Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Cave, University of Illinois

View from college window ( School of the Art Institute)

“ I am a camera, with the shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”
Christopher Isherwood (A Berlin Diary)

The Cave is the Holy Grail in immersive environments, the place where Virtual Reality was invented in 1991 and the site that inspired Star Trek, and now the mecca for scientists, politicians, and all those who want to see what the future has in store for us.
We visit it today.
Located at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Technology in the University of Illinois, it’s the highlight of our multimedia course. We had been promised a fully immersive stereoscopic environment and at first we are disappointed.

“ I warned you there’s nothing physically to see,” said our tutor as we stepped into the 10ft wide white room with three walls.

“Wait until you put on all the headgear, and electronic gloves,” said the technician helping us on with our equipment. We begin to look like space robots.

Then he turned the machines on and whoopee!...we were into virtual reality.
Within minutes we are whooping it through a virtual gallery full of the world’s most famous paintings.
A pile of virtual paint pots is in a corner of the “gallery”.
“Help yourself!” said one technician encouragingly.
”Add your bit to the gallery.”
He wanted to see what we would do. His premise was right. We set about destroying these oil paintings, icons of Western civilisation. Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa was the first to get the spray can treatment. Soon the Mona Lisa is reduced to a blob.
Eat your heart out Duchamp. Picasso’s Guernica followed. Soon the whole of western art had been reduced to a glorified series of colour: abstract expressionism gone mad.
What possessed us? Why did we, a bunch of art students from one of the most prestigious art college in the world, feel that our contribution to this virtual gallery was simply to destroy the past?
We committed art vandalism on the world’s most treasured cultural objects. Nobody objected. And we felt good about it. We wanted to see the future and somehow deep down in our subconscious we knew that those paintings are not the future. They belong to a different era.
I never thought I would be an art vandal or enjoy it so much.
Must say I did have some pangs of guilt: what was so disturbing was that our reaction was so cavalier and spontaneous. We had not set out to destroy conventional paintings but that is precisely in half an hour what we had done.
“Try this,” urged the technician when he saw we had played enough with destroying the world’s art treasures.
He flicked a few switches and we were immediately transported from the virtual gallery to the open countryside. Soon we are strolling through meadows filled with flowers, butterflies flying around and birds singing.
“ This is where you will be taking your holidays in the future,” he joked. “ Virtual holidays anywhere you fancy without having to leave your own home.”
“Take a walk. Pick some flowers, watch out for the attack by the bees.”
Soon we are strolling through an open field picking imaginary flowers and sure enough there comes an attack of bees flying around our heads.
We duck.
“They are not real.” says Julie.
“I know. I know but they look so real.”
After playing in the virtual reality environment of The Cave we enter one studio to watch some video-conferencing. Somebody in our group coughs and eight heads sitting around a virtual table from five different continents turn and look in our direction.


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