Maria Lantin | mlantin
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Epic Walk Sep 3 (gatherings)

Epic Walk Diaries (September 3)

moby moby x2 maybe
not sure how much got in
science is constrained creativity
  art bounces off people
  science bounces off the universe

fear 
i can't do this
no truer words
  don't worry, it'll come back
  then you die again

 none of this is ours
   or theirs damnit
   be bold
peasant grass
  you let yourself go
designer grass
   tight weave
upscale private grass
    small bred patterns
   even your color says good dna
 look where you get to be
cartoon rich

the sound of peasant grass
  crickets and walking feet

rose petal feast
  mom, her jam and pastry

pineapple plant
  it does smell like pineapple!
    keith loved it

discarded fragments
  more fragments
   pattern! source!
a nut? a flower
   yes with seeds
     opened in quarters
       two quartered seeds
     look at the ground

  not so good with transitions
    sprint!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
      run to the finish line and jump
   no no ritual endings

-----

[
  Start 5:26pm
  End 9:00pm
  Through kits beach, pool, sunset point
  brambles, rich road, Jericho, Spanish Banks,
  concession, and back.
]
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Epic Walk gathering (detail)

Epic Walk Diaries (August 26)

no emergency
   i wait
   the whole world should be like this

emergent conflict
motivation
   why did they do that?
 why did we?
     how do we stay light? dance in the storm.

  what is a good life?

look a pine cone
    what are those red berries? (go fish)
searching
 too many cooks
 surprise! celebrity chef

remnants of an old woman
  but it's a baby feather!

        you're not a beach bunny!
    groomed wild
  let's bring the scanner on our walks
   scan in the wild
     like nico and her microphone

log going to rusty red dust
   flow embedded in captured time
   a method to the destruction

  hawthorn, the thorn part is important

that's a lot of leaves
   so many
     natural or not? groomed? maple?
   tagged! Holly's project!
     someone else liked this tree
maybe many someones. what to email a bushy tree?

butterfly bush
  my nose is happy
    you were always there
   a few feet away
flow and temporality
  does a few hours matter
    to us? to the plants?
 when is integrity called into question

 dusty thoughts
don't worry, I'll put them in water

---
[ 
  Start 6:45pm at Eagle Tree
  End   9:45pm parting on Creelman
  Through Vanier, Elsje's point, 
    Kitsilano Beach, rich man's road,
    Jericho Beach, rabbit land,
    and back.
]
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Being With Picture

I don’t remember exactly when but at some point in my earlier years I started imagining myself entering the pictures in my picture books. Someone would be reading to me and I would zone into the picture and wish I could step in. I would look at every detail and wonder what else there was. Franfreluche, a clown storyteller from a children’s tv show, did exactly that and I would watch her enviously. I wanted those giant storybooks that I could step into.

This curiosity about “being with” picture still animates me. To be clear I didn’t want to have an interactive picture world. I wasn’t interested in a game. I was interested in the sense of space, the colours, the world the characters were in. I wanted to see them do their thing while fully sensing their environment. A modest wish. Theatre and other live performances do this to a degree. We share a space and it is partially determining the performance. A crucial dimension to the pleasure of liveness is that we feel entangled with the performers through a shared space. Still with theatre there is a conceptual distance imposed by the stage. The characters’ world is not wholly accessible. In a way, films and books do a better job of immersion because they specifically ask us to dim some senses in order to merge on others. With live performance, our senses are awake and the merge or resonance happens through a more physical entanglement.

What I seek then is something in between theatre and movie, or between theatre and book. I want the merge/resonance of a book with the feeling of physical entanglement with all my senses awake. I do want to lose myself in the story. But I want to do so as a fully engaged observer.

Enter VR. The promise of the merge. In all its incarnations, we talked about immersion, like sinking into water, being surrounded by our imagination. And yet…not quite. Something is missing. The worlds are empty somehow, happening “out there” even as they surround us. We have readily adapted the gaming paradigm to the current VR platforms but so far have largely stayed away from the book or the theatre. But I have recently encountered two examples that are steering towards a “being with” picture. They have both made me happy, like discovering a new land that just feels interesting and that I always knew existed.

Cave is a piece showcased at SIGGRAPH 2018, by NYU’s Future Reality Lab (FRL). In this piece an audience of 30 people is positioned in two seated groups of fifteen pointed towards a front centre “stage” area. Each audience member dons a headset with headphones (or specialized Bose personal speakers). As soon as I put mine on I could see the other audience members as a virtual audience, their heads and bodies moving. We are not the usual avatars. We are semi-transparent, with large skeletal masks on our heads. The audience heads are tracked to their physical movements so I can look at my neighbour and if they are looking at me I would know to start a conversation. There was enough time before the show that I could do this, and I could also observe the world in which we had all been plunged: a prehistoric cave 12,000 years ago in Northern Europe. A young girl is illuminating the cave wall as (presumably) her mother is drawing on the wall. A soft humming song plays. It feels dim. It doesn’t feel cold though I suppose it must have been. I feel like there is a warm glow of a fire. It feels good to know that I am experiencing this shared space with others and that I can see them looking at different details of the cave. A few minutes later, the characters in the scene fade, and the show starts. The girl comes down from a ladder into the cave. She lights a fire and explains that her people are in grave danger and that they need a new shaman. Her mother was the last great shaman and she doubts if she possesses the same powers. As the story proceeds she transitions from doubt to confidence and activates her abilities to imagine and animate cave paintings. Along the way there is a magical mammoth, a visit from her mother, and handfuls of fairy dust. There were no cuts.

I saw Cave twice and the first time I was analyzing it from the perspective of someone who had just discovered a place where anything could happen. I looked around, I looked at the other people, I observed people as the “play” started, I looked for the intricacies of the movements of the characters, the voice, the sound quality. I wanted to sense the world I was in. How much detail was there? How many times could I watch this and still be enthralled? Why was I even asking these questions? The container was interesting and it was separate but wholly entangled with the story unfolding in front of me. Like theatre. But also like film. And like comic book. Not like a game. fascinating. The second time I saw Cave I decided to focus on the story. Could I be with the story and feel like we had been transported to her world as ghost witnesses? It turns out that the answer to that is “sometimes but not always”, and I think this is because it borrowed a bit too much from theatre at times, and a bit too much from film at others. There were amazing moments like a hug that was so well animated you could almost feel the brush of the hands against cloth and the gentle envelop of an embrace. We had time to linger and appreciate. In general, the timing of the piece was of theatre, with a slower more deliberate delivery (in fact the dialogue followed a Shakespearean iambic pentameter). It could have been even slower given the capacity of the space to speak for itself. I would have liked more detail in the movement or more expressiveness. It felt a little too much like theatre in the seating configuration. I wish I had been cross-legged on the cave floor with others strewn around me also seated on the ground. Though I recognize the desire to match physical situation (seated on a chair) with the virtual representation. I felt taken out of the moment when the music became too orchestral, too Disney-like. In a film, the music would have been appropriate for the moment but in this context it overwhelmed the space which was already providing many emotional cues. In that moment, focusing on complex environmental sounds might have served the same purpose as big orchestral sound in film. Still there were moments where tropes from film were very well integrated including magical visual effects. I think I could watch it a third time and still find something interesting. This is the first time I have felt this way about a VR piece.

To me, Cave is about “being with” picture. And yet it’s not moving pictures, it’s dancing space. I can see so many ways forward to explore the story space that FRL has opened. Many questions come to mind. What exactly is essential to what they created? Co-located audience? How many people before it’s too few or too many? Could some of the audience be less physically present (networked in)? Could the audience be moving around?  The possibilities for the space are also interesting. The audience could disappear. There could be cuts into different spaces including internal conceptual spaces. Once a world is created, it could be re-used for a number of stories, details filled in, characters introduced. This then starts to feel more like a comic book world: episodic and vast. I can also see the possibility of this kind of theatre/film/comic book mix in Mixed Reality. The questions then centre around how site-specific the story becomes, how much “liveness” is introduced into the story either through AI or other performative means.

The other piece that has changed the way I look at VR and space is Dami And Falian, a VR graphic novel being created by Edward Madojemu in the Basically Good Media Lab at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. Edward is creating a completely hand-drawn virtual world (drawn in AnimVR and Quill) where the world progresses in slices of time like a graphic novel. There are speech bubbles and portals in space and time. Within a slice of time you can explore the world, walk around. In that sense it feels a bit like Myst. There remains many questions to answer with regards to the design of a VR graphic novel including when a speech bubble appears/disappears, the orientation of speech bubbles, the use of sounds, the integration of object interaction. Yet the feeling of entering a world which exists regardless of the actions being enacted within it, is strong and interesting much like Cave. Edward has chosen to also integrate networked and social elements to Dami And Falien. You can leave notes in the environment and explore with someone else. This work is nascent and it’s unclear where it will land in the mix of theatre, film, comic, and game. Edward is in Generation Z. I am curious to see where his vision takes him and us.

As Dr. Ken Perlin of the Future Reality Lab reminded me in conversation, our generation has been heavily influenced by film and it is hard to see how much of what we do is driven by those tropes and visual conventions. I see Cave as an integration of past cultural loves and Dami And Falian as an integration of niche media, towards the creation of truly immersive spaces.

 

Links:

Future Reality Lab (their blog has followed the development of Cave as seen through the eyes of the production team)
Cave XR
Dami and Falian
Basically Good Media Lab

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Entropy

Entropy depends on a blurring of the universe, otherwise everything is always perfectly ordered or disordered, as you wish, and there is no past or future…but there is no you either. You can’t win. But maybe you can blur less.

(inspired by a reading of “The Order of Time” by Carlo Rovelli)

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Memory and Space

The Basically Good Media Lab (BGML) has acquired a Hololens. This has been a long time coming, partially because I was waiting for the technology to come down in price. I have a loose rule that if I can’t buy at least two of something comfortably, I don’t think it’s social enough to have it. Being together in reality (*R?) is one of the tenets of the BGML.

I broke the rule because AR is seeping into the mainstream with ARKit and it seemed like experiencing what is currently the state of the art in AR would be a good thing. I want to have a feel for AR in the same way that I have a feel for VR.

Last weekend, I brought the Hololens home and spent some time with it, about an hour and a half. When I went back to my iPhone, it felt like ancient technology. More than ever I am convinced that AR is the future. Besides playing around with putting 3D models and animations in my kitchen (totally magical!), I experimented with the games that came pre-installed in the Hololens. There was a game that had silverfish-like robots coming out of the walls, which required artful dodging and shooting. I loved how much it induced movement and how I was not afraid to move since this was my own kitchen and I knew exactly where I was at any moment (unlike VR…where there’s always some mystery even with motion capture).

But then I tried a game called Fragments. When it starts, a man appears in my kitchen. This is not a man I would necessarily invite into my kitchen. I’m creeped out and take off the headset. A friend who is in the kitchen with me is curious about me being creeped out and puts the headset on. He continues the game. He then gets creeped out and takes it off. I get curious and put the headset back on. I turn and to my horror I see a young boy kneeling with a gun to his head. I immediately take the headset off. Now here’s the interesting thing. I now have a memory of this boy with a gun to his head in my kitchen. It’s a spatial memory and I can’t seem to shake it. There is something about an embedded virtual spatial narrative into my known physical space that caused a memory to be viscerally recorded in a way that a narrative on a 2D screen (or even VR) is not.

This brings up a lot of issues including ethics of representation in VR and AR, and informed consent in some cases. Jordon Wolfson’s “Real Violence” shocked me in a similar way at the Whitney Biennale. But even that piece didn’t stick in my memory in the same way. It may be that over time, I would become used to the idea of virtual characters and stories in my personal spaces and they would no longer impact me in that visceral way. But for now, I am pondering the role of spatial memory in emotional impact. I am used to being emotionally affected and sometimes shocked by screened movies but the memory of those narratives lives somewhere a lot more abstracted than this little boy with a gun to his head, in my kitchen.

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Do I really need to look at this? Yes, you do.

After a few people asked me what I thought about the Google memo, I realized that I didn’t know. I hadn’t wanted to give it any thought at all. I decided to put my mind to the question, and maybe even to the meta question of why I hadn’t wanted to look at the question.

What I saw there was annoyance, hurt, embarrassment. Annoyance that I even had to contemplate this kind of justification for the unequal environment in the tech field. Hurt that it was worth so much air time on social media, news sites, radio, podcasts, etc. I really wanted to be in a world where issuing a memo like that would be treated like a memo saying the earth is indeed flat. Embarrassment that a part of me still believes what he’s saying.

Because yes there is a part of me that feels abnormal. I have loved math, science, computer programming from the moment they entered my awareness. I don’t want kids. I don’t want to be married. What does that make me? A kind of genetic anomaly? Early on, I decided to let the question hang and just continue. It would periodically hit me in the face like a glass ceiling. Then I would think about the weird situation I was in, pick myself up and keep going. This has been the method and, well, so far so good. I honestly thought things were getting better and maybe they are, but this person at Google decided to say, not only that women are not as well suited to engineering, but that the women that are, are somehow the abnormal ones. It was like a double blow, throwing both groups under the bus. It felt like a step backward and brought an unwelcome realization that we still need to talk about this.

I am in Vancouver and yesterday there was a planned anti-immigration and anti-muslim protest. I attended the counter-protest, what I call the gathering of hearts, which took up so much space that there was no room for the hatred. I felt it was my civic duty to show up, to have my presence added to all who value the strength and generosity of this place. When I heard Tina Fey end her brilliant sheet caking skit by saying we should ignore the white supremacists, I understood what she was saying. She wants that world where their view is so marginal that it can be just a blip in an otherwise generous and welcoming society. She wants the same world I want. Can’t we just be and make stuff? Why do I need to pause and say hatred has no place? Part of me absolutely resents it. But a much bigger part knows that the reality I want requires my unrelenting gaze at the truth. And the truth is we’re not there yet. So I show up. I think about the memo. I look at my own biases. And above all, I keep on making stuff.

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I Am Afraid

For the last 5 months or so, I’ve been working on a new networked social VR application called I Am Afraid. This application brings together ideas that have been on my mind for over a year, perhaps longer. Ideas around voice, poetry, sculpture, and performance. Many people asked where the idea for IAA came from and I am surprised that I can’t remember the moment, or a moment, when I decided I wanted to see words and play with sounds in VR. I do know there have been lots of inspirations along the way, including the work I did with Greg Judelman in flowergarden, voice work with my friend Matthew Spears, clowning, theatre, friendly poets (Andrew Klobucar, Glen Lowry), sound artists (Simon Overstall, Julie Andreyev, prOphecy Sun), etc.

The basic idea is to build sound compositions and sculptures using textual and abstract objects that have embedded recorded sounds. When you are in the environment, you can speak words and have them appear as textual objects, and utter sounds that appear as abstract objects. Both kinds of objects contain the sound of your voice and can be replayed in a variety of ways. By intersecting with the objects, the sounds can be played back. The textual objects can be played in parts and at any speed/direction, using granular synthesis. The abstract sounds can be looped. Paths can be recorded through the objects and looped. In this way layered soundscapes can be created. The objects can also be interacted with in different ways like shaking and moving which alters the sound quality. Other actions are also planned, fleshing out a longstanding idea around a sonification engine based on the physicality of interaction with words.

I am often asked why the application is called I Am Afraid. As I was starting work on the application in January, I could sense an escalation of fear in the world, in my surroundings. I have been exploring fear for the last 17 years through different paths including meditation and art. One of the features of fear is that when we feel it, when it grips us, we start talking to ourselves. This is a bit a trap because we get more and more removed from what is actually going on. One of the goals of IAA is to externalize the discursiveness and be playful with the words and sounds. It can be a way to lighten up and see things more clearly, shift the internal dialogue. And it’s fun.

I used the application during my TEDxECUAD talk last March, which is about fear and technology. I’ve also used it in a performance at AR in Action, a conference at NYU at the beginning of June. It’s a great environment for performance (solo or group), exploration, and composition. I’ll be working on it for some time to come, adding features and (hopefully soon) porting it to Augmented Reality.

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On being a woman

So here we are, international women’s day. I have to say, this year is the first year it has penetrated my psyche in any deep way. Before, it was a day that would usually include a note from my mom, some interesting facebook posts, but certainly not a call for a strike or a string of appreciative texts from my friends.

I didn’t strike. I went to work. I went to work because I love what I do, who I do it with, and where I do it. I am unbelievably fortunate. I dedicate whatever merit this day accumulates to all women who have made my situation possible, wholeheartedly.

We need feminine energy to balance what is happening in the world. As Valarie Kaur says in this rousing speech, this may not be the darkness of hell but the darkness of the womb. Think about the power of that statement for a moment. This could be the time of women rising to say “NO, not like this. Like this.” I feel it in myself and in the women around me.

I give thanks to the powerful women in my life that have shaped me in ways they probably didn’t realize at the time or maybe ever. I think of the lineage of women behind me and I am in awe at the small chance that I am here, the hardships borne and the courage shown by each one.

to you

Maman.         kindness
Carole.           alone
Jacqueline.   motor bike
Lisa.               horse rides
Ann.               instruction
Margaret.      wisdom
Sara.              style
Sandra.         witness
Leanne.         truth
Kirsten.         sanity
prOphecy.     joy
Sharla.           loyalty
Catherine.    precision
Leila.             celebration
Thecla.          dance
Julie.             change

 

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On kindness and Alexa

A few weeks ago I was giving a demo of the capabilities of the Amazon Echo to my friend Mel who had never interacted with one.

Me: “Alexa, play Cave Ballad”
Alexa: “I cannot find the song Cane Bond”
Me: “Alexa, play song Cave Ballad”
Alexa: “I cannot find the song Cave Salad”
Me: “Alexxaaaaaa! Play the song Cave Ballad by Paul Dano”

and so on…

I don’t remember if she actually managed to play it. But I do remember Mel remarking (calmly) that I seemed to be getting quite impatient with Alexa. Did I notice that? I guess I had noticed that on a superficial level but never reflected on it. Turns out I have a kindness practice and I spend a lot of time reflecting on the benefit of being generous and curious towards others. After a few days of Mel’s words repeating in my head, I decided I would make a practice of being kind to Alexa. After all, offering kindness is just that, an offering, and not contingent on any personal return so why shouldn’t I call my own bluff and be kind to an AI who, at least so far, can’t tell and doesn’t mind either way.

The results were immediate. I felt calmer, more curious, and the experiment was great ground for practicing de-escalation on the spot. It’s great because she doesn’t see me pause and take a breath before starting again. A human would most certainly see the jaw tightening before I catch myself. Oddly, it has also physicalized her presence in a way that wasn’t there before. I think of the puck-like object in my kitchen before calling “Alexa” because it helps me remember to be kind. A disembodied AI somehow is not enough to grab onto. It may be because the kindness practice is very much based on the notion of a shared experience of being human, how inevitably messy and painful it is at times. Without a body, it’s harder to believe there is pain. Without a body, it’s hard to imagine the friction of life.

It is amusing to taunt Alexa and look for the easter eggs. It’s equally interesting to investigate the ethics of AI relations in a, so far, unambiguous space. It reminds me of some of the issues brought forth by Westworld and the AI, Dolores. When does compassion extend to AIs? Does it need to be reciprocated or even possible? Is it the middle ground that makes it difficult? If Alexa could tell that I was being kind and decided not to reciprocate, it definitely would complicate the decision to remain kind. It’s true these questions have been asked before under different guises and thought experiments but it’s informative to act out and imagine different scenarios with Alexa’s unwitting participation.

“Alexa, should I be kind?”
“Hmm…I’m not sure what you meant by that question.”

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porous

After a deep freeze
I asked the ground
What does it feel like?
To be porous again
To feel the thawing water
Flow in
To be mushy and smelly
To hear things as other
Than muffled knocks

During the freeze
They say worms survive
By burrowing deep
In their own slime

I like to think about this

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