Emoting in a Cold Digital World

Paulo Rebêlo
Wired News
August, 2002

Imagine a celebration of digital art that bans works focusing on anything related to computers and technology.

This is the idea behind Art.Ficial Emotion, an international exposition featuring digitally produced art created at some of the leading media centers worldwide.

The main objective of Art.Ficial Emotion is to provide an environment that breaks the old-fashioned notions that “digital” is something cold or inaccessible. In the month-long exposition that begins Sunday in São Paulo, technology is just the form in which emotion is expressed.

Besides the exposition, at the Itaú Cultural center until Aug. 14, there’s a round of seminars and workshops where artists will be able to share their thoughts about their pieces and the future of digital art.

There are 38 digital creations, ranging from robots to virtual reality.

Lev Manovich, author of the book Language of New Media and a professor at the visual arts department at the University of California, San Diego, will give the opening speech. His book is known as the first rigorous theorization of new medias and art. For many artists, it’s the most complete in the history of media since Marshall McLuhan.

Artists from around the globe will contribute. Brazil is being represented by a piece created at Itaulab, the interactive media laboratory of Itaú Cultural, in partnership with Regina Silveira, a well-known Brazilian artist.

“Our piece is a synchronized 3-D image of stairs, where an indoor sensor detects where exactly you are in the room and synchronizes the image with your point of view,” said Ricardo Oliveros, executive producer of Itaulab. “We are willing to create a kind of cultural exchange not only among developed countries, but also among third-world nations.”

The exhibit is divided into three main sections: reflections on city concepts and virtual communities; the relationship between man and machine; and communications issues.

In the first group, there are pieces such as Web of Life, from ZKM (Germany), and Location N, from Sarai (India).

One of the pieces in the man and machine group is Cyborg Sex Manual, from WRO (Poland), where the spectator becomes a voyeur watching two cyborgs. Created by Peter Style, in association with Rafal Ewertowski (3-D modeling) and Michale van der Hagen (interaction programming), Cyborg Sex Manual is dedicated to young cyborgs.

“It aims to help them understand themselves and increase emotional responses, including a guide for their sex life,” Style said.

In Spatial Sounds, from V2 Lab (Netherlands), a sensor that detects human presence makes the piece turn hysterical when the environment gets too crowded.

In the communications group, there are at least two types of interactive software: 33 Questions per Minute, from Rafael Lozano-Hemmer (Mexico), and Talk Nice Installation, from the Banff Centre (Alberta, Canada). Philosophical and political questions are raised by Close, from Experimenta (Australia) and by War/Wart, from Mecad (Spain).

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer‘s 33 Questions per Minute consists of 21 tiny LCD screens connected to a computer. The core is an automated question generator. All the words of the English and Spanish language have been classified and entered into a database, then custom-made software follows three rules: 1) pick random words from the database, 2) construct a grammatically correct question with these words, and 3) log and never repeat the same question.

“The software knows how to conjugate verbs, add adverbs, use adjectives, and so on. Because of the large number of word combinations possible, the computer can produce 54 billion different, unique questions. Most of them are absurd like, ‘when will you bleed in an orderly fashion?’ but others may make some sense, like, ‘why did the Internet become so self-congratulatory?’ Each time a question is shown, a short, quiet tick plays, sounding like a countdown detonator,” Lozano-Hemmer said.

Eduardo Kac, a Brazilian artist who lives in the United States, is expected to cause some controversy with his genetically modified green rabbit. The piece was a highlight at “Gene(sis): Contemporary Art Explores Human Genomics” in April, at the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington.

French artist Maurice Benayoun, who has been exploring virtual reality for more than 15 years, will explain some of his creations. Professor at the Université de Paris 1 (Panthéon-Sorbonne), Benayoun created 3D Hypercube –- which attracted more than 800,000 people in Paris — and is involved with a project to create Paris’ first interactive subway station.

Style, the man behind Cyborg Sex Manual, said he’s proud his art is taking him to Brazil. “It’s completely exotic and interesting, even though I’ve been working with art and technology for the past 10 years,” he says. For Monika Fleischmann, head of MARS – Exploratory Media Lab at the Fraunhofer Institute for Media Communication, coming to Brazil means “a new culture and a new adventure for my art.”

Raqs Media Collective (Monica Narula, Jeebesh Bagchi and Shuddhabrata Sengupta), based in New Delhi, will present a multimedia installation with clocks, video projection and computers. The theme is “simultaneity, time and e/motion.”

“We are quite excited about presenting our work at São Paulo, because from what we know of it, it sounds a lot like Delhi, Bombay or other metropolises in India that we are familiar with,” Narula said.