Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 7#2 Richard Wright 1 Jan 1993


Anaheim USA 1993

We are all participants in an amazing week of information exchange, networking, presentation, demonstration and exhibition, declares the convention programme, - where our collective involvement creates tremendous force that rejuvenates the lifeblood of the computer graphics industry. At this signal 34,000 delegates descended on the city of Chicago and the mayor proclaimed the week of July 26, 1992 to be Computer Graphics week. Are they serious?
You know they are.

And its true. from all over the world scientists, academics, educators, the media industry, artists, business executives and sales reps converge on one us city for
five days of intense pixel bashing. As usual, the sheer number of things to attend at siggraph is enough to stagger the unprepared, and one must accept the fact
that one will not be able to see any more than a fraction of what is on offer. This year the gargantuan McGormick Place convention centre hosted the
conference but was still unable to prevent all the courses, workshops and meetings from overflowing into the surrounding hotels. In this way siggraph begins
to turn Chicago into a city of occupation, as gangs of delegates are seen roaming the streets looking for cheap restaurants, bars and clubs.

Siggraph tries hard to represent not only all the different disciplines that make up the subjects of the conference, but also to cater for all the different modes of
discourse that such disciplines can operate in. One can listen to panel presentations on computer graphics, read formal papers, essays or sales pitches, attend
courses on computer graphics, sit in on 'informal gatherings' organised to talk about computer graphics, put your name down for a job in computer graphics,
see computer graphics on video, slides, catalogues, walls and vdus or poke at them in interactive systems or virtual environments. Amongst the numerous
special events and exhibits, one highlight is the Electronic Theatre, billed as the Academy Awards and/or Nobel prize of the computer animation industry.
This event only takes place on three evenings, but you can also see continuous screenings of computer animation and digital effects in a special screening
room, as well as a 'video cafe' lounge area and numerous odd monitors set up wherever queues are likely to form. Whatever one is doing, the continuous flow
of synthetic imagery need never be interrupted.

There is also an Art Show, but it has rarely been more than a means by which siggraph members could show each other their work. This year it served a
function rather like a casual meeting place - a random collection of pictures on walls, plodding installations and assorted pieces of speculative hardware
thrown into the foyer area between the food bars, the escalators and the electronic message centre. Since its inception in 1981, the status of the Art Show has
always appeared problematic for siggraph. As a jury-selected exhibition organised each year by a recurrent group of academics it tends to feature works which
try to neutrally present as many types of imagery and artistic application as possible, their conflicting themes and interests effectively cancelling each other out.
It is almost as though the function of the artworks were a way of proving that all the number crunching, all the fancy hardware and big research would
eventually result in the desired end product - the image. At last you can put it in a frame and hang it on a wall, just like a real thing.

Once you begin to take in the variety of events, you realise that one does not have to know anything at all about computer graphics to be able to attend this
conference - indeed, you do not even have to be interested in the subject. This fact is tacitly acknowledged by the organisers, who for several years now have
held 'Fundamentals Seminars' on the Sunday before the conference proper begins, in order to 'orientate' reporters and visitors who are attending mainly in
response to the relentless media clamour over new imaging technologies that siggraph feeds off. The fact is that computer imagery is now the common
currency for many of the most important dealings in our daily lives, requiring an event of totalitarian aspirations like siggraph to cover an impossibly vast
panorama of applications, business, cultures and sciences. When the convention started in 1973 with a few dozen scientists their common language was
mathematics and electronics and the goal was just to get a reluctant computer to make any kind of a useful picture. As each research field subdivided and
became more technically specialised it seemed as though the extra events of film and video shows, art shows, exhibits and parties were added to make sure
there was always something for you to do while you were waiting for your own area of interest to begin its session. By the eighties research money began to
pour into centres that could put together any kind of a programme that mentioned 'state-of-the-art imaging technology'. siggraph took on a carnival
atmosphere, a celebration of the industry that was riding high on the gadget fetish of the decade, always in the public eye, always able to showcase the effects it
had contributed to the latest Hollywood film, a spiral of higher resolution displays, wider data bandwidths, larger databases, faster processors - the perfect
post-modern designer science.

Most of Siggraph's organisers see 'strength through diversity' as now being the underlying logic of its development. siggraph should provide a 'melting pot'
in which all the different interests that partake of electronic image making can keep abreast of a wide range of fields in one go. In order for the computer
graphics to operate at maximum efficiency they must receive a yearly boost of information on everything that is going on everywhere. In return they contribute
to the global celebration of the digital image and demonstrate their own importance to the creation of computer imaging. For this is a field in which everyone
can find a place, from the scientist designing the machines, the hackers writing up the code, the business people keeping the wheels of industry turning, the
artists with their weird but sometimes marketable ideas, and the military with their smart bombs and machine vision.

But all this diversity for its own sake does not make much sense by itself. Often the only way of coping with a large number of possibly conflicting viewpoints
is to reduce them all to their lowest common denominators and make a superficial display. And siggraph does have a reputation for giving the provocative
potential of any new technique or device the significance of a fairground attraction. Critical issues are usually packaged up into neat one liners - interactivity
is all about returning control to the user, networking and telecommunications are reports from the global village, artists are striving for ''more content and
less technology.'' Any attempt to question the relentless logic of one-way technological determinism is frowned upon as 'negative'. Yet controversies still
rumble away half submerged by the babble of countless sales reps. They emerge as sporadic outbursts during panel sessions or murmurings in remote
corners of cafes or during the twilight hours of receptions and private parties. and occasionally, just like the ironic self-referencing of the tv broadcasts which
provide another metaphor for siggraph, there is an attempt at self mockery, such as the technical paper that was presented on how to ray-trace dessert jelly, the
Flying Logos animation which demonstrated every conceivable method of rendering a title sequence narrated in the style of a hysterically enthusiastic
salesman or the panel session organised as a quiz show on siggraph history and its anecdotal episodes.

One of the highlights this year for the growing clique of artists, writers and media curators in attendance was a performance from the Australian artist Stelarc.
Although mentioned in the Final Programme, once the conference had begun no further information was available. ''Do you know when Stelarc is going to
perform?'' became the most well used chat line of the week until it became clear that the event by the hi-tech biofeedback artist had been quietly dropped. For
with just two weeks to go before the convention opened, the co-chairs had called an emergency meeting. Major sponsors had pulled out at the last moment,
they had run out of money and the show would have to be scaled down. An event chair also had to step down when it was accepted that they did not have the
industry connections to attract the sponsorship necessary for their part of the massive undertaking. But although the bubble has burst, these new winds of
change are blowing in several different directions at once. After many years of criticism that siggraph negotiates its unique position as a focus for so many
different interests by keeping the level of debate entirely technical and narrowly defined, next year it has been agreed that there should be panel sessions
addressing social and cultural aspects of electronic visualisation, education and effects on medical practice and ethics. The token Art Show will now be a
specially curated installation based exhibition on the theme of 'Machine Culture' - with its own space and possibly screening room and seminar session.

And somehow, Siggraph is pushing ahead with its desire to become an event of pure intersections on the surface of the image. Next year there are more
methods to be employed to encourage casual contact, to set up 'convergence points' in the conference area that people will naturally gravitate to. For one day
everyone in the world will come to siggraph to spend five days pooling their collective talents to create one superlative image. As if to foreshadow that time, at
last years conference in Las Vegas the Electronic Theatre organised a game of collective video tennis for its audience. All the spectators were given coloured
sticks which could be detected when held up by cameras above and projected onto a giant video screen. By changing the coloured sticks in unison each side of
the theatre could move a graphic paddle in order to play the other side in the world's largest game of Pong.

Perhaps this is the way out for an event like siggraph after all. It might become the model of a type of 'connectivity' conference that exists as an image of the
global village. For the computer image is acting now as a flashing beacon that draws all the world together. It will soon be unnecessary to do anything at
siggraph but to make contact, engage in chit-chat about which attraction to visit next and bathe in the phosphor glow of the monitors. Then visitors themselves
become like the individual pixels in an aerial image, swirling around like bees around the honeycomb of exhibition cubicles and booths.

As 'the big s' approaches its twentieth birthday and confronts the harsh economic conditions of the nineties, it has to ask how an event which sits at the
fulcrum of Big Science, little science, commercial cowboys, artists and defence contractors can define a role for itself that is relevant to all of these. The
promise of Siggraph was always that computer imaging provided a common language whereby people from vastly different cultural and social backgrounds
could come together and apply their skills to advance knowledge, expression and the means of production with an enhanced mutual respect and critical
awareness of each others points of view. The disappointment was that the pace of self-justified technological development propelled by economic and political
imperatives reduced everyone to a giddy whirl of techno fascination. To fulfil siggraph's intention to fashion itself as a model of the world in electronic image
form it must now expand into exploring alternative assumptions about the functioning of that image. Otherwise it is in danger of stagnating into a predictable
science theme park, carefully stage managed to support the status quo and avoid the kind of challenging questions about the role of computing that originally
led to the recognition of graphics as a crucial factor in the human construction of the artificial environment. ''We strongly believe that it is Siggraph's
responsibility to educate the technologists, scientists, engineers, artists and practitioners on the power of the picture.'' Perhaps as Siggraph comes through its
identity crisis new interests can seize the initiative and start to promote a wider range of opinions of just what that could mean.