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No Couch Potatoes Need Apply

Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Picture this: A man wanders into a room furnished with a comfy sofa, a video monitor and a camera. He plunks himself down on the sofa and sees his own image on the monitor. Then suddenly, he has company. As he looks at the picture, a woman appears to sit down beside him. They are equally startled because the woman is actually seated on an identical couch in an adjacent room and she, too, is staring at a projected image of herself with a newfound partner. But they soon loosen up and develop a cyberspace relationship.

It may not be love, but it’s the sort of encounter visitors can expect at “Telematic Connections: The Virtual Embrace,” a traveling exhibition that opens next Sunday at Art Center College of Design. Organized by Independent Curators International and curated by Steve Dietz, director of new media initiatives at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the show offers about 40 works by 25 artists who explore the global telecommunications network.

Along with meeting other gallery-goers in Paul Sermon’s sofa piece, “Telematic Vision,” visitors can participate in cybergardening, converse with an invisible wizard and witness seismic movement. Except for “Re:mote_Corp@REALities,” Tina LaPorta’s narrative of chat room conversations and interviews, all the pieces are interactive. And, for the most part, that doesn’t mean visitors sit at computers and tap on keyboards

Leading a visitor through the show at its inaugural venue, the San Francisco Art Institute, Dietz approaches Eduardo Kac’s “Teleporting an Unknown State,” a computer-based telecommunications installation that consists of a minigarden and a video monitor in a darkened room. “There is a seedling planted in this dirt,” Dietz says, pointing to a scraggly plant emerging from a mound of earth on the floor. “As visitors click on the Web page projected on the monitor, it metaphorically transfers photons to this dark room so the plant can grow. The point is the Internet as a nourishing system. There is also a sense that a community has to build up to click enough times for the plant to live.”

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Moving on to a room housing “Netomatheque” by Maciej Wisniewski, Dietz invites his visitor to explore a new way of browsing the Internet by sitting on yet another sofa, picking up the phone on a nearby coffee table and saying a word into the receiver. Soon a stream of imagery and information pertaining to the spoken cue is projected on the wall opposite the sofa.

Then it’s off to earthquake country, via “Mori,” an ambitious installation by Ken Goldberg, Randall Packer, Wojciech Matusik and Gregory Kuhn that connects visitors with the Hayward Fault. “These fiber-optic handrails vibrate in relation to seismic activity of the earth in real time,” Dietz says, grasping spiral rails that lead to the center of the piece. “The sound you are hearing is also modulated by the seismic activity of the earth in real time,” he says of the rumbling noise that fills the air. In the middle of the room a seismograph-like chart of tectonic activity appears on a monitor embedded in the floor, presenting a graphic image of subterranean action.

Those who don’t like to be confronted with earthquakes in any form or at any distance may not appreciate the eerie tactile, aural and visual effects of “Mori.” But Dietz speaks of the piece as “a connection to the earth” and “a nurturing reminder” that the earth is “a living, breathing thing, not just something we walk on.”

These artworks are only a sampling of related pieces on view in current technology-related shows all across the country--including “010101: Art in Technological Times,” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through July 8, and “BitStreams,” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York through June 10. But Dietz is a new-media veteran, and his show isn’t just one more survey of the latest bells and whistles in an ever-evolving genre.

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“I wanted to do something useful and interesting, so I decided to focus on artists who are working in a physical space but use the network, and artists who are thinking about how we connect either to each other or to the earth,” he says. With that in mind, he began to explore computer-mediated connections between distant parties--human to human, human to machine, machine to machine and human to nature. He also decided to make the point that such recently made artwork has a surprisingly long history.

The exhibition title, “Telematic Connections: The Virtual Embrace,” comes from “the idea of convergence of telecommunications and computing, which was first specifically named in the 1970s by French social scientists Alain Minc and Simon Nora as the basis of a book called ‘The Computerization of Society,’ ” Dietz says. “The idea was that this convergence was giving rise to something extraordinary, and that is exactly what we have seen over the past 30 years. Some artists started working with slow-scan TV and FAX and video transmission at that time, long before the Web.

“The basis of this exhibition is the nexus of work in telecommunications and computing that specifically looks at the human component,” he says. “There is all this rhetoric about ‘reach out and touch someone’ on the advertising side and all this talk saying that you can be friends with whomever you share interests with, not just whom you live next door to, by the promoters of cyberspace. In the exhibition, maybe half of the artists take a positive view of potential connections between people and half of them point out that maybe the situation isn’t quite as utopian as we might have thought.”

Steve Mann’s “SeatSale,” for example, imagines a time when computers will be implanted in human beings and surveillance will be so pervasive that it will be necessary to buy a license for personal memories. Working with the concept of seat licenses--the standard way of measuring legal software users--Mann requires viewers to swipe a credit card through a slot to download a temporary license that allows them to watch a film he made with a wearable computing device.

To help visitors make sense of all these ideas, Dietz has organized the show in four sections. “Tele-Real” presents eight installations that make human connections with--and in spite of--the network. The works in “Datasphere” use the network and computers to connect with physical devices outside the gallery. “Tele-Wood” is a compilation of excerpts from films and videos that portray a telematic future, including “Flash Gordon,” 'Star Trek” and “The Matrix.”

Finally, “Telematics Timeline” is a wall chart that traces efforts to communicate from ancient Greece to 21st century America. This section provides a context for the works on view by taking note of related projects created prior to the existence of the World Wide Web.

At the San Francisco Art Institute, the exhibition appeared at a fine arts school where students have easy access to computers. Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design--which offers classes in both commercial and fine arts--seems an appropriate venue as well. In addition to computer-savvy students, the school has a gallery with a considerable track record of presenting high-tech exhibitions.

During the past few years, Steve Nowlin, director of Art Center’s Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery, has organized several exhibitions of so-called new media works. They encompass a show of art fabricated on the Internet and many interactive installations.

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An energetic director who organizes almost all of the Williamson Gallery’s shows, Nowlin says he is looking forward to opening “Telematic Connections” partly because it provides a new approach to art that interests him greatly and partly because it was created by a curator he admires.

“I want to keep going after these shows, but it’s hard for me to organize them from scratch, and there are not many new media shows that circulate from other organizations because they are so complicated,” Nowlin says. “I had been talking with Steve Dietz about the possibility of doing some kind of collaboration, but it never got very far. When I heard that he had put this show together, it seemed perfect.”

Nonetheless, getting all the artworks up and running is a daunting task, he says. And it’s more than a one-man job. At Art Center, Julian Goldwhite, the gallery’s associate curator, and John O’Brien, a Los Angeles-based artist and curator, are providing crucial assistance.

Dietz views the exhibition as something of a work in progress whose look and possibly whose content will change as it travels throughout the country and adapts to different galleries. “It’s a network that will grow, just like a telecommunications network,” he says. “Each exhibition venue sets up a new trigger, depending on the situation.” *

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TELEMATIC CONNECTIONS: THE VIRTUAL EMBRACE, Art Center College of Design, 1700 Lida St., Pasadena. Dates: Next Sunday through July 1. Closed Monday. Phone: (626) 396-2244.


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