Early in the last half-century, when what now looks like a trickle of media seemed like a torrent, communications theorist Marshall McLuhan noticed that the way we had begun to communicate with TV, radio and recorded music had become a form of content in itself. He presented the idea to the world in his 1964 book, Understanding Media, from which came the slogan "The medium is the message." Just three years later, in another book, McLuhan extended the idea and tweaked the slogan (inspired by a typo) to "The medium is the massage," to point out that the sheer quantity of information being taken in also has a cumulative effect on us. He was referring to both the "mass" of media and what we think of as "mass media." That was 40 years ago, long before home video, let alone YouTube and everything else on the internet.
The slogan could be twisted one more time to describe artists' use of communications technology in this year's Ingenuity Festival: The massage is the medium. Several of the main, ongoing, interactive installations in this year's downtown, street-closing art and tech party have artists working broad palates of information, gathering data in real time from the crowd, from the Cuyahoga River, and from individual visitors. In the way that a potter plays with clay, these artists are playing with the capacity to gather, manipulate and present quantities of sound and image in real time so that guests can experience it - sometimes just appreciatively, but other times in a fully interactive way. In different installations, microphones will gather sound to be mixed in musical composition, cameras will feed live video, and other cameras will take individual photos and, with the help of digital technology, compile them into a great virtual-hand-holding chain of Ingenuity participants.All around the festival will be installations that invite questions about how we experience the city and what it means to be a participant.
All that sounds a little geeky to describe, but the experience of these projects seems destined to have visceral impact. Anyone who's been to a big-box store and played with the security camera and attendant monitor at the door - making faces, walking on and off screen and giving the camera the finger - can imagine the appeal of Jenny Marketou's riff on surveillance technology. The first thing anyone will notice about the New York-based artist's Red Eyed Skywalkers will be the 99 6-foot red weather balloons floating above the whole scene like a cloud made of suns or a hallucination of red blood cells in the sky. That by itself is spectacular, nearly on the scale of Christo's landscape-sized projects. But some of Marketou's balloons will be armed with wireless video cameras feeding live pictures to screens - including the Playhouse Square Jumbotron. In the poke back at Big Brother, visitors will see themselves and their surroundings in what Ingenuity Director James Levin describes as "the insidious wrapped in a canopy of whimsy."
Meanwhile, the New York-based artist-and-research-collective Spurse offers Crooked River, in First and Third Persons, an audio re-creation of the Cuyahoga River on the festival grounds. If you've ever had the experience of scooting your car up a few inches at the traffic light to clear up a radio signal pocked with static, you have a metaphoric understanding of this work, which invites you, with the help of an AM radio transmitter, to follow the re-mapped course of the crooked river through audio signals gathered at points along the way. You'll hear the path of the river - the movement of boats, the rise and fall of lift bridges, the cackle of seagulls and the aqueous rush of the river itself.
In Hands Across, Cleveland artist Jared Bendis has created an interactive piece that continually builds a chain of hand-holding participants as they come to the festival's tech center to be photographed. Each photo will be digitally linked with others until the chain is thousands long.
Minneapolis artist Piotr Szyhalski has installed a multimedia collage of sound and image from Iraq and Afghanistan that melds art and technology with politics and current events. His Theater of Operations will be ongoing in the Allen Theatre.
We can only imagine what McLuhan, dead now nearly 28 years, would have thought of this year's Ingenuity lineup. But for people who go to the festival, this will be yet another stage in its evolution. "Each of these projects represents the convergence of a team of scientists and artists," Levin says. Communications technology becomes not simply another way to experience art, but the art itself: medium and message, rolled into one.