10:01 p.m. 8.Sep.99

Like A Bug From Outer Space

Mark Tribe on Landscape One and CAVE

Played Fetch with an FTP server all week, but got to play another kind of fetch with a virtual dog this morning at the OK Centrum in Luc Courchesne's "Landscape One," a charming interactive video installation that simulates the Mont-Royal Park in Montreal. The apparatus is simpler than it sounds: four curved curtains define a small circular space in the middle of a room. Four video projectors, each connected to a video disk player controlled by a computer, bounce images off large mirrors and onto the curtains. When you stand in the middle of the circle, the round curtains show a continuous rear-projected image of the park. It was summer in Montreal, and everything was green green green.

When I stepped into the circle, a black Laborador Retreiver zoomed out of the bushes. I had to turn around to follow him as he ran past me and disappeared behind a tree. The feeling of presence, of being in a place surrounded by a world, was astonishing.

The words "Come Here" appeared on teleprompter-style panes of plexi so that they were superimposed over the video. I clicked, and the dog came running. The computer then gave me two options: "Good Dog," or "Fetch This Stick." I clicked the latter, and a stick flew into the distance. The dog went and fetched the stick. We played fetch for a while, until I said "Good Dog" and my canine playmate made himself scarce. A minute later, I was approached by a scruffy young man, who tried to hit me up for spare change, but his girlfriend called him away before I could give him any.

Someone told me Luc had described the piece as a cheap version of CAVE, and it's not a bad description. CAVE is a room-size Virtual Reality presentation system that uses multiple Silicon Graphics "refrigerators" (top-of-the line "Reality Engine" computers) to render 3D images that are rear-projected on three walls and the floor of a cube-shaped room. Developed for scientific and industrial applications, the Museum of the Future at the Ars Electronica Center is, to my knowledge, the only CAVE that is dedicated to artistic applications.

Two artworks, specifically developed for CAVE, are on show this week at Ars: Simon Penny's "Traces," and Peter Kogler and Franz Pomassl's confusingly titled "CAVE" (it appears that he titled his piece after the system it runs on). Haven't seen "Traces" yet, but managed to get a reservation to see "CAVE" (not to be confused with CAVE) this afternoon.

I've been to CAVE installations before, and have always been a bit put-off by the overwhelming presence of the technology. The AEC's CAVE is situated in a stuffy mini-auditorium with black everything. After arranging ourselves on carpeted bench seating, we listened to an introduction to the piece, first in German, then in English. The friendly docent explained how CAVE works: twin projectors produce two images that are slightly out of alignment and out of synch; special "Silicon Eyes" glasses with liquid crystal shutters help resolve the two images into an illusion of three dimensions. She then told us what the work was about (the "human need for orientation), and instructed us to enter the cave-like CAVE in two groups.

The eight-or-so people in my group put on our plastic-and-silicon glasses and clustered around the docent, who put on the "master glasses" (the ones with motion trackers in them) and picked up the control device (which would look familiar to any video game addict).

The virtual environment itself is a grey scale labyrinth. At first, the round-walled tunnels were covered with stylized images of ants that I seem to remember from the last Documenta. Later, the ants were replaced by abstract squiggles. Then the tunnel became rectilinear, and the geometry of the space seemed to deconstruct in a way that was indeed disorienting. Pomassl's crenelated sounds evoked spooky acoustic spaces. Pomassl, a DJ from Vienna, has clearly done his share of Ketamin. After 15 minutes in CAVE, I felt like a bug from outer space.