Siggraph '91, Las Vegas
I. Why Many Artists Today Dislike Technology
"EAT - A Virtual Dining Environment"
Art is always
content-driven. Indeed, when art appears to be something else such
as form-driven, we say that the form "becomes" the content. Traditionally
the arts community doesn't like it when art is primarily an exhibition
of new technology and nothing else. Rudolph Arnheim put it bluntly
when he said that art can't exist in a developing medium. For example,
he saw the advent of sound in cinema as a major step backward for
film as art. Consider what a back-handed compliment it would be
to say to Abel Gance that you loved "Napoleon" because of its three
screens, or to George Lucas that you loved "Star Wars" because of
its high-tech special effects.
On the other hand, Nam
June Paik once said that if it's been done before, he's not interested.
For several years I've
asked my art students for examples of artworks (in any medium) that
were both formally innovative and good art, however subjective.
Some works were cited repeatably: Les Demoiselles D'Avignon, The
Great Train Robbery, 2001, Running Fence, Tommy, to name the more
popular ones. There's no reason to believe the two are mutually
But something has changed,
over the past decade or two, that has driven many in the arts community
to be alienated by cutting edge technologies rather than wish to
explore them. Remember E.A.T. (not EAT)? Perhaps it's because most
high technology we see in any medium today is used more for flash
rather than substance. Look at television (particularly compared
to years past). Alas - spinning logos rule.
What's happened, many in
the arts community may say, is a discoupling of media expertise
from content. Advertisers boast that they can package dogshit well
enough to sell a millions dollars worth. We have been seduced by
packaging over substance. (Indeed, what does it say that we elected
an actor President of the United States.)
II. The San Francisco Art Institute
My perception of
the San Francisco Art Institute is as a most intense example of
such anti-packaging sentiment. You're there to learn and to make
art. If your art is a little rough around the edges and may not
be up to today's slick standards, well too bad. No one there is
going to add polish just to patronize a media-numbed public.
To a large extent, I agree.
And to an even greater degree, I respect it.
So when I was asked to
teach a something-like-high-technology class, what the hell, I accepted.
The worst that could happen is I could cause some trouble.
If you can't cause trouble
in the arts community, where can you?.
III. The Virtual Environments Class
I proposed a class
called "virtual environments" where we would make an interactive
videodisc-based environment. They gave me a $500 dollar budget (I
told them it costs $300 to make a single videodisc) and convinced
the Apple Multimedia Lab to loan us a Mac, a videodisc player, and
the then-new little Kodak LCD video projectors.
The goal of the class was
to produce an interactive installation. I've long been convinced
that the necessary concepts for conceiving and making interactive
video are not technological in nature. We didn't talk about technology
Most of the semester was
spent wrangling out a common structure within which each of the
dozen students could do their own work. The decision to base the
installation around a table took about a month; a food-related theme
took another month; and the use of live performers took a third
month. The fourth month consisted of producing mock-ups.
At the end of the fourth
month, and with three weeks left in the term, we had our "shoot
day," where 1/2 of the class budget was spent at the local Safeway
store for food to videotape (Crawford Communication, a videodisc
pressing facility, offered to make our disc for half price). A camera
was boomed from the ceiling of the studio pointing straight down
and various "actions" were shot using the food, creating various
"dishes." Additional footage (some but not all directly food-related)
was added during editing and a videodisc was mastered in one day.
My teaching assistant,
Erik Slavin, coordinated the computer-related work. The Macintosh
was programmed to control the videodisc player according to the
"actions" created by the students. Working in HyperCard, this took
Erik about a half day. The Mac was also used to make the menu and
guest checks, which list the credits on one side and would be "personalized"
by the waiter ("Have a nice day! -Hank") on the backside.
The final two weeks were
spent on the installation set-up, coordinated by Charles (Bud) Lassiter.
A table was built with a hole for video projection. It was noted
that the length of a dining table for two is related to social and
economic class so one of the students proposed we build a trapezoidal
table. Matching place settings were found to scale.
We opened our virtual dining
environment for the annual Spring Show. The students took shifts
being maitre d', waiter, and chef and were absolutely relentless
with their restaurant metaphor. They got into it. And they won a
SFAI gold award for it.
is based around a formally arranged dining table, custom-built with
a window under the plate and a Kodak LCD video projector mounted
underneath. The clear glass dinner plate was sand-blasted to become
a rear-projection relief screen.
The video material was
shot mostly from a suspended camera pointing straight down such
that the footage would spatially correspond with the plate projection
screen. It was produced and edited on 3/4" videotape and mastered
onto a quick plastic videodisc.
The Pioneer 4200 videodisc
player was controlled by a MacII computer using standard HyperCard
videodisc tools. The system was hidden in the "kitchen" and only
used by the artist-waiters to enter the menu items.
On the table next to the
plate was a large red pushbutton labelled "EAT." During the "course"
of a menu item, the imagery may freeze until the EAT button was
pressed. Another pushbutton, mounted in the table hidden from public
view, was used by the waiter to call up the next menu item. Both
pushbuttons were connected directly into keyboard keys.
V. Convivial Tools and Garage VR
Convivial tools (if I understand
Ivan Illich) are tools accessible and usable by non-tool-experts.
Like using home video cameras over Panaflexes. Like using small
cheap computers over VGXs. Like bicycles over private airplanes.
The tools we used for EAT
are just beginning to get convivial. Three essential conditions
existed then that didn't exist five years earlier: a videodisc player
for under $1,000, videodisc mastering for under $500, and software
like HyperCard that didn't require an advanced degree to use. It
may not be much but it's a start.
As these tools become more
convivial, they will become less alien, and more artists will use
them. Shoe polish will be made by those who like to make shoe polish
and it won't be by those who just wish to make shoes.
Don't get me wrong: I like
million dollar projects too. But having directed videodisc projects
with budgets of more than a million dollars and others with budgets
of less than a thousand dollars, I certainly cannot say that the
payoff is proportional.