eTech & Art & More

Art Gallery: N-Space

by Jennifer Recknagel
08 August 2001

To the many people who attend SIGGRAPH every year, the art gallery is seen as nothing but a fun space to play. There are enough interactive installations, video pieces, sculptures, and digital prints to dazzle the senses of even the heaviest tech crowds. However, to simply treat this venue as an afterthought to the 'real' convention is to miss the significance of this space entirely.

Traditionally new media artists make use of the very same cutting edge technology as their commercial counterparts. In fact, in most cases, it is the artists who are pushing the boundaries of what is possible using these new tools. By combining intelligent commentary with a repurposing of traditional technical functions, new media artists provide us with much needed social commentary. As the rest of the convention investigates the technical aspects of creating quality digital graphics, the Art Gallery and N-Space program challenges us to explore the cultural and psychological impact of the new media.


The most popular pieces in the gallery are always, without fail, the interactive installations. This year's show featured numerous works ranging from sensor based vacuum poetry to a virtual guillotine experience. However the most impressive and also one of the most popular pieces was 'Protrude, Flow' by Japanese duo Sachiko Kodama and Minako Takeno. Definitely this year's 'Wooden Mirror', this interactive installation is best described as a manifestation of liquid metal.

Created with a surrealist impulse towards the transcendental or otherworldly, this piece transformed a pool of black liquid into 3D organic forms. Made by dissolving ferro magnetic micro-powder into a solvent such as water or oil, this heavily magnetic solution was pulled into various shapes via sound information effecting degrees of magnet pull. Definitely one of the coolest pieces in the show, this work embodied the spirit of alchemy. By bringing to life the inconceivable, it presented us with the mystical quality of digital experience.


Often overlooked, the Art Gallery and N-Space performances are always worth seeing. This year the piece that seemed to engage the audience the most was Virtual Keith 2.0. The brainchild and altar ego of artist Keith Robertson, VR Keith was an elegant study in the psychology of interactivity. Subtitled "or why virtual avatars are better than humans", VR Keith tempted unsuspecting viewers into entering a world which satirized automated systems and real time interaction. There is something quite remarkable about being able to explore complex issues in low-tech form. Made from materials that could be found in the average person's garage, VR Keith was actually more interesting as a performance piece rather than as a robot you could interact with.

The artist, who performed the short video pieces displayed in the robot's monitor/head, maintained control of Virtual Keith's responses via an airplane remote control. Though not always directly visible, the artist also did not intentionally try to hide from the audience. When the real Keith had a hard time seeing exactly what selections people were making, they would become extremely irritated and walked away. However, when the Virtual Keith responded to their request in a reasonable fashion, they would often get excited to the point of joining him in a conga line. This highly ironic piece was quite interesting to watch, as it confronted viewers and forced them to participate in the obviously absurdist affair.


2D and 3D Wall Hangings

Aside from the more flashy pieces in this year's show, there are collections of mixed media wall hangings that challenge the distinctions of traditional media categories. One such work, created by artist Kyle Riedel, is a giant 6 x 8 feet 3D-modeled still taken from a series entitled 'Intersections'. This photorealistic image depicts an empty room, reminiscent of bad suburban decor, with a single chair placed just outside the audience's point of view. As the only object in the space, its odd placement teases us into looking deeper into an otherwise banal space.

In a David Lynch / Blue Velvet sort of way, Riedel's treatment of the image makes this very familiar scene appear eerily strange. At first glance it is difficult to tell that the image is actually a digital construction. It is only after a while of exploring the space that we realize that something does not quite make sense. The image seems more like a film still than a photo of an actual living space. As a result, the viewer is compelled to project his or her own narrative onto the minimalist landscape.

This is significant because it makes us aware of the fact that space is as much a psychological construction as it is a physical reality. On a more technical level, 'Intersections' challenges our understanding of what it means to create a realistic image using 3D modeling software. Where 3D worlds tend to hit you over the head with tacky images that transcend the laws of physics, Riedel's space suggests that viewers should be given the chance to complete the image with their own imagination.


'Altzero3', by online collective Squid Soup, is representative of all that is cool in multiuser design. This spatial composition takes traditional sound composition and turns it on its head. By placing sounds and musical structures in space rather than over time, 'Altzero3' investigates the possibilities of acoustic design.

The interface, which features an underwater galaxy of bubbles, uses principles of nonlinear narrative to generate unique sonic experiences. By allowing users to navigate the space intuitively, the subtleties and variations of the soundscape are explored.


There is a great video (only 10 MB) online at the conference art show site. It gives a preview of many of the installations, including Protrude flow.

The Wooden Mirror, was the coolest thing from last year (New Orleans).




This page is maintained by YON - Jan C. Hardenbergh All photos you see in the 2001 reports are due to a generous loan of Cybershot digital cameras from SONY