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Ken Goldberg, Randall Packer, Wojciech Matusik and Gregory Kuhn: "Mori," 1999-

"In Mori, the immediacy of the telematic embrace between earth and visitor questions the authenticity of mediated experience in the context of chance, human fragility, and geological endurance.” Goldberg

Mori, meaning a "forest-sanctuary" in Japanese and the Roman "memento mori" the reminder of mortality. It transforms the realtime signal of a Seismograph measuring the (permanent and normally imperceptible) motion of the Californian Hayward Fault into an audible and visual experience.

Areas: telematic art, transformation, physical world

Image: by K.Goldberg

The installation consists of a darkened space into which visitors are led by an illuminated path arranged in the shape of an inward moving spiral. Michael Heim, probably inspired by Carl Jung's writings on Alchemy referres to the spiral as something "that brings us to ourselves." 1 In native american Hopi mythology the spiral is a symbol of Mother Earth. At the centre of the spiral a screen is embedded into the floor surrounded by a circular railing. Low sound frequencies are emanated by hidden loudspeakers, reverberating the space. These sounds correspond with the visuals on the screen which represent the seismographs graphical output.
As the permanent natural motion of the earth's crust is not perceptible by the human senses this telepresent experience is an example for transformation and the visitors suspension of disbelief. In that respect it pertains to Goldberg's main interest, the fundamental teleepistemological questions: How can we trust the reliability of information that reaches us from afar? That we don't experience through our own senses? Is it real? What does real mean?

Although Goldberg has a history of different telepresence projects before and after Mori, that investigate this dilemma, Mori is particularly interesting for my research for several reasons. Firstly it deals with the transformation or mapping of information from one medium to another, to another sense. In this case from an imperceptible vibration detected by a hypersensitive machine into sound (or music) and visuals. Thus the very abstract "earthquake" data are being transformed from rational digits into a captivating multi-sensorial experience.
Secondly it also engages with the nature of the physical world and thirdly it does so with - more or less - telepresent means. Transformation, the physical world and telepresence come together in this piece.

The telepresent aspect in this piece is also interesting in a unique way. Tele-presence usually implies "distant presence" ... of either There coming Here - or vice versa. Yet in this case the distinction is a relative one. Also the seismographic detectors are some distance away in another part of Berkeley, because of the geographical scale of the Hayward Fault these measurements are still to be largely valid at the "telepresent" venue. Were the detectors located at the venue own interactions, like jumping would become part of the output, creating an interactive feedback loop of action and response. This also would give a certain evidence of the authenticity of the experience. It also shows the distinct kinship between transformation (visualisation techniques) and telepresence. Both involve machines that transform data to a sensorial modality. One from a distant location, the other local data from one sensorial modality to another.

In that relation Telepresence is often compared to Virtual Reality (VR) as both share the use of data from "another place." In Telepresence this is a remote location which we experience via a technology mediated representation, whereas in VR it is the computer generated simulation of a virtual, a non-existing, imaginary "place." Both share data that are gathered and presented by complex technical set-ups in a process that usually is non-intuitive and non-transparent, a black box. Although sometimes the created outputs simulate natural reality, this "naturalism" is the result of a conscious design effort, with every detail being the result of a design effort. All properties regarding visuals or sounds and subtlest behaviours of the interface are determined and created via computer mediation and in this process are modified and altered. Sometimes beyond recognition, sometimes according to expectations. This result, also appearing to be "natural" is completely artificial and make-believe only.
For example mp3 codec's rely on the research results of psychoacoustics to achieve their remarkable compression rate. Ninety percent of the original, already "lossy" digitally recorded data is missing! It is a miracle that it still is perceptible.

Mori's transformative property reminds of the sister discipline of "data-visualisation" which has the same epistemological problem with the believability of information, its transparency and truthfulness.
By visualising statistics, modelling of weather data or the creation of maps, charts and diagrams conscious (and political) decisions are to be made by the designers. These decisions determine not only the perceived appearance but the actual "message" in a fundamental yet subtle and hidden manner which is not easily transparent for an uncritical viewer. Should the air pollution of a televised weather forecast should be displayed vividly green so viewers get a stronger sense of the unhealthiness of their environment, or not? Every statistical visualisation is merely one of countless possibilities.
Whereas classical X-Rays still was an analogue technology that could be comprehended with a general knowledge of photography what we see as the result of an MRT scan is, though appearing to be "natural," a 100% digital and virtual rendition, entirely the result of a computer mediated process.
Since the early days of telescopes and microscopes we rely on tools and devices that enhance our senses, yet this enhancement comes with the price that we deal only with representations of the real - not with the real itself any more! And increasingly we have begun to take these representations for reality, acting with and through them as if they were reality. (e.g. Satellite images)

Lev Manovich writes "Any representation that systematically captures some features of reality can be used as an instrument. In fact, most types of representations that do not fit into the history of illusionism — diagrams and charts, maps and x-rays, infrared and radar images — belong to the second history, that of representations as instruments for action." p.168

1) Heim, Michael (1998), "Virtual Realism" p.76


There appears to be a contradiction between the large scale installation piece - and the small monitor at its centre. (As I have not experienced this piece myself this is mere speculation.) The space is accessed in a choreographed approach that results in an immersive experience. An uncanny darkness, increasing sound volume during the approach, and the final revelation at its mystical/enchanted centre. One would expect that visitors experience the rather unspectacular and small CRT monitor found at this point of focus bearing a very reduced and unemotional animated black and white curve as too simple, but obviously this is not the case. The installation, its sound and the set-up appear to create a well designed whole.
One the other hand this property may be an intentional design effort, as its purpose is to enable people to question the accuracy and validity of the experience iself, the validity of the data experience. This critical distance and doubtful state of mind is more likely to be achieved with a minimalist and reduced mode of expression than a sensorially overload or vociferous spectacle that overwhelms the visitor, numbs the senses and leaves less likelihood for critical reflection.

Transformation in "Mori"

This separate diagram showing Transformation (Visualisation) of data has been integrated into the diagram below.

Here/there: Transformation and Spatiality

Although technically the seismograph sending the data is located in a distance conceptually the work is about the ground beneath the visitors feet. As a result of this decision there is no 'there' there. It is about here and now.
The installation has immersive qualities as visitors are guided into the space via a lit path and lead into a darkened space. The seismograph data of the trembling of the ground (blue) is transformed into two different sensorial modalities, sound (black) and visuals (brown). As the volume of the low-frequency sound increases visitors approach the monitor displaying the continuously updated curve generated from the seismograph data. The data is one-directional only, there is no feedback mechanism that allows visitors to verify the accuracy of the data.

Links: Zakros's Mori page with video walkthrough.
Ken Goldberg's description: including links to the visuals and sounds.

Classification of Mori as an interactive installation

The installation is at a single location. (Yet there may be numerous viewers on the Internet accessing the applet webpage.)

It is a one way connection, (otherwise visitors could create earthquakes.)

The dark space and sound installation provide an immersive setting. As a result it has more properties of a physical installation then a two-dimensional screen based piece although a screen is its visual anchor.

Unencumbered. Visual and audible cues only.

Non-interactive display. Appearance of data can not be modified.

It is non ambiguous, yet the validity of the data should be questioned. Transparent? Function may become clear after a while.

It is not interactive, so strictly speaking there are no users. non-interactive display.

Mori requires no collaborative efforts. Non-interactive display.

Live data is provided by one source, the seismograph.

Visitors will perceive the data as local, although it is coming from a "remote" location. This is relative How local is local? How far away is remote?

There are two multimodal displays. Sound and screen.

last update: 1/7/02008 0:53

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