michael naimark




Interface II, Hamburg

Michael Naimark


I was invited to be on a panel at a media arts conference called Interface II on friday and saturday Feb 5 and 6 in Hamburg. Hamburg was abuzz with media arts that week: the city throws this media arts festival annually.

The German media arts scene is as intense as any right now. Their government has been funding several new institutions, most notably the ZKM in Karlsruhe (where I shot the moviemap) and a media arts academy in Cologne. But it appears that such support is widespread, and Hamburg has its share of art schools well-funded and well-equipped.

The art shows around town ranged from a massive video show (over 60 separate monitors set up exhibition style) at their art museum to large-scale art installations along with equipment demos in convention hall spaces. The interweaving of Apple, Phillips, and IBM exhibit demos with "fine art" installations simply could not occur in the US right now: the corporations wouldn't fund the artists and the artists wouldn't show otherwise alongside corporate demos. In addition to the usual heavyweight media artists (e.g., Nam June Paik, Brian Eno, Bill Viola), there were some ambitious new work by younger artists. My favorite was by Paul Garrin: you walk up a short stairway into a small dark room where the floor is indented with a 5 by 2 monitor "video floor." As soon as you approach, the biggest, meanest, rabid growling dog appears on video, looking up at you . . . and follows you as you walk along the length of the monitors (via sensors and laserdiscs). Another ambitious installation took place deep in the bowels of a large merchant ship. This was a group project produced by students at the Cologne academy, and was an interactive audio environment. A single participant gets suited up with a vest full of batteries and ultrasonic ranging equipment, and a Private Eye to indicate via text where they are. Heavy vest, headphones, EyePhone, and cables - seemed very German.

I missed most of the Interface II conference, since it was mostly in German. The keynote was Ivan Illich, who IS German, and spoke (I heard) mostly about "linguistic imperialism."

The panel I was on included some outstanding work by a Hungarian artist who painstakingly digitized super8 film of his young son and created a 3D virtual space for him, with synchronized camera movement (using an SGI system). Another panelist was a Hamburg medical researcher whose team has produced the best 3D model of a human body to date (was shown at Siggraph last year). They start with NMR data of 2D "slices" and hand-segment the various tissue. This combination of high-tech and hand-craft is the only current method of making a 3D model with identified parts, and allows such features as determining what will be hit when a cutting laser is aimed through any point of the body.

I gave an updated version of my how-do-you-know-it's-not-a-movie-and-when-does-it-matter VR-bashing aggressively-green (politically) rant.

The audience, mostly young students (and older professors), had a good hour worth of questions. Most were about social, cultural, and political implications of emerging media technologies.

Maybe I've turned into a cynical old geezer, but the fact is that here in the US, the arts funding situation is at an all-time crisis. Many non-profit galleries, performance spaces, and dance groups have simply shut down over the past 4 years. That, together with most other public funding equally in crisis, has created the ugly situation of pitting arts funding against other public funding such as health care, domestic security, and employment - which has managed to splinter even the most pro-active groups. Most art students in the US today are angry.

This was, thankfully, much less evident at the Interface II conference. But I couldn't tell whether they were ahead of us or just behind.