Art ("and" or "versus") Technology
C. Sommerer and L. Mignonneau, Editors
Vienna and New York: Springer, 1998
Some Personal Observations
Interval Research Corporation
Palo Alto, California
The Dualism of Art and Technology
"Art and Technology," like art-and-anything, addresses
a dual agenda. To describe oneself as a conceptual artist, a feminist
artist, or a video artist is to acknowledge a dualism between one's
genre, politics, or medium and one's art. And like all dualisms,
sometimes there is symbiosis and sometimes there is strife.
I believe in the existence of "pure art," art without
any other agenda but the art itself. I became convinced when I met
He Gong, a young Chinese artist, several years ago while we were
both in residence at the Banff Centre for the Arts. He had spent
the first part of his studies learning political art (by and for
the Chinese government) and the latter part as an activist artist
working against his government. He spoke English and had a strong
background in contemporary art (from his dissident university instructors),
but this was his first time outside of China. He Gong spent weeks
in his studio working vigorously on a personal installation made
of wood, rice paper, ink brush, and eventually, fire. He once said
to me "I am so grateful. This is the first time in my life
a can do Úpure art.'"
For some of us, sometimes, the artmaking obsession channels itself
into particular issues, in my case - technology. It is my observation
and belief that technology, particularly computer and media technology,
is having an increasingly profound effect on everyone on the planet.
And that if artists don't jump in and pro-actively help shape these
powerful new tools, it will be left by default to advertisers, the
military, organized religion, and sex peddlers. Some of us believe
the stakes are high.
That's been my attitude for the past twenty years, and I've had
the good fortune during that time of working inside a variety of
institutions with similar beliefs (or which at least tolerated mine).
These places supported my own work and for this I am grateful. In
fact, my projects could not have been realized without their help.
But it wasn't always a cakewalk. Sometimes it felt like the "art"
and the "technology" forces were in opposition. This paper
offers observations and reflections on some of these issues. The
purpose here is to learn from the past.
Is the demo the beginning or the end?
MIT was a lively place for art and technology during the late 1970s,
when I was there first as a graduate student and later as a Fellow
at the art center, the Center for Advanced Visual Studies. CAVS
focused on environmental art under the direction of Otto Piene and
its founder Gyorgy Kepes. The Film/Video Department, run by Ricky
Leacock, was participating in all sorts of video experiments. Meanwhile,
Nicholas Negroponte headed the Architecture Machine Group, which
was well-funded and increasingly getting involved in media.
In 1977 I had this crazy idea to move a movie projector to mimic
the original camera movement. I asked Nicholas for funding. He agreed,
and I made a simple study by filming with a super-8 film camera
on a slowly rotating turntable, then replacing the camera with a
small loop projector. The result, which we called "moving movies,"
retained the film's original directionality and appeared as natural
as viewing a dark space with a flashlight.
After showing this to Nicholas I said "great, now I'm ready to begin"
and he said "great, now you're done." I was interested in exploring
imagery and he was interested in the technical process.
To confuse matters further, at that moment, we were just beginning
a new project using one of the very first prototype laserdisc players.
The idea was to film along pre-determined routes with stop-frame
cameras and make an interactive system which allowed end-users some
control over speed and direction. The project, called the Aspen
Moviemap, wasn't intended to be an art project but dealt with some
classic issues of visual representation. We all knew we were breaking
new ground. I continued working on this project for the next two
years, and since then made several other moviemaps.
But I also kept working on moving movies. I built various camera
and projector contraptions to move the image with better control,
but then felt like I had to decide: was I interested in building
a new projector or in making an art statement? I opted for the latter,
and over the next four years produced a series of installations
reverting back to a simple turntable, but where I could concentrate
more on the imagery itself.1
The Architecture Machine grew into the Media Lab and prospered,
while CAVS increasingly struggled through the 1980s. I believe this
split between the well-funded technologists and the struggling artists
was microcosmic of what was happening in the United States during
this period. But more on that later. The lesson at the time was
that demonstrating a novel idea was different than using it toward
Atari Research (1982-84)
Everyone is not like us.
In 1982 the Atari Corporation, which was making an incredible amount
of money on video games, decided to start a long-term research lab
to look ten years ahead into the future of computing. They hired
Alan Kay as Atari's Chief Scientist, who immediately went about
rounding up a hundred mostly young people he thought would be "visionaries"
for this task. Many of these young people were from the emerging
MIT media scene, as well as a diverse group of others. Having already
moved to San Francisco in 1980, I was brought in as well.
One problem I noticed is when you put a bunch of very bright people
together to speculate about the future, they do just that: speculate.
This can be dangerous, because it's easy to cut off the rest of
the world and assume everyone is just like you.
After a year, one researcher, Bob Stein (who later co-founded Voyager,
the interactive publishing company), did something noteworthy. He
hired a local twelve year old boy to keep with him at all times
a small portable tape recorder, and to record every question that
came to mind over the course of several days. Bob's idea was to
see what kind of questions everyday people might have, since we
rarely remember most of them. This seemed like an important start
if we were trying to understand how people in the future might use
Bob chose a Palo Alto boy whose parents (both of them) were Stanford
faculty. Virtually all of the questions he recorded were the sort
whose answers could be found in an encyclopedia, straightforward
educational questions. I wanted to respond in a way to both compliment
and challenge Bob's work.
The evening after Bob distributed the transcripts I met with several
anthropologist friends who after dinner, wine, and looking at dozens
of maps and atlases, had converged on a plan. I would go to the
remote northern mountains of the Philippines to visit a tribal culture
called the Ifugao, a culture very different from ours, but where
some people speak English. They are known for their ancient and
spectacular rice terraces, for having been head-hunters, and for
their strong belief in dreams. Two of my anthropologist friends
had been there a few years prior, and wrote me a letter of introduction
to someone they had met, a sixty-six year old Ifugao Shaman named
Dionicio Immatong. I left the following day, and took with me a
small portable tape recorder.
Several days later I had made it to Dionicio's hut, where he read
the letter by candle light and took me into his family and his home
as a son. We set out to find a child to ask him to record what was
on his mind as if he was interacting with a machine, just like the
Palo Alto boy. We found a twelve year old Ifugao boy from the village
of Paypayan named Patrick Tundagui. Patrick recorded every question
that came to mind over the course of several days.
Patrick's questions differed significantly from the Palo Alto boy's.
For one thing, Patrick made multiple use of the word "you,"
sometimes referring to anyone and sometimes to a particular person.
He often questioned the certainty of hard facts, asking questions
like "how do you know this is the smallest bird?"
And he sometimes asked questions which were personal rather than
encyclopedic, like "what is your problem now?"2
I'll admit this was a bit of a stunt on my part. And it was only
a sample of one, so it's important not to read too deeply into any
conclusions. But it did have the effect of shaking things up a bit
back at Atari and reminding ourselves that not everyone is just
Apple Multimedia Lab (1988-90)
Educators and artists are different.
Atari crashed in a big and ugly way in 1984. Many of the people
resurfaced several years later at Apple and Lucasfilm. By 1987,
a conspiracy of sorts was made between some of these people to convince
both companies to start a multi-media laboratory. Neither company
was willing at that time to commit to multimedia, but together they
approved of the formation of the Apple Multimedia Lab, located in
San Francisco, mid-way between Apple in Silicon Valley and Lucasfilm
in Marin County. These were close colleagues of mine, and I was
invited to help.
Our flagship project was called the "Visual Almanac,"
Apple's first interactive laserdisc made primarily for schools.
I directed production of the laserdisc, which consisted of thousands
of short sequences of still images, video clips, and weird stuff.3
I remember sitting in a meeting with several consulting teachers
and listening to how they all tried to communicate so clearly. I
became depressed: they were trying to communicate their ideas by
saying everything in such an obvious and explicit way. This is not
the way artists I knew operate; we seem to be more concerned with
creating a feeling, an impression, or a metaphor.
This distinction came to a head on a little piece I was making for
the disc, of a main street in Silicon Valley filmed by the State
of California Transportation Department very much like a moviemap.
They filmed one frame every 52.8 feet, or one hundred frames per
mile, from a camera car throughout the state. And they'd been doing
it since the early 1970s. I selected an interesting hundred frames
and made a split-screen version of their earliest film and their
latest film, a "then and now" comparison of how things have changed
over this one-mile strip in Silicon Valley.
Several colleagues on the project wanted to add educational information
about each of the buildings, but I refused, wishing instead for
the visual impact of the material to stand on its own. Then they
said "you can add it, and since it's interactive the user doesn't
have to see it" and I still said NO. I felt this was a trap of sorts.
At any rate, I was left with the impression that educators and artists
have different intentions. Maybe "intentions" is too strong
a word here, since both educators and artists might say their intention
is enlightenment. But even so, educators tend to spell things out
in a more literal way while artists have less of a problem with
San Francisco Art Institute (1989-1990)
It's a small art world.
I may have been particularly sensitive to this distinction since
I was also teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute, a landmark
institution for contemporary art, a cutting edge place. I was teaching
a class called "Virtual Environments" and asked the Apple lab if
we could borrow a Macintosh, a laserdisc player, and one of the
then-new little liquid crystal display video projectors.
The students produced an ambitious virtual environment of a restaurant
we named "EAT," involving students performing as waiters
and images of food (among other things) projected onto the diner's
plate from a video projector hidden under the table. EAT was exhibited
at various art venues, but it also showed at SIGGRAPH.4
The next year, my students produced a videotape parody of virtual
reality called "Virtuality, Inc." It received a "Futures
Scenarios" award at SIGCHI, the major computer-human-interaction
I realized that I was pushing these projects in the direction of
the research community more than the art community, like making
little "art bombs" and lobbing them over the fence into
foreign territory. I must say I was proud of that. It was also great
fun. I very much wanted the art to have some impact on the research
But the fact was, almost no one at the Art Institute had any knowledge
of these venues and saw little relevance. It was outside the art
Things have changed a bit since then. As the Internet, multimedia,
virtual reality, and the Web have become trendy to the mainstream
culture, they have become fashionable in the arts community as well.
Nevertheless, making art for communities outside the art community
felt like an uphill climb.
Banff Centre for the Arts (1991-1993)
Local support for global activities
The Banff Centre for the Arts had the most remarkable program for
art and technology I'd ever seen. For one thing, it's in the Canadian
Rocky Mountains, a most beautiful place. It's a large complex, complete
with swimming pool, health club, and bar as well as food and lodging
facilities. But most important, it's an art center, with hundreds
of music, performing, and visual artists from all over the world
together in residence. Inside this art center was a tech-based lab
called the Art and Virtual Environments program which opened in
1991. It truly was a unique program.
The following year I began a project there called "Field Recording
Studies," to explore turning real-world imagery into 3D computer
models. That summer I was committed to exhibiting at SIGGRAPH, and
I literally flew into Banff 10 days before I was to fly out to Chicago
with something to show. I had a simple idea and they had a superb
team of technologist helpers as well as state-of-the-art SGI computers
and video post-production facilities.
We produced a 360 degree panoramic computer model of a nearby landscape
at dawn. The concept was to make one contiguous panorama by "tiling"
together slightly overlapping still images. I collected these images
with a small consumer video camera on a tripod, using traditional
surveying tools like a compass and level. Back at the lab, the Banff
Centre technical staff had prepared software to allow hand-positioning
of the forty-two images we digitized off the videotape. The result
was a three-dimensional model of a panoramic dome.6
Everything worked out well. The Banff Centre was, in my opinion,
the perfect place for art and technology work, particularly because
of its international multi-cultural diversity. So what was the issue?
The program no longer exists. A couple years later, the conservative
party won in the Banff region, and funding cutting-edge non-traditional
arts programs was among the first to go. The local conservative
community didn't appreciate the fact that the Banff Centre was known
and active on a global scale.
Of course the Banff Centre still exists, and in many ways is still
thriving, but the Virtual Environments program is gone. I'm hopeful
this is a temporary situation. For one thing, the explosive growth
of the Web is making all activities potentially global, and institutions
will have to adapt if they have strong parochial views.
Interval Research (1992- )
Can enterprising technologists deal
with independent artists?
Funding for the arts, like most social spending in the United States,
had been very heavily cut back by twelve years of Reagan and Bush
conservatism. By 1992, the US arts community was underfunded, heavily
politicized, and to some extent, angry. During this same twelve
year period (and for some of the same reasons) much of the high-tech
community prospered. The cultural gap between high-tech entrepreneurs
and independent artists had grown large.
In 1992 I was offered a research appointment at Interval Research
Corporation, a new independent research lab wholly owned by Microsoft
co-founder and billionaire Paul Allen. It's charter was to look
five to ten years ahead into the future of computing and media,
in a most general way. Unlike other tech labs I'd seen, this one
seemed to really believe in having artists and other diverse elements
as members of the research staff.
I'd been completing the last phase of my Banff Centre project on
field recording, and Interval's head David Liddle assured me that
art will be an integral component in this new lab. I could continue
to work as I was and make something exhibitable. The result was
called "See Banff!," a stereoscopic moviemap (the first
ever) about landscape, tourism, and growth in the Canadian Rocky
Mountains. It was filmed with twin 16mm cameras and displayed as
a single-user experience housed in a cabinet resembling a century-old
kinetoscope, with a crank on the side for "moving through"
One particularly fruitful collaboration that came out of the Interval
community was with the computer vision researchers. I learned they
were also interested in basic elements of visual perception, perspective,
and presence, and together we nurtured a symbiosis. The footage
I produced for See Banff was also made with them in mind. They were
amused, I think, to have an artist-type supplying them with material
which they felt was unique and valuable. The fact that it was not
simply "views of the parking lot" was gravy.
Over a two year period, we all did pretty well. Working with my
Interval colleagues, we designed an experimental camera system.
I had several weeks of filming as I like best, open-ended and with
participation by local community people, and made an installation.
My computer vision colleagues got some unique footage and made some
striking new imagery. It turns out we also got a patent out of it,
something totally unanticipated when we began.
So beginning the next year, in 1994, I proposed we try it again,
this time working with representing "looking around" the way the
Banff project represented "moving around." We put together another
experimental camera rig, this time using two 35mm motion picture
cameras for stereoscopic 3D, running at sixty frames per second
for unrivaled fidelity. Like my earliest work, the cameras would
rotate on a motorized tripod to capture the entire panorama. And
I'd work with local community people, but this time in collaboration
with the UNESCO World Heritage Centre based in Paris. With their
endorsement, I'd take the camera system around the world to film
in endangered places. Finally, the footage would be shown with the
viewers standing on a slowly rotating floor, which rotates in sync
with the imagery. The effect is illusionistic, like the feeling
when the train next to yours pulls out of the station and you think
your train is moving. The final installation is called "Be
Now Here" and was produced for the Center for the Arts Yerba
Buena Gardens in San Francisco.8
Again, I had managed to produce an art installation. And again,
my colleagues got unique footage for their research. And it turns
out again, we also got another unintended patent application out
It also turns out that we had inadvertently helped another cause.
One of the endangered places was Dubrovnik, the medieval Croatian
town near the Bosnian border. It had been heavily bombed and was
still in a state of war. Dubrovnik had just opened a Web site, created
by Enver Sehovic, a professor and former President of the University
of Zagreb, as an example to show his government. Professor Sehovic
helped me get in and out of Croatia during the fighting with my
five hundred pounds of film gear.9 Shortly after the installation
opened in San Francisco, Sehovic emailed me that he was coming to
see it, to help convince the Croatian government that he's not just
a "dreaming professor."
So what is the problem now? History. After more than a decade of
technology entreprenuers profiting while the arts community has
been almost strangled, new bridges need to be built.
And perhaps the timing can't be better. The tech world is realizing
that consumers don't buy technology for its own sake but for the
experiences they afford. The word "content" has only come
in vogue recently (and indeed, has entered the vernacular of the
Media Lab and its sponsors). The toaster-makers are finally realizing
that people don't want toasters, they want toast.
So, can enterprising technologists deal with independent artists?
I don't know for sure. There are potential problems, including issues
of tolerance and compromise, of intellectual property and secrecy,
and of artists being true to heart about their motivations. I may
be critical but I'm hopeful. Some of us believe the stakes are high.
1. Naimark M. "Moving Movie," Aspen Center for the Arts,
1980; "Movie Room," Center for Advanced Visual Studies,
M.I.T., 1980; "Displacements," San Francisco Museum of
Modern Art, 1984.
2. Naimark M. "The Question Machine." In Whole Earth Review,
No. 65 (1989): 54-55.
3. Apple Multimedia Lab. The Visual Almanac. San Francisco:
Apple Computer, 1989.
4. Naimark M. "EAT - A Virtual Dining Environment." Tomorrow's
Realities Catalog, Las Vegas: ACM SIGGRAPH, 1991.
5. Naimark M. "Virtuality, Inc." SIGCHI Catalog,
Monterey: ACM SIGCHI, 1992.
6. Naimark M. "Field Recording Studies." Immersed in
Art and Virtual Environments, M. A.
Moser, ed. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996, 299-302.
7. Naimark M. "A 3D Moviemap and a 3D Panorama." In SPIE
Proceedings, Vol. 3012 (1997).
9. See: http://www.naimark.net/writing/trips/bnhtrip.html