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China's Digital Dream Future @ the Millennium Art Museum

A fantastic photograph of the Forbidden City, surrounded by a floating mirage of skyscrapers that glitter like clouds and pale blue hills that melt into a sun-burst sky, seems to capture a fleeting moment in the life and architecture of the Chinese capital with super-real focus: Post-modern explorers trekking through the Celestial Kingdom's centuries-old complex while, beyond the palace walls, a space shuttle-shaped obelisk points to the heavens.

The Forbidden City photo captures not only China's real-time reality, but also its cyber-enhanced future. Its high-rises have all been digitally airbrushed into the image. The dreamy blue hills, in a new-millennium miracle made possible through Photoshop and other imagery software, have been moved kilometers closer to the Imperial Palace.

The Millennium Art Museum is sending this digital dream image to Washington DC as part of a month-long celebration of Chinese culture in October, yet it also meshes perfectly with the ever-changing kaleidoscope of visionary videos, interactive installations and new-age animations now being showcased at the museum.

The globe-connected museum in western Beijing China's top center for new-century culture is staging an expo of electronic arts entitled "The Millennium Dialogue," which runs through mid-July.

This planet-spanning dialogue "is being jointly held by (Beijing's) Tsinghua University, Germany's ZKM arts group and Holland's V2 Institute for the Unstable Media, and representatives from more than 60 art groups, schools and museums around the world have joined the show," says Wang Yudong, the Millennium's vice-director.

Tsinghua professor Li Dangqi, who helped organize the show, says he hopes it will evolve into "a global platform" for exploring and exchanging new media, and that it will "promote digital arts and education in China."

A global platform

The expo, complemented by a series of symposia with leading European, American and Chinese artists and academics, presents cutting-edge creations from Shanghai to Sichuan to the Netherlands to New York.

But young people entering the Millennium might think they have stumbled into a surreal cyber-arcade or a time machine: Sprinkled across the darkened museum are glittering constellations of e-games, MTV telescreens, futuristic cityscapes and moving pictures with dream-like Daoist projections.

The new worlds unveiled inside the gallery's curved spaces include Australian Daniel Crooks' "time-slice research, which investigates possibilities for visually manipulating perceptions of time and space," according to a world-class English and Chinese-language catalogue prepared for the show. The digital video director's remixing of time and motion, "scratching" images just as a DJ does with music, is also "really cool and strange," says Millennium curator Liu Qing.

One flight above, cyber-game fans can play "The Uncertain Trip," a joystick-controlled ride through a series of time holes and 3-D spaces created by students at Tsinghua's new Academy of Arts and Design.

And nearby, explorers can peer through what appear to be digital tunnels that have pierced the planet at three different points. Japanese artist Maki Ueda set up well-shaped installations in city squares in Casablanca, Istanbul and Paramaribo with web-connected cameras, microphones and display monitors; visitors to each city's "wired well" can see, talk with, and be seen by people in the other two squares.

Austrian artist Peter Weibel says an ongoing explosion of digital and information technology is expanding the boundaries of art at the speed of an electron and triggering a new-age Big Bang of creativity.

Weibel says just as the invention of oil painting 500 years ago and of the camera more than a century ago redefined art, so is the Age of the Internet transforming "the arena of the image into the arena of global information space."

And while viewers of most art through the ages were passive observers, participants in many new-millennium displays can not only interact with cyber-artworks, but also connect with their creators.

Canadian Skawennati Tricia Fragnito's contribution to the Millennium Dialogue a website that is part digital arts gallery and part chat forum is growing like a new star system in cyberspace as more Netizens join.

The website, at www.cyberpowwow.net, is linking American Indian writers, artists and designers who are, in turn, creating their own networked nation of nomads in virtual space.

Dynamic City

Another group involved in the digital expo includes natives of the Netherlands, China, Britain, and other points West and East who formed the Dynamic City Foundation.

Dynamic City, which created a cool cosmopolis of circular skyscrapers for the Millennium show, hopes to use the World Wide Web to connect with idealists planet-wide.

Dynamic City co-founder Neville Mars says "China is building at hyper-speed" to try to keep up with the lightning-paced march of its rural people into the cities. Co-founder Saskia Vendel agrees: "Right now, 38 per cent of China's 1.3 billion populace (or about 494 million people) live in the cities. But this number is likely to at least double, and could triple, by the year 2020."

To counter what Mars calls "the present dream and the future nightmare" of people-packed mega-cities in China and across the globe, Dynamic City is calling on architects, designers, artists and others to propose alternatives.

Virtual city planners might come up with ideas on how to save the Forbidden City from being surrounded by a maze of skyscrapers, or how to prevent the last remnants of China's imperial architecture from being crushed under the juggernaut of development.

Qauthar Saleh, a young Amsterdam-based official, says he joined a drive to persuade the Dutch Government to fund Dynamic City "so the group can come up with solutions to hi-speed urbanization problems that China is facing today and the Netherlands could encounter tomorrow."

Saleh says he helped design Dynamic City's English and Chinese website at www.dynamiccity.org in order to create a worldwide platform and digital palette to co-design the future.

He explains that "ultimately, the goal is for thinkers and architects across the planet to work together in cyberspace to help build a utopia," one city at a time.

Similarly, Wang Yudong says the Millennium aims to draw on a cross-nation coalition of curators and artists to sketch out the museum's future. The Millennium, along with its Dutch and German partners, has already applied to transform the current show into "what could become China's annual digital arts expo," he says.

And the government's approval, she adds, will help China's growing force of digital video-makers, Web animation designers and other e-artists complete their odyssey from semi-underground status to "state-recognized artists who can freely hold exhibits and other activities."

(China Daily June 29, 2005)

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