Topological Media Lab

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The Topological Media Lab (TML) was established in 2001 as a trans-disciplinary atelier-laboratory for collaborative research creation. In 2005, TML moved to Concordia University and the Hexagram research network in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.[1] Its projects serve as case studies in the construction of fresh modes of cultural knowledge and the critical studies of media arts and techno-science, bringing together practices of speculative inquiry, scientific investigation and artistic research-creation practices.[2] The TML's technical research areas include: realtime video, sound synthesis, embedded sensors, gesture tracking, physical computing, media choreography, and active textiles. Its application areas lie in movement arts, speculative architecture,[3] and experimental philosophy.

Fields of inquiry[edit]

The Topological Media Lab approaches media arts and technologies research as a creative endeavour that cuts across disciplines and fields of experience.[4][5] The TML describes its atelier research as studying processes of “subjectivation, agency and materiality from phenomenological, social and computational perspectives.” It approaches this by suspending assumptions about what we think are ego's, humans, machines, objects, and subjects, and think instead of transformations on things, and see how they emerge in play and process. This is informed by a continuous, rather than tokenized object or grammar-based, approach to material change, hence the "topological" aspect. Topology is a field of mathematics concerned with the non-metric (non-numerical) properties of space and the continuous, dynamic relationships through which space is constituted.

TML researchers investigate how people build, inhabit and use sensate or active matter. Philosophically, TML research draws inspiration from the phenomenology of the Merleau-Ponty's later writings, the questioning of representation and meaning by Wittgenstein, the philosophy of technology of Simondon, and ethico-aesthetic sensibilities of Guattari amongst other sources. The TML is both an atelier and a research laboratory for research in improvisatory gesture and movement from humane but also non-anthropocentric perspectives. Projects conducted in the atelier draw on and inform research in the areas of performance, music, media arts and embodiment theory.[6][7][8] The topological experiments also contribute to ongoing research in the computational and natural sciences, seeking to understand the dynamic interplays of social, psychical and material space.[9]

Technical research areas[edit]

The Topological Media Lab-atelier develops projects through the creation of responsive environments generated in order to investigate particular phenomenological research questions. The TML explores gesture and movement in the presence of active materials and media that respond to changes in the environment. To realize its experiments, the TML creates technologies of performance (rather than representation). The technical research can be loosely categorized according to four major themes. (1) Calligraphic Video (2) Gestural Sound, (3) Active Materials, and (4) Media Choreography. (See TML videos.)

1. Calligraphic Video is a field of video computed as textured light that varies according to movement or gesture. Movement from cameras or other sensor data are treated “as palpably as water, smoke, or other continuous media to accommodate painterly gesture”.[10] Calligraphic video is computationally produced visual textures, or lighting with which a person can interact by moving a hand or the body to affect the color or motion of the visual pattern. This sort of bodily, painterly interaction leverages our pre-verbal intuition of physical materials that we learn from infancy. Experiments with calligraphic video also leverage advances in computational physics and GPU-based or parallel hardware processing, exploring impact of such advances for corporeal experience and the ways in which bodily relations are felt and understood.
The IL Y A[11] project is an exemplary case study in calligraphic video. It presents a double-sided video installation that comes to life only when at least two people look at each other through its membrane. The project is an investigation into the material and architectural substrate of sociality.

2. Gestural Sound means spatialized fields of sound that are shaped in realtime by the movements and activities of the inhabitants of a given environment.[12] Again, the emphasis is on continuous, unanticipated movement that may be improvised freely by those within the conditioned space. Software instruments map continuous spaces of movement via feature extractors and mapping logics to the synthesis systems, including granular synthesis, filter models, physical models analogous to the realtime video models, and "learning" models.[13] The development and experimentation with performative technology for mapping sensory data from one modality to another, scaffolds the exploration of sensation and aesthetic experience.

3. Active Materials are materials that change in concert with movement and activity. The Topological Media Lab has done projects involving active textiles and wearables and is currently working on research concerning active materials in architectural environments.[15]
An exemplary project involving research in active materials and gestural sound is the WYSIWYG[16] project, named from the era of the graphical user interface. The project created a suite of small and large (20' x 4') fabric-based instruments, woven with conductive thread on a Jacquard loom, that can be used for improvised play. The custom-designed digital instruments embedded in the cloth sample movement to transform ambient body movement and freehand gestures into new sounds or “voices” associated with a player or transmitted to other players in the vicinity. The research project therefore targets the creation of a series of devices – some made from soft material – that will react in different ways to proximity and contact, movements, noise characteristics, and the progress of the game itself.

4. Media Choreography is the art of deciding what media appears when and where in response to the changing conditions of a live event in a responsive environment. These decisions can include human performers as well as computational media, hence the term choreography. Techniques can range from a fixed sequence, cued by a clock or a pre-defined list, to a set of potential conditions—states—that can evolve from one into another. Depending in what actually happens, the actual sequence of conditions may differ between one event and another. The TML's media choreography system is based on continuous topological dynamical systems, where the states are narrative moments or, more generally, palpable situations. TML's implementation of media choreography allow multiple, overlapping, and continuously blended, as well as discrete states.[17]

Application areas: movement arts, and architecture[edit]

The TML's research draws from, and contributes to main areas of applications: movement arts, architecture, and experimental philosophy.

One movement-based research project is the series of Ouija[18] structured improvisation experiments exploring when movements can be regarded as volitional rather than accidental, and when movements—perhaps among multiple bodies and things—can be regarded as a single gesture. An exemplary project in movement arts “Frankenstein's Ghosts”, which is a creation-research project to build a hybrid critical discussion and performance work inspired by Mary Shelley's novel. It is a collaboration with the Blue Rider contemporary music ensemble, choreographer Michael Montanaro and other researchers and artists.[19][20]

One of the TML's strategic goals is to transpose insights from movement and performance into the design of durable, everyday situations, and experimental architecture. Its experiments range from using custom sensors and mappings tuned to the changes of a building, to using theatrical lighting and acoustic conditioning systems to change the apparent physical qualities of a large interior or exterior space. The point of this work is to build environments that are "not complicated but rich."

Practical questions such as how can a human and computer system tell when a movement is volitional, or when a set of movements can be considered a single gesture, become philosophical questions when investigated rigorously across different applications and situations. Over the years, the media choreography apparatuses and techniques have provided tools for investigating memory, temporal experience and rhythm. These in turn provide insights into how (and why) certain design approaches work better than others for creating rich rather than complicated responsive environments.


Since 2001, over 100 artists, researchers and students have resided at the TML, from diverse backgrounds, including electroacoustics, computer graphics, design, computational media, dance, theater, architecture, philosophy, applied physics, carpentry, and plant biology.

TML affiliates and alumni include: Sha Xin Wei, Michael Montanaro, David Morris, Harry Smoak, Flower Lunn, Jean Sébastien Rouseau, Liza Solomonova, Michael Fortin, Timothy Sutton, Omar Faleh, Elena Frantova, Navid Navab, JoDee Allen, Tyr Umbach, Laura Alexis Emelianoff, Tristana Rubio, Katie Jung, Patrick Harrop, Josée-Anne Drolet, Laura Boyd-Clowes, Mark Sussman, Erik Conrad, Zohar Kfir, Lina Dib, Jennifer Spiegel, Magda Olszanowski, Olfa Driss, and Adrian Freed.

Members have gone on to form Alkemie Atelier, a Montreal-based multidisciplinary collective.

Related organizations[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Sha Xin Wei, "The Atelier-Lab as a Transversal Machine," in Special issue: Le numérique dans les humanités américaines, Revue française d'études américaines 128, 2012, pp. 62-78.
  3. ^ Erik Conrad, “Soft architectures in everyday life,” in Special Issue on Poetic and Speculative Architecture in Public Space, AI & Society 26.2, 2011, pp. 123-128. Sha Xin Wei, “Minor architecture,” in Special Issue on Poetic and Speculative Architecture in Public Space, AI & Society 26.2, 2011, pp. 112-122.
  4. ^ "Differential Geometrical Performance and Poiesis," in Configurations, Vol 12, Number 1, Winter 2004, pp. 133-160.
  5. ^ "Cathedral, Tool or Framework? MediaWeaver As a Distributed Scholarly Workspace" in Augmenting Comprehension: Digital Tools and the History of Ideas, ed. Dino Buzzetti, Giuliano Pancaldi, and Harold Short, (London: Office for Humanities Communication, Kings College London), 2004, pp.. 101-112
  6. ^ Sha Xin Wei, "Ethico-Aesthetics in T* Performative Spaces," in On Transient Realities and Their Generators, ed. Kuzmanovic and Tim Boykett. Maribor, Slovenia: Kibla, 2005, pp. 22-39. To be recast as prospectus for book: A Genealogy of Topological Media. (Describing some of the technical and ethico-aesthetic aspects of the TGarden family of responsive play spaces: TGarden 2000 through FoAM’s trg 2005.)
  7. ^ "Resistance Is Fertile: Gesture and Agency in the Field of Responsive Media," in Makeover: Writing the Body into the Posthuman Technoscape, Two-Part Special Issue of Configurations, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, Part 2: Configurations, Vol 10, Number 3, Summer 2002.
  8. ^ The Topological Media Lab as a transversal machine? The art and technologies of performance" Society for the Social Studies of Science, Washington DC, 28 October - 1 November 2009
  9. ^ Sha Xin Wei, Michael Fortin, Navid Navab, Tim Sutton, "Ozone: Continuous State-based Media Choreography System for Live Performance," ACM Multimedia, October 2010, Firenze, pp. 1383-1392.
  10. ^ Sha Xin Wei, Michael Fortin, Jean-Sebastien Rousseau, "Calligraphic Video: A Phenomenological Approach to Dense Visual Interaction," ACM Multimedia, October 2009, Beijing.
  11. ^ Il y a video
  12. ^ Sha Xin Wei, and Satinder Gill, "Gesture and Response in Field-Based Performance," 5th conference on Creativity & Cognition, ed. Ernest Edmonds, London: ACM, 2005, pp. 205-09.
  13. ^ Sha Xin Wei, * David Birnbaum, * Freida Abtan, Marcelo M. Wanderley, "Mapping and dimensionality of a cloth-based sound instrument," Sound & Music Computing, 11–13 July 2007, Lefkada Greece.
  14. ^ Experiments with gestural sound and video include: Interstitial 2008, MeteorShower 2007
  15. ^ Sha Xin Wei, * Doug Van Nort, * David Gauthier, Marcelo M. Wanderley, "Extraction of Gestural Meaning from a Fabric-Based Instrument," ICMC 2007.
  16. ^ WYSIWYG video
  17. ^ Sha Xin Wei, Michael Fortin, Navid Navab, Timothy Sutton, "Ozone: continuous state-based media choreography system for live performance," ACM Proceedings of the international conference on Multimedia, 2010, 1383-1392.
  18. ^ Ouija, collective and volitional movement experiments, June 25 – July 18, 2007.[dead link]
  19. ^ Frankenstein's Ghosts
  20. ^ Inter Arts Matrix


Stephen Wilson, Art+Science Now, London: Thames & Hudson, 2010. Anna Munster, Materializing New Media: Embodiment in Information Aesthetics, Dartmouth College Press, 2006.

Lucy Bullivant. Responsive Environments: Architecture, Art and Design. Paperback ed: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2006, pp. 74–75.

Isabelle Valverde, Interfacing Dance and Technology: a Theoretical Framework for Performance in the Digital Domain, Portuguese Gulbenkian Foundation and the Foundation for Science and Technology Book Series, (Ph.D. Dissertation, UC Riverside 2004).

Lucy A. Suchman. Human-machine Reconfigurations, Plans and Situated Actions. 2nd Edition. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 281.

Bernadette Wegenstein. Getting under the Skin : Body and Media Theory. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005.

Bolter, J. David, and Diane Gromala. Windows and Mirrors : Interaction Design, Digital Art, and the Myth of Transparency. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003, pp. 114–129.

Benjamin Weil, “TGarden,” Leonardo, Volume 35, Number 4, October 2002.

New York Digital Salon, Tenth Anniversary. For TG2001 production of TGarden, with Sponge, as one of the 100 most influential works of new art since the 1960s, Oct. 2002.

TGarden, ArchiNed Netherlands Review of Architecture and Art, 2001.