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Boys, birds, bombs

Jean Poole

Blast Theory, Desert Rain Blast Theory, Desert Rain
"data [information] terra [earth] investigates not only the technological, but emotional, psychological and spiritual implications of the digital paradigm, and...delves into the advent and purposing of data mapping."

dLux media arts flyer, November 2002

Birds are filling the skies again

Feather numbers are up and up. Graph spikes in what the birdologists refer to as ‘incidents.’ Witness the parklife across from Sydney’s Central Station. Abundance of beak and claw, a near liquid blob of feathery life force gathered, feeding ravenously. Can’t even see the footpath. People watch nervously from a distance, awed by the spectacle, daring not to think what such a mass might be capable of. Whispers travel around the perimeter—a boy in there somewhere, 8 years old.

dLux blurbalish

futureScreen02 data*terra was the 5th annual dLux X=ploration of new media meets cultural theory and emerging sci-tech. “Investigating the mediation of data across technological, cultural and physical terrains,” the event boiled down to: Data Conspiracy, a live debate over dinner (no spectators); The All Star Data Mappers, a survey and exhibition of database voyeurs and network fetishists curated by John Tonkin; Terra Texts, commissioned essays by Sean Cubitt, Dr Ann Finnegan, Bill Hutchison and Mathew Warren (; Interalia, live thematic audiovisual assaults at The Chocolate Factory, Surry Hills; and Desert Rain, a large scale installation by Blast Theory (UK) at Artspace.

The man on TV

He said there was a major earthquake in Tokyo, Japan. SBS coincidentally, had programmed for that night’s viewers a cautionary tale about the inevitability of The Big One that’d shake Tokyo far beyond its state-of-the-art emergency services. And so it was with added resonance that the fragile, interconnected nature of our global economic electronic was emphasised one sober late 90s evening. Sever the Tokyo tendrils and the world wakes to a depression.

Joining the dots

The All Star Data Mappers mostly consists of websites clickable from the dLux homepage, so visualisation and data mapping enthusiasts can explore this fine selection of provocative datamapping tools months after the exhibition’s end. For me the Oz-gong went to the Firmament software interface for a radio telescope by Mr Snow and Zina Kaye. Josh On’s now infamous slices through the Fortune 100 company connections with an incredible visual succinctness and highlights the distributed backbone of the popular peer to peer Gnutella filesharing network.

Virtual warfare

As a large scale and much hyped Virtual Reality environment and interactive art installation, I expected to engage with Desert Rain at Artspace as a boy. Not that I’d be grinning because I was getting free trigger finger in textured corridor practice, just that I expected more technology than necessary. Somewhere amidst the gee-whizardy, the novelty, the gimmickry, the sheer cost of it all, I expected I’d feel like the kid who notices that the emperor isn’t in fact wearing any clothes. Once the impressive infrastructural veneer was peeled away, would it reveal a lack of substance at the installation’s core?

Real warfare

“If they do it, it’s terrorism, if we do it, it’s fighting for freedom”, said the US Ambassador in Central America in the 1980s when asked to explain how US actions like the mining of Nicaragua’s harbours and bombing of airports differed from the acts of terrorism around the world that the US condemned. Since World War II, the US has dropped bombs on 23 countries including: Korea 1950-53, China 1950-53, Indonesia 1958, Cuba 1959-60, The Congo 1964, Laos 1964-73, Vietnam 1961-73, Cambodia 1969-70, Guatemala 1967-69, Grenada 1983, Lebanon 1984, Libya 1986, El Salvador 1980s, Nicaragua 1980s, Panama 1989, Iraq 1991-1999, Sudan 1998, Afghanistan 1998, and Yugoslavia 1999.

Veneer peeling

Artspace. Spanky, Nick Eye-fi, The Lalila Duo and a little boy. All of us in the raincoats provided. In separate fabric cubicles, wearing microphone headsets and staring at screens formed by water dripping from the ceiling in front of us. Projectors glare onto the other side of the water, providing an almost blurry, ghost-like image to navigate. Finding our way around is done by leaning left, right, forwards or backwards on the small platform beneath our feet and by talking to each other through our headsets when we come within range in the 3D space we’re watching. With the sound of the constantly raining screens, each other’s muffled headset banter and the polygon war playground shining in the glimmery mist, it’s hard for a boy not to be impressed. We each have 30 minutes to find our target characters and collectively get our butts to a particular exit. But what does it all mean?

Oil-soaked birds

“...real events lose their identity...when they become encrusted with the information which represents them...As consumers of mass media, we never experience the bare material event, but only the informational coating which renders it ‘sticky and unintelligible’ like the oil soaked bird.” (Paul Patton tackles Baudrillard on the Desert Rain flyer.)

Desert guts

So I’m in this 3D Pac-man game and I’ve found my sticky ‘target.’ Eerily silhouetted in front of the projector, a character approaches the water screen from behind, then walks straight through it and gives me information about my target. Actors as soldiers have instructed us on our mission, guiding us to the cubicle and over a large quantity of sand to a mock-motel room, where our team learnt via video-recorded interviews that each ‘target’ had experienced the Gulf War in an unorthodox manner. This physical integration of people into its virtual environment and the evocative aesthetics of the physical space distinguish Desert Rain from most war-based computer games. This is just as well because Desert Rain’s simplicity means it couldn’t compete as gameplay alone.


Ritual and sacrifice are understandable responses to larger forces we don’t understand. Daily breadcrumb dumpings were now occurring to appease the flocks. Thing was, a kid had been trapped under one dumping and, when the birds fluttered away, he was no longer there, just a distraught mother hopelessly scanning the empty footpath for some trace. As she looked up, about to cry to the heavens, she fell to her knees rubbing her eyes—the birds were flying in formation in the shape of her boy.

Motion Blur 75%

Blast Theory’s goal is to blur the boundaries between real and virtual events, “especially with regard to the portrayal of warfare on television news, in Hollywood films and in computer games.” This ‘mixed reality’ approach succeeds in part, hampered by the extent to which you are shepherded through the process and your lack of capacity to do anything meaningful in the installation—explore a maze representing a Gulf War bunker, find character and find exit. The Gulf was a resonant and important theme, but I didn’t really gain any new insights into its real or virtual nature through the game options I explored that couldn’t have been expressed through a simple website or pamphlet. Nonetheless it was a highly engaging experience, and Blast Theory’s next work on the streets and online using satellite tracking and handheld technologies should build on this and possibly appear in futurescreen:03.

futureScreen02 data*terra,, Nov 15-Dec 7. Desert Rain, Blast Theory, Artspace, Sydney Nov 16-22, 2002.

RealTime issue #53 Feb-March 2003 pg. 23

© Jean Poole; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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