Star Search

Tim Nye, CEO of Silicon Alley company Sunshine Digital, stars in a Microsoft TV spot. A Razorfish "implementation specialist" hawks footwear in a new Rockport Ad. And in an industry built on the bedlam of tiny design companies competing for work, New York now has a handful of dueling digital talent agencies repping select clients and shaving 15 per cent off the top.

If you've been looking west to Menlo Park to preview the next paradigm shift in the Alley, look a little farther south. Hollywood—and its constellation of agencies, celebrities, and studios—has trumped Silicon Valley with a new model for shaping development in the city: a star system.

The surest evidence that the industry is remaking itself in the image of Tinseltown may be the ballooning success of the Alley's answer to CAA, United Digital Artists (uda.com). This week, UDA is showcasing local design auteurs Peter Girardi of Funny Garbage and Gong Szeto of i/o 360 at the Milia Conference, the World's Fair of digital design, in Cannes. Last year, UDA's business of matching corporations (such as American Express and Disney) with boutique firms leapt to over 100 deals from only a handful in 1995. "It's just grown and grown—we've got more business than we can deal with," says UDA head Stewart McBride.

While McBride is shy of pointing to specific deals, his clients are happy to extol UDA's virtues. Unlike a traditional talent agency, UDA doesn't demand exclusive contracts from Alley firms. Instead, the company acts like a "big brother," says Lucien Harriot, head of 3-D animation company Mechanism Digital, which has been a client of UDA's for over a year. "[UDA] talks big and with them, you don't have to worry so much [about negotiations] because you have somebody on your side."

The market is already crowding with courtiers, with the advent of the rival Digital Talent Agency from San Francisco last fall and the growing multimedia divisions of William Morris and CAA. But UDA is the oldest specifically digital agency, with some of the strongest pull. For the Milia Conference, McBride has culled 15 designers from around the world for a blitzkrieg showcase called "Three for All" (each developer gets three minutes)—a roadshow of his cachet.

Many feel the "celebrity" culture in new media is an outgrowth of the diversity of the businesses. Omar Wasow, the head of Web shop New York Online (nyo.com) and a recognized pundit since he was featured in a Samsung ad in 1996, believes that personality and signature style are in large part what Alley companies actually sell. "There's a serious informational problem" about clients finding the right people for their work, Wasow says. "There's such a saturation [of design firms] that you have to be able to distinguish yourself."

But once recognized, those singled out for fame can have trouble shifting the spotlight onto their work. "I don't want to be a Net star," says Jaime Levy, head of Electronic Hollywood (ehollywood.net), who was also pictured in the Samsung series. "I was the Kurt Cobain of the Internet [after] Newsweek ran this big picture of me and a skateboard."

The most apt link between the film industry and New York new media may be the mantra "Nobody knows anything." With the arrival of agents in multimedia, "you get these guys who take a $200,000 project up to $2 million and it just falls through the floor," Levy says."There's a lack of knowledge and the technology is constantly changing." In this landscape, with no role models or even conventions, the industry understandably relies on a narcotic of "stars" and their success. Silicon Alley Reporter editor Jason Calacanis, who recently released a list of the Alley's 100 most powerful players, believes such exposure is necessary. "This is a media industry and people are driving it," he says. "Those who are opposed to [the star system] are just jealous of not being one."


Screen Actors

GH. Hovagimyan's Soa(p Op)era for Laptops is melodrama distilled down to its elemental truth: no lingering stares or gauzy sex scenes, just noisy overacting at its finest. Except that nobody moves. For Thursday's performance at Postmasters Gallery, four Powerbook 5300s—what the artist calls "synthespians"—speak, shout, and scat like Meredith Monk, from perches splayed out on stage.

The show relies on one of the oddest and most underused Apple features, the Macintalk text-to-speech application that makes the computers "speak" text. According to Hovagimyan, the 17 pre-set voices on the Powerbook, such as "Victoria" and "Ralph," create "society in miniature"—"Victoria is a voice that is prim, but she's a bitch, and Ralph is a doofus-y American guy," he says. "There's already a relationship there." By adjusting the tone and pitch on the MIDI sound files, he makes the computers "sing blues riffs, slur, speak in Jamaican patois—things that they're not supposed to do at all."

The performance runs through five dramatic segments, including an a capella rap, a rant at 300 words a minute, computer karaoke, and a "kitchen combat" between husband and wife while washing the dishes (scored to the sound of knives chopping and plates crashing). The blisteringly fast scat, called "Communicatin' Frenzy," is about a "Lolita type" seducing an older man, says Hovagimyan. "It's like a DoubleMint commercial with seagulls and motorcycle sounds."

Commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Marseilles, France, this week's show of Soa(p Op) is just a prelude to a larger, mobile performance. The full-scale version, with the laptops on mobile armatures that interact, will be unveiled in April in France and later in New York. The work was developed through an e-mail file exchange between Hovagimyan and his sound artist, Peter Sinclair, who lives in France.

Though the work might mystify some, Hovagimyan, who started as a "no wave" performance artist in the '70s and now produces and hosts the Art Dirt show on Pseudo.com, enjoys the deliberate confusion. After the Wired anniversary party, where the opera debuted, "people were coming up to me and saying, 'What language is that?' " he says. "I said, 'New York English,' and then they said, 'Oh, now we understand.' "

Thursday at 8, Postmasters Gallery, call 941-5711 for reservations.


Signal and Noise

Muffs 'n' Stuff: For Valentine's Day, Playboy Cyber Club (cyber.playboy.com) will hold an online auction of "memorabilia" from the centerfold photo shoots. The list of dubious hand-me-downs includes "Off-White Faux Fur Winter Boots" worn by Karen McDougal, Miss December 1997 (minimum bid, $150) and "Black Lace Hot Pants" modeled by Miss March 1994, Neriah Davis. '94? Good to know they've hung onto this stuff for over three years...

Cash Flow: City accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand released stats on the still-swelling venture capital investments in the local new media industry. Fifty million VC dollars sluiced into the Alley during fourth quarter last year, up 328 per cent from '96. But it's still just an allowance compared to the total VC investments in the city ($931 million)...

Unplugged: Last week, The New York Times profiled the expansion of the Plug 'n' Go program of cheap, prewired offices in the financial district, but has anybody been down to work in them? Alliance for Downtown New York president Carl Weisbrod praised "the combination of location, price, and simplicity." Let us not forget toxicity. Though 55 Broad might be cushy digs, billowing clouds of smoke and plaster dust forced workers out of the cubicle farm at 11 Broadway, one of the "old school" Plug 'n' Go projects, last week. The bathroom, gutted and out of order, has a hole punched through the tile to the floor below.

E-mail: abunn@villagevoice.com

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