info I contact
editorial schedule
join the realtime email list
become a friend of realtime on facebook
follow realtime on twitter

magazine  archive  features  rt profiler  realtimedance  mediaartarchive



Nexus of parallel universes

Keith Gallasch talks to Alessio Cavallaro

Sterlarc, Prosthetic Head Sterlarc, Prosthetic Head
Alessio Cavallaro is one of the most authoritative and engaged figures in new media arts in Australia. Senior Producer/Curator, New Media Projects, Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne, Cavallaro is a former director of Sydney’s dLux media arts (1997-2000) and co-editor with Darren Tofts and Annemarie Jonson of Prefiguring Cyberculture (Power Publications/MIT Press 2002). In the exhibition, Transfigure, opening at ACMI in December, Cavallaro has drawn on the centre’s significant collection to engage with the theme of transformation, but also adding some new works and a seminal immersive experience. We met at the RealTime office in Sydney (Cavallaro was once co-editor of OnScreen) where he took me on a verbal tour of the works and themes of his curatorial adventure.

Let’s start with how you arrived at the title, Transfigure.

Essentially, it’s about changing forms and appearances and it also suggests a property that the moving image has which, in general, the other visual arts don’t—the ability to change in and through time. Hence the idea that we could bring together a collection of works by prominent artists both Australian and international, mainly derived from ACMI’s exhibition collection, that would explore notions of perception, body, space and landscape as transformed by the moving image.

You’ve also programmed some seminal immersive works and a new interactive work. What is it about these that you think is important?

Osmose and Ephémère were created by Canadian artist Char Davies in 1995 and 1998 respectively. With Stelarc’s new project, Prosthetic Head, they form the thematic focus of the exhibition—body, landscape and technology. As film innovator John Whitney argued, to experiment with the medium of cinema is to confront the technology of cinema. Bringing that notion forward into the new media art realm, we find that more and more artists, particularly those in Transfigure, are not only using it to produce quite startling works but often to raise questions about the disquieting implications of our technological revolution.

The works of Davies and Stelarc not only implicitly explore the creative potentials of technology but also notions of embodiment, agency, consciousness and subjectivity. With VR, Davies enables us to explore how our subjective experiences of the natural world might be altered in a fully immersive 3D digital environment. There’s a direct critical inquiry not only about technology and the way it allows us to experience the world but also about how the technology is changing nature.

What can people expect of the Osmose experience?

It involves a head mount, as in the classic VR image from the early 90s, and also a tracking vest. Rather than using a data glove or a joystick, for example, or some other kind of touch interface, you navigate through the worlds by breathing in and out and by leaning forward or back, to one side or the other. It takes the “immersent” a few minutes to adjust and orient themselves in the virtual space. The remarkable thing is that once you’re there, wherever you look—above, below, around you—you are in this world that Davies has constructed.

This has to be one of the most famously successful immersive works.

It’s one of the very few. Interestingly, it’s already regarded, rightly I believe, as a classic of its genre. I’m amused when people say, “oh, but that’s an old work, not a new media work.” Already there’s a notion of age creeping into new media arts as if to say that the only works exploring interesting concepts are those produced in the last 6 months.

What about the big new media exhibition issues? How long do people need to experience the work? How will you handle the queues?

Each “journey” in Osmose and Ephémère [which represents a symbolic correspondence between landscape, earth and interior body ed.] has a duration of 15 minutes. It’s free of charge but you need to book for a session. It’ll take around 20 minutes including the time for strapping on the vest and the head mount and taking them off. But, as has been proven when these works have been exhibited around the world, people are very disciplined about sticking to their designated timeslot because they want to experience them—and it really is an experience, one well worth having.

What kind of audience engagement is there with Stelarc’s Prosthetic Head?

As you walk into the darkened space, you’ll see a computer-generated image of Stelarc’s head projected large scale onto a wall. There’s a plinth holding the keyboard and sensors that detect your entry into the space. The head will look towards you, greet you and invite you to initiate dialogue. You key in a remark, a question or a comment and the head responds from a substantial database vocabulary.

The work is a progression of Stelarc’s career-long investigation of the ‘obsolete body.’ The head is uncanny, certainly amusing and utterly engrossing. As with all of Stelarc’s work, it raises serious issues about consciousness, embodiment and artificial intelligence. In doing so it’s not only questioning those attributes and how they’re embedded in technology but also how we can re-define our own concepts of consciousness or identity through interacting with such a work.

Is this a one-to-one experience?

It’s more informal. You don’t have to book for this one. Groups can gather while the person at the keyboard is conversing, as it were, with the head. With the Char Davies’ works, although only one immersent at a time can engage with the works, there is an ante-room in which a 2D projection of the landscape being travelled can be viewed by a group of people who might be curious or waiting their turn.

There are 13 other artists represented in Transfigure. How did you choose from the ACMI collection?

It was a matter of finding works to complement these major works in some way. Certainly, I was interested in notions of perception and landscape—and by landscape I don’t just mean representation of the natural landscape or cityscape but also the space of the screen. It’s interesting, certainly in single channel, 2-dimensional works, to think of the screen as a landscape space. For example, in Sydney artist Ian Andrews’ Departure, there’s a loop of found footage that repeats but the textures of the image begin to fragment and, as it were, exfoliate. You glimpse a shadowy figure of a man moving away. There’s something forensic about Andrews’ exploration of this image. He’s asking you to look deeper and deeper into it. For me, there’s an analogy in terms of perceptual interplay with the experience one might have with Char Davies’ works. And the difference between those experiences—the way the transparency of Davies’ images opens up to you as you glide through a virtual landscape, as opposed to the arrested moment and the movement in Ian Andrews’ work.

What other connections and associations might the visitor make between works?

Char Davies is at one end of the gallery and at the other there’s the world premiere of a multi-player game called acmipark by a Melbourne-based collective called selectparks. These works represent parentheses for the exhibition. The gameplay is quite different from the virtual spaces of Davies’ work. acmipark is an example of interaction in virtual worlds in a public space and in distributed space, because it can also be accessed and interacted with online. While Davies’ work offers a solitary experience—a more contained, private virtual space.

The works in between in one way or another raise issues of the body and space and how our perceptions and experiences are transformed in viewing and engaging with such works. For example, there are some astonishing biomedical visualisations by Drew Berry who works at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne. Coming from the scientific community, he probably wouldn’t refer to himself as an artist, but his visualisations are intricate and painterly and utterly captivating. What you’re witnessing are vistas of cellular molecular activity in the human body realised through computer-generated animations. There are analogies with Char Davies’ virtual landscapes. Justine Cooper’s Rapt was constructed by animating MRI scans of the artist’s own body, spectral vistas of her corporeal self. Gina Czarnecki’s video work, Infected, raises disturbing questions about the impact of technology and bio-engineering on the human body manifested through digital mutations of the image of a dancer. I’ve also included the music video by Chris Cunningham for the Björk song “All is Full of Love”, which in this exhibition can be aligned with Stelarc’s various projects documented in Alternate Interfaces, a video compilation of his recent performances involving robotic and prosthetic technologies.

I feel very gratified about the calibre of these artists and the aesthetic and technical diversity of works exhibited—online experiences, computer animations, documentary and experimental film and video, VR installations, gameplay and a computer-generated talking head. It makes for an intriguing amalgam of influences, convergences of ideas, applications of technologies. It’s also about representing the history of the moving image forms: film, video art, online experiences, new media and virtual reality all within the one exhibition. That for me has been the delight and privilege in being able to curate such an exhibition.

Other artists exhibited in Transfigure are Mike Stubbs (UK), Paul Brown (UK), Vikki Wilson (Australia), Ed Burton/Soda Creative Ltd (UK), Robert Gligorov (Macedonia/Italy), Steina (Iceland/USA), Tamás Waliczky (Hungary/Germany).

Transfigure, curator Alessio Cavallaro, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, Dec 8-May 9

RealTime issue #58 Dec-Jan 2003 pg. 28

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

Back to top