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Presence Meter

Installation (Mixed Media)
Jennifer Marman & Daniel Borins

The Presence Meter features a 9’ x 5’ grid comprised of 2,200 hand-refurbished analog panel meters affixed to an aluminum support that is wall-mounted and protected with a sheet of glass.

The meters, through the use of four ultrasonic sensors and a microcomputer, illustrate the proximity of the viewer’s body to the surface of the work. This is accomplished through a process whereby the sensors emit ultrasonic pulses and record the corresponding echo times. The resulting proximity reading is represented by the position of the needles on the panel meters. When the viewer is close to the sensor, the needles on the panel meters will move to the far right. When the viewer is far away, the needles will stay resting at the far left. The physicality of the viewer sensed through ultrasonic signals is thus translated into a language of electric current flowing to the meters. The closer the viewer is to the Presence Meter, the more the needles will move, in an agitated manner, to the right.

In regard to the ultrasonic sensors, their traditional application can be seen in the use of sonar by submarines. Sonar sends out a ping-like noise under water, and whatever the noise bounces off of, is translated back to the submarine as distance - because of the time the reflected noise took to come back to the sonar sensor. While the Presence Meter’s sensors are silent, its sensing process is similar to that of sonar. Another example of these sensors in a present-day application can be seen in their application onto the back of trucks or minivans, so a driver can determine without looking, how close the vehicle is to whatever object is behind it.

Panel meters traditionally were used in consumer applications such as analogue stereos, with the purpose of displaying audio levels and volume readings. The Presence Meter re-contextualizes the traditional use of panel meters as indicators of invisible forces such as pressure or speed and uses them for aesthetic purposes. This sculpture removes itself from the realm of the industrial and consumer machine whose encasements function as a series of contraptions with several inputs and outputs surrounded by an apparatus-like interface. What is inside the machine is hidden from our sight; we only use the surface of the machine. Visually, the Presence Meter is a veneer of output devices coupled with analogue and digital input devices that are small and discreet. The process of how the Presence Meter sorts information is its functional purpose. Unlike the machine that is process oriented, the Presence Meter is a simultaneous conversion of input to output. The effect of the Presence Meter is both physically and visually arresting. The viewer is made aware of their physicality through the translation of frequencies, thresholds and currents. This awareness is visually manifested as abstracted physical readings. The effect of the piece is the shift from empirical notions of weight, representation and mass, toward technological representations such as numerical information mediated by the digital computer, or the electrical currents of analogue mechanisms.

Formally, this piece alludes to painting, abstraction and the modernist notion of the grid. It also shares some characteristics of serialism and repetition. The experience of viewing the Presence Meter is one of optical effects, vibrancy and instinctive reaction. The piece is just large enough to dominate the viewer’s field of vision when standing at approximately fifteen feet from the sensors. As one moves closer to the Presence Meter, the needles on the panel meters begin to dance. The seriality of the panel meter repetition in grid formation forces the eye to wander, visually taking in an increasingly alarmed surface that bounces worriedly. One can almost feel one’s hair stand on end in response. As the affirmation of presence occurs through the visual readouts on the panel meters, the experience wanes the further one moves away. Sensing minute distances, the tableau traces the figurative presence of the viewer. Mimicry is achieved as we both translate our presence into an aesthetic experience and negate ourselves by leaving the installation. This mimicry becomes a metaphor for technological and artistic pursuit. Both art and technology symbolically represent paradigms of the inextricable relationship and need for human presence - the very core of human gesture as a need for recognition. Mimicry can also be considered the basis for much of modern society’s approach to technological development; exemplified through the argument that the application of an idea or concept on a technological level, is in fact, a form of mimicry.

While the Presence Meter is formally minimal, the interactive character of the piece challenges the hermetic nature of minimalism. The sculpture responds to the motion of the viewer with incremental movements: it is not so much interactive as reactive, forcing the viewer into the process of the work itself. The Presence Meter continues to address the nature of seeing and experiencing art because of its structure as a repetitious array of data feedback mechanisms. What the viewer sees a reflection of, and visual transliteration of, is also what the Presence Meter sees. Therefore, the Presence Meter is the metaphorical equivalent of a mirror, reflecting the viewer’s role as one who sees and one who is an embodied agent.

It can be noted that the somewhat more humane analogue system, has come to symbolize a golden age in technology. In relation to art practice and electronics, the Presence Meter uses industrial-technological materials and places them within the aesthetic sphere. Contrary to critical theories of the waning absence of the body within the industrial age and later, the digital-information era, the presence meter acts as an interruption and affirmation of the viewer as subject. Contemporary technology is ever moving toward solid state computing: eschewing moving parts. Digital language is increasingly using virtual interfaces to account for the disappearance of the mechanized. As technology moves toward concealing and embedding itself in everyday life, the Presence Meter allows us to reflect on these current conditions.

It is telling that the Presence Meter uses older technology such as the panel meter combined with newer technology such as ultrasonic transducers and programmable microcomputers to create a pseudo-humanistic experience. The contemporary nature of the Presence Meter has been brought into the trajectory of twentieth century art practice, employing minimalist composition and use of the grid as references to modernist art practice. Metal, glass, and plastic, this austere object is framed in linear cross-sections. The cubes, slabs and panels of 1960s minimalist art practice are seen through the eyes of the Presence Meter. It was once the premise of minimalist artists such as Judd, Smithson and Serra, that the large-scale object would overpower the singular viewer. Through mass, the minimalist object would gain independence from metaphysical aesthetic judgment, and thus would stand alone. The process was one in which the ontology of the art object would be superseded and meted out by the integrity of the materials that the minimalist artist used. The large-scale steel cube was impenetrable and absent of a centre core, while the height of the steel slab threatened the existence of those that approached it; hence, the rejection of the viewer as the final outcome of this practice. The Presence Meter challenges the language of minimalism while developing a new language; one based on discursive practice and continuity. As we visualize the possibility of scale and its austerity, the Presence Meter leads us toward a post-minimalist tension. This tension is manifested by our basic desire to be recognized and mediated by, or within, a space. The notion of recognition and engagement is addressed as visual and physical discursive exchange, against the minimalist negation of the viewer. Challenged is the modernist artist’s hope that an object’s autonomy can outweigh the legitimacy of its reception. As a segue from the inanimate of minimalism toward the interactive, the Presence Meter posits whether technology is an extension of human reach, or whether it inextricably linked to us as the fetish that expresses our need to be reflected?