10:34 p.m. 6.Sep.99

Rx for Disaster
David Hunt on Eric Paulos' Dispersion

Thoroughly Dazed and Deleuzed after a conversation with Manual Delanda, I set out on day 3 of Ars Electronica to explore the O.K. Center for Contemporary Art, hoping to find an interactive installation with as much fan appeal as the cockroach races of the night before. For those with a bug fetish, it's tough to compete with 100 screaming Austrian hooligans in stadium style seating, being whipped into a frenzy by a tuxedo-clad Las Vegas barker, while urging on your favorite 6 legged friend. Win, place, or show-it's enough to make a guy want to go back to his hotel room and grab a can of Raid.

Failing that, the entrance to the OK Center beckons with Eric Paulos's vending machine delivering custom made biological pathogens in a tidy little plastic vial. Eric Paulos Let's hope that the Sharper Image people don't find out before the Christmas rush is upon us. Otherwise, we can look forward to grandma sending a mini lab kit of ebola-like party favors instead of the perennial box of pears-no doubt, fun for the whole family, but with a sinister, creepy twist.

Paulos is a young San Francisco artist in the PhD program in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of California, Berkeley known for telepresence works that rock the status quo. And with the revolving roster of artists at Survival Research Labs (they change their line-up more frequently than Menudo), Paulos has been known to make a guest appearance or two, satirizing intelligent weaponry in SRL's military theater of the absurd.

In "Dispersion," his piece at the OK Center, Paulos has devised a hybrid kiosk/vending machine whose sides are emblazoned with blown-up images of the anthrax and typhus virus. Imagine a bus shelter advertising the latest Kate Moss, "emaciation stinks" campaign, and you'll have an idea of the glossy microbe prints Paulos uses to get his message across. Call it "viral chic"-everyone else in Linz is.

Or call it "deep pharmacology"-the notion that by registering your fingerprint in a computer scanner on the frontal touch screen, a designer virus of mass destruction is just a five-minute quick-quiz away. In a brief questionnaire, Paulos asks us to enter such charming preferences as the degree of toxicity, the range of contagion, and the availability of an existing antidote, while horrific images of mutated babies, patients with collapsed jaws, and other abnormal phantasmagoria flash across the touch screens. It's the "Elephant Man" all over again, without the hushed lighting and the "I am not an animal…" melodramatics.

He also provides a Cliffs Notes capsule history of major viral outbreaks across the world with video clips of their devastating effects. By adopting the helpful, if innocuous, tone of the Discovery Channel, Paulos seems to be lampooning the pop hysteria over crossover commercial successes such as Richard Preston's "Hot Zone," as well as the rubber-necking fascination with everything from Eppstein-Barr to Chronic Fatigue syndrome, to the granddaddy of them all, HIV.

And just when you thought you were going home empty handed, a robotic arm samples from a smorgasbord of bubbling test tubes effervescing with multicolored spores, to mix and match the deadly microbe of your biologically determined dreams. Accessorizing has never been so easy. As you wait for your handy cocktail plague to drop like a Snickers bar into the lower receptacle you can begin to fantasize on who might be your potential first victim. And with the plethora of annoying sound art installations dotting the rest of the festival, (Radio B92.net, you know who you are), I've got a wide range of options.