Visiting “The Transfinite”

I found the visit to Ryoji Ikeda’s installation at the Park Avenue Armory to be both mesmerizing and a little disturbing. As you walk inside the massive Wade Thompson Drill Hall the first thing you encounter is projections of light on a large screen and on a rectangular white section of floor. You take your shoes off to step on the white floor as the sounds, a series of blips and beeps, come at you from all sides. The screen and floor are split View of The Transfinite by Ryoji Ikedavertically down the center with different but frequently complementary abstract patterns projected on each side. The entire “song” and “video” play on a loop but entering in the middle it was difficult to tell when I had seen the entire piece. The hypnotic effect of the sound and light left me confused about which patterns I had already seen so I sat through it more than once to make sure that I had seen it all. Then after walking to different parts of the white floor for a few minutes we went to the opposite side of the screen.

Where the lights and sounds on the introductory side were oddly soothing, the installation on the opposite side was both more interesting and less comfortable to watch. This side was composed of the data from which the abstract sounds and patterns were derived. It is strange thing to see this much raw information and have no mechanism to understand it. This is the primary abstraction, the conversion of a phenomenon into a measurement while the projection you first experience is, in fact, the secondary abstraction. Technology and highly specialized knowledge bring distant or foreign experiences to you but the act of collecting and interpreting the data separates you from the true experience of it. This spoke to me as a reflection of human experience and a reminder that we should not mistake our own knowledge as the innate truth of a phenomenon. You can create a scale to measure a distance but you cannot experience its expanse.

The speed with which the data moved across the vertical screen and the different visualizations projected on small screens in a vertical line down the center present an image familiar to anyone who has seen popular science fiction. Reminders of fictional apocalyptic scenarios were not the most disturbing part. It was the reminder that we generate so much information. The data in this installation refers to phenomena outside of our direct experience but it did make me reflect on the information that we regularly generate in the course of our daily lives. Our ability to manage the information we create is far outstripped by our ability to create it. We constantly generate information even if we are not aware that we are doing so. We are counted and categorized. We are a car on a road, a passenger on a train, a customer in a store, a battery running down in need of a charge, a phone call on a network of X number of seconds. Working, unemployed, married, alone, born or dying always adding a number to a count. We also are always developing new ways to process, store and sometimes profit from this assault of data and in the course of doing so we leave obsolete information and technologies behind us.

There are entire institutions and companies that specialize in preserving and restoring information that was assiduously collected and then thoughtlessly abandoned. So much of what we take for our existence is in fact dependent on highly specialized technology and users who create and maintain our comforts. This work reminded me of both my ignorance of reality and my dependence on these delicate machines and abstractions.

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