Those who believe that there is in fact something of interest beneath the wave of cyber-babble that threatens to engulf our culture, would have found food for thought at this recent Arthouse conference. Its virtual reality themes entered the terrain explored by the films Strange Days and The Lawnmower Man. Despite the criticisms that Arthouse receives at times – due to difficulties arising from its austere late-modern architecture as well as lack of adequate financial support – Dublin's cyber-art centre was the first institution of this kind in the world (it is still rivalled only by comparable facilities in Austria and Japan).

The event consisted of (uneven) presentations by a number of Ph.D. students from CAiiA (Centre for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts) research centre at the University of Wales, working under Roy Ascott who introduced the conference. (The echo of earth-goddess "Gaia" may or may not be fortuitous). The presenters were Char Davies (virtual reality, though she doesn't like the term), Kepa Landa (radio art/multimedia), Dew Harrison (hypermedia), Miroslav Kogala (sound installation), Jonathan Bedworth (electronic music),alia Gill Hunt ('intelligent architecture'), Jill Scott (interactive multimedia), Joseph Nechvatal (computer painting), Victoria Vesna ( art) and Bill Seaman (multimedia).

The participants seem to owe much to the work of Duchamp, indeed, his name came up all the time. Most clearly, Dew Harrison's project is a transposition of Duchamp's Large Glass into the Internet, whereby she explores how thought-connections are treated in the comparable areas of hypermedia and art practice (http://caiiamind.nsad.newport.ac.uk/lead.html [sic]). Also notably Duchampian was Victoria Vesna's Web project Bodies INCorporated, which, after you make your way in by surrendering all your "rights" in a maze of legalistic gobbledegook, playfully explores the construction of virtual bodies on the Net. The idea seems to be a semi-serious attack on the dominance of bureaucracy and instrumental rationality, though – in thoroughly Duchampian style – more with a view to fun than subversion (http://wj.vw.arts.ucsb.edu/bodiesinc [sic]).

Perhaps owing more to Gaia – the other unseen presence at the conference – than to Duchamp, Char Davies' renowned immersive Osmose (proclaimed by some as the first work of virtual art) was based on scuba-diving experiences and involves the creation of a multi-level virtual nature-space which alters in accordance with one's breathing, monitored by a kind of diving suit. Why the creation of an artificial nature is necessary while the real thing (still) exists was a question raised, but the idea seems to be to use high technology to dissolve our contemporary alienation from nature which, ironically, technology helped to bring about. Davies" ideas owe something to Thoreau, Bachelard and Heidegger as well as to the 'sublime' (an issue to which the Irish philosopher Burke made a notable contribution) and involve an attempt to destabilise the relationship between figure and ground. (Those who wish to experience Osmose will be able to do so this summer at the Barbican, though prior telephone booking is necessary if you want to have a proper go).

Far from the sometimes bitter debates around gender in the traditional media ("Why have there been no great women artists?", etc.) it is clear that some of the most important work in this area is being done by women (and without any politically correct attempts to engineer the situation). Why this is so is no doubt the subject for a thesis or two, but it may have to do with the collaborative nature of the interactive arts, their removal (so far) from easy definition, hype, and the macho world of commercial exploitation.

Jill Scott's work intervenes in the realm of interactivity to examine technology and gender issues, while Bill Seaman engages in sophisticated explorations in interactive multimedia and 'Recombinant Poetics'. Joseph Nechvatal's work, involving inter alia the creative use of computer viruses, explores the interface between cybernetics and the more traditional medium of painting, opening up some interesting aesthetic issues.

Humour, which often distinguishes creativity from ideological dogmatism, was much in evidence at the conference, despite reservations about the ideological thrust of the event – a shamanistic New Ageism which tended to ignore the social and economic context of the works involved. (To the shock of some Dublin cognoscenti, presenter Roy Ascott even went so far as to use the L-word (love) in connection with the communicative possibilities of the new technology).

Finally Arthouse, and its director Aileen MacKeogh, are to be commended for presenting the cutting-edge material. This is so, even if the key component – interactivity – was absent due to the apparent impossibility of importing high-end technology. The audience had to be content with presentations on a screen, with the inevitable glitches involved.

Footnote: The first international CAiiA Research Conference, Consciousness Reframed takes place at Newport, Wales on the 5th and 6th of July next. For details, e-mail aces@newport.ac.uk or call up the site at http: //www.newport.ac.uk. [link defunct, now http://www.southwales.ac.uk]†

Paul O’Brien


Paul O’Brien teaches at the National College of Art & Design, Dublin


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Put online: June 2017. Last verified: Jun 24th, 2017