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What Matters

Steve Dietz, November 1998
I was not fortunate enough to experience the installation of Bowling Alley in the flesh, so to speak. As I attempt to reconstruct a picture from the Walker's archives, what strikes me immediately is the exalted tone and focus around some of the project's technological components versus what I take to be its driving goals.

In part this is because what seems--and often is--relatively simple now, such as installing an ISDN connection, was notoriously difficult in early 1995.(1) But there is also a danger in the insistent identification of the project as "cutting edge," "cyber," "high tech." William Ivey, the new chair of the NEA, likes to warn that if the case for the arts is made too exclusively on the merits of their efficacy, whether in terms of raising test scores for youngsters listening to classical music or the tourism dollars brought in by cultural institutions, what happens when something else comes along that is even better at doing these jobs? If the case for "new media" is based too exclusively on its cutting edge-ness, it may be important, in the future for constructing a historical timeline, but will it continue to matter?

Bowling Alley matters because it attempted to raise issues that still matter to us and probably will even more so in the future. A short list of these matters would include:

The issue isn't whether Bowling Alley answered any of these questions, but I would argue that by raising them, it was raising the right questions--or at least good ones--and happened to do so with a high technology quotient.

The Facts

Excerpted from the project brochure
The installation itself spans three sites--a gallery in the Walker Art Center, a bowling alley located several miles from the museum, and (via the World Wide Web) the global cyberspace. Through the magic of cutting-edge communications technology and the simple, physical act of bowling, the spaces, both physical and virtual, become linked in an ongoing high-tech version of Cheang's "intertwined narrative."

Inside Gallery 7, a bowling ball travels back and forth on a fifty-foot lane constructed of stainless steel. At its end, instead of bowling pins, a video monitor is stationed. A wide-angle surveillance camera rigged onto the pinsetter of Lane 5 at Bryant-Lake Bowl transmits (via digital, ISDN telephone lines and the experimental VISTA video-phone system) live images of striking balls or falling pins as actual games are played.

At the same time, a laser-disc player in the gallery projects fifteen-by-twenty-foot images onto a wall behind the oversized alley. The images include video portraits of the ten participating artists, each poised on the brink of rolling a ball, and the ten digital Quicktime-movie vignettes she created with them. Another player projects running text onto the images--words Cheang culled from the local artists' e-mail correspondence, here jumbled and presented out of context, creating a clash between word and image. Again, the physical action of actual bowlers control the gallery display. Sensors mounted along the lane at Bryant-Lake track the motions of the bowling balls and transmit signals, via modem, back to a computer at the museum that governs the playback of the visual projections. Depending on the speed of the ball and which of the sensors are tripped by its path down the lane, corresponding changes in the rate and manner of projection are triggered: the movies are slowed, accelerated, or "scrambled" (shuttled forward or backward). A strike at the alley initiates a change to the video portrait of the next artist, ready to "bowl." Additional sensors in the gallery link the movement of visitors to the artists' texts that are superimposed across the images.

A vintage scoring table outfitted with a Macintosh PowerBook completes the gallery component of the installation. Here, one can play a game of virtual bowling that incorporates the same "demolition" concept at play in the other parts of the installation. To "bowl" online, a user activates hypertext displays whose highlighted words have been precoded as hidden "strike" or "spare" commands. A "strike" randomly selects an excerpt from one of the artist's e-mailed texts, while a "spare" causes the words to tumble down, like falling bowling pins, as they mix with the words of the other nine artists or with those typed in by gallery visitors and outside online users. A real strike or spare at Bryant-Lake Bowl triggers the corresponding command online.

The Future Archive

We are very pleased to be able to bring back online documentation of the Bowling Alley commission, including its Web site, for the Walker's Digital Arts Study Collection. We will be making available more of the archives online as part of the Walker's participation in the the Conceptual and Intermedia (and Online) Art Online (CIAO) project in the coming months.

1. In fact, the Walker's current ISP, gofast.net, which also helped tremendously with the Bowling Alley installation, was formed specifically because of the inability to get ISDN Internet connections around this time.

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