And an elephant dancing

New Scientist vol 142 issue 1921 - 16 April 94, page 19

High in the oakland hills, above the Tarot readers, buskers and bead sellers of Telegraph Avenue and the tree-covered Berkeley campus of the University of California, Beverly Reiser works on her latest piece of art. Her easel and palette are a powerful PC, a pen-shaped stylus and Painter, a painting program from Fractal Design.

Reiser is creating stills for what will eventually be animated artwork sold on a CD-ROM entitled The Voice Garden. Viewers will be able to wander through the work's 'mythical spaces' and she hopes they will muse over its ideas in their own time. This is a way of experiencing a work of art that CD-ROM is ideally placed to provide. But Reiser does not see CD-ROM as the sole medium for interactive art, as an earlier work demonstrates.

Temple of the Goddesses, which she describes as a virtual visit to a holy place, uses computer animated artwork in a live dance performance that the audience can try out too. A video camera picks up the performer's movements and projects it onto a large screen in combination with a computer animation that tells the story. At certain points, the story stops and the dancer can choose by his or her movements where it progresses next - to the Ethereal Forest or the Enchanted Isle. Art critics have complained that the performances are far too much fun, but Reiser says, 'We wanted anybody to be able to enjoy this, even people who didn't have a clue what a mouse is.'

Using the PC for multimedia art is 'like getting an elephant to dance' says Reiser, but she has overcome its clumsiness to produce images for The Voice Garden that are reminiscent of the colour plates from children's books of the 1920s. Unlike static pictures of the past, her digital scenes depicting goddesses and Zen gardens conjure up a world that can be explored by the viewer. Reiser sees this type of immersive, interactive experience becoming an important element of art in the future.

Reiser is president of Ylem, an organisation based in San Francisco that represents artists who work with technology. Some Ylem members are using sensory devices from the world of virtual reality, such as gloves and body suits, to control computer generated lights, sounds and graphics in live performances. One former ballet dancer is experi-menting with arti-ficial intelligence with the aim of making several leg-like appendages - built from dried vines, string and metal joints, and connected by infrared links to the computer - behave like a flock of bizarre beasts.

Much of the technology is still 'clunky', Reiser says, and does not provide her with the degree of control that she would like. And the new technology calls for new ways of working that artists are having to learn as they go. Creating an interactive work of art isn't a process for a lone painter and her or his muse - it's a collaboration between visual artists, musicians, computer programmers and, increasingly, performers. Reiser worked with her son Hans, a computer programmer, as well as several performance artists on the Temple of the Goddesses project.

Interactive and electronic art are not replacements for traditional paintings and sculptures, Reiser insists. But these works do offer opportunities to make art accessible to people who might be put off by traditional galleries or exhibitions.

Claire Neesham

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