Scott Snibbe

Boundary Functions

Interactive Installation




"Boundary Functions" uses an artifact of computation to create meaning outside the system of computation itself. The bulk of the expression of "Boundary Functions" is through computational processes. (...) Computation provides the means to translate the concept of the algorithm into a perceptual event, creating a dynamic, physical experience for the viewers. Secondary to these aspects, are the ancillary mechanical and physical aspects of the work. In this case, these are the reliable operation of camera, computer and projector, the construction of the floor and lighting of the space.
(Scott Snibbe: "Computation and Improvisation". In: ICC Journal. Tokyo, Japan. November, 2002.)

A majority of my work explores the countless ways that seemingly independent phenomena are, upon analysis, actually interdependent with their environments. Such interdependence may be understood in terms of the Buddhist notion of Emptiness, which holds that no object, physical or mental, exists independent from the rest of reality. The physical object to which a human being is most intimately connected is that person's body, and our body is closely associated with our sense of self. However, this body is entirely composed of "non-self" elements - originally small parts of our parents, which are gradually replaced by recycled parts of our environment that we continually absorb and emit. If we could track the experiences of all these parts, we would realize that we are each connected to all matter. Another way of understanding this interdependence is to imagine taking away parts of your body - if you remove an arm, are you still yourself? A leg? Parts of your brain? This analysis ultimately results in an inability to define the self that we regard as the basis of our identity.

A method used in a number of my works for portraying interdependence, is bodily interaction. Many of my works do not function unless the viewer actively engages with them - by touching, breathing, moving, etc. The works present systems in which the viewer is an essential component. Furthermore, although the works involve significant technological infrastructure, visitors' experiences more typically occur in the realm of human-to-human interaction. The pieces provoke communication among the viewers, which, more than merely a reaction to the work, becomes the very essence of the work.

In the same way that our bodies exist only as a collection of bits that are interchangeable with the larger material world, so are our minds a dependent, collective process rather than individual entities. Every bit of our mental processes emerges from interactions with other people, and our culture at large. Our languages, conceptual frameworks, and more mundane aspects of tastes and preferences all emerge from our interactions with other individuals and society. Even when we are alone, the memories and imprints of these interactions drive our mental processes. To express this condition, my installations sometimes fail to function unless more than one person is engaging with them and increase their compositional complexity, salience, and meaning as more and more viewers take part in them.

Through demonstrating how our bodies and consciousness are interdependent with other people and our environment, my work critiques a precept of the scientific rationalist tradition - that humans can exert unbounded control over their environment and other beings. In contrast to this view, my work and the cooperation it requires of its viewers suggests that it is not possible to control a system (human or technological), but only to take part in an emergent system that is collectively created. Such a view has gained widespread exposure in contemporary fields of complexity theory, social psychology, and chaos theory. Yet experiences with our collective consciousness and principles of co-creation have occurred to people throughout human history, particularly within the meditative and mystical practices of most faiths. It is in these realms that people have sought to understand their connection to the physical and non-physical worlds from which they emerge and then return.

Although the ideas that my works attempt to convey are complex, I have adopted a minimalist aesthetic. My working process is subtractive, removing elements until the most salient aspects of the concept remain. This approach is motivated by the principles of phenomenology - the philosophy of how the body "thinks" through unmediated perception, rather than through reason and language.

Interaction is by nature time-based, and my artistic process is rooted in lessons learned from the temporal media of experimental film and animation. The frame-by-frame creation of movement is based on an understanding that even a thirtieth of a second can change the perceptual and emotional impact of a cinematic moment. I apply a similar methodology to the time-based interaction between human and technology. Subtle changes in timing as a projection, screen or mechanical object reacts to the viewer are my primary techniques for creating meaning. These changes in timing are encoded not as frames of film, but embodied in computer-coded instructions that constantly reinterpret and update the temporal conditions of the work.

Participants construct the meaning of my works primarily with their bodies through a process of awareness that has been described by phenomenologists. Phenomenological perception contrasts with intellectual, reasoned, verbal and even metaphorical ways of knowing. Merleau-Ponty states that such perception "gives us at every moment a global, practical, and implicit notion of the relation between our body and things, of our hold on them." My work attempts to apply such direct perception to an interactive experience. With this approach, my pieces frequently give instantaneous and predictable reactions to actions that are felt viscerally. The immediate rewards of these situations often evoke pleasure and delight in viewers, yet simultaneously induce an understanding of the deeper meaning and a sense of the conceptual motivation behind the work.

My interest in phenomenology is reflected in several of my aesthetic influences. First is the tradition of experimental and abstract film, especially the work of the artist Len Lye, who used his body in the creation of direct cinema by scratching and marking celluloid film. Lye, along with other abstract film pioneers including Oskar Fischinger, Hans Richter and Moholy-Nagy, revealed that it was possible to create sophisticated time-based emotion and meaning-laden work without resorting to representation. Another field that has furnished lessons and inspiration is the minimalist environmental art of the 60's and 70's, most notably the work of Robert Irwin and James Turrell, who explored how subtle changes in an environment can make deep and even breathtaking impressions on the viewer. I hope to continue in these traditions by constructing environments that meaningfully react to the presence and engagement of the viewer.
(Scott Snibbe)