WEB PROJECTS no.11
Illusions takes the viewer on a fascinating tour of the history of moving picture technology, featuring the precursors of cinema and interactive VR environments. Zoe Beloff looks into the past in order to gain a better understanding of the present, in particular, of the development of the new visual language constituted by interactive moving picture technologies. To do this, the work underlines the affinity between these devices and the use of QuickTime VR.
The project is presented in a didactic style, with reference texts (‘constellations’) on one side and the objects illustrated (‘toys’) on the other, but the ludic aspect of the QTVR activity in the toy control window and the peculiar direction of some of the essays give the project a quite different character. The artist has assembled a whole collection of obsolete devices that create the illusion of three-dimensional space on a surface (zootrope, rotorelief, Space Viewer, Auto-magic Picture Gun and Theater, etc.), objects that the user can manipulate with the QTVR used to present them ; establishing a very persuasive relationship with this technology. Touring through this interactive ‘exhibition,’ characteristics common to these machines are revealed : the tactile nature of their operation, their intimate character (mostly small and used by one person at a time), and, of course, the illusion of space that they create through movement.
In the texts, certain objects are taken as examples and discussed for their ‘philosophical’ value. These ‘philosophical toys,’ as the artist calls them, address themselves to the mind, not only in its capacity to create continuity between pictures and produce movement (afterimage) but also because they prolong themselves in the imagination. The defamiliarization produced by going back in time brings out the magical quality of these devices, with their ability to bring fixed images to life, through the hands to the mind. These toys are philosophical because they lead to a transformation of thought, in the deepest reaches of the mind.
Texts accompanies the toys in the passage from the tangible to the untangible, from concrete reality to illusion. The artist’s comments on the history of these devices reveal their hidden power: their magical aspect, their association with the world of dreams and alternate states of consciousness, with psychological ane even paranormal phenomena (for more on this aspect, see the Feature by Francine Dagenais, and the artist’s Website). The visitor can make the associations between texts and objects that he/she likes, pivoting and turning them to create movements in both orientation and in meaning.
Daniel Dion et Brad Todd
In this collaborative project, Daniel Dion and Brad Todd look at the passage into the new millenium and the general agitation in the air as it approached. Their work, 1999, brings together a large number of elements elaborated during the last weeks of the century in conversations between the two artists—an exchange of views on the meaning of this "event." The project is about anticipation; its chaotic structure reflects the nervousness and disordered thought processes that characterize this state, shared by many individuals in our civilization.
With its abundant collection of images taken from reality and excerpts from media accounts during this period, the work is close to a documentary, an archive, a witness to a moment in time. The Web, extendible and tentacular, is the ideal host for this kind of accumulation. The visitor is not given a key for the easy understanding of the material; on the contrary. For example, the fireworks celebrating the beginning of the new era take on the aspect of an apocalypse, the end of time. These elements are presented without points of reference, and lead to confusion. It is precisely this troubled condition that is brought out by the structure of the piece.
Movement, and the concept of transformation that goes with it mark most of the components of the work. Video files are used, occasionally superimposed onto moving "models;" images in QTVR Panorama or in QTVR Object can be manipulated by the viewer; motifs metamorphose by means of technologies like Shockwave, or in simple animated gifs. The artists have taken full advantage of all of the resources available on the Web to produce a bombardment of intermixed information. The movement and transformation that characterize 1999 ultimately and insistantly refer to the notion of time. However, the artists are alluding to a continuity rather than the violent rupture in time that was the source of so much hysteria in the last gasp of the 20th century. With 1999, Daniel Dion and Brad Todd have revealed themselves as thoughtful observers and interpreters of the psychological and mythological dimensions of advent of the millenium.
The Perpetual Bed
Using parts of the intense dreams told to her by her hospitalized grandmother to constitute the elements of her work, The Perpetual Bed, Mary Flanagan has created an arena in which each visitor, alone or in interaction with others in multi-user performances, can animate people, bits of sentences, everyday objects, interior scenes, and memories from this old woman's life. The work is both a portrait and a biography, but in an unexpected form, without beginning or end, where the viewer decides on the relative significance of the different elements, chooses the sequential order, and can pass into the different layers of the piece according to his/her inclination. The Perpetual Bed is a tribute, in which the artist brings her grandmother's inner world to life and perpetuates it in other people's eyes through the possibilities of prolongation and dissemination offered by the Web.
The artist has created an dreamlike context very effectively. Firstly, the use of VRML plunges the viewer into an alternative space. There are no dimensional references; no horizontal or vertical limits allow us to identify the place, to inhabit it, go through it on a particular axis, or go beyond its boundaries. The "action" takes place in a complete void. The space is not peopled by "models," or by polygons (units used to reconstitute objects three-dimensionally), but by surfaces floating in nothingness, as if (they were) suspended. These act as screens, capturing fixed or moving "images," which brings them closer to the notion of memory, of a depository of impressions, of thought processes.
The work establishes a parallel between dreams and a particular state of consciousness experienced in cyberspace that draws the viewer into cerebral spheres, oscillating between receptivity and interactivity, soliciting both the inner world and the projection of the self. It brings out the fact that the Web is a extension of the mind, a transitional space for the psychic world, a psychological space. Moreover, by giving viewers the opportunity to take part in someone else's dream, to create their own dreams or to construct a dream collectively, The Perpetual Bed reaffirms the Web's potential as a place of exchange and creation, a stage for the inventing the self and others (on this subject, see the artist's interesting comments on virtual performance).
Building Heaven, Remembering Earth, Confessions of a Fallen Architect
Architecture, the point of convergence of four worlds—the natural, the cultural, the contemporary, and the virtual, either works or it doesn't. In the first place, it has to obey the same natural laws (the law of gravity, for example) as nature itself. Reflection, which is fundamental in classical art, between nature and culture, is still eminently pertinent in architecture today, even more so because a new tool, the computer, allows it to invent forms in a new space, that of virtual reality. With the addition of the space-time dimension in design, architecture is liberated from the static drawing on paper; the architectural model is enclosed in natural laws from the moment of its conception, without waiting to be built. This does not have to occur for the architect to create monuments, places and worlds possessing their own reality—virtual reality.
This view led Oliver Hockenhull to begin research into the possibilities of VRML, combined with a software invented by a professor at the University of Calgary - a virtual model of morphogenesis (the formation and differentiation of tissues and organs), the Lindenmayer system modeler (L-Systems). Hockenhull thus conceived a project entitled Building Heaven, Remembering Earth: Confessions of a Fallen Architect, as a video work, while at the same time setting up a Web site of the same name, for his "first foray into the relationship of 3d space and AI [artificial intelligence], and Mutational Architecture."
The site is composed of Hockenhull's own thoughts and quotes by writers from different historical periods on the fundamental meaning of architecture, its (real or desired) effects on human beings, and its relation to nature. The title evokes nostalgia, but also guilt, from an architect's point of view: why is today's urban world so uninhabitable, so inhuman? To answer this question, Hockenhull sought the primary meaning of architecture, studying the models proposed by architects throughout human history, from the most ancient (prehistoric caves), to Hindu temples and utopian structures that were proposed or attempted but rarely achieved (Newton's Cenotaph by Boullée, Tatlin's tower for the International). Thanks to VRML technology, these very diverse models are presented and can be toured in the site.
But virtual reality also allows the invention of new forms, where culture is finally (re-)modeled after nature on the most fundamental level, inspired in turn by models of the creation and growth of minerals, plants and animals. To convey this more utopian and inventive dimension of his project, Hockenhull Hockenhull used the L-Systems mentioned above, that he integrated into a 3D VRML environment. This may be how the "fallen" architect can redeem himself, forget too-often false paradises, and come back to earth.
I see things...
At first, Sheryl Kootenhayoo's work surprises by its presentation of a Quicktime VR file composed of three images that break the continuity usually sought when building panoramas. However, when the viewer takes a complete tour, in spite of the interruptions in the visual sequence, the images remain contiguous. They are connected to each other beyond appearances, and the "cut" imposed by the photograph does not succeed in separating them. Links are thus created between these images of different landscapes: a forest, the sky, and water. The project consists in "repairing" the rupture in the representation; the lanscapes come to exist within each other, with each other inside nature... This unusual use of QTVR also reveals how the files are constituted, that is, assembled end to end, and "stitched." These breaks in space, these slits, these folds, also invite the viewer to go further, "to see in between", to discover another kind of continuity.
The artist has also cleverly exploited the boundaries of the piece, the high and the low, emphasizing what could remain invisible and the "non seen". Fragments of text, most often hidden near the top or the bottom of the screen, are discovered by moving the image, are integrated into the panorama and ask to be completed. They act as the beginnings of stories and as entries into other sections of the work. The three "details" on the title page, comprising images and text, thus lead to other panoramas, each one re-establishing a sequence that carries the story forward. Every panorama deals with spatial and temporal continuity, or with the breaks in this continuity, and relies on QTVR to fully convey this. The sky is reflected in the water and thus the two elements are joined; daily and seasonal cycles are evoked, as well as the individual's insertion in nature, expressed in superimposed images. By these means, the work alludes to the laws of nature and the relations that have developed between human beings and nature, which are sometimes conflictual, sometimes harmonious. Besides this, the artist has used QTVR to build environments which effectively refer to notions of territory, an important question for First Nations communities.
The environment created by Sheryl Kootenhayoo was conceived as a meeting place, part of the second edition of CyberPowWow, a festive gathering happening every two years and which brings together many artists and friends of First Nations and other communities. The CyberPowWow is a Palace site with interconnected, graphical chat rooms in real time using an avatar as intermediary. The application in I see things… is unusual: most often, Palace environments are used in conventional activities of a more frivolous nature. Here, it allows the active integration of visitors into environments that raise fundamental questions on the individual in space, and by extension, in cyberspace, as well as on the affirmation of symbolic heritage.
Without Moving/Without Stopping
Louise Lawler continues the reflections expressed in her photographic work since the 1980s in Without Moving/Without Stopping, a Web site dealing with the presentation contexts of art works and how they affect the meaning and the status of art. Using QuickTime VR, the artist created three panoramas of the copies of classical Greek and Roman sculptures in the Museum für Abgusse Klassischer Bildwerke in Munich. The archival and collectif function of museums has its equivalent in the digital domain and on the Net, where anologous actions of conservation and dissemination are carried out; this affinity is evoked and underlined here. The passage from the original to the plaster-cast copy is echoed in the transposition of the image into cyberspace. The question of reproduction, copying, and repetition also has a parallel in Net space technology, and is brought out in this work.
The captions accompanying the three photographic "details" are different every time the viewer downloads the title page, so that it is almost impossible to view the same configuration twice. This ever-changing sequence transforms the reading of the images, and in consequence, the appreciation of the sculpture groupings represented. Moreover, this series of "commented" photographs resembles comic strip narrative (where words and images are interdependent and lose their meaning without each other) and evokes a certain context in the art world in which labels are apparently necessary to justify the works. Here, the images are unconnected to the titles or legends; it may happen that two different titles appear for the same image. Downloading the title page is similar to gambling with a slot-machine. This aspect of the work bring us to reflect on the highly relative activity of qualifying and appreciating art, governed as it is by changes in context.
The titles/legends refer to time ("almost never," "sometimes," continuous"), and qualify the images ("sentimental," "romantic," "reproduced") and the viewer's relation to them ("less than you wanted," "without touching"). Thus, they are evocative (eg. "sometimes romantic more than you wanted," or "reproduced, reproduced without touching"), but incomplete. The project refers to fragments of discourse whose meaning has yet to be constructed — the reference is to the always partial interpretation of a work of art. The viewer is invited to look for a resolution in the panoramic images, which seem to possess the answer because they provide a context.
The visitor touring the rooms of the museum finds the sculptures in unorthodox positions in relation to each other. In fact, the statues on their wheeled pedestals can be moved from one room to the next; the exhibition that the viewer is invited to discover is the result of choices by several individuals rather than one curator (see Ron Wakkary's text on the piece). The visitor sees a stage, a theatre, and in this, the work is close to multi-user software on the Web featuring avatars. However, the navigator cannot intervene in these predetermined and unalterable compositions, and is limited to wandering among them and participating in the circuit by rotating the panorama. There are no hotspots; the combinations carried out are fixed forever by the photography; thus, the user has relatively little control. The work provokes reflection on the relationship between the fixed condition (the statues, photography) and movement (virtual displacement), and between the status of art constructed by others and each individual's contribution to interpretation. In the end, Without Moving/Without Stopping ably demonstrates the postulate that the status of art relies on collective judgment, and that the individual's appreciation of art is shaped by the context that supports it.
The connotations attached to the concept of a virtual world are at first glance futuristic, conjuring up images of a science-fiction world, a parallel, if not completely alien world, strange with respect to the "real" world. However, in David Tilley's Tome, the viewer/visitor is transported by VRML not into the creation of a new world, but into the recreation of an old, or rather a succession of old worlds, connected and isolated at the same time, representing different periods in the life of a person (who might be the author/artist). The visitor is taken backwards in time through these stages, from the most recent until early childhood. Each period is illustrated and symbolized by a closed room with a door, which, by a click, opens into another world further back in the past. As we enter each room, the doors are labelled by—we are given to suppose—the names of the streets on which the author/artist lived during the successive stages of his life. The rooms are all approximately the same shape; the visitor can move at will around the four walls by means of a mouse (which requires some dexterity) or can simply click on a green button at the bottom right of the screen to access a predetermined trajectory. Three walls of every room are perforated, respectively, by a fireplace, a window, and a door. Apart from these features, the rooms are empty, except for a chair or two, upright or overturned, in the middle of the room, or in a corner. However, each room is markedly distinct from the others, by the words, sentences, fragments of descriptions, memories, or impressions of the past which are inscribed on the walls, floors, and ceilings—graffiti that serve as an aide-mémoire for the author/hero of the piece, and as a poetic evocation for the viewer.
With these words, the author does more than describe: he tells the story of each of the rooms that he occupied, and thus, a little (or a lot!) of his life is revealed (if it really is his life). For these annotations remain anonymous, even though they are strangely personal. They inform us not only about the colours of the respective walls, but more importantly, about the colours of the atmosphere of each period, surreptitiously convey the quality of the relations between the inhabitants of the different places, and evoke the world outside, which is pleasant or horrifying, according to the period and the surrounding neighbourhood. These fragments of bittersweet, impressionistic memories recreate a story which the progressive distancing into the past has rendered at least partly fictional. Moreover, the work’s title seems to allude to the operation of reconstructing a literary work.
Thus, in David Lilley's work, futuristic enthusiasm for the possibilities of virtual reality meets a melancholic yearning for time past. Lost time is not just regained in the limbo of memory, but is transposed onto the screen, on the walls of a piece of virtual architecture, and visited by means of VRML technology—a projection, finally visible otherwise than through the eyes of the mind, of one of these topoi, these mnemonic devices which formerly associated elements of memory (like phrases of a text, for example) with the places (re)-visited.
6DOS: The Library
Nancy Paterson's project is a reconstitution, using VRML language, of the interior of the Parliamentary Library in Ottawa. Her choice was based on the emblematic nature of the building's architecture which obviously reflects its function, as well as its authoritative character as an institution and the undoubted depth and quality of its collection. The work relies on the clear relationship between the library and cyberspace, in their respective potential for accumulation and archiving of information.
The circular, richly ornamented neo-gothic library with its singular structural features serves as a period set, a stage for presenting elements with a strongly contrasting appearance. The library is not housing books anymore - which in this new space have become mute, pure images in pixels that become more obvious as we get closer to them, but instead, contains objects that evoke space in its cosmic dimension (a rotating world globe on which a constantly-renewed satellite image of the earth is being projected, images of constellations and planets) or interactive visual devices that can produce these images (telescope, gyroscope), along with schematic representations of geographic places (Canadian cities, the Nile and the pyramids).
The viewer is thus passing from the reconstituted 19th-century architecture to the representation of distant worlds, and is being contronted, by extension, with the different conceptions of human space they signify. While the relation between architecture and modelling tools like VRML is logical, the use of this language to visually circumscribe "the universe" takes us out of our immediate space, uprooting us from our familiar environment and moving us into zones that are out of reach. The collaboration of artists like Al Razutis, who has long been involved in creating unusual 3D environments of cosmic scope (see his Website for works in 3D holograph and 3D video) is no coincidence. The work thus shows the possibilities of attaining these dimensions by means of tools like VRML (and soon, X3D), through the Web.
The Library invites us to discover the unknown, to travel the six degrees of freedom (see Francine Dagenais' Feature) to overcome the six degrees of separation (6DOS) between every person on the planet. The work offers a metaphor of Web navigation and of the possibilites that are now available, or will soon be available to accede to universal knowledge (from the library to the cosmos).
The Encoded Eye, the Archive and its Engine House
David Tomas' work concerns the history of technology and instruments, especially visual devices, that transform world views and way knowledge is accumulated. The locomotive is the central motif in The Encoded Eye, the Archive, and its Engine House, an emblematic figure omnipresent in his work, symbolizing the industrial revolution and the explosion of technological development. In the context of cyberspace, the locomotive is a metaphor for displacement and the conquest of the Web.
The artist uses VRML to create interactive 3D environments, and an indirect, allusive visualization of the Web. The work is organized within a circular space, with the simultaneous notions of containment and infinity that characterize this form. The visitor is engaged in a series of views, concentric circles that seem to lead us into progressively deeper zones—a voyage so far in time and space that it allows us to view the phenomenon of the Web from a distance. In the Engine House section, a 3D representation of the glass-topped roundhouse of steam engine days, three ghost-like locomotives await the visitor's request for information, whereupon they travel through space to retrieve it in the Reading Room. The many camera viewpoints offered on the dashboard allow huge leaps through space, and intense movement. The most impressive of these displacements are those that take the visitor from the Engine House to the Archive, where texts file by with great speed. While the locomotives evoke movement in cyberspace, the Reading Room, like a reservoir, alludes to the infinite quantity of information available on the Web.
The three locomotives lead to three sub-sections, which include Tomas’ essays Thresholds of Identity, Memoirs of a Trainspotter, and Vaporized Memories & Pixellated Dreams, in which the train is the motif and the basis for reflection, placed in relation to biographical elements and creating metaphorical links to Web technology. These texts are accompanied by visual documents installed in a 3D enviroment in the manner of an exhibition space. The didactic aspect of this work (after all, David Tomas is also a theorist and a teacher) is thus extended into a visual manifestation with which it is in dialogue.
At the beginning, Switch becomes It by a mouse over movement, mimicking the action of turning a switch on or off and making us aware of the countless times we do this every day, no matter what activity we are engaged in. Thus, Switch immediately draws our attention to the fact that technology and interactivity have become a necessary, everpresent part of our lives, and the forceful tone of this statement continues to resonate throughout the work.
The artist is interested in the electronic invasion of the private space, of the home, and deals with the concept of the transformation of intimate space (architecture) by technological development. The visitor can enter seven different tableaux that refer to the profound changes in the definition of personal space produced by this increasing intrusion. Marek Walczak is also an architect as well as a specialist in VRML (used sparingly but appropriately in Switch), which is not incongruous, considering the close affinity between architectural representation and spatial modelling tools (for two of Walczak's other works, see Adrift, a virtual performance conceived in collaboration with Helen Thorington and Jesse Gilbert, and the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, with Remo Campopiano).
The work's title also refers to change (of place, or apparatus) and alludes both to the consumption and the rapid evolution of technologies. In all sections of the work, change is conveyed by movement which draws in the user, willingly or unwillingly. In one tableau, the visitor is invited to click and drag the illustrations of technological devices into a limited space, which requires superimposition, contacts and combinations between objects, as the space becomes more and more crowded. Or the viewer can instead "swipe the house," and make these same objects disappear in a radical manner. The interactivity thus provides the user with a gratifying control over the space. A 3D image of a house made with VRML that the viewer can turn in his/her hands is a good example.
The artist makes clear, however, what underlies this illusion of control. Most of the electronic objects featured are technological extensions of human beings, giving them an extended vision used to augment our perception of our private territory. The appropriation of the house by captors, sensors, and detectors, installed in all the zones of personal space, stems from the desire, absurd in its excessiveness, for control as well as ubiquity. (This is also expressed very well by the VRML "eye" that follows the slightest movement of the cursor.) However, these "living" objects responsible for the security and control of private space, delegated here and there and replacing the presence of individuals, end by constricting and controlling them. The effectiveness of Switch also lies in the parallel it establishes with this same conquest of space and omnipresence through technology that characterizes our relationship with the Web.
(Switch was commissioned by New Radio and Performing Arts Inc. for the Turbulence Web site, uses VRML)
See also a review of Bodies INC. by Valérie Lamontagne. This work created by Victoria Vesna uses VRML. Another review on Sylva, created by AE (Gisèle Trudel, Stéphane Claude et Florian Wüst) a work that uses QTVR, was written by Sylvie Parent. Both reviews were published in the 8thissue of the Magazine.
Reviews by Anne-Marie Boisvert and Sylvie Parent
Translation: Darcy Dunton
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