Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Visual Arts

Volume XXVII Number 2
Spring 2005

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virtual reality art
Doliinsky's Beat Box allows visitors to play virtual drums and set up audio sequencers with percussion, bass, and ambient sounds.
Courtesy Margaret Dolinsky

Margaret Dolinsky
Margaret Dolinsky in the CAVE at IU Bloomington
Photo © Tyagan Miller

Wide Awake and Dreaming

by Deborah Galyan

One thing is clear right away in conversation with Margaret Dolinsky: the old principles do not apply. True to convention, she’s a visual artist who teaches and works at Indiana University Bloomington’s Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts, but she’s equally likely to be across campus in the Advanced Visualization Laboratory (AVL), a part of University Information Technology Services (UITS). She’s as comfortable commanding a computer in UNIX as she is holding a paintbrush, and for more than a decade, her art has involved pushing large quantities of data across great distances, networking supercomputers, and creating virtual reality environments.

Dolinsky is probably best known for networking CAVEs—cube-like virtual reality display theaters—to create simultaneous exhibitions of her art in cities across the globe. Inside her CAVE environments, a passive viewer is transformed into a “performer” who interacts creatively not only with the virtual environment itself, but also with other performers in remote locations. A person in a CAVE in Sydney, for example, could collaborate in real-time with people in Chicago and Tokyo. Through the use of advanced video and audio networking, CAVE visitors can see and speak to one another, even make music together, as performers do in her collaborative audio environment Beat Box.

Dolinsky is one of many new media artists around the world working in the realm of virtual reality (VR). While she shares with most artists the timeless concerns of aesthetics, color, form, and metaphor, her colleagues are just as likely to be information specialists, computer scientists, or cognitive scientists.

“There has been a real change in the culture,” Dolinsky observes. “We aren’t talking as much about ‘artists’ on the one hand and ‘scientists’ on the other, we’re talking more about ‘creative people.’ We seem to be accepting the fact that the arts have a scientific aspect and that the sciences have a highly creative aspect.”

Although CAVE technology is still rare in museums, Dolinsky’s environments are installed at the Ars Electronica Center in Linz, Austria, and the ICC Museum in Tokyo, Japan, and there’s a global frenzy of interest in her ground-breaking work. Last year she traveled to China to attend an exhibition of her work at the Red Gate Gallery in the Dongbianmen Watchtower in Chongwenmen, Beijing. She was also invited to lecture at Tsinghua University, known in the sciences as the “MIT of China.”

“It was an important invitation for me,” she acknowledges.

Like many artists, Dolinsky begins the creative process by thinking about and studying art. “I look at a lot of art and draw, draw, draw,” she says.

She usually paints—with paint and brushes—before switching to the computer, where she works with various digital painting programs and 3D-modeling packages. “Drawing and painting remind me of how to do art,” she explains, “but once I get started on the computer, my focus and motivation go more in the direction of virtual reality.”

An invitation to experience her virtual art environments leads you to the deceptively quaint Lindley Hall, home of the AVL and the CAVE Automatic Virtual Environment. The CAVE consists of screens, projectors, and a tracking system, connected by computers to create an eight-foot cube with three walls and a floor. With its open fourth wall, the CAVE resembles an empty stage, and the surrounding room has a backstage atmosphere. But there aren’t any props and sets—in this case, it’s VR hardware lining the walls.

To navigate through the CAVE environment, you use a tracking wand, much like a mouse is used with a computer. The wand and a pair of stereoscopic glasses interact with a visual tracking system to create realistic motion, a sense of gliding through space. Sound adds yet another dimension.

Once the program is up and running, the glasses in place, and the navigation wand in hand, the seamless world of Dolinsky’s virtual environment Blue Window Pane appears. Suddenly engulfed in her landscape of stylistically bold and colorful imagery, you can’t help but gasp—it’s startling to arrive so suddenly in such an intriguing new place. Initially, images seem familiar—a series of arched windows, luminous, blue, and opaque, are suggestive of a chapel. The walls and paths are intensely decorated surfaces, reminiscent of a mosque. But questions start to arise: Is this place what is seems? A spiritual place? A sanctum? Should you proceed with pleasure or trepidation?

In many ways, this virtual landscape feels like a real place. A visitor can see and hear and move around at will and yet, as often happens in dreams, the reality “in here” isn’t quite the same as it is “out there.”

The more you use the wand to trigger events, the more the environment responds. Walking down a hall leads to an encounter with a group of figures that seem to serve as guards, chattering and warning you not to proceed. But if you persist, they relent, spinning and transforming, allowing you to pass. Slipping off the edge of a circular staircase suspended in space, you fall, but dread turns to delight at the sensation of floating gently to the ground.

Dolinsky’s graphic icons—tunnels, vessels, faces—seem to pulse with energy and hidden meanings. It’s possible to walk around “things,” see into and underneath them by stretching or crouching. As in dreams, you can enter into illogical and forbidden spaces: Dolinsky’s icons open into worlds within worlds. She invites visitors to explore questions of surface and interior. There are levels upon levels, layers upon layers, objects within objects in her environments, three-dimensional representations of the complexities of the psyche in a labyrinth of multiple realities.

The thrill of this work is in the marriage of the technological and the conceptual, as Dolinsky frames it, the union of her artistic interests and the powerful new technologies that enable her to explore them. “What’s so exciting about the CAVE is that you start out with empty space—infinite black space—and you have an opportunity to build a world,” she says. “The technical challenge is to build one that has presence and agency—a world in which the visitor feels sufficiently immersed and willing to engage.”

In the virtual environment, there are no solid objects, only projections of light. The visitor has to construct reality moment to moment, constantly anticipating, perceiving, defining, and creating what is seen and experienced: a red ball, a column, a woman’s face looming in the distance.

“This is exactly what is happening in the real world,” Dolinsky points out. “Everyone is anticipating, perceiving, defining, and creating the world, moment to moment; we’re all projecting our thoughts and creating our own consensual reality. So, in one sense, the CAVE is a kind of laboratory for understanding how humans construct reality.”

From artistic and conceptual points of view, the environments she creates aren’t fully realized until visitors are interacting in them—what Dolinsky refers to as “performing” in the virtual space. Each visitor enters the environment with a different set of experiences and expectations, exploring and performing from his or her unique point of view. But once inside, how does a visitor decide what to do or where to go? There are no signs to serve as guides and no clear path or goal, no correct or incorrect way to proceed. Visitors must decide for themselves how to explore the mysterious icons that shimmer and hover around them.

Navigation is one of the most interesting technical challenges for Dolinsky. “Everyone knows how to navigate a computer desktop with drop-down menus and click-on icons, but there are no standard navigational metaphors for CAVEs,” she explains. Dolinsky’s artistic goal is to develop navigational metaphors that help visitors proceed in a more intuitive, self-directed manner.

“When you’re in the CAVE, the visuals become the navigational icons,” she says. “They give clues about where to go next, where to push buttons, and so forth. There’s a whole spectrum of ways to build these interfaces. I’m trying a lot of different approaches, including free-association navigation. It’s exciting to be working in an area that’s still being shaped—to contribute to the task of figuring out how people will make their way around 3-D worlds in the future.”

Dolinsky is also deeply engaged in the challenge of networking CAVEs, allowing people hundreds or thousands of miles away to “meet” and interact with “avatars” of one another inside the virtual environments.

“It’s highly experimental at this point—we’re still figuring out what the technology can do. I’m happy to be at IU because we’re great at networking. UITS manages several international networks, and they’re really good at pushing megabytes across the ocean,” she explains. “This is one of the few places where you can actually network CAVEs at super-high speeds.”

Last year Dolinsky addressed the High Performance Computational Science Committee on Institutional Cooperation in Washington, D.C., where she talked about the cross-disciplinary aspects of designing and networking her multi-user virtual environments.

“One thing researchers have in common is the task of describing and managing more and more streams of data,” she observes. “Suddenly, scientists, information technologists, and engineers are interested in the question of aesthetics because everyone wants to discover new ways to transform digital information into visual concepts. Artists are experts in that field. They specialize in the aesthetics of visualization.”

A longstanding interest in both art and computers brought Dolinsky to this fascinating interface between technology and art. As an undergraduate studying art and psychology, she was never far from the computer science department, where she held a job that supported her through college. “I was always in the library reading the computer graphics journals,” she says.

After college she worked as an art therapist in Chicago. She continued painting and exhibiting her work but when the time came to think about graduate school, she found herself drawn to computer graphics once again. She admits that the field initially put her off. “Computer graphics, which was still a relatively new area, seemed oriented toward men. But because I had already developed a strong sense of myself as an artist, I thought maybe I could help shape the field. I thought I would try to change it.”

Dolinsky earned her Master of Fine Arts in 1998 from the University of Illinois in Chicago, working in a computer lab where, as she describes it, “artists and computer scientists worked elbow to elbow on the same machines.” Scientists at the University of Illinois Electronic Visualization Laboratory invented CAVE technology in 1992, and it was there that Dolinsky designed her first VR environments.

Last fall Dolinsky taught the first graduate seminar to IU students in the School of Fine Arts’ new M.F.A. program in digital art. “I’m really excited about this degree program and these students,” she says with a smile. Her seminar was theory-based and required “old-fashioned, low-tech” reading and writing assignments about the contemporary digital arts scene, the history of digital technology, and the non-digital world.

Because visual artists are builders of cultural metaphors, Dolinsky believes her students should study contemporary philosophy and the social sciences. “These are areas in which people are thinking and reflecting in a holistic way about the impact of technology on the human world.

“One of the interesting conversations in philosophy today has to do with technology and humanness,” she continues. “What does the pervasiveness of technology tell us about being human? Now that we are even implanting it in our bodies—does that make us cyborgs? Are we post-human? Or is it essentially human to incorporate technology?

“Artists need to think philosophically, theoretically, and critically,” she concludes, “and hopefully we can use technology to bring the humanities and the sciences into a broader conversation.”

Deborah Galyan is a novelist and freelance writer in Bloomington, Ind.

Acquisition of IU’s CAVE was supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. CDA-9601632; any opinions, findings and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF.