Tuesday, May 5, 2009

"Children of Arcadia" at Cambridge Arts Council

Walk into the gallery at the Cambridge Arts Council this week and you might kick yourself for forgetting your umbrella. Children of Arcadia, currently on view as part of the Cyberarts festival, immerses you in a digital tableau that suggests Lower Manhattan’s financial district reborn as a pre-industrial utopia, albeit one subject to the vagaries of current societal upheaval (which is manifest as, among other things, lots and lots of rain).

Human figures wander aimlessly across the landscape, and if you visit the gallery, you can take your turn navigating its ridges and rivers. The experience suggests your first visit to Second Life, and part of the fun comes from reconciling your avatar’s point-of-view with the omniscient POV projected on the gallery wall.

If a work of art can reflect society at the moment at which it’s created, then cyberart can reflect the evolution (or devolution) of society as the viewer experiences it. The landscape of Children of Arcadia is constantly changing based on data from the New York Stock Exchange and Google headline searches. If more “socially good” keywords show up in the search, the figures, or AIs, act politely with one another. If the Dow is gaining points, the sun comes out. (Viewers who attend the exhibition after the market has closed, however, will see uniformly rainy skies that reflect the downward trend of the last year.)

New media artist Mark Skwarek, working with digital animator Joseph Hocking, created Children of Arcadia as his Master’s Thesis project at RISD. “The work gathers real-time information from the internet related to the American economy and society and translates into either a utopia or an apocalypse,” explains Skwarek in his thesis defense. “A combination of the parsed information, the user’s actions, and those of the AIs…form the moral fabric of the society. This allows for multiple outcomes in similar apocalyptic situations.”

At last night’s First Mondays reception, this made for an interesting social experiment, as gallery-goers politely deferred to each other’s joystick-hogging and the live, acoustic accompaniment of bluesy Jahn Sood lent a resigned note to the apocalypse.

Working the joystick, I struggled futilely to transcend the boundaries of the Financial District ruins, and to connect with the other AIs with whom I crossed paths. I began to feel like a hamster going faster and faster on a wheel even as the glass cage surrounding it begins to shatter.

You can experience Arcadia at the Cambridge Arts Council Gallery through May 15, or view a demo at www.childrenofarcadia.com.

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