On Ryoji Ikeda’s The Transfinite

by Thomas Brett

“In a twist my mind came free and I was aware of the hard workings of the natural world beyond the periphery of ordinary attention, where passions lose their meaning and history is in another dimension, without people, and great events pass without record or judgment.  I was a transient of no consequence in this familiar yet deeply alien world that I had come to love…”
-E.O.Wilson, Biophilia (1984)

In his concept of biophilia, biologist E.O. Wilson (who is one of the world’s foremost specialists on ants, by the way) refers to our innate human affinity for the natural world.  But if you read the passage above once more and substitute the words “information world” for “natural world” it makes sense in a different way: you’re reminded of our experience of living in an information-saturated world too.  In fact, read this way, the passage gives a pretty good sense of how I felt while immersed in Ryoji Ikeda’s compelling audio-video installation piece transfinite (a composite of three previous pieces, test pattern, data.tron, and data.scan), now on display at the Park Avenue Armory through June 11, 2011 (Admission is $12.00).

Ikeda (b.1966) is one of Japan’s most audacious electronic music composers and sound artists.  His music has the sound of streams of numeric code transformed into slivers of sine tones that oscillate and drone, white noise, and sub bass hums, spanning a vast frequency range that pushes the limits of human hearing in both its upper and lower ranges.  It’s patterned, it’s percussive, but also ambient and meditative.  Ikeda’s music sounds highly mathematical, ordered, and even cold and indifferent to anyone who might be listening, yet somehow it draws you in because of its constant micro-variations and mutations, and because, well, it’s so extremely minimal.  If I can make an analogy: the music sounds like the aggregate thoughts of our entire world as recorded by a satellite hovering just beyond the atmosphere–all humming and pulsing infobits to be understood one day perhaps by some alien life form elsewhere.  (Note to self: How would a musicologist analyze this music?  What could be transcribed?)

For the transfinite installation, there are a dozen speakers and four bass cabinets providing a powerfully immersive, multi-channel surround sound that changes depending on where you stand.  The Park Avenue Armory is a vast space, so this on its own is a sonic feat.  Listen here for an excerpt from a field recording I made while visiting the installation.

The transfinite is actually quite finite– about the dimensions of a basketball court, with a fifty foot high vertical screen down the middle that divides the space into two equally sized 70-foot halves.  On the front half, both the floor and the vertical screen are lit from inside their smooth, vinyl-like surfaces, displaying an ever-changing, flickering and stuttering sequence of black and white visuals synced to the music (or is the music derived from the code driving the images?): geometric shapes, parallel lines, graduated shades of grey, and pointilistic graph grids blinking and flashing a mile a minute.  Interestingly, the space feels different as people come and go and change their sitting and standing locations on the glowing floor.  In this way, listeners/viewers become a part of the artwork.

The other side of the vertical screen shows projections of streams of numbers–as if to depict the DNA code for the visuals on the front side of the screen.  Up the middle of the floor space there are nine equally spaced, upward facing, waist-high computer screens showing various high-resolution 3D visual representations of data such as nucleic-like structures floating over grids, more streams of numbers, and other rotating geometric designs.  (Nothing ever stops moving in this installation.)  It’s all very Minority Report-looking, and of course I tried to swipe one of the computer screens with my index finger to test for interactivity, but alas, I could only view and admire and try to decipher the digital images.  And last but not least, the floor space on this side of the installation is covered in a soft, felt-like material that is striking because–back to E.O. Wilson’s biophilia idea–it grounds you.  With your shoes off (visitors’ shoes must be removed), you feel the softness like beach sand, and this experience–this ancient experience of a textured ground beneath your (almost) bare feet–makes it feel as if your body is standing in nature while your mind has been hijacked by the datasphere. There’s a body-mind tension here that is really provocative if you’re open to it.

So what does the transfinite mean?  In his artist statement, Ikeda notes that the transfinite is “the infinite that is qualitative and ordered” and that the subject of his piece is “the invisible multi substance of data.”  While I don’t know exactly how Ikeda and his computer graphics programmers assembled their materials (there are apparently numerous computers working to power this piece), on the level of data the transfinite seems to be about the beauty of mathematics, about how strings of numbers can be re-purposed as artistic work.  In this regard, Ikeda has created something powerful and affecting through what would seem to be rather impersonal and austerely rigid means.

When taking in this work, prepare to feel quite small in the face of not only those large illuminated screens that will tower over you but also in relation to the sheer volume of data represented visually and sonically.  If you want, you can approach and get up close to either side of the vertical screen, at which point a curious thing happens: a silhouette of yourself comes into razor-sharp, HD focus.


Here you are (that’s me in the picture taking a picture of me), the listener/viewer projected right into Ikeda’s datasphere, a mind in the machine watching those data streams rain over you–a storm of abstract information coming too fast to ever make sense of.  If there’s a better image for representing the immersive experience of living in the hyper connected, Facebook-ed, text messaging, Twitterific time of ours, I can’t think of one.