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Interview with Marek Walczak and Remo Campopiano

Steve Dietz, 1998
Steve Dietz: Remo and Marek, tell me what interests each of you the most about the VRML Minneapolis Sculpture Garden project.

Marek Walczak: The nature of navigable interfaces, where you attempt to link your physical mobility with ideas or thoughts. It's been hard to think of an instance where that can be satisfying. Landscape gardens (Stowe in England for example), were configured between a walk (after dinner) and theoretical structures puncturing the landscape. So a Greek structure would want to spur conversation about platonism, a gothic one... and so on. Instancing the sculpture garden in VRML, a 3D navigable interface, although more like waving your hand than walking, still it was a perfect opportunity to explore that. This led to the idea of "tours," where a particular theme is developed as you walk through the garden. But also, unlike physical structures, you can bring up the theoretical, or factual accounts as you click on or pass by--so the spur to thought is explicit.

Remo Campopiano: Specifically what interests me about this project and VRML worlds is that we are in something where our movements affect what we see. Unlike flat Web pages, in the VRML garden you have a sense of place, you know where you are.

You can explore the grounds in a similar manner as the real-world garden, but with added functionality because you are not limited by Euclidean concepts of space. To explore a related art concept you can instantly jump to another location, or to related information about Oldenburg from the Guggenheim Web site. And all the time retaining that sense of place--you are "in" the virtual Walker.

SD: Certainly the idea of being "in" a certain place is a kind of rallying cry for immersive environments. Truthfully, however, I think I only experienced this viscerally in a CAVE at the Electronic Visualization Lab. The VRML 2.0 spec was only ratified as an international standard recently, but I wonder if you nevertheless see the technology as transitional? I know everything is transitional, but is it more like a chip, which doubles in capacity every 18 months and almost requires you to buy this years fins, so to speak, or like CD-ROM, which once you get a 4x drive, it works more or less ok and is still waiting to be replaced by DVD after a run of 5 or more years?

MW: Well the biggest new development is the graphic cards, so you have an instance where hardware and software have only merged in the last 6 months or so (the difference between seeing the site on a new PC or one a year old is like the difference between wading in jello and running down a hill). There have been many attempts to best vrml on a PC in the last two years, but none have really succeeded--just last month Microsoft announced that it has indefinitely delayed Chrome. However the real breakthroughs are coming in the gaming industry. Now that is interesting, as already there is a generation brought up on a kind of 3D interface that keeps developing. There dozens of sites for gamers now, and its interesting to see how much the hardware/software companies are responding to what goes on there. So you have a culture under development.

RC: Yes, and my first truly immersive experience was dating in an online metaworld, but it is this suspension of disbelief we are striving for--when you forget where you are and become consumed by the content.

There's not much doubt the VRML specs are transitional. VRML worlds will not become ubiquitous until they are multi-user environments with avatars communicating via voice. Unfortunately, the current specs do not support avatars, and it may take a whole new protocol, design with this in mind, to make this possible.

SD: Maybe my real question is whether a museum like the Walker is mistaken for taking such a nascent technology seriously or do you think it is capable enough to be interesting to more than the converted?

MW: I guess my point is that its not just a technology, but a whole way of seeing, and it is growing. Aren't museums are better off taking it seriously?

RC: I see the project we're doing as terraforming. We've established a beachhead--a place for artists to stand, look around and re-form areas to their own vision. We've explored a few of the many possibilities in an attempt to inspire further exploration.

It's true that VRML is not infecting the Internet with the same fervor as HTML, which is causing people to question its relevance. But VRML is much different. It is founded on the visual not the word, which is precisely why artists should be its first colonists. Business doesn't know what to do with it, artists will.

It's also true that 3D Web technology is developing far too slowly, and the abandonment of the Cosmo division of SGI has to make you question the future of VRML. But the Internet needs a 3D interface. And if it is not VRML, it will be something very similar--probably developed by Microsoft.

This frustration with slow development of 3D Web technology has influenced my next artwork for the Attleboro Museum entitled A Rupture in Cyberspace. It is a traditional art installation (meaning no cutting-edge technology) dealing with the space between the real and virtual world--what does it look like when these worlds collide?

SD: I too believe that it is artists who will help point us to new uses of the Net, including VRML and/or 3D interfaces, but there is also the issue of programming. Can you talk a bit about how you work with each other and others to bring the necessary skills to a project? In other words, what about the artists who are not programmers?

MW: I experience art-making as a process that involves a bunch of different people, each of whom contribute their particular skills. In my architectural work I am in constant collaboration with engineers and fabricators. You build up a way of doing things, where the working method has an implicit conceptual basis that is explored and developed over time. I started work on a computer 4 years ago and took to it immediately--the programming is really easy for vrml and working with programmers is a blast. Mostly, programmers find this type of work enjoyable, which helps. I'm amazed how few people are doing this--perhaps the problem is more to do with the fact that there are few financial incentives. Even painters who go for years holding second jobs dream of being able to support themselves through their art. So its great that the Walker commissioned this work, and let's hope other institutions and companies can come up with a way to provide more support for experimental online work...

RC: Technical art projects like this one necessitate a new breed of artists. A project like this needs vision, organization and technical skills. We, including you Steve, all contribute to the evolution of the vision. I have some of the technical skill, and I've helped form the vision, although my major contribution has been organization. Marek has contributed most to the vision and the technical.

Artists that are not programmers are for the most part not making net.art. It's hard to be a painter without a deep understanding of paint. I know this sounds a bit harsh, but collaborations between a traditional artist and the people that know and understand the networked environment of the Internet have, IMHO, been oddly unsuccessful. The most interesting net.art that I've found comes from people that are immersed in the activity of being online. Their work is about being online in the same way that the early pioneers of photography were making art about the photographic process and exploring a new way of seeing. Net artists are exploring a new way of being. And this will eventually transform how we live, how we communicate and how we look at each other.

Imagine being in a metaworld and speaking with another avatar. ... who are we in that situation? ... how real is the experience? ... are we still completely human or have we somehow merged with the technology and transformed into a new, possibly evolved, entity? These are some of the questions that artists and philosophers are dealing with right now.

First published by Gallery 9/Walker Art Center, 1998.