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CYBERCULTURE | TECHNICITY / PAUL KARON

Performance Art Wired for the '90s : Founders of the Electronic Cafe Use Technology to Foster Interaction Across Great Divides

December 02, 1996|PAUL KARON

There is no separating artists Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz from the technology they use to make that art.

Two of the original cyber-beatniks, the Santa Monica-based media and telecollaboration artists are well-known in online circles as the founders of the Electronic Cafe, a worldwide network of telecommunications- and computer-enhanced gathering spots and performance venues.

As entertainment and art increasingly intersect--and as the Internet draws hordes of people to the world of electronic interaction--the pair's work continues to grow in relevance.

For most of two decades, Galloway and Rabinowitz--partners in marriage as well as in their other creative endeavors--have been dreaming up ways for people to interact through electronic media, whether it's live video, the Internet or, as is usually the case, a mixture of many technologies.

"Kit and I are dealing with the idea of using computers and video and telecommunications technology to bring people who are separated by geographical distance and political borders together in an electronic space," Rabinowitz said.

There are about 40 Electronic Cafes and affiliates worldwide. The local version, in Santa Monica's 18th Street Arts Complex, is a chaotic cross between an artist's studio and a high-tech media and telecommunications laboratory. Macintosh computers are everywhere, but so are pianos, electronic keyboards, television monitors, drum machines, video cameras, music recording decks, the occasional lava lamp and a floor-to-ceiling collection of futurama knickknacks.

Self-described members of the country's first television generation, both Rabinowitz, 46, and Galloway, 48, got involved with video and media arts in the 1970s, when advances in video portability and affordability--combined with the lefty political atmosphere of the times--led to a brief flowering of independent video production collectives.

In 1977, NASA commissioned Galloway and Rabinowitz to explore video communications between people in space and on Earth. In 1980, the duo stunned Manhattanites and Angelenos with their "Hole in Space" installation, a live two-way TV connection between the two cities that allowed people on the streets to see and talk to each other. Then, in 1984, the Museum of Contemporary Art commissioned them to create a citywide communications and arts network that became the prototype for the Electronic Cafe.

They use any kind of computer and communications technology they can get their hands on, but the controlling concept is always the creation of new ways for people to interact in an electronic world.

In one of the Electronic Cafe's many productions, two dancers performed a choreographed piece together, even though they were on separate coasts. The dancers wore devices that sent telemetry information about their movements into the Electronic Cafe's network, where computers and video equipment combined the two images into a single performance that existed only in the virtual space of an electronic stage.

Rabinowitz is quick to distinguish their work from the technology hype surrounding the Internet, for example, or of virtual reality, another technology buzzword of the moment. "Virtual reality is really just a poetic phrase for computer-generated 3-D graphics," she said. "But we're interested in connecting real people with other real people in a virtual space.

The kind of human-to-human telecollaboration she and Galloway create still requires the high network speeds now possible only with fast digital phone lines, such as ISDN.

"We're investigating new ways of being in the world, using the performing arts as the acid test," said Galloway. "Our theory is that if the technology isn't fast enough for people to drum together, then it just isn't fast enough."

Freelance writer Paul Karon can be reached via e-mail at pkaron@pacbell.net

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