Magazine article Artforum International

VR the Art World

Magazine article Artforum International

VR the Art World

Article excerpt

YOU CAN'T HELP FEELING a little shiver when you buy the Mona Lisa, even though you're just playing Millennium Auction, the CD-ROM game from Eidolon, Inc. In your role as, say, multimedia artist Tory Swift--one of six inexplicably solvent art-world stereotypes who frequent a rather claustrophobic art auction house of the 21st century--your job is to gather information on the lots under the gavel by flipping through catalogues, eaves-dropping on conversations, or snooping through material strewn around the messy office of Zeke the Janitor. Then you bid, in an attempt to predict the fluctuating market. Nuria, a tongue-in-cheek guide with a Kathleen Turner voice, provides supplementary art history, describing the Laocoon, for example, as "rendered by the Greeks in dramatic you-are-there style." After each auction, developments out of your control determine final sales posted on the "ArtNet" board. When you learn that your Mona is slowly growing a beard--apparently it was really a retouched portrait of Leonardo himself--you get a queasy feeling: will this increase or decrease its value?

Like Myst, the most artistically successful CD-ROM game so far, Millennium Auction confronts the medium's biggest problem--glacially long seek times--by choosing an inherently slow-paced activity: since the play takes place in an auction house, the pauses can be as charged as the events. Unlike Myst, though, Millennium Auction blends fact and fiction. Possibly for copyright reasons, but also perhaps because teasing recent artists on the grounds of auction prices might seem like stabbing fish in a sink, the actual artworks peter out around the beginning of this century, to be replaced by parodies. Many of these are at least somewhat informed: bidding goes through the roof for a World Body flag dipped in urine; an estate-full of late-'90s sculpture turns out to have been created by the dead artist's assistant (actually, robot assistant); and a computer error kills several visitors to "Penn Jacob's masterpiece Eighteen Holes of Human Misery," a miniature-golf-course installation that seems to be a dig at a more low-tech interactive exhibition a while ago at Artists' Space in New York. At the end of the day, one of the six buyers comes out on top.

As a game, Millennium Auction suffers from the new medium's commonest weaknesses: after a few rounds, your snooping degenerates into a mechanical scanning for so-far-unactivated hot spots, while your trades become simply attempts to second-guess the writers' petulant sense of humor. But as light hypertext satire the piece is surprisingly rich. The introductory rap on Mona, for instance, tosses off a reference to Marcel Duchamp's mustache intervention, and it's easy to see the whole segment as a homage to Duchamp, an artist whose sexualized automata, peepholes, chess problems, and optics research seem to the interactive artist of today like music written for instruments that didn't then exist.

The first thing I ever saw through VR goggles, in 1991, was a "digital art gallery" created by the Sense-8 corporation. a pioneering VR software company. In virtual reality, moved forward at an aquatic crawl, looked around at a few abstract paintings streaked with raster lines, and drifted helplessly through a wall into a beige void. Since then, as interactive media have developed, the conceit of the "virtual museum" has remained puzzlingly ubiquitous in the field, with almost every major firm and institution in the digital boomtown offering some variation on the theme. …

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