Soft Core Hardware

McKenzie Wark reports from Siggraph94, Florida

“Welcome to the military-entertainment complex!” That’s not what the banner over the Orange County Convention Centre in Orlando, Florida said, but it might as well have. Siggraph is the great annual mating ritual of American computer graphics researchers, scholars, artists, technicians, hucksters and journalists. This year it attracted some 25,000 people.

Most come for the trade show, a handy place to check out the latest software, hardware and other doodads, all at special prices. Also not to be missed is the Electronic Theatre, a weird mix of high art and low commerce, but all brilliant examples of what computer animation can be. This year some remarkable 3D work screened as well.

You can have some weird experiences at Siggraph. Lockheed’s promotional video showing how they use integrated computer network systems to design their warplanes butts up against French computer art in which nudes from all periods of European art history breed and morph and cavort. You can strap sensors on your head and control the movements of a dolphin with your brain waves, or join the endless queues to stick those stupid VR head-mounted displays on and fly about in some cheesy virtual world. Honestly, you’d think people would get bored with all that sooner or later.

Every now and then you see something nice, and it’s a pleasure to report that two of the best things on display this year were by Australian artists. Jon McCormack’s installation Turbulence is a remarkable exploration of the idea of artificial life. McCormack studied maths before doing the film course at Swinburne, and has a rare combination of aesthetic and logical talents.

Turbulence presents a series of truly terrifying animations of non-existent flora grown out of McCormack’s own genetic software program. Terrifying because if you contemplate the animations for a while you quickly realise that they exist in a totally non-terrestrial space, and are observed from a totally non-human point of view.

I say non-human rather than inhuman. These things are as alive as triffids and are definitely being watched by something, but not a person, not even a camera. One only has to contemplate them for a minute or two and a big chunk of 70s screen theory goes straight in the dustbin of history and one is obliged to think again. The 3D animated versions that screened in the electronic theatre have haunted me ever since. McCormack is making what are, from the point of view of present aesthetics, impossible objects. That is what makes them so striking and so necessary.

Troy Innocent’s Idea-On>! is a more modest interactive work, made with off the shelf software, but it had something valuable to offer as well. Computer graphic work is about exploring new spaces, the ones on the other side of the screen, and representing them in our conventional world in ways that us earth and culture bound humans can understand. It is an ontological art, in that it shows that our understanding of being, in this place, this time, is historical and not universal. The confrontation with these most radically inhuman places and times confronts us with striking proof of the contingencies of the ways of being we think we know so well. Innocent’s work, for all its post-ironic pop charm, offers an endless invention of new codes of topography and symbol for moving around in these other spaces. In particular, Innocent offers us a way to play in places unknown, by coating them with a sheen of pop iconography.

Both Innocent and McCormack’s work are a tribute to what is unique about Australian new media arts training: its combination of technical, aesthetic and theoretical skills. This is a rare combination in the new media art world. Australian artists are inevitably too far from the California based military-entertainment complex to get their hands on the latest tools first. Yet they more than compensate by having a critical perspective and an aesthetic sophistication to their work.

Siggraph certainly offered many much bigger high-tech spectacles. Evans & Sutherland’s 3D interactive was a hoot, and SDI Research had one of the first immersive reality experiences with effective force-feedback. When you drove their simulated racing car the steering wheel really did resist you as one’s experience of driving and the laws of physics in this world would lead you to expect. This is a rare and difficult achievement. Ultimately, what’s more interesting from the aesthetic point of view is not the spectacle of 3D or the sensation of force-feedback, mimesis of this world, but creative explorations of how that other world out there in cyberspace might work when set free from mere mimicry.

RealTime issue #3 Oct-Nov 1994 pg. 10

© McKenzie Wark; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 1994