James Faure Walker travelled to Minneapolis for the Fourth International Symposium of Electronic Art (FISEA) along with fellow painters, sculptors, composers, architects and other far-flung pioneers. Are they just playing about with technology, or will new purposes for art emerge from their experimentation?

Rich Gold, from Xerox's Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC), California, reasons that artists in the future, like artists of any culture, will make art from the 'mud of their own riverbank'. An age of Ubiquitous Computing (Ubi-Comp) awaits us round the corner, household objects that see, smell, respond to our needs. He cited the Turtles as animate objects that were everywhere and nowhere, 'minor gods, clever deities'. The Ubi-Lunch-Box, a 'portable shrine of home', will have built-in functions such as odour sensors, appetite monitors, bully protectors, links with other lunch-boxes to negotiate exchange of desserts, and a realtime video link with Mum or Dad. A juice mug will scroll jokes on its surface or gossip with other mugs. Why will this happen? Economic necessity. We are members of the junk tribe – build three per cent more junk each year or you're in recession. And art in the ubi-comp world? Well, it won't be something you look at in galleries. You will probably live inside it – inside its 'general hubbub'.

FISEA was a get-together of Virtual Reality (VR) and CD-ROM pioneers, programmers, sculptors, painters, animators, architects, composers, all using computers in the name of art. The theme of the conference was the Art Factor, and it opened with Jan Hoet (Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Gent and Director of the last Documenta) panning the exhibitions. Just playing about with technology, he said. Not Art. Art touched the soul, the human condition...

Some knew they'd missed their place in the sun, and winced. Some reacted angrily, relishing a fight with an artworld technophobe ('my secretary knows more about computers than I do, but she's no better qualified to judge computer art'). Others agreed, or half-agreed, with Hoet, and saw a collision of egos; the curator/prince refusing to distribute favours to the artist/conjuror. How real was the new magic? If artists could work through CDs or in VR – in a cyberspace beyond gallery-space – why worry about artworld approval? The arguments went on for days, artists clustering round Hoet, trying to put him right.

Artists have long spoken of getting at the spectator more directly, emotionally, optically, through the nervous system – but bio-hacking? Wave Rider, by Keisuke Oki of Tokyo, was one of a number of interactive multi-media installations, and strictly speaking was more demo than art. Here the head-set read your brain, and according to whether you were in alpha, beta, delta or theta mode the scenery changed. After ten minutes or so most subjects learned to control the psychedelia. More therapeutic was Interactive Plant Growing (by Mignonneau and Sommerer, France and Austria), where by stroking a collection of real ferns you made images of plants 'grow' on a projected screen. Again this had the feel of a prototype, limited because the spectator was triggering a limited number of responses, but the idea had potential. Two concert pieces, for example, used dancers in real-time audiovisual dialogue with a projected video. A painting – consisting of a projected image – could be set up so that the spectator's movement, voice, eye-movement even, would effect whatever changes you wanted. Better still, with virtual reality, the painter could let the spectator into the painting, touch a shaft of purple light, feel it, hear it; or simply provide the spectator with a painting studio where colour could be applied however and wherever you liked.

In practice it's not the fact of interaction that matters but its quality. If you allow inter-active a more open definition, then you could say painting has long been interactive in that when you look at one Turner's shipwrecks you too are in that boat. But some interactive works carry on as though the target audience was the lab rodent. You press buttons in impatient response to a video's banal questions or stroll between chirping speakers and feign surprise when the voices change as you approach. Point-of-sale interactive means touching the shoe you like on a video screen and it's mailed to you, and that's more interactive than going to a shop and talking to someone. You believe that and soon you need a multi-media computer to shake hands.

One VR artist, I heard, financed her ecoprojects by modelling Kuwait City in 3-D for the Cruise missiles. Can you add poetic content to a weapons system? A commentator was indignant that the VR artist she had talked to couldn't see how ethics came into it. Mortal Kombat, sci-fi spectaculars, teledildonics put you in the nerd category So, how do you get Art into the system?

Brenda Laurel's VR project, presented in Banff with a million dollar budget, must be among the most ambitious so far. Her answer has been to fuse VR technology with the creativity of the playground. If reality is too small for the imagination, then VR gives you an alternative world that can be shaped and made palpable as theatre. At Atari she'd developed adventure games which involved studying children's role-play, and here the idea was to boot adults up to the level of play. The obligatory Uccello-world architecture of VR, crisp and photo-real, was replaced by the softer and literally immersive environment of waterfall, cavern, hillside and sky – effected by patching together loads of video shot from inside an actual waterfall, with stereo-sampled acoustics. The participants donned the head-sets and took on the identity of snake, crow, spider or fish, feeling their way about, crawling, swimming or flying, speaking in acquired voices, improvising the narrative as events crossed their path.

VR works can't be reproduced in art mags to become instant currency in the discourse, nor can they be judged too confidently on a success/failure scale except by the participants. Bear in mind, however, that Nintendo and Silicon Graphics (top-end 3-D simulation) have formed an alliance, Sony is in on the act, and that the entertainment systems planned for our living rooms in three or four years time will be spectacularly 'realistic' – games where you will 'be there'. Also, that an artist's VR piece' – take the immersive painting – could in theory be piped through to your living room with the same equipment.

One difficulty here is deciding where – or if – art and entertainment part company. You can be po-faced about Ecco the Dolphin, and say Winsor and Newton provides the matter the artistic imagination shapes, that video games have nothing to do with art except that likewise they waste our time, because....but wait, isn't there something Kantian in this mental toying with space/time coordinates, verisimilitude not for its own sake but the free and non-purposive play of the imagination....aren't the twelve-year-olds on Bad Influence doing practical art criticism when they talk about gameplay and graphics?

At this conference there was a lot of sifting through aesthetics, and not just theory for theory's sake, beloved of cultural studies departments. If you can get into people's minds, alter their perceptions, feelings, what will this mean? Should artists take note? And then what of this ultra hi-fi sensaround illusionism, albeit soft-focus and glowing with good intentions? Illusionistic art was discredited in the iconoclasm of the '60s as a kind of deceit, and 'colour art' was condemned as hedonism. Both are now legit in artworld taste, but only in knowing quotes. Here there's an overload of sensory input, and it's part of the adventure. And ideology? For some it's not enough to indulge in the VR experience for its own sake, to savour the beauty of electronic colour: there has to be an agenda, and given this kind of forum, that means a right-on agenda.

In Laurel's piece the spectators were in one sense free to roam around as best they could, but in another sense their experience was being shaped and directed. Their art-cyberspace was sprinkled with symbols of the meaningful, and from the outside it seemed a bit thirty-something – self-development amidst Green, Gender and Ethnic issues, Native American mythology (which had to be dropped back to the Paleolithic to appease local sensibilities), Jungian therapy – nothing too confrontational, uncomfortable, gritty. The assumptions about the validity of experience as illusion were quite different from those attached to 'literalist' art – think of what Robert Morris might have done with VR twenty years ago at the time he constructed a gym in the Tate. The philosophy in vogue then was what you see is what you get, and the process was the important part – phenomenology. Given the capabilities of their reality engines – and you could say this is the vice of all computer-based art – VR artists are understandably keen to provide something magical rather than prosaic, some way of equating out-of-body sensations with transcendental experience. Ecstasy, yes; de-mystification, no. Sometimes primeval animism is as much part of Mac culture as the diet, bicycle, and pony-tail.

Char Davies - The Drowning (Rapture) (1993)
Char Davies,
The Drowning (Rapture), 1993

Char Davies's back-lit cibachromes had won her several prizes at previous electronic art shows and were technically superb. Again a watery interior, sparkling and crystalline – reminiscent of Yves Tinguy's mindscapes, but folded, mirrored, drenched, stretched – offered an alternative world. According to the artist it was a holistic vision, connecting us to the flow of nature, opposed to the Cartesian dualism of the 'western worldview'. Fine, but artworld eyes might glaze over. Visionary abstraction without physical foot-holds has a no-no look. Having Nature or the godhead on your side, wrestling with Content... to the non-believer it can look, well, baroque. Kitsch is OK if it's under, say, a Koons franchise, and you can chuckle at the hermetic stylisation, the sincerity. (Was this why Jan Hoet was so dismissive but could only offer – patronisingly – OK names who had dabbled in computers to substantiate his case? Mysticism, shamanism with a curator's licence.) You're not supposed – come on – to like it, to believe in it. But suppose, just for a moment, that instead of that European/New York 'international' savvy, a more gushing New Age taste held sway, based if anywhere on the West Coast, a fusion of hi-tech relaxation therapy with visions of transcendence. Suppose that what could be emerging through this technology wasn't new art but a new purpose for art, a new and more intuitive way of informing our senses. That would pose bewildering questions for practitioners, especially at a time when mainstream art is bedevilled with texts, positions, and inhibitions about simple sensual delight.

It's a thought.

For the present I'll side with Hoet and be selectively credulous and critical, because though technology may change the problems of making art it doesn't solve them. There is a vast deposit of art software and art wisdom in museums, and we should know this by now. One lesson is that to get the imagination going you don't need to fill in all the detail. Suggestion is not description. Perception is subjective. Char Davies described her forms as being made 'legitimate' by being modelled in a photo-real 3-D world, but it was the virtuoso detailing that left bothered me. The magic of, say, Chardin or Cézanne's world is that you have the sensation – the virtual reality? – of seeing that world, your head in the same space as theirs. Davies, a Canadian, had started out as a painter, and transferred her approach to electronics. She is also a director, as it happens, of Softimage, whose software was used in Jurassic Park.

'The user's guide to the electronic cliché' was a critical tour de force by the artists Delle Maxwell and Annette Weintraub, and it certainly cleared the ground – more effectively than Hoet because these were insiders speaking. Their complaint was that the technology was out of control, technical effects being used just to impress, without thought or critical consciousness. An entire field had been stigmatised. Their evidence was plentiful, from the hype of Mondo 2000's sci-fi fantasies to the 'organic blobs' patched into real space of William Latham and others.

Exhibitions called Computer Art send the wrong signals and put the emphasis on how the work is produced rather than what it is or what it means. There are purists, artist-programmers whose music or artworks are computer-generated (Roman Verostko, Director of FISEA, being one of the finest), but as the equipment and its capability has expanded – wildly – so the scope of possible artworks has widened – interactive architecture, walls changing colour according to weather and sound, for example. The question of artificial intelligence and creativity is only one out of dozens of issues, but beneath them all there's the question how does this or that work do as art. If that is its raison d'être, does it do its job? And what might that job be?

Rejane Spitz showed a video clip of a well-to-do office worker in Rio baffled by a cash-dispenser. Like 20 million Brazilians, he couldn't read, but wouldn't admit the fact. Somehow, through prodding and trial and error he found out how it worked, and then became the instructor for the rest of the queue. Cyber-space may be global but it's no friend to the illiterate. Each day she has to drive past begging children on her way to work in the computer lab teaching her students, the children of the rich. In Brazil there is only one issue, and that is hunger. If the computer is the tool, that is where she and her students are scratching away. Nuances of style and sensibility would have to wait.

Stephen Wilson, artist and theorist from San Francisco, subscriber to arcane research publications such as Sensor Magazine, laid out his refreshingly dark vision of things come. His premise was the collapse of the idea of the artist as a special person with special faculties – creative genius, cultural barometer. That idea was self-blinding and contaminated. You couldn't use the potential of electronic media to update modernism or post-modernism. One solution was for artists to infiltrate research labs, get their hands on abandoned projects that lead nowhere or were deemed unprofitable. He looked forward twenty years to a conference where artists were proficient in emerging technologies. Biotechnology would set the theme. Why shouldn't artists as genetic engineers, create new organisms? Why not pet bacteria?

Robotics was more in evidence at the last conference in Sydney though there was a pet robot here, all chips and bicycle wheels. In 3-D computer animation it's simpler to articulate a shiny robot or alien than a regular floppy-haired human, and this may explain the prevalence of the android, the consumer assaulted by 59 cable channels, wired into cyberspace melting into a sea of video. Troy Innocent's video short, Jawpan – from Australia – was a visual treat, a mutant doll floating in a fluorescing cyber-Tokyo. Chris Landreth's Kafka fable was a showpiece of new effects, but quite scary – a paranoid arachnoid upset by the perils of creative process.

Telepainting is a word to describe connecting a number of distant computers via Internet so that you all share the same 'canvas' to paint on – it helps if this is projected up to say 6' x 8'. A collective doodle. I found myself doodling (through Artlab) in dialogue with Andrea, aged twelve, in Denver. First I drew a truck and then she decorated it and got hold of the idea of a journey from Paris to Mexico, all with images. After a while she typed in 'how old are you?' 'How old do you think?' I replied. 'Three..' she wrote. It might go no further than radio ham culture, which thrives on anonymity, or Internet might hum all night with visual interactivity.

These images flickering in cyberspace – meaning that they would be everywhere and nowhere, like the Turtles but completely dematerialised – would be what Roy Ascot termed 'apparitions'. A pioneer enthusiast for 'telematic' art, his thesis is that we are through with Nature I, the movie, where the world is solid surface and art reflects appearance, and are now in Nature II, where images are insubstantial, energetic and in flux. Galleries will have no function. Beyond VR we may have the post-biological body. The body? The art may dematerialise and our sensations become dislocated, but perhaps after all we do need our bodies: something to feed, to stimulate, to hack into. Not the body as understood in the English artworld, i.e. the life-model – 'the dismal return to XIXc academicism' – as Roy Ascot put it. To speak here of the human condition and experiencing reality, he suggests, is to talk about Lucian Freud.

But will painting just Fizzle out? In Wild Palms they mentioned Hockney lithographs. The question is not whether printmaking or painting will survive (already terms like wall-decor or corporate expression suggest an after-life) but whether the talent will migrate into electronic media. Couldn't visual art split into channels, sculpture as stone-carving in one, as VR objects/environments in another? Museums, colleges, collectors give art forms a sanctuary when their original functions have dropped away. I have heard it argued, admittedly without too much conviction, that what makes painting a radical medium is that it is conservative. It's unlike TV. Well yes. There is something primitive, and by implication enduring and essential, in the act of painting – or carving. Whether it serves a useful purpose to get huffed up about that as a Definition is another matter – the Grand Manner question. When I enjoy the rhythmic facture of a painting – and I write with Basil Beattie's paintings at MAAK fresh in my mind – part of what I register is the patina of hand-built construction, like rough-hewn timber. If there is a visual metaphor, it's a metaphor about painting and endurance. Paintings, sculptures can look that way and be wonderful, but the feeling that there's primeval necessity at work – metaphysical essences for all time etc. – doesn't bear scrutiny. It's atmosphere.

The strength of the art that's seeping out from all the energy going into computer activity may at the moment be more atmosphere than physical force, but it is an atmosphere of excitement and expectation. It's about the future, and necessarily it's confused. Fantasy perhaps, but it makes a change. A friend arrived fresh from a UFO conference. That was more matter of fact, he said. My recollection of comparable art events is of polemical forums where 'exchange of ideas' was a euphemism for territorial squabbles and an undercurrent of gossip and trade. Here it was mostly relaxed, open, about ideas, and no-one mentioned prices. If experimental means anything in art it means toying with ideas, poking about in the unknown, letting go of the past and risking being wrong. It doesn't mean another installation in a biennale palace.

Will the new media provide the means of pushing the old certainties to one side? Will a new generation take 'electronic' art for granted? Who knows. Children grow up subtly changed from their parents, and often reject the future that's mapped out for them. They'll have their own nostalgia – for Sonic the Hedgehog – or maybe they'll want to start afresh, unencumbered. Lunch-boxes? Oh, they won't change at all.

James Faure Walker

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Last verified: May 30, 2017.