CAPS Vs CAD
by Francine Dagenais
ON VR AND METAPHOR
As Michael Heim points out in his book Virtual Realism, engineers and architects have, up to now, generally resorted to CAD (Computer-Aided Design) models to construct simulations. These are produced by entering data on a specific site and making a wireframe model based on the information gathered. A graphics rendering then transforms the skeletal structure into a 3D model. This process is extremely time consuming requiring hours of data input time, not to mention manual texturing and coloring. 1 In the industrial world, CAD also has the disadvantage of failing to encompass all possible data input. In other words, because it relies on human beings to enter data, it is error prone.
Heim further explains how a photographic information gathering method used during the Cold War by U.S. intelligence agencies provided the technology to produce "accurate drawings from photos" which was to become a new and more accurate tool in simulation technology called photogrammetry. Photogrammetry was adapted "to automate the construction of virtual worlds for displaying accurate walkthroughs of toxic waste sites." These virtual environments can be viewed with the help of "Crystal Eyes stereoscopic shutter glasses" and provide what is called "fish tank VR" or desktop VR.2 The various methods used to achieve virtual environment simulations, result in varying degrees of what Heim has termed "information intensity." This is what games produced with Quicktime VR cannot offer: finer image resolution and detail are usually lost, at least to some extent, with QTVR. In addition, web projects are generally viewed on small screens where detail is rarely visible. Though lacking the lushness of expanded VR, QTVR still offers in a limited way the six degrees of freedom which characterize non-cave VR simulations. These six degrees of freedom allow the participant to virtually move through the space following the x, y and z axes as well as flight navigational orientations such as roll, pitch and yaw. These six degrees of freedom harken back to the first simulators built specifically to render as vividly as possible the experience of flight.3 And so, to some extent, all VR systems continue this tradition of giving the viewer/ participant flight capability and a bird's eye view of a simulated world.
In her book How We Became Posthuman, Katherine Hayles explores "virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature, and informatics." She also sheds light on the strong connection between VR and the metaphorical pointing out that:
PANORAMAS, DIORAMAS AND VISUAL REPRESENTATION
Humans can easily understand three-dimensional computer simulations because these simulations use representational codes similar to those used in human processing of visual information, including perspective and stereoscopy. At this high level of code, many levels of language intervene between flipping a bit and, say, rotating a figure 180 degrees. High level languages are easy for humans to understand but are removed from the physical enactions that perform them. Machine language is coextensive with enaction, but it is extremely difficult for humans to read, and it is almost impossible for them to process machine language intuitively (as one who has programmed electrode-computer interfaces in machine language, I can testify to how mind-numbingly difficult it is to work in this code).4
In her chapter on The Semiotics of Virtuality, Hayles draws from a concept first put forth by Mary Catherine Bateson in Our Own Metaphor, in which she posits that "although we can never perceive the world directly, we know it through the metaphor that we ourselves are for the world's complexity." She applies Bateson's theory to our understanding of VR: "The deep homologies between computer simulation and cognition reinforce the idea that for both brain and computer, inscription and incorporation merge at some basic level." 5
Hayles argues that both transcendence and, more importantly, reason, are at issue in this merging of computer and human. She seems to side with science fiction writer, Neal Stephenson, when she suggests that our best defense against posthumanity "is to acknowledge that we have always been posthuman." She continues in this line of thinking saying that : "We should value the late evolutionary add-ons of consciousness and reason not because they are foundational but because they allow the human to emerge out of the posthumans we have always already been."6 If we pursue this logical course and consider that human beings have used flying devices since the late eighteenth century, the capacity to fly would certainly be considered a "late evolutionary add-on." Furthermore, a growing proportion of the world's population has become familiar with air travel if not accustomed to it. Interestingly, humans have not totally adapted to flying in the primary world or the virtual one. AWS or Alternate World Syndrome is the equivalent of flight sickness in a simulated environment, its effects however are not virtual but all too real.
FOCUS ON ZOE BELOFF
It should be pointed out that the art of simulating worlds existed long before the twentieth century. For instance: Early images of our cave-like dwelling ancestors hunting hairy mammoths and fighting off sabre-toothed tigers emerged alongside the excavation and interpretation of cave deposits in Europe from the mid-nineteenth century. 7
Moreover, the static panoramic painting appeared in the 1790s, and, as Jonathan Crary points out, this new apparatus "broke with the localized point of view of perspective painting or the camera obscura, allowing the spectator an ambulatory ubiquity." 8 In order to view a panorama, the observer was meant to stand in the centre and revolve upon himself. Some panoramas were 60 degrees, others, 180 degrees and others still, a full 360. Trompe-l'il painting techniques, elaborate lighting effects and three-dimensional objects added in the foreground were used to enhance the observer's experience. Some well-known panoramic painters focused on the world of architecture, others, on sea fights and battle scenes, or grand views of entire cities.9 In the 1820s, Louis J. M. Daguerre had perfected a moving panoramic device called the diorama which revolved around a static observer. Crary describes the multimedia mechanical apparatus as a "machine of wheels in motion, one in which the observer was a component."10 Crary further suggests that "one feature of modernization in the nineteenth century was the 'uprooting' of vision from the more inflexible representational system of the camera obscura."11
Although the panoramic painting has been almost completely set aside, artists such as Vikky Alexander, Luc Courchesne, Alan Dunning, Pipilotti Rist and Jeff Wall, to name only a few, have borrowed aspects of this genre in their works. Vikky Alexander is now showing at the National Gallery in Ottawa a video panoramic installation of Le Nôtre's gardens. The current exhibition of Pipilotti Rist's work at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts offers a few examples of modified panoramas. Jeff Wall's photographs often encompass grand scale views of generally urban landscapes. Some of his works such as The Vampire's Picnic (1991) or Dead Troops Talk (1992) bear witness to the great tactility of the panoramic genre, using bodies in the foreground as plastic elements. One of his works, Restoration (1993) pays homage to the panorama in a more literal sense by depicting the restoration of one within a museum setting. Like Alexander, Luc Courchesne has revived the genre through videographic means. In a project entitled Paysage no.1 presented during the Printemps du Québec held in France in 1999, he presented a realistic panorama encompassing 360 degrees. The work was projected onto the four walls surrounding the observer. He is pursuing his work in the field of panoramic immersive technology.
Several artists are beginning to experiment with QTVR, art galleries specializing in new media such as TechnOboro have held workshops in this medium to assist in the production of modest budget VR projects. The first of a series of six projects is slated to begin this summer and should be online by the fall. It should be noted that new versions of the software, better servers and bandwidth capability are all elements facilitating the conversion these works to the web. These should start proliferating on the web just as games, their commercial counterparts, have already.
Although these works are generally technically simple, some QTVR works are now winning awards for their inventive use of the medium. Zoe Beloff was among the first artists to use QTVR in a work entitled Beyond which marries the nineteenth century's understanding of the rationalization of vision to that of the twentieth.
In the twenty years that Scottish born artist Zoe Beloff has lived in New York City, she has established a solid career in quirkiness and marginalia. This is not to say that her work is totally on the fringe, on the contrary, her work has been shown both at the Whitney Museum and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, at the Centre Georges Pompidou, at the Rotterdam Film Festival, in short, at the most highly prized venues a contemporary artist could wish for. It is the ludic12 quality of her work, her choice of media, her interest in obsolete devices such as old stereoscopic cameras, along with her fascination for the bizarre which push her on the outskirts of the mainstream. She considers herself "an heir to nineteenth century mediums whose materialization séances conjured up unconscious desires in the most theatrical fashion."13 And in fact, in a collaborative work with sound artist Ken Montgomery entitled A Mechanical Medium, she went so far as to unearth a device Thomas Edison had attempted to develop before he died, the sole purpose of which was to communicate with the great beyond. Beloff's website Zoe's World focuses quite heavily on a sense of place, or perhaps more appropriately, of non place. Upon entering, the visitor is offered a choice of buttons: Home, Beyond and Where Where There There Where, the latter two referring to previous works14 Appropriately, the definition of medium is a bridge to both realms. Beloff mines the issue of the paranormal in several of her works; such are the elements she assembles: mediums, mechanical or human; "phantom images that "are not there"; and, citations from the darkest pages of Baudelaire such as "a city full of dreams where ghosts accost the passers by in broad daylight." In her work Beyond, she creates a virtual world revolving around the question of technology and psychic phenomenon. In her own description of the work she refers to these issues within the temporal boundaries prescribed by the "birth of mechanical reproduction." This expression in and of itself situates her discourse on the topic within a framework of discussion borrowed from Walter Benjamin.15 Equally important in her work is the place of psychoanalysis, and in some cases parapsychoanalysis. With Beyond Beloff makes technology the analysand, she describes this work as an "investigation of the dream life of technology from 1890 to 1940." She inflects these early technological wonders with a sense of mystery, the very sense that must have surrounded these devices shortly after their invention. "The phonograph severing the voice from the body, photography capturing the soul, and cinema resurrecting the dead."
The observer is left to wonder towards which other realm the artist is pulling us. The answer would lean more towards history, in the guise of a technological museum without walls, than towards the world of spirits. But Zoe Beloff clearly states her desire to draw from these technological devices more than the sum of their parts, to go beyond the allotted six degrees of freedom and maneuverability; using digital tools, the very essence of quantification, to convey what is intangible. She does so by allowing the observer some insight into her own vivid imagination and by engaging the viewer in her narrative. If as Katherine Hayles infers "inscription and incorporation merge at some basic level" and as Catherine Bateson states "we can never perceive the world directly," but merely understand it through the metaphorical construct that we make of ourselves then perhaps our brains are meant to slide comfortably between the primary and the virtual world, and yes, perhaps even beyond.
1. Michael Heim, Virtual Realism, New York/Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998, p.129130.
2. This new method referred to as (Characterization Analysis Planning System or CAPS) of creating virtual environments is still too expensive to be widespread, it is used essentially for military or state applications. As the entire process gradually becomes automated the costs of this technology will become less prohibitive and we will begin to see artists using it.
3. I examined the origins of VR and the history of flight simulation in my essay "Synthetic Magic/Virtual Reality" which appeared in the anthology Theory Rules edited by Jody Berland, Will Straw and David Tomas and published by YYZ Books and University of Toronto Press.
4. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, Chicago & London, The University of Chicago Press, 1999, p. 275.
5. Ibid., p. 276.
6. Ibid., p. 279.
7. Stephanie Moser, "Visual Representation in Archaelogy" in Brian S. Baigrie, ed., Picturing Knowledge, Toronto & London, University of Toronto Press, 1996, p. 188.
8. Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer, Cambridge & London, MIT Press, 1990, pp. 112113.
9. There is a new book on the subject which documents the history of the panorama and its uses as propaganda, advertising, and, "substitutes for experience." In it, the author gives an account of its "historical, social and cultural context." See: Bernard Comment, The Painted Panorama, Abrams Press, 2000.
10. Ibid., p. 112
12. References to the landscape of childhood abound, from the children's book illustration icons she chose, to the doll house which features prominently in the self-portrait she selected for her website. She herself refers to her "works as philosophical toys."
13. See the accompanying text on her Web site for more information on the subject.
14. The theme of place seems to crop up again in three other works, Life Underwater, Shadowland or Light from the Other Side and Lost.
15. There are several new interesting publications on Benjamin that have emerged in the past few years igniting an entirely new debate on his writings.
Essayist, theorist, art historian and critic, Francine Dagenais has been working in the visual arts milieu for over ten years. Her many articles and reviews have appeared in Artforum, Canadian Art, C Magazine, CV Photo, and Parachute, among others. She has also worked as an arts reporter for Radio-Canada and CBC. Francine has organized several conferences, events, and exhibitions on new media, including the show Ordinatrices (La Centrale), and Zones Tactiques for the ISEA conference Cartographies, both held in 1999. As a participant in the recent Made in Cyberspace 2000 (Studio XX) event, she presented a talk on performance, the somatic response, and net art. A recipient of the Bram Garber Fellowship in art history, she is now studying for her PhD at McGill.