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Tue, Nov 27, 2001 - Page 24 News List

The war creeps into the minds of artists

THE ART OF WAR Taking a page from the video games of his youth and the 3D `shooters' of today, artist John Klima has begun an online exhibit that tracks the progression of the war in Afghanistan


Still, Klima is hardly original in applying the game metaphor to a geopolitical hot spot. The Great Game takes its title from the 19th-century struggle between Britain and Russia for supremacy in Central Asia. The war in Afghanistan, Klima said, "is not the first time that an empire has tried to manage that particular corner of the world. It's never worked in the past."

At the moment the war in Afghanistan is widely considered to be a just cause, so his reminder is not likely to be well received. Of course artists often voice unpopular opinions, and the Internet's immediacy may allow digital artists to express them first. But in the weeks since Sept. 11 and the start of the bombing, the digital equivalent of Picasso's antiwar painting Guernica has yet to emerge.

Joy Garnett, a New York artist and editor of the Newsgrist.com new-media newsletter, said topical works have been slow to appear on the Internet because digital artists are still unsure what the appropriate creative and political response should be. She said a debate on this issue, taking place in a number of online discussion groups, was dividing the Internet-art community.

Pacifism takes an artistic back seat

One contingent, especially strong in Europe, advocates pacifism. On the other hand American artists, especially those in New York, have been so jolted by the attacks that they are reluctant to join such a protest.

"Suddenly," Garnett said, "the locus of geography and of cultural baggage is back after all that utopian theorizing about the Net abolishing such boundaries."

Chris Csikszentmihalyi, director of the Computing Culture group in the Media Lab at MIT, is more concerned with crossing borders. Like Klima he is disturbed by the dearth of information from inside Afghanistan. Without detailed news reports on military action or first-person accounts from that nation's people, he said, "I have no idea what's going on there."

Unlike Klima, whose new work comments on this problem, Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced cheek-sent-me-HI-yee) seeks to solve it. Last week he began to build the "Afghan eXplorer," a remote-controlled robot modeled on the Mars Pathfinder that he intends to send into Afghanistan in January. The four-wheeled, solar-powered gizmo will have a video camera and a satellite-enabled Internet connection that will transmit live images and sounds from the foreign land.

"I thought, `Why not develop a technology that will allow me to get personal information from Afghanistan?'" he said. "After the Pentagon clamps down a news hold, it's as if Afghanistan is as remote as Mars."'

Artist wants to send in a robot

Csikszentmihalyi, 33, insisted this was no hoax. He is working with Middle Eastern arts groups to arrange a way to release the robot into Afghanistan. Once inside, the robot's chest-level video screen will display a human face, to make it more approachable. He has enlisted Afghan students at MIT to act as translators so that he can conduct interviews with anyone the robot meets. They will be viewable at a Web site at compcult.media.mit.edu/afghan_x.

"I'm expecting it to get shot fairly quickly," Csikszentmihalyi said. This is artist as social provocateur. Even if the robot does not survive, "its actual mission is with the military and public opinion about war reportage," he said. "The secondary mission is the one in Afghanistan."

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