Emerging entities, difficult syntheses

John Potts reviews Immersive Conditions, part of dLux media arts’ futureScreen

The last decade has been marked by the convergence of many things, but one of the most interesting has been the convergence of art and digital technology. Artists working with new technologies have sought to familiarise themselves not just with the technical apparatus but with scientific theory as well. More generally, the explosion of interest in popularised science—including evolutionary theory, physics, neuroscience, chaos/complexity—has intensified awareness within the humanities of recent developments in science and technology. While academic post-structuralism now seems dated, lacking the persuasive power to reach a broader community, many non-science-based readers have at least a passing knowledge of debates within the scientific community on the nature of consciousness, or of time.

Various organisations have sought to facilitate the interaction of artists, theorists, scientists and technicians. Conference events such as the International Symposiums on Electronic Arts (ISEA) and Ars Electronica have drawn exponents together to show work and discuss ideas; in Australia, smaller-scale groups such as the Sydney-based New Media Forum have attempted a similar synthesis of art, theory and technology. In all these instances, ambition has been high, expectation even higher…and the realisation often not quite as elevated.

Perhaps the project has been simply too ambitious, or perhaps there exists a gulf between the artistic and scientific community that will never be breached (Einstein much preferred the music of Mozart to that of his Modernist peers Schoenberg and Stravinsky, while Cage, who dared to play dice with the musical universe, must have been a big no-no). Whatever the reason, none of the broad-based forums could be called an unqualified success, although they can produce stimulating, even exhilarating moments (ISEA’s best year was probably the Third International Symposium, TISEA, in 1992 in Sydney). Often the problem is that the open-minded approach of humanities exponents is not matched by the scientists, whose disciplines tend to be more narrowly defined.

A recent attempt at the art/technology synthesis was made by dLux media arts in the Immersive Conditions forum, held at the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, in November. As part of dLux’s larger futureScreen program, which included exhibitions of new media works, this one-day forum concentrated on immersive technologies: virtual reality, artificial life, and various forms of interactive technology. The scope of the forum was admirably ambitious, bringing together artists, scientists, theorists and educationalists. Although virtual technologies no longer claim the media spotlight (now well and truly switched to the internet), there has been a long and fruitful intersection of artists and scientists in the field of computer-generated 3D technologies. Immersive Conditions was a successful attempt, for the most part, to illuminate the important aspects of this intersection.

A great strength of this forum was its structure. The proceedings took their cue from opening address by Dr Darren Tofts, Chair of Media and Communications at Swinburne University. Tofts’ presentation was that rare thing: a discussion of contemporary technologies within a historical and philosophical context. Moving from the familiar metaphor of Plato’s cave, Tofts traced an intellectual history of eidetic spaces, expressed in the mental constructions of the Roman ars memoria, and the inner spaces of memory related by St Augustine. This long theoretical tradition left Tofts impatient for a more fully realised immersive experience than the often clunky VR technology can generate; the goal is “the immediacy of the experience without the boredom of the conveyance” (Valery). Looking ahead, he advocated the pursuit of more elegant solutions to technological problems, with the fictional vaporware of “The Wire” in Kathryn Bigelow’s film Strange Days as a useful heuristic device; in theoretical terms he took a lead from the breakdown of the spectator/spectacle binary in quantum physics.

This presentation was an excellent opener for a forum of this kind, attentive to technology and aesthetics, machines and philosophy. Its hybrid approach embodied the potential of this convergent area. Almost as an aside, Tofts also questioned the helpfulness of the term “virtual reality”, suggesting as an alternative “apparent reality”: the substitute term embraces the sensation of presence, while acknowledging the awareness of “a here and there.”

Multimedia artist Justine Cooper followed with a discussion of her work within the theoretical context outlined by Tofts. Rapt comprises a virtual body generated by Magnetic Resonance Imaging, a technique which represents the body as axial slices (see RealTime 26, page 27). The various formats of Rapt (an installation version was exhibited at Artspace) allow the virtual body to be experienced both internally and externally. Cooper provided a useful interrogation of her work’s relation to contemporary medical science and technology, while positioning the objectification of the body within an historical framework (the mirror is a technology 5,000 years old).

The middle section of the forum was devoted to the benefits of research into computer-based technology. Dr Henry Gardner from the Computer Science department at ANU spoke wittily and enthusiastically about the “hot area” of immersive technologies, showcasing the WEDGE, Australia’s first walk-in VR theatre, installed for futureScreen in the Powerhouse. Sean Hart, on behalf of Professor Paula Swatman, represented RMIT’s I-cubed (the Interactive Information Institute), which pursues research projects in partnership with commercial ventures. While this presentation held limited interest for a general audience, it provided valuable information for artists working in multimedia and immersive technologies.

One such artist was Troy Innocent, who gave an enlightening account of his latest interactive work ICONICA. This work attracted much attention when exhibited at Artspace, although few users would have grasped its complexity. Innocent revealed some of that complexity, describing the work’s basis in artificial life research: the constructed world of ICONICA builds entities like DNA strings, comprising specific languages or codes. Intriguingly, users can ask these lifeforms what they are made of, and the creatures are only too happy to reply.

Not everything in Immersive Conditions gelled with the overall format. Dr Anna Cicognani from Sydney University missed an opportunity to develop the notion of cyberspace as a linguistic construct, which would have resonated with Troy Innocent’s work. However, dLux media arts director Alessio Cavallaro ended the forum on a high note, introducing fly-through video documentations of the Canadian artist Char Davies’ works Osmose and Éphémère. Davies’ sophisticated immersive virtual environments are probably the most celebrated achievements of this emerging art form; the insight into the recent Éphémère was particularly appreciated by the audience.

Immersive Conditions was a rewarding forum, certainly more successful than most attempts at the art/science synthesis. It also served to highlight the impressive level of achievement by Australian artists and scientists in this exciting field.

Immersive Conditions forum, presented in conjunction with the Powerhouse Museum, November 21; ICONICA, Troy Innocent, Artspace, Nov 12 – 28; part of futureScreen, organised by dLux media arts, Nov 12 – 28, 1998

RealTime issue #29 Feb-March 1999 pg. 20

© John Potts; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 1999