In a fitful exhibition of virtual domains at ISEA 96, of all the worlds
on show, I would want to live in Masaki Fujihata's *Beyond Pages*. It is
not its evocation of childish wonder, nor the classicism of its decorous
symmetry, but that in Fujihata's installation delight, formal perfection
and intelligence meet at the threshold of a passionate engagement with
the world beyond the interface. The natural world – apple, stone – is
folded in beside the common artifice – door, light – and between them
sits the mark of the unnatural human, gate of the super-natural, core of
the book, writing.
The data projector loads images of a leather bound tome onto a tablet
which a light pen activates, animating the objects named in it - stone,
apple, door, light, writing. The soundscore immaculately emulates the
motion of each against paper, save for the syllabic glyphs of Japanese
script, for which a voice pronounces the selected syllable. Stone and
apple roll and drag across the page, light illuminates a paper-shaded
desklamp; door opens a video door in front of where you read, a naked
infant romping, lifesize and laughing, in.
In the middle pages, kanji letters scroll breakneck under the nib of
your pen. Lifting it selects a word. We ask the Japanese of our random
selection, 'Does it mean anything?' and they say, 'Well, it says
something, but it doesn't mean anything'. And it says, oh, I don't know:
fish, walk, watch, and the ideographs sit in disarray where they tumble
on the page. Something of the accident of language, its random
illumination of the world, shines up from the page. An illuminating
illuminated manuscript (like Simon Biggs' 1991 alchemical book) opens
and leafs through with a gesture, more direct than metaphor, more subtle
than allegory, of the digital text, book as light source.
Language even at its most foreign, straddles the divide between the
otherness of nature and the familiarity of artefacts. It makes the
strangeness of stone as familiar as the alienness of the light switch.
We appropriate to ourselves unfamiliar familiars, the amazement we
should always feel in front of apples, the joy in manipulating what is
no part of us, just as the child coaxed by the lightpen delights in the
efficient magic of the hinge. What makes the door swing open is the
fulcrum of the word. Here we learn that a task for multimedia is not the
simulacrum of the moving image but the renewal of literature, a language
through whose gaps the light gets in.
Fujihata took home prizes from Ars Electronica for his VR installation
*Global Interior Project #2*, also shown at DEAF in Rotterdam.
Technically superb, conceptually ambitious, it seemed less beautiful
than this smaller but utterly achieved work.
My other favourite was another Japanese VR exhibit in DEAF, where Seiko
Mikami showed *Molecular Informatics Ver.2.0 - Morphogenic Substance via
Eye-Tracking*, movement of the eyes creating a virtual architecture, but
with two players, so that, in my case with a total stranger, you try to
lock the trace of your gaze with the gaze of your partner, simultaneity
rewarded by musical sounds and colour. The flight through virtual space
in search of the unknown other builds a 3D world of seeking, momentary
finding, and repeated loss.
For hours afterwards, I tried to recognize again the woman who wore the
other visor, as if some special magic would draw us together. The
simplest and most direct of emotions, and a metaphorical relation to the
structures of real life: in these and kindred pieces, you feel at last
as if we are moving out from the pioneer mode of production and
beginning the long, slow journey into whatever it is that the new media
will turn out to be about. I feel as if I have just seen my first DW
Griffith Biograph short, and caught a scent, in its sentimental
sincerity and gestural codes, of what the cinema might become. What a
joy, to be around to watch the birth of a new medium.