Tucked within the labyrinth of ultra-modern corridors of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, or Calit2, at UC San Diego, is an unlikely cluster of artist studios. Although you won't find easels or paint-splattered walls, you will find exciting artists on the cutting edge of contemporary art. More than 20 faculty are involved in the Center for Research in Computing and the Arts (CRCA), a progressive research unit focused on inventing new art forms through digital means-they work on everything from performance techniques for computerized music to anticipating the cinema of the future.
CRCA isn't only housed within Calit2, it is deeply intertwined with the institute. In fact, CRCA's director of visual arts, Sheldon Brown, was just named Calit2's first artist-in-residence. His appointment seems especially appropriate given that Brown's work takes place in both the physical and the computer-generated worlds, often exploring the relationship between the two, and especially how our interaction with the physical world can be influenced by our experiences in the computerized one.
Brown's most recent project, "The Scalable City," is an interactive virtual landscape based on algorithms.
The first stop on the virtual tour of "The Scalable City" is an aerial photograph of a sinuous, computer-generated California suburb. As the computer begins a series of transformations, the red roofs and gray streets fade into a computer-generated image of an unpopulated, green valley. Beautifully spiraling roads begin to grow across the valley with strange, pointy houses springing up along them.
Explaining the computer process, Brown says the original satellite image was topographically analyzed and expanded. The resulting landscape was then tested through a series of algorithms for viability. Based on the determination of which areas would be habitable, roads and houses were grown accordingly.
The end product is something aesthetically pleasing but operationally difficult. "The roads are formed in Archimedes spirals based on our modern roads, but taken to an absurd extreme," explained Brown. It's easy to see that people living in "The Scalable City" might have to drive for several miles just to escape their own neighborhood.
Brown wondered aloud what that would mean for the growth a social system in a Scalable City-type environment. This wasn't just a theoretical question. He pointed out that much of our world is being transformed by algorithms: how our roads are built, our stoplights are timed, or our water needs anticipated. "Algorithmic structures provide tremendous facility, but with that facility comes some baggage. How do these processes restructure our relationships and alter how we view the world?" he asked.
Those questions are at the heart of what makes Brown's work both fascinating and almost numbingly complicated. It's a breathtaking combination of not only art and technology, but sociology as well.
"We sometimes question how we're using new technology," said Brown, "as when a few years ago photographs lost their veracity because of computer manipulation of images. So we reoriented around that phenomena and now have a more sophisticated view-that the truth was never in the photograph itself, anyway."
But "The Scalable City" isn't a photograph, or even a 3-D object you can navigate through. Instead, it is an interactive environment, with each user in control of an avatar (presented in the City as a cyclone of Mini Coopers). The landscape changes in response to the user's movements and attention, developing in some places, falling apart in others. Add other people into the landscape and each individual's interactions begin to affect the rest, forming a complex relationship of competition and symbiosis, more nuanced than the standard video-game archetypes of cooperation or enmity.
Brown's art exists on the edges of things, not just the cutting edge of technology-though with its dependency on satellite images and complex mathematics, it certainly does that. It's also concerned with the edges between our physical world and increasingly complicated virtual worlds.
"I'm interested in our artifacts," said Brown. "Say you make a gesture-that gesture is the main purpose. But what's going on at the edges of that gesture can be just as interesting."
There's no better example of this philosophy than "Istoria," Brown's series of wood laminate and metal sculptures. The inspiration for the sculptures came from problems that the researchers were having with the software used to import three-dimensional images of real objects (such as the Mini Coopers in "The Scalable City") into the computer. Instead of cars and chairs appearing on their screens, they were getting weird blobs. Brown laughed, "Basically it was garbage, but really interesting-looking garbage. Maybe not objects that could exist in the real world, but definitely forms of some type."
So Brown started trying to replicate the forms, concentrating on remaining true to the object as it appears on the computer screen
The results are eerily successful. Looking at photos of the work on his website (http://crca.ucsd.edu/~sheldon/istoria), it's difficult to tell that they aren't virtual 3-D images, but real objects. Brown pointed out specific instances where he paid special attention to the detail and texture of the sculptures. "These textures, they reinforce but also sometimes counteract the form," he said, "because the possibilities of space that exist in the virtual world are not the same as those that exist in the real world."
"The Scalable City" is currently a featured exhibit at the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria. To see images from the project, visit http://crca.ucsd.edu/~sheldon/scalable/.