Port Logo PORT: Navigating Digital Culture
Organized by a r t n e t w e b
MIT List Visual Arts Center
January 25 through March 29, 1997

Entertainment Line
January 23 - 29, 1997

by Gary Duehr
CNC Arts Correspondent

List exhibit focuses on the marriage of art and Internet.

Sorry -- if you have no idea what a MOO or MUD is, the next generation of Net whizzes has already moved onto VRMLs, avatars and metaverses.

But not to worry. Artnetweb, a New York-based computer art collaborative, is here to help steer you through the net with "PORT: Navigating Digital Culture" at the MIT List Visual Arts Center Friday through March 29. In the most user-friendly way imaginable -- that is, standing and watching a TV screen -- viewers can get a glimpse into the brave new world. And the technically savvy can even sit down at a terminal in the gallery and take part, or join in from a computer at home: the Web address is http://artnetweb.com/port/remote.

"We decided to call the installation a port," explains artnetweb Director Remo Campopiano, "because it's one in a vast sea of ports that is the Net. We can receive people from all over the world."

Indeed, none of the 20 groups showing digital artwork in the exhibit will be physically present. Their performances in two-hour time slots, will be shown on four large-screen monitors hung around the gallery. Artnetweb describes it as "a theater space, except the audience will be in the center and the stage encompasses the viewer."

On the walls behind the monitors will be a 20-foot-high wire grid -- like a hardware version of the Net -- covered by acetate, with all the text generated by the show layered on top "as if the walls were the membranes of the organism we're creating," muses Campopiano. "It's where you can look at the exhibit's history."

He declares the whole show is "an experimental lab. The basic premise of being live and over the Internet has never been done before in an organized fashion. Usually people try one-time performances. But here we have a few weeks to work out the technical bugs, and then watch things evolve."

Floating Point Unit will be showing "Coma," a 3-D world based on a scene in the movie of the same name. Known as a VRML (pronounced like "thermal," and from Virtual REality Modeling Language), a 3-D world is also called a metaworld or metaverse. One of their recent VRMLs superimposed live video from Japan of Butoh dancers onto a virtual space. "You can see the potential," Campopiano enthuses, "of the creative mind trying to grasp new technology."

Lest you think VRMLs are to heady, the ability to view and fly through these worlds is built into the latest version of Navigator, one of the most popular Web browsers. "This is really current stuff," Campopiano says. "VRML has been around only a year, and usable just the last three months. In VRML 2.0, objects in the environment can sense you're approaching, and speak or move at a certain distance, then trigger other objects, and so on. It's like a 3-D play you can interact with."

Great, a skeptic might think -- a room you can walk through and pick up things. What's all the fuss about?

Campopiano makes a convincing argument. "A VRML breaks down time and space. The person in the room with you could be from Japan. With the Net, you can do things anywhere in the world from your own home, and people from anywhere can visit you." (You enter a VRML as an avatar, a graphic representation of yourself.)

Likewise, although Art Dirt's presentation of a weekly talk show in streaming audio -- sound sent and received in real time -- could seem to be reinventing radio, there are some clear difference.

"Streaming audio is archived," Campopiano points out, "so you can go back and listen to it. Plus, anybody can have a radio station, that reaches globally, with a mike and a couple hundred dollars of software.

"It's a Webcast," he continues, "not broadcast, because it's one-to-one, or one-to-many."

The Web's democratic nature is trumpeted by G.H. Hovagimyan, the host of Art Dirt. "I love America. If there is any place on earth where the human race has a chance to evolve it's here, in America. We believe in the freedom of belief."

That spirit originally infused MUDs and MOOs (multi-user dungeon, and multi-user dungeon that's object-oriented). Represented by the group Starboard in the exhibit, they are an outdated technology that's all text-based without images.

"It's very game-like," recalls Campopiano. "You enter an environment and play different people by typing text. It's like writing a group story."

More current technology will be used by Myth Machine, a splinter group of New York's Gertrude Stein Repertory Theater. Through CU-See, video conferencing designed for remote teaching, they'll perform a play about Web privacy from several different locations. "One of the beauties of the technology," says Campopiano, "is that the actors can be anywhere." Other artists include rDNA, which will compile newly deciphered DNA sequences from around the world, and Cary Peppermint, who will perform "Getting in Touch with Chicken," in which he attempts to spiritually connect with a live chicken in a box.

Through the List gallery "Port," artists from all over the world -- many of them juried through e-mail -- will converge in cyberspace.

Hype has really hurt the Internet," admits Campopiano. "But this is technology that really works and is doing something. We want to open up people's access to the stuff that's most exciting, where viewing is getting easier even if creating it still takes a technical mind."

He says he's more and more aware that the division between technician and artist is dissolving, and that "the person who writes out code with zeros and ones is also making art."

"PORT: Navigating Digital Culture" is on display at the MIT List Visual Arts Center Jan. 24 - March 29. The exhibit is free and open to the public. Call 253-4680.

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