Visualization, Cultural Mediation and Dual Creativity

Frank Popper

6, rue du Marché-Saint-Honoré
75001 Paris

Artists, and especially artists who are committed to using advanced technologies in their working processes, are a curious mixture of modesty and pretension. At times they adopt the stance of a simple research worker and at others they behave as if they were the representatives of some supernatural power on earth trying to satisfy their desire to go beyond human powers. So it is possible that both the desire to calculate the creative process mathematically and the will to go beyond present-day scientific knowledge and its technical applications can be united in a single person.

In this article, I shall try to determine what this mixture is with regard to the contributions and challenges made by artists to information technology---that is to say, to determine in what way artists have already added an aesthetic dimension to experimentation in the areas of video, computer and communication technology, and in what way their artistic projects in the course of development constitute an incentive for scientists and engineers to explore new territories.

In order to make a reasonable demonstration of this intricate problem, I shall give as many concrete examples of artistic activities as possible, in particular those examples which illustrate the area of visualization of unseen phenomena and the field of cultural mediation and communication, especially with the aid of telecommunications and other networks. I shall also discuss the fact that a new assessment of the notion of creativity is necessary since a combination of scientific invention and artistic creation is now practiced by single persons or teams of researchers.

It can be argued that it has always been one of the main preoccupations of artists to make visible unseen sentiments or forces of the universe in addition to the mere representation or mimesis of physical objects and real persons.

Yet there have been important milestones in the evolution of this problem, not only due to the fact that there have been philosophical, psychological and social mutations which have authorized artists to use their psychological insight or the free employment of their imagination to go beyond mere artistic imitation, but also because a number of significant technical advances have taken place.

It is this last phenomenon which interests us particularly and which constitutes a decisive point in our argument that the aesthetic as well as the scientific situation has fundamentally changed and that a mutation or perhaps a revolution has taken place in this field.

It seems undeniable that if, early in this century, Paul Klee was able to use as his motto that the painter's task was to make unseen things visible, the scientific and artistic visualization brought about by the computer revolution, especially since the 1980s, has decisively contributed to the breaking up of the divisions between Science and Art and made us enter a new era.

One or two examples of artists can stress this point. These examples are taken from what can be called Computer Art or from combined research by artists with computer and video appliances.

But let me make it clear from the outset that, to my mind, one can only speak of an artistic contribution to technology research or of computer or video art if one assumes that the artist in his démarche is always pursuing, consciously or unconsciously, an aesthetic purpose or an artistic finality.

This aesthetic purpose can vary considerably according to the use the artist is making of different means in different ways and in different contexts, and can involve the most varied aesthetic categories. However, the three main areas in which these categories are situated can be described by the keywords simulation, artificial intelligence and, above all, interactivity.

But to return to the problem of visualization, let me indicate to start with the position of one of the pioneers of computer art, the French artist of Hungarian origin Vera Molnar, who was struck early in her career as a computer artist by the way that painters such as Klee and Mondrian had tried to visualize hidden elements in nature or in their psyche and to transform them into essential aesthetic elements and statements.

It is helpful to examine Vera Molnar's basic attitude to the computer in order to grasp the aesthetic and technical interrelations concerning the problem of visualization in her work. Vera Molnar holds that the computer can serve four purposes. The first concerns its technical promise---it widens the area of the possible with its infinite array of forms and colors, and particularly with the development of virtual space. Secondly, the computer can satisfy the desire for artistic innovations and thus lighten the burden of traditional cultural forms. It can make the accidental or random subversive in order to create an aesthetic shock and to rupture the systematic and the symmetrical. For this purpose a virtual data bank can be assembled. Thirdly, the computer can encourage the mind to work in new ways. Molnar believes that artists often pass far too quickly from the idea to the realization of the work. The computer can create images that can be stored for longer, not only in the data bank but also in the artist's imagination. Finally, Molnar thinks that the computer can help the artist by measuring the physiological reactions of the audience, their eye movements for example, thus bringing the creative process into closer accordance with its products and their effects.

Vera Molnar, in this statement, makes allusion not only to the artistic challenge to information technology as regards the production of simple geometrical patterns such as squares, circles and triangles and their subtle variations, which is her preferred area of investigation, but also to the latest developments in the so-called virtual reality area.

Here the challenge is still more pronounced, since the lack of artistic models is almost total and the responsibility of the scientist or the engineer for the final result much greater. Let us take as witness an artist whose technical qualifications are particularly high: Jean-François Colonna. This research worker and teacher at the famous Ecole polytechnique, now at Palaiseau just outside Paris, is concerned with the visualization of the most varied phenomena in nature. He sees scientific visualization as not only a technique but also an art in itself. In this way he has now created thousands of slides that allow the visualization of natural phenomena and/or mathematical functions, one of which---a two-dimensional representation of part of a "Mandelbrot set," a fractal, which is useful for understanding and defining certain natural shapes and phenomena---served as the basis for a fresco in the hall of the Polytechnic School. That is to say, it served a decorative and artistic purpose.

In order to begin to explain Jean-François Colonna's attitude towards the art/science relationship, let us note that he considers that, in addition to the experimentation he qualifies as of a laboratory type, which is performed either a priori (as in the case of natural phenomena) or a posteriori (to verify the predictive power of mathematical deduction), there exists a virtual experimentation due to the enormous progress made in the field of computer science at levels of both software and hardware. Vision being the most highly developed of all the human resources for apprehending the environment, picture synthesis becomes a privileged branch of virtual experimentation and represents not only a scientific tool allowing synthesis, validation, comprehension of abstract concepts and the manipulation of inaccessible or invisible objects, but also a means of communication, of discovery and of creativity, thus uniting (or reconciling) Art and Science.

As to the creators principally concerned with research into virtual reality, let me single out British artist Jeffrey Shaw, who, after having lived in Australia and in the Netherlands, is now a leading light at the Karlsruhe Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie in Germany. This is an artist who has followed systematically the path from spectator participation to interactivity, now one of the prominent keywords in computer art and high-technology art in general. In fact, while in Holland in the 1960s, Jeffrey Shaw was a member of the Eventstructure Research Group, which produced works consisting mainly of air-inflated tubes that enabled spectators to walk on water. The basic idea of this kind of spectator participation found development in a work conceived with the Dutch artist Dirk Groeneveld five years ago and entitled The Legible City. This impressive interactive computer/video installation was, in the first place, limited to a partly real, partly imaginary bicycle ride through Manhattan, but was later extended also to include the city of Amsterdam. In this work, the psychological identity of "the city" is made tangible as a three-dimensional literary architecture through which the spectator travels interactively on a bicycle. Its streets, intersections, squares, etc. form the ground plan of a spatial ordering of words and sentences, and bicycling in that city is a journey of reading. A large-screen video image is generated by means of a computer-graphic 3D animation system connected to electronic sensors on the handlebars and pedals of an immobile bicycle. The image responds in real time to instructions concerning direction and speed that result from the action of the person who is "riding" the bicycle.

The urban architecture of words and sentences in this work is based on historical chronicles of Amsterdam and on statements made by people linked with the city of New York.

An additional step towards interactivity, related this time still closer to virtual reality technology, was accomplished by Jeffrey Shaw with his Virtual Museum, an interactive installation of synthesized images observable from a swiveling chair. In this work, the viewer penetrates the walls of a real room to view an imaginary museum room containing paintings, then one containing sculptures, one with cinematographic images and, finally, a room with calculated computer graphics.

Apart from making full use of all technological advances in order to incorporate them in his artistic research, Jeffrey Shaw intends to utilize stereoscopic head gear, data gloves and data suits---as well as the latest communication linkups---in his projects.

There is little doubt that it is in this area of virtual reality or virtual environments that the principal artistic challenge to information technology resides. It is closely linked to the technological artists' desire to break out of the traditional way of involving the spectator only on a contemplative level and to make him or her participate actively in the creative process.

Interactive environmental works by artists such as Lynn Hershman, Nicole Stenger, Myron Krueger and Matt Mullican and by researchers who have been showing their activities at the Revue Virtuelle of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris bear witness to this development.

In Lynn Hershman's Deep Contact (1990), for example, a robotic femme fatale reacts to the touch of the interacting spectator with the help of Hypercard software and an Apple Macintosh personal computer, which moderate the viewer's access to 57 video segments stored on videodisk. However, Hershman's ambitious projects demand yet more sophisticated technology that allows for more global viewer participation.

Nicole Stenger's Angelic Meetings is a project for an installation employing synthetic image devices which makes use of the specific interface between eyephones and data gloves. With guidance, the spectator can create a meeting in the virtual space of several simulated gardens. This event can be recorded in computer memory and in turn reenacted for other spectators.

Myron W. Krueger is an artist/researcher who had already conceived his project Videoplace in 1969 and showed it one year later as a telecommunications event. This is an interactive installation which Krueger has now been developing for over twenty years and which is based on the computer's most unique feature: its ability to respond to real time. In Videoplace, the computer perceives the visitor's image in motion, analyzes it, understands what it sees, and responds with graphics, video effects and synthesized sound. The spectator's movements determine entirely what he or she will perceive and experience, although the laws of cause and effect are composed by the artist.

Matt Mullican is also an artist who constantly elaborates his ambitious City Project. This interactive computer graphics project was developed on a supercomputer and is backed up by six laserdisks containing a walk through Mullican's City. Seen from above, this city resembles a baseball field. It is made up of delimited and different-colored zones. The red zone, called "the Subjective," represents the spirit. The black-and-white zones, called "zones of signs," are those in which language exists only as signs or symbols. The yellow zone is a microcosm of the representation of the whole world; the blue one, the world in which we actually live; the green one, nature. When an imaginary stroller walks in a particular zone, the entire town takes on the color of that zone in order to abolish the limited geographical connotation in favor of a global social involvement in this city. As soon as Mullican had the possibility of using a helmet allowing stereoscopic vision coupled to a computer, he entered the symbolic space himself for an individual performance. He is likely to adopt, even to provoke, new technological advances that will allow him to pursue the aesthetic and social aims of his project, whose latest version bears the name Five into One. In this work, the five colored "worlds" or aspects of the city combine into a single one and may be taken as a symbol for an overall synthesis of modern life.

Among the artists and theoreticians who have already been invited to show their activities at the Revue Virtuelle of the Pompidou Centre in Paris are Scott Fisher and Karl Sims, who are both concerned closely with the problem of interactivity with the aid of the latest technological devices.

Scott Fisher's Boom, a binocular vision interface device, is his latest attempt to enable people to feel as if they were actually present in a different place and time. Scott Fisher calls this kind of virtual reality Telepresence. It involves three technologies in combination which enable sensory immersion---that is, they surround the user with a sensory field that mimics input from the real world. These technologies are (1) wide-angle stereoscopic visual displays immersing users in three-dimensional visual environments (2) three-dimensional, binaural audio displays that enable sounds to be localized in virtual space and (3) instrumented input devices which track users' bodies as they move about and manipulate virtual objects.

Karl Sims, on the other hand, has produced with the aid of a powerful computer an installation generating genetic images of enormous complexity. He puts the spectator in an original position in front of these images. The principle of massively parallel data processing, also known as "fine grain" calculating, is to share out the computer's tasks between several thousands of simple, interconnected processes. Its architecture resembles that of a nervous system, with enormous quantities of data being processed at great speed, enabling the system as a whole to retain its "real time" qualities and its interactivity. Karl Sims's purpose is to plot reputedly chaotic phenomena, irreducible to mathematical formulae, in visible forms that achieve a high level of similitude while at the same time selecting the resulting random images from an aesthetic and creative point of view. His final aim is to activate the aesthetic awareness of the public in an up-to-date scientific context principally concerned with genetic problems and artificial life in particular.

Information technology has not only been used by artists working with computers or with computers combined with video, but also by creators in the telematic area, that is to say the area combining telecommunications technology with the computer.

Outstanding in this field is English artist Roy Ascott, who has put to good use a system which facilitates interaction between video appliances and the electronic space of computer memory reaching beyond the normal constraints of time and space that apply to face-to-face communication. Ascott was one of the first to understand that telecommunications systems, incorporating the telephone, the telex, the fax and the public videotext system Minitel in France, could be used for what was to become a major cultural achievement, that is to say cultural mediation through networking. An early project of his, The Pleating of the Text: A Planetary Fairy Tale (in homage to Roland Barthes's Le Plaisir du Texte), devised for the Electra exhibition at the Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Paris in 1983, involved the creation of a text by the "dispersed authorship" of groups of artists located in eleven cities around the world, each group participating through an electronic network. The story developed gradually as every day a piece of text was logged in from each terminal. Most of the terminals were linked to data projectors so that the text being generated could be publicly accessible.

For Ascott, the art of our time is one of system, process, participation and interaction. As our values are relativistic, our culture pluralistic, our forms and images evanescent, it is the processes of interaction between human beings which create meaning and, consequently, cultures. Hence, those systems and processes which facilitate and amplify interaction are the ones that will be used by communication artists in order to encompass a world audience with the aid of telematic systems based on computer-mediated cable and satellite links.

In fact, two artists, Jean-Marc Philippe and Pierre Comte, have particularly illustrated this area. Jean-Marc Philippe has produced a project for a Celestial Wheel, which consists, in part, of an encircling of the Earth with a corona of existing orbiting satellites, and Pierre Comte has proposed two types of artistic installations : those located on Earth and intended to be seen from a satellite, and those in orbit and meant to be seen from the earth.

Allusion can be made also to the numerous artists who practice cultural mediation with technical means other than information technology. Of the artists involved in this research, I shall single out French artist Fred Forest, who is one of the founders of what has been called the Aesthetics of Communication Group. Forest's research focuses on communication itself, and he excels in the subtle art of mixing different types of media to create his systems. By using electronic newspapers in his latest installations, he is able to make the link between technology in everyday life and its artistic uses. In his installation entitled The Electronic Bible and the Gulf War, red light from electronic diodes travels between two definitions---one of the Bible, the other of electronics---taken from a dictionary. Forest was struck by the fact that the three monotheistic religions were all involved in the Gulf War, and wanted to show that there was a kind of reiteration of history by juxtaposing the utterances of iconic personalities (such as politicians and high-ranking military personnel) with quotations from the Old Testament. In order to do this, he selected passages from the Bible and from newspapers which resembled each other (such as long enumerations of arms equipment juxtaposed with Biblical genealogies), and made them appear simultaneously and in a permanent luminous flow of words on tablets on a fenced-off segment of the floor.

However, the typical cultural mediation event practiced by Fred Forest and many other artists belonging to the Aesthetics of Communication Group, as well as telecommunication artists in general, is brought about by means of remote-controlled technology capable of visually uniting physically distinct places. In this type of event, it is not the exchanged content that matters, but rather the network that is activated and the functional conditions of exchange. The aesthetic specificity of telecommunications art is thus closely related to its technical specificity. With the event taking place in real time and without any geographical limitation, an entirely new way of relating space and time is achieved and an interactivity planned and conceived by an artist does allow creative communication to take place.

The originality of communication art can now be situated in the context of the university and considered as belonging to what has been named Cultural Studies. This is a new academic discipline, or rather an interdisciplinary field with a new approach to the humanities, involving many previously separate academic discourses, such as political theory, history, literature, sociology and art history. Through such general themes as class, race, and gender, it has spawned new areas of study, among them film theory and popular culture as well as media and communication studies.

One can also approach the problem of dual creativity---that is, combined scientific and artistic invention and creation---from this pedagogical angle. Several institutions concerned mainly with higher education, especially in the United States, Germany and France, have recently started to provide expert training on advanced scientific, technical and artistic subjects in view of furthering this double creativity. I shall limit myself to mentioning in this context only the Arts and Technology of the Image department at the University of Paris VIII at Saint-Denis, although I could just as well have chosen the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Media Center in Cologne or the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie in Karlsruhe.

The question as to whether a technological artist should actually possess himself all the technological qualifications necessary for creating works of high-tech sophistication or whether he should be working in collaboration with a scientist or an engineer for this purpose has been discussed and experimented ever since the 1960s. It is only recently that the line of thought recommending combined training on an advanced level in the two disciplines has really made its way. In fact, the quality of this training is closely bound up with the creative invention and imagination of the teachers engaged in this enterprise.

As regards the department Art et Technologie de l'Image of Saint-Denis, artists with a scientific background, such as Edmond Couchot, Hervé Huitric, Michel Bret or Jean-Louis Boissier, and scientists with an artistic leaning, such as Monique Nahas, have teamed up to create and teach, both collectively and individually, computer graphics and computer animation techniques with an artistic purpose. Research, education and creation are closely associated in their lectures and laboratory work.

In fact, what is at stake in all these activities is a good mixture of scientific invention and artistic creation, be it in the individual or in the team. This can be considered as the key for the appreciation of the value of the artistic contribution and challenge to information technology as regards dual creativity.

To illustrate this point, we can chose one of the combined works of the Saint-Denis group, for example La Plume (The Bird's Feather), to which Edmond Couchot, Michel Bret and Marie-Hélène Tramus contributed. This was in the first place a project that made appeal to the collaboration of specialists in flight simulation. After resolving the technical problems and making the feather "fly" on a screen with the aid of the computer and by means of the spectator's breath, it was both the technical inventiveness and the artistic imagination of the three collaborating creators that allowed the first realization to be transformed into a work entitled I sow to the four winds. In this subtle interactive demonstration, a large dandelion head moves slowly on a screen and, under the influence of a "virtual" breeze, will detach clumps of seeds that scatter and softly fall as the spectator breathes on it. The spectator can continue to blow until nothing remains to dislodge. Then a complete new flower appears on the screen and the game, always different, begins again.

In order to conclude, let me make a remark on the impact that artistic research in visualization, cultural mediation and double creativity has had on information technology in the public eye.

In the Times Literary Supplement of 30 April 1993, information technology was examined from a general point of view and in particular from a consideration of science fiction and its usefulness and menace to actual writing processes, to music and to poetry. There was only a minor reference to art technology and computing through an assessment of a book edited by Clifford A. Pickover entitled Visions of the Future. This review did not lay any stress on the work of visual artists at the present time.

However, in this article I have tried to give you some telling examples of the important artistic contribution in this field, and I think to have done the same in my book which was published in the autumn of 1993, and which bears the title Art of the Electronic Age.

This overview not only covers computer, communications and video art, but also laser and holographic art as well as works by artists that are concerned with the technology/ecology interface. It also makes allusion to the social implications of this artistic phenomenon and to the many exhibitions with large audiences that have already taken place in this area in many countries, as well as to the large number of institutions in the fields of education, publishing, museology, artistic creation, etc., which are listed in an International Directory of the Electronic Arts with over a thousand entries of institutions and nearly 1500 listings of active artists in this area.

This important artistic movement should thus not only be considered as an aesthetic challenge to information technology connected with such categories as visualization, cultural mediation and dual creativity, but also as a social challenge provoked by a large number of artists and personalities through their proper activities or by their appeal to the public at large for an interactive creativity.

Originally published in German in P. Zoche (Hrsg.), "Herausforderungen für die Informationstechnik" (Heidelberg: Physica-Verlag, 1994), pp. 405--415. Copyright 1994 Springer-Verlag. Republished with permission.

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