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SC06: International Conference for High Performance Computing, Networking, Storage, and Analysis

Nov. 11-17, 2006; Tampa, FL

Conference website: http://sc06.supercomputing.org/

Reviewed by Jack Ox


How relevant is Supercomputing to artists? What kind of artist would want to go there, either to learn or to demonstrate their work to its audience? I admit that we are not yet a sizable population within the conference attendees, but would like to make a case for an expanded participation.

Consider the areas of research that are engaged in utilizing super computing technology: biology and genomics, networking and telepresence with the LambaRail, chemistry and the rational design of drugs, reverse engineering of the brain with studies on the limits of human ability. Leonardo’s community, including artist and scientists, has been working in these areas in a very serious way for a relatively long period of time. Ray Kurzweil, the keynote speaker at SC06, asked, "Is it possible to understand our own brains?" As usual he was philosophical, and he speaks to artists as well as scientists, speaking copiously on the exponentially accelerating rate of progress, of which supercomputing is a major ingredient.

Donna Cox and her wonderful team of scientific visualization specialists (Robert Patterson and Stuart Levy) are regulars at this conference. Their artistry is actually part of the scientific world far more than of the art world. They were at the NCSA [1] booth showing HD, stereoscopic visualizations of galaxies and weather systems.

But there were also artists producing performances that operate more in the traditional area of the performing arts although using high performance networking technology for both the collaborators and the dispersed audiences. This group is lead by Jimmy Miklavcic, a multimedia specialist at the University of Utah’s Center for High Performance Computing, with artistic direction by Beth Miklavcic. The group, called Another Language Performing Arts Company, re-presented their fourth InterPlay performance called Dancing on the Banks of Packet Creek during Supercomputing. Because the group is working over Internet2 they have had to choose faster communication over high resolution, employing serious video compression. But Miklavcic has made this work to his artistic advantage. The various streams, coming in from Boston University, Purdue University, the University of Maryland, and the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, all to the University of Utah, are mixed by Jimmy Miklavcic and look astonishingly like paintings with very beautifully applied surfaces and muted colors. All of the performers work in tandem with the sound, which is mostly improvised, and in return is influenced by the choices of the performers and the visual of the main mix. It was very impressive how the performers dealt with the considerable, irregular delay, known as jitter, on the still packet driven Internet2.[2]

Miklavcic uses AccessGrid Video (Cassette) Recorder (AGVCR) [3] to capture and record the video streams from all of the players. These files can them be played back at a later time (as they were at Supercomputing), and they can be edited via a built-in editor. This is how they are interwoven into such fascinating, painting like images. The result is not "visual music" but rather music with image. The video was compressed with H.261 compression, a standard video conference method used in the Access Grid system.

The concept behind the performance is an exploration into the "inundating wave of digital information and non-experiential knowledge" [4] that we are subjected to during our digital lives. Each of the participants created parts on their own while thinking about the same concept. Each site contributed at least two video streams, with the music performed and transmitted from the Fairbanks and Boston locations. The performers involved in "Packet Creek" are all quite proficient in areas such as film, radio broadcasting, and dance, and also have extensive scientific and technological backgrounds including mathematics, computer engineering, biomedical engineering, digital art, and 3-D animation.

My question is how would this performance change if it were to be on the National Lambda Rail (NLR) [5] instead of Internet2? All of sudden the video compression would not be necessary, and the sound would have little delay, with a regularity that can easily be overcome by musicians. I believe that the whole aesthetic quality would change dramatically.

Of course the NLR also had a great presence at SC06. One could sit at their booth for hours, taking in one great half hour talk after another. Tom West, the President and CEO of NLR, gave several introductions to the technology throughout the conference. We were also treated to presentations by Larry Smarr (Calit2 at UCSD)on genomic and ocenographic research over Optiputer, a member of NLR, Jason Leigh (Electronic Visualization Lab at UIC) about SAGE wall immersive technology [6], and Maxine Brown (UIC) on TransLight/StarLight and TranLight/Pacific Wave [7], the complementary efforts funded by the Nation Science Foundation (NSF) that provides the infrastructure connecting US, European and Pacific Rim research and education networks. All of this information is extremely useful to any member of our community who desires to be dancing on the very exciting edge of high performance computing and networking technology.


[1] The National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign http://www.ncsa.uiuc.edu/.

[2] /www.internet2.edu/.

[3] http://iri.informatics.indiana.edu/~dcpiper/agvcr/.

[4] http://www.anotherlanguage.org/interplay/packetcreek/index.html.

[5] http://www.nlr.net/ The NLR is a designated proprietary optical network with enormously wide band capacity, which Ox wrote about in her Leonardo Editorial Vol 39 Number 5 2006.

[6] http://www.evl.uic.edu/core.php?mod=4&type=1&indi=281.

[7] http://www.evl.uic.edu/core.php?mod=4&type=1&indi=306.



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