michael naimark




ATR Science ART

International Symposium on Art and Science, Kyoto


Michael Naimark

(See http://www.mic.atr.co.jp/~christa/Aindex.html)

Last week marked the first "ATR Science ART: International Symposium on Art and Science" held near Kyoto. ATR, Advanced Telecommunication Research Labs, was the sponsor. Fifteen speakers working at or near the border of art and science were invited to give presentations.


ATR is a long-term research lab supported by a large international consortium of telecoms, and in many ways is very Interval-like, but in Japan. It's much larger, with almost 300 employees and an annual budget of $80 million/year. And their pounds-of-cool-equipment/employee ratio looks about three times that of Interval's. It also has a more international flavor, with telecoms from around the world sending researchers there for extended periods.

The symposium was conceived and organized by Christa Sommerer, an Austrian artist, currently at ATR as an artist-in-residence with her partner, French artist Laurent Mignonneau. Christa and Laurent work with artificial life and emergent behavior, usually using very-high-end SGI hardware and their own code. Their art installations, "Interactive Plants Growing" and "A-Volve" have been exhibited internationally. Consequently, they are widely known to (and knowledgeable of) the international art + tech community.


The speakers ranged from scientists working in creative areas such as Demetri Terzopoulos (University of Toronto), Hiroshi Ishii (MIT Media Lab), and Paul Haeberli (SGI) to contemporary art critics and curators like Erkki Huhtamo (University Lapland, Finland), Hans-Peter Schwarz (ZKM, Karlsruhe), and Philippe Queau (French Ministry of Culture and Director of Imagina, an annual electronic arts festival in Monte Carlo). But most of the rest of us were folks living with our own schizophrenia somewhere in the middle, including Dan Sandin (University Illinois Chicago, co-founder of Siggraph), Peter Richards (Exploratorium), and Itsuo Sakane (IAMAS, the new International Academy of Media Arts and Sciences, Gifu).

About 200 attendees came, mostly Japanese, and seemed split 50/50 between suits and hackers.


The introduction was by Ryohei Nakatsu, President of ATR's Media Integration and Communications (MIC) Research Labs, who welcomed everyone and stated that the biggest problem with art and science was with intellectual property. Seemed oddly out of place.

Everyone had 40 minutes each, and most presentations were highly A-V. Both English and Japanese were official symposium languages, and interpreters broadcast to wireless headsets in both directions.

Here are some the things I found interesting:

Sakane, the reigning elder of the group (66 years old, began reporting on art and technology for the Asahi Shimbun newspaper 40 years ago) was the first speaker and provided a historical context, going back to Impressionism, then the Bauhaus (and how MIT became the inheritor via Gyorgy Kepes in the late 1940s), then the Experiments in Art and Technology ("EAT") movement of the 1960s and the birth of the Exploratorium, to interactive art today.

Philippe Queau showed a videotape by Emmanuel Carlier, a French artist who used 75 Nikon cameras arranged in a circle pointing inward, to simultaneously freeze time (with a single master trigger for all cameras). The images, mostly of nudes with spraying or splashing water, were simply displayed in sequence on videotape. The result looks "CG" and oddly impossible. Unique and very cool. Something new.

Dan Sandin, the co-inventor of the CAVE (http://www.sv.vt.edu/future/cave.html), has as much experience in multi-user immersive environments as anyone. His latest project is called the ImmersiDesk, like the Stanford Virtual Workbench but at a 45 degree angle (drafting table-style). He thinks it can double as a tabletop and a window. The ImmersiDesk will premiere at Siggraph this year.

Hiroshi Ishii gave a presentation about "Tangible Bits," his new project with Brygg Ullmer at the Media Lab. The idea is to have more physical I/0, like active objects, based on the "brick" work (small 3D mouse) from his University of Toronto days.

Paul Haeberli, Principal Scientist at SGI, showed a dozen "small projects," all of which were zany and brilliant (http://www.sgi.com/grafica/). My favorite was a hack for changing lighting in a photograph: without moving the camera, one takes pictures with each of the light sources separately, as well as one with only ambient light. Then the lighting can be changed by simple addition and subtraction on a pixel level. This also allows for "negative light" and "negative shadows."

Przemyslaw Prusinkiewicz from the University of Calgary showed his work with artificial plants growing, including delightful stuff on the properties of topiaries. Demetri Terzopoulos showed his work with artificial fish, including recent work simulating how fish learn to swim efficiently. Both presentations were beautiful and enlightening.

(My presentation was the most explicitly political, asserting that the Reagan/Bush politics of the 1980s polarized the US art and tech communities. The Americans from the non-profit arts sector winked at me and acknowledged that one of us had to say it.)


Between a tight schedule and language translations, the organizers decided to hold off on all questions and commentary until the end, so on the afternoon of the second day, there was a roundtable discussion among all speakers and the audience.

The climate so far had been congenial. Many of the speakers hadn't met before, and the presentations were the first exposure to each others' works. The roundtable began in the spirit of art and science being almost the same, at least similar or complimentary.

The question of "what is art?" neared the surface. Christa Sommerer stated that she didn't base her selection of speakers on "art" but on "the creativity of their work" (implying a distinction between art and creativity). Terzopoulos and Prusinkiewicz both spoke of the aesthetics and beauty of science, which was echoed by several others.

Then Philippe Queau became agitated: "Beauty of science is NOT art." The sort of conceptual appreciation, like of math, is not art, but rather something different, something more cognitive and less instinctive.

Impressionism, he lamented, was the Last Great Art Movement.

Then he snapped: "DUCHAMP KILLED ART."

So provocative.

So anti-post-modern.

"So French," muttered Pete Richards.

What Philippe meant, I believe, was that the introduction of conceptualism into the otherwise pure and spiritual Expression of the Human Experience ruined it by making it too intellectual, too clever, and too full of irony. (How can one compare Duchamp's urinal with a Renoir?) This really is the classic Modernist point of view, and while not French in content (Paris is swarming with Post-Modernists), it is French in spirit (du provocateur).

But, the situation was too sensitive to absorb it. The artists and the scientists, like the Sharks and the Jets at the mixer, retreated to opposite ends of the gym.

The symposium ended with a short statement by Ryohei Nakatsu, ATR's MIC Lab President, reiterating that intellectual property is the biggest problem.

Yet everyone agreed it was a good symposium. Plans for another one next year are already in the works.