Exotic Art Imitates Exotic Life

Media Festival Winners Are an Artificial-Lively Bunch

June 7, 1995

By Scott Rosenberg

LOS ANGELES -- The artist standing at the podium holds his trophy aloft and says, "Most of all, I'd like to thank the tens of thousands of artificial organisms that made the ultimate sacrifice to make this award possible."

You've never heard anything like that at the Oscars. But then nobody ever won an Academy Award for an experiment in computer-generated life forms.

The Arc Awards, presented Tuesday evening at the second Interactive Media Festival, have as little in common with mainstream entertainment awards as the innovative, exotic art projects that received them have in common with, say, "The Bridges of Madison County."

A jury -- conducting its business over the World Wide Web -- chose the winners from among 22 works it had previously picked for the gallery of the Interactive Media Festival, a three-day international event in a converted old theater in downtown Los Angeles.

This year's gallery was significantly more adventurous, better arranged and more fun than last year's. Where a year ago Peter Gabriel's tasteful but hardly groundbreaking "Xplora" CD-ROM walked off with two awards, this year's "Archetype Award" for overall excellence went to Perry Hoberman's "Bar Code Hotel" -- an installation that's part high-tech funhouse and part mall-culture satire.

In Hoberman's piece, five visitors wielding scanner wands create objects on a projected computer screen and then control their behavior by running the wands over bar codes plastered around them. Like many of the group-oriented pieces in the festival, Hoberman's is as much about how the participants relate to one another as about how they react to technology: Do you collaborate or compete?

Bizarre as "Bar Code Hotel" may sound, it seemed positively homey next to some of the more esoteric award winners, many of which illustrated concepts of artificial evolution and computer ecology. In Tom Ray's "Biodiversity Reserve," program-code organisms roam across designated regions of the Internet to feed on spare processor cycles, mate and evolve.

Another award winner, "A-Volve," by Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau, allowed gallery visitors to draw the outlines of aquatic creatures and then watch them thrive or perish on a screen at the bottom of a pool. If you dipped your hand in the water to touch the screen, you could protect your creations from predators.

Motorola, the festival's chief sponsor, gave a $10,000 cash prize to Karl Sims for his "Genetic Images," which stands viewers before a bank of 16 video monitors displaying complex, random color patterns. You select the two you like best by stepping in front of them; these images "mate" and instantly produce a new generation, midwifed by supercomputer. Before long, you're playing God to a brood of blobs and squiggles.

In such company, more mass-market, CD-ROM-based works, like Sony's "Johnny Mnemonic" or "Burn: Cycle," a videogame for Philips' aging CD-I machine, came off as static and isolating. The future, you couldn't help feeling, belongs to the artificial-lifers - and to the Internet-based projects, too.

Ken Goldberg and Joe Santarromana's "Tele-Garden" allows World Wide Web surfers to control a robotic arm that tends a real indoor garden in a room at USC. David Blair and Tom Meyer's "WaxWeb" is a movie-based virtual environment that Internet users can add to and modify. A team of programmers in the Bay Area who had never seen the labyrinthine exhibition space created a three-dimensional model of it for the festival's Web site.

Festival attendees got a lesson in a more venerable interactive tradition from the Blue Man Group performance-art trio, which made its West Coast premiere here Monday. For their finale, the Blue Men tossed dozens of rolls of crepe paper out into the house and flashed strobe lights; the audience jumped to their feet to bat around the stuff, turning the theater into a single, pulsing rock-show organism. It will be some time yet before any kind of computer can create that sort of life.

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