ART : Interactive Art? It’s Virtually a Reality : For what could be a breakthrough exhibition, the L.A. County Museum of Art has commissioned high-tech projects by three artists, sight unseen.

<i> Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer</i>

Stroll into a darkened gallery, approach the viewing device in the center of the room and peer into a binocular monitor. Bam! You’ve plunged into a free-wheeling world of three-dimensional images where you are in the driver’s seat, surrounded by new visual experiences every time you turn a corner. This is virtual reality--artists’ style--and it’s coming to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

When “Hidden in Plain Sight: Illusion in Art From Jasper Johns to Virtual Reality,” a major exhibition about artistic perceptions of realism, opens at LACMA on Oct. 27, 1996, painted and sculpted approximations of people and objects will not be the only artworks on view. Visitors also will find computerized simulations of environments that can be explored at will. The museum has commissioned three prominent artists to create virtual reality--VR-- installations for the show: Jeffrey Shaw, an Australian who directs ZKM ( Zentrum fur Kunst und Medientechnologie , or Center for Art and Media), a government-funded institute for the advancement of electronic arts in Karlsruhe, Germany; Bill Viola, an internationally recognized video artist who lives and works in Long Beach, and Cindy Sherman, a New Yorker best known for photographic self-portraits.

“We wanted one person who is very hip, a real pioneer, a patriarchal figure, and that’s Jeffrey,” said Maurice Tuchman, LACMA’s senior curator emeritus of 20th-Century art, who is organizing the show with Virginia Rutledge, exhibition associate. “Second, in Bill, we wanted someone in the forefront of technology and the humanities [who hadn’t worked with virtual reality]. And third, a genius in illusionism who is up for the challenge. That’s Cindy.”

The artists’ work--most of which is only in early planning stages--is expected to be a breakthrough in the use of virtual reality as a means of aesthetic expression.


“It’s absolutely significant,” Shaw said of the exhibition. “This is the first major museum to commit itself to show artists’ work in the new technology at a high level.”

Science and industry museums and entertainment centers have presented VR exhibits, but precedents at art museums are extremely limited. “Virtual Pompeii,” currently at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, allows viewers to experience a historic city by navigating through a three-dimensional model. “Virtual Reality: An Emerging Medium,” a weeklong show in 1993 at New York’s Guggenheim Museum SoHo, included artists’ projects, but they were displayed on video monitors.

For the Los Angeles exhibition, Silicon Graphics Inc.--an industry leader in supercomputers, perhaps best known for the computers used to make the film “Jurassic Park"--will loan powerful equipment that will give the artists “enormous freedom” in high-resolution, complex images and sophisticated interactivity, Shaw said.

Another Silicon Valley firm, Fakespace Inc., a developer of advanced virtual reality imaging systems, will provide “BOOM3C” viewers, using a binocular-like device that you can look into without having to don the cumbersome hoods and goggles that are usually associated with VR. ZKM, co-producer of the exhibition’s virtual reality component, will contribute programming support as well as cash and travel funds for the artists to work in Germany. (The major corporate sponsor for “Hidden in Plain Sight” is AT&T.; The Knapp Foundation, headed by LACMA trustee Budd Knapp, has provided a research and development grant.)

Of the three artists, only Shaw has decided what he will show at LACMA. His piece, “Place--A User’s Manual,” extends the tradition of panoramic painting and photography, he said. Three video cameras stationed on a rotating platform in the center of his gallery will project panoramic landscape photographs onto a circular screen. Standing on the platform, viewers can navigate through the virtual space of the landscapes by looking through a camera, but there also will be a second level of interactivity, he said.

“A microphone that picks up sounds made by users will trigger streams of text that fly around in a virtual world for 5 or 10 minutes, then fade away. It’s rather like graffiti from individuals who have been there and left some trace, or memories of other people who have been in the space.”

Shaw’s database of digitized imagery features 11 different landscapes, winnowed from 50 or 60 shots taken all around the world. Looking for visual idiosyncrasies and forms that relate to his installation, he has selected a volcanic landscape in La Palma, a beach scene in Bali, an industrial site in Australia and a Roman amphitheater in France, among other locations.

“The photographs will be re-embodied in a virtual world. The strategy is to reconstruct a true experience of space,” Shaw said.

Viola is in the “basic research” phase of his project, having recently paid a visit to San Francisco, where he worked with equipment at the “Virtual Pompeii” exhibition. Declining to speculate about how his piece might develop, he said virtual reality is a logical extension of his past work, which includes projected images in wrap-around environments.

“What I’ve been doing ever since I got out of school is making rooms,” he said. “They are very much about real space, and viewers move through them. Virtual reality creates and articulates space in a totally representative form. The power of it is that it involves the body as well as the eyes and the mind. . . . You have a very powerful potential for a deep understanding and experience of images--three-dimensional images that change in space as well as time.”

The interactive technology challenges the notion of the artist as sole creator of an artwork, Viola said. It also presents artists with the problem of “putting something that is essentially a private experience in a public place,” he said. “How do you do that? I don’t know. That’s something I will be working on.”

As for Sherman, who is famously reclusive, she isn’t talking about her project yet and won’t even begin working on it until January. But Tuchman and Rutledge are confident that she will come up with something exciting.

Tuchman conceived “Hidden in Plain Sight” as the third in a trilogy of provocative exhibitions that he has organized for LACMA. The first, “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985,” in 1986, concerned sources of modern abstraction. Next, in 1991, “Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art” explored the influence of unschooled, eccentric practitioners on mainstream artists.

In the upcoming exhibition, Tuchman intended to survey the period of 1880-1990, beginning with trompe l’oeil realists William Harnett and John Frederick Peto. But as he and Rutledge began to shape the show and to discuss changing perceptions of reality, they decided to focus on a shorter time span with “works that embody some illusion,” he said.

It isn’t easy to define reality and illusion at a moment when the so-called truth of photography has given way to manipulative technology. “Perceptions of reality are up for grabs and up for play,” Rutledge said. So the curators decided to incorporate a wide range of media including the latest in electronic art.

“There are scads of artists who are very, very good who are wondering why they aren’t in the exhibition, and there will be the inevitable comments about who is and is not included,” Tuchman said. “As in ‘The Spiritual in Art,’ the works are not tied together on stylistic grounds but on ideology.”

An introductory gallery of historical works will preface the show, which will begin with Jasper Johns’ “Flag,” a 1954-55 painting of an American flag. The roster of about 100 works by 60 artists will include a life-size camel by the late Nancy Graves, photo-realist paintings by Richard Estes, figurative sculpture by John de Andrea, Duane Hanson and Charles Ray, and a video work by Jennifer Steinkamp.

Color Xerox reproductions of many of these works are pinned on a wall in Tuchman’s office. There are no pictures of the virtual reality component. But their absence doesn’t appear to be a source of worry.

“I’m excited,” Viola said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I think it’s really neat that they have confidence in me. It’s as if you had played a piano all your life and suddenly someone hands you a saxophone.”