michael naimark




MultiMediale 3, Karlsruhe, Germany

Michael Naimark

10 November 1993

The third triennial multimedia art festival opened last friday in Karlsruhe, Germany, organized by the Zentrum fur Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM). The ZKM is an ambitious government-funded arts and media lab which has been quietly active as plans for their permanent space, as well as funding and political issues, have acquiesced. The hope of ZKM officials was that this festival would be viewed as their coming out. Common themes seemed to be grand scale, embodied virtuality, and live image networking, all with an emphasis on subtlety rather than dazzle.

If nothing else, the MultiMediale was big, very big. Not in quantity as much as in scale. The exhibition space was a WWII munitions factory (it was alledgedly spared allied bombing by U.S. order because the company had major U.S. stockholders!) and sported an atrium the size of a football field, surrounded by two stories of large gallery-size rooms.

But the single most distinguishing factor of this over other art and media exhibitions was its intentional lack of glorification of technology. There were no flashy artworks or technologically impressive demos to speak of (as one finds at Siggraph). This was an explicit curatorial decision. Of course technology was everywhere - dozens of SGIs and scores of video displays - and the line between "flash" and "conceptual" was sometimes fuzzy, but the attention was directed as much as possible toward ideas and aesthetics.

The ZKM currently operates out of several temporary but well-equipped spaces, and has built up a lively international artist-in-residence program not unlike the Banff Centre for the Arts (in fact, the two are unrivaled). And though the exhibition had its share of known artists, such as Jonathan Borofsky, Rebecca Horn, Bruce Nauman, and Bill Viola, some impressive work was exhibited by newer younger artists as well.

The most monumental work was "Tempo Liquido" by Fabrizio Plessi, a full-scale iron water-wheel and trough. The wheel stood fifteen feet high and rotated; its fifty foot trough was filled with water. But the rungs of the wheel, where the water is lifted, were replaced with a dozen video monitors each displaying cascading water. Visually it worked: the speed off the wheel's rotation and the images of water flowing were in sync. "Tempo Liquido" is a rare work of near-total impracticality - it would require at least two eighteen-wheelers for transport - but delivers a strong and accessible statement about the real and the virtual.

Jeffrey Shaw, the longtime Amsterdam media artist who was appointed the ZKM's Director of Media Arts, was responsible for a couple of daring experiments displayed for the first time here. One used a professional flight simulator motion platform: a six-degree-of-freedom hydraulic system with a ten foot circular platform on top. The piece, entitled "The Forest," was a single-user experience requiring climbing a short stairway to the "parked" platform and sitting in an easy chair in front of a projection TV also on the platform. On the arm of the chair was a six D.O.F. joystick. An SGI Reality Engine provided synchronized graphics and motion, moving smoothly through a forest at tree-height (i.e., only trunks and branches were visible, no ground). "The Forest" was a beautifully restrained piece: the room was completely dark, so the only cues were vestibular from the motion and visual from the display. And the images were black-and-white.

A whackier but equally ambitious experiment involved a 36 foot diameter inflatable dome with a highly reflective surface inside and two video projectors on a very fast robot arm located in the center. The concept of the piece - called EVE for Extended Virtual Environment - was to let a user drive a nine-foot wide moving image with a head tracker by feeding the projectors stereoscopic feeds from another SGI Reality Engine. The result is a spatially correspondent "spotlight effect" in 3D (via polarized glasses). Of course other viewers can be in the dome as well, but only one in control. (For better or worse, Jeffrey credits the idea in the catalog as based on his work with inflatables in 1968 and my work with "moving movies" in 1980). In a sense, EVE was a demo: Jeffrey invited six artists and researchers working with SGI-based 3D modelling to show their worlds, including my "Field Recording Study" #1 (the panoramic tiling) and #2 (collaboration for Rachel and Brenda's "Placeholder"). The best part of EVE was its scale and kinesthesia: the image articulates a single enormous contiguous virtual space. The bad news was system latency, as usual.

Several artworks employed "embodiment," where the line between the real and the virtual was made thematic. The most explicit of these was Frank Fietzek's "Tafel," where a movable video monitor was placed in front of a green chalkboard via tracks and handgrips. The image on the monitor was "virtual chalk writing" (driven by a Quadra and MacroMind Director) and remained spatially correspondent with the actual chalkboard as if it was a "magic window." But not entirely: a word would appear in one place, but when the monitor was moved away then back again another word would be in its place.

Another piece addressing real/virtual illusions was Gideon May's "The Table of the Spirits." A small table stands in front of a projected video display, on it are several colored geometric blocks of various shapes, each secured in place. The viewer "views" the tabletop on the display using a small hand-held video camera, but something doesn't look exactly right. It turns out the image on the display is actually the output of an SGI model which precisely mimics the tabletop, and the camera has a polhemus tracker on it to drive the model's virtual camera.

The most subtle and poetic of the embodied virtualities was "Flora petrinsularis" by University of Paris VIII Professor Jean-Louis Boissier. The installation consists of a table in the alcove of a room; on it is a MacII system, and in front of the Mac is a large (real) book. The pages contains excerpts from Jean-Jacques Rousseau's botanical studies, and a large page number in one corner. A video camera above the book (like the Mac neither hidden nor flaunted) is focussed only on the page number and drives an OCR to activate a mildly interactive (via the mouse) pair of moving images displayed on the Mac monitor. The images - mostly close-ups of women, lace, and flowers - are gentle and cyclical, loosely relating to the specific passage on the page. (Incidently, unlike many interactive artworks where the connection between input and output is ambiguous - or often broken - here the page number is always displayed on the screen as confirmation of its intention.)

Two ISDN networked pieces, one local and one global, were noteworthy, more as confirming a trend than as anything particularly deep or provocative. The local one, Paul Sermon's "Telematic Vision," was a parody of a TV-sofa. Two identical sofas (upholstered in chroma-key blue) were situated in front of networked video cameras, one on-site and the other at a museum on the other side of Karlsruhe. Participants sitting on either sofa would see both views, one chroma-keyed on top of the other, resulting in some amusing interactions (but not as amusing as a similar piece he did in Helsinki last year with two beds . . .). The global one, "The Televirtual Fruit Machine" by Agnes Hegedus, was networked between the concurrent "IC '93" exhibition in Tokyo and Karlsruhe and was an SGI-based game-like work.

The MultiMediale is up for the next month, and shortly after it closes renovation begins on converting this former munitions factory into the permanent home for the ZKM, two musuems, and an art and design school, due to open in 1996.

An exhibit catalog (with decent color photos) was published. I have a copy. Drop by if you'd like to see it.