What’s one difference between artists and scientists? Artists don’t sit still. This is not the question Joe Dumit set out to answer when he proposed bringing a group of dancers, sculptors, writers, and others to explore the virtual reality environment of UC Davis’s Keck CAVES. But, Dumit—whose own research focuses on the anthropology of science, technology, medicine, and media—says the CAVES’ scientists “were continually struck by how much the artists physically moved within the CAVE environment, how much of their bodies were in motion, in contrast to how little they (the scientists) tend to move while doing their research.” The artists, it seems, were used to doing physical work in imagined spaces.
Expressing the Caves, co-designed by Dumit, sculptor Robin Hill and geologist Dawn Sumner, was originally planned as a daylong session for 18 artists and computer scientists to brainstorm new ideas, but thanks to the exigencies of scheduling, it morphed into an ongoing series of visits by individuals or small groups. Whatever was lost in general conversation, was made up for, Dumit says, by the chance to focus on specific projects. The artists, needless to say, loved having more time at the controls.
Data in motion, according to Dumit, was what the artists were most intrigued with, and it’s an experience the CAVES are uniquely positioned to deliver. Initially a collaboration between earth and computer scientists, the CAVE—3 walls and a floor equipped with stereoscopic displays and various tracking devices—has allowed researchers to seemingly fly around, through, and under a Laguna Beach landslide, and examine a 100 year history of California’s seismic activity from a vantage point close to the center of the earth. Informative yes, but also visually stunning. Immersive worlds, wildly intersecting planes, data points colored a pleasingly grassy green: Artists have already recognized the possibilities.
According to UCDavis professor of sculpture Robin Hill, the CAVES are almost a genre unto themselves. “I could not help but think of it as a performance space of sorts, as the authentic image experience takes place there and no where else,” she says. “No forms of documentation do it justice, as one’s perception/understanding is completely dependent on the technology.”
What sort of art is now emerging from the CAVES? Semi-solid might be one description. Dancers doing contact improvisation maintain balance by sharing weight. What happens when the dancers are miles apart and represented by three-dimensional avatars moving at a slight time delay? Using Remote Collaboration techniques pioneered by Oliver Kreylos—one of the architects of the Keck CAVES’ visualization software—and based on hacked game technology (Microsoft Kinects), a group of visiting dancers and CAVE scientists have been exploring the idea of weightless weight and the sensory requirements of silent communication.
Perhaps because it allows data to be viewed from so many angles simultaneously, the CAVE seems to inspire a similar mashup of disciplines and approaches. Hill brought one of the images of snowflakes she’s been exploring with mathematician Janko Gravner to the CAVE where she viewed it as an object that one might fly through. Having seen the inside of the flake, she is now working on translating that image for a 3D printer to render in sculptural form.
For a virtual installation possibly titled Take Me To Your Dream, San Francisco writer/artist Meredith Tromble has compiled “ a vortex” of dream elements from the biographies of computer scientists, geologists, and mathematicians which participants will choose and arrange in virtual environments, “subject,” says Dumit, “to a dream-appropriate degree of chance and surprise.” Once home from Antarctica, Tromble’s collaborator, UC geologist Dawn Sumner will be creating the vortex and programming it to replace text with images.
And what have the scientists come away with? The artists’ propensity for movement created programming challenges, Dumit admits, but also generated new gestures, commands, and playback features. Dumit’s own project—fitting for the organizer of all this collaborative inquiry—is a study of “research presence” among CAVE users. It was inspired, he says by the vocabulary used during the brainstorming sessions. It’s one thing to be comfortable moving in imaginary space; another to find words to describe the where there.
San Pedro, CA