Otherwise, it can be a strange or even shocking experience.
Those who visited his shows before - in Europe, Australia, Middle East, South America, New York, Chicago or, a year and a half ago, in Lexington, Kentucky - would know that with this artist the traditional idea of what a visit to an art gallery should be just does not work.
Instead of walking around the room, stopping for a few minutes in front of each piece for a quiet contemplation, you find yourself doing things that you would never expect to do. You may suddenly be talking to people on another continent, trying to overcome a language barrier. You may be exploring some peculiar space in a different city through the eyes of a robot, with which you navigate in a remote space through the Internet, coordinating your efforts with a total stranger who may be anywhere in the world. Or, you may be listening to a conversation bet a plant.
Similar mysterious experiences and transformations await the audience of the artist's new electronic installation which is currently on display at Nexus Contemporary Art Center in Atlanta as part of a group exhibit titled "Out of Bounds: New Work by Eight Southeast Artists." The group exhibit, which includes works by contemporary artists who live in the Southeast, is part of a cultural program at the Olympics. "Out of Bounds", curated by Julia Fenton and Annette Carlozzi, was conceived to show the multitude of visitors to the Olympics in Atlanta the complexity, diversity, and sophistication of culture in this part of the United States.
Kac, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Art at the University of Kentucky, called his new work Rara Avis. According to the artist, it is certainly one of the most complex works by him so far in the genre of electronic installations and telecommunication events - a medium which brought him international recognition. Figure 1 is a diagram of the piece.
Even before entering the room where the installation is placed, the viewer hears the singing of birds. Once inside, he realizes that these sounds were not a recording: part of the room is occupied by a large aviary. Behind the hardware cloth wall finches are busily flying around. In the background, a big colorful bird - apparently a macaw - is sitting immobile on a branch, only occasionally looking around and speaking. This is rara avis, the central character of the piece.
Observing the scene with this colorful bird, which is unable to fly, surrounded by ordinary little grey birds flying around but not going any further than the limits of the aviary, the viewer may already see in it a metaphor. However, this is only the setting, and the entire experience of the work is still ahead. It begins when the viewer finds a virtual reality headset sitting on the pedestal in front of the aviary, puts it on and realizes that he is now on the other side of the chicken wire wall. The little birds are now flitting in front of his nose. He looks around and sees the interior of the cage with the plants and feeders. Behind the aviary he sees people - other visitors, and eventually he even spots himself wearing the headset. Now he is inside the macaw, and sees everything through its eyes. The big macaw is not a live bird, but a skillfully made telerobot with miniature video cameras inside its eyes. In order to make the macaw's vision system match human stereoscopic vision, the artist placed the eyes of the telerobot on the front, and not the sides, of the head. This made the new bird evoke an owl, prompting the artist to call it a "macowl." The docile macaw became a predator.
Now we are at a different level of perception of the artist's work, and it introduces us to different metaphors. Who are you at the moment when you see yourself through the eyes of the bird inside the cage? Are you inside the cage or outside? Who is free and who is a prisoner? What does it feel like to be seen by others as an "exotic" creature?
There would be enough questions to ask and enough metaphors to create if the piece stopped here. But it does not. There are still more layers of perception, and the work gets more and more intriguing as we go along.
It turns out that what the person wearing the headset experiences in the gallery in Atlanta is available to everybody on the Internet. Which means that hundreds of thousands of people from around the world can "share the body" of the "rare" bird sitting in the aviary in Atlanta. They cannot only observe but participate. With their computers they can see what the telerobot sees and if they speak through their microphone their multiple voices become the voice of the macaw. So, every time the macaw is heard in the gallery, everybody knows that someone is online talking. It may be an Internet user in Chicago or Sidney, Moscow or Johannesburg. People who live on different continents, speak different languages, and never see each other, will meet in cyberspace through the rara avis, the little telerobot in the gallery in Atlanta.
Works by Kac are not a picture of a real or ideal situation or experience. His work is an attempt to create alternatives to commonplace perceptions of the world. The artist merges our immediate perception of what is present with an awareness of what is remotely affecting us. In a way, he is expanding, technically and aesthetically, the very horizons of art making. Figure 2 shows the topology of the piece.
Kac has been working with computers, video, telecommunications, holography, telepresence and the Internet for more than ten years. He said he could not confine himself to only one medium.
"I need the freedom to deal with different issues in different ways. My works are not media-based, they are issues-based," said Kac. "Every issue will call for its own development, and the media employed will be a consequence of the issues that are being raised in the work."
The artist said that it would be a big mistake to conclude that his art is about technology. "It is mostly about people and communication between them," said Kac. This does not mean that the artist underemphasizes the importance of technology in our lives.
"To a certain degree, technology is more than just a tool," he said. "It has profound impact on people. Electronic art can help us perceive a new and expanded realm of human potential. At the same time, not everybody has access to the newest technologies. So society becomes more and more polarized. The aspect of the impact of technology on people which is often overlooked is that in fact technology preserves social discrepancies."
On the Internet, people with different access to it will experience Rara Avis differently, with more or less color, resolution, and speed. This is a situation the artist creates intentionally, to draw our attention to the non-egalitarian nature of technological development.
Those who have access to the MBone, or Multicast Backbone, the network within the network which combines the most advanced workstations with large bandwidth and the best software, will receive live, full-color, high-resolution, high-frame rate cybercasts.
Those who can't use this "elite" network but have access to the more "democratic" World Wide Web, won't get the same live transmission seen on the Net or the MBone. Instead, they will see images from the live video captured and uploaded to the Rara Avis Web site every ten seconds. What viewers and participants see on their screens will be very different and will depend on what kind of software they will be using.
"This suggests that the mediascape - the highly technological environment in which we live - modulates and defines our perception of reality," said the artist. "In a word, the event taking place in Atlanta will be perceived differently by viewers and participants, depending on the kind of access they have. Which makes you realize that reality is never the same for everybody."
Working in all multimedia dimensions of the cybersphere - the Net, the Web, and the
MBone - with interactive conferences and cybercasts,
the artist creates a new omnipresent virtual environment. This new environment also encompasses telerobots,
animals, local and remote physical human action, defining a network ecology that promotes new relationships and offers a glimpse into future forms of art.
Zoya Tereshkova is a writer and photographer. She writes frequently about the visual arts and cultural issues.
Rara Avis, interactive networked telepresence installation by Eduardo Kac, runs through August 24, 1996 at Nexus Contemporary Art Center in Atlanta as part of a group exhibit titled "Out of the Bounds: New Work by Eight Southeast Artists." On the Web, go to http://www.uky.edu/FineArts/Art/kac/raraavis.html. To participate in the interactive component of the show, connect to the "Rara Avis Reflector" with CU-SeeMe (IP address is 22.214.171.124). On the MBone, log on to the Rara Avis session.
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