It's science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke's famous third law of scientific predictions: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
But magic takes many forms. In one version, expertly trained athletes dive above, below and conduct breathtaking close evasive maneuvers around a suspended one-ton I beam as it whirls just inches off the floor. All emerge, grinning and unharmed, before a gasping audience. In another, a theatrical performance splinters into footage on 13 separate screens before it resolves in an actual video game—one whose characters were just seen, moments before, as live actors on stage. In a third, a different video game actually remaps the brains of aging drivers, enabling them to drive safer, longer.
Each of these science facts—and many more besides—are being exhibited, performed and discussed this week in a series of venues on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, during the first-ever C.H.A.T. Festival. The title stands for "Collaborations: Humanities, Arts and Technology." The gathering features four full days of performances, hands-on workshops, interactive software exhibits and panel discussions with nationally recognized designers, entrepreneurs, artists and scholars who use, develop and market the technologies involved.
One of the festival's central premises is that the Triangle region is on the cusp of becoming a major center for innovation in the digital arts and humanities. If so, it's due in large part to the unprecedented growth of the gaming industry in the area in recent years. "We have over 40 companies, with over 1,200 employees," says Alex Macris, co-founder of Themis Group and publisher of the online gaming magazine, The Escapist. "We are the world capital of game engines, and the industry's footprint has grown 20 percent in the past two years." A white paper his firm will publish in the spring will further quantify the industry's financial impact; at this point, Macris says, it's "north of 300 million dollars. We're larger than North Carolina's film industry."
"It's the next major culture shift since television became popularized," says Megan Granda, executive director for UNC's Institute for the Arts and Humanities, which organized the festival. "We're trying to lay the groundwork for a regional research initiative between research institutions and gaming companies. For the universities, from a recruitment perspective, it's obviously something we want to do."
Macris agrees. "Young people today don't want to go into computer and tech fields for fear that those jobs will be outsourced. But they are interested in going into game development. The area's computer science programs have been able to recruit high quality applicants with computer game development programs."
With the advent of multiplatform, multigenre phenomena like the blockbuster film Avatar, the long-perceived boundaries between technology, arts and science are starting to crumble.
Karen Green, spokesperson with Renaissance Computing Institute, notes that to some degree people "still tend to think 'art is here, technology and geeks are there, entertainment's over there, and science is somewhere else.' But if you're thinking of a career in technology, it's probably going to be a good idea for you to have some understanding of the use of color, in order to use visualization. If you're going to be an artist, you're probably going to have to have some understanding of technology and programming as tools in your palette."
Joseph Megel concurs. The director of UNC's Process Series is himself directing a mediated theatrical work, the Virtual Performance Factory, which runs this and next weekend in Swain Hall. The new work will blend live performers, text messages contributed from the audience, video games—including one created specifically for this production—and digital video and animation from Cary's Icarus Studios to bring to life the words of six prominent playwrights who were given a single assignment: Somehow, their characters' experiences had to "engage with or filter through" the digital world.
"The dynamic of our culture has shifted, and the arts are lagging behind," Megel asserts. "With digital and Internet technologies and social networking, given where we are, if we don't re-imagine the world artistically we're failing as artists. It's essential we learn how to integrate these ideas into our work. Otherwise, the world is leaving us behind, and we're engaging with ideas that are not as relevant for the world we're in."
In Megel's view, a common mistake artists make when they take on electronic media "is that we sometimes think all we need to do is add the technology on or make technology the subject of it. The question is, how do we make it primary, substantial—essential to the work?"
For New York choreographer, inventor and self-styled action architect Elizabeth Streb, whose Extreme Action company performs in Memorial Hall Friday night (after electrifying audiences in previous years at the American Dance Festival), her passion for innovative biomechanical, hydraulic and electronic technology has been driven by her wishes to radically explore and extend the possibilities of human motion. "As when someone, way back when, decided the human voice alone wasn't sufficient to express everything the human might express in terms of pitch, key, melody and harmony," she observes, "I felt that in a Newtonian universe, on the ground the body's biomechanical system, which lends itself to motion, was not in itself sufficient."
From that point, Streb says her quest began "to create pieces of equipment that we can inhabit to develop new physical, spatial and temporal vocabularies." From the flashing lights, pulsing electro soundtrack and colorful, multistory, trapeze-like riggings on stage, it's obvious that her company's edge-of-your-seat performances are a highly caffeinated remix of death-defying circus acts, gymnastics, motion-picture stunt work and modern dance. But her ongoing collaborations with the media and biogenetronics labs at MIT and Arizona State University include robotics, biometric audio and video control and the construction of various exoskeletal body-enhancement devices. Among their current projects not ready yet for prime time: something Streb will only describe as a "Spider-Man suit."
When the choreographer insists that anyone who has ever slipped on a banana peel will get what her company's doing, Streb is revoicing a longtime goal: "to figure out how to get the audience to actually feel that they have done at least some of the moves—to have them clench their muscles and have the real experience."
Those encountering the work of computer artist and Duke professor Casey Alt, however, may have a different experience: a slightly sociopathic one. That's not just a critical pejorative: it's a trademarked brand name to boot. The applications listed on his would-be corporate Web site (http://vacillogix.com/_dev/software.html), include such must-haves for the truly ruthless executive as Deceptionist, StalkBroker ("surveillance made simple") and Entitlement Manager ("feed your greed").
But such pointed social satire is countered in two other projects Alt will share with C.H.A.T. audiences this week. In the eight miniature software apps that make up "Things Fall Apart," Alt uses computer code to visualize virtual social systems based on different organizing principles, including monarchy, the utilitarianism of Thomas Mill and Hobbes' Leviathan.
But the real game changer—in more than one sense—is an application called "Emergence," a collaboration between Alt, Duke grad student Patrick Jagoda and faculty member Tim Lenoir. It's a postapocalyptic multiplayer game with a twist: its inhabitants aren't feral psycho killers with unlimited munitions. Instead, they're banding together to rebuild society. "Marshall McLuhan said, 'When culture changes, games change.' There's a fairly strong trend now in social science research on games with "pro-social" values: there's a carryover effect for children in how they view real-world social interactions," Alt notes.
"The question was, if you change the games children play, will that have an effect on culture? Will it kind of change the way we think about it and interrelate socially, or will new cultural products come out of that?"
Hundreds of attendees will ponder the benefits—and possible consequences—of recombinant digital arts and technologies this week in Chapel Hill.