from "Journal of the Japan Society for Simulation Technology", 1996.9
[background: from 1995-97, I visited at R.A.C.E, the Research in Artifacts Center for Engineering, at Tokyo University... while there, I was asked to contribute to this magazine.]
Simulation and Art
It wasn't until the late 1980's that general-purpose computing finally came to the arts. Of course, many sorts of makers had been experimenting with the machine-qualities of computers since the late 50's, with many of the earlier experiments being centered on device control in the realm of machine-aided sculpture, as well as plotter control for 2-D output. What was generally more influential during this early period was the transmission of concept from the computing community to the arts community. The late '60's were an especially vigorous time for this exchange; for example, many artists were fascinated with the science of information, specifically the description of the relation between information and entropy. In the States, this was a contradictory period both of technological optimism (the Moon landing) and technological disillusionment (the Vietnam War, the growing environmental movement) . In such a climate, art/technology collaboration had important status, with events taking place both with institutional support, and as oppositional practice. It was in this period that changes in technology also allowed electronic (pre-digital) tools, such as video and varied sorts of analog signal processing, into the hands of individuals for the first time. Here again, idea often preceded actual functionality. An interesting example of this is the image-processing school of video-art, which took the concept of early digital image processing (such as pictures from beyond visibility made viewable through the machine) and applied them to their own analog-image manipulations. Paradoxically, after they had passed the analog video image through their hand-made image processing machines, it was often difficult to tell what the original picture had been, a result rather the opposite of what scientists intended with image processing. But the artist's declared intention was a metaphoric image processing, which would make other, normally invisible qualities of the image visible for the first time, through the mediation of the human-controlled machine.
In the mid-1980's, some artists began to work with personal computers. By this time, the concept of simulation had already come to the center of cross-discipline art thinking. It is difficult to unpack the many and often contradictory meanings that simulation took on in the art world, which was in the process of redefining itself as "post-modern". One of the most important thinkers to handle the concept, a French critic named Baudrillard, was well known for a type of writing in which metaphors bounced off one another until finally his presentation seemed to collapse into itself. However, this style was mimetic of his concept of what simulation meant for the modern world... an endless progression of copies, all of which functioned as replacements for the original, in a world where symbols were the only meaning, and yet where meaning was a concept that had irrevocably collapsed and disappeared. However, this idea is not as charged with horror and inaction as it might appear. To Baudrillard's eyes, society was ruled and defined by centralized media that attempted to simulate everything, from human relations to war news, and in which most "simulations" were faulty, actually created to carry lies; however an ironic appraisal and appropriation of this technique by artists and others could potentially lead to the breakdown of this system, or at least give the power of "simulation" back to individuals. Certainly this latter is what was beginning to happen in society as personal computers became inexpensive. But, of course, concept was once again leading execution, since the vast majority of artists did not have the computing power to explore true simulation technique.
One of the curious facts that artists quickly discovered about the practical nature of computers, when they were finally able to use them for long periods of time was that, by nature, digital processes are scalable. That meant that, if software was available, whatever could be done on a very large machine could also be done on a very small machine, if the user was willing to wait, and deal with lower resolution. Over the last ten years, this has meant that artists have come to have available to them many of the same tools that simulation scientists use. The significance of this new equality is that the concept/tool gap between science and art has narrowed and even closed in many places; artists are attempting to activate and investigate scientific concepts at the same time, and on the same machines, as the scientists themselves. This has been very noticeable in the controversial area of artificial life. Here, simulation images are both objects of scientific investigation, and at the same time can be used as proofs in scientific argument. A large number of programmer/ artists have been fascinated with this process, which may be either a new paradigm, or a contradiction in an old paradigm discovered in new times, and so have begun to create their own autonomous systems, which artificial life researchers in turn have found of great interest.
Of course, there are many scientists who disapprove of this sort of confusion between spheres of knowledge, claiming that comes from, or leads to, faulty scientific technique, and therefore false scientific knowledge. The issue, of course, is not simply the working relationship between the arts and the sciences, but the very place of digital simulation technology in the sciences. Already, the concept of visual proof is causing considerable difficulty in the mathematical sciences, and is a problem which will not be soon resolved.
As many previously separated parts of human culture are finding that their tools, and indeed very being, have been placed into virtual space, the complications of this controversy are quickly bouncing back and forth between different realms, newly united by the their underlying digital medium. The questions of proper knowledge, proper technique, and proper ethical action interpenetrate with increasing speed, as simulation, like computing, comes to be a dominate force across disparate culture realms.
Now, in the middle 90's, many artists have access to machines with the same functionality and power as their scientific counterparts; certainly the visual computing market is being driven from both sides. In addition, with the advent of networks, the easy availability of high-level, easy to use programming tools, and the advent of "end-user" simulation tools, the technical sophistication of the new digital art community is on the rise. Given this new climate, where ideas are shared quickly, and a certain level of material and technical equality is possible, one can imagine a near future where the relation between simulation-driven sciences and the impractical arts could become very strange, as indeed it has been at several times in the history of science. In terms of general cultural accomplishment, the results could potentially be quite significant. Of course, the opportunities for bad art and bad science will also increase, but those are the usual prices.
From the macro, I'd like to shift to a micro view, in the hope that describing the relation to simulation that I have taken in my own work will help illuminate some of the broad generalities described above.
I come from a video background, starting to work in the medium in 1979, when video was considered a high technology in the arts. As in experimental film in the years before, videoart of the period was very much interested in new images that could be synthesized through manipulation of the video signal. Paradoxically, however, the realistic video image was itself also considered synthetic, virtually reconstructed from an arbitrary, though coherent, image dissection. The telematic idea, that video was a virtual mirror extending across space and time, was also very important at the time, and indeed it was this sense of video as the medium of a virtual world that made some video makers and theorists especially open to the topic of simulation, which was slowly introduced to a wider public during the 1970's.
I began to take the topic of simulation seriously in 1985, when I began work on my first feature film, called "Wax or the discovery of television among the bees (1991, 85:00, Uplink, Tokyo). The subject of the film was a young flight simulation systems engineer who worked for a military flight simulator company based in Alamogordo, New Mexico, close to the site where the first plutonium bomb was tested. The film makes use of a number of different types of virtual world, and uses the subjectivity of the main character, who narrates the film, as the glue which binds these different worlds together. As you might expect, the story is quite strange. Jacob Maker, the protagonist, works on the gunsite displays for a military simulation system, and in his spare time tends strange Mesopotamian bees he inherited from his grandfather, which he keeps in the backyard. Jacob begins to have blackouts while working with his bees, during which he is transported to a artificial world, filled with strange objects, and manipulated video images. This world appears to be gateway to his grandfather's past, where strange events related to the bees, as well as his own future, are unfolding. Jacob abandons his simulation job to follow this more compelling artificial world of the bees, and in doing so wanders away from home, out to the desert, to Trinity Site, test place of the first plutonium bomb, and then beyond, to giant caves beneath the earth, where the bees are awaiting him. At the end of a twisting, and yet coherent story, it appears that Jacob finally becomes the guidance system for a missile used in the Gulf War.
In the film, the definition of what a simulation can be changes quite frequently, which, of course, fits with the polyvalent nature of the topic. Some of these definitions may not seem appropriate in an engineering context, but it is important to keep in mind that these expressions extend from the social uses of the simulation technology which is represented in the film. Since simulation is "seen" and has an effect on thought and action, a psychological aspect can also be included. In "Wax", simulation is the technology used to train the pilots to fly and fight. But it is also the very medium of the Jacob's thought, who constructs a virtual world from perceptions that the bees, who may be inside or outside him, synthesize and pass on to his internal "viewscreen". Thus, in the context of the film, simulation is the mental technology which he uses to reconstruct the story of the past from audiovisual pieces that might either be pieces of his own fantasy, or have some sort of actual reality, having been passed to him by the mysterious bees, who in turn may have either created them, or found them somewhere else.
When Jacob runs across the desert, chasing the bees, he crosses through a US Army missile test reservation, where engineered missiles, created and pre-tested using a variety of simulation technologies, are flight tested under actual conditions on a test range. During these tests, flight telemetry sent from inside the flying rocket is combined with external flight data collected from the extraordinary range of sensors on the range, to recreate this real-world flight as a simulation, which allows final evaluation of the prototyped, as yet virtual product, before full manufacturing begins. This literal refolding of real-world testing into the simulation and production environment is not so much different from the mirrored, intersubjective, and insubstantial interior-simulated world through which Jacob attempts to navigate. In both cases, a culturally determined meta-reality is hard at work.
After finishing the feature, I worked at reconfiguring it for online use, and during the initial stages of the project found a collaborator with an interest in on-line, text-based virtual worlds. The resultant project, called "Wax-web" (http://bug.village.virginia.edu), went up on the World Wide Web in mid-1994. The arranged dataset was quite large, with more that 3000 pages and 25000 hyperlinks used to organize all the original media of the film. The modified MOO software on which the site ran operated both as a object oriented database, rearranging and formatting data on the fly for the client's browser, and as a site for real-time and asynchronous interaction between users. VRML technology made it possible to deliver much of this data through a realtime 3-D interface across the Web. Rhetorically, this project was meant as a sort of narrative simulator, much like the flight simulators that Jacob Maker worked on in the film. The underlying, dynamic database was the landscape of the story, and the web-page was a slow scan virtual display. At the heart of the work was the Utopian concept that mechanical reconfiguration of an underlying narrative database could eventually provide the end-user with new story; rhetorically perhaps not that much different from the simulationist hope that a visual proof, distilled from inhumanely complex, impossible to perceive machine-calculations, can add new knowledge to the world.
Currently I am working on a second feature called "The Telepathic Motion Picture of â€˜THE LOST TRIBESâ€™ ", which seems to take place in Japanese-controlled Manchuria in the 1930's, but which actually takes place in a different world, with both an alternate history, and an alternate physics. Much of the film takes place in virtual spaces; the story-world's alternate physics allows the characters a small amount of telepathy, which thus makes all human spaces in the story intersubjective and synthetic. Central to the narrative is the problem of ethical navigation in a knowledge environment where everything, from history to sense of personal self, are constructed through simulation technology, and share in the intellectual project of simulation.
As an individual artist, I am glad to have access to the new functionalities of computer graphics, which currently confuse the difference between video and 3-D virtual space. I am glad that the current intellectual environment brings engineering and scientific knowledge to me quickly, and I find that my work is heavily effected both at the level of technique, and of intellectual direction, which of course can never be separated. I don't do mad science, I only make art, but I wonder if this inscription of my critical ideas can somehow serve as food for the scientific simulation worker, whose discipline has provided me with much intellectual nutrition.