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A Technology That Puts Art in the Driver's Seat? : Interactive media: Conference pays homage to the role of artists in fueling innovation.


In a corner of the Los Angeles Convention Center, Ulrike Gabriel is fussing with her brainwave-sensitive robots. Down the way, Jeffrey Shaw swivels in the chair that lets him navigate through a 3-D "virtual museum" displayed on a huge computer screen. Nearby, Zane Vella video-conferences with his colleagues in Burbank as they stroll through "Cityspace," a digital model of a city created by children over the Internet computer network.

Each is part of the Interactive Media Festival, which opens to the public today in conjunction with the Digital World trade show. Traditionally a place for executives from the computing, entertainment and communications industries to meet, do business and find out about the latest interactive technologies, the conference this year will pay homage to the role of art and artists in driving technological innovation.

Musicians Peter Gabriel and Herbie Hancock, choreographer Debbie Allen, Telluride Film Festival director Tom Luddy and Oscar-winning costume designer Eiko Ishioka are among the panel that will pick the best three of the interactive media exhibits to receive a "Sparky"--the slightly tongue-in-cheek crystal dog equivalent of the Oscar--on Tuesday evening. Gabriel, whose interactive CD-ROM "Explora" is among the exhibits, will present the awards.

"In the past it has taken us a generation or more from the time we invent some new technology to the time we begin to understand the art forms that technology makes possible," says Digital World moderator Jonathan Seybold. "But with interactive, we don't have a generation. We believe strongly that from now on what is going to drive what happens is what you do with the technology, not technology itself."

The hype around "interactive multimedia" has so far concentrated largely on the commercial applications of the new medium. Interactive TV, we are told, will let consumers buy more stuff more easily. The fact that video games are a $6 billion-a-year business has become a refrain. It's an emphasis that misses crucial points, said festival organizers.

"Industry has seen interactive as war games and maybe some educational stuff," said Shaw, whose "Virtual Museum" has been displayed in European shows. "Artists are concerned with what this technology can do for human beings and their state of well-being."

Still, war games were not excluded from the gallery. Sega's "Virtual Fighter" arcade game will be displayed alongside "Soft Force," a globe-shaped brainwave analyzer in a garden setting. Other exhibits include "Telematic Dreaming," from Finnish artist Paul Sermon, "bayMOO," a text-based virtual world that 600 people helped to create, and several CD-ROMs currently sold in stores, such as "Myst" and "Just Grandma and Me."

The brainchild of Cunningham Communications, the Boston-based public relations firm that initially funded the project, the festival has taken on a life of its own. Lisa Goldman, formerly of Cunningham, has spent the last two years organizing the show, which took off for real last year when Motorola donated $2 million to the cause.

Last winter, a team of technically savvy nominators fanned out around the world to choose the pieces to be included. The criteria for nomination were fittingly broad for a set of ill-defined, rapidly evolving media: anything, so long as it was interactive.

In March, the field of 75 nominations was narrowed to the 26 that are displayed at the convention. But while the nominators were used to filter the best works by the technology community's standards, the judges were chosen in an attempt to avoid the techie trap of evaluating pieces based on the ingenuity of the technology rather than on their content as a whole.

"We wanted to invite people who are respected in their field but don't know enough about technology to be seduced by it," Goldman said. "We're trying to look at technology as art and as media, instead of as technology."

In addition to the festival, the Digital World conference will include the "Creative Cafe," co-sponsored by the Writers Guild of America, West, where writers in both the interactive field and the traditional entertainment industry will discuss writing for the new medium, and the "Creative Marketplace," where developers of interactive software will showcase their work.

Perhaps musician Thomas Dolby, who has helped promote the media festival, sums it up best: "If I were a 13-year-old and I wanted to create subversive art, I wouldn't go out and buy an electric guitar. I'd get myself a personal computer."

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