ADELIN SCHWEITZER, augmented reality

Adelin Schweitzer, an artist from Marseille, is currently collaborating with art centres such as the Zinc / Friche Belle de Mai or Seconde Nature in Aix. Since 2008, the greater part of his work has been devoted to principles of augmented reality, especially through the evolving project named A-Reality, whose upgraded version was presented only last October in Dresden.

Since his early devices, including VidéoPuncher 1.3, (presented a few years ago at the ARCO biennial of contemporary art in Madrid) or F.A.C.E.S, (his monumental sculpture prototype), Adelin Schweitzer has been using social mechanics concerns and viewer/participant relations in a process of interaction with machines as the basis for his artistic reflection. A-Reality, his constantly evolving project keeps on exploring these issues through its innovative technological ramifications. An original take on augmented reality that was worth a closer look at its instigator.

Adelin, how did you start getting interested in the principles of augmented reality and its technological components?

I started getting interested in the technique of augmented reality almost 4 years ago, whilst investigating something else, the eye-tracking technique. Out of further research I stumbled upon the example of fighter pilots who have long had information projected directly on the glass wall of their cockpits. It is precisely because eye-tracking made it possible to observe and understand how their eyes were moving during a flight and what the limit of their course was that the question of augmentation became a subject of research. At a time when technology has altered man’s inner nature, I find it quite revealing to observe that behind every major innovation there is almost always a warrior impulse.

As far as I am concerned, the technique that claims to augment reality occurs as an admission of failure when faced with the myth of simulation. Indeed, despite the exponential evolution of the computing power of machines (in 2015, the physical limit of the manufacturing process of electronic chips, which doubles their power every year, will have been reached), we are still unable to create a convincing digital reality in which a true virtual physicality could experienced. In other words, the augmented reality comes to me as a substitute product for what was to be the advent of cyberspace as forecasted by someone like the writer William Gibson. This is something I truly regret.

What are the actual modalities of A-Reality, the evolving project you have been working on since 2008, and which was presented again only last October at the Frend Festival in Dresden, as part of Urban Mutations…?

To understand A-Reality it is necessary to adhere to the first assumption the project is resting on; which is that reality does not exist as such but rather as a set of paradigms that create a consensus at a given time in history, within a territory, and for a specific social group. The challenge of the project therefore lies in its ability to deterritorialize the viewer/participant, to shift his point of view, to temporarily extract him from his paradigm in order to enable him to get a fresh vision of the world around. Each of these movements is systematically measured, recorded and stored in a data bank, which gradually builds up as the project memory. This forms a collection of sensations and interpretations at different times and places in the world as an attempt to respond to an inaccessible dimension of the universe. The machine we use in the project, the P03, is serving this purpose.

Can you tell us more about this machine, the P03? You seem to define it as a cleaving and utopian rendering of the perception of the world by humans? How does it highlight the relationship between technological innovation and artistic sensitivity?

The P03 (Prototype 03) is a tool designed to transform, on the occasion of outdoor strolls, the sight and hearing of its user. It is the central element of A-Reality and the whole project is built around the encounter with this device. The camera is energetically autonomous and has numerous sensors enabling real-time environmental restitution. It consists of two artificial organs (headphones and immersive video goggles), a computer, a digital compass, and a GPS beacon.

The closed headphones enable to sonically isolate the user whilst two microphones placed on each side diffuse the outside sound. Both cameras record a stereo video stream that is also diffused in real-time through the video goggles. Finally, all trips made with this device are "mapped" by a GPS tracking module.

The programming of the machine and its proposed scenario are set around a virtual matrix, a kind of imaginative map produced by a cellular automaton from the face of each user (a mathematical imitation of cellular life). The space thus created is geo-localised, with the walk of the user triggering perceptual changes.

A-Reality seems to bring together some of your interests such as interactivity, the notion of spectator/participant, the human/machine relationship, diverted uses. Are these important points for you, in your work?

All the points you mention are indeed decisive. However, the man/machine relationship (in the broad sense) certainly constitutes the main axis around which all the rest revolves. Probably because I believe this is the key challenge. We have designed all the machines that surround us as extensions of our own bodies. Technology now allows us to project ourselves beyond our body, beyond almost all borders and yet we continue to look at it as a foreign entity or worse, as a commodity.

In fact, since VideoPuncher 1.3 your work seems to have been guided by a genuine social mechanism. A willingness to link technological innovation to a social and philosophical reflection…

How can the poor be kept working when none of the promises of happiness though consumerism have been fulfilled? Capitalist society has used its last chance to answer this question and innovation, in some respect, is part of the equation. As McLuhan said The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or powers of perception steadily and without any resistance. The serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity, just because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception. [in Understanding Media,1964, Translator’s note].

A–Reality  is an evolving project, what will be its future developments, its next upgrades?

Evolving, is the least one could say as I am so far from my starting point when it comes to this project… I have now been working for nearly a year on a proposal for a comprehensive rendering of A-Reality, which I called SimStim. The challenge here is to transform a sensitive and fragmentary process of research and experimentation such as A-Reality into an artefact to be apprehended by a non-participating public. In other words it is to stage the mass (and I am not exaggerating!) formed by all the data collected from the different versions of the P03 over the last 4 years. Here again this coming exhibition will focus on several immersive devices which should enable the public to travel collectively in the memory of the participants and thus of the project itself. We are currently working, with my partners from ZINC and Seconde Nature to prepare this rendering in Aix-en-Provence for 2013.

interview by Laurent Catala