The Liquid Electric

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Examines the origins of the light on dark aesthetic in science fiction cinema, primarily liquid electricity as code for knowledge transfer, the convergence of human and machine intelligence and most significantly digital representations of water as a life sustaining force. The Liquid Electric, also charts the rise and fall of the Earth image as a symbolic representation of our relationship with the environment as seen through the prism of screen culture. The 20 minute paper was presented at Balance/UnBalance conference at Arizona State University on Saturday March 28 2015.

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0206 Liquid (Introduction)

Liquid Electric Abstract

The representation of a life sustaining force, either of technological or natural means, has a deep and evocative history in some of our most elaborate cultural fantasies. Embedded in the fictitious dreamscapes of cinema, advertising and media art are the foundation principles of an emergent digital aesthetics of liquid. The art direction is often blue and luminous in tone, it is always found at the core of the film’s novum and often takes on a kinetic electrical form. It is as if these cultural artefacts – reaching back to the earliest uses of CGI, such as Disney’s 1982 film Tron and on to more recent Hollywood parables such as A.I. and Avatar – recognize the very gothic anxiety we hold for our environment in the twilight years of industrialization. Appearing in all manner of image constructions the liquid electric is presented as the source code – the host, the conductor, the origin – of our very human struggle with technology and evolving notions of artificiality. It has emerged from a place of darkness this liquid energy – stylized as a predominately luminous surface texture contrasted as it is most commonly against a narrative setting of loss and foreboding. Very much like the anxiety we feel for the contemporary perils of creeping urbanization, of resource exploitation and climate instability the liquid electric operates in a contested space where the usual laws of physics, logic and nature have become unstable.

This light on dark aesthetic has of course a somewhat deeper history. It is a technique once used by the Italian Futurists and the imagineers such as Thomas Edison and Norman Bel Geddes to promote the wonders of technology and electrification – sometimes with troubling and unwanted consequences. However, it is now being exploited by a new breed of digital artisans to foreground the perils of resource scarcity, to question the ubiquity of virtual networks and to interrogate the rise of the machine in a fragile imbalanced ecosystem. Indeed there is a discernible influence of machine vision at work here, and theorists such as Foucault and more presently Paul Virilio and Zygmunt Bauman have noted its ubiquitous rise. Most certainly it is strongly felt in the data visualizations emerging from the ATLAS observer at CERN and in the animations of NASA and in the iconography of device technology and software. But there is something else at work here too; it is as if this liquid – this essence of life – is speaking, indeed screaming, through our mediated cultural artefacts. Perhaps through our fictions can we truly grasp the gravity of our most dire realities? It would seem that the liquid electric is not just an aesthetic turn or a narrative device but an explicit visual sign – nature’s digital avatar – reminding the audience of the precarity of existence in both the realms of the virtual and the real.

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Conference Summary

The 2015 Balance/Unbalance conference explores intersections between nature, art, science, new technologies, aid agencies and society with the goal of developing cross-disciplinary initiatives using innovative art and technology to advance ecological awareness and sustainability practices and to inspire wide-ranging community engagement in the face of unprecedented environmental challenges.

We are living in a world at the tipping point, where the equilibrium between a healthy environment and the energy our society needs to maintain or improve its lifestyle and its interconnected economies could collapse more quickly than expected. Today’s delicate balance is at a critical point with the potential to herald a new reality where unbalance is the rule. The conference envisions the arts as a catalyst for re-imagining our current environments.” (via Balance/Unbalance conference site)

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