"TechnoSphere: a case study in
networked collaboration"

Jane Prophet

Agents of Change: the photographers guide to the future

Fifth National Photography Conference
22-24 September 1995. Assembly Rooms, Derby.

Using the project TechnoSphere as a case study I want raise a number of issues facing image makers who use new technologies, in particular the internet, for developing and distributing their projects. What I intend to do is build up a network of related issues and ideas which I hope you will add to and develop in the discussion afterwards. One of this panel's themes is to consider notions of `networking' and my first reference to this is by way of introducing the team that has developed TechnoSphere. The network of people that has evolved to produce this increasingly vast project includes people from a diverse range of backgrounds. At its core are 5 of us, and the projects success so far is a result of bringing together motivated people from diverse backgrounds. My background is in Fine Art and media practice, And I now teach in Media at University of Westminster and take the role of artistic director and producer on the project, I am the Web site designer. Gordon Selley is TechnoSphere's technical manager and he has the difficult job of integrating the different elements which make up TechnoSphere (the email device, artificial life programme, renderer and Web site) and has built the rendering engine. His background is in flight simulation, VR and software engineering for film special effects and he now works in research at LCP. Julian Saunderson is the artificial life developer and lectures at the Centre for Electronic Arts at Middlesex University. Andrew Kind is the character modeller who has designed the component creatures, his expertise is in computer animation and he's animator at Excess Ltd. Tony Taylor Moran is Webmaster, handling hardware and overseeing the net access and operating systems. The research and development phase of TechnoSphere has been supported by the Arts Council of England, Film & Video Umbrella, Cambridge Darkroom & Digital Workshop and this is very much a collaboration. Without funding, which we could not get without the support of these organisations, TechnoSphere would still be done, but slowly, and that's significant because part of its success is its currency. There are increasing numbers of collaborators, people who via email have shared information with us and visitors to the Web site who have made important suggestions and criticisms, not to mention the Press who although scary have given us loads of free advertising which in turn has meant more people look at our site and interact with it. So what is TechnoSphere?

TechnoSphere is an interactive computer-based `virtual world', a digital ecology whose landscape and artificial life-forms evolve over time. The evolutionary development of the three dimensional world, which is housed on our server, depends on the participation of an on-line public who access the world via the Internet. Users design their own artificial life-forms which are then put into the 3D world. In this fractal terrain trees self-seed at certain heights to make forests and there are desert and mountainous regions in which the cyber beasts artificially `live'. On September 1st we opened a prototype version which runs over the Internet and is accessed via the World Wide Web.

New tools for designing for the World Wide Web provide the means for bringing together still and moving pictures with text, challenging what was once an accepted distinction between these media. But this is not the only challenge to our established sense of visual literacy. Virtual literacy, in this case our ability to `read' sites on the World Wide Web, depends on the user having at least a basic understanding of what characterises the internet as a medium and on having an awareness of the traditions and subcultures that have informed its development.

When writing about fifteenth century Italian painting, the art historical Michael Baxandall emphasises the importance of the position of the viewer to any subsequent interpretation of images. Baxandall's concept of `the Period eye' may be useful to us as we consider the current use of the internet by visual artists. By the `Period eye' Baxandall is referring to the cognitive skills that any spectator brings with them when looking at artworks, and he includes in this the cultural and moral climate from which they gaze. Central to the notion of the `Period eye' is that it is culturally, geographically and chronologically or historically specific: that any reading of images is dependent on local knowledge (as Clifford Geertz would say). When it comes to artworks produced using new technologies, especially the internet, I have found it useful to consider the period eye. The technology is developing so rapidly that those grey pages on the WWW, dominated by text-based information, the ones that we found exciting and revolutionary a few months ago, now seem old fashioned and visually repetitive as we get used to using browsers like Netscape's new series which enable Web sites to be designed with greater emphasis on image-based material such as coloured or patterned backgrounds. Similarly, in a few months time we may well look at sites like TechnoSphere's with low resolution graphics and sound and the lack of embedded moving images, and find it difficult to equate them with the excitement and hype with which they are currently received, such is the speed with which the range of our virtual literacy expands and our period eye refocusses.

Baxandall's period eye is also geographically specific, which at first may seem inappropriate to our consideration of the internet, which we have become used to associating with the global and ubiquitous. However, as users of the internet our geographical location is significant: it carries with it issues of access, as provision is dominated by western northern hemisphere countries. The dominance of the English language on the net is especially important as much of what we find on the internet is text-based. Like the Italian merchant patrons who were the primary viewers of the fifteenth century paintings that they commissioned, most internet browsers are economically advantaged. Cheap public access to the net is still relatively rare.

Unlike the fifteenth century paintings that Baxandall refers to the subjects covered on sites on the internet some of which are radical and political in nature, . To understand this we need to increase our period eye's the depth of field, and understand a little of the history of the development of the internet. It was set up US military to maintain military establishments in the event of nuclear attack, this was achieved in conjunction with American Universities. As Universities used the internet increasingly to send email and swop information what has emerged is a de-centralised and unregulated network of information (the military has since set up their own regulated network, DARPANET). There's no doubt that the internet can offer us an environment rich in information for research (if we can be bothered to wade through lots of information which is either boring or irrelevant to our interests). The tradition of one or two members of staff keeping an internet service running for free for interested researcher continues. This may prove to be one of the most important issues facing Universities who want to make a switch towards replacing the social network of the campus In Real Life (IRL) with what they assume is a cheaper educational networks based on new technologies. The infrastructure needed to set up and maintain an interesting internet service is potentially far more expensive than penny-pinching senior managers may realise. Just as every department and small company wanted DTP in the eighties, and then got it and produced appaling badly designed in-house brochures and newsletters, so everybody, it seems, wants a presence on the internet. The same pattern is emerging: people will not spend time browsing a poorly designed website anymore than they used to read the discarded in-house publicity.

But lets return to artists and their possibly transgressive use of the internet. Gallery sites and artists projects are a relatively new presence on the internet. These Web sites frequently challenge established Netiquette and simultaneously the traits of the Net throw down a challenge to image-makers, making us rethink our approach to production, exhibition and the audience.

I have referred to the low resolution of images that are available on the net, but to draw attention to this I'd like to take one of TechnoSphere's pages as an example. Most users can access information over their phone lines via their modems at 2k/second, therefore big image files take a long time to download and users log off the website out of boredom and impatience as they visualise the rise of their telephone bills. The page from Creature Designer that is used to design artificial life-forms uses images that have been treated in PhotoShop to reduce the colour palettes to a minimum. Each component uses about 890bytes. Colour stripping images is laborious but makes images load much faster. After years of striving for full motion and high resolution computer graphical images, using the net as a medium challenges artists used to photographic and film processes, to think of new approaches to making their work. There are sites on the net which house large high resolution images, but many take the approach of artAIDS LINK and provide small lower resolution versions, you only open the larger ones if you're especially interested in them. The quality of image resolution was not what drew me to consider the internet as a site for my artwork. In its most common form the internet and the browsers designed for accessing it provide us with a means of browsing text-based information. TechnoSphere is more than an information environment for browsing, it enables users to transgress the clearly delineated division between artist and spectator, and treats the internet as an interface by building a project which is primarily about interactions.

The nature of these interactions is varied. There is the interaction of the user with the design pages, the interaction between them and their creature, as they get information about it. There is interaction between users and the design team, as we makes changes to the website and work on additional functions in response to the comments we get from users. There are opportunities for users to make suggestions for changes or additions to these rules by filling in comments sheets or emailing via the Web site, for example the toolbox was generated in response to comments from users, who wanted to be able to download useful software from our site which they might need to view movies or browse the site. With people making useful suggestions for developing the behavioural characteristics of the artificial life-forms the development of functions like the rule system again become evolutionary and collective. In effect the development of TechnoSphere is a global collaboration depending on a vast network of users spread around the world, and effected by their ideas and requests. Ultimately the dynamism and look of TechnoSphere itself, its 3D terrain and artificial life, depends on the creatures interacting, on the artificial life programme that drives these interactions.

But what degrees of interaction are being achieved with this interface and with the interactive projects on CDROM that increasingly make up festivals such as this one? Interactive art has become a buzzword, a catchall phrase which is used to describe a huge range of different types of project. The artist Tessa Elliott makes a clear distinction between what she calls interactive and reactive art works. What Elliott would call reactive are projects which respond to your interaction in a limited and pre-defined way. Your interaction triggers images and sounds which are finite and determined by the artist. For a piece to be fully interactive in Elliott's terms it's content has to be able to be changed or developed by the interactions of the audience. It is the potential for a fuller interaction that drew us to work on the internet, and this is what we are trying to achieve with TechnoSphere.

The excitement caused by interactivity and interconnection can be seen as part of a larger cultural development. Interconnectivity can be seen as one of the paradigms of the late Twentieth century as opposed to mono-dimensional certainty of previous times. Interconnectivity is worthy of the paradigm title because the late Twentieth century has been dramatically affected by scientific discoveries which have produced radical shifts in the way in which we perceive the world, shifts which have cut across cultural terrains. Chaos theory has recognised the importance and power of interaction.

The interaction between cyber-beasts within TechnoSphere and the designers outside are not just activated by the human designers. At key moments in its evolution, an artificial life-form will email a postcard to its maker to inform them of important changes in its digital evolution. This is a bit like the Christmas cards that people receive on behalf of donkies they have sponsored in sanctuaries, but in the case of the artificial life-forms the postcard is prompted by a significant development, things like - extinction, rapid proliferation or dramatic change in appearance as a result of cross-breeding or algorithm-splicing.

Users will soon be able to follow the progress of their own creatures, or that of a pre-existing creature by clicking a button on the Web pages to request information. They will get a report of the creatures life and a 2D image of its latest appearance and location. Animations and snapshots of areas and events in the world will also be produced at regular intervals and can be sent over the Internet to interested users.

In this final section of the presentation I'd like to flag up some of the curatorial and funding challenges that art on the Net poses. I spoke earlier of the different levels of interaction which are possible, and suggested that artists interested in audience interaction are keen to experiment with the Internet because of the different levels of interaction it enables. To explore this idea I'm going to take TechnoSphere and the project artAIDS link as examples. artAIDS link is up and running and was launched on International AIDS day last year. In many art pieces there is clearly delineated division between artist and spectator. Projects like artAIDS link and TechnoSphere transgresses these boundaries, as users are encouraged to send in their own images and `life-forms' which are then added to the artAIDS and TechnoSphere databases. artAIDS began with a stock of 20 or so images commissioned from artists from all over the world. These acted as examples and as a starting point from which the virtual patchwork could develop. With artAIDS users can select images that are on display in the virtual gallery and download them onto their home machines. Once they've done this they can change the images, or make an entirely new image and then send it back into the gallery. In this way the project grows and the interaction of users changes the content of the virtual Gallery spaces. The real commemorative AIDS patchwork is now so big that there ism no public space large enough to contain it. Cyberspace offers the virtual patchwork the opportunity for limitless expansion, and anyone with the time available can browse the whole patchwork It also encourages a collaboration which crosses national boundaries, the patchwork becomes global as anyone with access to a modem can access the Web site from any country.

Similarly the look of TechnoSphere changes as new creatures are put into the terrain, and the creatures themselves evolve and change visually. As we develop the program the artificial life and renderer become more sophisticated, this is an early image (taken 5 weeks ago) of how creatures were looking then. Now we have more advanced creatures. The identity of artAIDS and TechnoSphere is therefore shifting and utterly dependent on the collaboration of users. Although collaborative projects are not new, pieces like artAIDS and TechnoSphere are unusual in that the numbers and identities of collaborators are neither fixed or easy to authenticate. The boundaries between artist and consumer are crossed numerous times and become blurred. Any notion of the single genius artist is disrupted further as collaboration potentially takes on a global scale and Internet contributions possibly become anonymous.

The Web pages which appear each time TechnoSphere is accessed can also be used to monitor the audience it is receiving. By a simple device such as signing a visitors book (and leaving an email address which is common practice on entering Internet sites) there will be an accurate record of the people accessing and interacting with the project. This method of recording is currently being used by the artAIDS LINK project managers. The notion of audience monitoring is especially important in Arts Council funded projects and Internet based works provide a new challenge to the way galleries and funding bodies take audiences into account. The potential audience for these projects is huge in comparison to the numbers of people likely to visit any one gallery exhibition, but on the other hand they are unlikely to be limited to a country let alone a British region. Traditional Arts Council notions of conveniently targeting local audiences are thrown wide open, and specific local audiences might need to be drawn in through workshops and tours. TechnoSphere, for example, will be demonstrated at local galleries and the life-forms created during these workshops could then be tagged and made to send regular information on their development back to the host gallery.

TechnoSphere and artAIDS are both a celebration of reproduction. Numerous virtual art gallery sites on the Web have all the trappings of the art market, epitomised by an obsession with ownership and control. This is illustrated by the common sight that greets you when you access many on-line gallery sites - first thing that you read is a warning against reproducing the images on display, which are shown at deliberately low-resolution to prevent copying. By contrast artAIDS and TechnoSphere could both be seen as Modernist projects, attempting to engage with the specificity of the Internet, characterised by the traits of the net, many of which seem in opposition to ideas of control of information. Like any computer programme Technosphere can be copied and run on many machines at the same time. As this happens there will be many TechnoSpheres existing simultaneously, all looking different from each other as their look depends on the artificial life-forms that inhabit them. However, the difference is no longer of the nature normally associated with works of art, it is unrelated to notions of `stages of development' or `level of completion'. All versions are authentic, or none are authentic, in fact authenticity becomes irrelevant.

As it grows in both size and sophistication, the internet demands consideration as a major communication medium. Higher Education needs to respond to this by including input on internet design skills in the curricula for image-based courses, and looking at it as more than a way of delivering courses cheaply to foreign students. The internet provides a rich environment for more than browsing information: it has the potential to provide us with an environment in which to collaborate on a global scale on both research and artistic projects.

Baxandall, Michael 1988. Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy. Open University set book
Geertz, Clifford 1983. Local Knowledge. New York: Basic Books
artAIDS LINK 1995. WWW project. Address: http://artaids.dcs.qmw.ac.uk:8001/entrance/entrance.html

Papers from conferences: abstracts