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Saturday, 17 November, 2001, 01:37 GMT
Digital artist welcomes "revolution"
A detail from Michael Atavar's piece sciis
Blue sciis: Michael Avatar is exhibiting at the ICA
British artist Michael Atavar applauds London's Institute of Contemporary Art for launching the UK's first festival exclusively devoted to digital media.

Atavar himself is contributing a series of digital landscapes to the event.

The pieces are called sciis - an acronym for "sensitive cumulative intelligent immersive systems".

Visitors to the ICA will be able to view and navigate their way through a dreamlike series of kinetic, 3D landscapes.

A detail from Atavar's sciis, at the ICA
Michael Atavar: looking at the scii through a Window

Atavar says his project was influenced by the meditative quality of the monumental colourfield paintings of 1950s abstract expressionist Barnett Newman.

The communities - scientific, political, commercial and artistic - that the ICA is attempting to bring together throughout November are historically discrete to the point of mutual mistrust.

The ICA seems keen to manoeuvre the disparate interest groups on to some common ground by defining terms and taking stock of where we are in the new digital world.

Director Philip Dodd says: "The gee-whizz response to technology was always a passing phase.

"We now want to know what we can do with it - with this technology and that gadget, this interface and that mouse."

The title of the exhibition - What Do You Want To Do With It? - recalls Microsoft's famous query: "Where do you want to go today?"

Back to basics?

But Atavar has a simpler enquiry - "'What is it?' is probably the main question," he says.

"That's the question that you're dealing with by making the work."

"What is the browser window? Why is it shaped like a window? Those are questions that people often don't ask, but those are really intrinsic questions."

These also happen to be the questions the artist addresses in a meditative new piece, entitled Windows, which is due to appear later this month on the BBC's arts website.

Born Clicking: the title of the ICA's debate
The ICA is asking: who controls our culture?

In Windows, he examines the metaphors that sustain the computer environment - the window, the desktop and so on - without which users would find themselves drowning in a torrent of incomprehensible data.

"All these pieces I've been making are kind of about the environment itself to try and define what it is," he says.

Even though Atavar is operating in the brave new digital world, these concerns don't seem a million miles away from those of post-modern artists in other media.

We are all, by now, accustomed to films about filmmaking and novels about writing, for example.

So it is difficult to see how Atavar can argue, as he does, that we are "living through a revolution in computing and life".

Pac Man
First action hero: The ICA is celebrating retro delights like Pac Man

The claim seems further undermined by multinational corporations' dominance of the new media, and the increasingly thin line between art and commerce.

The field of SMS messaging on mobile phones offers an instructive example of business and artistic minds thinking alike.

In one of the events in the ICA's festival, entitled Surrender Control, experimental performance group Forced Entertainment will be sending participants 40 SMS instructions over a four-day period.

The project is billed as a "compelling experience, drawing users into an evolving game of textural suggestion, provocation and dare".

Binary choices

Yet Forced Entertainment have apparently been beaten to the punch by computer games software designers Eidos.

A spoof text message from Eidos telling thousands of mobile phone users to report for military duty has been banned by the Advertising Standards Authority.

Eidos' particular "game of textural suggestion" was aimed at promoting its new game, Commando 2.

Politically active: Ultra-Red
Ultra-Red use audio-visual grabs to criticise capitalism

Content apart, there is doubt about the extent to which the new media themselves are made in the image of their corporate creators and reflect their values.

Atavar concedes Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator are "defining the way that we look at the world".

"These kind of binary choices always seem to be available in the computer environment."

The artist claims not to concern himself directly with such matters.

But his focus on the ways in which the world is framed in the digital environment demands we radically reconsider the views we are being offered.

We are lucky to have an artist of Atavar's calibre providing a space for reflection as we decide exactly What We Want To Do With It.

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