Ars Electronica 2004
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Festival 1979-2007


Watchful Portrait

'John Gerrard John Gerrard

The work Watchful Portrait presents a move away from an artistic practice specifically interested in and reactive towards the human participant to a new paradigm in which the work is orientated toward the world at large, a world in which humanity is part of a greater system. The work consists of a pair of real-time 3D portraits of the same young woman, Caroline, who is interested in alternately following the sun and the moon through each night and day with her eyes. These portraits can be viewed through two centrally pivoting screens. Turning these screens allows the public to look around the portrait while it stays static, involved in its task.

Paradoxically both embedded in and reliant, in many respects, on this selfsame system, Watchful Portrait attempts to operate outside of the overarchingly human parameters of its worldview. The work primarily functions as a benign digital sentry, interested in a universal state. In this it is influenced by the Janus figure from Roman mythology and in its form by religious iconography, although it is a rational model to which it is subservient, not a spiritual one.

Janus, an intriguing entity, was the god of night and day and also of beginnings, of entrances and of doorways. His two-faced appearance allowed him to look both to the future and to the past, to preside over change and transitions.

Reflecting these contexts, the public has the choice to leave Watchful Portrait in any way desired, with the blank and minimalist side of the screen facing the gallery, or open with the portrait visible. The position, however, has no influence on the activities of the piece. Perhaps this is a fitting context for these times when the very reality of war can be a question of belief or perhaps of choice. I am not sure if many really understand how the allencompassing war on terror actually functions, or what their levels of involvement are in its processes.

In practical terms, the work also tussles with new parameters of sculptural media, of realtime 3D objects which through position or motion sensing can be experienced as physical structures with visual if not tactile form. This advent of the 3D object powered by gaming engines presents a host of new temporal and conceptual contexts for artists to investigate. These differ significantly from those offered by older timeline-based media in that they have no finite consumable duration; they simply exist until catastrophe or indifference kill them off.

Concept: John Gerrard: Interaction design: Erwin Reitböck; 3D portrait development;
Werner Pötzelberger and John Gerrard.
This work was made within the Siemens Artist-in-Residence program at the Ars Electronica Futurelab.