Satori in Queens

A group of ecstatic second-graders from P.S.205 were chasing red spotlights that darted across the floor, until, in a flash, they realized that the lights were actually chasing them. The red spots--called "flocking" lights--use infrared sensors to track light and activity, and once they find a subject, they swarm. It can be strange to be hunted by light, but here at the "LightForms" art exhibition in the cavernous Great Hall of the New York Hall of Science in Flushing Meadows, brightness itself takes shape and turns watchful, alive.

Light, rather than ink or oils, is both palette and paintbrush in the international competition, organized by local group Art and Science Collaboration Inc. in conjunction with the museum, and sponsored by the lighting company USHIO and the MIT Press journal Leonardo, among others. Proposals were required to meet three criteria: monumental scale, site-specific design, and, most critically, interactivity. The three winning entries--the fiber-optic installation Satori, the liquid column of Dark Matter, and the biofeedback experiment Lost Referential--are all electronically sophisticated, but viewers themselves are the engines for the art.

Except that there's not a mouse or monitor in sight, subverting the traditional setup for interactive art. Of the winners, the most haunting by far is Satori. Viewers approach a glowing, suspended cocoon that emits slight pounding noises (which are supposed to sound like insects eating their way out, but fall a little short). Once spectators get within touching distance of the cocoon, where sensors can register body heat, a butterfly, etched in luminescent fiber-optic cable, erupts from the darkness 40 feet above them. It glows for an instant, rushing through the color spectrum, and then vanishes. Dirk Rutten, a Dutch industrial light designer who cocreated Satori, says, "The reason I work with light is that I can create a sculpture and take it away immediately." Wary of turning his installation into a "circus," Rutten erected fences around the cocoon to keep people from interacting too intimately with the exhibit. "On opening night, one of the kids was hanging from the cocoon like Tarzan on ropes," he adds.

You can't touch the 40-foot whirlwind coil of Dark Matter either, but judging from the Plexiglas shield and vicious whipping noises, you wouldn't want to. Londoner Paul Friedlander creates an oscillating column of light by illuminating a spinning rope from above with a "chromastrobe" spotlight (donated by Pink Floyd) and a huge Fresnel lens to focus the light, using a turning wheel on the ground to send the cord into tight gyrations. Visitors who stand inside a small sensor field can adjust the speed of the wheel and therefore alter the "solidity" of the rope. It's no surprise that the schoolkids are drawn to this exhibit like flies--Friedlander was inspired to create the work by the ghost shapes produced by a swinging jump rope.

In Lost Referential, viewers insert a finger into an ECG sensor, which cues a ring of lights along the perimeter of the room to shine according to the heartbeat. But these weak lamps are no competition for Dark Matter, or the flocking lights that compose another part of Lost Referential. Judging from the schematics, this exhibit seems intended in part to be viewed impossibly from above, turning the curved walls of the hall into the membrane of a gigantic cell. Unfortunately, the lighting grid, some hundred feet up, is not part of the exhibition.

The real challenge here for the artists is that the rest of the enormous hall, with its fluid-looking walls and cobalt glass tiles to admit minimal amounts of sunlight, is almost as eye-catching as the art itself. Created for the 1964 World's Fair, the hall was intended as a shadowy cathedral in honor of space-age technology. But what better than vaulting darkness to act as a framing device for an exhibition of things that shine?

And if the Fresh Meadows exhibition seems in exile from the gallery walls of Soho, it's a welcome change. The projects share more with the hands-on experiments in the hall's science museum than with the static neon-tube installations of artists like Dan Flavin. For competition judge Donald Holder, who designed the lights for the Broadway show The Lion King, the exhibition pushes the overlooked power of illumination to the forefront. "In the theater, light functions subliminally, but here light is the principle of the art," he says. "It's great that it's being recognized."

Film 2.0

The Net should be a godsend for filmmakers--distribution costs are close to nil and the potential audience is enormous. But the charm of watching a thumbnail-sized animation take 10 minutes to download, flicker, and crash your machine wears off faster than the allure of www.mrbeanthemovie.com. Instead, a group of experimental filmmakers is gaining recognition by pushing online filmmaking away from the glossy, Hollywood model toward grittier interactive environments that are intended only to be shown over the Net.

A public panel this Wednesday at the Avignon Film Festival, titled "New Media and Cinema," gathers together four of the strongest digital filmmakers to discuss the state of an art in medias res. One of the local standouts, Zoe Beloff, will show pieces of her project Beyond, comprising one-minute atmospheric penny arcade-- like shorts woven together. According to Beloff, the biggest obstacle for digital filmmakers is speaking in the same "language" as conventional cineastes. "I think of film as being in the passenger seat of a car and the driver keeps pointing out the views," says Beloff. But with online films, "It's like me inviting you into my house and saying, 'Look around, go explore and enjoy the neighborhood.'" She's now working with the Wooster Group on an eerie companion piece to the theater company's Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights (thewoostergroup.org/lights).

In testament to the rising quality of work, the second annual Digital Film Festival (dfilm.com), a spin-off from the now defunct Low Res Film Festival, will unveil its first online film competition on June 1 (submissions are currently being accepted at the site). Organizer Bart Cheever believes that the artists--and the technology--have finally developed enough for the format to be taken seriously. "In desktop publishing, first you had people trying to make traditional magazines on their computers, and then you had David Carson and Kyle Cooper," he says. "With MIDI, first you had people making conventional music and then you had drum and bass. It's an open petri dish right now."

Signal and Noise

Evidence: Michael Moore is a master at making people make idiots of themselves. His Web site (dogeatdogfilms.com) offered fresh outtakes last week from The Big One, specifically an interview with Nike CEO Phil Knight about the high incidence of carpal tunnel syndrome claims by workers in the Nike factories. Knight dismisses the claims, saying, "I mean basically it's like whiplash of the wrist."

Who Knew Gumby Even Had One? Invoking the "spirit of Gumby," Art Clokey, president of Prema Toy company and creator of Pokey and Gumby, officially withdrew his company's trademark infringement complaint against 12-year-old Chris Van Allen, webmaster of pokey.org. Allen recounts on his site that, in a phone conversation with Clokey, "He said I did what Gumby would have done about a problem like this."

From R&D to A&R: On May 1, total-solution-providing Web-design-house-of-style Razorfish will release its first recording project, Polydemic (studios.razorfish.com/polydemic), by Brooklyn instrumentalist Ticklah. With such high ambitions, I'm sure we can expect their own clothing line soon.
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