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Lending Your Soul to the Big Screen(s)

Rebecca Allen’s installation is a world inhabited by intelligent animated creatures–and you
November 1, 1998

Picture this: you’re an animated whirligig, three spinning tiers of starfish-like forms, adrift in an arid dreamscape bathed in pulsating sound. You dance a flirtatious duet with an abstract creature, traverse a flock of beings behaving madly, break free of the boundaries of your hilly world. Across three screens in a space the size of a small multiplex movie theater, your computer-generated alter ego leads a playful, kinetic existence. Then it’s back to a more familiar reality-as the next viewer is handed the Nintendo-style gamepad and with it control over Rebecca Allen’s interactive art installation, “The Bush Soul.”

This work-in-progress, unveiled in its three-screen format this summer at SIGGRAPH, the international digital graphics conference, in Orlando, Fla., combines the traditional West African belief that the human soul can replicate in an animal in the bush, with computer technology representing a human on screen as a ghostly pixel presence. “I wanted people to experience a computer-generated bush, a world that’s alive, with familiar, fluid motions and unfamiliar characters with their own feelings, their own likes and dislikes influencing their behavior,” explains Allen, chair of the department of design at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her ambition required a technological leap beyond standard computer character animation, in which each movement must be painstakingly specified; in Allen’s work, movement emerges spontaneously from the interaction of characters’ programmed “personalities.”

To express her vision, Allen recruited computer science and design students to develop a new programming tool called Emergence. She describes this software system as “a behavior scripting language that lets you set up relationships between artificial life characters in a real-time, interactive 3-D world generated with PCs.” Artificial life programs more primitive than hers have already been used to create crowd scenes in Disney animated feature films. And a language like Emergence may well be the medium in which Hollywood’s artificial actors of tomorrow are routinely created.

Devising her own virtual palette and brushes is nothing new to Allen. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, she did graduate work as a member of MIT’s Architecture Machine Group (forerunner of the Media Lab) and has been developing software tools from scratch for state-of-the-art computer equipment for years.

Supported in part by a three-year grant from Intel, Emergence has evolved from a simple syntax with commands for “love” and “avoid” to complex instructions for dozens of character parameters. It has also evolved from a single-screen world (which debuted in October 1997 at Madrid’s “Art Futura” festival) to a networked version capable of ultimately supporting eight screens for a full-immersion environment. Emergence runs on PCs with Windows NT, but don’t expect to see it used on home systems. The relatively simple version shown at the Orlando installation involved some 70 different characters, evenly divided between animal-like figures and “smart” plants, and was generated using the latest, fastest Intel Xeon processor chips, with two processors per screen (one for graphics and one for character behaviors).

In any case, Allen has no desire for people to kick back in their living rooms and “play” Emergence. Her professional experience in the commercial game world has convinced her of the importance of public installations of digital art. “The Bush Soul’ isn’t a game; you don’t compete for points or find extra lives,” she notes. “This is an experience. It’s crucial for it to be in a public space, where other people can comment and add a social dimension to viewers’ interactions.”

Asked why she chose to create a world of abstract, rather than representational, characters, she responds, “For expressing the spiritual I wanted a look like [Wassily] Kandinsky, like early 20th-century abstraction. I didn’t want my characters’ personalities to be instantly recognizable. I didn’t want to make The Bush Soul and the Seven Dwarfs.’”

Look for it in a public space near you. Having already been seen live or on tape in England, Spain, the Netherlands, the United States and Canada, “The Bush Soul” could turn up anywhere. Its fall itinerary is still being planned.

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