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iCinema's big picture

Mike Leggett

Research and the Arts is the funding trend of the decade. In a similar way to ‘Marketing the Arts’ in the 80s and ‘Managing the Arts’ in the 90s, research is currently the rubric by which public funds resource the media artist. Linkage and Discovery are some recent terms which, while encouraging cross-disciplinary collaboration between and within many universities around the country, beg the question, how are individual practitioners faring? And are the arts audience and the taxpayer getting bangs for their bucks? The short answer is that it’s too early in the decade to tell, though a handful of practitioners have accessed resources that seem not to have been there before.

The University of New South Wales established the iCinema Centre for Interactive Cinema Research, joining the School of Computer Science and Engineering with the College of Fine Art in Paddington during 2001. A $1.25mil Australian Research Council (ARC) Federation Fellowship brought iCinema’s Executive Director Professor Jeffrey Shaw, lately the director of the ZKM Institute for Visual Media in Karlsruhe, back to his native Australia after more than 30 years in Europe. Teaming up with the Centre’s co-director and ARC Fellow, Dr Dennis Del Favero, and an executive of professors drawn from several UNSW Schools, iCinema has dazzlingly demonstrated the way to forge allies, partners and members, regionally, nationally and internationally, into a strategic entity to tackle “...the comprehensive domain of the moving image that is currently being radically redefined and extended by the variegated potentiality of new digital media systems.” (

With an initial budget of some $2.5 million over 5 years from UNSW, iCinema has established a suite of rooms in Paddington and a laboratory 4 km across town on the main campus in Kensington and will shortly have a fibre-optic working ‘window’ connection (iC_Link) between at least 3 spaces. The link will also be used in the development of Conversations, an ARC Discovery funded project ($330,000) in which “...4 remotely located stations, connected by a high-bandwidth network will enable 4 viewers to be simultaneously immersed in and navigate...a digitally generated 3 dimensional environment comprising computer graphic, photographic and videographic components.

“Conversations is also the story of Ronald Ryan and Peter Walker and their escape from Pentridge Prison in Melbourne on December 19, 1965...the escape will be re-enacted and recorded as a full 360-degree panoramic film. Placed virtually in the centre of the film set, players view the film using the trackers and head-mounted displays to choose their own points of view...Players are able to conduct investigations into the Ryan case, sometimes together, at other times alone. As they do so, by virtue of their actions and utterances, players will permanently change the virtual world.”

Research Professor Ross Gibson from University of Technology Sydney brings his expertise as media producer, historian and proto-criminologist to join collaborators Shaw, Del Favero and Ian Howard, Dean of COFA. Working as art directors, designers and scriptwriters, the specifications for the code and the content it controls are passed to a production team comprising professional staff, postgraduate and graduate students Conversations is headed for the first public outing in September 2004, linking Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Brisbane.

Interactive narrative space also links projects already exhibiting (Del Favero’s Pentimento and Shaw’s Place-Urbanity have been at ACMI and ZKM) and the first iteration stage of T_Visionarium, an extended virtual environment, in Europe at the end of the year (another ARC grant $300,000). And in the tradition of university-based research, the un-imaginable DVD-ROM and Book combination is due next year, to be published as the first in iCinema’s Digital Art series on the occasion of an international conference.

What about bringing projects to iCinema? Shaw and Del Favero warn that it’s early days. Shaw says, “iCinema is at a moment when we begin to build a history of resources and competencies, technical and intellectual–a set of internally and externally funded research projects–a location with enabling infrastructure. This will allow us to increasingly offer access, certainly advice, to other researchers, artists, students.” The plan is to set up the first ARC Creative Arts Centre of Excellence with a $10 million budget over 5 years.

Where is the work headed? Why cross-disciplinary co-operation? Del Favero says, “What are the mechanisms for the structuring of meaning, say of an hallucination? How are these embodied digitally? While artists would be interested in effect, atmosphere and mood, cognitive scientists, for instance, would be more interested in the cognitive processes at work...clearly there are differences in approach but the interesting things are the points of intersection. If those points can be framed in a collaborative exploration, would it arrive at different, possibly more engaging conclusions? It means we can start treating experience in a more coherent way rather than in the conventional schizophrenic schema which splits the subjective and objective–the purely subjective encounter of the artist versus the clinically objective analysis of the scientist. In what ways does the digital allow the two approaches to co-operate? This is the question that fascinates us...”

RealTime issue #57 Oct-Nov 2003 pg. 26

© Mike Leggett; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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