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Art and the innovated human

Lizzie Muller

Lizzie Muller is a curator and researcher in the field of interactive art. She is currently a PhD candidate at the Creativity and Cognition Studios, University of Technology, Sydney.

Mari Velonaki, David Rye, Steve Schedding, <BR />Stetan Williams, Fish-Bird, at State Parliament House, 2004 Mari Velonaki, David Rye, Steve Schedding,
Stetan Williams, Fish-Bird, at State Parliament House, 2004
Computer-based interactive art is one of the very latest art form innovations, part of the new media arts family born of revolutionary developments in information communication technologies over the past 50 years. Unlike some of its siblings it makes use of these technologies in more than just its means of production and presentation. Interactive art uses human-computer interaction, one of the defining features of computation, as its very medium.

Unlike a book, a painting or a video installation, an interactive artwork is an open field, which means in effect that every instance is an innovation. From networked garments that sense and transmit bio-data projected around the participants as sound and animation (Thecla Schiphorst and Suzan Kozel’s Whisper [2003]), to an exercise bike pedaled by the user through a virtual landscape (Jeffrey Shaw’s Legible City [1989]), the world of interactive art is full of radically new experiences.

Not only is the work characterised by continual artistic innovation, but also technological innovation, the field’s short history being inextricably linked with the history of computing. For some this is its major failing. It is a common criticism that interactive art too often simply functions as a shop window for the latest technologies. While it must be allowed that there is a degree of technological fetishism at play, the image of an art form following like an eager puppy at the heels of ICT development misrepresents interactive art’s role in driving technological innovation. Artistic visions can often only be achieved with software and hardware created specifically for individual artworks. Such ambitious productions require collaborative relationships with developers at the cutting edge of technology.

Hybrid spaces

In Pathways to Innovation in Digital Culture (1999, www.music.mcgill.ca/
~mcentury/PI/PImain.html) Michael Century traces the history of a phenomenon he calls the "Studio-Laboratory", a site for combined art production and technological research. These hybrid spaces have many different configurations, from commercially funded research laboratories, such as the Xerox Parc Artist in Residence Program in Palo Alto (USA), to creatively focused academic institutions such as MIT Media Lab in Boston and independent arts-led organisations such as ZKM (Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie) Karlsruhe in Germany whose mixture of research and production with public presentation and high profile debate has defined the field of new technology arts for 2 decades.

Sydney’s iCinema Centre for Interactive Cinema Research, founded in 2001, is one of the most recently created studio-laboratories. Positioned between the University of New South Wales’ School of Computer Science and Engineering and the College of Fine Arts, iCinema is directed by Jeffrey Shaw, previously founding director of ZKM and one of the most influential artists and theorists in the area of interactivity. iCinema produces artworks of vast technical ambition such as Conversations (2004), a multi-user virtual reality work exploring the ethics of capital punishment. The work’s creation generated 2 technical ‘world-firsts’ in computer science.

The knowledge economy

Such endeavours require large scale investment, and in this regard interactive art’s close relationship with innovation has served it well. The knowledge economy feeds on innovation. John Hartley has written, in the preface to Innovation in Australian Arts, Media and Design (Rod Wissler , Brad Haseman, Sue-Anne Wallace, Michael Keane eds, Post Pressed, Queensland, 2004) that "innovation is research and development for the knowledge based economy and it is what creativity needs if it is to find a use and therefore a value." The hybrid environments of studio-laboratories offer attractive prospects for funders and commercial sponsors because the promise of technological and artistic innovation translates investment in creativity into profit.

Vision first

But while the supreme value of innovation seems clear to funding bodies and some theorists of the knowledge economy, it is not always so clear to the artists and technologists producing the work. "Our funders ask us to answer the question of innovation and significance in the same box on our grant application, but the value of the work has nothing to do with innovation", says Steve Schedding, an engineer in the collaborative team at the Australian Centre for Field Robotics producing the interactive art installation Fish-Bird.

Fish-Bird is by any measure a tremendously innovative artwork which has captured the imagination of both artists and experts in robotics. Two robots appear as wheelchairs impersonating the characters Fish and Bird who communicate with one another and their visitors via movement and text, producing small printouts (see image above). Fish and Bird learn the behaviour of audience participants and reason independently to decide their actions. The work was presented at Ars Electronica 2004 as part of Timeshift—The World in 25 Years. It has produced "mountains of copyrightable software" according to Steve Schedding, and numerous original technical solutions which are translatable to other domains. Nothing similar has ever been produced in robotics.

The team includes technologists David Rye and Stefan Williams and artist Mari Velonaki. All are exceptionally proud of Fish-Bird, and when pressed admit that its uniqueness and newness are part of that. But it is not the whole story; for Rye satisfaction comes from knowing they have "made something that is so complicated, and so far beyond what anyone else is achieving in the world, but it looks so simple and is so effective as an artwork. It absolutely does the job it was meant to do." For him the fact that they could realise Velonaki’s imaginative vision so completely without aesthetic compromise is the work’s great achievement. Interestingly it was the exacting nature of the artistic vision and its real world requirements that drove a great deal of the technological innovation. In contrast to the common impression that the creativity of the artist brings life to straitlaced engineers, they claim it was the rigorous demands of the artistic specification that spurred the technical innovation: the fact that it needed to work for 8 to 10 hours a day, tour to un-predictable places and encounter audiences who would test the work to its limits. This encounter between real people and new technology may be the most important aspect of the relationship between innovation and interactive art. The most significant works in the fledgling canon are often technical pioneers that bring revolutionary technologies to the gallery in a way they are not experienced elsewhere.

Benchmark interactive

Another example is Char Davies’ celebrated virtual reality work Osmose (1995), which has been shown around the world, including Melbourne’s ACMI in 2004. Davies was founding director and head of visual research at Softimage, the pioneering Canadian company whose software brought Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs to life. Osmose is a work of astonishing complexity which uses a head-mounted display and breath/body-position sensing interface to immerse the user in a virtual space which can be navigated through breathing and balance. The virtual space emerges from an overlaying of ambiguous natural landscapes, the computer code that generates the work and philosophical texts exploring the nature of perception and space.

Osmose has given many people their first experience of virtual reality. The work uses VR to allow participants to "cross over the 2D picture plane" and experience a non-Cartesian space of dematerialised and semi-transparent forms. In doing so Davies explicitly challenges what she describes as the "hard-edged-objects-in-empty-space aesthetic" of conventional VR. At the same time the work questions the fate of nature and human experience in a technologised world. When the work is shown in public a silhouette of the ‘immersant’ is projected into the gallery as he or she navigates the virtual world. This is intended to draw attention to the embodied nature of the experience, but also renders the immersant as a lone cyborg isolated from those around them.

They’re innovating us

Osmose both drives forward and reflects upon the effect of technological innovation on our lives. Like the best works of interactive art it has a special relationship with the times in which we live, exploring our current technological capabilities in both content and form. We are not shown the effects of new technology; we experience them, living through them in all their complexity. Interactive artworks reveal the way new technologies ‘innovate’ human existence, the ways we are re-made by our inventions. They offer us opportunities to inhabit and reflect upon revolutions in human experience before they engulf us and we are no longer able to see their effect.

Lizzie Muller is a curator and researcher in the field of interactive art. She is currently a PhD candidate at the Creativity and Cognition Studios, University of Technology, Sydney.

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 24

© Lizzie Muller; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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