SIGGRAPH '07, Art Gallery Chair, Vibeke Sorensen

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Global Eyes Are Watching You!

The 2007 SIGGRAPH Conference Art Gallery is filled with a plethora of: animation, artist books, art panels, art papers, art talks, digital performance, installations, monitor-based work, and wall-based work. Art Gallery Chair, Vibeke Sorensen, provides an in depth look into this year's Art Gallery experience. Her insightfulness offers an outstanding reference for many years to come.


Dee-Marie: With SIGGRAPH being the most significant international computer graphics conference—Global Eyes, is the perfect description for the 2007 Art Gallery. Who came up with the concept for this year's Art Gallery theme?

Vibeke Sorensen: Thank you for your comment, and thank you for asking. Actually, this year's theme was my idea. I am of course delighted that it was embraced by the SIGGRAPH Conference Chair, Joe Marks, and the Art Gallery Associate Chair, Lina Yamaguchi. I would also like to mention that the committee and jury were selected for their international and multicultural identity, and they embraced it too.

I have been thinking about global visual culture and the role of technology—in particular networked interactive graphics technology—for years. I have been researching global media, visual language and art for my own creative work, as well as for my teaching (I am a professor, and titled one of my courses Global Eyes last year).

As you say, SIGGRAPH is the most important international computer graphics conference. It has historically been the center of computer graphics research, with artists and scientists from around the world contributing to it. This crossover between fields and cultures has had a profound impact, and accelerated the development of the field. Each year this activity becomes even more important and more far-reaching. So, part of the idea with the show was to focus on this, and to present "the world to the world," so to speak. The international and multicultural dimension of computer graphics is perhaps unstated, but it is extremely important to the field in so many ways, not only by providing new ideas and techniques, but especially by alternative ways to see and think about our collective human and global condition.

I am also delighted that our Art Gallery Committee members are in themselves international and multicultural, and actively working in the field as artists and researchers. So the idea of the show is directly reflected in the actual makeup of the committee and jury too.

DM: How does this year's Art Gallery experience differ from last year's?

VS: Last year, there was an Electronically Mediated Performance category presented at SIGGRAPH. It was very good, so we built on this idea. So, this year, we will start the conference with a special expanded Digital Performance Weekend, from August 4-6. Instead of being at the Convention Center on a temporary stage, it will take place in the state of the art facilities of CalIT2/CRCA on the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) campus. CalIT2 is a fantastic facility, with amazing theaters and special screens for showing three dimensional and Virtual Reality works. UCSD has some of the best, if not the very best, Visual Art, Theatre and Music departments in the US.

I want to point out a rare opportunity to see a spectacular hologram by Australian artist, Paula Dawson, called Luminous Presence. I hope your readers will make a special effort to come and see it in the Convention Center Gallery.

New this year, is our special welcome to indigenous artists from several nations. Cedar Sherbert, who is from the Kumeyaay Nation near San Diego, has organized a wonderful panel titled Indigenous People and Digital Media. Cedar is a prize winning filmmaker and we are proud to be showing his work, Gesture Down (I Don’t Sing), in our Gallery Theater, r e a, from Australia, is speaking on the panel and showing a moving three monitor installation called, Maang: Message Stick, in the gallery.

We are showing work that challenges and transcends barriers of all kinds, across fields and cultures. There are new fields developing in the space between graphics and the humanities, such as digital ethnography and digital anthropology, which make extensive use of digital photography and digital documentary video. Meant to show how people live in parts of the world that most Americans rarely see, it is now possible to record ways of living that are disappearing.

There is an urgency to much of this, given the loss of habitat for many human beings who are part of these fragile ecosystems. There is important work being done at Harvard University by J. P. Sniadecki, and Toby Lee, who have made beautiful pieces about life in the US and China. Eugenia Maakaroun from the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte, Brazil has made a wonderful digital documentary called, Maracatu Sacred Rhythms, about a little known Afro-Brazilian religion called Candomble. She uses some digital effects in sensitive ways to bring us deeper into their world, to help us apprehend nuances and experiences more deeply. We will be showing these videos in our small theatre screening room inside the Art Gallery at the Convention Center.

On two kiosks in the Gallery, we are proud to be showing a selection of 12 photo-essays from ZoneZero.com, a major online gallery directed by acclaimed photographer Pedro Meyer. These pieces are all by internationally known photographers.

Also new this year is an Artist in Residence program in the Guerilla Studio, and we are collaborating with them to show the work of these amazing artists.

We are also showing work that fuses handcraft and digital media, as a way of bridging cultures. Taraneh Hemami’s work, Most Wanted, is a curtain made of thousands of hand strung beads. It is being shown on the entrance structure, as people enter the Gallery.

Ingo Gunther’s work, Worldprocessor, also represents a departure from previous years. He has made a series of illuminated, hand-made globes, using data collected from the Internet, that show us alternative ways to see our planet.

Each piece in the show represents a direct reflection on our global theme. What artists are doing around the world, and how do creative people in these many cultures see the world through technology? How do they see their world and the universe? If graphics technology has any part in this, we are interested. The reason is that the enormous speed by which digital media reach previously isolated cultures around the world is catalyzing a rapid integration of visual and media languages. So there is a need to understand not only ethnic cultures and the vocabularies of their traditional media, but also how these cultures and languages transform and are being transformed by digital media, especially computer graphics.

We prioritized the ideas and visions of the international artists, and didn’t require that they use the most expensive equipment or most advanced algorithm. But, interestingly, many works do use technically demanding and innovative processes, from animation and immersive VR, to games, to sensing and interaction, tracking, and new materials. We have a very large number of installations this year, some of which will be at CalIT2, on the UCSD campus, using their latest equipment. My experience is that if an artist wants to realize what is in his or her mind and imagination, it often requires some technological sophistication and innovation. And this show confirms that.

We tried to be as inclusive and diverse as possible, but as you know, many people around the world simply do not have the resources to work with computers and technology. It is prohibitively expensive for them. This is gradually changing, though, and that is one of the places where we are “putting our fingers.” So although we are happy to have extended our reach to new communities, we regret that we could not include more. Perhaps our global multicultural and ecological emphasis is the main difference from all previous years.

Finally, considering the history of the Art Gallery, 2007 is the 25th Anniversary of the 1982 SIGGRAPH Art Show. So we are showing a website archive and reconstruction of it made by the chair that year, Copper Frances Giloth. It’s interesting to reflect back on the field to see where it came from, and to see pictures of people (some of whom sadly passed away: such as Ed Emshwiller and Stan Vanderbeek) and fortunately, some who are still here and participating in this year’s show (such as Yoichiro Kawaguchi). It makes one appreciate even more our community and how important each person and their work truly are.

DM: What new and innovative performances will attendees encounter this year?

VS: This year, we have some very special performances by international artists who bring world dance, music, and theater into computer graphics and animation. For example, Kooj Chuhan, of Virtual Migrants, will be coming from the UK. His timely and important performance work uses a range of media, including video, to bring to light the condition of people in the global diaspora. He will be showing two works in performance and installation (both shown at CalIT2/CRCA at UCSD) called What if I am not Real, and Exhale. He will also be giving an artist talk, so people will be able to learn about him and his work in greater depth.

Takashi Kawashima’s piece, Takashi’s Seasons, combines puppet theater and digital video, both of which are a kind of magic-making for children of all ages. A special focus is on Visual Music, and we are delighted to have a two-hour selection from the Visual Music Marathon, guest curated by Dennis H. Miller, from Northeastern University, in Boston. This is mainly abstract computer animation that combined with music, creates a synthesis of the senses, similar to the goals of the Disney classic, Fantasia. He worked with artists like Oskar Fischinger back in the 1940’s to produce it then. Today, contemporary artists have continued this tradition and we are showing it!

J. Walt Adamczyk is performing a live piece of visual-music called, Autocosm 2007, in which he creates his own unique 3D worlds, that morph and change using interaction with growth and evolution algorithms. Mariela Cadiz and Denis Lelong are coming from Paris to perform their poetic, interactive cinema work, e-scapes, made in collaboration with Kent Clelland.

We also have works by well-known contemporary musicians and composers. We are proud to present, Dynamic Spaces, by Pauline Oliveros, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who is well known for her work in Deep Listening. Her piece is in collaboration with Curtis Bahn, Jonas Braasch, Chris Chafe, Tomie Hahn, Soundwire Ensemble, Tintinnabulate Ensemble, Dan Valente, and Bart Woodstrup.

We are also delighted to have LA-based Michael Masucci’s and his piece, RAGE TO KNOW, created and performed in collaboration with well-known LA-based choreographer Donna Sternberg and EZTV. This pieces works with ideas from quantum mechanics and string theory, and attempts to illustrate through dance some of the more complex theories concerning multi-dimensionality, time displacement, and the warping of space.

As Maja Cerar and Luibo Borissov describe their work Autopoesis, this work 'imagines' realities, and is a humorous document of discussions between the authors about the origin of the universe. It is followed by, Mimesis, a more serious exploration of the ancient tension between imperfect reality and ideal form as furthered by art's mimicry.

All of the works in this year’s show address creativity as a fundamental condition of life—that human creativity, in particular, is a way to express and understand our individual and collective world-views and cosmologies.

DM: Is it possible for an attendee to view every aspect of the Art Gallery experience?

VS: I hope so! I think it’s best to plan for a few days to do so.

DM: What would you suggest as an exhibit viewing guide?

VS: The Digital Performance Weekend is from August 4—6, so concentrating on that for those days might be a good idea. Then, spend Tuesday—Thursday taking in the show, panels and talks.

DM: Are there certain times of the day that specific sections of the Art Gallery are less crowded, or more accessible, than others?

VS: The mornings tend to be a little quieter than the afternoons, so that might be a good time to go to the Gallery in the Convention Center. We will have some extended hours on Monday August 6, until 7 PM.

DM: Do you see a specific trend this year?

VS: One trend is in digital photography and video, and the new area I call 'digital ethnographics.' The larger trend I see, is an explosion in trans-disciplinary activity across fields and cultures where graphics is at the center. To mention one more example, Catherine Richards, from Canada, has a wonderful piece called, I Was Scared to Death/I Could Have Died of Joy, made in collaboration with Dr. Peter Sewell, a vacuum physicist. It was shown in the Sydney Biennale and we are very happy to be able to present it this year. Art and Science may have been in dialog in the past, but today the knowledge is even more deeply and thoroughly shared between fields, and so the work also reflects this change. Artists like Catherine are at the cutting edge, even using the very same instruments—from vacuum chambers to computers.

So there is an increasingly rapid synthesis and fusion of diverse knowledge, which challenges notions of increased specialization as the only way for new knowledge to be discovered or created. Computer graphics is catalyzing this ‘synthesis’ of fields, and new fields are being created where they fuse. It’s not interdisciplinary where small amounts of information are supplied by more than one field, each of which never question their own assumptions and foundations.

It’s trans-disciplinary, where they question their own assumptions about thinking and organizing information, and embrace each other. So they are not just solving problems with small bits of knowledge, they are combining complete knowledge bases which makes it possible to discover new relationships, and also find a place for data and artifacts that do not seem to fit anywhere else. It also generates new ideas and new interactions. This is a complex, emergent system.

Computing, and graphics in particular, are a bridge that not only spans fields and cultures, but they create new fields and knowledge. The artwork we are showing is a clue to this, and it sits at the apex. The artists in our show are exploring the fertile spaces in between, and in doing so opening new doors for other people. This trans-disciplinary and trans-cultural activity is growing faster and faster. That is why we have so many innovative works that work on more than one level. Sometimes it’s hard to take it all in at once, because they work so deeply on more than one level. It might be good for the public to look at works more than once, especially if it seems a little confusing. Sometimes all that is required is a little more time.

DM: Do you see a reflection of the world at large manifested within this year's Art Gallery images?

VS: Yes, I do think this is true. Artists are more concerned with international events and problems, including the climate crisis and Iraq War. For example, Mathew Kenyon’s, Improvised Empathetic Device, asks why people are not more empathetic towards those suffering and dying in the war. Caitlin Berrigan’s piece, Viral Confections, addresses the bio-tech sector, and Sheldon Brown’s piece, The Scalable City, questions what we are doing to the environment through over-development.

In simply wanting to be part of this show, the artists are confirming their commitment not only to themselves, but the community of artists in a larger field that has the potential to change the world. I think their coming to San Diego is an expression of this.

DM: Pertaining to your personal artwork … your multi-media artistic creation (combining painting, photography, animation, music and text) is truly breathtaking. I especially enjoyed the video clips of Sanctuary. What was the inspiration behind the work?

VS: Thank you for your kind words, you are very generous. My inspiration for Sanctuary comes from my previous interactive installation work, Morocco Memory II. When it was installed at USC in 1999, in Interactive Frictions, someone from the public approached me and said “I want to stay in here forever, and even sleep here! You are making sanctuaries!”

Although, I had been interested in dream, meditation and ways to engage nature in more sensitive ways long before this, I began to question more deeply what a sanctuary is. I came to the conclusion that it is ‘home.’ A place to live and dream in harmony with the environment. When we are asleep we are extremely vulnerable, so we must find places that are safe. All creatures need this, from birth to death. But home is more than a house or nest. It is spiritual, physical, emotional and intellectual safety that is inspiring and nurturing, even if it is challenging.

We need it in our workplace too. No one likes a hostile environment except sociopaths. So, it seemed illogical to me for anyone to want to waste life, human intelligence, and the resources of the natural world by deliberately destroying it. Of course, I am not naïve, and see that it this kind of activity is not only happening frequently, but it is almost out of control, and the main reason why we have so many problems. So, I felt some urgency to try to use the technology we have to redirect these tendencies, and instead of isolating ourselves from nature, or to use it to violate it; to try to connect peacefully with it and see ourselves as part of the ecosystem.

The earth is our collective home and sanctuary, the birthplace of all living things. We are not the most important living thing, and we are not the center. I tried to find a way to emphasize the openness of spirit and place, and reconnect the body and mind, and inner and outer worlds.

My view is that the more in harmony one is with one’s actions while awake, the more in peace one is with the environment. Then the idea of a spiritual sanctuary and a natural sanctuary merge. I use technology not because it is necessary to use to explore these ideas, but to comment on the choice we have with technology to use it to support or destroy life. And to show that it is possible to make the decision to use technology in an alternative and life affirming way that is an existence proof for another way of living.

DM: Combined with the music of Shahrokh Yadegari, and vocals of Azam Ali, even viewing the online video of Sanctuary, I experienced a state of peace. What reactions did you receive from the viewers of the actual exhibit?

VS: Thank you for such a wonderful question! It was installed at Gallery One-One-One, at the University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg. My experience there was surprising and wonderful. A woman who was an immigrant and artist from the Middle East approached me in tears. She said she was crying, not because she was unhappy, but because it was the first time in her experience of high tech art in North America that she felt that she was welcomed without pre-judgment and treated with equality and respect as a citizen of the world. She said that this piece respected her life and experience.

It’s interesting because I didn’t have images from her country, but she still felt included. Perhaps it was because I used real plants and organic materials, objects or images from places around the world that she recognized. I was very touched by their positive responses. Yes, the music was exquisite, and had Eastern and Western influences that helped the piece become more international.

Azam Ali and Shahrokh Yadegari made a beautiful, peaceful sound environment that blended perfectly with the images and the space of the installation. I based the design for the structure on Japanese Temples, that bring nature from the outside in. I also employed techniques that I learned from Native Americans, including Canada and Brazil. I used real trees for the beams and branches for the ceiling, and they had a wonderful smell. Many people sat for hours quietly to experience the piece. Only a few people questioned why the structure was open with plants on the inside and out, and not a closed box that isolates people from nature. We need safety and sanctuary, but it’s not just a place apart from the world, rather it’s a way of living in the world, interacting peacefully with it.

DM: Your artistic diversity is remarkable. In what ways has your background in science and technology influenced your art?

VS: Thank you for your comments. I think my background in science has helped me to become more independent as an artist. Working with technology was probably less problematic for me than for artists who were not as fortunate as I was to have an excellent science and mathematics education. In the early days of computer graphics we didn’t have any software, so I used my math background directly to make images and animation. It may seem today as though it was a little tedious, but I thought that it was totally magical then.

When I was asked to teach computer graphics, I was a little worried because I had never taken a course in it myself. But I invented a course using a combination of drawing, writing, and sound production using some analytic geometry, trigonometry, differential calculus, including some wave theory and programming. It was more like a game, or an additive creative process. It was a discovery process of something totally new, and all that work was like peeling a magical onion that became more and more vivid. As one of my students later commented, “We didn’t know that artists couldn’t program.”

Later, I wrote my own stereoscopic drawing and painting software. I wasn’t a great programmer because I was self taught, but I always made things work. I always felt that my strength was in producing new ideas and proving they could be realized, making ‘proofs of concepts,’ or ‘existence proofs.” It allowed me to work with small computers in my own studio, and build labs in art schools, so that we could explore the possibilities in our own way. So, I have been able to pursue my work and ideas without any additional doubts.

Science is the application of the scientific method to discovery, and works with empirical evidence and data derived from an iterative process. It’s similar to the experimental art method. So I can more easily understand both points of view and resolve their differences. It has helped me to collaborate with scientists as I understand much of the work they are doing, and can also see how my work relates to theirs.

I find I am able to transfer ideas and processes from other fields more easily as a result. Now that you mention it, one of my scientist friends said to me some years ago that I have a scientific mind. I was surprised, because I thought of myself as an artist. He said it is because I naturally run tests to gather data, and use that to make my own decisions, rather than simply believing what someone else says. I wasn’t really aware that I was doing that.

DM: Over the years you have worked with an astounding number of creative people in the fields art and science. Is there any one person who has influenced on your art?

VS: My greatest inspiration in my adult life was the late Mr. John Hench, of Disney. I worked with him for 10 years at USC, and I felt a great and deep professional friendship. He always said that people are naturally attracted to things that affirm life. He was one of the first six animators at Disney, and was the official portrait artist of Mickey Mouse until his death at age 95. He was behind the development of the theme parks, Imagineering, and worked in all aspects of production at Disney. He said, “There is no conflict between fine art and entertainment. Entertainment is the way to bring fine art to the masses.” He was amazing—his idea was to have fine artists in residence at Disney to produce experimental films, as a way of developing the language and techniques of cinema.

He brought Salvador Dali to Disney to make Destino, and taught him to draw and paint in stereoscopic 3D. His mind never failed, and his memory was absolutely incredible. He was curious, highly intelligent, a Renaissance Man, who could do anything: draw, paint, design buildings, work out engineering problems. John read Art Forum, Engineering magazines, all the time. He said that he borrowed more books from the Disney library than anyone else. And he did this right up to the end. He worked with computers, and was very generous with his knowledge. I loved talking with him, and he was always interested in my work and that of my students, even when the work was different from mainstream industry. He appreciated it and always made thoughtful, humorous comments and suggestions.

With interactive projects, he always made suggestions about books to read and commented on ways to use contemporary technology. John was a real intellectual, who wanted to know what was going on in the world, and what people were thinking about. I remember one day when I visited him, he showed me a small wooden box that he was gently holding in his hands like a small animal just born. He opened the box and there was a small green leaf inside. With a sparkle in his eyes, he said that this particular leaf grows roots directly from it, and does not need a seed. Completely enchanted by it, he talked about the strong impulse to live across species, and how important it is for us as human beings to affirm life in all we do, how we are part of nature. I felt I had found a kind of spiritual and professional guide in him. I loved his stories, and learning from him. His wisdom and 95 years of life experience were and endless source of joy for me. I really miss him.

DM: He sounds like an amazing man. Is there anyone else that you think of as your creative muse?

VS: Because I work collaboratively, I am usually thinking about the people with whom I work, and how they will respond to what I create. For years I worked together with Miller Puckette and Rand Steiger, a computer musician and composer, respectively, and both professors in the Music Department at UC San Diego. We share sensibilities and ways of thinking and working that I still find very inspiring. We continue to communicate and work together, but as we are unfortunately far apart now, and living in different states, it’s a bit more difficult than before.

I find travel and working with people across cultures extremely stimulating and exciting. In the past few years, I have been traveling to Brazil and also China, which has been a tremendous experience for me. The people I have been so fortunate to meet, are such beautiful human beings, so intelligent, kind and generous. I am inspired by them, by their sensitivities and openness.

One person in particular, Heitor Capuzzo, inspires me to see the world in new ways. I thought he was in his 80s when he first emailed me about six years ago, asking me questions like, “What is beyond your understanding?” I wondered, who could ask such questions? It has to be someone with a lot of life experience. He is actually quite young and yet very wise.

DM: What has been your most memorable artistic experience?

VS: Perhaps the most memorable experience was in 1996, when I was in Copenhagen for the Mindship Conference directed by Tor Norretranders, a well-known science writer who was making what I consider to be the best international art-science think-tank I have ever seen or known about. I was so happy to be a part of it. I remember that after his introduction on the first day, I had a strong feeling that I was there for some other reason. I felt that I was part of some larger creative force that had put me in a kind of ‘state of grace’ so to speak; where everything had fallen into place. That it was just a matter of doing my part to put them together—as fast as possible.

It was as though the work ‘wanted to be born,' and I needed to keep up with that force, to help it come into being. The piece was called, Mindshipmind, and I made it together with composer Karlheinz Essl, who was also there then. No matter what I did, it made sense and fit. It was only frustrating that I had to sleep! This kind of urgency is recognizable to me. I feel it periodically and know it as a sign that I am in the right place.

I felt it again when I was in Bali in 2000 for a week, and had some amazing experiences that I recorded then for use in Sanctuary. It happened again when I went to Brazil the first time, too. I am not sure if this would be considered a muse, but it is as though I am connected to something larger than myself. It’s a matter of being sensitive to this ‘thing’ that is difficult to define, and then doing my part. It’s important not to have an ego, it has to be for someone or something else. Then the universe opens.

DM: Thank you for graciously taking time out of your busy pre-conference schedule. One last question … what words of encouragement would you like to pass along to up and coming CG artists?

VS: Artists in CG—believe in yourself and remember that you can make the world a better place, not just for yourself, but for all living things on the earth. Remember that you are part of a complex ecosystem— including your computers and images. So try to use your intelligence and talents to help the planet. It is fragile and needs you!

You can try to find educational programs and jobs that combine your CG skills with local and international environmental and social programs. You can even invent a job for yourself and start some green company or research group. You might make less money at the beginning, but I think it will grow quickly and soon become the most important work anyone is doing anywhere.

So, first do what you love, because you will be good at that, and then think about how to use this to help others. Don’t just take the shortcuts. Try to think ahead and anticipate changes. If you concentrate now on these things you will be ahead, and people will look to you as a leader. I think you will have a longer and happier life if you do. And I will be even more proud of you and our field.

We invite you to visit:

SIGGRAPH 2007
Art Gallery Information
Vibeke Sorensen Personal Web Site


Get to know industry leaders and professionals
as they sit down and talk candidly with
Contributing Columnist, Dee-Marie.

July 30, 2007

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Member Opinions:
By: nemirc on 7/31/07
Very nice interview. It's a shame I will miss this year's gallery. Last year's one was cool (but I liked the 2004 one better, hehe).
Nice mention on the Guerilla Studio too. That place is always full of outstanding stuff.

By: Valerie-Ducom on 8/1/07
Very interesting informations and news in this interview :)

By: fabriced on 8/26/07
excellent information, i m happy, thank you :)


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