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Will artists co-opt the Web or be co-opted by it?

November 10, 2002|REED JOHNSON

Los Angeles, a culture-hungry metropolis always enthralled with the new, has lately been getting an eyeful of the futuristic world of technology being developed for art's sake. It materialized a few days ago on the USC campus, where the Bing Theatre was transformed into a glittering high-tech toy. It sprang up again last weekend like a giant hologram in the storefronts and gritty back-alley basements of Chinatown.

Now we'll see how long the artists can keep their hands on the techno-goodies. Because if history is any guide, it won't be long before Hollywood studios, multimedia moguls and venture capitalists try to tame the avant-garde beast for fun and profit.

Funky but fast-gentrifying Chinatown made a fitting backdrop for this high-stakes cultural drama perched on the thin, blurred line between commerce and creative independence. Launching the eighth Celebration of Experimental Media Arts, gallery owners, artists, musicians and leather-clad looky-loos all came out to Chung King Road on Nov. 1 to sample an open-air smorgasbord of video, CD-ROM and Web site displays and installations.

Laughing, smoking and squinting at maps while roaming the neon-lighted streets, the crowd sampled everything from mixed-media video narratives exploring ethnic and sexual identity themes, to a cut-up of Chuck Heston blasting away at killer zombies in the dystopian sci-fi thriller "The Omega Man," to "the world's first memefest," a kind of cyber-symposium on how to subvert the mass media, put together by c-level, a stealthy collective of CalArts grads.

The monthlong festival, sponsored by LA Freewaves and coming soon to a gallery, college or billboard near you, showcases bleeding-edge talent and technology that haven't yet reached the mainstream. LA Freewaves, a nonprofit media-arts advocacy group whose quixotic mission is "to liberate video and new media from the bondage of profit," serves artists, arts groups and academic entities eager to push technology-based art past pop-up windows plugging penis-enhancement surgery.

The challenge for these aesthetic pioneers is the same one facing every generation of artists since the age of mechanical reproduction began, Freewaves executive director Anne Bray says. From the printing press to the camera obscura to the Internet, technology has given artists new tools and cheaper ways to make and distribute their work. The trick is to ensure the technology remains accessible once Fortune 500 scouts start sniffing around.

As an example, Bray points to the proposed mega-merger of EchoStar Communications Corp. and its satellite-TV rival, El Segundo-based Hughes Electronics Corp., DirecTV's parent and itself a unit of General Motors Corp. The merger is being challenged by several states and federal antitrust officials on grounds that it would freeze out competitors. It also could further erode the available cable slots for the type of noncommercial work glimpsed in Chinatown.

Remember the '70s utopian dream of video as a low-cost alternative to film? Or the naive hope that the Internet would democratize global communication, turning every man, woman and child into a desktop Michelangelo? What is touted as techno-liberation for the masses has a habit of turning out differently.

That's one reason that in the late 1990s, a not-for-profit consortium of 200 U.S. universities and research labs formed Internet2, a high-bandwidth network encouraging long-distance artistic collaboration. Although still in its infancy, the network has mind-boggling possibilities for those who care about spawning new art forms and spreading unconventional ideas.

Imagine, for instance, a modern dancer at USC performing a virtual pas de deux with a partner at the University of Illinois, whose movements are digitally beamed to a computer back in L.A. The computer then translates these motion signals -- in real time, mind you -- into life-size 3-D images of a half-human, half-winged creature, as supple and expressive as a Martha Graham principal. Or picture Michael Tilson Thomas' orchestral brainchild, the New World Symphony, beamed into your living room or classroom with concert-hall clarity.

Theory nears practice

These fantasies moved closer to reality last week during the Internet2-hosted demonstration "Cultivating Communities: Dance in the Digital Age" at the Bing. If you were among the 500 attendees, you saw how quickly the gap is narrowing between theory and practice in the virtual performing arts.

"If you're going to make a parallel to motion pictures, we're almost in the D.W. Griffith days now," says Ella Belzberg, co-artistic director of USC's event.

Artists, academics, students and researchers have time and space to keep tinkering with the model. Internet2's parent organization, the University Corp. for Advanced Internet Development, is keeping a tight rein on access to its network. Its goal isn't to wall off the arts from commerce forever, but to keep the new technology from eating its young.

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