SIGGRAPH Art Gallery 2006: 'Intersections'

Mary Ann Skweres explores a few of the digital works being exhibited in SIGGRAPHs upcoming Art Gallery devoted to the theme Intersections.

Wondrous Spring (1992: Unix environment. PHScologram. 81 x 81 cm [32 x 32 in.]). © Charles A. Csuri. 

SIGGRAPH 2006, the 33rd conference and exhibition on computer graphics and interactive techniques, showcases a diverse array of works in its Art Gallery exhibition, Intersections. The show addresses contemporary issues, explores new territories, crosses traditional boundaries, provokes thought and utilizes digital technology in innovative ways. It is the largest art show in the history of SIGGRAPH with 210 pieces. It has the most interactive artwork since 1992, which was strictly an interactive show of 30 installations without any 2D or web art. Approximately 30 countries are taking part in the conference with artists from more than 15 countries around the world accepted into the art show.

This years Art Gallery chair, Bonnie Mitchell, an artist and art professor from Bowling Green State University, was impressed with the inventive approaches to making art. These artists would not use software in the ways originally intended; they would do things differently. When they came to an intersection in their creative path, the artists chose to veer off onto these new paths and integrate artistic ideas and elements in unusual, unique, creative ways.

Mitchell became a student volunteer in the early 90s after her university coordinator purchased SIGGRAPH membership for all his computer graphics grad students. Mitchell admits, I didnt have a clue what SIGGRAPH was, but he insisted we needed to go and get involved. She was very involved from the beginning. She had a position on the executive committee, had work accepted for exhibition all through the 90s and was on the Art Gallery committee. Although she considered the Art Gallery chair as, sort of a lifetime achievement award, she had been too busy to compete for the position, until this year. I had a sabbatical coming up and thought, this is my one opportunity to do it, Mitchell explains. Its a really important art show and conference in the field. But you have to be kind of crazy to do it, because it takes up a huge amount of time.

The highlight of the show is sure to be the first, extensive retrospective from 1963 to the present of graphics pioneer Charles A. Csuri, recognized by Smithsonian Magazine as the father of digital art and computer animation. Mitchell explains, That article influenced my artistic direction. I always thought of him as an important artist in the field, but never really knew him. I started to do artist profiles for the SIGGRAPH website. I contacted him and he sent me a box filled with original documents from the60s, including the original catalogue from Cybernetic Serendipity, a very early computer art show that paved the way for computers to be used in the arts. I was dazzled. He didnt even know me, but he sent me these precious items.

Last fall, Csuri sent an email to the head of the Computer Animation Festival wanting to submit some work. When Mitchell realized Csuri wanted to get involved, she proposed the idea of a retrospective. That idea quickly grew from having a few of Csuris works out in the hall to a show of 75 large-scale works, including prints and new animations produced for the show. Janice Glowski, an art historian from Ohio State University, curates the show with Mitchell coordinating for SIGGRAPH.

Csuris early work helped to set the standards commonplace in todays computer graphics industry. The extensive show contains framed pieces, tile work, dye-sublimation techniques for printing, animation and interactive installation. The art features 3D space, light and color. An installation on what Csuri dubs his Infinity Series is based upon the concept of doing infinite variations on an idea. In addition to the early works included in the exhibition, a DVD will be playing other early pieces. It really is an event, says Csuri.

Csuris early work helped to set the standards commonplace in today's computer graphics industry. Glorious Grass Frame 28 from bush series (2006: Unix environment and AL. Giclee. 97 x 132 cm [38 x 52 in.]). © Charles A. Csuri.

A trained fine artist, Csuri taught art and exhibited paintings in New York for 10 years before he got into the computer. He became fascinated with computers in the early 1950s when they were rare and room-sized. A good friend, an industrial engineer on the faculty of Ohio State University, began answering Csuris questions about what a computer was, what it did and how it worked. Through their on-going dialog about the computer, Csuri learned about programs and algorithms. He discovered the implications for science and research.

In those days, as they were drinking their martinis, Csuri says, We would talk about the computer as the Grand Philosopher. We thought of the computer as an intelligence, but it never occurred to us that there was a way to make pictures out of all of this. When I saw my first computer graphic, I absolutely exploded because I saw the implications immediately. I knew it had potential and offered new possibilities. I signed up for computer programming and thats how it began.

From then on, Csuri rode the wave of the future. As he began to understand the technology and talk about scientific visualization, his science colleges suggested he write a proposal about visualization and the arts for the National Science Foundation. In 1968, he received his first $100,000 grant, which began a 20-year career in the field of computer graphics and character animation. He put aside his impulse to create fine art.

In the 80s, he was going to retire from the University, so he went back to the computer and began to explore it as an art form. Since then Csuri has been working as an artist full-time, but his research background gave him insight into what he could do with technology. I was fortunate to have a dynamic environment in which to work, shares Csuri. This gave me opportunities to do experiments that most artists would not be able to do. I was able to do explorations with phscolograms, a technique that uses a three-dimensional display of an image that has a holographic quality. More recently, Ive been working with printing techniques that can be done with canvas and light jet printing.

Ive had the opportunity to do a variety of things, not only stills, but also animation. My animation has not been seen for a long time, continues Csuri. I will be showing it at SIGGRAPH for the first time. While he has interest in what is being done in the film industry, his personal interest is in making animation more of an art form. He is not particularly fascinated by narrative. His focus has been on aesthetics. As technology gets closer to realtime feedback in animation, Csuri believes the art form will take off.

SIGGRAPH will be the first time many will see Csuris work, as its been out of the public eye for a while. Sine Curve Man (1967: Ink on paper; IBM 7094 and drum plotter. 104 x 104 cm [41 x 41 in.]). © Charles A. Csuri.

Thus, Csuri sees the computer as a tool. Procedural approaches to problem solving are now assigned to the computer. It opens up possibilities that are harder to achieve with other methods. The challenge he faced with creating art on the computer was to shift from the tactile background of a painter working with brushes and paint and overcome the inherent linear thinking and coldness of the computer. What works best for him is to set-up a situation where an object is assigned behaviors. He then plays with a degree of randomness. The art is discovered as a consequence of the environment that he established.

I set up a kind of game where I dont know where I am going, explains Csuri. I respond to accidents and circumstances along the way. If I have a playful attitude about creativity, I have a higher probability of discovering something good. That is a battle and continues to be a battle. I have a love-hate relationship towards the computer. Everybody laughs at me because the name of my computer is Stupid. Thats to remind me its just a damn machine. Im in charge.

The Csuri retrospective fits into Mitchells interest in the evolution of digital art over the years. It is an interest that Mitchell brings to all parts of the 2006 exhibition. Computer art has become mainstream almost, says Mitchell. Youre seeing it in major museums and galleries. People cant deny that it is an art form, nowadays. In the 80s, you were constantly questioned thats not really art. Nevertheless, what has become mainstream and what hasnt piqued her curiosity. She noticed digital 2D artworks have become acceptable, while 3D installation artworks, maybe by the very nature of their impermanence and maintenance issues, were passed over by the larger institutions. Based on her observations, Mitchell decided on areas that she wanted to incorporate into the show.

Mitchell believes 3D electronic installations appeal to all of the senses. Physically the viewers walk into the space and are immersed in the experience. Often participants trigger actions in the environment. Having collaborated as an artist with a composer to create room-size installations, Mitchell had also come to realize the importance of audio both in art forms and animations. She looked for pieces that included audio installations, not just a visual experience.

Bion, by Adam Brown and Andrew Fagg, is an example of Art Gallery chair Bonnie Mitchells desire to include installations that offer audio and visual experiences to the participants. Unless otherwise indicated, all images courtesy of SIGG

Bion, by Adam Brown and Andrew Fagg from the University of Oklahoma, creates an environment where blue entities hanging from the ceiling react to the presence of the viewers as they enter. These entities communicate with each other, blinking and chirping.

With no funding, independent Israeli artists Daphna Talithman, Orna Portugaly and Sharon Younger created Heartbeats, an installation that uses the pulse of participants to determine the movement and interactions of characters projected down from the ceiling onto a round white table. In order to influence the action, participants jog in place to get their pulse up or take deep breaths to slow their heartbeats down in order to control the movement of the characters.

Media Mirror, by Jefferson Han of the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University, uses sixteen feeds of cable TV channels coming into a large collage, projected on the wall. As the participants walk by their silhouette becomes the cable channel. All the motions are tracked and determine what channel is playing and where it plays.

Rarely seen in art are pieces that deal with the sense of touch and temperature. Thermoesthesia, by Japanese artist Kumiko Kushiyama, uses a touch screen with a variation of temperatures between hot or cold that allows users to feel the temperature of visually displayed objects. The visuals are made up of abstract, stylized graphics that accentuate the sense of temperature by the colors used.

Mitchell is also passionate about experimental art animations works that deviate from the traditional Hollywood three-act narrative structure and take experimental approaches that are more metaphorical than literal or play with time in creative ways. Sometimes these works use abstractions in colorform, motion-painting pieces. Others have very recognizable objects such as the dragonfly in Alive an animation by Lucy Blackwell. The animation somewhat tells a narrative, but you have to think about it to get the story, says Mitchell. There are 14 art animations in the gallery, plus additional ones showing at the Electronic Theater.

I dont just look for the path of least resistance. I look for the most challenging path, admits Mitchell. So I decided that one of the things I dont really see at SIGGRAPH that I have seen at some other conferences is electronically mediated performances. Mitchell wrote a grant to CAG, the Conference Advisory Group, to secure extra funding so she could present a broad scope of live performances.

Abracadabra is an interactive magic performance by Jun Oh and Min Jeong Kang.

The show includes 13 on-stage and three off-stage performances that use either electronics or computer graphics in creative, groundbreaking ways. Music, theater and dance as well as various hybrids are included a live DJ mixing visuals with audio; a number of dance performances where the dancer interacts with the graphics on the screen and the graphics respond to the dancers emotions such as Perceivable Bodies by the German group, Palindrome; Abracadabra, an interactive magic performance by Jun Oh and Min Jeong Kang; Gil Weinbergs Jamaa for Haile that has a robotic drummer doing sessions and reacTable, an interactive tabletop performance and presentation by Spains Sergi Jorda that creates music when participants move objects on the table.

There are also many beautiful 2D works showcased works created with 3D modeling, genetic algorithms or digital painting and imaging. A number of these pieces are by researchers who work for NASA or in labs such as MIT people working very technically that come up with algorithms at work and then create art on the side using those algorithms.

Joanna Berzowska, of XS Labs in Quebec, Canada, is well known in the electronic fabric world. Krakow: a woven story of memory and erasure is a weaving that deals with the disappearance of women in Krakow due to political problems in the society. Using electronic dyes in the piece causes the fabric to change from seeing street scenes with the women to not seeing the women.

Jeff Lieberman, a renaissance man who is an artist, photographer, musician and engineer at MIT, shows Slink, an experiment with matched mechanical, electrical, and visual resonances, using a spring and light. This is not a computer simulation, but a physical, vibrating strobed spring. The art is comprised of two mechanical arms on both sides of a large wall-mounted piece with a cable between them. Behind that are 10,000 blue LED lights in a grid. The arms move, causing the cable to vibrate. By staggering the strobbing, the viewer perceives the cable fragmenting and floating in little pieces in mid-air creating an artistically beautiful optical illusion. This work crosses over into the fusion area where innovative technology plays with perception.

Gil Weinbergs Jamaa for Haile presents a robotic drummer doing sessions.

There is also a category for web art. Scott Draves, from Californias Spotworks, developed a program distributed on the Internet called The Electric Sheep that is known by most people as a screensaver. Conceptually, what he does is everyone that downloads this screensaver become part of a huge parallel processing community where the participants processor with their permission and when they are not using it is used to create art. Thousands of people around the world that have downloaded this program have become collaborators in the process. Their systems are used to help render out one element of a larger animation. These elements are collaged together at the server to create beautiful images full of depth and transparencies. The Electric Sheep Dreams in High Fidelity, the best of these animations/motion paintings, is being displayed on a large plasma screen at the art gallery.

The show also includes a few sculptures, most of which use the stereo-lithography, rapid proto-typing processes to produce the sculptures that started out as 3D models. Another is comprised of electronic laser engraved boxes.

In selecting the jury, Mitchell tried to choose artists whose work she admired from each area to be represented in the show. Discovering that the artists that she wanted as jurors did not want to accept her invitation because they also wanted to submit work to SIGGRAPH, one of the things that Mitchell did differently this year was to include her jury artists in the show as invited artists. This allowed each of them to display one piece of work, along with their bios, in a special section at the entrance to the art gallery. This also allows attendees and artists to know the backgrounds and sensibilities of those who decided on the artwork to be exhibited.

Krakow: a woven story of memory and erasure is a weaving by Joanna Berzowska that deals with the disappearance of women in Krakow due to political problems in the society.

Jury artist, Shawn Decker, from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, works with electronics and audio. Much like the way singing of crickets at night build to create a larger sound, in the concept for Green, small sounds combine to become greater immersive sounds. Tiny speakers surround the viewer, but unlike normal speakers, electronics turn these on and off to create a random chirping sound field around the viewer that takes over the senses.

The Art Gallery also bridges over into other areas of the conference presenting theoretical papers by authors from around the world. Art sketches are also part of the show. These short presentations by artists and animators accepted into the Gallery cover processes, concepts and the interesting aspects of the work that might not be apparent from just looking at the art.

There are additional art panels such as Beyond Brush and Easel: The Computer Art of Charles Csuri that deal with historical perspectives; Generative and Genetic Art featuring leading experts in generative and genetic art from the past 25 years, including inventors/developers Karl Sims from GenArts in Massachusetts, and William Latham from Leeds Metropolitan University in Leeds, U.K., as well as newcomer Andy Lomas from Framestore CFC in London, U.K., and Locative Media: Urban Landscape and Pervasive Technology Within Art, which deals with the current issues of omnipresent electronics from smart homes, to automatic doors to surveillance cameras looking at them as an art form.

The SIGGRAPH Art Gallery 2006 runs from Aug. 1-3 at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. If you can make it to Boston, dont miss this unforgettable experience.

Mary Ann Skweres is a filmmaker and freelance writer. She has worked extensively in feature film and documentary post-production with credits as a picture editor and visual effects assistant. She is a member of the Motion Picture Editors Guild.

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