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Worlds Apart

Admittedly, we are promised not technological art but “art in technological times.” A literal interpretation of the current SFMOMA exhibition’s subtitle would have been satisfied by a show of, say, Lucien Freud. But there is that title, with its undeniable binary triad, and I had, rather, expected rooms full of monitors, keyboards, projection screens and head-mounted displays. Anyone versed in the cyberfantasies of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson is likely to be sorely disappointed (though the show does offer its own idiosyncratic pleasures). Just one of the 35 artists included, Char Davies, works in the medium of virtual reality. Her two luminous VR worlds, Osmose and Ephemere, are the only pieces on display here that conform to a perhaps naive expectation about “digital art.”

The show‘s tone is set with Sarah Sze’s Things Fall Apart, a whimsical evocation of paradise fashioned around a disemboweled Jeep Cherokee, and the first work one encounters. Charming to be sure, but not a microchip in sight. Nor is there a hint of computation in Brian Eno‘s tedious installation New Urban Space Series Number 4: Compact Forest Proposal, one of a number of pieces commissioned specifically for this show. In the middle of the space, vines of fairy lights hang from the ceiling while a dozen or so boom boxes tacked to the walls lamely bleat out bell-like tones and other trademark Eno noises. Frankly, it doesn’t bear too-close scrutiny.

One of the few truly high-tech works is the duo of Jeremy Blake digital paintings, Guccinam and Liquid Villa, displayed on a pair of mouthwatering plasma screens. With colors so rich they palpitate and a rock-steady image devoid of flickering, this is what television ought to be, and for 10 grand a pop it can. Like a slow-burn acid trip, Blake‘s kaleidoscopic morphings are gorgeous and mesmerizing -- digital wallpaper at its best.

Two of the most intriguing works, however, are ones in which the computer technology is subordinated to the production of physical objects. SCUMAK No. 2, Roxy Paine’s latest art-making machine, churns out large bloblike sculptures as it extrudes onto a conveyer belt a slow stream of red polyethylene. A computer varies the rate and frequency, ensuring that each blob is subtly unique -- they resemble nothing so much as glossy red cow patties. Sharing the room with Paine (a Rube Goldberg for the electronic age) is Karin Sander‘s 1:10, a series of one-tenth-scale human figures that on first glance look like purchases from the local model shop. Yet each is a minute, computer-generated facsimile of a real person, a three-dimensional photograph if you will. To make each figure, the subject is first laser-scanned to create a digital model; this then serves to guide a “printer” that builds up the figure layer by layer. Sander herself is absent from the entire process. But is it art? Or simply science? All the technology at work here is routinely used in industrial processes. John Weber, one of the show’s curators, points out in the exhibition‘s catalog that the same question was asked in the 19th century about the new technology of photography.

“010101” is dedicated to Claude Shannon, the Bell Labs mathematician who founded the science of information theory and who died earlier this year. Shannon formalized the mathematical definition of information, and it is his work that has led ultimately to the emergence of the idea, so beloved by the architects of cyberfiction, of reality as a giant information-processing system. Cyberfantasies from Gibson’s Neuromancer to the Wachowski brothers‘ The Matrix are rooted in Shannon’s reification of information. The one artist here whose work belongs in this tradition, albeit in a highly idiosyncratic form, is Char Davies.

Osmose (1995), her first VR world -- she prefers the term “immersive virtual environment” -- is a shimmering evocation of a forest, an intimate opalescent arena filled with semitransparent, softly glowing leaves and trees. Think Tolkien‘s Lothlorien on Ecstasy. Ephemere (1998), making its American debut, also takes its cues from nature -- its three interconnected domains are called Landscape, Earth and Body -- but the aesthetic is much less representational. On donning the VR helmet, one finds oneself in a vast space filled with flowing currents and rivulets of light. Forms resembling rocks, bones and seed pods float Solaris-like within the space. Ephemere is the more interactive work; the pods et al. respond to the viewer’s gaze.

Davies‘ nature-inspired visuals are a conscious rebellion against the hard-edged Cartesian aesthetic of the classic Gibsonian virtual reality, the one reflected in computer games and by far the most common use of VR technology today. In her worlds, objects are built not from the crisp geometry of polygons but from tiny, glowing points of light. It is as if she is straining not just for a new aesthetic of virtual space but also for a new metaphysics.

As a scuba diver, Davies has been inspired by the sense of immersion one experiences underwater, the feeling, as she puts it, “of being enveloped by the viscosity of the sea.” As with diving, navigation through Davies’ virtual space is controlled by breathing and balance rather than by a hand-controlled trackball or joystick. Just as the invention of film extended to the picture plane the flow of time, so, Davies has written, “The technology associated with immersive VR extends beyond the two-dimensionality of painting and film, into enveloping ‘circumferal’ space.”

Technologically, Osmose and Ephemere are a quantum leap ahead of any other VR artworks -- a fact widely, if sometimes begrudgingly, acknowledged by others in the field. Probably no other digital artist has had access to so much state-of-the-art technology and technical support. Davies was a founding director of the 3-D software modeling company Softimage, and later, as its director of visual research, she had under her command a full-time programmer and computer animator, plus a Silicon Graphics Onyx2 Infinite Reality supercomputer, the Porsche of graphics computers. Just staging Davies‘ work requires a serious financial commitment.

At a panel on cyberspace convened in conjunction with the exhibition, Davies talked about the problem openly. Few VR artists are still producing, she said. Few can afford to. Research into helmet design has virtually come to a standstill. The problem is not just stalled technology, but rising audience expectations. Viewers (and critics) primed by the hyperresolution of films like The Matrix are increasingly intolerant of the less-than-perfect image quality provided by current helmet technology. It’s “like you‘re sticking your eyes against a television set,” snarked a reviewer on the Wired Web site.

That is too harsh an assessment, but a number of SFMOMA visitors I spoke to preferred watching Davies’ worlds on the large video-projection screens, where resolution is greatly enhanced. Which raises the question of whether there is a future for virtual-reality art. Davies‘ lack of comrades in the show hints ominously. Personally, I loved the experience of being in Osmose and Ephemere, but I couldn’t help think of the Palace of Versailles. When the Sun King built his abode, its fabled Hall of Mirrors was a state-of-the-art marvel. The hall was only possible because of the then-recent French invention of plate-glass making; Louis‘ mirrored fantasy pushed available technology to the limit. This too was a kind of virtual reality, a hyperreal experience for a privileged elite. Davies’ virtual worlds, which can only be experienced immersively by a single person at a time, are also, for the moment, an essentially elite experience, one made possible by the largess of a rich patron -- in this case, the artist herself.

In the 1950s, Alastaire Pilkington invented the float method for making large glass plates cheaply and quickly. Today, vast mirrors are commonplace. Will VR technology find its own Pilkington, or will VR art go the way of the pyramids -- a magnificent idea but too expensive to keep producing? Let‘s hope for the former, but in the meantime, some artists are doing without. Another work in the show, Janet Cardiff’s The Telephone Call, functioned as a highly convincing virtual reality without recourse to computer graphics: The visitor is given a mini DV camera with headphones on which Cardiff has recorded her own tour through the gallery, narrating, as she goes, a personal story. One is asked to follow along with her, pointing the camera as she does and following her pace. Simple, low-rent and emotionally engaging -- one can truly feel two realities at once.


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