Virtual Museums Symposium,
Salzburg, AUSTRIA, 1998
"Place Runs Deep:
Virtuality, Place and Indigenousness"
Michael Naimark, Media Artist
Interval Research Corporation
Palo Alto USA
I will begin, and end, with a notion of globalization.
Two years ago I had email contact with Dubrovnik during bombing,
and with Cambodia, but couldn't with Africa. Now it is even more
possible in more places. This really is news.
Globalization, in terms of global access by everyone
to everyone on the planet, is almost here. The dream has been around
for several decades. From where I saw things, in the 1940's it was
Gyorgy Kepes, MIT's first artist, and his vision of "The New Landscape."
In the 1950's it was Arthur C. Clark and the concept of satellites,
and Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson applying cybernetic theory
to global society. In the 1960's it was Buckminster Fuller and his
idea of "Spaceship Earth" and Marshal McLuhan and the "Global Village."
In the 1970's Stewart Brand and the "Whole Earth" movement and Gene
Youngblood and the "Information Utility." We are not there yet,
but it appears unstoppable.
Consider the next wave of low orbiting satellite
technology that will allow communication in both directions with
relatively small dishes. Small, cheap Internet computers, self-contained
using solar cells and these dishes, could be mass-produced. Absurd
as it may sound, thousands of these computers could be dropped from
airplanes with a note in a dozen languages stating "PUSH ANY KEY
TO BEGIN." Like it or not, the planet is getting connected.
SOME PERSONAL EXPLORATIONS ON REPRESENTING
I'd like to first describe some of my past projects,
exploring how new media can represent sense of place and its inhabitants.
Most of these examples are of actual places, with the intention
to be respectful of them as they are, like cinema verite. Though
these were all prerecorded they have relevance to networks and live
I've organized this presentation around two explorations,
very simply: moving around and looking around.
The "Aspen Moviemap" (1978-80) was an MIT pre-Media
Lab project and one of the first interactive laser disc experiments.
The goal was to create visual seamlessness as one drives around.
We did this by driving up and down the streets of Aspen, Colorado
shooting with film cameras on top of a car triggered by distance
rather than time, for example one frame every ten feet. We filmed
going up and down every street and through every intersection every
possible way. A great deal of effort went into making the match-cuts
from straight sequences to turn sequences and back appear as visually
seamless as possible. We called this "surrogate travel," an ironic
term but one that stuck.
"Golden Gate" (1987) is a moviemap of the San
Francisco Bay Area from the air made the Exploratorium. We used
a special gyro-stabilized helicopter camera and satellite navigation
to film along a precise ten by ten mile grid centered on Golden
Gate Bridge. This exhibit uses a single trackball as the input device,
so it is very easy to use. It allows moving around the Bay Area
at unnaturally fast speeds. The goal was not to re-create a helicopter
ride as much as to create a hyper-real experience, something impossible
to experience in the physical world.
The Karlsruhe Moviemap (1990) was commissioned
by the ZKM. Karlsruhe has a famous tram system which snakes from
the downtown pedestrian area out to the Black Forest. The local
tram company lent us a car and a driver for the month, and we mounted
a distance-triggered camera pointing forward. The rails made the
visual seamlessness perfect (except for time of day). This project
was very much made for the local community, and it's usually obvious
when locals familiar with the material use it. Unlike the previous
two projects, this installation employs a large projection screen
which gives users a strong visceral sense of immersion. It is, however,
"See Banff!" (1993-4) was an experiment to make
a true stereoscopic 3D moviemap (which hadn't yet been done) and
was made in conjunction with the Banff Centre for the Arts and Interval
Research Corporation. A pair of 16mm cameras were mounted on a modified
"baby jogger" carriage and distance triggered via an encoder mounted
on a wheel. We packaged the display system in a kinetoscope exactly
100 years after it was invented, and to ironically promote tourism
in Banff - counterpointing the beauty of the landscape with the
politics of tourism. We collaborated with the Park Service, eco-activists
and indigenous communities. It was a strong learning experience
about who controls "place." But more on this later.
These projects were about representing place through
moving around via interactive media. This next section is
about looking around, representing 360-degree views - panoramas.
"Moving Movie" (1977) was an inexpensive modest
study made at MIT. I was obsessed with why movie cameras move and
movie projectors don't, and filmed the Boston landscape with a Super8
movie camera mounted on a slowly rotating turntable. The film is
projected using a continuous loop projector mounted on the same
slowly rotating turntable, using a translucent cylindrical screen
so one can see on both sides. The result is a very natural looking
"flashlight effect," with the frame rotating around the screen in
sync with the filmed material. As the projected image rotates around
the screen, direction and spatiality is maintained.
"Displacements" (1980-84) applied the "moving
movie" idea to re-create an interior space, for an installation
at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. An archetypal Americana
living room was installed in an exhibition space. Then two performers
were filmed in the space using a 16mm motion picture camera on a
slowly rotating turntable in the room's center. After filming, the
camera was replaced with a film loop projector and the entire contents
of the room were spray-painted white. The reason was to make a projection
screen the right shape for projecting everything back onto itself.
The result was that everything appears strikingly 3D, except for
the people, who of course weren't spray-paint white, and consequently
appeared very ghostlike and unreal.
"Panoramic Study" (1992) was made at the Banff
Centre during a ten-day period. They had just acquired a powerful
new SGI computer and had a talented team of creative programmers.
A panoramic landscape was recorded using a consumer video camera,
plus some surveyor's tools. The idea was to manually pan and tilt
the camera and record the landscape, then hand-select single frames
with a bit of overlap from one frame to the other in order to build
a panoramic computer model. This was all done using brute force
and hand-adjustment before semi-automated processes like QuickTime
"Be Now Here" (1995-7) was an experiment to make
3D stereoscopic panoramas of public plazas, was supported by Interval
Research with the cooperation of the UNESCO World Heritage Center.
Of the nearly 500 World Heritage Sites, eighteen are listed "in
danger," of which four are cities: Jerusalem; Dubrovnik; Timbuktu,
Mali; and Angkor, Cambodia. My Interval colleagues helped assemble
a custom rotating camera system using 2 35mm motion picture cameras.
The entire system weighed over 500 pounds but was built to travel.
The goal was to determine a single point in a single public plaza
in each of these endangered cities and film through the course of
the day. For a variety of reasons, filming had to be as cheap, quick,
and quiet as possible, relying on local collaboration and help.
(Yes it was scary. See http://www.naimark.net/writing/trips/bnhtrip.html.)
For the installation, a 12 by 16 foot video projection
is used to give a sense of immersion. The viewers wear 3D glasses.
A simple input pedestal allows viewers to chose location and time
of day. A panoramic effect is achieved using a 16 foot diameter
slowly rotating floor, which rotates the viewers in sync with the
rotating imagery. The effect is similar to the feeling of being
on a train in the station when the train next to you pulls out and
you think you are moving. It is this strong visceral feeling, a
sense of place, which is what I was shooting for.
I'm not suggesting that "Be Now Here" is a better
form of image representation or display, nor that it's about saving
the world, but of using the art arena as a form of experimentation
After twenty years on these experiments representing
place, here are some brief thoughts about what I believe I learned.
First, one cannot represent everything. It will never be the same
as "being there." To suggest that it is "like being there" suggests
that the user can go everywhere and see everything, and you can't.
It is humbling. It also implies an abdication of artistic or editorial
control, which is problematic.
Second, immersive public-space environments have
enjoyed a long rich history and it is unlikely that they will be
replaced by the small low-bandwidth images associated with virtuality
and the Web. On the contrary, imagine using networks and the Web
to make unique ultra-high bandwidth group experiences which encompass
both virtuality and co-presence.
Third, it is impossible to separate the aesthetics
of telepresence from the politics of place. Representing place can't
be separated from representing its inhabitants and culture.
Whoever controls representation, controls all.
ALAN LOMAX AND THE GLOBAL JUKEBOX PROJECT
Alan Lomax is an 81year old ethnomusicologist
who has lived mostly in New York and is now a stroke victim. In
the 1930's he and his father, ethnomusicologist John Lomax, made
the first audio recordings in the field. His father was given an
audio recorder from Thomas Edison's widow, which he made portable
(it weighed 500lbs). John and Alan Lomax traveled around the southern
United States recording African-American music, the roots of the
Blues. In the 1940's and 1950's, their material became the basis
for the American Archive of American Folk Song in the U.S. Library
of Congress. Then, Alan Lomax recorded music from other countries
and collected song and dance from around the world. By 1962, he
had amassed the world's largest collection of recorded song and
dance. He claimed to have heard patterns, patterns not possible
to document with Western notation, so he began work with a team
at Columbia University to develop a new notation system for song
(which he called cantometrics) and for dance (which he called choreometrics).
They wanted these systems to be relevant to all cultures. After
coding thousands of examples, they started looking for correlations
between song with song, and song with dance, and with preexisting
databases of culture in general. Back then this meant typing up
thousands of punch cards and feeding them through an IBM 360 mainframe
computer. It was a very slow process.
What they found over the next decade, though,
drastically changed their world view. They found everything was
interconnected in a most dramatic way. It convinced them that the
expressive arts mimic culture, so much so that they may be the deepest,
most robust holder of culture. By the late 1970's, Alan became convinced
that the emerging multimedia technologies could be used to make
this material easily accessible to everyone, and called his dream
the "Global Jukebox." He believed everyone would be able to discover
their own cultural roots and know how they fit into the world picture.
By the early 1990s Alan and his team had built
a first-pass system of the Global Jukebox using HyperCard and laserdiscs.
The system was complex and its interface a bit clunky, but most
everyone who experienced a demo was utterly astounded. One would
conclude that the Global Jukebox would have a popular and commercial
Alan Lomax and his work doesn't tidely fit into
any catagory. Though it might not be entirely fair to call him truly
modernist, he is definitely pre-postmodernist, in that he celebrated
recording and documenting. Lomax believed it made observations relatively
direct and believed them as truth, at least as compared to second
hand interpretation. He and his team have also been working in a
bit of a void from the high tech world, even though they are based
in the middle of Manhattan. They have been perceived to be a bit
overprotective. This is understandable: they are content people.'
Alan has been struggling for funding from the
technology companies for years. He has received numerous foundation
grants; the U.S. Presidential Medal for theArts; and a cover endorsement
by Mick Jagger for his last book. Brian Eno is a major fan. Alan
told me that when the tech people see it they think it is great
but then they don't call back. It's a content versus tech conflict,
and the technology folks always win. It is a kind of techno-arrogance
" believing that because you know or control the technology
you should control the content. CDI, Philips' interactive CD format,
lost over one billion dollars in development and massive promotion
before they finally gave up. This is not the arrogance of one single
individual, but is some kind of backward institutional way of looking
And 99% of the planet's cultures have the content,
but not the technology.
BERNARD NIETSCHMANN AND THE MAYA ATLAS
This is the most extreme example I know of using
new media in collaboration with place-based content. Bernard Nietschmann
is a geographer who did fieldwork in the 1960's and 1970's on the
Caribbean coast of Nicaragua working with the Miskito, Sumo and
Rama Indians. In the 1980's, back in the U.S., he heard reports
of unrest and decided to go back. He went in unofficially and was
the first American in eastern Nicaragua during the early Sandanista
days. He was also the Chair of the Geography Department at UC-Berkley
at the time. What he learned was published in Co-Evolution Quarterly
journal in 1984: half the Miskito and Sumo villages were destroyed
by the Sandanistas and one quarter of the coastal Indian population
was living in Sandanista-controlled relocation camps. He was not
shy about taking an aggressive pro-indigenous stance.
Ten years later he published a very different
paper in 1995, in Harvard's Cultural Survival journal, outlining
a new paradigm of maps instead of guns. He proposed that indigenous
communities in land conflicts would be more successful using portable
Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) systems to re-map their territory
rather than using AK-47s to forcibly defend it. His evidence was
based on work he had recently completed with the Miskito Indians
who had successfully won their land rights back by mapping their
land with portable GPS units.
As a result of this project, Barney and his UC
Berkley colleagues were invited by 42 Maya villages in southern
Belize to help them remap their land. They were in a Belize Supreme
Court battle because the government wanted to sell most of their
land to corporate interests. When the UC Berkeley "high tech gringos"
first met their native collaborators, they agreed that they were
going to have to do everything evenly. The result is the Maya Atlas,
published in the U.S. several months ago. The Maya villagers decided
on their own legends, symbols, and what to map. It is considered
the world's first community-made atlas. Though it was made as an
educational tool and a political statement, it could have commercial
potential as an aesthetic "coffee table" book.
This model, of high tech and indigenous collaborations,
could be about art and artists as well as maps and cartographers.
I'd like to close with a few thoughts for virtual
and future museums. The first is to lobby for a new kind of museum
which is uniquely virtual and actual, a physical public space
with ultrahigh bandwidth network access far beyond what one might
have in their homes. There are proposals now for Internet II and
ultrahigh bandwidth connections between universities. Imagine such
connections between museums.
Another model for the future is museums as data
repositories. An issue often ignored is that data has to reside
somewhere. Even with distributed and redundant data models, the
data still must physically live somewhere. The idea of museums as
data repositories, especially in non-western regions is especially
Imagine such museum sites also being head-ends
for live public Web-cams. These Web-cams could both serve as a means
for outsiders to enjoy the scene and for locals to have connection
to the outside. Imagine school children using a live Web-cam to
monitor environmental conditions on a remote jungle river.
Finally, a place to watch, both with enthusiastic
and critical eyes is www.2b1.org,
an outgrowth of the MIT Media Lab. It is about using computing and
new media technology in the third world, and using children as change
agents. The 2B1 literature talks about "breakdown in barriers,"
"people treating the entire planet as their home," and "a decentralized
spirit." They write "We see connecting the children of the world
as a significant step, indeed the biggest possible step, toward
creating a unified planet."
It is unfortunate that the Media Lab has never
gotten their art thing straight. An unpleasant separation took place
in 1980 between the art and media technology factions, one that
was never resolved. The Media Lab's original name was the "Art and
Media Technology Facility," a name which ended up in Karlsruhe,
and not by coincidence.
Nevertheless, this model, of high tech and indigenous
collaborations, could be about art and artists as well as playthings