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No Couch Potatoes Need Apply

At Art Center College of Design's 'Telematic Connections' show, you can help a plant grow or feel the earth quake.

May 06, 2001|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Picture this: A man wanders into a room furnished with a comfy sofa, a video monitor and a camera. He plunks himself down on the sofa and sees his own image on the monitor. Then suddenly, he has company. As he looks at the picture, a woman appears to sit down beside him. They are equally startled because the woman is actually seated on an identical couch in an adjacent room and she, too, is staring at a projected image of herself with a newfound partner. But they soon loosen up and develop a cyberspace relationship.

It may not be love, but it's the sort of encounter visitors can expect at "Telematic Connections: The Virtual Embrace," a traveling exhibition that opens next Sunday at Art Center College of Design. Organized by Independent Curators International and curated by Steve Dietz, director of new media initiatives at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the show offers about 40 works by 25 artists who explore the global telecommunications network.

Along with meeting other gallery-goers in Paul Sermon's sofa piece, "Telematic Vision," visitors can participate in cybergardening, converse with an invisible wizard and witness seismic movement. Except for "Re:mote_Corp@REALities," Tina LaPorta's narrative of chat room conversations and interviews, all the pieces are interactive. And, for the most part, that doesn't mean visitors sit at computers and tap on keyboards

Leading a visitor through the show at its inaugural venue, the San Francisco Art Institute, Dietz approaches Eduardo Kac's "Teleporting an Unknown State," a computer-based telecommunications installation that consists of a minigarden and a video monitor in a darkened room. "There is a seedling planted in this dirt," Dietz says, pointing to a scraggly plant emerging from a mound of earth on the floor. "As visitors click on the Web page projected on the monitor, it metaphorically transfers photons to this dark room so the plant can grow. The point is the Internet as a nourishing system. There is also a sense that a community has to build up to click enough times for the plant to live."

Moving on to a room housing "Netomatheque" by Maciej Wisniewski, Dietz invites his visitor to explore a new way of browsing the Internet by sitting on yet another sofa, picking up the phone on a nearby coffee table and saying a word into the receiver. Soon a stream of imagery and information pertaining to the spoken cue is projected on the wall opposite the sofa.

Then it's off to earthquake country, via "Mori," an ambitious installation by Ken Goldberg, Randall Packer, Wojciech Matusik and Gregory Kuhn that connects visitors with the Hayward Fault. "These fiber-optic handrails vibrate in relation to seismic activity of the earth in real time," Dietz says, grasping spiral rails that lead to the center of the piece. "The sound you are hearing is also modulated by the seismic activity of the earth in real time," he says of the rumbling noise that fills the air. In the middle of the room a seismograph-like chart of tectonic activity appears on a monitor embedded in the floor, presenting a graphic image of subterranean action.

Those who don't like to be confronted with earthquakes in any form or at any distance may not appreciate the eerie tactile, aural and visual effects of "Mori." But Dietz speaks of the piece as "a connection to the earth" and "a nurturing reminder" that the earth is "a living, breathing thing, not just something we walk on."

These artworks are only a sampling of related pieces on view in current technology-related shows all across the country--including "010101: Art in Technological Times," at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through July 8, and "BitStreams," at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York through June 10. But Dietz is a new-media veteran, and his show isn't just one more survey of the latest bells and whistles in an ever-evolving genre.

"I wanted to do something useful and interesting, so I decided to focus on artists who are working in a physical space but use the network, and artists who are thinking about how we connect either to each other or to the earth," he says. With that in mind, he began to explore computer-mediated connections between distant parties--human to human, human to machine, machine to machine and human to nature. He also decided to make the point that such recently made artwork has a surprisingly long history.

The exhibition title, "Telematic Connections: The Virtual Embrace," comes from "the idea of convergence of telecommunications and computing, which was first specifically named in the 1970s by French social scientists Alain Minc and Simon Nora as the basis of a book called 'The Computerization of Society,' " Dietz says. "The idea was that this convergence was giving rise to something extraordinary, and that is exactly what we have seen over the past 30 years. Some artists started working with slow-scan TV and FAX and video transmission at that time, long before the Web.

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