Fear and Immersion in Linz

This week, immersive, terrifying worlds were undoubtedly some of the
strongest works at hand at Ars Electronica (http://www.aec.at/).
Interestingly enough, the best one was not even part of the competition.

Nevertheless, one of the best immersive environments won the Golden Nica
for Interactive Art. "World Skin," by Maurice Benayoun and
Jean-Baptiste Barriere (FR), is a VR landscape of war images (soldiers,
bombed buildings, children and the like), referencing the war in
Yugoslavia. Inside the "CAVE" viewing environment–essentially a large
box covered in projections–a dozen participants in stereoscopic
glasses can glide along the spooky, visually rich landscape and even snap
electronic pictures. The tattered objects in this world are all static,
rotoscoped cut-outs from photographs. They dot the dark landscape at
odd, random angles, forming an endless battlefield of documentation. An
ambient soundscape heightens the melancholia, and before long, creates a
bit of melodrama. With the click of special cameras, participants
trigger violent flashes which blast the targeted regions in white. This
is photography as a weapon, photography as annihilation. Of course it
is also photography as our only source of historic preservation. Making
no attempts to recreate a photo-realistic model of the battlefield, the
artists put forward more of a meditation on history than a replacement.

The theme of "photography as weapon" was taken to its extreme in another
installation, "Border Patrol." In this simple yet well executed work by
Paul Garrin and David Rokeby (USA), the participant enters a narrow
passageway, restricted by a high wall, topped with barbed wire. On top
of the wall is a row of video monitors and cameras, which locate the
people in the room and fire "shots." It works, and damn well too. The
cameras find you, the monitors zoom to close-ups, gun shots sound, the
monitors turn red, then recoil… The guns keep firing until you run out
of the room. According to the program, each camera can track up to
twenty people–a claim supported by a group of school children who (to
the amazement of bystanders) gleefully frolicked inside the installation.

Downstairs from "Border Patrol" was another chilling work, which was the
winner in the computer music category. "Krachtgever," by Peter Bosch
(NL) and Simone Simons (E), features stacks of industrial wooden crates,
which are filled with various objects and connected along the x and y
axis by thick springs. A computer brain causes the crates to shake,
rattle, and bounce in careful orchestration. In motion, the symmetrical
stacks become surprisingly anthropomorphic. Sometimes a soothing rhythm
emerges, at other times the wooden figures dance in an almost epileptic
fit. For good reason, the doors to the installation are sound-proofed.
The unexpected motions, sounds, and even smells of these ordinary
objects, brought to life, are mesmerizing. Here, as in "Border Patrol,"
technology enables previously begin objects to humble, even frighten the

The most striking immersive experience of them all was outside the
competition. With even better 3D stereoscopic immersion than the CAVE,
and more macabre surprises than "Krachtgever" and "Border Patrol"
combined, a midnight train ride through a WWII era steel mine was, at
least for this writer, the climax of the festival. Shortly after 1 am,
several dozen lucky Ars guests boarded two glass-covered, steel trains.
Also on board was the Finnish techno act Pan Sonic, to provide a live
soundtrack to the adventure. The trains ventured deep into a landscape
which can only be described in filmic terms: something out of "Akira,"
"Bladerunner," or "Brazil." The riders seemed let into a secret world in
which technology is waging a long, endless, and bloody war with nature.
The scale, complexity, and brutality of the steel mine are beyond words,
and beyond the current limits of virtual representation; in terms of
sheer impact, "World Skin" doesn't come even close. The smell of burnt
earth and chemicals; the rusty pipes, chutes, and towers snaking toward
the horizon; the faded signs from the mine's use as WWII infrastructure;
distant blue columns of flame and smoke; the massive automated machines
digging and burning who knows what… All the while, the superb live
soundtrack reacted to the train's advance, heightening the darkness, the
technological maze, and yes, the trepidation in the air.

The steel mill ride, as a yearly tradition at Ars, might always serve as
a humbling measuring stick to builders of immersive worlds and
installations. To net artists it may also suggest an interesting
challenge: how to represent the magnitude and complexity of networked
data in a tangible, even sensual way? The complexity and vastness of the
web alone should overshadow a typical, early 20th century steel mill; yet
somehow the web is rendered feather light in comparison. If only there
was a way to break outside of the window of the computer monitor, to
catch a full, unrestricted glimpse of the vastness, the intricacies, and
even the terrors of this data mill for a new millennium!

[also read a <a href="/cgi/to.cgi?t=1248">follow up</a>
to this article by Knut Mork.]