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Hands-on With iPod Drum Circles, Human Scale Chess, and Texting Fish

The people of Conflux -- an annual art and technology festival held in New York City in September -- are obsessed with "psycho dynamism," or the art and science of fusing the virtual world with the real world, like doing virtual things in physical space (for example, organizing the first ever iPhone drum circle). To get our heads around this fascinating event, we checked out the Conflux '09 festival in person last weekend. Take a look at our list of the most interesting ways the artists at this fest found to make these seemingly separate realms overlap and interact.

1. Texting Fish

Do urbanites dream of digital fish? The folks at X Clinic sure hope so. The quirky nonprofit operates on the assumption that, as in any kind of hostile environment, the best way to improve relations between humans and their wild neighbors is integration. To aid wired New Yorkers in becoming more aware of the endangered animals in their local hangouts, X Clinic prescribes tech-friendly options for interspecies communication. One way it recommends getting back to nature is texting the various flora and fauna in the East River to find out what's up underwater at any given moment. Try it for yourself. Text heyherring, riverriver, amphibious architecture, ahoyanchovie, or eastriver to 41411 and reach out to other species the same way you touch base with your homo sapien acquaintances. How does this work? Motion sensitive poles have been set up underwater in the East River, and every time a fish swims by one of these poles, a text reply is sent out to folks who have sent one of the messages above. More of the interesting ways X Clinic is getting humans and animals together at the Environmental Health Clinic site.

2. Human Scale Chess Game

Okay, we admit that actual, physical chess existed before the computerized version became the classic example in conversations about the possibility of artificial intelligence eventually beating people. But, come on, it's full-scale human chess, on real city streets! You know you've wanted to try it since you watched Carol Channing dance around in that awful '80s 'Alice and Wonderland' TV special, or at least since you saw the first 'Harry Potter.' Well, now you can. In this version, specific real-world locations (street corners, lobbies, etc) represent different squares on a board. Two master players decide on the next move, and then text directions to the players regarding where to move on the 'chess board' that covers, in this case, eight city blocks. Go to for details on how to get in on the next game.

3. Google Maps Road Trip

Best friend to converse with over long hours, check. Beat-up Saab, check. Recommendations from friends on where to stop and what to see, plus plenty of fried roadside carbs to fuel your fire, check and check. Doing the entire nine-day, cross country tour over Google Maps without having to meet in the middle or buy a gallon of gas = genius. Mark Horowitz and Pete Baldes did just that in August, streaming live video and accepting recommendations from chat rooms and Twitter feeds on where to go next. Pete stayed in Virginia, and Mark literally never left LA, but together they virtually visited Vegas, the Grand Canyon, and many other middle American must-sees using Google Maps. At Conflux, they took all us Manhattanites on a virtual day trip to Brooklyn. A girl in the crowd invited the guys to her actual physical birthday party in Williamsburg that night in real time, but they said they would prefer if she could, "take photos, geotag and upload them." That way they could virtually attend her party the next day, without having to deal with traffic. Travel with Mark and Pete here.

4. The World's First, Possibly Only, and Probably Last iPhone Drum Circle

"We decided we should do an iPhone drum circle at some point, before anyone else did," was the mantra of MTAA and Mike Koller, the masterminds behind the portable percussion jam that took place in Brooklyn this past Saturday. The hour long performance piece drew more than ten "drummers" and hordes of listeners. The artists brought amps, wires, and power while the players just came with phones. The circle began with mostly app-produced drum noises, but evolved (or dissolved) into every variety of sound found in the app store, from cats to birds to keyboards to lightning bolts. "Making things with machines is different than making them in a normal space," claimed MTAA's M.River. Got that right. Check out more of MTAA's app-inspired art at and

5. Data Visualization Portraits

All that time you spend browsing the Internet without any direction can no longer be written off as mere procrastination. The creators of Wordle, Personas, Dendro and other data visualization portrait sites believe the way you click randomly on what interests you (without worrying about getting from point A to B) is actually a more accurate representation of who you are than what you post on your Facebook page. Wordle assembles a kind of collage out of all the words associated with your name online, from things you type in your Twitter feed to comments other people may have written on your MySpace or work Web site. Personas scans the digital footprint you have left while browsing and then creates a map to show you all the virtual places you have been. Dendro, which was created by interactive designer Kevin Sweeney just for Conflux, uses colorful lines to draw connections between the sites you visit, then renders them into a Jackson Pollock-esque picture, like a Rorschach Test for the modern age.

6. Hi-Fi Hike Through Analog Territory

Ever wished you could take a guided tour of an off-the-beaten-path attraction, hitting the most picturesque sites without having to bare that nasal, expert voice in your ear? Multimedia artist Betsy Biggs' sound sculpture "11 Dreams of Red Hook," solves this problem. Biggs used to use her electronic soundscapes to score her films. Then she realized she could transform a real location into a kind of interactive movie by providing the viewer with a soundtrack, a set of instructions, and a map of interesting views to walk through. "Actors" in Biggs' real life "movie" donned iPods and experienced New York's last lost neighborhood through the "lens" of Biggs carefully created playlist. You can download the tracks, see the sites, and take a virtual tour at the Dreams of Red Hook site.

Tags: art, conflux, events, features, psychodynamism, top

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