A RARE BIRD AT THE OLYMPICS

Cynthia Goodman

1995 was hailed as "The Year of the Internet" in the cover story of the year end issue of Newsweek. The pervasiveness of this relatively new technology is inescapable. Nevertheless, for many, the conduits for global interconnectivity on this worldwide computer network were initially difficult to grasp. The sudden, ubiquitous rise of the network was overwhelming, and traveling into the unknown terrain of Cyberspace seemed mysterious. However, demystification is occurring with similar velocity. Although some adults have been tentative in their embrace of the world Wide Web, children race home from school to communicate online with new friends from all over the world.

Eduardo Kac uses electronic media in his innovative work in holography, telecommunications events and conceptual art. Kac is one of eight artists whose work was selected for the exhibition "Out of Bounds: New Work by Eight Southeast Artists" organized by Nexus Contemporary Art Center in Atlanta in collaboration with the Atlanta Committee for the Olympics Games. Kac has a long history of interest in telecommunications-based artwork and dates his first such work to 1985 when he was still living in Rio de Janeiro.

You had an early interest in telecommunications and art. What was your first piece in this medium?

EK: In 1985, working with the phone company in Rio, I created what we today call a virtual gallery, enabling myself and a few other artists to place works in a remote site to be accessed from different parts of the country. In fact, there were public terminals places by the phone company in airports, shopping centers, universities.

When did you create your first public presentation involving the Internet?

EK: The first public presentation of the Ornitorrinco Project was in Chicago in 1992 and it used the telephone network. There, people interacted with the piece in one location and by doing so, manipulated the robot in a remote place. In 1994, working with Ed Bennett I created the first networked telepresence installation in which the robot was located in Chicago and people would control it from sites around the U.S. One of the unique things about this was that the body of the telerobot was inhabited by more than one person at the some time. As a consequence, they had to share the controls democratically, seeing through the eyes of the robot at the some time. So they developed a sense of being together in that remote body. The vision was shared through live digital video on the Internet with anybody in the world who had access to the Internet. We had people coming online from Ireland, Canada, several American cities, Germany, Finland and other countries.

Do you approach your work on the Net in a different way than you do in other mediums?

EK: Yes and No. I don't come to telecommunications and networking differently from the other work I do. All my work is concept driven, not so much media driven. It's not like I have a medium and see what I can do with it, but the works follow a general interest I have in language and how communication lies at the core of our very experience of the world.

Can you tell me about the work you created for the Olympics?

EK: When you enter the exhibition and see my work "Rara Avis, " you walk into a triangular room and immediately see a cage in the space and notice there is something not quite normal about it. Eventually you will notice that there are two things in the cage: a group of small monochromatic birds, and towards the back of the cage, a colorful, tropical, large beautiful telerobotic macaw.

What happens next?

EK: When you put on the VR headset, you project yourself into the body of the telemacaw. Several things happen at once. As you move your head to the left, headtracking moves the telerobotic head to the left. As you move your head to the right, the telerobotic head is moved to the right. The macaw's vision is both in color and in stereo. What you see with your left eye is displayed on a large monitor so that other people in the exhibit can see what's going on. It also goes to a live color interactive videoconference and to the MBone. What you see with your right eye is being fed live to a grayscale interactive videoconference and to the Web. In principle, anybody anywhere in the world who has Internet access can see it. There are no restrictions. The vision system is being controlled by you in the gallery, so what people on the Net see pretty much responds to your physical motion. Voices coming from the Net are heard in the gallery.

Why do you now choose to create works on the Net, involving the public, rather than with groups of networked artists, as you did in your earlier work?

EK: When the Internet finally became available, it became a natural extension for me. The Internet is not comparable to the smaller parallel artists' networks that I had either initiated or participated in, because it is worldwide and involves a lot of other people that are not necessarily artists. On the Net you can create pieces you couldn't create otherwise. You can create situations that are open and more democratic.


Originally published in Artist's & Graphic Designer's Market, F&W Publications, Cincinnati, 1997, pp. 22-23.


Cynthia Goodman is the former Director of the IBM Gallery of Science and Art in New York, where she organized the landmark "Computers and Art" exhibition. A world authority on digital art, Goodman is the author of Digital Visions: Computers and Art, which serves as a textbook in the field. She is currently organizing an exhibition of interactive art for The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. She has edited and produced a CD-ROM, InfoART, published by ARTway and distributed by D.A.P. Publishers, New York.


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