Eduardo Kac: Dialogues

October 21 to November 11, 1994

by Joyce J. Probus

Originally published in Dialogue: Arts in the Midwest, Columbus, Ohio, pp. 14-16, Jan/Feb 1995.

The gallery lights of the Center for Contemporary Art at the University of Kentucky are dimmed to accommodate the illumination of notebook computer displays and projected images that flicker from the gallery walls at seven sparse stations that make up Kac's installation, 'Dialogues.' Moments before the gallery opens, a computer link is established between Lexington, Chicago and Seattle, initiating Ornitorrinco in Eden, third in a series of telepresence events for artist Eduardo Kac and his telerobot, Ornitorrinco. Gallery visitors encounter a black and white monitor displaying a grainy, low-resolution image. Beside the monitor, a 'receiverless' push-button phone invites the viewer's touch. A button is pressed, and in response, the telerobot moves within its environment in Chicago. The participant in Lexington observes the movement and by pressing the phone button, s/he determines the direction of the robot within the disparate space 500 miles away. The participant, through the monitor, sees through the robot's eye, and navigates vicariously within the environment enfolding in front of him. The viewer masters the simple pattern of phone buttons, but suddenly Ornitorrinco's movement does not reflect his/her signal because the robot is responding to the signal of a participant at a similar station in the Seattle Center. The communication is modified. Accommodations are made for the third party. The telerobot Ornitorrinco (platypus in Portuguese), first seen at the SIGGRAPH Art Show in 1992, was developed in collaboration with Ed Bennett.

From a fax machine mounted high on the gallery wall, a continuous paper cascade of images pool on the gallery floor. The images, artists' responses from around the world to Kac's Internet invitation, constitute a collaborative 'faxfilm' he calls Elastic Fax 2.

The media of Eduardo Kac's 'Dialogues' involve transmission and exchange of information and visual translation of the artist's interaction with language. His art is not founded on formal aspects of beauty or composition, but questions of perception and reality. His 'Dialogues' use technology to question the nature of communication, creating an interactive gallery space in which to examine the relationship between the perceiver and the environment, the reality around us. Kac's use of textual elements in his work provides both familiar reference points within a less-familiar technical world, and reflects his aspirations for intellectual direction of the technology we use.

In UPC, projected text forms, then expands and dissolves in a repeated sequence. Pulled beyond the page, the planes of a letter in space change valence, become questions. The viewer looks for the visual pattern in this perceptually relative sequence of words, finally engaging with the language.

As Eduardo Kac offers navigational space, he offers navigational text. In the hyperpoem Storms, non-linear text which appears fixed on the two dimensional plane of a monitor evolves at the mouse click of the viewer, forming and reforming to an infinite rhythm. The diagrammed linkages of Storms relate visually to the layered representation of the Sefirotic tree of the Kaballah. Kac's viewer toggles the hyperpoem by his choice of consonant, vowel, or neutral space. Like the scholars of 'the doctrine of hidden things,' Kac attributes much to a single letter.

In Accident, Kac adds sound to the verbal and visual impact of his explorations with text. Headphones access a digital soundtrack of white noise that seems to move inside the listener's head in curious rhythmic counterpoint to text that flows across the LCD display of a notebook computer. Kac's sentence stretches and writhes, and the letters distort. The sound affects the listener's reception of what is seen and influences his/her interpretation.

In another project that takes places in two cities, Kac collaborates with artist Ikuo Nakamura to combine organic elements with technology for Essay Concerning Human Understanding. A canary in a tall white cage in the Lexington gallery sings in response to the electrical fields of a plant which have been converted to sound in Nakamura's installation at the Science Hall in New York City. The bird's response is transmitted back as sounds the plant can sense.

Microchips, wires and a circuit board punctuate a polished mahogany panel called Dialogical Drawing that hangs nearby. An unseen microphone gathers comments of gallery visitors, and transmits them to an identical piece hanging in a museum in São Paulo, Brazil. A small speaker provides the Portuguese and English comments to the viewers in Lexington, who are surprised to learn that a background noise that's been part of the sound is heavy rain outside the museum in São Paulo.

Through his 'Dialogues', Eduardo Kac offers his viewers voice, motion, vision. The gallery space, connected through the Internet, expands into cyberspace. The events which occur are simultaneous, in real time. Diverse spaces, differing realities become parallel and interact.

In 'Dialogues', Eduardo Kac's communication crosses cultures, geographic distances, time zones, and species. There is a progression to his works, movement from cause to effect, yet they are open-ended. There is a pattern to his art, designed for random outcome. There is often no trace of the artist's hand, except that it touches our perception. Outside the gallery, we consider the canary's response to the plant, the curious changing forms of letters, and the sound of rain in São Paulo. Kac's transient images, rooted in a particular moment in reality, have succeeded in changing our boundaries and our own communication.

Eduardo Kac is also working with virtual galleries in the Internet to display his work. Storms and Accident can be seen via computer anywhere in the world after downloading from this FTP site: (pub/artsource/storms, pub/artsource/accident). He is currently developing his work for access via the World Wide Web, a visual interface to the Internet.

Joyce J. Probus is an independent critic and writer concerned with issues of art and technology. She lives in Lexington, Kentucky.