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ART REVIEW

Back to the future

New technologies meet old ideals at the Boston Cyberarts Festival

In "COLLISIONeleven , " an exhibition of artworks using new technologies at MIT's Stata Center, there's a machine that produces abstract drawings in response to your heartbeat. You grasp a cylindrical sensor in your hands, and with each beat of your pulse, more and more scribbly colored lines appear on a computer screen until it is eventually filled by a densely layered field of lines. According to the machine's creator, Sinae Kim , the color and character of the lines will vary with the user's mood. So in effect, the old Abstract Expressionist dream of expressing authentic emotion directly and spontaneously through the body is achieved through the wonders of new technology.

That convergence of the old and the new turns out to be the most fascinating dimension of the Boston Cyberarts Festival, of which "COLLISIONeleven" is one of many exhibitions and events. While I was expecting to see lots of newfangled electronic novelties, what surprised and intrigued me was how much of what I saw revolved around some of the oldest and most traditional ideas and aspirations in the history of art.

Consider, for example, "BigProtoChoice ," a light-and-sound installation by Jonathan Bachrach at Cloud Place. In a darkened gallery, the artist has suspended a network of 90 transparent tubes, each containing a set of little red LED lights attached to a computer circuit board. When it is running, sparks of light appear to travel rapidly and randomly overhead through the tubular network, making low buzzing and whistling sounds as they go. It's like a swarm of fireflies on a summer evening.

As Bachrach explained to me at the opening of his exhibition, the routes that the sparks travel are not predetermined. In some way that I am not equipped to understand, they choose whether to go this way or that whenever they come to a branch in the network. So in effect, they are acting like a population of living beings. In this sense, Bachrach's sculpture harks back to one of the oldest of artistic fantasies: the idea of crafting an artwork that has a life of its own. It's a high-tech update of the Pygmalion myth.

When it comes to thinking of Bachrach's work as fully achieved art, however, I find myself hesitating. It's absorbing, entertaining, and meditative to experience, but it is not so impressive aesthetically or so metaphorically imaginative as to make it clearly something more than a kind of science-fair demonstration.

I feel similarly about Brian Knep's "Drift Wall 2007," an interactive, mural-scale animated video projection in the University Gallery at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell . In this piece, gray and white blobby shapes constantly expand, contract, merge, and divide as they rise slowly from the bottom to the top of a gridded screen. If you stand close, the blobs in the stack of squares directly in front of you reverse direction and go down. As in Bachrach's work, there is the sense that the artwork has a mysterious inner life of its own.

"Drift Wall 2007" is pleasantly mesmerizing to watch, like a gigantic lava lamp or a computer screensaver. I am sure that a great deal of technical ingenuity went into its creation. But as with "BigProtoChoice," it seems to be missing an urgent sense of meaning.

I spoke with Knep at the opening of his exhibition at the Judi Rotenberg Gallery, which is part of the Cyberarts Festival. There he's showing projected videos based on photographs of growing tadpoles that he digitally assembled into short loops. In the featured piece, a creature that rapidly cycles from tadpole to frog and back appears continually swimming in place at the center of a white spotlight.

Knep, an artist-in-residence at Harvard Medical School, told me he is interested in processes of aging and how people in modern society deal with the unavoidable cycles of life and death. There is a certain pathos in the vision of the tadpole-frog struggling to get ahead in the stream of time. But again, I can't help feeling something more is needed to bring out the layer of social and psychological meaning Knep talks about and to make his work something more than technically impressive biological illustration.

One of the most enduring goals for technologically innovative art is interactivity, and there are a number of examples in the festival. In a certain way, the dream of interactivity is pretty old, too. For centuries, artists have been working at finding ways to bridge the gap between the viewer and the artwork, to create a feeling of living engagement between self and other. Cycles of devotional paintings in medieval churches, for example, may be seen as encouraging a kind of interactivity on a spiritual if not a physical level.

Interactivity in contemporary art is tricky, though, as it can too often lead to experiences that are only superficially and fleetingly amusing. Sinae Kim's heartbeat drawing machine is one example, and so are the works of Camille Utterback at Art Interactive. In Utterback's installation, you enter a darkened space where abstract designs are projected onto four screens. As you move through the space, cameras pick up your body's motion and translate it into a kind of empty, irregular bubble shape that simultaneously erases part of the imagery on a nearby screen and triggers cascades of new forms -- lines, fields of dots, fungoid shapes, geometric forms, and elements suggestive of painterly brushstrokes. Thus new digital "paintings" are constantly generated by the viewer's presence.

But the projections are not all that captivating as pictorial compositions to begin with. And the changes that happen because o f your presence are not particularly startling, either. They just rearrange a certain standardized vocabulary of visual motifs. In a way, the experience actually reinforces a sense of passivity, as you cannot control very articulately what is happening on the screen. The machinery and the software do most of the work.

I found a more exciting interactive work in a recent show at OH+T Gallery called "An Orchid in the Land of Technology" that is not officially part of the festival. It's a kind of video game by Dan Torop in which you use a PlayStation type of control to navigate over and under a simulated ocean. You can precisely control weather conditions, color, point of view, speed, and other aspects of the experience, and the visual effects are striking. It's like entering an animated science-fiction movie.

Related to interactivity is the idea of total immersion. New technologies enable artists to address viewers simultaneously on multiple sensory levels and to envelop people almost completely in aesthetically conditioned experience -- as in interactive art, breaking down the barrier between subject and object.

Back at "COLLISIONeleven," there's an extraordinarily effective immersive work by Eric Gunther . Put on headphones and lie down on a narrow bed of pink cylindrical cushions; as powerfully resonant, space-age electronic music fills your ears, vibrators in the cushions synchronized with the music play on different parts of your body. On a purely sensory level it is amazingly pleasant, and I imagine that in the not- too- distant future we'll be able to purchase such devices for our home entertainment centers. Whether we will come to appreciate the combination of sound and bodily sensations as a distinct art form remains to be seen.

Yet another updating of an old concern for art -- distribution -- is the subject of "Selected Works From Aspect ," an exhibition at Axiom Gallery . The show presents four pieces that have been featured in Aspect, a biannual DVD periodical -- a format that enables readers to experience video and sound works as they are intended to be seen and heard. The show is worth a trip for works by Jim Campbell , Tony Cokes , Jill Magid , and Christopher Miner , whose video meditation on lust, sin, and his own body is rivetingly creepy. But in the context of the Cyberarts Festival, it's the questions implicitly raised about how and where art will be seen in the future that are most pertinent. Will the old- fashioned gallery be superseded by new forms of communication and distribution?

Speaking of which, art on the Web is curiously absent from the festival. There's one interesting exception, however. In a show called "Encounters" at Mills Gallery in the Boston Center for the Arts, computers display a Web portal designed by Dutch artist Stani Michiels . Access any website through Michiels's "Copacabana Cybercafé " and you discover that certain words have been replaced by their opposites or by foreign words. On the Cyber- arts Festival's site I found the words "join us" had been replaced by the words "boycott us." With such pranksterism, Michiels means to subvert our faith in a communication medium on which we have become highly dependent.

One of the most unexpected of the festival's exhibitions is "Picture Show" at the Photographic Resource Center . Here curator Leslie K. Brown has gathered together not futuristic technology, but works by contemporary artists that imitate old- fashioned moving-picture devices. Mechanized sculptures by Steve Hollinger , Deb Todd Wheeler , and others based on pre-cinematic devices like the flip book and the mutoscope convey nostalgia for obsolete technologies, and they invite us to wonder how people will look back on machines that are now state of the art. The term cyberart itself already seems a dorky relic of the past.

As for the festival as a whole, I think that what it needs more than anything at this point is a home. Festival director George Fifield has done a heck of a job, but with exhibitions and events scattered all over the city, few people will get to experience even a fraction of it. And those who try to take it all in will be frustrated by having to spend so much time traveling between exhibitions, some of which, on their own, either are not very strong or don't take that much time to grasp. If it could all be gathered into one big exhibition hall, it would do a lot more to raise consciousness and generate conversation about developments in art and technology that are changing our world as we speak.

Ken Johnson can be reached at kejohnson@globe.com.

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Boston Cyberarts Festival

At: various locations, through May 6. 617-524-8495, bostoncyberarts.org

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