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Archive Reference

Digicon 83: Context for Computer Art

By Jerry Barenholtz

[Faculty oof Interdisciplinary Studies – Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, BC, Canada]

i.          Introduction

ii.         Crayons at the Louvre

iii.        Techno-fail: The Showcase Perfromances

iv.        a.         Context: Music

            b.         Context: Aanimation

            c.         Context: Video Image Manipulation

            d.         Context: Printmaking and Painting

v.         Digi-Success: Gillerman/Piché



i.     Introduction

DIGICON 83 was a computer art extravaganza in Vancouver, B.C. , August, 1983. The conference was primarily sponsored by the Depratment of Continuing Education at the University of British Columbia, and the individuals who did the organization and planning were Jane Hutton and Tom Berryhill, with administration by Cindy Noaks.

DIGICON included technical sessions with papers delivered by various luminaries, and ongoing art show, pre-conference workshops on several subjects, a vendor's forum for display of commercially available equipment, "playlabs" where a variety of equipment was made available for the amusement and edification of conference participants, and a concert at Vancouver's Queen Elizabeth Playhouse, including four commissioned live + electronic + computer performances.

This conference differed from most previous "computer art" conferences in two primary ways. First, the focus was on the artistic, rather than the computer-technical aspects of the field. Second, the scope of the conference was broad enough to include both music and visual work, along with a few hybrids such as "computer dance" and "computer animated sculpture".

This breadth of artistic interests and relegation of the technical to the background gave DIGICON a major significance for artist or critics trying to understand computer art. This role was explicitly embraced by Hutton and Berryhill in designing DIGICON, and their efforts were fruitful and appreciated.

Several other constituencies were also served by the conference: your average Joe and Josephine were introduced to the "Magic and Mysteries", an opportunity was provided for practitioners to meet and exchange pleasantries and ideas, and workshops and tutorials were

available to those trying to enter the field. By no means the least important function of DIGICON was the commissioning and production of five major computer art works.

v.   Digi-Success: Gillerman/Piché

["Whispers in a Plane of Light" Live Performance © 1983 Gillerman/Piché]

Tucked away in one of the technical sessions was a ten-minute live performance by Jean Piché on a Fairlight Computer Music Instrument, and Jody Gillerman on a Sandin IP (Video Image Processor). Considering the piece's technical complexity and aesthetic ambitions, it should have been included in the showcase presentation at the Playhouse. However, by virtue of its success, this piece would have been out of place in that presentation.

The main technological premise of the piece is that various parts of the visual mix would be controlled by selected parts of the audio mix, rather than by controls within the IP. TO achieve this, the Fairlight was equipped with a set of modules which translate loudness, pitch, or selected other acoustic properties of the sounds being created into DC voltage levels. The IP is designed for control via such voltages, with are usually (i.e. in the absence of Piché) developed within the IP by electronic monitoring of various visual properties of images on their through the IP.

Gillerman was to be controlling other aspects of the video. Piché was to modify the sounds and Gillerman was to modify other [live in real time] controls in response to the synthesized images appearing on the monitor. Jim Whiteaker, aa colleague of Gillerman's, was running three cameras, and he too was adjusting zoom, f-stops, etc. in response to the images on the screen. In addition to the three camera sources, there as a prerecorded videotape which had been created by Gillerman on an Aurora graphics computer, and there were several grid and band like patterns being generated within the IP (controlled live by Gillerman). The sound sources included both performers chanting into microphones, Piché's live improvisations of the Fairlight, and pre-programed sections which he had prepared for playback through the Fairlight. The total piece thus consisted of a feedback loop containing five video sources, four audio sources, three people, two electronic wonders, and one video projector (for the befit of the audience), as well as a clutch of assorted cameras, VTR's, speakers, etc. and several miles of hookup wire.

For some reason, everything actually worked at performance time.

There were two cameras aimed at Gillerman, covering her neck, one shoulder and the top of her chest. One of the cameras was upside down, so that each mage of Gillerman was an up/down pair. One camera was aimed at Piché, and framed tightly on a three-quarters profile of his face. Colour was added to the camera images in the IP. Piché was a very cool blue, while Gillerman appeared in hot yellows and pinks.

The line separating Gillerman's arm from her torso, ending at the armpit, was a very suggestive of breast or crotch cleavage. This suggestion was enhanced by GIllerman's slowly running her hands across her shoulder and chest. At the same time, Gillerman was visible to the audience,

and it was evident that she was merely rubbing her shoulder with one hand and twiddling knobs on the IP with the other. Likewise, one could see that Piché was just chanting into a microphone and playing keyboards, rather than the "oohing" and "aahing" which appeared on the video monitor.

The prepared video tape [computer graphics] was built our of two primary images: a set of computer generated cubes which slid around on the screen, and sometimes organized themselves into walls or other structures, and a photographic image of aa nude female torso, from next to hips. Unlike the live images of Gillerman, the torso was sharp and unambiguous. The cubes and torso sometimes interacted, as when the torso appeared as on face of each cube, and sometimes totally ignored one another.

In the first section of the piece, the pacing was relatively slow, and the various sound and video sources were introduced one at a time. In the second section, interaction, pacing, video levels, and audio energy were all running at peak levels. In the final section, the energy levels dropped, and the various elements were withdrawn one at a time.

The piece was very much a study in sensuality and erotic fantasy. In order to understand what it did and how it worked, it must be understood that the shared control of images was real and fully utilized, rather than just a theoretical possibility buried somewhere in six quintillion wires. The pitch and loudness of Piché's chanting directly controlled the mix percentage between the camera pointed at him and the rest of the visual elements [with real-time manual overrides and controls by Gillerman]. Thus Piché had direct control over not only the content of the image of himself (position and facial expression), but also over the way it appeared in the overall image. GIllerman too had this type of context/content control: In addition to being herself always on camera, the entire image was being assembled in the IP, which she was running via its front panel controls. [* all live and in real time]

* Note: this entire piece is live, there are no edits, everything is being switched and controlled in real time in performance. There are no edits in the documentation video of this performance – all fast switching is completely live and performed in real-time.

Because of this control, the performance per se was fully theatrical: The performers appeared in roles, rather than merely as themselves running their respective machines. The roles and the general shape of the script had been agreed upon by the performers long before the performance. The actual elaboration, with respect to the "drama", the music and video, were worked up in a long series of rehearsals leading up to the performance. (The interpretation of the meaning of the performance is due to the present author, and may come as a surprise to the performers.)

At the simplest reading, Gillerman shows while Piché looks on. Both compare what is with the idealized fantasy, as personified by the torso (Venus de Milo). But that reading throws away most of the interest of the piece. Since there is no image which shows a head and a body attached, there is no reason always to see Gillerman, Piché, and Venus as three distinct and separate characters. Sometimes it appears that the Blue Head and The Hot Flesh are parts of the Venus myth, and a delightful light patina of androgyny is introduced. Other times, The Blue Head is the Sensory (as opposed to the Sensual) part of the Venus, examining itself (or is it the priestess being examined?). Yet other bits show the Head with mouth open and eyes wide, presumably a full participant in the erotic activity. In general, the number of players, their gender, and their relationships are kept in a constant state of transformation. Likewise, what Is seen as "real" and what Is part of the "ideal fantasy" is constantly changing. The basic sensuality and ambiguity of the images is fully exploited to keep the transformation fluid.

The overall piece was unquestionably erotic. The effect on the audience might have been profound had the performance not been scheduled for 10:30 a.m. In addition to the twin technical triumphs of getting so many machines working together and controlling such a complex feedback loop without collapse or runaway, Gillerman and Piché presented the audience with a fine, subtle, sensual fantasy, which danced smoothly and confidently around the space bounded in one dimension by the personal and mythical, and in another dimension by the male and female.

In the discussion which followed the presentation, one member of the audience declared the piece pornographic. It was not clear why, exactly, she thought so. Perhaps she felt that sensuality just should not be done in polite, mixed company. Or perhaps for her, the Blue Face remained immutably attached to Piché the man, and thus transformed the whole piece into a woman alone with her myth and a Peeping Toom. AA few other audience members mumbled or grunted agreement with the criticism, but most seemed to agree with Gillerman's rejection of the attack: "No, It was just erotic." In general, the audience was more than pleased to accept the piece as it was offered: as a fully collaborative exploration of light erotic fantasy.

Without a doubt, the Gillerman/Piché collaboration was the best work at DIGICON 83, and one can only hope that future DIGICONs or other contexts will bring these two and their respective machines together again.

Jo Ann (Jody) Gillerman (video/Image Processing/Compputer Graphics) and Jean Piché (sound) in Real-Time Live Performance of

Whispers in a Plane of Light,

Digicon 83, Vancouver, Canada © 1983

VideoTape of the live performance, Whispers in a Plane of Light, is Published/Distributed by

Siggraph Video Review, issue 14, Siggraph '84 Electronic Theater

Gillerman/Piché © 1984

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