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Sensorium: a feast for every sense

Sensorium: a feast for every sense Elliot Woods
Central and Eastern Europe still seems to have an inferior reputation to many in the West. The old view of "somewhat downtrodden former Socialist state" seems to persist, even if it has been more recently augmented by "great place for stag weekends and cheap beer".

The reality of such countries is considerably different and more advanced than these simplistic and frankly outmoded views. Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, is undergoing something of a perpetual building frenzy: joining the shopping malls and multinational offices erected in recent years is a new tranche of retail, residential, and business towers in the city centre. One of the largest, Skypark, was designed by Zaha Hadid before her death in 2017.

But what is striking about Bratislava - BA to the locals - is its rich and rather unique mix of the contemporary and the traditional, infused with a mass of creativity. Fancy Baroque architecture (which BA has a plentiful supply of) comes up against white-walls-and-steel modernism, and it handles the distinction pretty well. Creativity is found behind almost every door: there are so many art events, funky bars, world cinemas and global symposia that it seems tempting simply to fall into a scene that is energetic and constant. BA is an art city that doesn't tell you that it is - it wants you to find that out for yourself. There is perhaps nothing "more Bratislava" than Dunaj, a huge department store which stopped trading a few years ago and is now a centre for film, arts events, and late-night clubbing.

This creative rush has also produced Sensorium, an arts and technology conference and event now in its third year. Its scale is increasingly ambitious. This year's event brings together guided walks and exhibitions and talks across the city, as well as the centrepiece: two days of talks. The Pisztory Palace, where the talks are held, is fascinating in itself: built by a successful pharmacist, it became the Nazi embassy during Slovakia's occupation during WW2, before turning into the Lenin Museum. Now, it's a creative hub which has kept all of the palatial features while housing DJs, coffee and beer bars, and huge rooms for art exhibitions. The best parallel for a UK audience would be if Somerset House moved to Dalston.

The sweltering heat (reaching 34 degrees at its peak) allowed the Palace to make use of its space. The talks were in a large, if warm, room; the exhibitions were in substantial, beautiful rooms of their own; and the drinks were served in the Palace's courtyard, complete with giant bean bags. A thoughtful gesture was to start the event on Friday afternoon, giving enough time for delegates to travel in, and perhaps to panic-buy some sunblock on the way.

Ali Eslami kicked things off by showing False Mirror, a massive VR world which can be tuned (soundtrack, decor and so on) with an in-world control board. It would be lazy to draw parallels between this and Second Life, not least due to the much more immersive nature of False Mirror, but it a work of scale, and of countless different rooms and experiences.

Aleksandra Przegalinska talked through ethics in contemporary AI study. Her teaching positions at both MIT and in Poland allowed her to demonstrate what is a widening gulf between the Randian libertarianism of Silicon Valley, and the more personal protection-focussed interventionism of the European Union.

It was great to see Stefanie Posavec again, who has carved out a wonderful niche - not just in terms of telling stories through data visualisation, but making dataviz in itself accessible. Through her two co-authored books, she has largely succeeded in making a formerly technocentric discipline now in the hands of anyone. Dear Data, a collaboration between Stefanie and Georgia Lupi, is a collection of postcards exchanged between the authors featuring visualied data in their everyday lives. After all, as Stefanie said, all that you need to start dataviz is a pen. Stefanie has recently signed a book deal with Penguin, so expect to see more accessible approaches to dataviz over the year.

Ján Pernecký gave a typically insightful talk about generative architecture; if algorithms pervade in most other parts of our lives, then why don't they appear in architecture? What would an algorithmically-generated building look and feel like? Where does human intervention into "digital architecture" start and end? We interviewed Ján prior to Sensorium; it's excellent to see someone taking such a deep and yet unique, personal look into their practice.

Sissel Marie Tonn's work Becoming Escargotapien was exhibited in the Palace. A large, multimedia work, it features soft furnishings which invite the participant to lay on, while a 3D-printed small skull complete with earpiece talks through the evolution of bone in a meditative, calming way. Sissel's work has a theme of what happens to objects and bodies after some sort of disruption has occurred (as per our interview here) and her talk looked at her more recent investigations into the aftereffects of fracking in the Netherlands.

Cristóbal Valenzuela's talk was an eye-opener. It covered some of his past projects including Scenescoop, which retrieves scenes from films based on static image input; Uncanny Road, a dreamy walk through a GAN-generated cityscape; and The Alternative Late Show, where Cristobal semi-3D-scanned Stephen Colbert's face and body from a 2D video input, plotted additional bodily movements, and then reprojected these movements as "Stephen Colbert" back onto the video. Cristolbal's new project, which he has moved full-time to manage, is Runway, a sort of "GANs for the masses" interface where anyone can run GAN models against user-input content. It's a nice way of allowing more people to understand what GANs can do without the need for a considerably greater technical understanding of them.

Danica Pistekova has a really interesting niche. She talked about a range of architectural concepts, but not in the context of buildings: rather, in the context of exploratory personal space involving giant duvet-like covers that allow for interaction (including romantic interaction) when required. Of particular interest was her reference to digital stitching - something that I have never really thought about before. The digitally-enhanced method of stitching cloth allows for all sorts of elaborate patterns to occur, thus opening up fabric as a medium for a more delicate and precise form of expression and visualisation.

Elliot Woods of South Korean studio Kimchi and Chips (nice name) closed the event by covering a swathe of topics over about half an hour. He started with the basics, talking about the power of art as being "something which you can't process with your world view", and moving onto talking through some of the studio's massive pieces. A converted abattoir became the host of Halo, a huge installation of multiple, individually-manufactured convex mirrors upon which light shone and coalesced into one giant circle in space. Visitors to Somerset House might recall its installation in the courtyard, late last year.

Sunday featured more talks and events across the city, including audio-led talks by artists. Impressively, Sensorium ditched the usual plastic bottles, giving delegates refillable glass ones instead (which we could keep). This impressively diverse choice of speakers, events and talks, combined with a thoughtful approach to staging and event management, marks Sensorium out as something rather lovely and certainly rather unique in the arts/tech calendar. I hope that the weather is as good next time too.

​More information on Sensorium is available at the event website and Twitter. Paul Squires is the Publisher of Imperica.

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