Future chic arrived at the Interactive Media Festival, where a circus of technological artworks and artifacts brought the digital out from underground

By Ty Burr
Updated July 15, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

On stage, Herbie Hancock is jamming with Todd Rundgren, Toni Childs, Wayne Shorter, and at least one Buddhist monk. Backstage, Peter Gabriel is waxing passionate about global change (”In three years, [kids in developing countries] will have the experience with technology that’ll give agriculture economies a chance to shift to information technologies”). Above the stage, the giant heads of Brian Eno and David Bowie — televised live from London — blink like weary avatars (it’s 6 a.m. where they are). ”Authorship is now diffused,” Eno’s voice booms. ”It now extends to the audience.” As if to prove his point, crowd members in front of the stage have been given mobile video cameras, and are gleefully relaying the carnival back to immense overhead screens.

The scene was SPARK, the awards ceremony of the first Interactive Media Festival (IMF), a highly touted competitive sideshow at the Digital World computer convention in Los Angeles last month. The express intent of the IMF was to bring together PC propellerheads and black-clad Sprockets types in one big bear hug of post-’60s creative idealism, and at its worst, the three-day fest came off like a New Age nightmare projected into the future. At its frequent best, though, it answered a key question of interactive media — But Is It Art? — with a bold yes.

Or at least a lot of sly yeses. The 27 festival entrants ran the gamut from commercial arcade games (Sega’s Virtua Fighter) to Internet way stations (CitySpace, an on-line domain built by kids for kids); from brilliantly functional technical breakthroughs Mosaic, an easy-as-pie graphic interface for the ‘Net) to head-scratching museum pieces (Flora Petrinsularis, a computer-and-porcelain installation from French artist Jean-Louis Boissier). As befits an adolescent medium that craves respect, the winners of the Sparky awards were mostly very serious. Gabriel’s Xplora 1 CD-ROM and Handsight, a virtual-reality ”memory jar” by Dutch artist Agnes Hegedus, came off as rich and emotionally resonant — but a touch too earnest to really take flight.

Other artworks succeeded through wonky playfulness. A third winner, Paul Sermon’s Telematic Dreaming, used souped-up video cameras to put two viewers based in separate rooms onto the same cyberspace bed: The festival’s cheapest thrill was watching pudgy conventioneers reach out to touch someone who wasn’t there. And my fave, Ulrike Gabriel’s creepy-crawly Terrain 0/1, enlisted the user’s own brain waves to bring a horde of foot-long mechanical cockroaches to skittering life (the mellower you are, the more hyper they are).

If all this sounds like the tip of an aesthetic iceberg, it’s also a little misleading. The Interactive Media Festival was held in a dark, cordoned-off wing of the L.A. Convention Center; self-styled ”techno-shamans” led visitors through some of the installations. The governing, if unspoken, metaphor was that of a hushed ”New Museum.” But out on the main floor of Digital World, an entrepreneur named Jeannie Novak was passing out pamphlets for her Internet site, Kaleidospace, which puts the works of writers, musicians, filmmakers, and painters into an on-line gallery. She calls the service a ”digital art deli,” and it’s open for works from, and visits by, everybody. Okay, everybody with an Internet account. But most democracies start small, and this one could bloom like a fractal. Is Kaleidospace Art? Maybe not like what the shamans are showing off, but something more lowercase, homey, and direct. Perhaps Novak is purveying a truer kind of interactive art: the kind we can use.