Artistic Experiments on Telematic Nets : Recent Experiments in Multiuser Virtual Environments in Brazil

Gilbertto PRADO

I. Introduction

Before discussing the issue of art on the net, I would like to make a brief reference to four distinctive projects in multi-user virtual environments 1 that were recently done in Brazil. Two of them took effect at Itaú Cultural, in São Paulo. The first one, known as Imateriais99, used videogame technology to explore some key issues regarding contemporary thinking about the relationship between the real and the virtual. The other project, known as Desertesejo, accomplished in 2000 by Gilbertto Prado, works with VRML for artistic purposes. The other two projects were developed in Brasília by Tania Fraga and Suzete Venturelli, and are presented here as an invitation to a future visit.


1. Imateriais 99 2

The Imateriais 99 exhibition was modeled after the exhibition Les Immatériaux, in 1985, in which Jean-François Lyotard and Thierry Chaput intended to create a "display" that would show how much the everyday life is based on language, on fluid information. It was clear that the issues they brought up almost 15 years ago were still pertinent, though in another dimension. Itaú Cultural put together an exhibition in which the visitors were invited to step through a sensorial space (that was called "hypersensibilization space"), and were next seated in front of computers, to negotiate a common virtual space, using earpieces, microphone and joypad. 25 people could meet each other simultaneously, have conversations, and explore the virtual environments together, each one representing a humane sense: touch, hearing, taste, smell and sight. In these spaces, one could meet other avatars and share experiences with them.

The Immaterials’ goal may be synthesized in:

A. Showing the visitor that:

A1. the border between "natural" and "artificial" is less and less accurate.

A2. the border between material and immaterial is more and more fluid.

A3. the virtual is progressively assimilated in daily life (i.e., a good part of daily life, at least for the wealthiest fraction of humanity, takes place in the virtual world).

B. Using

B1. an entrance through an exhibitive environment in which the visitor is exposed to the main problems that he will have to face

B2. an immersion in a realistic interactive virtual environment

To meet these ends, Itaú Cultural assembled a team of artists, designers, screen-players and programmers in order to create a multi-user virtual environment which could be explored by 25 people simultaneously. 3


2 -Desertesejo 4

Desertesejo 5 is an artistic project by Gilbertto Prado developed at Program New Media Directions - Itaú Cultural, São Paulo, Brazil in 2000. The project is a networked virtual web-based environment, that allows 50 participants to be on-line 6 simultaneously.

Desertesejo is a poetical exploration of geographical extension, the temporary ruptures, the loneliness, the constant re-invention and the proliferation of points of meeting and sharing.

On entering the virtual environment, the traveler comes across a cave which has rocks falling gently from the ceiling. Any of these rocks can be clicked on. After having clicked on a rock, the traveler is transported to a new room, in which he or she has to carry the previously selected rock. The traveler can then place the rock on one of the various heaps (apaicheta) that are found in various locations inside the virtual environment. The rock will show that this traveler has been there and will act as a sign of his/her presence to other travelers.

There are three different ways to enter this room. By clicking on a rock inside the cave, the traveler will be transported as a tiger, a snake or an eagle. In other words: the traveler will be able to walk, slither or fly across the landscape, as if in a shamanistic dream, but the traveler won't know beforehand what form he/she will take on in this new location.

The rooms are made up of landscapes, fractions of memories and dreams. They communicate with each other and form a chain, creating various oneiric paths:

A. Ouro. This is the zone of silence. In this first room the traveler navigates on his/her own.

B. Viridis. This is the space of heaven and colors. Inside it, the traveler will see signs that indicate the presence of other travelers, but won't have any direct contact with them.

C. Plumas. This is the axis of dreams and mirages. Within this room the traveler interacts directly with others, via 3D chat. This is the zone of contact between the avatars of different users.

The different ways in which one can navigate through these rooms, through the avatars, help in determining the potential and perceiving the proposed environments. The different speeds and the ways in which the visiting avatars can be move as they cross path in the environment, the distinct figures, the texts generated by the participants themselves in the chat room in their various languages, reinforce our distinct positions and visions of the same oneiric world under construction. Or even the different motion speeds, for instance, the maximum speed allowed to the snake avatar is very low, which increases even further the sense of snaking, associated with the floor height angle of view and seeing closer details. In the case of the eagle, the flight allows for quick deviations and dives from the top of the mountains, which is associated to panoramic views of the environment. We are transported to a section of an online inhabited desert, a present moment (and/or future) when the previously inhabited forests are now places for avatar visits, and where there was once a sea or river bottom, there is now a place where eagles fly and snakes crawl. Or its poetic opposite, stretching interpretation to the extreme, what we have is a cybernetic space that is temporarily inhabited. The world seen as the mist of a wish, the magic of an ephemeral encounter and a vision of an oneiric environment "re-initiatable" open to participation, shared via the Net.


3. Jornada Xamântica (The Shamantic Journey) 7

Jornada Xamântica by Tania Fraga (1998/99) proposes a non linear trip through poetic space-time in VRML environments, relating to shamanic experiences and their meaning in the telematic context. It takes place inside of a tube and presents 33 steps to the participants that had been elaborated as allegories. In each step of the journey the participants need to discover means to accomplish the journey and must take action in order to progress. Some situations that occur within the tube require an appropriate action. Sounds are accessed and hidden "links" allow the participants to experience several aspects of poetic sensibility. The journey can be experienced in various ways following countless pathways.


4. Vozes 8 (Voices)

The insertion of natural human properties as a way to control environments in this work by Suzete Venturelli (2002), brings a higher sensibility and provides a more natural way of interaction between human beings and the cyber universes. In this work the interaction takes place by implementing and capturing the user’s voice through a microphone and transforming its sound variations into variations of shapes and objects. In this way, it seeks to establish a natural and perceptive relationship between such variations.

The artistic project Vozes has an innovating objective because it tries to create a new perception of the implementation of user interfaces with virtual worlds through voice recognition. The software was created in the Java programming language along with its application interfaces (API´s) Swing, Java 3D and JavaSound.



II. About art on the net

Artistic experimentation with new digital media has been demonstrated and has multiplied in the last 30 years, with several types of production, distribution and exchange used by artists. These possibilities are accentuated by the recent - nevertheless intense - introduction of the Web. Many artists have developed projects using these domains which continue to be a rich field for artistic expression and represent new challenges to contemporary art.

Regardless of location, access to the net has been simplified and decentralized autonomously, since "small telematic devices" have become available to a broader public, which began to be widely distributed in the early 90´s. The use of these devices has expanded among all social classes and been integrated into most common attitudes of our daily lives.

The creators that are now working with these resources believe that they are facing new possibilities and significant changes, resulting in new challenges. However, the main interest is to bring a sensible and critical vision with the help of these new tools at the same time that it favors and stimulates the circulation of the social and collective imagination. The artists can help to explore the technological space and its contradictions.

The idea that is defended is that through these exchanges, these interchanges, lies the factor that specifies a way of being present in this world and of making the world intelligible. In this regard, it is the organization and the gathering of forces that determine preferences and prejudices. It should be emphasized that art on the net is one of the possibilities that gains strength through the installation and the vulgarization of these "communication machines" in our routines. While the artist uses these machines that have are being more accessible every day, its "action power" is renovated by these same machines.

The artistic interchanges on the net open up a "play" area and a social entertainment space that accentuates sensitivity and sharing strategies, but that seek to articulate in the artistic project the experiences of the individual when faced with a complex and moving reality, the disorder of the world and specially the disorder of each one of us. Each artist, in each project, contemplates in his own way a certain vision of the same world. This is in fact a mise en scène of different imaginary factors that need not to be subjected to the demands of a strict and previously formalized net, a closed system of practices and reasoning.

The logic of the net, the ways these interchanges occur, increasingly celebrates this liberty of constantly altering mundane senses, through the ability to approach the subjects and their meanings from another point of view. The creation on the net is a place of experimentation, a space of intention, the detectable portion of a new device, regarding its design and performance as well as its perception by another. The net artist seeks to express in action the relation of the other to the world: turn the invisible into the visible, through and with "the other"; to discover and create new ways of regulating to his environment, where complex functions place the contemporary person in a position that has never been experienced before.

The encounter between new environments and forces generated by distinct punctual actions across the world, escape from conventional references, creating an unpredictable situation that houses a space for social creativity. These actions generate a dynamic in the relationship between the individual and the collective that increases the potential of a new meeting space, a change in attitude that produces new ways of active and participative agreement, in opposition to the assumption of a simple consumer role, passive spectator. It is worth mentioning that the purpose of this type of shared proposals is not only to create new aesthetic and formal processes. They also claim a critical analysis of the construction of reality. And as observed by Peter Weibel: "the purpose of the social construction of art is the participation in the social construction of reality". 9 As a matter of fact, in these artistic projects on the net, it is almost impossible to "see" the action from outside, demanding due participation by the public, an active invitation to periodically return to look at and interact with the projects, following them as time passes. These are artistic projects in which strategies are established to create their own trajectories, but that need to acquire a critical mass in order to disseminate and restructure in new configurations.

The artistic projects result in the convergence of a dynamic structure that can only be captured in its successive interactions. The feeling is formed by an established dialog between the participants. We also note that there is no point in separating the artistic object from its consumer or virtual producer, the artist from his public, but to link them in the same project, at the same place. The position of the artist is then composed of one role that is identified as the maker, and of another role, the observer. We have the conception of an "art world", formed by Nets that reconnect all the people involved with activities necessary for the accomplishment of an artistic project. The art field is then extended, in relation to some established practices from the daily life and is normally outside of the conventional artistic field.

We can distinguish one concept from the idea of the "Net": a manner of working, acting/thinking, interacting in a shared context; from another idea, a technical matrix of information transportation and organization, and the image it carries. From the artistic viewpoint the Nets contain people as one of their active elements, with double roles: as an individual, "temporary master" of the situation, and as an "interactor" in a participative system with some degree of freedom and possibility. It is a whole social and artistic imaginary that is in flux and expansion, from which we cannot easily separate individual participation. The "Net" implies the tools, the objects, the propositions and the surrounding context, with the individual enclosed in this virtual space.

We then have not only the inclusion of new machines in the artistic nets in function of their composition, procedures and possibilities, but also new working procedures and new relations with these instruments/interfaces. This new relationship between man, machines and the net enables the proposition of different logical and poetical horizons, calling for a renovation of theme and content. This relation deals with new routes and new representatives regarding new creations. Our habits of perception, of conception and creation are altered in the same way as our ways of acquiring knowledge and action. These uses create different operational codes, cognitive or even social. We can even say that some of these new codes and technical developments affect and act in a retroactive manner on the artistic manifestations and transformations. The telematic artistic project becomes a type of latent energy, where the net become an instrument for reorientation and filtration which is a common denominator to all participants: a map of pathways and possibilities. It is actually a movement of sensibilities and reciprocal intentions between the parts: a mutable but irreversible flow.

It is in this case an assertion about the creation/participation act in itself, about the process, the moment where the senses come to reveal their meanings, where the reading/intervention schemes assume their dangers, interconnecting with a common present, at the same time perpetual and variable, simultaneous and ambiguous.

The interactive participation in the net brings at least the feeling of being a citizen of the universe, where the planet became a space of daily reference. Life as well as the surrounding reality takes on a different rhythm, the culture and the images that surround us: instantaneously present in the movement, virtually transposing the individual in the imaginary space. According to Roy Ascott: "Our identity is not fixed anymore; we do not have a fixed position, or a fixed place. We are telenomads, constantly moving, between different points of views, different "myselfs", and different ways of seeing the world and each other. Our universe is a potentiality transforming field, non linear, in which the trajectories are uncertain". 10

Through the Nets we can go in all directions and already can start to share this virtual space through avatars in connection with others that are on line. Virtual reality, according to Jaron Lanier, is the telephone of the future.. 11

For the art, the term virtual reality has been referred to the alternative computer worlds in which we interact through different technologies. Virtual reality always implies a sensual immersion, whichever one it is. The term virtual environment, however, created as a synonym for virtual reality by MIT engineers in 1990, means an artificial environment for artists, as emphasized by Suzete Venturelli, specifically composed of spaces, objects, agents, avatars and sound in which we immerse ourselves and that was created with VR technology. Virtual world has been used as a synonym for virtual environment, while virtual space is a metaphoric place suggested by VR. Virtual space implies in a certain special organization, topology between different objects. In a certain way, it can be seen as a physical construction of the users.

The field of virtual reality promises important developments, especially since the machines are connected on the Net, offering possibility of immersion, of action over images, over virtual objects, over our own and our neighbors avatars. 12. The artistic exploration of this new perception of data, cognitive and interactive, indicates a potentiality, which is one of the stimulating routes for artistic experiences in the Net.

These transformations certainly bring deep modifications that we can already predict with the explosion of synthetic images and with the introduction of multi-user virtual worlds. A place where the participants can share these environments through their avatars, intervening and co-building in cyberspace. The creation becomes a place of experimentation, a sensible portion of a new device, a project of another nature, regarding its realization and design as related to its perception by another person.

Virtual worlds and on-line communities are becoming increasingly more common and could also allow a new context for artistic creation of telematic nature. To Derrick de Kerckhove,. 13 these will be spaces to learn about how to live in a simulated culture. The Net is a world of the "possible" that will create new ways of socialization, communication, interaction, coexistence and perception of these spaces. In the digital universe there is no horizon or gravity, there is no concrete materiality, there are no solid unsurmountable elements, there is no a priori notion of scales determining points of views. Digital environments bring us the ability to experiment with sensation, logic, composition and freedoms that are beyond the traditional materiality of architecture and geographical topography, surpassing the limits of concrete space. Incursion to spatial areas never explored is possible in cyberspace, or in spaces never visualized, in this way surpassing a merely representational character. According to Lévy, "the virtual masterpiece is open to construction. Each update reveals a new aspect to us. Besides this, some devices are not content to decline a combination, but instead they raise up a resurgence of absolutely unpredictable forms along with interactions. Therefore, the creation event is no longer limited to the moment of conception or the realization of the project: the virtual device proposes a machine that makes events appear".. 14

As a matter of fact, virtual reality allied with computer simulations, tele-robotics and telepresence. 15 appears to promise new applications and possibilities to the contemporary man, and this man has among one of his most challenging tasks to reveal our participation in these worlds and to question the introduction of new body dimensions and simulated presence in these shared spaces, in real time.

From this dynamic emerges a new type of work, cooperative and assisted by a computer. Multi-user virtual environments offer references to a better comprehension of what has been the use of resources from virtual reality on the open Net, applied to creation in cyberspace. Among these new devices, that are also beginning to be used by artists, we have CAVE (from "CAVE Automatic Virtual Environment"), by Illinois. 16 University, which is a complex projection device that offers a powerful immersion experience to the public in synthesized worlds. This device today occupies several large scientific centers in which projects require visualization of complex data. The InterCommunication Center in Tokyo, following the example established by AEC (Ars Electronica Center – Linz), opened a new CAVE dedicated to the cultural world. Other locations created their own visualization devices, such as IMK (Fraunhofer Institute for Media Communication) in St. Augustin, Germany.

We would like to also mention the recent CAVERNA from LSI – Laboratório de Sistemas Integráveis da Universidade de São Paulo. However, these are still resources derived from an emergent technology, in constant state of renewal and revision, presenting only indications of what they could become in the future of the application of virtual reality resources on the Net. In this sense, it is still a moment of incipience and discovery of new potential uses that inaugurate the "era of virtual civilization", described by Bruce Damer. 17 as a magical combination of the physical and virtual worlds.

Finally, regarding telematic manifestations, in which we use to have part of the artistic realizations in point to point interchanges, in image exchange, characteristic of several manifestations from the 70´s and 80´s, we have virtual environments as other types of intervention and possibilities that start to be explored, as interconnection and dynamism allow the partners to share the same context. The virtual devices give the potential for events, products of the working dynamic shared among the participants of these experiences, performances and artistic projects.

In these new directions and confluences that have been made possible by new environments, distinctive sectors and areas tend to interpenetrate. And as said by Edmond Couchot, technology has never applied such influence in art, even to the point that digital issues today became a central subject in artistic debate.. 18

The computer and new technologies surpassed the common notion of a tool or of an instrument, and possibly will remain an artistic device in the future. But what really matters are the changes of these devices over thought, process and instrumentation forms of artistic realization. It is important that we remain conscious and open to these projects and manifestations that are now proposed by artists. In these projects lies the intention of dialog and dynamic interaction, exposing the fragility and fragmentation of the experience of our new daily lives, and the creation of the possibility of participation, interchange, and sharing. It is actually a way to work with the new poetics of the dynamic digital media universe, exploring its potential in artistic production, helping to extend limits of creation and contemporary artistic realization.



III - Bibliography

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1 - Immersive virtual environments allow various users to interact with each other, share information and manipulate objects in the environment through immersive graphical images. The presence of several independent users differentiates these spaces from the game systems or "standard" virtual reality. Chatting and interactivity in real time make these environments differ from navigators or electronic mail. Virtual interactive environments are more appropriate for applications that demand the creation of "telepresence", the illusion that other users are visible from remote locations. In telepresence, images and sounds are transmitted, but there is no intermediary to interpret particular meanings to the receptors; it is an individual bidirectional experience that differs from the experience of the telephone and from the unidirectional reception of television information. Telepresence seems to create this reciprocal space that is absent from mass communication, in that the options/actions performed by users (movement, observation, operation, etc.) affect the remote environment and can receive feedback from it.

2 - http ://www.itaucultural.org.br

3 - Conceptualization: Celso Favaretto, Jesus de Paula Assis, Ricardo Anderáos, Ricardo Ribenboim and Roberto Moreira. Virtual Environment/Programming: Marcos Cuzziol and Odair Gaspar (Perceptum Informática www.perceptum.com). 3D Modeling: Nelson Multari. Design: Luciene Calábria. Sound: Dino Vicente. Script and Direction: Jesus de Paula Assis. Logistics: Luís Henrique Moraes and Vlamir Saturni. Exhibition space: Ricardo Ribenboim and Vlamir Saturni.

4 - http ://www.itaucultural.org.br/desertesejo

5 - Project and Direction: Gilbertto Prado. Realization: Programa Rumos Itaú Cultural Novas Mídias. Production: Flávia Gonsales. VRML 3D Modeling: Nelson Multari. Webdesign: Jader Rosa. Support: MinC / Intel-Pentium III.

6 - To enter Desertesejo you will need a Blaxxun plug-in. You can download it from the Desertesejo Homepage. For best performance a Pentium III, 64 M. RAM and 8 Mb video board is recommended.

7 - http://www.unb.br/vis/lvpa

8 - http://www.arte.unb.br/lis2.html

9 - Peter Weibel, Kontext Kunst, Dumont Buchverlag, Koln, 1994.

10 - Roy Ascott, "Is There Love in The Telematic Embrace?" in Multimedia: from Wagner to Virtual Reality (ed. Randall Packer et Ken Jordan), WW Norton, NY, 2001.

11 - Jaron Lanier, "Virtual Reality", in Mondo 2000: A User's Guide to the New Edge, (ed. Rudy Rucker, R.U. sirius et Queen Mu), HarperCollins, New York, 1992, p. 254. In 1986 Jaron Lanier created the term virtual reality, describing it as a synthetic reality that could be shared by other people, comprehended through our senses and by which we could interact through computer interfaces. This definition is not clear to a lot of people due to the technological implications that VR brings, mainly because of the phenomenon of subjectivity, that can be lived when one is inserted in its advanced man-machine interfaces. Virtual reality technology seeks to reach a high level of reality that is only possible due to powerful computers, programming language resources, choice and VR conception. The preoccupation with realism sometimes hides important aspects of VR. Most of the virtual worlds that are created with VR technology try to be very close to physical reality, seeking to accentuate a certain possible mimetic factor to be accomplished with three dimensional image.

12 - Artists are also interested in VR technological resources for creation of single-user and/or multi-user virtual environments. The difference is that single-user VR is experienced by only one person, while multi-user VR, besides being experienced simultaneously by several users, can have its actions modified by others in the world that is being collectively experienced.

13 - Derrick de Kerckhove. Connected Intelligence - The Arrival of the Web Society, Somerville House Books, 1997.

14 - Pierre Lévy, Cibercultura, Editora 34, São Paulo, 1999, p.136.

15 - The term "telerobotics" was first used by Marvin Minsky (1980) to refer to the technological teleoperation that provided the user with the possibility of "remote presence" in different locations via system "feedback", which allowed a person to "see" and "feel" what was happening in another place.

16 - CAVE - A virtual reality theater - Program directors: Thomas De Fanti and Daniel Sandin, Electronic Visualization Laboratory, University of Illinois, Chicago, USA, 1993.

17 - Bruce Damer, Avatars: Exploring and Building Virtual Worlds on the Internet, Peachpit Press, 1998.

18 - Edmond Couchot, La technologie dans l'Art : de la photographie à la réalite virtuelle, Editions Jacqueline Chambon, Paris, 1998.

© Gilbertto Prado & Leonardo/Olats, February 2003