A Wild Ride into the Digital Future Artists and Scientists Talk about the Information Revolution and How It's Changing Their Relationship with Audiences at a Massachusetts Institute of Technology Symposium

Article excerpt

IMAGINE sending Abe Lincoln an e-mail message congratulating him on the Gettysburg Address. Or reordering the choruses in Mozart's Great Mass in C.

Personal computer (PC) users are gaining access to realms that used to be the exclusive domain of journalists, politicians, musicians, and filmmakers. The emerging technology gives them power to mix their own compact discs, choose movie endings, and customize the kind of news they read. They can contact the president and vice president directly by electronic mail or enter the fantasy world of pop stars like David Bowie via CD-ROM (compact disc read-only memory).

It's a wild world out there.

Last week, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Laboratory hosted a day-long symposium called "Digital Expression." The meeting, moderated by ABC correspondent John Hockenberry, brought together prominent artists and scientists as well as representatives from business and government to explore the future of creative expression in the face of new technology. But participants also sounded a few warnings about the dark side of the electronic playground.

To start the dialogue, the Media Lab recruited a panel that included pop musician and video pioneer Peter Gabriel, performance artist Laurie Anderson, stage and film director Peter Sellars, and director of MIT's Experimental Media Facility Tod Machover. Each of them agreed that technology is permanently altering arts and entertainment to the point that observers and participants are calling it the beginning of a renaissance, if not a revolution. And technology is redefining the roles of artist and audience.

"I've always fancied the idea of being a designer of experience," says Mr. Gabriel, whose own CD-ROM, "XPLORA1," is one of the most successful interactive discs on the market. "XPLORA1" allows a user to pop the CD-ROM into a personal computer and, through a series of choices, "enter" Gabriel's studio, participate in his videos, and go backstage at one of his concerts.

Currently, Gabriel and Ms. Anderson are collaborating on an "experience park" to be built in Barcelona, Spain. "We want to put people inside our dreams and let them manipulate them," he told the MIT audience of 1,200.

Technology, they acknowledged, allows artists to go beyond one-way communication (television, for example) to design interactive pieces where the audience does not merely listen or watch but experiences or interacts ... or perhaps just meanders through.

"We're just trying to touch what actual experience is," Mr. Sellars says. "We're in the early stages, it's primitive right now."

"As artists, our role is to set up the context and environments to stimulate {audiences}," says Mr. Machover, who oversees the development of "hyperinstruments," such as a sensor-computer-aided cello that Yo Yo Ma has played. …