I'm flying. I tilt-a-whirl, heart in my throat, through red rings of Saturn, setting off chimes and rustles. The atmosphere around me mists with green and mauve. A land mass below sits at the edge of the world. I flip backward and troll toward a hovering spiral, eager to see what sound it will emit as fly through it.
I'm in a virtual reality designed by visual artists Deborah Cornell and Richard Cornell, her sound-artist husband. It's just one of the stops in "Spirited Ruins," an artist-designed virtual environment of Boston University's Department of Information Technology. I stand in front of a large 5-by-4 foot screen called an Immersadesk, and I'm outfitted with 3-D goggles and a joystick.
"Spirited Ruins" is one of countless computer-based and computer-generated art projects firing up these days around Boston, putting the city on the map as a magnet for cyber-art.
Exhibitions featuring computer-generated art are nearly as common in local galleries and museums as are shows of paintings.Cyber-galleries display art in a variety of forms: images, text, video, 3-D, and live performance (see accompanying schedule on page 14).
"When it comes to painting and sculpture, Boston has always had a poor cousin relationship with New York," said Dana Moser, a computer artist and professor at Massachusetts College of Art. "But when it comes to electronic media, it's the inverse. People come from New York to visit the MIT Media Lab."
George Fifield, founder of the Boston Cyberarts Festival, a biennial celebration taking place next year, concurs.
"Boston is one of the centers of the world for this kind of art, for two reasons. This is a great town to be an artist in, and this is where the technology is. There are companies inventing new media for artists to explore," says Fifield, a bearded avuncular fellow who earlier this year co-produced "The Electronic Canvas," a half-hour special on WGBH about computer art.
Ben Thompson examines the speed with which we develop and then discard new technology, Thompson, a student of Dana Moser's at MassArt whose thesis show will be up next month, has taken the husks of old computers, broken them open, and animated them into bird-like creatures.
"They'll have mechanical components that make them flap their wings and fly in formation," he said.
Thompson has learned how to run a microprocessor and design software, but he also works at the duller edge of technology: He loves using obsolete hardware.
"Artists have never [before] had the availability of as much technology as there is out there now, and the high-end, graphic-oriented and cutting-edge fields generate lower-end trash that works fine for what I do," Thompson said.
Deborah Cornell's contribution to the "Spirited Ruins" space-age virtual environment at BU started out in life as a painting she made. She photographed the painting, scanned the slides, and then digitally manipulated what had been a flat surface into an airy, haunting 3-D space. A visitor to the space, then, is literally (or virtually) inside a painting.
"I used the same sort of critical judgement as I would in painting or printmaking." Cornell said. "What's different is the mechanics and the space."
Ben Thompson and Dana Moser also designed parts of "Spirited Ruins." Their project involved networking the virtual environment to real sculptures in a gallery in another building. If, for instance, you were in the gallery and approached a fountain designed by Harriet Brisson, you would set off a sensor that would cause the water in the fountain to flow. At the same time, the water in the virtual fountain connected to the real fountain would also start to flow. The same works in reverse: approach the fountain in the virtual world, and the water in the gallery blocks away will start running.
The folks at BU who devised "Spirited Ruins," the Scientific Computing and Visualization Group, have also connected the environment to computers as far afield as Taiwan. Enter the virtual reality, and you'll see yourself represented by the tip of your joystick. Look around, and you might find someone else already there, in the form of a little blue alien, and the two of you can interact.
"You can see where your companion is in the virtual environment, and there's telephony to talk to the other navigators," said BU's Laura Giannitrapani, one of the program's designers. Unfortunately, there are only a few institutions around the world that have the high-speed network and also have Immersadesks."
What Cornell like about "Spirited Ruins" is that "people don't go into it with an art expectation," so they don't have to work their way through preconceptions about how to look at art and what art means, the way they might when they walk into a museum. Here, you just dive in, and it's fun, and you may or may not know that you're surfing around the virtual insides of a painting.
That removes the onus of artiness from the experience, and opens up the virtual world, and the World Wide Web, to artists and viewers alike. The wall between viewer and artist collapses; the mediator of art dealer, curator, and critic is circumvented. A huge door has flung open, and new art, new ideas, and new viewers are rushing in like whitewater.
It's as wild a ride as a virtual flight through the "Spirited Ruins."
When you step back into reality, you may find yourself dizzy and even queasy from the experience. But you won't be sorry you got your feet wet.
--- Cate McQuaid is a freelance writer who covers art galleries for the Globe.