David Rokeby: Very Nervous System
Curated by Jesse Stewart
22 November 2010 – 30 January 2011
Governor General’s award-winning artist David Rokeby has been at the forefront of interactive media art for over two decades. Throughout that time, his piece Very Nervous System (1986-2004) has been central to the development of his remarkable interdisciplinary creative practice.
First developed in the mid 1980s, when interactive art, sound art, and computer-based art were each in their infancy, Very Nervous System uses video surveillance technology, synthesizers, a sound system, computers, and image-processing software designed by Rokeby to translate movement into music and/or sound. Visitors to the gallery enter what appears to be an empty room. As they move through the space, their movements are monitored by a wall-mounted video camera. The video signal is routed to a hidden computer where the image processor converts their movements into sounds that are played back into the space through the sound system. This creates a biofeedback loop between body and machine.
Through an intuitive process of improvisation, kinetic experimentation, and creative play, visitors use their bodies to sculpt the sound, opening a critical space to reflect on the inherent tensions and contradictions between the extreme logic of the computer binary code that underpins the piece and the intuitive, improvisatory gestures that activate it. The piece also inverts the traditional relationship between movement/dance and sound/music: instead of the body responding to music, the movements of the body actually produce the music and orchestrate the piece. The work thus functions as what Rokeby has called a “transforming mirror,” both reflecting and refracting our actions in space and time and our self-image.
The Carleton University Art Gallery purchased this version of the work in 2009 with assistance from the Friends of the Art Gallery, the Elizabeth L. Gordon Art Programme and the Canada Council for the Arts.