Graphite2003: between art & technology

Melinda Rackham

Graphite2003, the first regional Australasian and South East Asian conference on technical developments in and artistic uses of computer graphic and interactive techniques, was held at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in February. Organised as parallel streams of technical papers, exhibitions and screenings, there seemed few opportunities for discussion between the art and technology camps. However 3 cultural panels addressed this and things became interesting when artists, theorists and technologists interacted.

The first of these sessions, organised by Kelli Dipple, dealt with Sustainable Communications—Lag, Interruption and Collapse, familiar to all who work in online and networked environments. Interestingly the audience was evenly divided between those wishing to embrace technical difficulties like lag as an inherent emergent rhythm of the internet, integral to any new media experience, and those who could not wait for technological upgrades to provide seamless real-time processing of the virtual experience. Keith Armstrong (QUT), John McCormick (Company in Space) and Johannes Birringer (online from Ohio State University) addressed issues of the presentation and delivery of artistic content and how it is affected by network infrastructure for streaming media, video conferencing and chat interfaces.

Besides Graphics chaired by Stephen Barrass (CSIRO) offered insights into the use of multisensory rather than predominantly visual interfaces for human/computer interaction. Recalling the “smellorama” of John Waters’ movies, Barrass proposed a “feelorama” in the form of the Haptic Snuffbox project (featured in Graphite 2003’s accompanying exhibition) in which he and Matt Adcock used a haptic user interface, a feedback pen rather than a mouse, to relay every bump and surface irregularity of the screen image, thus generating a sense of digital touch. Drew Whitehouse (ANU Vizlab) focused on why adults are reticent to engage in interactive environments, using the example of his interactive work for kids of all ages at the National Museum of Australia, and Alan Dorin (Monash) addressed the use of different visual forms, like empty and negative space in digital imaging, to create uniquely digital aesthetics, rather than those relying on cinematic conventions. This highly entertaining panel proposed real solutions in producing hybrid and sensory interface forms.

As I was a member of the third panel, Technological Cultural Interaction, an overview is provided here by artist and Conference Co-chair Ian Gwilt: “MIT Media Lab’s Saoirse Higgins’ panel swept into a sleepy Graphite on the morning after the conference dinner. Like the arrival of the travelling circus the peripatetic showmen amazed the audience with images of wonder and awe with Richard Brown (VCA) referring to notions of alchemy and the ‘magic’ of the interactive experience. His user responsive interfaces, [producing an] intuitive, playful experience, were an example of what can be achieved when art/technology and content work hand in hand. Melinda Rackham’s multi-user 3-dimensional Empyrean space provided a metaphysical meeting place where we could engage with other out-of-body explorers in a sublime digital aesthetic that retained some of the sensual fluidity of the real world—exploring notions of the corporeal experience and social engagement in a virtual space. Catriona Macaulay (University of Dundee) questioned whether developers listen to the needs of consumers, and if consumers really know what they want anyway in terms of cutting edge technology. In this digital chicken and egg scenario, who decides on the outcomes for technology, society and visual culture and how are such decisions made? The ‘quality of experience’ rather than ‘goal oriented tasks’ was an overriding issue that linked panel members and audience. This was definitely a case of the journey being more important than the destination—be it down path, pixel or both.”

The panels identified some major problems in content delivery for artists working in the often uneasy fissure between art and technology. These issues were also explored in the diverse digital genres exhibited at SPAN galleries. Work ranged from Phillip George’s subtle Whitewater digital print, which evolved from an image file over 10 years, to interactive online works like Adrian Miles’ Video blog::vog video diary. There was a proliferation of cute creatures—Robin Pettard and Troy Innocent’s plastic constructions and the simple yet playfully engaging touch sensitive installation Shifting Nature from Cheang Lin Yew, Yeoh Guan Hong and Liew San Yen, where tiny projected artificial-life type critters responded in swarming patterns to audience hands. Likewise in Jennifer Seevinck’s Sticky Traffic, real-time rendered toy insects and wobbly tactile 3D surfaces visually responded to the sound of traffic outside the gallery.

A Singapore street scene was transposed into the Melbourne exhibition space in Paul Lincoln’s Dislocation, an Augmented Reality (AR) work that illustrated a key theme of the conference. AR differs from virtual reality because the viewer sees a digital image overlaid onto the real world. Here underlying assumptions between art and technology divide, as AR research doesn’t necessarily question what is real or virtual, whereas an artist may think that we exist in simultaneous layers of virtuality—that nothing is really real. As in many AR applications, the technology is interesting, however Lincoln’s content (video images of a woman, a small girl and an old woman all eating dinner) was not particularly engaging. Technology is only as good as the concepts it carries, an overwhelming reason why more artists should be resident in research labs.

Content abounded however in the electronic theatre, which showcased computer-generated moving image works ranging from film, architectural animation and software demos to biomedical visualisations. Antonia Fredman’s sophisticated Amateur Developer’s Handbook took an hilarious look at property development for the enthusiastic beginner, while Mike Daly’s binary was a beautiful physiological exploration of a woman bodily intertwined with technology. Anna Tow commented on the current Australian social and political climate with Pending, a dark comedy about hope and identity concerning the mandatory detention of asylum seekers.

Contextually interesting was Steven Stahlberg’s Strange—an animated segment featuring the seductive, synthetic singer, Rhayne. Virtual women of improbable proportions often accompanied by phallic objects would, in an art context, be read as ironic, however there was no hint of irony here. This 42-second animation was realized on Maya in 3 weeks by one animator whose focus was speed and processing power rather than content and cultural representation. In practical terms, the desirability of siren Rhayne, an Idoru or virtual pop celebrity, is not predicated on whether she is real or generated but on her effect, whether she can entertain the end user.

Stelarc’s keynote address introduced his Prosthetic Head. The project links the Alice artificial intelligence software, modified by his personal data, with VRML animation resembling himself to produce a web-based talking head that interacts by answering (typed) questions from users. The technology is not cutting-edge or particularly new, but the cult of Stelarc’s body-augmenting celebrity makes this fascinating. The friendly virtual head is not an intimate other—it will be projected in darkened gallery spaces, 3 metres high, dominating the viewer. Always larger-than-life, Stelarc has finally swapped his biological body, his wetware, for hardware.

Also dealing with bodily immersion, Melbourne’s Metraform screened their Virtual Reality work, Ecstasis, where groups of 4 must cooperate by choosing aligned visual perspectives to navigate the experiential environment. Ecstasis explored notions of ecstasy through a “negotiated betweenness” as ribbon-like avatars flirted and danced with each other while moving through the sensuous organic and digital imagery.

But the real impact was felt when emerging from the enclosed spaces of virtual interaction into the huge Melbourne Peace Rally. I was reminded that differences of perspective, whether cultural, technical, philosophical or artistic require respect and cooperation. Be at Graphite2004 in Singapore—the technology will be there, we could use it together.

Graphite2003, Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), Melbourne, Feb 11-14

RealTime issue #54 April-May 2003 pg. 25

© Melinda Rackham; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2003