Computer Culture


SIGGRAPH 99

August 8-13, 1999 Los Angeles, California

BARBARA MILLER

Over the past few years I have begun to introduce computer graphics (CG) into my art history and cultural studies courses. It is not that the traditional arts have no place in the classroom, but that CG, virtual reality (VR) and artificial life simulations (Alife) are some of the most influential media of the '90s. They inform not only what we see, but how and where we see it. An increasing number of museums have interactive Web sites, TV news programs use Hollywood-style special effects and mainstream cinema incorporates VR-like adventure scenarios. Our knowledge of the world is funneled through a mixed reality in which the human eye is presented with both digital simulations and portrayals of real life. Grim forecasters refer to these changes as the "Disneyfication" of culture--the reduction of our everyday lives to theme park existences. In contrast to these critics, I see the coming wave of electronic imaging technology as an evolution that has more benefits than it has risks. "SIGGRAPH 99," the 26th annu al conference dedicated to promote the theory, design, implementation and application of computer-generated graphics and interactive techniques, provided an opportunity to learn about the technologies that are helping to propel us into a decidedly digital twenty-first century.

My first stop at "SIGGRAPH" was the technOasis art gallery, which included a mixture of small enclosed rooms and large exhibition stalls. Traditional 2-D format artwork was displayed alongside interactive works. The latter, however, stole the show. Toshio Iwai's Composition of the Table, No. 1 [PUSH], No. 2 [TWIST), No. 3 (TURN], No. 4 [SLIDE] (1999), for example, allowed participants to interactively manipulate geometric shapes and environmental sounds. By turning on and off switches on an illuminated game board, visitors generated their own compositions in real time. "The aim of the piece," Iwai writes, "is to allow players to share the world of Mixed Reality--to create images and sounds interactively." From technOasis, I moved to the Computer Animation Festival, which ran throughout "SIGGRAPH" and included some engaging works. Robert Jensen's Spatial Frames (1999) is a short film based on a simple action: a man walking his dog. As the figure walks, the ground literally assembles and disassembles itself. " Ultimately, the image plane of the animation is exposed and removed from view," states Jensen. Spatial Frames self-consciously constructs and deconstructs its own CG environment. In true avant-garde fashion, Jensen reveals the structure--the wire frames and spatial grids--upon which CG animation is based.

In the vendors' section, participants were allowed firsthand experience of the technologies used to produce the work on view at the festival. Companies such as Intel set up high-end computers and demonstrated CG software. Others promoted body-scanning imaging systems and presented products in 3-D digital format. Many also passed out souvenirs: Blue Sky distributed copies of its award-winning film Bunny (1997, by Chris Wedge) and ARTBYTE magazine gave away a posable figure called Zoobdude.

Throughout the week, conference participants could attend presentations, panels and discussions, rated by conference organizers as to their degree of specialization. In presentations aimed at beginners, industry employees gave behind-the-scenes lectures on CG effects such as those seen in Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (1999, by George Lucas) and What Dreams May Come (1998, by Vincent Ward). Although panels on cutting-edge technologies such as voice puppetry and 3-D free-farm design were geared more toward advanced attendees, they were nonetheless entertaining. For example, the developer of voice puppetry, Matthew Brandt, presented a video of digitized images of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa (1504), Vincent Van Gogh's Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889) and a statue of Julius Caesar. …

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