Armin Medosch (by way of Pit Schultz <pit@contrib.de>) on Sun, 1 Sep 96 22:15 METDST


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nettime: Siggraph 96


Following Report from this years Siggraph is a shortened english
version. The long version with more exetended commentaries and URLęs
will soon be published in  ≥telepolis" (German only) on
http://www.heise.de/tp

First of all I want to apologize for my poor english. There are probably
some serious mistakes. Anyway I will try to make myself understandable.

Siggraph 96 took place in New Orleans. It is still one of the most
important, if not THE most importent conference on Computergrafics and
Animation. In referrence to the swamps of Loisiana - in creole called
≥Bayou" - one part of the exhibition was called ≥Digital Bayou". The
organizers probably considered this an ≥interesting name". But if you
interpret it literally and apply this to the content it means that this
show was build on swampy terrain. In panel and paper sessions, in the
main exhibition and in the digital bayou the newest technological
developments in 2D and 3D were presented. But the content sometimes made
the European visitor shudder and these creepy feelings were not induced
by voodoo ghosts. The Images and Animations shown at Siggraph proofed
one more time to what infantility and monstrosity the human mind is able
if it is only guided by the motive to gain the highest profit. Two
general directions can be abstracted from the stream of digital imagery:

A) scientifically grounded realism: the methods for the visual
representaion of natural phenomena of all kinds are continually getting
improved. Although there have been no breakthroughs or corner stones
achieved this year there are a number of improved methods to visualize
water, clouds, particle streams, the growth of plants, human movements,
facial animation...; today its not necessary animore that a skilled
graphic designer is inventing all these things out of his imagination;
programs are written in which the laws of physics are applied, like
gravity, surface tension, body mechanics and so on.   

B) plastic reality: all kinds of munsters, comic figures, ghosts, neo
frankensteins, chewing gum heads, heads without bodies and bodies
without heads. 

ad A) The term ≥Virtual Reality" is slowly getting a new meaning. It is
not just a mere visual representation of the world anymore but a
representation in a much deeper sense. The forces of physical nature are
now taken into account. Once the model of a human person is designed,
mathematical programs take care, that its movements look ≥natural" when
animated. Movements of groups of people or animals are also animated in
a natural style through ≥flocking" techniques (Craig Reynolds, Jessica
Hodgins). Also methods are created to improve facial animation. Besides
motion capture processes to translate human facial expressions into 3D
modells there are new more scientific methods which take in account the
forces of different muscles and the tension between the skin and the
muscles of the human face. So  a change of one force(muscle) will change
the behavior of all other forces(muscles) which are connected or
dependent of the first one. Such techniques are opening also doors for
interactive storytelling. 3D characters are connected to databases
containing sets of rules and behavior. Autonomous 3D characters (often
called ≥believable agents" after work done by Joe Bates at CMU) can
interact with each other and with a character conducted by a user.   
With the above said I am describing trends, not facts. Scientifically
grounded VR is not a fact yet. There are different methods and there are
no modells yet combining all these methods into one modell. It is still
a question of computing power. But every year the restrictions of
computing power are decreasing (at least in this high tech area). So
there still remains a quite profound problem. It is the question of
scientific objectivity in itself. Can that, what we understand from
nature in mathematical and formal abstractions, be understood as nature
itself? Is the way how we understand nature with scientific methods
objective or isnęt this objectivity spoiled by all kinds of social
interference and influence? At Siggraph it was clearly visible that this
industry and the research and development work behind it is in a very
strong way influenced by its sponsors. These sponsors are the big Film
and special effect studios in Hollywood, but also the big computer and
telecom companies and last not least the medical and military sector. So
at Siggraph of course Hollywood is on the forefront and you could almost
smell the need for getting new software and hardware tools which are
faster, cheaper and more efficient in manipulating the masses. The ≥R &
D" done in and for Hollywood does not care at all about any humanistic
principals, just about satisfying the goals of the studio moguls.     

ad B) Plastic Reality

The ≥Electronic Theatre" introduced this years film and video showreel
with the best animations from Film, Games and  Adęs. All the big shots
in animation were in the program: Industrial Light and Magic, Pixar,
Sony Image Works, Pacific Data Image, Digital Domain and others...
To put it mildly hardly any of the productions deserve any special
coverage. Seventy or Eighty Percent of the movies featured monstrous
figures, mostly very comic strip like. This cannot be just by chance. We
know that the technique is there to do other things as well. There were
some examples in the program that showed other ways but they were by far
the minority. So how comes this? Siggraph is not a pulp-film festival in
any province town. The most expensive Hard- and Software, the best paid
script writers, directors, grafic designers and animateurs ar standing
behind these productions. How comes that there is such a degradation of
the image of the human that is shown in these productions? There is
fighting and killing, synthetical blood is flooding the screen,
spcaecyborgs are haunting each others, monsters are raving in
underground catacombs. And if it is not blood and action it is speed
that rules the screen: pursuits in outer space, in the antarctica, under
the earth, monsters chasing monsters...The 20 years old film "Star Wars"
looks like a work of world literature compared to this. So thats
≥progress" after 20 years of computer generated special effects in
movies.  

All that is not new, also not the concern about it. Speed, action and
monsters seem to be a easy way of filling up cinema seats with a
juvenile crowd. The domination of monstrous Characters reveals an
inherent trend towards the creation of monsters. Making
Frankenstein-like characters seems to be the closest temptation for
people sitting in these special effect studios in front of big computer
screens. There must be some necessity behind this tendency which is
grounded in the mechanisms of computer technology and Hollywood
Entertainment. Besides the very flat and soulless image of the human in
general in these movies there is also a tendency towards claustrophobic
worlds. Space is always dangerous or the existence of space - in which
humans can live - is endangered. Not only the characters are all kinds
of variations of Frankensteins creature, also reality itself seems to
suffer from the Frankenstein syndrom. In this aspect the low-culture of
pulp-animation and the high end research fields of computer based
vizualisation are coming together. They are both creating claustrophic
worlds and Frankenstein monsters, either visually on the surface or
internally as far as the modell of their understanding of the world is
concerned. But the difference is, that whereas at Mary Shelleys time
(author of Dr. Frankenstein) the vision of life constructed with a
scientific toolbox was clearly considered as ≥gothic fiction", this is
not the case anymore. Today the abstractions are being taken for the
real thing and the grid of VR is covering the world. ≥Humanity" is a
functional model within a rationalist matrix. Gothic fiction is now
being produced in the high end scientific laboratories of the world and
is spilled on the streets as consumer electronics and games for the
young and the old.   

Pulp-Economy

The close alliance between Pulp-Entertainment, Science and Computer
Technology is not that ≥bad" if we were able to look at it in a
postmodern indifferent way. At least it is not directly killing people
and sometimes itęs products might even be fun. Also many of the more
high end applications for visualisation are strongly connected to the
medical sector and can help saving lives. But as soon as we look on the
social level it becomes difficult to not be ≥judging". To have the
Siggraph in New Orleans was a good example. Who dared to have a look at
the city besides the Convention Center, the French Quarter and some
River Boat Parties easily could see to what degree of dilapidation this
city has come. The evening news of local tv stations showed more from
the backyards of ≥The Big Easy". Almost a third of the households in New
Orleans metropolitan area can be considered poor earning 15.000 Dollars
a year or less.  The numbers for armed robbery and simple robbery are
rising each year for more then 10 persent (source:Gambit weekly). The
Siggraph didnęt take any notice of that. Not even one panel was
dedicated to any social issue. But there was a panel, where Mark Pesce
(VRML-coinventor) and other well earning people of the industry could
talk about their ≥religious" experiences and say sentences like ≥when I
saw the sunset in the San Francisco Bay I knew the world is a beautiful
place". Yes for sure, the world is a beautiful place, especially for
beautiful people earning 100.000 bucks a year or more. 
Whereas the whole world is talking about budget cuts for all kinds of
social expenses including the arts, Siggraph didnęt suffer of such
phenomena. Onyxes, SGIęs high end computers, were there like pocket
calculators in other places. Numerous data beams projected high
resolution images on special screens and loudspeakers were blasting out
sounds on disco level. In the evenings companies were competing with
their receptions in all kinds of fancy places like river boats,
penthouses and colonial style palaces. The reason for these receptions
is mainly not to get new clients but to recruit new talents. All the big
companies have a terrible need of programmers, designers and animateurs.
As business is booming some companies have a need for 50 and more highly
skilled workforces to be recruited in short terms. Whereas most of these
parties were relatively relaxed, Microsoft got very ≥topical". MS staged
a party in the old colonial town house, a big white building with
columns at the forefront. There, at both sides of a huge stairway guys
in historical costumes were holding big torches. A long queue of people
was trying to get in. Inside we found out that, how funny, the theme of
the party was vampirism (get your byte! Haha!) And to let us not forget
the history of New Orleans as one of the centers of the slave market
Microsoft had hired coloured people who had to wear Rokoko-costums and
had to play the party animators. The crowd, 99% whities, were
hysterically trying to have fun. 
If anybody until then had  not believed in a connection between
neoliberal society, digital boom economics and slavery then Billies
party had made it all clear. The demographics of Siggraph add some
further elements to this image. Most of the attendees are white and
male. A small percentage are Asian. Afro-americans or other coloured
people were almost invisible. Especially the paper sessions were 100
percent boys clubs with a very nerdy audience. It seems that Computer
Industry is representing social stratifications in race and gender. My
thesis is that it also is enhauncing social power structures. Listen for
example to this piece of advertising poetry, where a renderning software
package is trying to get your attention: ≥It doesnęt feel pity. Or
remorse. Or fear. And it absolutely will not stop_EVER_until everything
is rendered." Other packages promise to be ≥Fuel for the Mind" or to
give the User ≥the Power to rule the world". SGI had some ads on the
radio cabs  saying ≥3D for a New World". 

In this New World it seems to be better to invest billions of dollars in
an industry that mainly produces pulp faces and claustrophobic synthetic
worlds, then to put any money into solving human problems. Social
problems are highly visible accumulating in the streets, whereas venture
capital is fuelled to Siliconwood so that it can produce more games and
films and synthetic sitcom characters. Obviously these products have
like drugs the ability to distract the mind from the confrontation with
reality. Electronic entertainment has become the new relegion=new drug
for the peoples. The wealth shown by the industry at Siggraph was a
strong and  cynical demonstration. In the context of the real problems
of the world the "scientific" research in 3D visualisation and animation
is a very very decadent thing, not to say actually useless. The ≥digital
revolution" on which some people seem to be so proud actually means
social degradation in many ways, not only in a pure economic sense but
also how people look at the world and what kind of ≥values" get
represented in artifacts. The so called objective science in fact is
doing some profound jugdgement by deciding in which direction research
work is done. Whereas almost nothing is done in social areas, billions
are shuffled into the 3D animation and visualisation stuff. A 3D model
of the human seems to be more important then the real human beings. The
research as shown at Siggraph is significant for a kind of progress that
nobody really needs. All this gave me a very ≥Californean Experience" in
Louisiana. But we should not believe that this is just a north-american
problem. One of the biggest financiers of the digital golddigger
business in Siliconwood is Germany. Most recently the german commercial
tv moguls Kirch (Sat 1) and Thoma (RTL) have signed big deals with
Hollywood studios. Other then in the past it is not about buying
finished products but about prefinancing the production of the next 10
years. Then Kirch (more then 2 billion dollars contract) and Thoma (1
Billion dollars contract) (Source: Hollywood Reporter) have kind of
exclusive rights in germany for using these products, which are,
needless to say, entirely designed and produced in Siliconwood and
without any german influence on the contents. This example shows how the
big private tv companies are taking the cafe creme of german wealth and
pumping it into Hollywood. 3 Billion Dollars is a lot of money also in
Hollywood. This means that for 10 years a lot of well paid jobs for the
≥virtual class" are secured. It means also that these studios have the
freedom to produce new pulp products for manipulating the globe.
≥Needless to say" that Germany suffers from a still rising unemployment
rate, rightwing hooligan attacks on camping lots in eastern Germany (but
thats just another syndrom) and an ongoing media campaign initiated buy
the Government and selling to the people why the social state has to be
demolished to be competitive for the future. 

Armin Medosch, Telepolis, http://www.heise.de/tp


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