressions to rendering the process of forming an impression. The final morph, as it enacts before our eyes, relocates our perception from custom and routine to the plane of active recognition, the ah-ha recognition we bring to interpreting optical illusions. Brigham remarks,

A transformation that hesitates and hovers between two identities engages the mind in a special way…What lies between one face and another? A variety of faces. But what lies between a face and a chair? A tougher question with more answers, and a more difficult morph. (38)

Two other artists that work at the level of very fine transition, though in this case with verbal and not visual material, are the poets Jim Rosenberg and mez, or Mary Anne Breeze. Rosenberg works with the words of a standard vocabulary but overlays them in a dense blur of self-interfering micro-information which must be teased apart by moving the mouse through many nested component layers to open the simultaneities. Rosenberg is concerned with a temporal meaning that occurs as we move through what he calls an “episode,” a set of interactive operations that cohere in the reader’s mind as a unit, which is analogous to what I have called the neuronal pattern but on a more extended timescale. Mez, on the other hand, reaches into the very structure of the word, creating an entire para-language, called “m[ez]ang.elle,” which is readable by readers of English, but only at the cost of a dramatically slowed reading speed. She organizes textual performances which she designates as e-mail trawling, hacker attacking, open source kode poetri, or electronic channeling. Though this work uses many of the devices of so-called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, William Gillespie on the attitude toward L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E fluid spacing, bracketing, and ambiguous punctuation to obtain a simultaneity of reference that tests fixed neuronal patterns, it also tests these, simultaneously, through choreographed and random kinetic oscillations of the Web environment, re-converting the process of reading to a process of action, perhaps somewhat akin to what oral cultures undertook when print first spread through them.

the impermanence of history

Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s work, Impermanence Agent (http://www.impermanenceagent.com), addresses the sense of “now” in a different way. He pushes at the edges of awareness by explicitly incorporating peripheral attention into the act of reading. Impermanence Agent is not a site to be visited or clicked through; rather, it runs in tandem with the reader’s Net browsing, in fact becoming the agent of that browsing as all requests are routed through it. An active agent, it adds to, alters, and comments on the pages readers visit, as well as taking material from those pages to create the ever-scrolling content of its own divided window, meant to be kept open for about a week in the top corner of a reader’s monitor, if its story is to be both told and lost. The agent’s own story is one of family history and grief; its private store of commentary, an ongoingly updated collection of memorial sites on the Web, cemetery photographs, and Kubler-Ross analyses of stages of grief. The agent permits elements of the reader’s browsing to invade and transform its own story to the point of extinction - although it has, in the meantime, infiltrated the reader’s main window.

A reader intent on browsing, who has enabled Impermanence Agent, will find her attention constantly solicited, but only peripherally, by the active image in the corner of her screen, and by invasions of unselected material into her focus. The “now” of her reading is both threatened and fertilized. Her content is mirrored back to her in such a way that she feels how it cumulates and overwhelms another’s story; how a click made in a second, can, through the mechanism of selection, become amplified and feed into and feed back on the longer scale of narration, destabilizing the fixed bounds of “now” and “here.”

An artist working differently still is Eduardo Kac, whose complex work, Time Capsule, I’d like to evoke for you. Kac, a Brazilian whose family arrived in Brazil from Eastern Europe, makes telepresence work that combines robotics and telecommunications. On November 11, 1997, inside a room with parquet floors and ornate plaster ceiling in the Casa das Rosas Cultural Center in São Paulo, Kac constructed an inner room of movable white walls. On one of those hung seven sepia-toned photographs that his grandmother brought from Poland in 1939 - the actual photographs, he says in a talk given a year later, though in the gallery they are not identified in any way. On the facing wall, as of the next day, was a diptych combining an x-ray of Kac’s ankle with an enlargement of the registration screen for a Web database used to track lost animals, for on November 11, in the presence of a horde of TV cameramen, broadcast live both to Brazilian TV and to the Web, Kac had injected his leg with a 15mm microchip implant that contained a programmed identification number and that, when scanned, emitted a radio signal. He then put his leg in a scanning device, and his ankle was Web-scanned from Chicago, the scanner button being pushed by a telerobotic finger which remains in the pressed position, displaying Kac’s ID number on the scanner’s LCD display. Kac then registered himself, as both animal and owner, in a North American pet database, the first human to do so, and on the following day went to the hospital to have his permanent implant x-rayed.

Time Capsule takes place in Chicago, Brazil, Poland, the airwaves, the phone lines, around the world on the Web, and in Kac’s flesh wherever he goes, yet is called site-specific. It takes place on November 11, 12, and 13, or now on his Webpage devoted to it, or always, in his leg, or in the thirties in Poland. It is a body, a broadcast, a netcast, a database, an identification, a schedule, a sound byte, an implant, a Webscan, an x-ray, a gallery show. In these respects it resembles the spatially distributed cell-assemblies that have to be synchronized temporally in a neuronal pattern for us to take action. And an active stance is called for. The meaning of the image changes with the pathway. A man is marking his ankle with an identification number under the photographed eyes of his refugee family, a family in flight from a regime that wrote numbers on skin with needles. Without being bound to any machine he is now always readable by a machine, wearing an electronic anklet that monitors him as much as any prisoner. The temporal scales range from milliseconds to years, but where is memory, personal or collective, the kind of memory we believe ethically needs to persist? Has Kac effectively located it in the microfluctuations, or in multifractal patterns that persist beyond the persistence of any given sequence, even though we may consciously experience it as disconnected and diffuse, as both refugial and vivid?

a time series image

I’ll close by describing 1:1, a temporal image of the Internet, created by Lisa Jevbratt. In this piece softbots, or agents, continuously scan servers doing a so-called interlaced search of all possible IP addresses, expressed as four octets, from to, and then expressing the results in terms of five different visualization algorithms. The search zooms in repeatedly on different samplings, each of which constitutes not a slice, but a snapshot, of the Web, which increases in resolution as the scans move toward sampling all the octets, after which they recommence. The title 1:1 refers to a scale of 1:1 suggesting that this map has the same size as its referent. In fact, the interface here has become not only the map but the environment, implying all of the problems Lewis Carroll addressed in 1893, when, in the book Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, he has “Mein Herr” speak of his grand project, a map on the scale of a mile to a mile. When asked if he’d used his map much, Mein Herr replies: “It has never been spread out, yet…the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country and shut off the sunlight! So we use the country itself, as its map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.”

Readers of 1:1 can select locations via the Hierarchical, Random, Petri, Excursion, or Every interface. The latter is a densely striated coat of many colors, a clickable image map linking to every top level website associated with an IP address. The specific color of each square is generated by using the second, third, and fourth octets to specify RGB numbers. The Petri interface resembles a star-map of live sites, each of which lightens the more times it is clicked, demonstrating the self-fulfilling prophecy aspect of collaborative filtering. The Excursion interface permits a recursive choice from a search-progress graphic that opens nested windows; Hierarchical allows consecutive choice of each octet; and Random requests a randomly generated choice.

When using these database interfaces, readers experience a very different Web from the one they are accustomed to access through portals. Instead of ads, porn, and pets, they encounter predominantly undeveloped sites and inaccessible information. My own Every selection turned up Scandinavian Seaways, US Army Space and Strategic Defense, and CGS VR Graphics - nuggets among the myriad error messages that announce vacant or forbidden sites. Without a probabilistic sampling scheme, without recursive searches, without a time series interface, this particular view of one of our most important public environments would not be available. Very unlike the plans for the garden at Versailles, this interface/visualization is arguably as much the Web as it is a map of the Web. It yields a kind of knowledge that only transiently yields to a gestalt, that must be reconstituted continuously with computer processing time and human cognizing time, a kind of temporal knowledge that we must all learn to feel with, and that digital artists are exploring in unpredictable ways.