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Article categories: ANAT Member ProfileIssue 63
July 31st, 2009

John Tonkin is a Sydney based artist. His works have included explorations into historical and contemporary ideas relating to the body and identity, the subjective nature of scientific theories and belief systems, and ongoing investigations into interactivity and play. Mimi Kelly: Would you like to describe the current project you are working on?

johnt-image1bJohn Tonkin: For the festival ZeroOne San Jose and the Thirteenth International Symposium of Electronic Art  (ISEA2006),  I am working on a project with thinker and technologist Mark Pesce titled BlueStates. It will use bluetooth technology in mobile phones and personal computers to detect the flow of ISEA2006 attendees through the extended space of the conference. Unlike locative works that attempt to map a physical Cartesian space, we are more interested in mapping the subjective space of relation and interconnection. BlueStates will gather, visualise and permute maps of relational space. Users (with bluetooth phones) will interact with the work just by moving through the space and interacting with each other. Mark is working on the bluetooth sensing and database aspects of the project. I am focusing more on the visualisation components. The tools we are developing will be released under an open source license to allow other artists to participate in the creation of BlueStates-based applications at ISEA 2006.

MK: How important is the viewers’ interaction with your artwork?

JT: I have described my work as involving building frameworks/tools/toys in which the artwork is formed through the accumulated interactions of its users. So obviously user interaction is very important to the artworks. It would be more appropriate in many cases for my installation projects to have closing parties rather than openings, as the work is often very sparse at the beginning. I think CD-Rom based artworks in the early 90′s gave people the idea that interactivity was made up of a (sometimes obtuse) interface into a static database of text and media. Artists’ current use of interactivity is often much broader and more complex than that.

I like to make works that are very simple to interact with. For the last few years I have been working with realtime 3d. I find many 3d interfaces awkward and clunky. I have been trying to make 3d navigation that feels satisfying and elegant (based on dynamic physical simulation).

MK: Is the use of technology in your work (as opposed to more ‘traditional’ mediums) a means to explore a preconceived concept, or does the media inform/inspire the exploration?

JT:  It works both ways. Sometimes my starting point will be more conceptual, other times I might be inspired by the possibilities of a technology. Things always shift through the process of actually making the work. For many years I pretended that new technology was just a tool to realise my pre-existing ideas … the truth is that I’m quite a geek, and get much pleasure from playing with technology. Most of my artworks involve the development of my own custom software (usually in Java). Fortunately the contemporary art world is looser than it used to be and I don’t feel the need to feel guilty. For about ten years (1995-2005) my projects were mostly long term and quite conceptually based. The last few years I’ve been working on a number of more simple shorter projects.

johnt-image2bMK: There seems to be a shift to referring to ‘media arts’, as opposed to ‘new media’. This is understandable considering arts practice engaging with media and new technologies has been occurring for decades now. What is your response to this language change, and will it impact understanding and interpretation of media arts practice?

JT: I have been making art with computers since 1985, so I have witnessed several changes in terminology around this activity. Most of them are problematic. When does a media stop being new? All media was once new. Which artforms don’t have a medium? I think ‘media arts’ is better than previous attempts. It connects with older time based media, although it may be too closely aligned with the idea of ‘the media.’ I’ve recently been working on a project ‘time & motion study #3’ which sits on a trajectory going back to the pre-cinematic photographic work of Muybridge and Marée.

There is something about the nature of computers that is fundamentally different to other media. I think the term ‘computer art’ while seemingly rather dated is actually quite useful. A few years ago a friend of mine introduced me socially as “he makes art with the computer”… I liked it.

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