an interactive museum of unnatural history

by Jon McCormack

1. contact details

Jon McCormack
School of Computer Science and Software Engineering
Monash University, Clayton 3800

2. introduction

"Who dwells in a realm, magical and barren,
Without a before, or an after, or a when...
To be forever; but never to have been."
From `The Enigmas', JORGE LUIS BORGES

"By the middle of this century, mankind had acquired the power to extinguish life on Earth. By the middle of the next century, he will be able to create it. Of the two it is hard to say which places the larger burden of responsibility on our shoulders."
From `Artificial Life', CHRIS LANGTON

Close up of touch screen and installation view showing projection from laserdisc and person operating touch screen.

What would life be like if it were made from computer algorithms rather than flesh and blood? Artificial Life is the name given to the simulation of natural forms and processes using materials other than those found in nature. It is not so much a general method of investigation, but perhaps a type of philosophy that supposes that life can be defined in general terms by its mechanisms, not in any particular materialisation. It questions definitions: what is life? Is there anything particularly unique about the life we know? Could life be a more general property – a logical essence of the universe we inhabit, the planet we live on, the computers we make?

TURBULENCE is an interactive work that travels deep into the computer space of Artificial Life, in both it's method of production and the poetic ideas presented in the interactive.

A video laserdisc contains over 30 minutes of computer animation - a menagerie of synthesised forms - created using software written specifically for the work. By abstracting processes used in natural evolution, the computer becomes the world within which virtual chimeras are created, through simple algorithmic rules (the Artificial Life equivalent of DNA). Artificial forms are evolved within the machine and made discernible by computer visualisation. The evolutionary process permits "survival of the most beautiful or aesthetically interesting" as opposed to "survival of the fittest" as in evolution on Earth. The goal of this process was to explore the potential of "life-as-it-could-be". Conceivably, the virtual organisms evolved in the computer are mere shadows of life: phantasms and simulacra grown from mindless instructions, executed rigorously and exactly, without purpose or question, by a digital computing machine.

Users interact with the work using a touch screen. By pressing on words and symbols, different sections of the videodisc are projected on a large screen in front of the viewer. The work is a poetic interpretation drawing on the dualist debate and the philosophical implications of evolutionary theory. As an interactive, it is a collection of abstract thoughts, simulations, ideas, information and poetry, all a multiplex of links into an interactive web of spectacular computer synthesised imagery. It is a passionate, individual vision that is directed towards examining representations of ourselves through our use of machines. TURBULENCE is an example of the way in which the computer medium offers a new and different perspective on nature and our relationship to it.

In many ways the work is a type of futuristic natural history museum made visible through the synergetic combination of mind and machine – a document of a type of life that exists only within the abstract pluriverse of computational space. A place that never was in a time that has never been.

3. installation description

The installation operates within an enclosed space and is decorated to resemble a strange natural history museum. Projected animation from a video laserdisc covers an entire wall within the space and is controlled via a small touch screen interface, using a Macintosh computer.

Viewers of the installation enter an enclosed, darkened space, via two circular concentric walls. Along the walls are specimen jars that contain preserved examples of biological life - flowers, insects, organs, photographs, the components of living organisms. Many of these objects relate in some way to the video sequences on the disc. The jars are dimly illuminated internally.

The middle of the space contains a small plinth facing the projection screen. The plinth contains a touch screen, which controls the playing of video segments from a laserdisc. What is seen by the person interacting with the work depends upon selections made on the touch screen.

Words and images float and spiral on the touch screen. Touching on a word usually results in a section of animation been played from the laserdisc (onto the projection screen). Collections of animated segments are grouped both thematically and by imaginary `species', with linkage by their genetic relatives. It is important to remember that all the organisms are fictions, evolved by a software program during production of the project.

There is no start or end to the work, but as the user progresses with the interaction the software `learns' about which areas the user is exploring and responds with inter-related options (i.e. the work tries to adapt to the personality and whims of the user). The nature of the interactivity allows different users to begin and end at any point within the work and quickly establish where they are within its structure. The interactive structure is based around four themes and one place, all of which are interrelated:

* SIGNALS - communication and information transfer on a biological and metaphysical level.

* FLOW - the progression of change within a medium. The new water chases out the old, but the patterns remain the same.

* SPACES - algorithmic spaces, with their own dynamics, complexity formed through the repeated sum of simple operations unique visualisations of mathematical spaces and their relationship to natural space.

* ORGANISMS - shapes and forms `evolved' via aesthetic selection, a synergetic combination of mind and machine. A synthesis unique to the computer.

* METAROOM - a metaphysical place of memory, purpose, destiny and meaning.

Apart from the conceptual and thematic ideas explored by the work the presentation style is highly theatrical in nature and works best with the largest possible projection size and high quality audio reproduction.

4. hardware, software and space requirements

The plan and side view diagrams illustrate one possible configuration, within a circular enclosed sound and light proof space. Inside the space is a video projector that screens video from the laserdisc onto a wall at the other end. An alternate presentation uses a number of video monitors, instead of a video projector. At the other end of the inner circle there is a touch-screen positioned by a plinth at waist height. The touch screen is angled at 45o to face the viewer. People enter the space from one end through an occluded passage, the purpose of which is to prevent external light/sound getting in and sound from the installation getting out. Interior walls should be painted black or, if possible, covered in a sound absorbing material to minimise sound leakage. The specimen jars that cover the internal walls are illuminated internally from low-voltage lamps.

The actual size of the installation depends on the requirements of the video projector and projection screen size. The measurements shown in the layout diagrams are suggestions only and can be changed to accommodate the type of video projector used. Naturally, the larger the space, the more people can view the work simultaneously. A suggested size is 10.0 m (33 ft.) x 10.0 m (33 ft.). The Macintosh CPU is usually concealed underneath the plinth. A small, enclosed space is required to house the laserdisc player and amplifier (usually behind the projection screen).

The presentation environment for the work is an important issue for the proper exhibition of the piece. I am very interested in exhibiting the work in unique and special spaces that relate contextually to the work itself (for example: zoo's, herbariums, glasshouses). There are several possible configurations (in terms of technical requirements) to allow the work to be shown within many different environments. The layout diagrams presented here offer one possibility.

A full list of required items appears below.

Equipment and materials usually supplied by exhibition space:

Jon McCormack to supply:


Please refer to both the layout and schematic diagrams.

The video output from the laserdisc can be shown either by projection (using a video projector) or using a number of high quality video monitors. If using a large number of monitors, video distribution amplifiers (VDA's) may be required to boost the video signal over all the monitors. Other methods of video presentation, such as video walls, multiple size micro LCD monitors, have not been used previously, but could be used in a suitable environment.

Currently, the disc is pressed two different formats. The first is a standard laserdisc suitable for playing in a large number of industrial/domestic laserdisc players. The format is CAV with PAL video on one side and NTSC on the other. This allows the same disc to be played in either standard (PAL or NTSC). A special component version of the work exists on a Magneto-Optical laserdisc. This version much higher video quality than conventional laser discs as the video signal is stored in component (Red, Green & Blue) form. To take advantage of this type laserdisc requires a component laserdisc player (Pioneer VDR-V1000P) and a component projector or video monitors. This special format disc is in PAL only.

All equipment should work with local power (Single phase). Please specify local voltage for specimen jar lights.

Sound quality and dynamic range of the audio are very high (CD Quality). The best audio requirements involve a 3-speaker system: 2 main speakers and a sub-woofer. If this configuration is not possible then a standard stereo speaker system is still acceptable. Suggested audio equipment models serve as a guide only, other types of speaker/amplifier/equaliser combinations of similar or better quality should be acceptable, but please consult the artist regarding exact models.

It would be best to mount the video projector on the ceiling. Speakers can be suspended from the walls or mounted on floor stands. Most of the electronics are outside the room, or behind the projection screen (amplifier, laserdisc player) and only need to be accessed to start up the installation. Inside the installation, cabling needs to run to the video projector (power and video), the Macintosh and touch screen (power and RS-422 to the laserdisc) and speakers (audio cable). Outside the enclosed space the cable requirements are: Amplifier - power, speakers and audio in from laserdisc, Laserdisc player - power, video out and audio out. Power is also required for the specimen jar lights (low-voltage lights, run through a transformer).

A total set-up time of 1 - 2 days is usual, depending on the environment. One day should be sufficient for strike-down.

Materials that are freighted must include appropriate insurance.

Diagrams follow:

Schematic diagram:

5. previous presentations

Point of view of a person interacting with the work.

The TURBULENCE interactive was first shown at ACM Siggraph 94, Orlando, Florida as part of `the Edge' and Art Show. A special stereoscopic HDTV linear version was also shown as part of the Siggraph 94 Electronic Theatre. The Australian premiere was in Melbourne, March 1995. A brief video version, `Scenes from TURBULENCE' that contains a sampling of some of the animation on the laserdisc, has been widely screened at a number of international festivals and galleries, including Centre Georges Pompidou (France), London Film Festival (U.K.), Wellington Film Festival (New Zealand), Adelaide Festival (Australia), Tate Gallery (Liverpool, U.K.), Art Gallery of New South Wales (Australia), Imagina (France) and Art Futura (Spain).

6. promotional/supplemental materials

* `Scenes from TURBULENCE' (2 min. 20 sec.) video contains edited highlights from the videodisc project (BetacamSP format). This also exists as a stereoscopic HDTV version (requires two HDTV projectors, plus polarising glasses for viewing).

* Press Kit: contains 35mm slides and press information. Other format images (6 x 8 cm, digital) available on request.

* WWW (World Wide Web) information service for Internet users with browser software such as Mosaic. URL: "http://www.cs.monash.edu.au/~jonmc/art.html"

7. credits and acknowledgments

The full work took over three years to produce. Software for the project was written by the artist. Rendering software was supplied through artistic grant programs from Wavefront Technologies and Pixar.

Software, script, animation, sound, music and direction by Jon McCormack. Animation created on Silicon Graphics Personal Iris and Indigo computers. Harry Editor: Mark Dickson; Sound Editor: Jason Murphy; Voice: Marion Harper.

With special thanks to Gary Warner. Commercial sponsorship: Wavefront Technologies, Inc.(Now Alias/Wavefront) USA, Pixar, USA, Silicon Graphics Australia. Video and animation facilities: CIPAG, Monash University. Produced in association with the Australian Film Commission.

8. biography - Jon McCormack

Jon McCormack is one of Australia's top computer animation artists. He was awarded a Bachelor's degree (honours) in applied mathematics and computer science from Monash University in 1986, following which he studied animation at the Swinburne Film & Television School (Melbourne, Australia).

After several years in commercial computer animation production, he began working on the development of artist's computer software and perusing his own projects. His work examines and interprets nature and natural systems through computer algorithms. Over the past few years he has exhibited at a number of local and international venues including, Prix Ars Electronica (Austria), Imagina (France), Art Futura (Spain), Siggraph 94 Electronic Theatre, the Edge and Art Show (USA), Centre Georges Pompidou (Revue Virtuelle series, France), London Film Festival (UK), Tate Gallery (UK), Museum of Modern Art (New York, USA), National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of New South Wales (Australia). He has also worked in collaboration with a number of film makers, animators, artists and writers. He is currently a lecturer in Computer Science at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.

Recent interactive works include: Turbulence, 1994 (interactive laserdisc), Wild, 1994 (interactive computer installation on Silicon Graphics Onyx/Reality Engine computers); and Four Imaginary Walls , 1991, (computer installation controlled by the weather). Recent video works include: TISEA Opening Animation, 1992, 2m10s; Flux, 1992, 1m40s; and ENS, 1990, 5m33s (also on 16mm film).

Among his awards include the Australian Video Art Award, the Praxa prize, a Dendy short film finalist award (Sydney Film festival), Alias|Wavefront award for best animation 1995 (art), Prix Ars Electronica 1995 honary mention in both animation and interacive art, 1st Prize (Art) Images du Futur 1995, and the New Voices/New Visions prize 1995 (sponsored by the Voyager Company and Interval research).

© 1994/1995 Jon McCormack and the Australian Film Commission.