By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
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By Craig Malisow
High holiday for computer hackers, a roller-coaster ride through a virtual art gallery, and a Subgenius Devival: This weekend's CyberCulture Houston '93 will be all that, and more. While funky robots roam the Commerce Street Artists Warehouse and Gallery, CCH will host a tour of cyberspace with art exhibits, performances and discussion groups -- both flesh-to-flesh and networked (natch).
Three days of art, music, dance and deep thoughts on technology and society is how co-organizer Melanie Mitchell describes the event -- oh, and "fun and weirdness." What does "cyber" mean? In the rave context, cyber is a code-prefix for enjoying loud music and drugs under the guise of being progressive. On the flip side, others look to computer technology as a way to escape -- or at least control -- the needs and urges of the imperfect human body. Call them the Spock contingent.
utting the battle for the soul of these new machines aside, cyberspace is where things happen when computers connect. Cyberstuff is what happens there.
Cyber is simultaneously a global and a grassroots thing. CCH was publicized mostly by personal e-mail, a sort of international word-of-mouth. The call for entries was answered by artists in places the organizers had never even heard of. For example, Annick Bureaud, a Parisian, read about CyberCulture Houston when a call for entries wound up in Leonardo Electronic Almanach (published on paper).
Artists spanning the cultural spectrum from Norway to Indiana will have their electronic works displayed in the virtual museum. Artists, dancers and musicians have taken a liking to cyberstuff computer technology; akin to film at the turn of the century, cyber gives artists a chance to work in a new, unexplored medium.
Some of the artworks will be doing a little exploring of their own. The Austin Robotics Group's mechanical pitbull will be prowling the warehouse. Meet it while you can -- the critter is headed for the Smithsonian. (The group plans to build a bigger, wilder beast to replace the enshrined animal.) Other electronic-brain entities include the Bipedal Ornothopter. This robotically enhanced blimp runs on its "chicken legs," starts flapping its mechanical wings and takes to the air. (These frivolities can be justified as research that may lead to space-program applications, or medical technology, or whatever excuse you prefer.) While bloodless creatures roam the warehouse, interactive virtual-reality gizmos will be up and running so that culture seekers can don headmounts and "travel" through the digital gallery.
The museum was built by Houston VR firm CyberSim Systems Inc. (you may have played their Tank Patrol game in a club) and designed by four graduate students from the University of Houston School of Architecture. Once submerged in the virtual gallery, visitors can wander without the usual limiting physical laws. Elements will seem to float. If you like an artist's work, you "fly" into the picture and find yourself surrounded by that artist's other works. Does cyberspace sound lonely? Eyecon Interactive Media will be exhibiting the Mandala System -- a 2-D projected virtual-reality system which, Mitchell explains, "you can play in with your friends." Planned, professional performances begin at eight.
BodySynth, a guy from San Francisco who attaches MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) sensors to various big beefy muscles, is Friday's highlight. The sensors respond to the electrical impulses produced by his dancing muscles. The MIDI is a dancer's dream come true -- a performer can control his or her accompaniment while on stage. Tripping the sensors is analogous to pressing keys -- just like piano wires pulling hammers, the MIDI wiring sends electric impulses to a computer, preprogrammed to respond with musical notes. "We thought that was sufficiently cool enough to fly him out here," Mitchell says. (Saturday night, BodySynth will present audience-interactive performance art.)
Other CyberCulture Houston performers include Jennifer Bairamgalin, Human Systems Performance Group, Dissemination Network and Burning Man. The more mainstream high-weirdness Church of the Subgenius will close out the weekend with a devival led by Houston's Pope Charlie.
Saturday afternoon's presentations and panel discussions will explore the social effects of our increasingly pervasive computing technology. Included among the speakers is Brian Parks, designer of the Flogistron VR Chair featured in the movie Lawnmower Man (a local boy, he lives between here and Galveston), will discuss the chair his invention and his current work with Thomas Dolby.
Cyberfunk and the high-minded high-tech details of cyberpunks are only part of the package. This cyberweekend also offers a chance to check out the latest and most exciting VR combat-simulation games from CyberSim Systems Inc. Or, to take a crash course in cyberculture by catching Friday night's world premiere of Cyber Vision: Dimensions from the New Edge, a documentary that uses, but doesn't overwork, video editing tricks. (highlights film 8 megs) Given the subject and audience, Cyber Vision is remarkably lucid and informative (except the bondage scenes -- which have other merits, perhaps).
CyberCulture Houston is the event for the alternative crowd, the 9,000 members of HAL-PC (Houston Area League), HAAG (Houston Area Apple-Users Group) and anybody who wants to see the future now.
yberCulture Houston, December 10-12, at Commerce Street Artists Warehouse and Gallery, 2315 Commerce St. (ten blocks east of downtown), 227-8917. Gallery free, $6 each day for performances and events.