A Slow Letting-Go: Stopping to Drift at CONFLUX

Review by Danny Coeyman

CONFLUX «www.confluxfestival.org»
SEPTEMBER 14 - 17, 2006
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK (various locations below)

[1] To drift in New York, one needs only to spill into the traffic of its pedestrians, who flow as a human stream between the Hudson and the East Rivers. Here the whirl of lights and signals, the flickering of traffic as it recedes and gains momentum, and the people themselves, as they jettison between and around each other, constitute an island of water, an experience of drifting through energy, space, contest, and rhythm. But, unlike the laws of natural water flow, our humanity moves us against the path of least resistance and toward a deliberate destination.

[2] It is this paradox, the simple necessity of effort in life, which can drive and undermine a drifting experience of the City. Working to explore these experiences, members of CONFLUX came to New York this weekend, arranging at once an extremely large and well-coordinated festival centered around psychogeography, which felt like equal parts academic conference, high-tech pow-wow, and family reunion. The effect was a beautiful sense of range among the presenters, and a larger sense of community among the participants, where, to quote the website, "international artists, technologists, urban adventurers and the public put investigations of everyday city life into practice on the streets."

[3] In many ways, these experiments pre-define their own measure of success, fulfilled in a physical sense by being completed: objects were made or utilized, performances were completed, images and text and sites were shown. But all of them also express a desire for a psychic change in their receiver, working to improve their world by defamiliarizing him or her to it. In seeing things freshly, one was encouraged to slough off the capitalist, anesthetic, "pedestrian" concept of what our surrounding spaces can and should be.

[4] In these terms, CONFLUX is rooted at once in the realms of Art History, Technology and Activism as a contemporary Situationist event. The projects were varied, but each dealt with a concept of making the quotidian drift through life into something new and intentional. In many ways, the work could be divided into its engagement with either physical or virtual space.

[5] One sculptural project, Have a Seat (Caroline Woolard) integrates objects into existing public street signage, using wooden platforms connected to the u-channels as makeshift (potentially permanent) public seating. Minimally designed and painted an official-looking blue, the work almost immediately integrates into the aesthetic of its bright red, white, and yellow signposts.

[6] A performance-based piece, called Clusterings (Kurt Bigenho), is instigated by a very simple, bright-orange inner tube that fits somewhat uncomfortably around the torsos of people, grouping them together. The clustered folks are then encouraged to navigate public space as a single unit. Reminiscent mostly of a three-legged race, the work has a space-age-pop quality (including a humorous instructional video) coupled with a delicacy (users wear white gloves) which underscores the fragility of our invisible connections to each other in modern life.

[7] Make Do and Mend is the work of Hilary Jack, as she repairs thrown-away objects found around the City and returns them to their original location. A simple, almost intimate act of recycling, the project also reaffirms optimism and care in environments—intellectual and urban—where such notions are seemingly discarded with equal nonchalance.

[8] AAA Portable Sound Units (Sara Dierck, Michael Dodge, and Steve Lambert), bright white boxes that peek out from tucked-away areas on the street, play recordings about advertisements as the viewer passes them. Like small bat boxes, but functioning like stereo speakers, the work has a kind of awkward, anti-corporate smallness, which is overlaid with the disembodied, eerie quality of the loud voices it projects.

[9] One more virtual project, called WayMarkr (Michael Bukhin, Michael Delgaudio), uses a software hack for a fairly wide-used cell phone to convert it into a mobile camera. Taking the idea of the web cam out of the office or bedroom and into the world at large, a cell phone running WayMarkr constantly and randomly photographs whatever is before it, uploads the photo immediately to a secure server, and deletes the photo from its memory. The photos are then made public or kept private at the user's discretion, resulting in a shareable filmstrip of one's entire day.

[10] The Imaging Place (John [Craig] Freeman) is a complete virtual world, a whole globe of stories centering around socially contested spaces. After clicking around a globe, and descending into a specific place (the imagery is reminiscent of the Google Earth program), one is moving through 360 degree images on the ground, clicking on people, and obtaining the stories of the spaces in medias res. The shift from the hovering global eye to the horizon-defined pedestrian vantage illustrates the power of this program to move us from the abstract and into the specific. Working with the tools of contemporary video and computer games, the user navigates a selected area, talks with a variety of real "characters," and begins to piece together their claim on a controversial space. In between these simulated conversations, the user walks through the contested space on tracks of a sometimes narrated, almost meditative virtual vista.

[11] All the work at CONFLUX lends itself to the experience of a psychogeographic paradigm shift. Each emanated a desire for something vital, alive, and challenging in a world that feels increasingly subject to the ennui, numbness, and mediocrity of middle-class urban existence. Some were vocal about the Marxist undercurrent of psychogeography; others were presented as collaborative artworks. Still others were philosophical ruminations on the nature of drifting through life. It should be said, however, that each of these pieces was tinged by its futility to "turn the tide" of everyday meandering into a sustainable drift.

[12] These works were access points for a questioning and curiosity that precede the seriousness of doubt—the impetus to live moment to moment in an ambiguous space—but their notion of drifting also requires a level trust in an environment to be something knowable and known, something safe. These experiments don't require a complete loss of control, but a gentle letting-go of it. They don't manage to change our world, but to overlay it with a heightened experience. Just as when one covers one's eyes to hear sound more sensitively, so too were these projects a matter of selectivity, always rejecting the grid of the city or the invisible lines of propriety while also keeping something of these concepts intact. In short, no matter where you go, or how you get there, you are always somewhere. Or, as they say in the subway: This is not an exit.

[13] The ideas of these works become almost heartbreaking in the impermanence of their execution. Quixotic and self-aware, they have a questioning quality, an awkwardness that makes them feel special, almost contraband. And despite their emphasis on passing through time and space, those which were accessible and had no specific time constraints seem not only the most likely to be useful in drifting, they also the most likely to be used.

[14] Each work expands our concept of choice: to take one route or the other; to hear, prioritize, or engage one sound, idea, or terrain. But what they cannot do is deny their contingency on the very things they seek to question. This reinforcement is best subverted when the work is easily legible, but hints at a greater meaning or paradox, like a haiku, or a Zen koan. The work suffered when it became too tangled in Being Experienced.

[15] For example, Clusterings was almost immediately critiqued by its wearers. I heard one say, "We could still achieve personal space in this thing" and another, later added, "With an iPod on we would be as isolated as ever." These comments came after minutes of wearing Clusterings, after the silliness of the experience had worn off and become, momentarily, a norm.

[16] More interestingly, a group of men that invited everyone to join their 24 Hour Roadtrip (Calvin Johnson, Scott Knowles, Kurt Braunohler) struck me, because of the simplicity of their action, to wonder how one can intend to drift, particularly for a pre-determined amount of time.

[17] Occasionally, the form of a piece would work in theory but would change as it was experienced. For example, the AAA Portable Sound Units attempted to evince a simulated dialogue on advertising, but were equally as intrusive as advertising, and simply inverted our attention—away from the visually loud signage of urban life and onto their neatly tucked boxes. Jostled by one box when it turned on and started talking loudly without warning, I felt oddly violated by its own blaring self-advertisement.

[18] Have A Seat, however, was both poetic and easily accessed. The one I sat on was situated low to the ground, facing a hedge of bushes, which, from the lowered perspective, became a kind of lush, foliage-filled horizon. My back turned completely to the empty street, I understood the space in a new way and was given time to interpret that experience for myself or to move on.

[19] Works like Make Do and Mend and Desk, Brooklyn 2006 (a desk made both with expertise and objects solicited and found throughout the day in Brooklyn by Chris Jones and Elvina Flower) were surprisingly powerful because of the simplicity of their presentation. Supported with a necessary amount of context, but open to interpretation, the work had a charm and naïveté that actually taps into the idealism of psychogeography. Neither satirical nor pessimistic, which could only describe the problems of contemporary urban life, these works prescribed new(ish) models of social interaction and economy based on the complexity of such a life: bricolage, collaboration, sampling, and recycling. More importantly, however, they didn't take themselves seriously enough to present themselves as sustainable. Each captured the ephemerality of the shift in consciousness they intended to cause, and by reinforcing that temporary quality in material form, these pieces turned their physical weaknesses into conceptual strengths.

[20] As opposed to more material approaches to psychogeography, virtual projects like WayMarkr and Imaging Place dealt almost entirely with the notion of experience, how to recreate, capture, record, and utilize it.

[21] Waymarkr's imagery could be improved by being pared down. The cornucopia of images it produces ultimately feels boring. Despite its somewhat tenuous ethical applications (one can almost immediately see the WayMarkr being abused in a locker room, or an office), the technology has a potential to be profoundly defamiliarizing and positive. WayMarkr rightly relies on the randomness of its shots and the awkward perspective afforded by its placement behind the head, across the chest, or literally shooting from the hip, to render our mundane life-moments more interesting. But in reality the work feels more like a reflection of that mundanity than a key to memory or to a sense of the sublime in the everyday. As opposed to simply generating a time-lapsed movie of our days, the user ought to experiment with economizing the images he or she uses to conjure a heightened response. As a matter of construction, memory can be triggered by a randomly archived image in ways that refine, accentuate, clarify and include. At the same time, a blurry shot of a personal computer or a stranger moving across a sidewalk would seem all the more valuable if it were the only photo of its kind in a sparse visual journal.

[22] More rewarding, Imaging Place is largely about recreating sensibility through visual and technological cues. Potentially this can be problematic because the interface is at first difficult to navigate and simply too fun to navigate once one has the hang of it. We are more inclined aesthetically to move through a simulated space, learning "what we can do with this thing," than to listen, internalize, and create a whole picture from its fragmented tour of a site in the methodical way that such a task requires. But in this sense the work is visionary and rests on the potential of the viewer to not only engage the world with the sensibility of a leisurely gamer, but to reinforce a connection to its component parts: navigation, site, and—most importantly—content. Ultimately, it may be too difficult for its users to internalize a personal connection for the people they see before them so easily, and yet at great psychic, geographic, and temporal distance. But, if one sticks with it, the work opens up to reveal a rich conversation between people, spaces, and viewers. Most interestingly, one can then process this information during simulated walks between sites. Almost achingly long by cyber-standards, they immediately provide a space—virtual and temporal—in which to process what we have seen. The innovation and content of the site are worth the time it takes to, as the site invites us, "Enter Here."

[23] CONFLUX is an example of those who are working through the complexities of our present postmodern situation and human desire for connection in an age that feels increasingly confusing. Pulling from an admirable variety of sources, objectives, and forms, and combining them under the banner of psychogeography, the work offered a sophisticated, earnest investigation into the way we move through the everyday world. By pushing our confusion, by complicating our contemporary lives, CONFLUX nudges us to enter that liminal space between complete abandon of our physical and mental bearings and the effacement of those benchmarks with a renewed interest and intention. Perhaps, more than anything, the value of CONFLUX was its ability even after years of shock, defamiliarization, artistic happenings, performance, and video games to jam us in our usual drift through the world, to generate pause in the ongoing stream of life.


McCaig-Welles Gallery, 129 Roebling Street, Brooklyn 11211, 718.384.8729

lecture series (the lucky cat)

The Lucky Cat, 245 Grand Street, Brooklyn 11211, 718.782.0437


Cinders Gallery, 103 Havemeyer St #2, Brooklyn 11211, 718.388.2311
City Reliquary, 370 Metropolitan Avenue, Brooklyn 11211
Love Brigade, 103 Havemeyer Street, Brooklyn 11211, 718.715.0430
Maiden Brooklyn, 252 Grand Street, Brooklyn 11211, 718.384.1967
McCarren Park (Bayard/Union Lawns), N 12th St & Driggs Avenue, Brooklyn 11211
McCarren Park (Green Dome Community Garden), N 12th St & Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn 11211
UnionDocs, 322 Union Avenue, Brooklyn 11211

night events

Barcade, 388 Union Avenue, Brooklyn 11211, 718.302.6464
Iona, 180 Grand Street, Brooklyn 11211, 718.384.5008
Larry Lawrence, 295 Grand Street, Brooklyn 11211, 718.218.7866
Rocks in Your Head, 133 Roebling Street, Brooklyn 11211
Supreme Trading, 213 N 8th Street, Brooklyn 11211, 718.599.4224