michael naimark




ISEA '94, Helsinki

Michael Naimark


The 5th International Symposium on Electronic Art (ISEA) was held August 20-25 in Helsinki Finland. Over 300 people attended, mostly from Europe, North America, Australia, and Japan. This group seemed to be evenly distributed between practicing artists and writers/critics/curators. Most everyone had an academic affiliation.

This year's conference was organized loosely around three themes: "The Next Generation," "Spacescapes," and "High and Low." The actual panel titles (in which all accepted papers were fitted) were more indicative of the climate: interactivity, multimedia, visualization, composition, arch-design, body, soundscapes, cave, east/west, gender/blender, global/local, and artists in cyberculture. There was the usual tension between the enthusiastic and the critical.

The artshow, in Helsinki's Museum of Contemporary Art, consisted mostly of installations (i.e., custom work). The 20-some works were about as good a representation of the range of electronic art as it gets. It included NV/NV winner George Legrady's installation version of his Cold War personal archive (George and his family fled Hungary during the 1956 revolution), Interactive Media Festival winner Paul Sermon's Telematic Vision (2 chroma-key blue sofas in remote locations connected via video), and IMF finalist University of Paris professor Jean-Louis Boissier's Flora Petrinsularis (an elegant interpretation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's The Confessions, using a real book, a video camera aimed at the page number, and a mac-based "virtual book" of video snippets triggered by the camera).

Perhaps the most intense piece was by Autralian artist Stelarc called Stomach Sculpture. The work consisted of a videotape of his "performance" of having a live endoscopic video camera snaked down his throat into his stomach. The camera probe was exhibited as well. Stelarc's past work included building a sophisticated human-like robot arm, and, before that, having several dozen large curved needles inserted in his naked body, then being suspended. He's a very smart and articulate fellow; this latest work comes as no shock.

The most cryptic, over-intellectualized, and to me, least favorite work was by a group called Knowbotic Research, based at the Cologne Media Arts Academy. This largescale, seemingly ambitious installation consisted of several video projections (mostly of computer data), murals, a large portable LCD display to be worn at chest-level, and a small gaggle of artist-assistants helping and explaining what's going on (not in the least bit apparent otherwise). The piece is called Dialogue with the Knowbotic South, or DWTKS for "short." It involves Antartica, and an elaborate theory about its cultural knowledge representation. One component was a WWW connection. I sat through an hour lecture by one of the artists, who saw everything fitting together perfectly through their invented symbols and codes, if only everyone understood. This kind of work is popular among younger German artists, often emulating the work of the late Joseph Beuys. But unlike Beuys (whose first-ever major retrospective just opened at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, a magnificant exhibit), these younger works have all the obscure symbology with none of the reflective or spiritual bases. The result is grossly pretentious. In all fairness, I've seen some more direct work by this group last year in Hamburg, but either something snapped with their aesthetic or with my tolerance for such stuff.

On the other hand, Paul De Marinis exhibited two interactive sculptures from his "Edison Effect" series. Both involve audio playback from pre-recorded grooves, of sorts. Ich auch Berlin(er) is a tribute to the Berlin brothers, in which a small laser replaces a diamond stylus and a hologram of the 78 rpm record replaces the original (it actually works). Fragments from Jericho is a rotating clay vessel and small laser reflecting off the hand-made grooves (you barely can hear ambient noises and even voices). Paul, a longtime Exploratorium artist and a recipient of PARC'S artists-in-residence grant, uses everyday technology in lean and resourceful ways. The clay cylinder rotates on a used record turntable. The hologram/record turntable is coupled to a motor by a rubber band. In both pieces, the lasers are counter-balanced to be easily positioned by the visitor (hence, interactive). The technology is neither flaunted (e.g., Alan Rath, Lawrence Paul) nor hidden (See Banff!), it's just there. Non-pretentious. Matter of fact.

Other noteworthy exhibits include Canadian artist Catherine Richard's The Virtual Body, a(nother) 19th century wood-and-brass retro piece, investigating proprioceptics - the feeling of one's body being extended - which was initially investigated in the mid-1800s. Finnish artists Kimmo Koskela and Rea Pihlasviita made A Talking Picture, at first glance a large painting of a woman inside a classical wooden frame, but actually a live woman via rear-screen video projection (a mic and camera were hidden above, so she could converse with the visitors). CyberSM III by Kirk Wolford and Stahl Stenslie, both from the Cologne Academy, involved two spandex suits with strategically placed sensors and vibrators networked together. And not least - our own Becky Fuson, with Peter Broadwell and Rob Myer, premiered Plasm: A Country Walk, a force-feedback leash in sync with a 3DO-based image of walking a dog. This team which made a hit with Sky-Boards (virtual boogie-boards) at Siggraph '91 had a respectable first run of this new work.

See Banff! was in its second run here. Christoph (who flew in from Karlsruhe) and I managed to replace a broken encoder with an intact mouse and a mile of gaffer tape a few hours before the opening. Everything worked fine. The force-feedback crank was a hoot: you do expect it and you don't expect it.

But perhaps the coolest new electronic artwork was one I didn't see but only heard of. It was in a local art student's large industrial studio. Kirk Wolford went there and described it later as a 6 foot diameter 2 ton steel sphere with heat sensors, gyro motors, and a voice. As one appoaches it (as Kirk inadvertently did in the dark), at a certain distance it goes "click," then says "I'VE GOT YOU NOW." Then it starts rolling toward you. Kirk had no advance notice from the artist (who had left the room), and started running. It followed. Kirk turned around. So did It. Then the artist walked back in, cried "SHIT," and corralled it into an area of the studio under renovation where it crashed into some loose wood and finally stopped. The artist said it was a work-in-progress and still had some bugs.

ISEA ended with an optional 4 day cruise to St. Petersberg, including meetings and presentations with our Russian counterparts. St. Petersberg is a harsh and beautiful place, reflected in the artists' work we saw. Still, with a lot of warmth and respect (and vodka), was a realization that the arts community, like most others today, is a pretty uneven place.

ISEA published a thick and decent catalog. You're welcome to borrow it from me.