michael naimark

Virtual Museums Symposium,
ARCH Foundation,
Salzburg, AUSTRIA, 1998




"Place Runs Deep: Virtuality, Place and Indigenousness"

Michael Naimark, Media Artist
Interval Research Corporation
Palo Alto – USA



I will begin, and end, with a notion of globalization. Two years ago I had email contact with Dubrovnik during bombing, and with Cambodia, but couldn't with Africa. Now it is even more possible in more places. This really is news.

Globalization, in terms of global access by everyone to everyone on the planet, is almost here. The dream has been around for several decades. From where I saw things, in the 1940's it was Gyorgy Kepes, MIT's first artist, and his vision of "The New Landscape." In the 1950's it was Arthur C. Clark and the concept of satellites, and Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson applying cybernetic theory to global society. In the 1960's it was Buckminster Fuller and his idea of "Spaceship Earth" and Marshal McLuhan and the "Global Village." In the 1970's Stewart Brand and the "Whole Earth" movement and Gene Youngblood and the "Information Utility." We are not there yet, but it appears unstoppable.

Consider the next wave of low orbiting satellite technology that will allow communication in both directions with relatively small dishes. Small, cheap Internet computers, self-contained using solar cells and these dishes, could be mass-produced. Absurd as it may sound, thousands of these computers could be dropped from airplanes with a note in a dozen languages stating "PUSH ANY KEY TO BEGIN." Like it or not, the planet is getting connected.



I'd like to first describe some of my past projects, exploring how new media can represent sense of place and its inhabitants. Most of these examples are of actual places, with the intention to be respectful of them as they are, like cinema verite. Though these were all prerecorded they have relevance to networks and live applications.

I've organized this presentation around two explorations, very simply: moving around and looking around.

The "Aspen Moviemap" (1978-80) was an MIT pre-Media Lab project and one of the first interactive laser disc experiments. The goal was to create visual seamlessness as one drives around. We did this by driving up and down the streets of Aspen, Colorado shooting with film cameras on top of a car triggered by distance rather than time, for example one frame every ten feet. We filmed going up and down every street and through every intersection every possible way. A great deal of effort went into making the match-cuts from straight sequences to turn sequences and back appear as visually seamless as possible. We called this "surrogate travel," an ironic term but one that stuck.

"Golden Gate" (1987) is a moviemap of the San Francisco Bay Area from the air made the Exploratorium. We used a special gyro-stabilized helicopter camera and satellite navigation to film along a precise ten by ten mile grid centered on Golden Gate Bridge. This exhibit uses a single trackball as the input device, so it is very easy to use. It allows moving around the Bay Area at unnaturally fast speeds. The goal was not to re-create a helicopter ride as much as to create a hyper-real experience, something impossible to experience in the physical world.

The Karlsruhe Moviemap (1990) was commissioned by the ZKM. Karlsruhe has a famous tram system which snakes from the downtown pedestrian area out to the Black Forest. The local tram company lent us a car and a driver for the month, and we mounted a distance-triggered camera pointing forward. The rails made the visual seamlessness perfect (except for time of day). This project was very much made for the local community, and it's usually obvious when locals familiar with the material use it. Unlike the previous two projects, this installation employs a large projection screen which gives users a strong visceral sense of immersion. It is, however, 2D.

"See Banff!" (1993-4) was an experiment to make a true stereoscopic 3D moviemap (which hadn't yet been done) and was made in conjunction with the Banff Centre for the Arts and Interval Research Corporation. A pair of 16mm cameras were mounted on a modified "baby jogger" carriage and distance triggered via an encoder mounted on a wheel. We packaged the display system in a kinetoscope exactly 100 years after it was invented, and to ironically promote tourism in Banff - counterpointing the beauty of the landscape with the politics of tourism. We collaborated with the Park Service, eco-activists and indigenous communities. It was a strong learning experience about who controls "place." But more on this later.

These projects were about representing place through moving around via interactive media. This next section is about looking around, representing 360-degree views - panoramas.

"Moving Movie" (1977) was an inexpensive modest study made at MIT. I was obsessed with why movie cameras move and movie projectors don't, and filmed the Boston landscape with a Super8 movie camera mounted on a slowly rotating turntable. The film is projected using a continuous loop projector mounted on the same slowly rotating turntable, using a translucent cylindrical screen so one can see on both sides. The result is a very natural looking "flashlight effect," with the frame rotating around the screen in sync with the filmed material. As the projected image rotates around the screen, direction and spatiality is maintained.

"Displacements" (1980-84) applied the "moving movie" idea to re-create an interior space, for an installation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. An archetypal Americana living room was installed in an exhibition space. Then two performers were filmed in the space using a 16mm motion picture camera on a slowly rotating turntable in the room's center. After filming, the camera was replaced with a film loop projector and the entire contents of the room were spray-painted white. The reason was to make a projection screen the right shape for projecting everything back onto itself. The result was that everything appears strikingly 3D, except for the people, who of course weren't spray-paint white, and consequently appeared very ghostlike and unreal.

"Panoramic Study" (1992) was made at the Banff Centre during a ten-day period. They had just acquired a powerful new SGI computer and had a talented team of creative programmers. A panoramic landscape was recorded using a consumer video camera, plus some surveyor's tools. The idea was to manually pan and tilt the camera and record the landscape, then hand-select single frames with a bit of overlap from one frame to the other in order to build a panoramic computer model. This was all done using brute force and hand-adjustment before semi-automated processes like QuickTime VR.

"Be Now Here" (1995-7) was an experiment to make 3D stereoscopic panoramas of public plazas, was supported by Interval Research with the cooperation of the UNESCO World Heritage Center. Of the nearly 500 World Heritage Sites, eighteen are listed "in danger," of which four are cities: Jerusalem; Dubrovnik; Timbuktu, Mali; and Angkor, Cambodia. My Interval colleagues helped assemble a custom rotating camera system using 2 35mm motion picture cameras. The entire system weighed over 500 pounds but was built to travel. The goal was to determine a single point in a single public plaza in each of these endangered cities and film through the course of the day. For a variety of reasons, filming had to be as cheap, quick, and quiet as possible, relying on local collaboration and help. (Yes it was scary. See http://www.naimark.net/writing/trips/bnhtrip.html.)

For the installation, a 12 by 16 foot video projection is used to give a sense of immersion. The viewers wear 3D glasses. A simple input pedestal allows viewers to chose location and time of day. A panoramic effect is achieved using a 16 foot diameter slowly rotating floor, which rotates the viewers in sync with the rotating imagery. The effect is similar to the feeling of being on a train in the station when the train next to you pulls out and you think you are moving. It is this strong visceral feeling, a sense of place, which is what I was shooting for.

I'm not suggesting that "Be Now Here" is a better form of image representation or display, nor that it's about saving the world, but of using the art arena as a form of experimentation and provocation.

After twenty years on these experiments representing place, here are some brief thoughts about what I believe I learned. First, one cannot represent everything. It will never be the same as "being there." To suggest that it is "like being there" suggests that the user can go everywhere and see everything, and you can't. It is humbling. It also implies an abdication of artistic or editorial control, which is problematic.

Second, immersive public-space environments have enjoyed a long rich history and it is unlikely that they will be replaced by the small low-bandwidth images associated with virtuality and the Web. On the contrary, imagine using networks and the Web to make unique ultra-high bandwidth group experiences which encompass both virtuality and co-presence.

Third, it is impossible to separate the aesthetics of telepresence from the politics of place. Representing place can't be separated from representing its inhabitants and culture.

Whoever controls representation, controls all.



Alan Lomax is an 81year old ethnomusicologist who has lived mostly in New York and is now a stroke victim. In the 1930's he and his father, ethnomusicologist John Lomax, made the first audio recordings in the field. His father was given an audio recorder from Thomas Edison's widow, which he made portable (it weighed 500lbs). John and Alan Lomax traveled around the southern United States recording African-American music, the roots of the Blues. In the 1940's and 1950's, their material became the basis for the American Archive of American Folk Song in the U.S. Library of Congress. Then, Alan Lomax recorded music from other countries and collected song and dance from around the world. By 1962, he had amassed the world's largest collection of recorded song and dance. He claimed to have heard patterns, patterns not possible to document with Western notation, so he began work with a team at Columbia University to develop a new notation system for song (which he called cantometrics) and for dance (which he called choreometrics). They wanted these systems to be relevant to all cultures. After coding thousands of examples, they started looking for correlations between song with song, and song with dance, and with preexisting databases of culture in general. Back then this meant typing up thousands of punch cards and feeding them through an IBM 360 mainframe computer. It was a very slow process.

What they found over the next decade, though, drastically changed their world view. They found everything was interconnected in a most dramatic way. It convinced them that the expressive arts mimic culture, so much so that they may be the deepest, most robust holder of culture. By the late 1970's, Alan became convinced that the emerging multimedia technologies could be used to make this material easily accessible to everyone, and called his dream the "Global Jukebox." He believed everyone would be able to discover their own cultural roots and know how they fit into the world picture.

By the early 1990s Alan and his team had built a first-pass system of the Global Jukebox using HyperCard and laserdiscs. The system was complex and its interface a bit clunky, but most everyone who experienced a demo was utterly astounded. One would conclude that the Global Jukebox would have a popular and commercial appeal.

Alan Lomax and his work doesn't tidely fit into any catagory. Though it might not be entirely fair to call him truly modernist, he is definitely pre-postmodernist, in that he celebrated recording and documenting. Lomax believed it made observations relatively direct and believed them as truth, at least as compared to second hand interpretation. He and his team have also been working in a bit of a void from the high tech world, even though they are based in the middle of Manhattan. They have been perceived to be a bit overprotective. This is understandable: they are content people.'

Alan has been struggling for funding from the technology companies for years. He has received numerous foundation grants; the U.S. Presidential Medal for theArts; and a cover endorsement by Mick Jagger for his last book. Brian Eno is a major fan. Alan told me that when the tech people see it they think it is great but then they don't call back. It's a content versus tech conflict, and the technology folks always win. It is a kind of techno-arrogance " believing that because you know or control the technology you should control the content. CDI, Philips' interactive CD format, lost over one billion dollars in development and massive promotion before they finally gave up. This is not the arrogance of one single individual, but is some kind of backward institutional way of looking at things.

And 99% of the planet's cultures have the content, but not the technology.



This is the most extreme example I know of using new media in collaboration with place-based content. Bernard Nietschmann is a geographer who did fieldwork in the 1960's and 1970's on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua working with the Miskito, Sumo and Rama Indians. In the 1980's, back in the U.S., he heard reports of unrest and decided to go back. He went in unofficially and was the first American in eastern Nicaragua during the early Sandanista days. He was also the Chair of the Geography Department at UC-Berkley at the time. What he learned was published in Co-Evolution Quarterly journal in 1984: half the Miskito and Sumo villages were destroyed by the Sandanistas and one quarter of the coastal Indian population was living in Sandanista-controlled relocation camps. He was not shy about taking an aggressive pro-indigenous stance.

Ten years later he published a very different paper in 1995, in Harvard's Cultural Survival journal, outlining a new paradigm of maps instead of guns. He proposed that indigenous communities in land conflicts would be more successful using portable Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) systems to re-map their territory rather than using AK-47s to forcibly defend it. His evidence was based on work he had recently completed with the Miskito Indians who had successfully won their land rights back by mapping their land with portable GPS units.

As a result of this project, Barney and his UC Berkley colleagues were invited by 42 Maya villages in southern Belize to help them remap their land. They were in a Belize Supreme Court battle because the government wanted to sell most of their land to corporate interests. When the UC Berkeley "high tech gringos" first met their native collaborators, they agreed that they were going to have to do everything evenly. The result is the Maya Atlas, published in the U.S. several months ago. The Maya villagers decided on their own legends, symbols, and what to map. It is considered the world's first community-made atlas. Though it was made as an educational tool and a political statement, it could have commercial potential as an aesthetic "coffee table" book.

This model, of high tech and indigenous collaborations, could be about art and artists as well as maps and cartographers.



I'd like to close with a few thoughts for virtual and future museums. The first is to lobby for a new kind of museum which is uniquely virtual and actual, a physical public space with ultrahigh bandwidth network access far beyond what one might have in their homes. There are proposals now for Internet II and ultrahigh bandwidth connections between universities. Imagine such connections between museums.

Another model for the future is museums as data repositories. An issue often ignored is that data has to reside somewhere. Even with distributed and redundant data models, the data still must physically live somewhere. The idea of museums as data repositories, especially in non-western regions is especially attractive.

Imagine such museum sites also being head-ends for live public Web-cams. These Web-cams could both serve as a means for outsiders to enjoy the scene and for locals to have connection to the outside. Imagine school children using a live Web-cam to monitor environmental conditions on a remote jungle river.

Finally, a place to watch, both with enthusiastic and critical eyes is www.2b1.org, an outgrowth of the MIT Media Lab. It is about using computing and new media technology in the third world, and using children as change agents. The 2B1 literature talks about "breakdown in barriers," "people treating the entire planet as their home," and "a decentralized spirit." They write "We see connecting the children of the world as a significant step, indeed the biggest possible step, toward creating a unified planet."

It is unfortunate that the Media Lab has never gotten their art thing straight. An unpleasant separation took place in 1980 between the art and media technology factions, one that was never resolved. The Media Lab's original name was the "Art and Media Technology Facility," a name which ended up in Karlsruhe, and not by coincidence.

Nevertheless, this model, of high tech and indigenous collaborations, could be about art and artists as well as playthings and children.