The text below is an excerpt from: "Ornitorrinco
and Rara Avis: Telepresence Art on the Internet", Leonardo, Vol. 29, N. 5, 1996, pp. 389-400.
Rara Avis is an interactive telepresence work in which local and remote participants experienced a large aviary with 30 birds from the point of view of a telerobotic macaw. The work premiered in the context of the exhibition "Out of Bounds: New Work by Eight Southeast Artists", curated by Annette Carlozzi and Julia Fenton. The exhibition was realized between June 28 and August 24, 1996, at Nexus Contemporary Art Center, in Atlanta, and online, as part of the Olympic Arts Festival.
In Rara Avis, the participant saw a very large aviary as soon as he or she walked into the room. In front of this aviary the participant saw a virtual reality headset. Inside the aviary the viewer noticed a strong contrast between the thirty flying birds (zebra finches, which were very small and mostly gray) and the large tropical macaw, which was perched and immobile. This macaw, like any other, has a long saber-shaped tail, a curved powerful bill, and brilliant plumage. Upon observing the behavior of the birds, the viewer noticed that the macaw -- the most commanding bird in the aviary -- appeared motionless. Only its head moved. This tropical bird was in fact a telerobot. Since the macaw's eyes were on the front of the head, as is the case of an owl, the telerobot was called a Macowl .
|View from outside the cage.||The perspective of the macaw.|
The viewer was invited to put on the headset. While wearing the headset, the viewer was transported into the aviary. The viewer now perceived the aviary from the point of view of the Macowl and was able to observe himself or herself in this situation from the point of view of the macaw. The tropical bird's eyes are two CCD cameras. When the viewer, now a participant, moved his or her head to left and right, the head of the telerobotic Macowl moved accordingly, enabling the participant to see the whole space of the aviary from the Macowl's point of view. The real space was immediately transformed into a virtual space. The installation was permanently connected to the Internet. Through the Net, remote participants observed the gallery space from the point of view of the telerobotic Macowl. Through the Internet remote participants also used their microphones to trigger the vocal apparatus of the telerobotic macaw heard in the gallery. The body of telerobotic Macowl was shared in real time by local participants and Internet participants worldwide. Sounds in the space, usually a combination of human and bird voices, traveled back to remote participants on the Internet.
|Rara Avis (1996) linked the gallery to the Internet with interactive conferences and cybercasts via CU-SeeMe, the Web, and the MBone.|
By enabling the local participant to be both vicariously inside and physically outside the cage, this installation created a metaphor that revealed how new communications technology enables the effacement of boundaries at the same time that it reaffirms them. The installation also addressed issues of identity and alterity, projecting the viewer inside the body of a rare bird who not only was the only one of its kind in the aviary but was also distinctly different from the other birds (in scale, color, and behavior). The piece can be seen as a critique of the problematic notion of "exoticism", a concept that reveals more about relativity of contexts and the limited awareness of the observer than about the cultural status of the object of observation. This image of "the different", "the other", embodied by the telerobotic Macowl, was dramatized by the fact that the participant temporarily adopted the point of view of the rare bird.
This piece created a self-organizing system of mutual dependence, in which local participants, animals, a telerobot, and remote participants interacted without direct guidance, control, or external intervention. As the piece combined physical and non-physical entities, it merged immediate perceptual phenomena with a heightened awareness of what affects us but is visually absent, physically remote. Local and on-line participants experienced the space in complex, different ways. The local ecology of the aviary was affected by Internet ecology and vice-versa.
|Rara Avis (1996). Detail showing the head of the telerobotic macaw.|
The topology of Rara Avis was carefully
designed to expose the social gap implied in technological development.
As the video feed, from the point of view of the Macowl (as seen by a local
participant), went out from the Atlanta space into the Internet, one eye
was digitized in grayscale (with the freeware Cu-SeeMe) while the other
was digitized in color (with the commercial product Enhanced Cu-SeeMe).
While anyone with Internet access could download the freeware and participate
in the interactive component of the work, full participation in color was
only accessible to those who had already purchased the commercial version
of the freeware. The gray images were subsequently and automatically uploaded
to the Rara Avis Web site, where they became even more accessible--since
more people today have access to (and feel comfortable with) the Web than
to videoconferencing on the Internet. The color feed was re-routed to the
MBone, the multicasting zone of the Net, which only a much smaller group
of individuals can access at present. Those lacking access to more powerful
media saw the space in Atlanta in grayscale, at speeds that depended on
the software, hardware, and connectivity available to them. Those with
access to newer technology were able to experience the space differently,
in color and at frame rates that reflected the processing power and bandwidth
available to them. In its geographic dispersal, Rara Avis was intentionally
never exactly the same to remote or local participants.
The merger of local ecology with the cybersphere was perceived in varying
ways by viewers and participants worldwide, depending on the kind of access
they had. This clearly suggested that the mediascape--the highly technological
environment in which we live--modulates and defines our perception of reality.
Which makes us realize the inequalities promoted by technology, and, more
importantly, that reality is negotiation, and that it is never the same
Rara Avis Credits
The catalogue of "Out of the Bounds: New Work by Eight Southeast Artists" is available from Nexus Contemporary Art Center, 535 Means Street, Atlanta, GA, 30318, USA.- (404) 688-1970.