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co3 ... stepping into the new terrain
In a paper presented at the recent Curatorial Lab conference in Melbourne, Ross Gibson, then the Creative Director of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Cinemedia, spoke of the potential for audio-visual art and hybrid performance to create a sense of 'wonder' in the audience. This term best describes my initial encounter with the C03 live virtual reality performance by Company In Space, presented as part of Interact 2001 : Asia Pacific Multimedia Festival, Melbourne. Company in Space is a group of Melbourne-based artists, animators, writers, composers, performers, sound engineers and computer programmers, which engages in live events that link performers and audiences around the world.
Conceptualised by John McCormick and Company In Space allies, C03 attempted to explore the ambiguous interfaces between the technological and the human. Performance artist/postmodern dancer, Hellen Sky, negotiated this terrain of interaction with the support of a team of artists and technophiles. During the opening night performance, viewers sat transfixed, engaged in various visual and aural moments of encounter. The immersive environment, including the spectacle of the light projections, interactions between the performer and her avatars, and emotive soundscapes, situated the audience in a state of awe. Audience members could interact with the work in manifold ways, deciding whether to watch the various screens, observe the performer, or survey the computer monitors as John McCormick loaded various packages to make the virtual links with Florida-based artist, Keith Roberson.
C03 used a theatrical framework in that the temporal aspects of the work required the audience to sit in a theatre and allocate forty minutes of their time and attention to the performance. lt took place in RMIT's newly renovated Capitol Theatre, a space that has an amazing architectural presence, combining signs of the organic with the modern. Originally designed by Waiter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahoney Griffin in 1924, the Capital features geometric stalactite formations that jut out from the ceiling, corners and columns of the theatre, creating a futuristic, cave-like aesthetic. These organic forms contrasted with the high-tech sound, lighting and projection technologies being utilised in C03, yet the ancient and the modern were fused symbolically through the use of space, script, and ambient audio-visual configurations.
C03 offered a narrative about the manifestation of cybernetic organisms and cyber identities. Multiple screens projected animated versions of Sky's avatars as she moved through the material space of the theatre and the virtual space presented on-screen. A motion capture apparatus, usually used by computer animators, was strapped to her body, connecting her corporeal presence with her virtual presence. Observing Sky move robotically through the theatre space, one could not help but think of the boundary figure of the cyborg that seems to symbolise the transgression of modern binaries such as human/nonhuman, natural/artificial, mind/body, male/female and our ever constant journey towards the posthuman body. C03 evoked the sense that we are already cyborgs, fused with machinery and technology through various devices that are extensions of our bodies, our 'selves' and our imaginations.
Initially Sky's avatar appeared as a featureless liquid metallic android, observing and testing its bodily boundaries and capacities like a newly born creature. lt then transformed into a series of animated female characters that embarked on a journey of discovery through a vast virtual landscape. One of the most successful aspects of this performance was when Sky, situated on one of the theatre's balconies, performed a pas de deux with her avatar which was being projected onto the other balcony. Human and avatar encountered each other through movement in a sequence that was analogous to watching an entranced person dance with their reflection in a strange mirror. This seemed to be the moment when Sky felt most connected to her virtual presence. By the end of the performance, a veritable shopping mall of virtual identities were on display, with Sky & her avatar engaging in a frenzied , selection process to acquire the 'right' image. This sequence was both a celebration and expression of anxiety about the idea of re-imaging our 'identities'.
In contrast to my first encounter with C03, when I returned to see it for a second time, I experienced the technology failures that seem so prevalent in virtual performances and digital art. Although a certain amount of techno-calamity seems inevitable in technology-based work, and it can even be argued that these breakdowns are signs of the experimental and ephemeral nature of multi-media art, it also presents a challenge for both artists and audiences in producing the ideal of sensory immersion. Once shifted into a state of amplified awareness about the instability of the technology, it was almost impossible to reconnect with the imaginary realm. In a very postmodern sense the viewer became undeniably aware of the simulated nature of his/her environment and the unpredictability of virtuality. However, when the technology behaved, C03 really did exhibit the capacities of hybrid performance practices to create imaginary realms for viewers to extend how they think and feel, by placing them in state of 'wonder'.