Conversations with Angels, When Artists Use VRML

Dateline: 2/16/98

Andy Best and Merja Puustinen are a couple of art types living in Finland, designing some impressive Web sites for traditional uses such as a site that documents the public sculptures of Helsinki. They have also produced a VRML walkthrough of the Kluuvi Galleria at the Helsinki City Art Museum. The artwork we're examining is called  Conversations with Angels and it can be quite interesting. Where else can you have a discussion with a six armed, nine breasted lesbian queen!

The intriguing aspect of the art is the interactive nature. You "talk" to various characters and while there responses are somewhat predictable, like the old Eliza program, it's fun and gets one involved with the art. This is art that draws the observer in as a participant not merely a casual observer.

According to the description from of the project at the Banff Centre of the Arts (a co-sponsor):

The piece, artists like to call their work pieces :-) is being installed at KIASMA, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki,  in Finland. The following artist statement accompanies the installation. I have added the illustrations taken from the piece and  shortened the overall statement.

Merja and AndyArtist statement: Merja Puustinen & Andy Best
Conversation with Angels

"Conversations with Angels" -what is it all about?
"Conversations with Angels" is a multimedia art work in the Internet  employing 3D computer graphics (VRML 97).  Like traditional multimedia it combines visual environments, animation, video, sound effects and text. In addition, the multi-user capability accessible via the Internet creates a whole new status of existence -an art work as a social process, allowing the construction of an online community within the artwork.

"Conversation with Angels" is primarily a platform for communication.  Our multimedia art project  is carried out as a social process and provocator. Besides being entertaining, it should  also encourage the viewer to explore, investigate, test and question preconceptions about the nature of the Internet and virtual spaces.

 baronThe viewer has to navigate him/herself into the plane in order to  find the bot characters and other spaces in the world. The plane interior works like a hub from which other spaces can be accessed. These include a house interior, where Carl the serial killer and his bored wife Helen
live, a  garden where Anne, a lesbian princess, grows potatoes, a fish bowl inhabited by Bob the redneck, an island with kids that are all fanatical political activists, etc. [The yard is a hub area where you can enter the various individual spaces. Yard

The project is under construction, so many interactive elements and  parts of the architecture are not completed. We are working full time at the Banff Centre to complete the world and the demanding programming needed for interaction, shared behaviours, etc. The whole project will be completed by May 1998.

Technical Realisation
Our web art project combines several essential elements of the Internet: in "Conversations with Angels" project a multi-user space is built which is used as a discussion and meeting platform for the audience (viewers, participants) and also for artists who might inhabit the space. In the worlds of our  web project the viewer can meet other visitors by using an 'avatar'. An avatar is a 3D representation in a virtual space of  the viewer her/himself. The viewer can choose her/his own avatar. A variety of movements can be programmed for the avatar (ie. dance, walk), all controllable by the viewer. During the exhibitions Best and Puustinen will use their own avatars to have a live presence in the  virtual spaces, and so be able to discuss and interact with visitors.

DennisIn "Conversation with Angels" worlds there will be visual embodiments for various characters and environments built using VRML. By clicking with the mouse on the characters, a java applet switches on a chat window, through which the viewer is able have a conversation with this particular character. The visual symbolism of the characters very often counteracts the content provided by the discussion programmes (for example an ordinary looking man who turns out to be a serial killer).

With "Conversations with Angels" multimedia project we intend to create a virtual space in the Net, which is not constant, but rearrangeble and with free possibilities for interaction  within certain parameters. It is not possible to destroy the worlds, but one is able to navigate in 3D space, discuss
with other people and discussion programmes, move objects, turn on and off sound effects, animations and video clips by clicking with mouse, and also by moving in the space and by using certain key words within chat programmes. When the viewer 'talks to' a chat programme and types in, for example, "I hate you", this will trigger a sound effect in the virtual world.

Target Audience
"Conversation with Angels" is designed for international distribution mainly via Internet. At present VRML 97 browsers work for PCs, SGI, and SUN work stations, and for Mac. "Conversation with Angels" can be used by anyone with access to the equipment needed (ie. a fast pc, Internet connection, and plug-ins for Netscape or a stand-alone browser software). On the basis of the feed-back from previous web projects, our audience is very international, mainly young people, students etc.

The design of our web project is deliberately aimed not only at the cultivated art audience but to a larger user group, those literate of popular culture codes and meanings (the MTV generation), which is, at least to a certain extent, familiar with the aesthetics of the Internet and the rhetorics  of IRC chat channels. "Conversation with Angels"- multimedia art project will also be distributed as an
installation in museums, galleries and festivals, to be accessible within the traditional art context.
The original name for the "Conversation with Angels" web project, "Garden of Id", refered to the phsychoanalytical theory deriven concept of 'ID', or the subconscious, according to Freudian interpretation the most suppressed part of subjectivity. "Conversation with Angels" continues to investigate the same metaphorical themes. The fascination of virtual spaces is that they are without limits: the programmer is the master of her/his world. But is it possible to control  the social process in a virtual environment?

Apart from investigating virtual (VRML) spaces, the main theme of our project is to examine how identities are built in the communicative space of virtual worlds. The user of a virtual world is generally understood to be free to define her/his own gender, sexual orientation, skin colour etc. With
"Conversations with Angels" we will investigate the extent of  'liberation' and possibly set some question marks. We are deliberately trying to dilute the barriers between physical and virtual realities: the user of the space cannot be quite sure if she/he is having a conversation with a robot chat programme or with a 'real' person. The scripts for the replies in the chat programmes are based on interviews done with real people, and also on urban and ethnic legends, and from research in books, newspapers, tv, etc. Using true and often painful real-life stories and combining symbolic meanings from various cultures we will create a multi-lateral and multi-dimensional environment, where references cannot be reduced back to the most evident interpretation. We intend to imply that even though the Internet and virtual reality are not autonomous virgin entities separate from the 'real'  world and in a non-political vacuum, the possibilities for artistic creativity can be far-reaching.

In "Conversations with Angels" multimedia art project  the so called 'characters' represent identities and characters that by their visual appearance seem to be gathered from a mixture of humanoid forms, other objects, machines and organic matter. The space surrounding the characters stimulates  activities, reacting to users movements and activities by sound and animation effects. The nature of the environments, the fragmented design of the characters and politically provoking chat programmes emphasise the dialectic relationship of content and style referring to popular and media culture.
KidsTherefore our intention is to create in the Internet a communicative space equivalent to the logic of MUD games, where art is enabled as a social process rather than a formally static solution dictated by the artist. With "Conversations with Angels" we try to enable intellectually challenging interaction
both between the virtual space and the users and between users themselves. The art work demands that the audience actively responds and has a willingness to communicate in order that they fully experience the artwork. Up until now, so called interactive art works have been no more than
ready set multiple choice mechanical tasks for the audience. With this project we offer the viewer/visitor true freedom to explore, interact, and actually leave their own mark in the artwork.

In "Conversation with Angels" web art project traditional multimedia elements are used: text, animation, video, sound effects etc. Text is being used in many different ways: a) written instructions which help people to navigate in virtual space. b) some special objects in 3D worlds built of  words and text-imagemaps. c) chat- discussion windows, through which users can talk to other people or to robot discussion programmes.

It is possible to use video in VRML worlds (MPEG), yet clips have to be extremely short and rather based on repetition rather than linear narration due to bandwidth restrictions. Most of the elements in the worlds are animated which means that clicking these elements will start a 3D animation and/or a sound effect. The sound effects are spatially integrated into the architecture of the worlds: the closer the user is to the source of the effect, the clearer the sound and vice versa. The use of sound is similar to video, based on repetition and effect quality, like background noise, because sound takes lots of band width. Some sound elements will be once only events, triggered by the user. In VRML spaces it is possible to use audio based chat- channels in some browsers, which makes it possible for the users to communicate by means of live, realtime sound. It is not possible to use this for robot discussion programmes, as speech recognition is not developed enough yet to be of much use in this application.

In "Conversations with Angels"- multimedia art project we deliberately employ an aesthetical style familiar from popular imagery and  computer games, into which certain elements from ethnic and Princess Anne
culturally coded symbols are mixed (for example Princess Anne and Super Activo characters). Our intention is not only to take critical distance from the heritage of scandinavian design, but also to offer possibilities of interpretation written into our cultural code. These potential codes for interpretation are though not categorically diminished to Disney cartoon levels, we rather aim at multi-dimensional and striking juxtaposition, creating a conversational tone between content and aesthetics. The aesthetical style of our project could be defined as postmodern strategy combining fragmented metaphores and elements, while using humour and irony we intend to analyse the status of sexual and cultural minorities in the mainstream.

Colours used in the worlds vary according to the particular character and environment. They are Super Activocomplemented by using texture image maps which can represent realistic or imaginary materials (wood, steel, stone, alien skin, etc). These can also be scripted to dynamically change according to users interaction. The sound effects create the atmosphere of the space and an architectural sensation of depth. The sounds function parallel to the discussion programmes, as we are using lots of 'human' sounds like whispers and natural sound elements that refer to organic and subconscious reality. All the worlds together create a unified and solid entirety from the relationship between the virtual architecture, the characters inhabiting the spaces, the sounds, and content and themes portrayed.

Production team
"Conversations with Angels" is produced by Meet Factory Ltd  (media artists Merja Puustinen and Andy Best) and producer Outi Rousu from Kroma Productions Ltd. Artistic design, manuscript and realization is carried out by Merja Puustinen and Andy Best. Co-production partners are the Banff  Centre for the Arts (Alberta, Canada) and the Contemporary Art Museum (Media Arts curator Perttu Rastas / Kiasma), Helsinki, Finland. The Executive producer in Banff is Sara Diamond (director, Media and Visual Arts), with programming assistance from Don Smith, Scott Wilson, Craig McPherson. Richard Munn (London) provides additional programming assistance.

Well it's off to VRML98 this week...stay tuned for conference news.

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