New York

“Through the Looking Glass”

Jack Tilton Gallery

To technological illiterati, virtual reality enthusiasts must seem as hermetic as a group of Masons, with their esoteric lingo and their rendezvous in cyberspace—hence the misperceptions, the suspicions, and the necessity for an exhibition such as “Through the Looking Glass: Artists’ First Encounters with Virtual Reality.” The parameters of virtual reality were broadly defined to include interactivity, computer-generated models, virtual imaging, 3-D spatial environments, artificial realities, and cyberpunk esthetics in general. Accordingly, there was a diverse selection of works, ranging from Lynn Hershman’s interactive videodisk installation, Deep Contact, 1990, to Jaron Lanier’s early computer game Moondust, 1983, to a stereoscopic diorama by David Wilson. Conceived by curator Janine Cirincione as a forum for projects and experiments, the show demonstrated what artists are doing to bridge that gap between hardware, software, and wetware (i.e. people). Myron Krueger, who has worked in computer art for over 20 years, has long argued that the most important facet of the medium is not its replicative but its interactive potential. In his work, VIDEOPLACE, 1985-92, a video camera sends your image to a system of computers, where it is processed and then sent back to a projection screen. There, your colored silhouette is able to interact with computer-generated sound and imagery; amongst other things, you can make music by waving your hands or playing with a graphic creature called CRITTER. But is this really virtual reality? Isn’t it just computer art?

Virtual reality has been greatly preceded by its reputation. The recent film Lawnmower Man, 1992, popularized the notion of VR as a sort of Sensurround envelope into which you could project yourself by means of “goggles and gloves.” However, the irony, as Simon Penny points out in a catalogue essay, is that VR is doubly virtual at the moment—the “hard” technology exists only in its most rudimentary form. And although Cirincione did manage to borrow a state-of-the-art VR setup for a few days (thanks to the Intel Corporation and the Sense8 Corporation), the promise of brave new worlds seemed sold short by the videotapes of softworlds (VR environments) playing, minus a dimension or two, on TV screens. Matt Mullican’s virtual city, Nicole Stenger’s Angels, 1992 (in which participants meet angels in a simulated firmament), and Brian D’Amato’s Set for the Sacrifice Game (a VR game in which the object is “to immolate yourself as often, and as spectacularly, as possible”) don’t seem like much compared to the computer-generated morphing that makes it possible for Michael Jackson to turn into a panther in his video “Black or White.” Then again, this comparison is unfair, since artists do not typically have access to the high-level technology that corporations can use for such big-budget spectacles. As William Gibson, author of the cyberpunk bible Neuromancer, 1984, and also a contributor to this show, has remarked, “The future has arrived, it just isn’t evenly distributed.”

In one of the most interesting projects in the exhibition, artist David Johnson was busy at a workstation creating a virtual rendition of the Tilton gallery itself. Johnson, a simulist and computer animator who has worked with deconstructivist architect Peter Eisenman, explains that the idea will be to enter the “real” gallery, put on a VR headset, and find yourself in the virtual gallery. Inside, because it is algorithmic, space can become infinitely recursive (something like Chinese boxes, where every box contains another, smaller box). In other words, you can walk through a wall in the virtual gallery without ever being able to exit the space itself, though a gallery without end is perhaps not everyone’s idea of fun.

Keith Seward