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Generativity : Understory

Fernanda D’Agostino

section cybertheorie



In Psychology, “generativity” is focus on future generations; in Biology, structures of proliferation; for Linguists, using rules to generate varying meanings from underlying forms. Generative art uses coding to produce evolving meaning outside the creator’s direct control. All these definitions helped shape the artists’ process as they developed their collaborative project “Generativity.” Also driving the work is the sense of the world at a tipping point, particularly in relationship to the precarious state of the natural world.

Generativity is an installation combining architecture, an electro acoustic sound space, video projections and live performance.  The project investigates the underlying and often invisible structures through which the natural world sculpts and regenerates itself. Dr. John Reuter, head of the Portland State University’s School of Environmental Studies, saw these as a distinct set of forms that can be discovered over and over again at every scale in the natural world.* They are the code through which nature writes its generations. Generativity is the creation of new media installation artist Fernanda D’Agostino, with a performance by interdisciplinary artist Isabelle Choinière integrated within the installation, both as a technological echo through the duration of the exhibition, and as a live performance mid way through its run. Both Fernanda and Isabelle are known for finding in their work a way to bridge the gaps between technological progress, spirituality, and a heightening of the senses. Fernanda and Isabelle both believe that while new technology often acts as a distancing mechanism drawing people away from the poetics of the living world, its extraordinary power can also be used to heighten the senses in unprecedented ways.

Generativity draws on natural systems in its over arching response to the architecture of Suyama Space by shaping “understory” “canopy” and “landmark” levels of the space as interactive experiences for viewers to explore. Three monumentally scaled projections: a free standing dual sided arced screen 10’ high by 18’ wide, a circular screen 10’ in diameter that seems to penetrate the floor to a pool below and a larger than life projection of human figures seemingly floating on a gallery wall, provide the “landmark” moments of the experience by which viewers orient themselves. Original programming in Max MSP Jitter allows these projections to respond to viewers’ presence and varying levels of attention. Viewers drawn to the projections experience shifts in content, tempo and layering, giving the projections a living quality as their content evolves in real time. Projections programmed this way mystify viewers as their endlessly varying quality does not conform to our cultural expectations for moving images. Projected on the arc of the main scrim screen are structures in nature in motion, layered with a distillation of Choiniere’s performance Fleshwaves (Phase 4). This big screen –a bit like the Tilted Arc in its intention and scale in relation to the space- shapes viewers’ paths through the installation. Because of its transparency, projections not only appear on the screen but spill over onto the walls and floor of the gallery. From one vantage point it acts as a foil for larger than life projections of Isabelle’s Fleshwaves (Phase 4) performance, seemingly floating on a nearby gallery wall. Since the screen is transparent and dual sided, it also reads as a kind of window or lens. Its transparent apparitional character dissolves the space. A viewer standing on either side sees both the projections on this screen and those on the walls and gallery floor beyond.  This big screen wall is the alpha gesture in the choreography of viewer movement around the space. Along with programming in Max MSP Jitter, the random nature of the physical layering produced by the transparency of this screen creates an almost infinite variability in content. As different images layer together, the viewer experiences not a time based narrative with its familiar arc leading up to a climax, but instead a flow of time more like a stream of consciousness or day dream. The predictable loop of most video art is replaced by a fluid interweaving of sound and image.

Another architecturally scaled projection anchors the side of the space opposite Choiniere’s monumental figures. By mounting a thin screen flush with the floor, the illusion of a circular penetration through the boards to an actual body of water is suggested. Content on this screen is water related and includes underwater performance footage created in collaboration with artist/choreographer Linda K Johnson. Layering in this projection combines Johnson’s hypnotic movements with spill from the transparent screen, as well as a programmed layer of natural pattern found in aquatic environments. D’Agostino commissioned the original choreography from Johnson. Her gestures abstract the palette of natural forms studied by environmental scientists.

Sound sculptures at the “canopy” level create a subtle infiltration of the architecture and play a supporting role in shaping the viewer’s experience. An overall fog of ambient sound (waves on Puget Sound) animates (In Italian anima is soul) the entire space. Within this overall atmosphere, parabolic (focusing) speakers add details within circumscribed radii of audibility. One focal point is where the, at times disturbing, sounds of Isabelle’s performers is experienced. As part of her daily “collecting and archiving” practice in the Pacific Northwest, Fernanda collected both endangered native seeds and field recordings of animal cries. These strange and haunting sounds are focused in two additional loci. A more narrowly focused parabola surprises viewers on entry to the space with a pool of these sounds only audible within a six foot radius. The final locus of sound was created in collaboration with a glass blower as a “colony” of smaller sonic parabolas and pods covering the lower section of the South wall. Viewers approaching this colony are surprised when their presence triggers a gradually building chorus. As was the case with the video, programming in Ableton Live and Max MSP Jitter constantly alters the sound space in response both to the presence of viewers and to the quality of their movements through the space, further enhancing the sense of being within a living, evolving space.

“Understory” pathways sculpted from natural materials add dimension to the spacial choreography.  Lattices and nets of mature vines are an expression of the dendritic pattern found in water currents, in our cardiovascular systems, in mycelium, in the circulatory systems of plants as well as in wiring, traffic and other human made systems. Vines cleared from large trees have a memory of the three dimensional form of their host; in the upright position they become ghost trees.  These vines create the borders of a system of paths and arcades. Eddies and openings in the paths lead viewers to finer grained experiences, to focused sound loci such as the abstracted voices of Fleshwaves (Phase 4), to a sculpture, or to an invitation to observe something very intimate like a collection of blown glass seed vials.   

Nested within the installation both as the technological echo of a prior happening and as a real time event, Choiniere’s Fleshwaves (Phase 4) is an augmented reality performance exploring the relationships arising from the interaction between the body in movement and technologies of sound spatialization, and now with this new phase of work, with live programming for video.

The artists integrate technologies in their artistic research as a means to reach unpredictable sensory experiences, unknown territories. One hears a sound. One listens to murmurs and chants. But can one feel those sounds? Perceive them differently?

On November 19th, 2016, the installation was brought more fully to life with a performance of Phase5, developed in residence with local performers at D’Agostino’s Portland, Oregon studio. Under a faint glow appears a three-dimensional human sculpture: five women, bodies intertwined, form a Collective Body. Transported by the chant of their own murmurs, they slowly carry one another into a continuous wave. Bodies and breaths entangle, the women are simultaneously five bodies and one same mass, five voices and one choir. From the different dynamics of movement emerges an organic electro-acoustic sound-scape. Each performer is fitted with a black head wrap concealing a wireless transmitter; each wears a tiny mike and each has a contact speaker mounted on her cheek bone. As the performers vocalize, they feel the vibrations in their bodies. These vocalizations are heard in real time by audience and performers, but they are also manipulated in MAX, MSP Jitter and Ableton Live and sent in waves and vortices in a sound space constructed around the performers and viewers. Traveling in space, the sound scape grazes the performers’ skin and resonates in their movements. Acting as the sixth performer of the piece, the sound also surrounds the spectators, integrating them in the live sound form. The human skin is sensitive to touch, but while it perceives intensities and warmth, it can also be aroused by the vibrations of sound and light. Washes of natural imagery mark their stories on the bodies through a new live video performance developed by D’Agostino, in collaboration with Choiniere. The skin is a land to write on and the flesh is a river to enter.

Through responsive video programming written in Max MSP Jitter; through performance using augmented reality; and through a three dimensional sound space, Generativity uses technology not as a distraction from physical reality, but as a way to heighten viewers’ perceptions of its enchantments. There is a tension between our accelerating environmental crisis and the technological revolution. Generativity attempts to subvert this tension to suggest to the viewer new ways to perceive their entanglement with the living world.



Since 1984 Fernanda has completed twenty-five public commissions and fifteen solo exhibitions, many incorporating moving images in novel ways. She has exhibited her work nationally and internationally. Her work has been recognized by a Bronson Fellowship, a Flintridge Foundation Fellowship, Grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and The Andy Warhol Foundation, and state fellowships in Montana and Oregon. Recently she received a Ford Family Foundation Opportunity Grant to fund her installation, “The Method of Loci.” Fernanda is a pioneer in the use of outdoor video projections in public art. “Celestial Navigations,” video projections on a monumental navigational instrument, is sited at Seattle International Airport. (SEATAC) Portland State University’s “Intellectual Ecosystem” was a 2011 USA National Year in Review selection for its innovative use of moving images in a public place. Video from her installation, Motion Studies, has screened at Rencontres Internationales Sciences et Cinémas, France; 809 International New Image Art Festival–China; Technarte, Spain; Madcat International Film Festival; EVA, London; Flying Films Festival, Berlin and at the Mumbai International Film Festival where it was a National Film Board of India selection in Experimental Media. Recently Fernanda was a visiting artist at the American Academy of Rome, to begin development of “The Method of Loci” a multi-chambered interactive video installation. Her 2011 interactive video installation “Pool” was exhibited as part of the Bronson Foundation’s 20 Year Anniversary Exhibition at the Eric and Ronna Hoffman Gallery of Art, since then video from the project has screened at experimental video festivals around the world, including Cyberfest St Petersburg, Russia, NMinutes Festival Shanghai, and Video Guerrilha, Sao Paolo Brazil. “Pool” was installed in its entirety at “Currents; The Santa Fe International Festival of New Media” in June 2012. “Living Calligraphy” was recently screened at the Pompidou/Metz in France. Last Fall Fernanda was in residence at Can Serrat International Artists Center in Barcelona, Spain where she projected video from “The Method of Loci” on the cliffs and ruins of Mont Serrat. “The Method of Loci” was exhibited in its entirety at The Art Gym in Portland in Fall 2013. Individual room sized installations from “The Method of Loci” will travel to Currents 2014, Santa Fe, New Mexico and to SOMARTS, San Francisco, in Summer of 2014. Fernanda is currently adapting work from The Method of Loci for a digital dome exhibition in Sao Paulo, Brazil, October 2014.

*Information on the role of pattern in the formation of the natural world came from a 2009 interview conducted by D’Agostino in preparation for her permanent video installation at Portland State University Intellectual Ecosystem. Intellectual Ecosystem was a recipient of a 2011 Americans for the Arts citation for excellence in its use of new technologies and for interdisciplinary collaboration.  



Seattle Weekly: With ‘Generativity,’ Suyama Space’s End Transforms into a Meditation on Fecundity

Suyama Space : Fernanda d'Agostino Generativity  

Seattle Weekly Oct. 19-25 (Scan PDF format)


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Cette publication a été rendue possible grâce au soutien financier d'Hexagram, du groupe de recherche des arts médiatiques (GRAM), de la Faculté des arts de l'UQAM, de la Chaire du Canada en esthétique et poétique de l'UQÀM (CEP), ainsi qu'à une subvention, pour une quatorzième année consécutive, du Conseil des arts du Canada (CAC).