Kyle McDonald, adding a digital art dimension to human relationships

American artist and researcher Kyle McDonald now enjoys international recognition. On the line up at the biggest international festivals like Ars Electronica, Sonar and Click Festival, he is notably the name behind several installations acclaimed by the digital world. Amongst them, Augmented Hand Series, Sharing Faces and Social Soul echo social relationships between people. An enthusiast of collaborative ventures this artist stands out for his contributions to the openFrameworks community of which he is an active member. 

In 2015 the jury of the Ars Electronica festival awarded a prize to Kyle McDonald for the installation Augmented Hands Shadow (created in 2014 with Golan Levin and Chris Sugrue). A famous award that gave an audience acquainted with digital arts an opportunity to experience the world of this specialist in 3D environment. This piece, comprising a box in which a visitor inserts their hand, simultaneously displayed an altered limb on a huge screen. The artist has developed twenty or so different transformations. 

Kyle McDonald discussing the Augmented Hand Series from Golan Levin 

In some situations the hand has an additional or one less finger. Sometimes, while the thumb moves to the end of the hand, a piece of the phalanx is missing... The general idea behind the work is to explore identity or at least an awareness of or amazement at his or her physical being. 

Augmented Hand Series (Demonstration, 2014)

The presence of the body is a recurring theme in Kyle McDonald’s work. Like in Sharing Faces, an installation presented at the festival Bouillants near Rennes last May, which enables remote individuals to connect via interactive mirrors. The latter have a particular feature enabling the image to be reflected to someone else. Operating on the principle of facial and behavioural recognition, the piece questions relationships with others and our desire to share.

Sharing Faces from Kyle McDonald 

Spectators are surprised and sometimes embarrassed, but nobody is unresponsive to his or her new reflection. In one of his last projects, Transcranial (programmed last April at the Resonate festival in Belgrade) resulting from an association with the choreographer Klaus Obermaier and the artist and software developer Daito Manabe, Kyle McDonald continues experimenting with the human body. The result of work initiated with Face Substitution, the artist transforms the face of the dancer guinea pig in real time. 

The relationship with the body therefore seems essential to the artist’s work. Perhaps it is just a coincidence. “Digital identity emerges naturally in my works but it’s not a prerequisite. If I use the body it’s for its universal dimension and to explore a social relationship between individuals.” 

transcranial / embodied cognition – Klaus Obermaier, Daito Manabe, Kyle McDonald from Klaus Obermaier 

Human interactions at the heart of artistic projects

These without doubt best define Kyle McDonald’s trademark. All of his projects, whether in the form of a video, a choreography or an installation, have researching social links that unite several individuals in common: “It’s not a question of evoking the relationship between people and machines but simply between people. It’s just that in the middle of this relationship there is sometimes a machine”. That is the crux of the subtle nature of the artist’s work.

With an educational background in philosophy and economics, he focuses primarily on human interactions. Social Soul, created in 2014 in collaboration with  Lauren McCarthy for the festival TED in Vancouver, summarises this well. The installation offers visitors the chance to be immersed in Twitter feeds scrolling 360° on a series of monitors and mirrors. “The first question is: how we feel in someone else’s social media feed?” At the end of the experience and with the help of a customised algorithm, the visitor receives a tweet inviting them to enter into physical contact with their “social soul sister”. This work demonstrates the fluidity of the border between reality and virtual. Here Kyle McDonald is in particular working towards showing that technology can generate social links.

Social Soul - TED 2014 from MKG 

A critical eye

On the surface this desire to bring individuals closer may appear innocent. However the artist does not neglect his duty of criticism. The Social Roulette app is one of the most striking examples. Created in 2013 on the principle of Russian roulette, Social Roulette proposed involving Facebook accounts. In one case out of six the content published was deleted and the profile deactivated. The experience, intended as a provocation, shows the importance, sometimes disproportionate, that we attach to our digital lives. Pplkpr  (People Keeper), another application designed a year after with Lauren McCarthy, takes the process even further.

pplkpr from Lauren McCarthy 

This one monitors our physical and emotional reactions and consequently optimises our social life. A connected wristband measures the heart rate. It determines an emotional state according to the people we are interacting with. Pplkpr then designates who should or should not be removed from our entourage. This rationalisation of feelings that clearly lacks subtle nuances, treats the systematisation of the collection and use of digital data ironically. 

Collaborations and new horizons

The wealth and number of Kyle McDonald’s artistic achievements is partly due to his skill for forging partnerships. “The basis of my work, programming, is solitary but I am fuelled almost exclusively by the people I meet. I like to learn from others and falling for something artistically is paramount to starting a partnership”. It is a way of trying out other plastic art forms as with  Light Leaks.

Light Leaks,  by Kyle McDonald and Jonas Jongejan 

Created in 2013 and presented for the first time in France during the last edition of the festival Scopitone  in Nantes, the installation is “an exception” in the artist’s work. The immersive work, co-signed with Jonas Jongejan, combines auditory and visual experiences through a procession of moving pixels. Thanks to fifty or so mirror balls and three projectors, the artists revisit the art of mapping to transform the dynamics of the venue and disrupt our sense of space. ExR3, devised the same year with Elliot Woods (studio Kimchi and Chips), has gained its position in line with contemporary plastic works of art.  Fragments of mirror reflect geometrical forms. The spectator sees a blue circle, a red line, a yellow square or a black cube gradually being drawn depending on their position. Sometimes nothing appears leaving a huge chaotic picture, worthy of a continuation of the visual research by Georges Rousse and Felice Varini. 

OF Showreel from openFrameworks 

Sharing of knowledge

All works by Kyle McDonald are shared in open source and fuel permanent research. The artist is a member of the  FAT LAB (The Free Art and Technology Lab) and teaches at the ITP  (Interactive Telecommunication Program, Alternative Media Center, New York) thus contributing to a collective approach which he loves: “All that I have created comes to the openFrameworks community. I share my codes and processes. This notion of learning together, that gravitates around my work, is as important as the works that I produce.”

By Adrien Cornelissen / Acknowledgements Juliette Bibasse


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