Dan Collins (email@example.com)
for New Art Examiner
(article submitted for publication October 7, 1994...SIGGRAPH was in early August...article appeared in December 1994 issue)
SIGGRAPH 94: Searching for Virtue in a Virtual Landscape
The dimensions of the Street are fixed by a protocol, hammered out by the computer-graphics ninja overlords of the Association for Computing Machinery's Global Multimedia Group...The Street does not really exist--it's just a computer-graphics protocol written down on a piece of paper somewhere--none of these things is being physically built. They are, rather, pieces of software, made available to the public over the world-wide fiber-optics network. When Hiro goes into the Metaverse and looks down the Street and sees buildings and electric signs stretching off into the darkness, disappearing over the curve of the globe, he is actually staring at the graphic representations--the user interfaces--of a myriad different pieces of software that have been engineered by major corporations. In order to place these things on the Street, they have had to get approval from the Global Multimedia Protocol Group, have had to buy frontage on the Street, get zoning approval, obtain permits, bribe inspectors, the whole bit. The money these corporations pay to build things on the Street all goes into a trust fund owned and operated by the GMPG, which pays for developing and expanding the machinery that enables the street to exist.
from Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
ART AND TECHNOLOGY: A QUICK UPDATE
I use computers but I avoid science fiction. Still I know that when the description of one serves as the definition of the other we have crossed a line. It's impossible to distinguish our art and from our technology.
We like to tell ourselves that we live in a new time. The evidence is abundant: Our working days and leisure hours are filled with gadgets. Technology is no longer a category "over there"--we are immersed in it. We possess, as a perk of modern living, a frictionless system of information retrieval, display, dissemination, and exchange at our fingertips. Like children who are seen but not heard, technology dances at the periphery of our vision, and answers obediently and promptly when we call. It is transparent, intuitive, and ultimately empowering. It never breaks. Above all, it does not announce its status as a commodity or an agent of control, etc....Well, Americans are suckers for a good story . Despite our nearly genetic suspicion of control and abuse of power, we'll walk through fire if the narrative is compelling enough--especially if its laced with the latest technological toys. Mix our gullibility with our perennial fascination with widgets, and you begin to understand why so many people would travel to a swamp in July to get blitzed on computer graphics and interactive media.
We ("we" meaning those who can afford the luxury of art magazines and can be described as being "immersed" in technology) share a perplexing moment. The tools give expression to our every passing whim. We send e-mail to the White House: <firstname.lastname@example.org>. A recent piece of software translates a doodle into an algorithm. We can press our own CD-ROMS so that our journeys, real or imagined, can be appreciated interactively by children wearing HMDs (head-mounted displays) and data gloves. And then there is the Internet, the Mother of all Nets. Like in a novel by Neil Stephenson, your "avatar" (1) greets other goofy digital incarnations on chat lines or "multi-user dimensions" (MUDs). Or you and your "agents" (2) scour the vast virtual bulletin boards and home shopping malls for everything there is to know in the digital universe about Malaysian cooking, massage, and message machines. Where can I get two for the price of one? (Nevermind that I don't need one of most things, let alone two of anything.)
It is the ability to access the information that takes on value. Information is power. But one's sense of power degrades quickly as info-glut slows decision making to a crawl. To compensate, we trade the gaze for the glance--speed reading for information junkies. (We don't really read anymore, we process.) Our ability to navigate through vast libraries of arcane topics allows us to... suprise!...navigate through vast libraries of arcane topics. The effect is curiously medieval, scholastic even. It's as if everybody is honing their information access and manipulation skills in preparation for a second coming that never comes.
But just as assuredly as machines break, as a culture we fall short of taking full advantage of its promise. Our technologies, imperfect as they are, wildly exceed our ability to fill them with meaningful content. This may be the real reason that our technological capabilities--be they communications devices, "educational software," navigation systems, imaging tools--are so susceptible to cooption, modification, or commodification. Technology poses as neutral. Afterall, a CPU doesn't care if its sending signals to a missle guidance system or a hi-tech manure spreader (see New York Times Magazine, Sunday, October 2, 1994, p. 18) But, as Neil Postman writes in his recent book, Technopoly, "embedded in every tool is an idealogical bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another." Remember the old adage about the man with only a hammer treating everything as if it were a nail?
THE WORLD VS. THE ARTWORLD
The mainstream's reaction to technology ranges from indifference, to irritation, to unbridled contempt. Given the transitory and shallow nature of much of what passes for "art and technology" these days, this may be a good thing. (The word on the street is that the next Whitney Biennial will be almost exclusively painting.) Still, denial is not going to make technology go away. Digital media in particular are having a profound impact world-wide on how art is made, received, and understood. But maybe it's hard to perceive a "sea change" when you're soaking in it. The considered "resistance" of a Neil Postman is rare; most people in the art world hate technology because they can't fathom it--or hang it on their wall.
Just as the music underground--with its sophisticated pirating techniques and state of the art production values--has turned the music industry on its ear, new technologies hold out a similar threat and promise to the art world. Interdisciplinary projects of all kinds are facilitated by enhanced communications and the ease by which disparate artistic languages are merged. Using the Internet, artists are bypassing the traditional venues for exhibition and distribution. With two-way, interactive communications, art audiences of the future may play a much larger role in determining the nature and quality of the art with which they come in contact. True, we all need help in imagining the possibilities. But aren't you bored with Beavis and Butthead? Well, the potential for the user to initiate change in the information spectrum and to become a transceiver as well as a receiver is already a reality.
Of course, we need to develop criteria for evaluating works by artists using the new technologies. For example, the tendency to rarify artistic practice by passing it through a technological medium should not substitute for lack of formal inventiveness, lack of content, or lack of technical skills. Somebody oughta call "foul." Artists routinely display work that does not acknowledge the real creative work done at the level of programming and/or technical support. Increasingly, especially in larger multi-media works, creative decision making is a shared enterprise.
Reviewing SIGGRAPH '93, Andy Kopra wrote, "artists easily attach the importance of their work to the new tools that make it. Though they are often using software written by engineers to simulate traditional media (paint, cell animation), the presence of the computer is sufficient to bless the work with membership as Art in the new "technical media." [see The New Art Examiner, Dec. 1993] This is the beginning of a critical response to new electronic media.
The biases within the artworld are a given. Art seeks its own level and does not always emerge in the temples built for its worship. A good deal of the most compelling work being produced today will not be shown at the Whitney next Spring. Nor will it be shown at Documenta in Germany or at the Biennials in Venice, New York, or Sao Paulo. It will, however, be found at Ars Electronica in Mainz, Germany, at the annual International Computer Music Conference (ICMC), and at SIGGRAPH. These huge international exhibitions and conferences devoted to electronic imaging, video technology, digital audio, communications, interactive media, are drawing record crowds. Functioning like barometers of a shift that is international in scope, they track creative involvement with the new technologies that are instrumental in determining the future of our visual and acoustical environment.
WHAT IS SIGGRAPH? WHY SHOULD I CARE?
One of the major venues for the new technology continues to be SIGGRAPH. The innocuous acronym (standing for Special Interest Group Graphics) does little to clue the uninitiated to its character or purpose. Two decades ago in Boulder, Colorado, the first SIGGRAPH technology conference drew 300 attendees, mostly from the academic community. With attendance mushrooming to over 25,000 last July in Orlando, SIGGRAPH has grown to become one of the world's leading technology conferences for computer graphics and the interactive computing industry. (Yes, it is a sub-set of the Association for Computing Machinery.)
As our visual culture blurs the line between the arts, science, and entertainment, it becomes important to consider how this new visual world is being generated. Where are innovations in visual experience coming from? What agenda is being served? Who's writing the code?
It seems clear that the traditional venues for tracking our visual culture--the museums, galleries, critics, collectors, etc--are not doing a very good job of keeping up with where the culture as a whole is taking us. The museum/gallery culture upon which much of fine art is predicated has never been equipped--technically or conceptually--to give us the information (or the syntax) we need to participate fully in our own cultural moment. (The Exploratorium in San Francisco is a good model of an alternative. It is noted for its hands-on approach to science, art, and visual perception ).
We need to own up to the limited impact that our insular, museum-based system has on how the culture operates. Conferences like SIGGRAPH--despite or maybe because of their irreverant and unholy alliance of science, entertainment, and art--give us real-world clues to our immediate environment.
Implicitly, SIGGRAPH telegraphs the message that electronic imaging is driving our visual culture. We've been hearing this for over three decades now. Long before 1964--the year Marshall McLuhan wrote Understanding Media--television and post-industrial culture had transformed our visual landscape. The marriage of video and computer technology made possible that bastard child, computer graphics--first effectively demonstrated in 1962 by a brilliant graduate student named Ivan Sutherland. Portable video equipment first became available in 1965. The first computer art exhibition, "Cybernetic Serendipity," was in 1968. The first personal computer was developed at PARC (Palo Alto research center) in the early 70's. In 1984, Apple introduced its graphic interface to millions of users.
COMPUTER GRAPHICS: A PRIMER
OK. You hate computer graphics. And you just traded your digital watch in for one with hands. But let's get historical. Back in the 17th century, the philosopher and mathematician Rene Descarte could not have known he was laying the foundation for present-day computer graphics and electronic art. Nevertheless, his discovery of analytic geometry--essentially a symbolic manipulation system--enabled anyone with an understanding of numbers to represent forms using mathematical equations. Now if you couple this ability to juggle symbolic language with the computational power of the computer and the visualization capabilities of video you have a revolutionary new tool box. It can be used to "visualize" complex scientific data or to open the door to virtual worlds of all kinds. It can also be used to produce those awful logos for the six o'clock news. Most of us just see the glitz and none of the substance. The fact of the matter is that significant breakthroughs have already been made in a wide range of fields because of the enhanced visualization capabilities of the computer.
SCIENTIFIC COMPUTING AT SIGGRAPH
Of the several areas represented at SIGGRAPH, the special emphasis on scientific computing could be said to be the heart of the conference. This emphasis comes to a head in the "Technical Program" where more than 100 papers, panels, and courses inform attendees on trends and techniques in computer graphics. These range from paper presentations filled with complex algorithms for "specular reflection" and "shear-warp factorization" to panels dealing with the "Mechanics of the Information Highway" and "Computer Technology and the Artistic Process." For the non-technical observer, many of the complexities of the math can be appreciated intuitively through the liberal use of graphics or, in many cases, of full-motion animation in the form of computer output or video. This was the first year that a CD-ROM of the proceedings was issued.
"INTERACTIVITY" AND "VIRTUAL REALITY"
SIGGRAPH conferences have always pitched "computer graphics" in the broadest sense. But in recent years the conference organizers have appended the usual marquee text with the sub-title: "Computer Graphics and Interactive Media." For many of the conference-going public--and certainly for the media--the stress on interactivity, with its broad promises of "direct experience," and "first-person point of view," provided a theme which cut across several of the venues.
For most attendees, "interactivity" means "virtual reality"--and virtual reality means bulky head sets or at least a funny glove wired to a computer. While there were plenty of VR helmets and joy sticks and data gloves on hand, there were also intriguing displays of interactive acoustics, a virtual tactile force device, bio-feedback experiments, and sculptures which explored problems of viewer position and vantage point. All of this without the burdensome accoutrements of VR technology.
Still, the 1994 Conference will probably be remembered for the wide proliferation of VR experiments. Out on the vastness of the exhibition floor, hi-tech purveyors were on hand to demo the latest in hardware and software. Conference hits in the Industrial VR category included Silicon Graphic's interactive ski machine and Disney's high resolution animation of a flying carpet ride.
There are a great many players in the VR arena, and there is a lot of speculation as to what purposes this rapidly developing technology will serve. Hi-tech manufacturing touts its pre-visualization and monitoring capabilities. The educational community sees it as a great teaching tool. The medical field is currently assessing the benefits of new diagnostic imaging methods that utilize VR. Experiments with remote VR surgical techniques have already been conducted on live animals. The entertainment industry is attracted by VR's blending of the lessons of interactive video games with the visual impact of cinema. The scientific community is beginning to tap the research and visualization potentials of VR. Architects and designers are taking advantage of the computer's ability to generate convincing VR "walk-throughs." There are even dedicated sites (Carnegie Mellon U.) for two-way interactive VR networks--including a networked Virtual Reality Museum.
The most ambitious of the interactive VR projects at SIGGRAPH was a continuously running program known collectively as VROOM (the Virtual Reality Room). Spear-headed by the Electronic Visualization Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Chicago, VROOM represents a few of the many technological hybrids currently being developed under the rubric of Virtual Reality. A series of interactive virtual reality rooms or "CAVEs," was used to visualize natural phenomena and scientific data. (From the literature: CAVE--the name selected for this Virtual Reality Theater, is both a recursive acronym [Cave Automatic Virtual Environment] and a reference to "The Simile of the Cave" found in Plato's Republic, in which the philosopher explored the ideas of perception, reality, and illusion...The CAVE premiered at SIGGRAPH 92.)
The CAVE is a multi-person, room-sized, high-resolution, 3D video and audio environment. In (its) current configuration, graphics are rear projected in stereo onto two walls and the floor, and viewed with stereo glasses (LCD stero shutter glasses are used to separate the alternating video fields going to the eyes). As a viewer wearing a location sensor moves within its display boundaries, the correct perspective and stereo projections of the environment are updated, and the image moves with and surrounds the viewer. The other viewers in the CAVE are like passengers in a bus, along for the ride.
A few examples:
"Visualization of Climate Data Over the Western United States." A team of researchers at the Supercomputer Center in San Diego created a simulation of the anomalies and patterns created by wind and precipitation. Their thesis is that immersion in a virtual world that features dynamic and interactive meterological information will enable us to better understand the Earth's ever-changing climatic processes. (see image #1)
"Acetylcholinesterase: Nature's Vacuum Cleaner." Cornell researcher Richard Gillilan created an environment that explored the electrostatic forces generated by an enzyme that plays a key role in the human nervous system. Neurotransmitter molecules (acetylcholine) are drawn down a long tunnel and into a "reactive-site" cavern deep with the enzyme where they are cleaved into component parts for reuse.
"The Virtual Eye." Paul F. Neumann of the University of Illinois at Chicago demonstrated the design of an anatomically realistic computer model of a human eye. Users were able to explore and interact with the eye's components to discover their characteristics.
VROOM was admirable for not only the level of technological sophistication, but also its encouragement of lateral thinking, interdisciplinary research, and its non-commericial orientation. In many respects it seemed a lot like art.
From the literature: "Attendees gain a vision of the 1990's scientific 'cyberworkspace.' Virtual reality experiences enable researchers to interactively explore their scientific domains, play 'what-if' games by modifying their codes, and view the resulting visualizations in close-to-real time. Virtual reality is recognized as an 'intelligent user interface' to the emerging national information infrastructure. It will allow computational scientists and engineers access to high-performance computing and communications...and it will put the 'human in the loop' for timely data analysis and understanding."
VIRTUAL REAL ESTATE
Meanwhile, at the other end of the convention center, the latest in a new generation of entertainment experiences were being touted that expressly keep humans "out of the loop" of creative decision making. These might be characterized as "passive virtual reality" systems--systems that provide intense "immersion" type experiences without the possibility of the viewer directing the action or exploring on their own. Imagine wrap around cinema and kinetic theater seats and you'll get the idea.
The morning of the Press Briefing, SIGGRAPH conference chairman, Dino Schweitzer, introduced us to one of the legends in the field of hi-tech spectacle, Doug Trumbell. Trumbell first came to prominence way back in 1964 with the role he played in a very popular World's Fair exhibit calledTo the Moon and Back (whoopy cushions synched with wide-screen cinema). In his more than three decades in the entertainment industry, Trumbell has worked on such classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey as well as main stream features such as Back to the Future. But his latest passion involves what he characterized as "LBE" or "Location Based Entertainment" experiences. Instead of whoopy cushions, audiences at the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas (one of 18 venues planned for the new technology) are strapped into a 15 passenger hydraulic module. The movements of the module are computer-controlled to synchronize with the visual experience provided by a wrap-around 180 degree VistaVision screen. Essentially, Trumbell is developing "immersive sensory experiences" that combine the visual impact of large screen movies with the kinesthetic sensations associated with amusement park rides.
A few miles from the Conference, at Disney's EPCOT center just outside of Orlando, a similar, albeit more modest, technology is behind the highly successful "Body Wars" attraction. In that "ride" the public is "shrunk" to molecular size and injected into the blood stream of a human host. (remember Fantastic Voyage?) Hydraulic actuators shake, rattle, and roll the pod. Combined with the fast-paced video animation, a very real sense of motion through the inner recesses of the body is achieved.
One feature that makes these "motion-based simulated rides" so appealing to theme-park entrepeneurs is the highly compressed physical space. No longer do theme parks need acres of cheap land within striking distance of big cities. Small venues situated in the urban core can provide an equivalent emotional rush without ever leaving the confines of, say, the Mall or the Cineplex.
This may be the real attraction of such attractions. Could it be that the driving force behind developing increasingly plausible "Virtual Realities" is not enhanced visualization capability or alternative sensory experience, but, of all things, land prices? Virtual Reality becomes "virtual real estate." Understood as such, it can be marketed to the public at competitive prices. The units of measure are not square feet, cubic meters, or tatami matts, but time and resolution. For the moment, brief, vicarious experiences--such as a few minutes on vacation at the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas--suffice.
Like Neil Stephenson's hi-tech "metaverse" (see opening quote), virtual real estate is the developer's answer to the scarcity of open space. If the skycraper is the 20th century's answer to the problem of achieving a certain urban density, VR is the 21st century's method for making space out of no space. Paradoxically, the more the culture packs its population into tighter boxes, the more the culture demands technologies that suggest the illusion of freedom. You can take your pick: An empty, virtual horizon to counter the claustrophobic effects of urban density. Or a Virtual Mall that offers the same palette of choices as the real thing--without the parking problem. Given our culture's national past-time (i.e. shopping), is it any wonder that the next generation of designers is focusing on the latter?
"Come play. Come dream. Come explore. Come to the Edge and see how high you can fly." --from SIGGRAPH Visual Proceedings
The Virtual Mall
One person's dream is another person's nightmare is another person's thesis project. Over at "The Edge" where "preconceived ideas are challenged and new connections emerge," winner of "the sinking feeling" award is, you guessed it, a project called The Virtual Mall. (You might as well call it Virtual Real-Estate) VR technology is used to indulge our culture's obsession with shopping. According to the principle designer, Marc Fredrickson, a recent graduate of the Masters program at the School of Architecture at UC San Diego, "shopping is a provocative vehicle. It allows exploration of how middle-class shoppers might interact with virtual reality technology from an architect's viewpoint."
Shoppers pick up a shopping bag in the entry/selection room, where they also select their own style of shopping: direct to product, random browsing, browsing with intent, or by specific stores, brand names, or product categories. When shoppers wish to buy something, they place it in their shopping bag and their credit account is automatically billed. The display utilizes light-weight stereo glasses rather than head-sets--and is limited to monitor display rather than wrap around environments. Nevertheless, the illusion is effective.
The need to reduce the amount of complexity of the models to conserve computer memory led to at least one unexpected and conceptually interesting outcome: "all of the environments exist at the same coordinates." In other words, difference is achieved through selective modification of surfaces. No map of the Mall as a whole exists because its just one room dressing the part in myriad ways--not unlike a movie set that can be arranged to meet the demands of a script. Transitions are achieved by moving the shoppers' locations and angles, turning off the environments that shoppers leave, and turning on the environments that shoppers select by passing through corridors, portals, and images. (Kinda like changing channels...) A certain comfort level rooted in desire is maintained--despite the progressive breakdown in architectural space. Frederickson suggests that the mall as hard architecture will eventually dissolve completely, leaving nothing but a vestigial metaphor. (see slides #2 - 5)
Frederickson's ideas are witty, but his vision is frightfully narrow. He goes to some pains to justify the experience as architecture, but what we're really left with is not architecture in the usual sense at all. (If we understand architecture to be kinesthetic, contextual, and about a sense of place.) The Virtual Mall is simply home shopping disguised as a video game: A warm and fuzzy place to dump 500 channels of video marketing.
Fortunately, The Edge had more to offer than Shopping Malls. In fact, overall The Edge was one of the most exciting venues at the Conference.
Desktop Force Display
One sleeper of an exhibit, entitled Desktop Force Display , dealt with the concept of "virtual force (tactile) display." Imagine a joystick that "resists" the pressure of your hand, or handle bars that comunicate the gyroscopic action of your bike's front wheel. In the real world we take the subtle "give and take," textures, and vibrations of tactile experience for granted. But the modeling of precisely these kinds of phenomena can lend reality and feeling (literally) to a VR experience.
In principle, the properties of any physical system can be modeled from the proper combination of three different kinds of idealized objects: springs, dampers, and masses. 6D systems (three-force/three torque) systems have been around since the early 70s but were hampered for lack of computing power and their mechanisms were often unwieldy. Significant progress in this area yielded convincing haptic feedback for a variety of applications by the late 1980s. (See Howard Rheingold, Virtual Reality, 1992) Hiroo Iwata and Hiroaki Yano from the University of Tsukuba, Japan have created a very elegant, miniaturized display which was specifically developed for desk-top use. It provides haptic and force feedback, which strongly enhances human capabilities in the major application areas of virtual reality, such as scientific visualization and 3D shape modeling. The display utilizes three sets of pantographs (articulated parallel manipulators) driven by six DC motors attached to a handle that an operator can manipulate. Hard and elastic surfaces, void/volume simulation, and fluid velocity can be demonstrated by the device.
The Responsive Workbench
The Responsive Workbench: A Virtual Working Environment for Architects, Designers, Physicians, and Scientists was designed by Bernd Froehlich along with a team of scientists at the German National Research Center for Computer Science in Sankt Augustin, Germany. In this project, virtual objects and control tools are located on a real "workbench." The objects, displayed as computer-generated stereo images, are projected onto the surface of the workbench--much like an actual work situation in an architect's office or a surgeon's operating room.
The two scenarios that have been developed so far include an architectural model and a kind of surgical training situation. In the architectural model, buildings or other objects such as trees and cars can be moved around in a virtual world. Light sources can be set by a data glove to simulate different times of day. Animations can be specified with regards to an object's position, orientation, and velocity. In the surgery applicaton, a resizeable model of a patient, called the transparent woman, is the focus of a teacher-student scenario. The patient's skin can become transparent, and the arrangement of the bones can be made visible. It is possible to pick up a bone with the data glove and examine the joints to which it connects or take a closer look at the bone itself. A second medical application is surgery planning. Virtual bodies that originate from real datasets derived from CT or MRI measurements are used to aid in the planning of surgical procedures.
All told, The Edge included over 30 projects that focused on interactive technologies, enhanced human sensing, and perception.
THE ART AND DESIGN SHOW
The fine art component of SIGGRAPH is having an identity crisis. Last year, under the stewardship of Simon Penny, the show was limited strictly to interactive systems and interface design--basically kinetic sculpture with a conscience. The mandarin nature of Penny's vision, while timely, created enough bad blood within the fine arts community that a separate "Digital Salon des Independents" ("Salon des Refusés" might be more accurate) was organized by rejected artists at a Los Angeles gallery. This year's organizers, wanting to avoid hard edges perhaps, have retreated to the ivory tower of "traditional fine arts considerations." The "Visual Proceedings" catalog gave this broad justification for the selections made:
"As specified in our call for participation, the primary criterion for acceptance was aesthetic. Each work was evaluated with "traditional fine arts" consideratons: use of compositional elements, color, line, form, and tone. In addition, the jurors considered the aesthetic intention of each, judging the artworks on what we felt the artist was trying to achieve. We selected works that approached artistic design and creation in original ways. We looked for work that would challenge our perspectives. We included art that was visually exciting or had a strong emotional content. We asked for works that could not have been created without a wide variety of computer tools that artists use today. As computer-generated works, the art bears the mark of the media that assisted with its creation."
Some works are graphic displays of mathematical
concepts. In these, the computer has determined a distinctive appearance,
a syntax, that makes the work easily recognizable as computer art. In other
works, where the artist has used the tools for more traditional artistic
intention, these marks are less obvious. In many of the interactive works,
the computer serves another function. By redefining the relationship between
the viewer and the art, the computer serves as a medium as well as a tool.
The return to "traditional fine art"
criteria is understandable--despite their inherent biases. Very little writing
on art provides conceptual moorings or the critical tools needed to evaluate
digital artworks fairly and effectively. Do we apply the same standards
to an Abstract Expressionist painting on canvas that we do to an artwork
designed with Photoshop 2.5 and output to an Iris ink jet printer?
Tools of the Trade
Developing new critical tools with which to deal with the range of technologies and intentions embraced by the term "Computer Graphics" must develop hand in hand with the changes in the field. An innovative work of computer graphics from the early 80s looks quaint by today's standards--if we use only resolution as a standard, for example. However, if we explore its contribution to the larger field, or perhaps understand it not in traditional aesthetic terms, but in conceptual or technical terms, its significance changes. The value a given work offers may be aesthetic to some, conceptual to others, or technical to still others. Works have different purposes--different uses--depending on circumstances.
Looking at the SIGGRAPH Art and Design Show as a whole, one can applaud the variety. This is not simply a celebration of the mimetic capabilites of the computer. Unlike the hyperreal images typical of commercial computer animation, artists seem to gravitate more towards what might be called "electronic montage." By this I mean an approach that takes advantage of the medium's extraordinary ability to effect disjunctures, to achieve suprising juxtapositions, and to alter the heirarchic relationships associated with "real-world" representation. When you can place any one thing next to any other thing there is a natural tendency to assign equal weights to objects of very different origins. Conceptually, if not always visually, there is an erasure of heirarchy. We organize our "desktop" with different "files" that co-exist in electronic space. Any given file has the potential of filling the screen. What we are talking about in electronic montage then is not simply the cutting and pasting of actual fragments of imported visual material, but the reassigning of value. Of course, for most artists the process is less about manipulating codes and reassigning values, and more about moving things in and out of a visual field until they look or feel right.
Given their training in traditional studio processes, or their resistance to manipulation at the level of language (read programming), the majority of artists employ a "user-friendly" interface that mimics the effects of standard graphic tools and techniques. This model promotes the illusion that the computer is just one more "tool" in the artist's paint-box. Tool icons of familiar studio equipment--pencils, erasers, airbrushes, even paint buckets--ensure a non-threatening environment that accelerates the learning process--and, for the representational and montage artist alike, facilitates the processes of cropping and blending that were so labor intensive in the days of x-acto knives and airbrushes or arcane darkroom practices. While the ease of image manipulation is apparent enough, you are limited to whatever "palette" of choices the software (designer) allows. At this level, the "tool" defines the nature of the process.
A different model sees the computer as less of a "tool" and more as a "medium." (Marshall McLuhan is sounding very contemporary these days.) The expanding interface between computers and other imaging processes--"multi-media" in current jargon-- is a rapidly growing field. The computer becomes the brain for controlling and establishing relationships from all manner of input. It is the "medium" into which images are imported and in which various devices find a common language. By using a "digitizer" that translates "analog" information--such as photographs and video images--into the digital code that a computer can understand, it is possible to gather input from a myriad of sources, e.g., still and motion video cameras, flat bed scanners, video tape decks, etc. At this level, anything that you can see or hear (and, some cases, touch) can be input into a computer.
This process extends to the smallest parcel of information that we can control within the space of the computer--that is "bits." The smallest visual unit that makes up the image on a computer screen--the "pixel"--can theoretically be assigned any number of "bits" of information. Hi resolution photographic images are commonly mapped in so-called 32 bit color--that is, there are 32 bits of information that can be ordered in a myriad of ways to give literally millions of different color choices. We click on the magnifying glass icon once...twice...three....four times....and suddenly we are confronted with the building blocks of a world. Few artists have grappled directly with the recursive, fractal nature of the medium. Fewer still are willing to examine the symbolic codes--the programming--that makes this visual universe possible.
But enough of this theorizing. Let's take a look at the Show itself.
The Art and Design Show in Brief
Approximately 100 artworks were selected by a jury of four individuals.
Of the ninety plus artists represented by the exhibition, thirty-nine were women.
Twenty-two computer animations were selected as part of the Show. They were screened within the context of the Exhibition as well as part of a larger continuous video program (of some 66 videos) that ran continuously for the six days of the Conference.
Nine Interactive Installations were considered part of the Art and Design Show. Four of these were set up at "The Edge." One (Tim Binkley's) occupied the rest rooms adjacent to the Art and Design Show.
The exhibition included a continuous screening of interviews with the jurors.
Five essays ranging from "Computer Sculpture: New Horizons" to "Guidelines for Faculty in Computer-Based Media in Fine Art and Design" were presented as part of the Art and Design Show. (These were in addition to the 57 formal research papers and 28 technical sketches presented as part of the Technical Program.)
A hypercard stack was available on-line to supplement the artworks and provide biographical information on the artists.
Despite the impressive organizational achievement of the Art and Design show, I have some niggling points about this year's exhibition. Most troubling was the odd designer aesthetic brought to bear on the exhibition as a whole. The feel of the main hall was like a Miami boutique. Little pedestals with arrangements of oranges (symbolizing...you guessed it) and greenery were placed at discrete intervals through the exhibition. A box of raked sand, again with a few deftly placed oranges, was lit by pale red and green lights. Worst of all, lighting for the work itself was provided by an infinite number of black desk lamps literally duct taped to the top edges of movable beige partitions. The lights reached out over the work like so many articulated appendages.
The Hypercard database was a great idea. However, it was difficult to navigate between the works themselves (on the wall) and the information embedded in the computer program (on a monitor). Better to offer viewers an accompanying hard copy text, or use expanded titles that really offer insights into the work in a more immediate fashion.
In fairness to the organizers, the generic convention space did not lend itself well to the presentation of artwork. The Exhibition's profile was further damaged by a rather obscure location and a splittling of sites into an "Art and Design Show Gallery," an "Art and Design Show," and portions of "The Edge." (While not part of the Art component, a "Music Gallery" was also marooned in a distant lobby.) Given the fact that the aesthetic pendulum has swung between opposite extremes the past two years, perhaps it is time to consider ways in which the range of work being done by serious artists could be fairly represented and still integrated into a single venue. While the creation of "The Edge" was a good move for a particular kind of work, it may have robbed the Art Show of precisely those kinds of approaches that test the potentials of the medium.
The following is a sampler of a few of the works on view:
Marta Guitart, a French artist, created an interactive installation entitled Please Touch Me....(1993). Consisting of three computers on pedestals in a darkened room, the the public was invited to interact with the machines by touching their "touch-screens." Each machine displayed an image of a heart rhythmically shrinking and expanding according to a breathing sound. At the moment a viewer interacted with a given screen, the computer would respond by changing the rhythm or the intensity of the breath. At some points the images changed in size and intensity. Writes the artist, "these qualities are symbolizing the idea that computers have a human condition associated (with) them and (therefore) they can express passion, anger, and other sorts of human feelings. Every machine has its own personality ...it also depends on who interacts ...and when... Computers bring about questions of what it means to be human." The original image was scanned, manipulated in Adobe Photoshop, and imported to Macromedia Director where it was animated. Final programming for interactivity was done in Lingo. The sounds were recorded from actual human subjects and then manipulated with Sound Edit software. [see slides #18 and 19]
In Veiled Egg (1993), Barbara Nessim used a gridded format to detail multiple female roles. Nessim, a professional illustrator, hand-colored computer generated laser prints with transparent acrylic washes. Simple contour drawings of figures, also done by hand (but with a mouse), retain the "jaggies" characteristic of low-resolution printers--a quality that acknowledges the computer as tool. Using the "tiling" feature of a standard graphics package, the artist is able to detour around some of the contraints (e.g., size and paper quality) imposed by standard output devices. The final piece is a composite of sixteen separate drawings that assemble to create a kind of backdrop for a central female figure examining a bright yellow egg. The artist's willingness to combine media and her distinctive free-hand style are refreshing features of the work. [see slide #15]
A very different polemic about female representation is found in Victoria Vesna's piece entitled Rambona (the cross) (1993). The artist transposes the subject of "woman as object of desire" (cover girl) into an image of power. Rambo becomes Rambona. Says the artist, "Duga, a popular magazine in Serbia, came out with a cover girl dressed in a combat suit. The girl, with silicon implants in her breasts, like a cyborg, seduces you with the idea of going to war. The young boys are going to fight for her body, unite with the hard bombs, explode inside her. She is the answer to the image of Rambo." Using the cross more like a bombing target than a religious icon, Vesna uses 33 separate dye sublimation prints tiled into one image to overcome scale limitations. The work is 81 inches tall by 70 inches wide--by far the largest in the show. The themes of seduction, survival, and death are fueled by highly saturated color, four-way symmetry, high contrast, and the actual burning of the edges of the prints. The original magazine was scanned at 200 dpi using a MicroTek II scanner. Image manipulation was done in Adobe Photoshop. The final prints were made on a Kodak 7700 Dye Sublimation Printer. [see slides #8 and 9]
Christopher Burnett was represented by two panels that investigate notions of the "picturesque" as understood both by literary definition and optical model. The two works from the "Tomorrowland" series--Anamorphic Landscape Studies (Text cut-up) and Anamorphic Landscape Studies (Moonscapes) are part of Burnett's on-going satire of Modernist codes of framing. The artist constructed the images using computer models and optical mirror instruments (e.g., Brewster stereoscope). The idea of anamorphosis--literally, "against form"--with its incongruency of "private" station point and "public" face, provides a platform for Burnett's digital collage of text and "literary landscapes." [see slide #10]
Two collaborative works by Karen Sideman and Robert Bowen entitled Polymath and Math II (1994), translate multiple hi-res stills into striated images of infinite complexity. These single panel works use proprietary software to rearrange the byte order of the picture files into compressed horizontal bands of images. (In other words, the way in which the images are digitally encoded is altered by the computer). Shifting imperceptibly between bird's eye, oblique aerial, and conventional views, the works represent a conflation of multiple perspectives. It's as though the sense of Cubist simultaneity had been passed through the formal rigor of, say, a Gene Davis painting. The horizontal bands of texture created by the presence of visual "noise" in the process bring to mind both weaving and video electron beam scanners. Polymath was digitally transferred to a film recorder, then printed as a Cibachrome 40 x 30 inches. Math II was printed directly with a Cactus electrostatic error diffusion printer. [see slide # 12] (Note: Karen Sideman would appreciate the opportunity of sending a better reproduction directly to Chicago)
An interactive work by Tim Binkley entitled Rest Rooms took many of us by suprise. His venue(s) were the restrooms immediately adjacent to the Exhibition. A description is provided by the artist: "The installation consists of two (or more) computers outfitted with video cameras and connected through a network. Each computer is installed in a rest room. Is is located near the entrance in such a way as not to compromise the modesty of users of the facility." (I have to interject that when I was toying with the piece, a women tongued my image on the screen...DLC). Binkley continues, "The screen of the computer is divided into three main regions. One region displays a small video image from the camera located at that site. Another area displays an image from the video camera in the other rest room. This enables people in each rest room to see and talk with people in the other rest room. A third region is a common "graffiti" space in which people in either rest room can write comments. This allows people in both locatoins to write or draw simultaneously on their shared whiteboard. The work seeks to demonstrate how telecommunications technology can establish new forums for discussing political issues such as Equality and Privacy." Rest Rooms is meant to create a provocative context where participants can discuss the social, political, and spatial demarcations that separate the sexes.
THE ELECTRONIC THEATER
True to tradition, the "Electronic Theater" was the main attraction of the week. A four thousand seat theater was packed for three consecutive nights. A selection of computer animation created during the past year was made from 460 entries from 23 countries, totaling over 22 hours of viewing material. From this pool--which included art, entertainment, commercials, and scientific visualization--32 pieces were selected and compressed into short clips for the show.
Standouts from this year's selection were "500 Nations" (Bruce Jones, Santa Barbara Studios); "Modelling the Female Body: A Survey of Computer Generated Women, 1980-1993" (Copper Frances Giloth, U. Mass, Amherst); "Smirnoff 'Message in a Bottle'" (Sara Hayes, The Mill, UK); "The True Story of the Roman Arena" (Jay Williams, Digital Pictures Ltd., UK); "Seafari" (Suzanne Datz, Rhythm and Hues Studios, Hollywood); "Coke 'Comic Hero' Japan" (Monica Corbin, Pacific Data Images, Sunnyvale, CA); "Forrest Gump" (Tom Williams, Industrial Light and Magic, San Rafael, CA); "Listerine 'Arrows'" (Darla Anderson, Pixar, Richmond, CA), "The Mask" (Tom Williams, Industrial Light and Magic, San Rafael, CA); "Motion Capture Samples from the Alien Trilogy"(Paul Provenzano, Acclaim Entertainment, Inc., Oyster Bay, NY); "Moxy" (Brad deGraf, (Colossal) Pictures and Cartoon Network, San Francisco); and my personal favorite "Outside In" (Tamara Munzner, The Geometry Center, U. of Minnesota, MN). "Outside In" is an elegant--and entertaining--visualization of nothing more than how to turn a sphere inside-out. But believe me, it's a beautiful thing.
Audience participation returned to the Electronic Theater after a three year hiatus. The 94 show included the premier of Loren Carpenter's latest generation of his "Cinematrix Interactive Entertainment System." This system offered the audience the opportunity to interact with real-time stereoscopic, high-definition images. How does it work? A computer interprets the position of color-coded reflective wands held up by each member of the audience. Individual participants locate themselves (or more accurately, their "position") on a gridded site-map projected in the front of the theater. And what did the SIGGRAPH organizers have 4000 rowdy conference attendees do? Play "Pong" of course. Remember that now ancient computer game in which a patch of light on a CRT was passed back and forth between two "paddles?" Well, imagine the two halves of this gigantic audience--each comprising a team of 2000--playing one another in the world's largest Pong match. By exhibiting either the green (for up) or red (for down) side of your wand, you could add your "vote" to the collective decision on how to move your group's paddle. The computer would process the cluster of votes instantaneously, and direct the paddle to move up or down. The object, of course, was to get the "ball" past the paddle of the other 2000 players.
Another first for the Electronic Theater was the presentation of a number of computer animation in stereoscopic HDTV. Like days of yore, the whole audience donned little spectacles--one lens red, one lens green.
Two "historical" computer animations from the famed Computer Graphics Lab at the New York Institute of Technology were screened (the lab closed its doors in 1992). An NYIT reel capped the SIGGRAPH 84 Electronic Theater. Two segments from that program were shown: Ned Greene's animation cycle of a labyrinth of vines, and Dick Lundin's celebrated animation of the mechanical ant from "The Works." It was obvious that their work was well ahead of its time.
SO WHO ARE ALL THESE PEOPLE?
It's a jungle out there. The participants fit every available stereotype--but many were "just folks"--albeit smart folks. Most seem to be just behind the digital wave, paddling hard to understand the implications of the new technology. A few gave the illusion that they're riding the crest--Net.surfers, CyberSuperstars, InfoPirates, Digital dharma bums--but scratch one and you'd hear gripes about inadequate hard-drive space or the length of the tether on their VR helmet. Most seemed to be genuinely curious and/or concerned about where the new technology is taking us. They talked about access, the level of hype, the emphasis on novelty, the purposes to which the new technology will be put...
Certainly there were plenty of participants that were there for the usual array of motivators: money, professional recognition, that elusive industry connection, a job. Cross-dressers, glassy-eyed hackers, and pocket-protected engineers. They were all in abundance. An industry executive in a silk suit stood toe to toe with a bearded computer artist in hi-tops. Nevermind the sartorial divergence--they obviously spoke the same language: Digital.
While there was much engaging stuff, certain design and production teams represented at SIGGRAPH were hard to figure: For example, there was this marriage of a meditation couch to a flight simulator--all set to rock and roll. What attracted long lines to this weird menage a trois of the new age, hard science, and somewhat blurry artistic vision? And who is the public? Some come to peer through "head mounted displays" (this season's latest digital fashion accessory). Others came to absorb the wit and wisdom from perennial digital visionaries like Terence McKenna, Brenda Laurel, and Dan Sandin. Lots of families brought their children to participate in SIGkids. Everybody seemed to be soaking up something. There was a hunger to receive information and to experience new things.
But then there are people like Dan Mapes--a graduate student in computer science at the University of Central Florida--whose whole being is not about receiving, it's about giving. Mapes is the virtual scoutmaster of a troop of "toy scouts" who build VR worlds, software systems, and interface devices using equipment ranging from Toys 'R Us merchandise up through Kubota Denali graphics workstations. They explore the use of full-body motion in virtual environments instead of more passive 2D game interfaces. Mapes was part of "The Bridge"-- a unique section of SIGGRAPH shared by The Edge and SIGkids. He's the kind of guy that makes you think that this sort of thing is worth while.
A real bright spot at SIGGRAPH this year was SIGkids. Sharing space with the Edge, the action down in Conference Hall E was, in a word "alive."
SIGkids was developed in four phases:
1) Researchers and educators developed projects and presentations that would interest kids. Many of these experts became mentors to interested young people.
2) Educators refined their computer-graphics skills through a series of four-week workshops offered in cooperation with SIGkids and Florida Art Education Association at the University of Florida, Gainesville.
3) The big event was a mini-conference within SIGGRAPH 94. It had a variety of components: an art show featuring works from students all over the world; a K-12 computer graphics animation fesitival; thirty projects involving 188 kids and educators using some of the industry's best software and hardware to create an environment for over 1,000 children of SIGGRAPH attendees; 12 courses taught by mentors and SIGkids for the general audience; "Cyber Park", a range of 16 experiences for exploration; a series of walkways that provided easy access and observation points for educators, researchers, and writers.
4) SIGkids facilitators continue to work with the SIGGRAPH Education Committee and the Florida Art Education Association to produce a post-conference document that will be distributed to educators, parents, SIGkids, and researchers. The document will detail ways to create these powerful learning environments in the classroom or at home.
While last year was SIGkids' official debut, this was effectively the first year that SIGkids had a visible profile at the conference--and it worked.
Technology is the language of our day. In large
measure, the technologies of film, video, digital imaging and sound processing,
computer animation and visualization constitute a highly compressed visual
and acoustic expression that people understand. I'm not talking about art
audiences, but people on the street. The society as a whole has embraced
technological solutions to everyday problems--from the entertainment industry,
to our health care system, to our communications system, to our transportation
industry, to our financial institutions, to our manufacturing and defense
The population expects to bask in the benefits
of technology--without asking tough questions as to its long-term consequences.
The art world may be one of the few places left that can mount an effective
critical response to the ubiquitous effects of technology.
Mary Lou Jepsen, an artist who wants to use the
Moon as a giant TV screen had this to say in the panel entitled "Art
and Technology: Very Large Scale Integration":
"Today, a new generation of technologically savvy young people is growing up. Certainly this youger generation will show us that technical competence and artistic ability are not mutually exclusive, though that seems to be the current mode of thinking in contemporary art. Some big things can happen as we begin to realize that people can be good or even gifted in more than one area and are encouraged to explore....Anything at all can be used for good or evil, if we want to divide the world like that. However, the option to choose knowledge and exploration over ignorance and staid methodologies is a most fundamental human right. One can not stop people from creating, but with creation comes responsibility."
(1) avatar: 1. In Hindu religion, a god's
coming down in bodily form to the earth; incarnation, 2. an embodiment;
bodily manifestation (Webster's Dictionary) 3. "...audiovisual
bodies that people use to communicate with each other in the Metaverse...Your
avatar can look any way you want it to, up to the limitations of your equipment.
If you're ugly, you can make your avatar beautiful. If you've just gotten
out of bed, your avatar can still be wearing beautiful clothes and professionally
applied makeup. You can look like a gorilla or a dragon or a giant walking
penis in the Metaverse." (Stephenson, Neal, Snowcrash, pp. 35-36).
(2) agent: "An 'intelligent agent' is a computer program that acts like a human secretary or librarian. It performs complex work tasks while its human boss is doing something else...The term was coined in the 1960's by Oliver Selfridge, then a computer scientist at MIT...Mr. Selfridge says that a true agent does not merely automate certain tasks but learns as it goes along and makes decisions on its own. (see "Software Valets that Will Do Your Bidding in Cyberspace," New York Times, Business Section, January 9, 1994, p. 11.)