From: The New York Times, April 25, 1999, ART / ARCHITECTURE, page 35-36. Reposted with permission.

Taking Over the Joystick of Natural Selection


BOSTON -- The brightly colored creatures gyrate along the curved bank of 12 computer monitors, at once artificial in their sharp-edged geometry yet thoroughly lifelike in their movements. Jointed flagella stroke the disembodied medium; valves open and close; propellers twirl. They possess both the variety and the structural similarity of biological organisms, ranging from elegant simplicity to a Rube Goldberg intricacy of moving parts.

DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park
A detail from an interactive display of Karl Sims's work "Galápagos" (1997).
From the available genetic pool, I select one particular creature by standing on the footpad in front of the appropriate monitor. It is not the most complex, but it possesses an organic tumescence that distinguishes it from its more angular cousins. The other monitors fade for an instant before giving birth to a new generation, the varied but recognizable offspring of the one I selected. In my quest for intriguing new progeny I can combine the characteristics of different creatures by stepping on a few footpads in rapid sequence. After a few passes, the fauna is radically altered as robotic contraptions give way to slithering jellyfish fronds.

The piece is "Galápagos," an interactive artwork by Karl Sims now at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Mass., as part of the Boston Cyberarts Festival, a celebration of the creative intersection of art and computer technology. The festival, which begins on Saturday and runs through May 15, consists of 97 events in more than 50 venues across Massachusetts, as well as a substantial collection of Web-based art. (A full listing of programs can be found on the Internet at Viewers will be able to sample works that range from interactive installations to real-time performances, from familiar two-dimensional digital prints to sculptures that are three-dimensional equivalents of digital photographs.

George Fifield, a longtime cyber advocate whose vision and tireless promotional skills have brought the festival to life, has taken an inclusive approach, showing everything from the gleefully amateurish to the technically difficult and esthetically polished, hoping in the process to convince us that a joystick can be put to better use than zapping aliens, and that there is poetry in a well-tuned algorithm.

"Galápagos" is a potent demonstration that a dynamic, interactive system can be as beautifully choreographed as a ballet. Its success lies not in its forms, which are ever-changing and unpredictable, but in its architecture -- the algorithms, or set of computational rules, that generate those forms. For Mr. Fifield, dynamic systems like "Galápagos" represent the most promising direction in cyberart, though he admits, "It's such a new area that we have yet to define its esthetic."

In a cyberart exhibition, viewers participate in the evolution of shapes ranging from geometric to curvy to just weird.
Mr. Sims, a former biology major at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, uses the paradigm and processes of natural selection and the number-crunching muscle of the computer to create an evolving universe in which the audience exerts selective pressure to shape the flow of random mutation. Like many creative ideas, Mr. Sims's algorithms began as a shortcut, one that occurred to him while he was working on an animated video that required the generation of a suitably varied flora for the imaginary worlds he was creating. "I realized that to get a wide variety of plants I needed different growth parameters like tallness, branchiness, curliness, etc.," he explained.

"I started to think of these as genes, and once I started with the analogy, I also realized that if I let chance play a part in the process and just made random mutations and combinations, I could get a variety of plants that I couldn't get just by designing them." From using the computer to generate genetic diversity automatically, Mr. Sims realized that by involving the spectator in the decision making he could create artworks that were genuinely participatory.

While Mr. Sims seems to have found a way to orchestrate a give-and-take between artwork and audience that is open-ended yet has sufficient structure to yield esthetically satisfying results, cyberartists agree that it is a difficult balance to strike. Teresa Marrin, a classically trained violinist who studied conducting at Harvard before moving over to M.I.T.'s Media Lab to do research in experimental music, is frank about the current limitations of the technology. "Interactivity is one of the most radical things the new technologies provide," she says. "But we know very little about how to do that well. It's completely uncharted territory."

For Ms. Marrin, the goal at the moment is to expand the expressive range of the electronic instruments she designs, though she acknowledges that they have a way to go before they can match the old-fashioned wooden kind. During the Boston Cyberarts Festival, Ms. Marrin will put on a jacket she developed bearing sensors that collect and respond to data like muscle tension and respiration. In a performance she describes as lying "halfway between conducting and playing an instrument," Ms. Marrin will coax Bach's Toccata and Fugue from a synthesizer and a pair of P.C.'s, creating an expressive synergy between body and machine. Arm movements will control tempo, while her breathing modulates volume. She will also employ a pad with 16 pressure-sensitive regions, poetically titled the Affective Carpet, that allows her to shape the sound environment by rocking back and forth on her feet.

Neil Leonard, a jazz saxophonist who teaches in the Music Synthesis Department of the Berklee College of Music here, plays improvisational duets with a MacIntosh Powerbook and a Kurzweil synthesizer. He compares the creative range of the algorithms that generate the musical response to a Calder mobile, which, while constantly shifting, exists within well-defined limits. Finding a way to achieve openness within structure, the equivalent of Mr. Sims's genetic space, is a crucial element in cyberart involving real-time experiences.

The presence of so much experimental work in and around Boston might surprise those who view the city as a bastion of cultural conservatism, but it reflects a long local history blending art and science, from Harold Edgerton's stroboscopic photographs that revolutionized our capacity to visualize instantaneous events to Harriet Casdin-Silver, whose pioneering work with Stephen Benton of M.I.T. in natural-light holography made it a viable artistic medium. "Boston is where the future is beta tested," claims Mr. Fifield, who also cites the experimental New Television Workshop at WGBH, which in the late 1960's helped define the newborn medium of video art.

Today's generation of cyberartists tends to possess practical problem-solving skills that come from venturing into largely unexplored terrain, where you usually have to build the vehicle from scratch before you can make the trip. Cyberart is a field where imagination often outstrips available technology, and much of the most intriguing work in the festival remains admittedly experimental, occupying a place somewhere between research and development and the polished art object. At "Mind Into Matter" at the Computer Museum in Boston, commercial samples will be shown alongside works of art to introduce viewers to the technology of rapid prototyping, even as the show makes a case for the process as a legitimate sculptural medium. Like much of the technology used by cyberartists, rapid prototyping was developed as an industrial process, allowing companies to generate sample products designed with CAD (computer-aided design) software. Two of the exhibiting artists, Jim Bredt and Tim Anderson, are engineers who have founded their own company to market the 3-D printer they invented.

Their work, brightly colored sculptures based on scans of, among other things, their own nude bodies, are both a product demonstration and a send-up of art-world pretensions. Mr. Anderson's "Human Barrel of Monkeys," a work that consists of random heap of four-inch figures, lies somewhere on the esthetic continuum between George Segal and the under-$1 bin at Toys "R" Us. Like photography before it, rapid prototyping poses a threat to traditional labor-intensive methods, a fact that Mr. Anderson -- who once invented a robot that painted in the manner of Jackson Pollock -- seems to enjoy. As Mr. Anderson says, joking, "When I meet a sculptor I like to say to him, 'You know, we've got a machine that can do that.' "

If Mr. Anderson and Mr. Bredt follow the Edgerton model of a scientist whose invention turns out to have esthetic applications, Michael Rees comes from the opposite direction. Already an accomplished sculptor, Mr. Rees was attracted to the new technology because it offered expanded creative options. As he puts it, "Now, anything I can design, I can build." For Mr. Rees, whose imagery is often derived from anatomical photographs, rapid-prototyping technology allows him to weave together organic forms with complex interior spaces. The scanned files can be altered and combined in the computer and rendered in three dimensions with a rapid-prototyping process like stereolithography, which employs a computer-guided laser to harden translucent epoxy resin.

If rapid prototyping challenges traditional sculpture on its own ground, the virtual sculptures of J. Michael James -- based on the mathematical structures known as fractals -- inhabit a completely new territory, an ambiguous dimensionality in which a flat image on the screen is explored in space by the viewer manipulating a joystick. "Fractal Fish," included in an exhibition of virtual sculpture at the New Art Center in Newtonville, Mass., fits none of the traditional categories of art; at any given moment it is a two-dimensional image on the screen, an eerie, crystalline arrangement of streamlined fish in an emerald pool. But unlike other two-dimensional images, we can move around it, examining the formation from every angle like a diver in a coral reef.

Like Mr. Rees, Mr. James trained as a sculptor and began to use a computer only when he realized that he could not build the delicate forms in real space. "It became clear there were huge advantages to building virtual," he recalls. "There's no gravity, and you can zoom in and out." Fractal structures, in which a basic form is repeated at smaller and smaller scales, are ideally suited to the virtual world of the computer screen where the usual limitations of the physical world simply vanish. In his animated "Infinite Condor," we zoom in on a soaring bird, discovering as we approach that each feather is an entire bird in miniature. The feathers on these smaller birds turn out to be replicas of the larger parent, and so on. This illusion of infinite replication at smaller and smaller scales is impossible to achieve in clay or marble.

While many cyberartists are highly skilled programmers or engineers, they are far from universal in their praise of technology. Nick Capasso, the curator of the DeCordova show, says that what intrigues him about the work is that it is not simply a Pollyanna-ish celebration of computational magic. He sees a dark side to "Galápagos," which, he claims, "is as much about eugenics as genetics."

The disquieting junction of nature and machine is evident in Jennifer Hall and Marc LoCascio's "Acupuncture for Temporal Fruit," an interactive installation, also part of the DeCordova show, in which our movement through the gallery causes needles to plunge into the yielding flesh of a ripe tomato. Here, the high-tech world of robotics and surveillance intrudes on the natural world with disturbing consequences. Ms. Hall speaks for many when she says, "Technology is a very dangerous place for artists not to be."

For Ms. Hall, as for many of the artists coming together for the festival, computer technology is so pervasive and transformative that it would be irresponsible for artists not to explore its meaning in their work. But as we pass through the gallery, our every movement echoed by the twitching needles, we are acutely aware that standing astride the cutting edge is not necessarily a comfortable place to be.

Miles Unger is the managing editor of the magazine Art New England.
© 1999 The New York Times Company