Category Archives: Art

Hybrid Ecologies and Embodied Narratives

The paper which describes the experiment I ran with Kai Pata at Tallinn University during the Erasmus joint course about Ecology of Narratives was finally published in Cognitive Philology. The course is detailedly described in  a wikiversity page. The entire experience was monitored in a wordpress weblog intended as an aggregator of individual experiences. Here’s the abstract of the paper mixed with a couple of slideshare files we set up so as to present our work around.

A Design-based research tested a Hybrid Ecosystem emerging from collaborative storytelling supported by geo-locative technologies and Social Networking Services. We assumed that such Hybrid Ecosystem emerges when people experience a given environment through their own sensory-motor system while processing related locative media. We found that individual and collaborative activity in a hybrid ecosystem could be described on the basis of the swarming concept from biology.

Topics and themes seem to emerge, to be narrated and spread on the basis of unplanned, not concerted, polygenetic activity. Interaction basically leads to the emergence of behavioral patterns which immediately develop into mutated forms. As soon as a topic or a theme spread among the community, individual participants start differentiating their unique point of view on it, eventually comparing it with the one of some peers, so as to team up on the basis of affinity.

Literal references emerging from storytelling in hybrid ecosystems outscore metaphorical by far. Rather, comparison is definitely very active as a processing strategy whereas proper metaphors and generalizations emerge on a very limited basis. It looks like individual participants evaluate the collaborative streaming of narrative references as a series of individual, standalone events which are meaningful in themselves, not because the combination of them make it possible to grasp a general meaning.

A more careful assessment of data is very likely needed, but we can already conclude that narratives which emerge in hybrid ecosystems supported by locative technologies and Social Networking Services define the borders of participatory and collaborative story formats which reshape human presence in the environment while redefining the very concept of storytelling. We look forward to develop other design experiments so as to test our claims on embodiment of narratives and hybrid ecologies based on new very intriguing applications such as Layar, Wikitude and other similar ones which implement the very concept of augmented reality.


Random Icons – The Making Of

Random Icons – The Making Of
EPVS exposition in Roma
Spazio Bloomsbury
Vernissage feb. 27 2009 h. 19
Video Installation “Bubbling 4 you”
Open till March 9 2009

Dolls and Puppets

The making of an Icon might be explained in relativistic, chronotopical terms as subtraction of space and time a person is previously immersed into. In such terms, puppets and dolls have to be assumed as atemporal and atopic entities, deguisable in any possible fashion, since they do not belong to any specific here and now. Accordingly, the same dolls may be showing onstage as timeless princesses or nurses or whoever, as placeless puppets might be sitting on dinosaurs, into a train or wherever. So defined Icons are not limited to chronologically or locatively specific roles or behaviors. They fit any context, your next tv show, an advertising from the fifties, the seat next to yours on the subway, a horse riding in the far west.


The Ecology of Icons

As myths are deeply rooted in history, Icons were once people, more or less popular gals, ladies, cool guys or random blokes. That’s why a more radical approach may argue that in order to emerge as Icons, the individuals they once were have been deprived of opportunities for action that were initially provided by their original environment. Afterwards, the ecosystem of an Icon looks like a typical prison, an environment in which segregated subjects adopt random behavior on the basis of new circumstances over which they lack even the slightest control.


Actions and Gestures

Accordingly, Icons perform gestures not actions. Indeed, their ecology is not defined by purposeful interaction with their own very narrow and deserted environment. Icons eventually move, but is that dancing? Icons eventually prowl sinuously, but is that seducing? Icons eventually move between balloons but why? Icons bump balloons on the floor; still, to what purpose? Icons are actually living somewhere on this planet, but they are confined to a locatively meaningless nowhere, places that may be anywhere on Google maps or, more likely, on the ‘Map of the Strange’. Just as in time, Icons are eventually now, or tomorrow, let’s say yesterday, but who cares? They don’t.


The Artist as an Icon

It is common sense that artists love to be famous and recognized everywhere, as they are eager to outlive their human experience as people. That’s why they might be very concerned by processes of self-iconization. Common sense is wrong, however, at least when it comes to real artists. Indeed, they are more likely to aim at joining their Icons in the very same prisons to which they themselves confined them. That’s what a self-portrait tries to be: an artist’s desperate, tentative attempt to feel the same way his own victims feel after he ‘treated’ them, ‘worked them out’, in short iconized them. Indeed, in order to iconize his victims in the most effective way, the artist has to experience first-hand how it feels to be deprived of opportunities for action that once defined the extent of the nostalgically neglected belonging to mankind.

Peripheral Vision, Traces and Immersive Landscapes

Previous entries about Mark Jenkins’ and Xing Danwen’s artworks showed that an investigation on how immersive environments are described in novels and how narrative references interfere with sensory experience of landscapes may take advantage from comparative remarks coming from sculpture and manipulation of digital imaging. More advantageous remarks may come from the field of photography, namely from suggestive artistic shots by Timothy Atherton, a former police evidence photographer who definitely developed an ecological artistic approach to landscapes.

Being resonance a key-concept in Gibson’s Theory of affordances, Atherton conceptualization of photography makes plenty of sense in ecological terms since he maintains that «the idea of a photographer as being a person who follows traces is one that resonates strongly for me». Moreover, Atherton conceives the transference happening when the photographer make a picture as part of an exchange taking place between photographer and scene. Basically, in his view «the photographer simply uses the camera to make a trace of what he sees before him or her». Atherton’s approach to photography doesn’t seem based on traditional mimetic approaches, given that he describes his photography as an «ongoing attempt» to understand what he sees, by following clues so to establish «temporary conclusions that then lead to other questions and other clues». In these terms, by quoting Joyce («Bethicket me for a stump of a beech»), Atherton summarizes his work as aimed to «interpreting traces».

Introducing his series of “Peripheral Vision” (2003) Atherton states that «extended suburban condition does not easily show up on maps, it is in many ways more of a suburban state of mind than a topographic location». While photographing suburban landscapes, Atherton found himself «looking at things that are somewhat off centre, off to the side – a peripheral vision. Things that are often unnoticed and just below our level of perception». Indeed, «things seen that are in plain sight yet so familiar or obvious they are usually ignored, unseen, and their existence barely registered – attention no longer paid to them».

Peripheral Vision

Describing his series of “Immersive Landscapes” (2006), Atherton offers that «to try and impose order on this messy and unordered view seems a mistake. Instead, recognizing the disorder, letting the fine detail spread over the whole image and allowing the eye to wander over the whole field without finding a clear point of rest draws the viewer into the apparent fractal detail and chaos of the image». Indeed, he describes the results of his work as portraits of «“immersive” landscapes where the whole wide visual field is potentially full of interesting subplots over and against the overall story that the picture is telling».

Immersive Landscapes

Introducing his new work, Traces (2007), Aherton interestingly quotes Italo Calvino:

The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the street, the gratings of the windows, the bannisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning-rods, the poles of the flags. Every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls

Actually, Atherton’s collection of Traces seems pretty much inspired by Calvino’s remarks from the Invisible City (Le città Invisibili, Torino, Einaudi, 1972), that may even count as a very interesting meditation on hybrid ecologies based on the merge of literary references and sensory experience of landscapes. Namely, the bare concept of Le città invisibili entails open reference to cities that are there even tho they are not perceivable by sight. Actually, Atherton’s Traces exert potential of landscapes referring to previous or potential actions. The camera can help guessing or foreshadowing past or future events on the basis of clues, leftovers, affordances ready to be triggered by somebody who’s actually out of the picture.


Introducing his work, the photographer describes his photo art in very general terms as «an essential way of seeing, of exploring and understanding something or somewhere». Art is conceived as an explorative behavior leading to the discovery of traces. The artist finds and collects evidences and tries to make sense of them, interpreting them in some way, so to reach «provisional conclusions which are then either discarded or built on». Still, art doesn’t imitate some sort of physical reality located ‘out there’. Rather, it establishes temptative approaches to the environment based on «traces people leave, the evidence or signs that the camera can discover, often seeming to find them in unnoticed or disregarded terrain».

Actually, Atherton adopts a very ecological approach to photo art based on «the principle of exchange», maintaining that «every contact leaves a trace – that with contact between two things there will be an exchange». As an artist, he sees exchange as an interaction not just taking place between «inhabitant and place, but also between photographer and place». That is, he regards the trace of light on film as an exchange». Interestingly, Atherton portrays traces in order to make the viewer wondering about actions that eventually took place or are about to happen. In this sense, a former police evidence photographer, he exerts action potential triggered by visual hints in the very same way detectives try to re-enact events leading to crimes on the basis of clues they find on crime scenes.

With all evidence, the very same process is exerted into crime stories, namely the ones defined as “woodonit”, so as to establish a deep involvement of the reader into the story being told. Indeed, the reader is involved into reverse engineering since the very beginning of the novel, when the corpse of the victim is typically discovered. The same process is exerted to a variable extent in basically every novel, thriller as romantic, mainstream as experimental ones, since potential reference always outstrips textual borders, bringing into play speculations about other events that are not necessarily encoded into textual description.

Action Potential and Urban Fiction

Xing Danwen’s work in progress named Urban fiction features a series of photographs shot both on film and digitally, manipulated with various computer techniques. Despite the 2dimensional framework supporting it, Urban Fiction provides very interesting samples of ecological art based on the action potential triggered by the placement of people into an urban landscape.

The statement of the artist provides some interesting hints about the purpose of her work. Namely, she offers that «When you face these models showing such a variety of different spaces and think about the life-styles associated with them, you start to wonder: is this the picture of life today? Do we really live in this kind of space and environment?». Basically, Danwen seems to establish her atwork in a traditional fictional framework that goes back to aristotelian mimesis, in terms that she aims to make people compare the artificial life of her artistic environment with the ‘real’ one they actually run.

Moreover, Danwen maintains that «people live in cubes that are squeezed next to one another, separated only by thin walls. This physical proximity, instead of leading to greater closeness and intimacy between people, can often create psychological distance and loneliness». Hence, an ecologically grounded approach emerges, since issues as proximity and spatial closeness arises and, interestingly, are asymmetrically paired with emotional correlatives as intimacy and loneliness.

An ecological approach seems to arise even more strongly when Danwen describes the urban setting she sets her fictions into:

«the sculptural form of these new residential buildings, the floor plan of the apartments, and the various interior designs are all related to the inhabitants and their “individual” taste and needs. The models of these new living spaces are perfect and clean and beautiful but they are also so empty and detached of human drama».

Indeed, landscape is shaped according to tastes and needs of characters performing in it and it’s even designed so to mark a sharp detachment from their feelings and emotions. Danwen offers that «when you take these models and begin to add real life–even a single drop of it–so much changes», since «this entire body of work is playful and fictitious, wandering between reality and fantasy». Basically, her art is described as going back and forth from ‘reality’ to ‘fantasy’ all the way back.

Even the chose of characters performing in the urban landscape contributes to the blending of ‘real’ and ‘unreal’, since the artist explains that «all the figures in this series are images of me, playing different characters», so to establish another paradox: «“I” am real but at the same time “I” am unreal» and to reshape the subject according to the urban surroundings they are immersed in. Indeed:

The figures act out totally imaginative roles as part of different plots and in different spaces that I visualize when I look at these models. For example, “I” am sometimes a white-collar office worker brought to despair by job pressures and spiritual emptiness. Sometimes “I” am a materialistic woman enjoying a life of pleasure and dissipation. Or “I” am a young girl who has accidentally killed her lover in a mood of anger.

Danwen conceives the various scenes as part of a general vision aimed to represent «represent the state of urban life today». Indeed, «together the resulting pictures compose the episodes of the urban fiction». The point of view of the observer matters, since future and Past are associated with age and growth, as modern life is: «In our childhood, skyscrapers were buildings that we had to raise our head to look at. Now we can imagine our future by bending down to examine tiny models of buildings».

From an ecological point of view, urban fictions matter in respect of the action potential triggered by still frames referring to ‘fictive’ people caught in the act of performing various action. Potential affordances of environmental features define the extent of the interaction between characters and landscapes that may be understood in a single framework based on common coding of perception and action. The very sharp detachment of landscapes from people’s feelings can’t help ruling completely out of the picture emotional correlates based on very subtle evaluation of environmental elements, as it will be shown in the following detailed appraisal of given episodes.

Murder Scene

The actual action is not represented in the making. Besides, the portrait of the wounded corpse laying into the blood puddle joint with the woman standing, his arms in the air, suggests that she just committed the crime, hitting him on the tummy with the weapon that is now on the floor.

Car Crash

The cars crashed into each other are necessarily the result of a motor action that took place in the very recent past, since the woman, eventually one of the drivers, seems still in a frenzy, her legs in motion, while looking for help. Even tho the landscape looks completely unreactive, the emotional state of the woman can be easily mirrored by the viewer exactly because it features given environmental items. Indeed, taking the crashed cars out of the pictures it would be impossible to clearly understand why the woman looks so hurried and afraid, all the eventual explanation being at that point equally suitable.

Condo People

The women on the roof look like they are sharing some kind of secrets, the one in the black dress wispering something in the ear of the one with blue hair. Sure thing, intimacy between them can be given for granted on the basis of spatial proximity and gesturing. The fact that they actually are on the roof may eventually imply some sort of secret going on between them, eventually concerning the other people set in the vicinities. Indeed, they could be talking about the gal who’s leaving with her bike, as they may be sharing some secret about the guy smoking by the window. Likewise, both of them may be concerned. The relative positioning of characters distributed in the urban landscape define actual and potential connections going on between them.

Bikers from the Window

Same as above. What do the smoking guy is thinking while staring at the couple on the bike by the window? Why is the gal almost crying? Are the three people connected in some way? Are their actions related?


Extreme action potential triggered by the woman on top of the skyscraper is a typical sample of cliffhanging suspence. Of course the question is: is she about to jump? And, eventually, why?


Relative positions of characters are in this case very interconnected. The woman has seen from the balcony his husband/partner, who probably just got off his blue car and is now strolling his troller while heading to the entrance of the building. The naked guy is just making his way out of her place. The whole scene looks basically like a crucial frame extracted from an episode featuring some sort of adultery.

The Descent of the Novel

While Darwinism still faces incredible and scientifically unacceptable skepticism as a naturalistic theory about the origins of living species, ‘natural selection’ and ‘struggle for survival’ keep being abused as any concept can be in the field of human sciences and, lately, even in the humanities, namely the theory of the literature. Indeed, a couple of recent books, Joseph Carroll’s Literary Darwinism. Evolution, Human Nature and Literature (New York-London, Routledge, 2004) and a collection of studies about The Literary Animal. Evolution and the Nature of Narrative (Evanston, IL, Northwestern University Press, 2004), edited by Johnatan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson, basically defined literature as an actual factor in the adaptation and natural selection of the human species. Both of them collected a good share of negative criticism, mostly due to the polemic overtones and the lack of documentation and/or consistency showed by many of their contributions. So-called ‘literary darwinism’ has even been criticized from a darwinist point of view by Steven Johnson, as it will happen in here in a partially different (and probably more radical) way.
The general problem with Literary Darwinism and The Literary Animal basically concerns the question underlying the collected contributions, that is “why” literature should be considered an “adaptive feature” and “how” literature “evolved” as an evolutionary asset. Indeed, all the «why» approaches, as «why» the mammals evolved the ear from a gill, «why» the horse evolved a single finger when he got four, deal with the actual outcomes as evolutionary goals, not just as the aftermaths of evolutionary processes relying on differential variation regulated by natural selection. Basically, self-proclaimed literary darwinists adopt a very deterministic approach to the Evolutionary Theory, never maintained by Darwin himself, offering a series of «evolutionary fairy tales», as Stephen Jay Gould might have very likely called them.
Moreover, the particular problem basically concerns the fact that evolution of speech is certainly a biological event, whereas the discovery of literature is definitely one of a cultural kind, as Alvin Lieberman wisely observed (The Relation of Speech to Reading and Writing, in Orthography, Phonology, Morphology, and Meaning, ed. by R. Frost and L. Katz, Amsterdam, Elsevier, 1992, pp. 167-178). Since literacy just arose some 10000 years ago, so that the Homo Sapiens-Sapiens survived 99.9% of his evolutionary history without literacy. Whatever so called darwinian explanation of such a late feature of human culture, started some half a million years ago, looks pretty hazardous, even considering oral narratives as avatars of literary ones (why not Narrative Darwinism and The Narrative Animal, then?). Hence, instead of investigating causes as a starting point, that is looking for the “big bang of literature”, a more reasonable darwinistic approach to literature, originally maintained and recently developed by Franco Moretti (Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History, Verso, 2005), actually deals with the descent and evolution of literary forms, as the divergence of genres, through time and space, circumscribing the period of interest to the age of literacy or its segments so to look for turning points in the curve of an evolutionary process that is still running.
Indeed, storytelling can develop in infinite directions. Humans can tell circular, intertwined, very complicated, atemporal, parallel, out of topic, very confused stories, and usually they do. The western standard of storytelling could have eventually developed through history into any of the various casual formats a narrative can take as a report of events in natural conversation. So, why the mainstream story format evolved into a linear, oriented and concluded narrative, a chain of events connected by consistent logical ties? In other words, why a modern reader who enters a bookshop finds himself surrounded by novels? Moreover, the novel itself could have evolved through his relatively short history into a different genre, ruled by some fully different principles of consistency. So, why it simply did not happened? Some very celebrated novels as James Joyce’s Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake failed to set a standard for English novels. Likewise, the extremely inventive Carlo Emilio Gadda’s ones failed doing the same for Italian literature. Basically, such ‘mutated individuals’, as many others throughout western literatures failed to breed and develop into new species. So, why any attempt to break, to twist, eventually to avoid the general format of the novel resulted in an evolutionary failure?
Some interesting clues may eventually come from a couple of papers about Letteratura e darwinismo (‘Darwinism and the Literature’), that Ugo Angelo Canello published in Padova in 1882, while Lessona, Canestrini e Saccardo were still busy translating in italian the complete works of Charles Darwin for the UTET publisher, based in Torino (1872 and 1890). The debate on the evolutionary theory was spreading all around Europe, when Canello, one of the early pioneers of Romance Philology, openly referred to Darwin’s Descent of the Man while contesting the romanticist esthetic of the «arts for the arts», that is the Schlegel’s assumption of art being unnecessary and just aimed to please, adopted in Italy by the very celebrated literary critic De Sanctis. Essentially, Canello adopted a positivistic point of view, based on Darwin’s Descent of the man. He defined the literature, and the arts in general, as a purposeful evolutionary tool, meant to establish the benchmarks of the sexual fitness and reproductive success.
In Canello’s view, visual arts define the standards of male and female beauty, that is their effectiveness in the natural and cultural environment and the expected ability to ensure the survival, growth and social achievement of the offspring. In other words, the bodies painted and sculpted by artists through the human history of the arts have to be considered as the true indicators of the ideal partner’s genetic fitness.
The evolutionary effectiveness of the literature is more remarkable into the field of the human ethology. The literature have to be considered as a device aimed to describe, to show, and usually to worship the selective behaviors that allow the establishing of the family, regarded as the milestone of any human society. The typical topic of novels, epics, plays and fiction in general is the struggle for sexual reproduction, according to the fact that narratives are about the differential selection of behaviors ensuring the reproductive success.
Canello sketched two different kinds of narrative plots. The former, leading to an happy ending, is involving a young lady and a young man that usually go through all the natural barriers, the cultural stakes and the social obstacles before earning the legal and righteous validation of their «natural ambition» to marriage and breeding. The latter tells the story of a badly assorted couple, in terms of age or social difference, their relationship typically being ruined by an affair with a a third person, better matching the needs of the male or the female individual of the married couple. Adopting an ecological approach to ethics and aesthetic, Canello rejects the typical account defining as moral and good just the first kind of plots. Rather, he considers both as samples of right and wrong partnerships, aimed to show, warn, eventually rectify the sexual choice and, as an outcome, the sexual selection.
Last but not least, Canello assessed the authorial awareness as a totally unnecessary asset. Even if the authors of the novels, the epics, the plays are just aimed to please by their works, or to show how life is, just doing it they indirectly (pleasing) or directly (describing) show how the sexual selection works or should work. So, according to Canello’s the arts are involved in the evolutionary process, suggesting the individual behaviors that ease the choose of the better partner. Indeed, Canello gave a terrific clue, assuming that the Homo Sapiens-Sapiens is «per eccellenza un animale imitativo», a sort of ‘mimetic mammal’. In sum, Canello stated that literature, as the visual arts and every other symbolic activity, could eventually benchmark the male and female prototype of reproductive success. In his view, imitation, a key-feature of human nature, acts as a major player into the evolutionary process well known as the sexual selection. Indeed, Canello circumscribed the «usefulness» of the literature to sexual selection, assessing poetry and narratives as devices aimed to establish patterns of icon worshiping, so to stress and emphasize the selective advantages of some physical and cultural set of characters in the struggle for the reproduction.
Canello’s approach, a good sample of how positivism could have applied to literatures regardless of History even in the 2oth century, may somewhat match intuitions about an ecological theory of the novel. Indeed, the novel typically blends body-part related and general aspecific events, giving a deeper insight of character’s peculiarities, his strengths, his flaws, the way he or she or it plans and performs throughout a whole story. Every single reader of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary knows the leading character of the novel much better than his own wife or partner. Likewise, hardly somebody knew his partner or husband better than Pierre, after reading Tolstoy’s Война и миръ (War and Peace). The same can be said of every single protagonist of every single good novel. Narratives and other literary kinds as the experimental novels or the simply sloppy ones, that went all the way to extinction maybe failed to blend perception and action, emotion and evaluation so to establish patterns of icon worshiping as valuable and easy-to-grab as the ones provided by the novels that survived, bred and found spots into the ‘shelves of fame’ of literary canons.

Ecological Art: People and Objects

Some artworks by Mark Jenkins exerting action potential, according to ecological accounts of perception based on Gibson’s Theory of Affordances…


1. Typical ‘sitting affordance’ of a trunk
performed by a fictile person, that is a puppet.


2. Actual affordances of a sidewalk and ball
performed by a ‘fictile’ child,
exerting the action potential featured by
the ‘real’ landmark and object
by means of a puppet.


3. Fictile dogs exerting action potential
entailed by rubbish dump


4. fictile ducks exerting action potential
entailed by sidewalk chute.


5. The real guy smiles at the fictile one
caught in the typical gesture of
‘asking a cab driver for a ride’.


6. objects may suggest potential affordances
based on cultural references,
as the crucified puppet
on top of the lightpole


7. basic (even tho pretty much unusual) affordance of a pole
performed by a baby-puppet


8. culturally-tagged affordance of a pole
performed by a grown-up puppet


9. ‘real’ mom instinctively protects her curious daughter
while walking next to the drop-out sitting on the floor,
that is a puppet exerting the ‘sitting affordance’ of the sidewalk,
socially-labeled as the distinctive tract
of an homeless person asking for a coin.


10. A ‘real’ person checks the sitting drop-out
trying to figure out if he is ‘real’


11. Fictile person suggesting
body-part related affordance of his arm.
The question that very likely arises
about the missing part is ‘where is it?’


12. fictile human objectified