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VI.4 July-Aug. 1999
Page: 40
Digital Citation

Art teams up with technology through the net

Marco Padula, Amanda Reggiori

back to top  The First Steps

There's a revolution in the world of information—a revolution sparked in the sector of teleprocessing, computer networks, and personal computers that progresses with rapid, uneven developments and proposes a far-reaching evolution involving ethical, cultural, social, commercial, and technological aspects.

In this particularly complex and still confused scenario, we must determine which of the new tools are suited to our own purposes and select the correct and most appropriate methods of using them.

Many activities that determine cultural progress (such as scientific and historical research, the making of art and its exhibition, and didactics as a moment of synthesis and processing of information for the instruction of people) rely on access to documentary deposits (e.g., artifacts and texts). Such deposits serve as the historical and social memory on which we operate with procedures of retrieval, selection, recomposition, decontextualization, recontextualization, and organization. From these procedures we produce material that can then be circulated, applying methods and guidelines for good communication. We underline here the meaning of the term communication. This term is taken not simply as transmission, nor as a synonym of information, but as "transfer" plus "sharing" (how contents and values are transmitted and perceived). Therefore its meaning takes into account a dimension of feedback from the receiver through the inclusion of an explicit activity that is now active and participative, and will in the future be creative.

For information to be usable it must be organized and available. Traditional sources of usable information include libraries as depositories of knowledge; the press, which chronicles the news; and television, presenting events in real time. All of these sources distribute their contributions and messages through instruments, such as files, newspaper stands, and program schedules.

Our interest is focused on multimedia instruments, the so-called new media [25] derived from information technologies—foremost among them the Internet—and their possible applications for social and cultural purposes.

One characteristic of new media is that they can be used by individuals without having to pass through censoring or manipulating intermediaries, rescinding the dependence on the emitter that is typical, for example, of broadcasting. Another characteristic of new media is their tendency to take the form of reservoirs of collective memory (for example, the Internet), connecting the world of experts and the world of nonexperts.

These characteristics of the new media have stimulated new ways of communication and collaboration. The new way of communication includes the bringing the document's potentiality of making to effect the sense, and relates the interlocutors by means of a balanced interaction and pluridirectional exchange, where emitter and receiver can exchange their role. With collaboration, we hold contributive participation to be fundamental in this relationship. This means there is active cooperation between the communicating subjects, on the directives of integration and responsibility [3]. Communication and collaboration, conveyed by information media and increased with creativity, could be the protagonists of a cultural and social revolution that is at once contaminating and peaceable.

back to top  Information Organization: Global Repositories for Collaboration

The multimedia tools known and distributed today are touted by professional myth-vendors as the panacea for all problems, an occasion for new financial investment and certain wealth in the near future, and an opportunity for new, easy work. What they really are is a new channel of communication created and evolving under the pressure of continuing social initiatives and impetus. Today they are metamorphosing into a space of knowledge that stimulates democratic involvement and participation.

Multimedia tools are metamorphosing into a space of knowledge that stimulates involvement and participation.

The quantity of information in circulation today has exhausted the traditional schemes and tools for organizing and processing it into knowledge [13]. The mechanisms for indexing the World Wide Web (WWW) have strongly influenced the configuration of the old libraries. Information centers concentrate in one building all their important activities, from storing of documents, cataloguing by a librarian, and indexing on cards kept in files to research and consultation requested by users. In the Internet library all documents can be retrieved immediately, no matter where they come from, and do not need to be transferred from the place they are produced. Conversely, general catalogues, sometimes fantasized as universal indexes, are centralized.

This great availability and ease of access have on the one hand revealed unexpected potential: everything at everyone's disposal, and everyone participating actively with his own contribution. On the other hand, it has clamorously bared needs, often manifested in requests for specific possibilities of use of this mass of information [14]. Some of the services assuming growing importance are the collecting, indexing, customizing, and archiving of material already online. Various types of robots that search for information and organize the material stored—or, more precisely, the references to it—in the general catalogues have been designed in support of these activities. The customizing of information [1, 2] refers to the semantic manipulation of a document to extract and summarize parts of the content that will be put together in a representation suited to how the user wants to consume the information. The needs of the user change rapidly as his analysis and search for information progress.

The customization of information is supported by the use of many different tools that require a high degree of interaction with the user during navigation, retrieval, and selection of documents; reading and modification; annotation and registration; recontextualization through the reorganization of the material collected and the definition of new hypertextual links; analysis; extraction; and abstraction to make the contents of the documents emerge.

The authors of contributions distributed on the Internet must remember that the emergence of documents from the entire space of available resources is their responsibility: documents must be prepared with care, considering the actual procedures the robots follow in indexing and presenting them through search engines [16, 24]. The results of any research are generally presented as a summary of documents, meant to attract the user and suggest his navigation toward the discovery of significant emergences. Cataloguing documents is fundamental for their automatic handling (consider the importance of the title page of a book or the first page of an article). Today results are satisfactory, but still limited.

Fortunately, the enthusiasm and commitment strongly encourage understanding the needs and tendencies of the Internetizens for defining the details of a so dynamic environment where everything is global because it belongs to all and is meant for all. It is in an environment in which the work is done in collaboratories [5], virtual places in which resources are common property, and all the participants in an activity combine their contributions, changing their role from that of distant consultants to working companions. They share responsibility for the collaboratories, through the tools (e-mail, newsgroups, chat-lines, Web sites, editors, author systems) that now exist to facilitate publishing, conferences, and the exchange of information.

Thus, the position in which a document is found, the path to reach it, and the building in which it is kept are not important in gaining access to it. Information is sought through virtual navigation in an information virtual space through Net sites that also occupy real space. These sites do have a physical location where the machines, control units, and transmission cables are installed, all of which are, however, invisible and irrelevant for the user's entry and travel through the Net. Because of this, the materiality of the object becomes secondary. The object can be seen, admired, read in a situation of complete artificiality. Through the digital simulation of objects, people can forever preserve every part of the collective memory and reorganize it according to their needs. Perhaps the new immaterial archives will be what people will actually transmit as memory: the immaterial archives of human memory [20].

Moreover, this loss of physicality has increased the volume of information available and consultable, beyond the control and influence of the centers that were set in charge of its conservation and circulation. The global library (and likewise the global museum and the global administrative institution) extends through all the sites of the network relevant to its functions and to the subjects treated, surpassing separation based on the type of product offered to the user [26]. All the sites share responsibility for the evolution of the global library, for the volume of information available, its updating, and the services offered. The importance of methodologies of cooperative work and support tools in this situation is evident.

The so-called new technologies are channels of communication similar to the ones we have already experienced: the printing press, in television, the telephone, so why not monuments and pictures. But the new technologies present innovational and exciting characteristics. They are bidirectional, like the telephone, but unlike television, or the press, or sculpture, when they are not pluridirectional, this allowing active participation. They have memory, as does art, and communication through monuments, but television does not, nor does always the press, and this builds a collective memory. The collective memory can be easily accessed and updated concurrently by a lot of people; these characteristics suggest the hypotheses of a new ordering of the space of knowledge.

Today we have reached the point of speaking of the Internet as an instrument of democratic participation, but we are still working on a precise and concrete definition of this expression [21]. However, it has become evident that the management of channels and infrastructures must be separated from the production of contents in order to clearly recognize responsibilities and ensure authors autonomy in selecting the quality and cultural orientation of their products.

Through the digital simulation of objects, people can preserve every part of the collective memory and reorganize it according to their needs.

We must compete with the market, offering products of high historical, artistic, cultural, and social value—and not just for immediate consumption. In a sector that is so rapidly evolving, it is a challenge to understand in what area of development to invest economic and intellectual resources and what to produce. Beware of whoever presents himself as a global content provider spreading his product as the true culture! Beware of whoever comes forward with initiatives to eliminate nonusers of computers, forgetting that the technological tool is created to solve problems and satisfy specific, not universal, needs. Beware of entering a developing country to offer new communication technologies: progress can turn into colonization. It is true, in fact, that the great importance of identifying new scenarios lies in information, which is crucial for the autonomy of countries. Information stimulates people's involvement and participation manipulation is fundamental for strategic and daily decision-making. The simplest and necessary operation is—just as one learns to read and write—to learn to navigate, in order to be able to compose new products to offer.

We cannot imagine creation without the availability and circulation of information.

back to top  Interactivity: The Path from Raw Datum to Artifact

Building into an information and knowledge base products that are separate from it because they contain an unforeseen component that is not or cannot be formalized and subjectively depends the culture, the knowledge, and the style of the author is the nucleus of creativity.

We cannot imagine creation without the availability and circulation of information. Just think of the close tie between the Renaissance and the copiers of manuscripts who made the works available, and between the great impetus that came from the invention and the introduction of a new technology of reproduction, printing. The current technological and social changes also, and above all, force a break with certain categories of the past in favor of others. Thus from analysis we move on to synthesis, discontinuity is preferred to continuity, and the attitude of passivity gives way to one of creativity. With two metaphors taken from architecture, we may say that to avoid a contemporary collapse of communications, we must opt for the metamorphosis of Jericho rather than the disintegration of Babel [9]. Like the manuscript copiers of the past, our modern electronic monks—the new technological tools, the new media managed and organized by people—must assemble to then disseminate or redisseminate, armed with their computer prosthesis, with their trust in team work and in the importance of the preservation of our heritage, and with a strong love of culture.

As communication has become electronic, it has raised the problems of simulation and interactivity. We shall not dwell here on simulation, pausing only to underline its intrinsic element of representing to substitute its involvement in both the mental and the sensory realms, and its support to construction meant as the theoretical hypothesis of a model and its consequent empirical evaluation. In the world of the Net, that has also been defined as cyberspace, creativity requires and is manifested through interactivity. Therefore we are concerned here more with interactivity than with simulation.

We are concerned here more with interactivity than with simulation. Interactivity is the new system's capability for gathering and satisfying users' requests, a characteristic that contrasts with traditional media. Therefore interactivity consists in an electronic system's simulation of interaction, contemplating in its scope of action the function of communication with one or more users. Interactivity introduces another innovative characteristic—a change in the nature of the document's author. According to traditional communication schemes he draws an image of his idea, which coincides with knowledge captured definitively in the document. By contrast, with new media the potential strategies prevail, provided as software facilities and characterized by the determinant and unpredictable action of the so-called user. Peculiarities of interactivity are the pluridirectional flow of information; the active role of the user in the choice of the pathway and in the selection of the information requested; the particular rhythm of communication (rigid in broadcasting, that is, unidirectional communication) exploited nonlinearly, independently of the order predetermined by the document for its single information components; and the conciseness and velocity of dissemination as notions of synthetic communication [3]. The prosthetic extension of the receiver allows him to connect to the new communication channels, to the Net in particular, outlining through them a presence that establishes his action with a potential of use that may be passive and a potential of realization that requires his participation and contribution.

Knowledge comes from the exchange, from the exploration, and not from the mere availability of information. The Net has produced an evident mutation: no longer questions and answers, such as when the user formulates a question and the intelligent system interprets, understands, and furnishes in reply information that is often inexact and, therefore, useless. The call for a choice in order to proceed, for exploration and curiosity, is concrete: information is sought by navigating, reading, and choosing the next objective. In his seventh letter Plato uses the term diagwgh, which can be interpreted as to navigate [12]:

  • The continuous passage through all these stages, touching on each, one after the other, succeeds, at the price of great difficulty, in engendering once and for all the knowledge of that which is good, in one who is by nature good; however, those who do not possess a good nature, and this is the condition of the soul of the masses, both in learning and in what is customarily called character, or those whose tendencies have been spoiled, on those, not even Linceo could bestow sight [17].

back to top  User Interaction: The Seed of Digital Art

In a previous stage of development of what is called the "global information society," many efforts centered on training people in the use of machines—consequently lowering people to the level of binary algebra, of machine language. Now we must try to raise to a human level those of the contents to be circulated and of the tools for their exploitation. The machine was an instrument to accelerate and improve the production of documents for person-to-person communication, and interaction was regarded as a technique for person-to-machine- communication. At that stage people guided the production of the document, which was composed of a subject and, possibly, its description (e.g. title, cover, caption) and presented an autonomy of meaning: it was static, and the message it transmitted was contained in the representational and expressive capacity of the artifact. Figures 1 and 2 are two examples of this. In the first case, the author has intervened to photograph the archeologic artifact, digitize it, and interpret it in order to produce a description. In the second case, the author has traced the outlines of the pieces by hand and described them.

Let us borrow an analogy from the world of art, the painting of the surrealist Dangelo entitled La larme de Tanguy (Figure 3) [8]. Following is a description of it that offers a key to its meaning: Container of all Dangelo's modes of expression: from gesturalism to calligraphy, from verticality as ascent to the introduction-intrusion of the objet-trouvé, from the use of collage to the planet high on the horizon, from the touch of the signature integrated in the image to the nostalgia of the heart, and, then, to the title, sum and metaphor of the visual mirage [19]. We can see as the machine the instruments used by the author to interact manually with the canvas, expressing a message contained wholly within the work, in which creativity is at its peak.

When interactivity is introduced in an existing document, its original purpose of rendering testimony is modified: the document becomes the passageway to further investigation. This is the case for the interactive and hypertextual document (Figure 4), which leads toward a successive document as a further, more penetrating investigation, providing both descriptive detail and details of contents.

Now let us try to imagine the result of an interaction with a work of art, keeping in mind the words of Dangelo: [19]: A painter paints only one picture all his life and in the end puts together all the fragments.

Reproducing a work of art (Arshile Gorky's Agony, 1947) together with an observer (Dangelo interacting for a comment?) can produce a new artifact (Figure 5) [6]. This is a new document, a snapshot of the attempt to assist the observer in intuiting the evolution toward the global painting of the author—the one he paints in the course of a lifetime—and not simply reproduce a fragment.

The work is separate from the man; when it is united with him to grasp his interaction, it becomes an exhibit, a show, a performance.

Technological progress has led to the development of instruments and methodologies of interaction, such as cooperative planning, diagrammatic languages, navigational tools, sharing of resources, and teleconferencing. These tools of interactivity have meant better use of resources, greater legibility and expressiveness of messages, and support for cooperative work at a distance. They stimulate the creation of means of communication more appropriate for the activities involved. Thus, the machine has entered person-to-person communication and serves as its intermediary. Interactivity has become a technique for person-to-person communication, and the interaction of a person with the artifact is now seen as a part of the artifact itself, or, in other words, a person participates in the very existence of the artifact.

Human interaction and interactivity have developed primarily, however, in people's relation to the natural landscape and to the constructed one, which is artificial and anthropogeographic. Another level of interaction and, as specified here, of interactivity between people and art is the experience known as land art, in which the conceptual aspect strongly defines an active relationship with nature and the artifice through interaction with the landscape in a set and unrepeatable time, which is that of performance. Here there can be no doubt of the artist's participation in the artifact, nor of the spectator's participation; even the surroundings, the environment, participate as well (Figure 6 [7] and Figure 7 [22]).

The lack of permanence of a work of art, in its quality of happening taking place in time and with spectators-actors united within that time and space, defines a new, consequent interaction. That interaction involves photographing, and, today, rendering in audiovisual or similar formats, such as that of the CD-ROM, in order to obtain a document of the event that will have a duration, space, and active fruition of its own.

Following a similar path, the Net evolved from static collective memory, that is, a global archive, to a collaboratory in which autonomous documents, common resources, are dissolved and blended with active participation and sharing of responsibility so that the collaboratory exists in the union of collaborators interacting with the global archives and among themselves.

In art, too, we have reached a similar mutation phase. Passing through a type of art, Video Art, which immerses machines in an artistic context as parts of it, but also as an element of autonomous interaction, clearly highlighting the technological aspect (Figure 8) [11], we reach the visual concealment of the machines, together with their maximum expressiveness in the conceptual and communicative senses.

In a recent interview Paolo Rosa said, "And the work of art must be like a process. The artist begins a trip and the spectator continues on it" [21].

From here we go on to video environments, to interactive art, which includes the man-artist, the man-spectator, the context, the story, memory, technology (even if masked) all with their expressive and interactive potential. In the video environment (and not video installation, which implies fixity) entitled Coro (Figure 9) [23], as Paolo Rosa continues visitors tread a long, partially unrolled carpet made of sensitive felt and their walking produces contortions and groans from the images of men and women squatting or lying on the long runner. Such environment allows us to affirm that the work of art and the spectator become one and the same; the spectator himself is a subject of the narration. But it also raises a question for future reflection: where is the cut-off, if such a limit still exists, between the creative act and the act of fruition in the digital era?

Multimedia language, which is sustained by advanced technology, stresses the structuralist method of analysis and jumps toward poststructuralism, where the meaning is made by the process of reading, and by that of writing. In a hypermedia context the visitor of an artifact negotiates his own path across the links by interacting to organize his story [18]. The creation of the artwork becomes a discovery that is delegated to the visitor. The artist prepares the navigation space (usually called the content) and conceives the procedures to operate on it. This is the case of METAnimationS (Figure 10) [10]. The visitor selects a calligraphic image from a portfolio. The image animates and anchors a new image. The viewer can interact with the mouse to select a different image and therefore branch off from the basic sequence: when bandwidth is high, the art making is a frenetic game; otherwise, it is a slow and careful choice. The Web space evolves from a vehicle for showing and disseminating artworks to an art mechanism with its own peculiarities that originates Web Art [27]. Coherently with the space where they reside the artworks have fuzzy boundaries that distinguish them; they are more plastic and fluid than those stored on a bounded CD-ROM. Each visitor navigates differently and therefore discovers a different story. The duration of the story depends on the network bandwidth at the starting time of the story; the elapsed time becomes an artistic component more than cause of boring for the interactive visitor.

back to top  Future Itineraries

We are not inventing anything. We must keep the difference between interactive media and broadcasting clear. Clicking on the mouse must not become an action of nonparticipation, a kind of zapping. A new Web site offered for our consultation can be an "atom" of broadcasting: the producer or supplier participates, updates, comments; the user consults. But the interaction permitted and required by the new tools, such as the Internet, can overcome user passivity and stimulate creativity. These tools should be used not as points of arrival, but as points of departure for communicative flows which transcend them. This calls for the help of professionals with a solid cultural background, a solid and assimilated ethical dimension, and animated by a profoundly human dimension of the problems and their solutions [4]. From this perspective we must face the theme of the redistribution of knowledge, of the importance of participation in this redistribution, and of how this is the foundation of democracy and of concepts such as planetarianism, globalization, and cooperation.

The role of technologists is to create a link in continuous tension between speculation and pragmatism. To instill the most abstract of ideas in the operating laboratory while looking after social and cultural needs, we must plan solutions based on available or anticipated infrastructures, methodologies, and communication languages. However, in rebuilding the paths of knowledge we must not only consider separate and detached parts, but convince ourselves of the importance of the interdisciplinary nature and horizontal circulation of knowledge. Thus we hold that ways that seem severed are not only parallel, but can intersect: like the technological path and the artistic path, for example. The former, through the passage to the interactive document, has led from the static document to the collaboratory. The latter, from the traditional work of art, materialized and static, passing through experiences such as Land Art and Video Art, has led to the interactive art of video environments and to the still green Web Art.

back to top  References

1. Berleant, D. and Berghel, H. Customizing information: Part 1, Getting what we need, when we need it." IEEE Computer 27,9 (1994), 96–98.

2. Berleant, D. and Berghel, H. Customizing information: Part 2, How successful are we so far? IEEE Computer 27,10 (1994),76–78.

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6. Chapman, C. Photograph by Conrad Chapman, New York, 1958. In Come in un bosco (Like being in a forest), by Sergio Dangelo, Civica Galleria di Arte Moderna, Gallarate, 1995, p. 69.

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back to top  Authors

Marco Padula
Institute for Multimedia Technology,
National Research Council
Via A.M. Ampère, 56,
20131, Milan, Italy
(39) 02-70643271
Fax: (39) 02-70643292

Mr. Padula is a researcher at the ITIM-CNR (Institute for Multimedia Information Technology of the National Research Council) in Milan, Italy. His scientific interest is the potential of technologies in developing distributed applications and circulating data through new networks. He studies problems of scientific communication and the communication of cultural artifacts through hypermedia systems.

Amanda Reggiori
Via T. Cremona, 5, 20145,
Milan, Italy
Phone and fax: (39) 02-4986934

Ms. Reggiori is an architect. She is a postgraduate of the School of Social and Mass Media Communications of the Università Cattolica in Milan, Italy, where she wrote her thesis "The Internet as a Tool of Democratic Participation." She is a writer of art introductions and a journalist, as well as a contributor to Virtual: The Italian Monthly of the Digital Era and other periodicals. Her fields of interest are information logic and electronic reality.

back to top  Figures

F1Figure 1. Example of a static document: a digitized photograph with its caption.

F2Figure 2. Example of a static document: a digitized version of a hand-made drawing of ancient objects with its caption.

F3Figure 3. La larme de Tanguy, Dangelo, 1986.

F4Figure 4. Example of an interactive document: a click on the anchors (words in red that link to further documents) leads to details of the document.

F5Figure 5. Dangelo commenting on Agony, Arshile Gorky, 1947 preserved at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

F6Figure 6. (Top) The wrapping of the New South Wales coast, Australia, by Christo, 1969.

F7Figure 7. (Bottom) Ripples of Light, by Susumo Shingu, 1993.

F8Figure 8. Wais Station, by Nam June Paik, 1994.

F9Figure 9. Coro, video environment at Mole Antonelliana, by Studio Azzurro, 1995.

F10Figure 10. METAnimationS, by Clay Debvoise, 1996.

back to top 

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