Randall Packer - Course Information

Thinking Media
Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality

Syllabus - Fall, 2001
Maryland Institute College of Art
Thursday, 1:00 - 3:45 PM
Randall Packer, Instructor
office hours: TBA
Website: http://www.zakros.com/
On-line Course Information: http://www.zakros.com/mica

Course Description

Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality is an overview of the pioneering artists and scientists who have brought about the dissolution of boundaries that have traditionally existed between the artistic and technological disciplines. The course will survey the work and ideas of artists who have explored new interactive and interdisciplinary forms, as well as engineers and mathematicians who have developed information technologies and influential scientific and philosophical ideologies that have influenced the arts. Seminal artistic movements and genres will be explored, such as: the Futurists, Bauhaus, kinetic sculpture, Happenings, video art, electronic theater, etc. There will also be study of the invention of information technologies and new human-machine paradigms that have come to define the medium of the personal computer, including: cybernetics, augmented intelligence, hypertext, human-computer symbiosis, graphical user interface, etc.

This broad historical analysis will help illuminate an understanding of the emerging digital arts and its aesthetics, strategies, trends, and socio-cultural aspirations. Central to this analysis will be an understanding of key concepts for the interpretation of evolving multimedia forms: including integration, interactivity, hypermedia, immersion, and narrativity. The course will reveal how these primary elements of contemporary media have roots in electronic and performance art prior to the digital era.

Students will develop commentary in the form of critical projects through the in-depth analysis of historical trends and seminal work in the media arts and information sciences.

Week 1 Overture

Review of course objectives, readings, assignments, projects, and grading.

Introduction to Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality through an overview of the interactive timeline, that covers 17,000 years of historical precedence and pioneering work and ideologies by artists and scientists, from the Caves of Lascaux to the present.

Assigned Reading

• Randall Packer and Ken Jordan, "Overture," Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality

Weeks 2 - 4 Integration

Definition: Integration - The blurring of traditional boundaries between disciplines – such as the arts and science – or between discrete media.

We will discuss key 19th and 20th Century developments in the integration of the arts and technology, beginning with the work of composer Richard Wagner and his idealized notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk (Total Artwork), followed by Bauhaus artist László Moholy-Nagy, who began working with electronic and kinetic forms in the 1920s, and Bell Labs engineer Billy Klüver, who was a central figure in the New York art world during the 1960s with the formation of E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology).

Assigned Reading

• László Moholy-Nagy, "Theater, Circus, Variety," The Theater of the Bauhaus, 1929
• Billy Klüver, "Northeastern Power Failure" 1966


Assignment for 6/20

Questions to consider for your summaries:
• Moholy: how does technology enter into the creative process of the artist?
• Klüver: How does the engineer enter into the process of making art?

Weeks 5 - 7 Interactivity

Definition: Interactivity - Reciprocal exchange between the viewer and the artwork, the ability to manipulate media and objects intuitively and with immediacy.

This topic explores the evolution of the technical, aesthetic, and cognitive concepts behind human-computer interactions, and their influence on the art, design and application of interactive media. Beginning with the fundamentals of cybernetics as conceived by engineer Norbert Wiener in the late 1940s, we will discuss subsequent scientific breakthroughs in human-computer interaction including Douglas Engelbart's oNLine System and invention of the mouse. We will then explore parallel cybernetic and interactive tendencies emerging in the arts during the 1960s through the writings and work of John Cage and Roy Ascott.


Assigned Reading for 9/27

• Norbert Wiener, "Cybernetics in History," Human Use of Human Beings : Cybernetics in Society, 1954
• Douglas Engelbart, "Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework," 1962 (read Part I only)

Assigned Reading for 10/4

• John Cage, "Diary: Audience 1966," A Year From Monday, 1966
• Roy Ascott, "Behavioral Art and the Cybernetic Vision," 1967


  • Cage: How does indeterminacy enter into the inteactive media artwork?
  • Ascott: What is meant by Ascott's discussion of behavioral art and its integration with cybernetics. How does interactivity alter the artwork as a result of cybernetics.

Midterm Assignment:

Choose a work by one of the following media artists and discuss it in the context of one or more of the first three formal concepts we have covered in class: integration, interactivity, hypermedia. I am interested in how the artist drew from these concepts as we have discussed them, and how the work has been impacted by the assimilation of electronic media.

Your essay should be a minimum 1000 words (4 pages) and you need to also prepare a 10 minute presentation for class. Do your research on the Web, in the MICA library and Media Center, or elsewhere. Be prepared to show some form of documentation in class, whether it be an image on the Web, videotape, etc. The essay is due in three weeks (October 25). Choose your artist and artwork by next week so you have two weeks to complete the assignment. Here are the artists you can choose from:

  • Name June Paik
  • Robert Rauschenberg
  • Kit Galloway & Sherrie Rabinowitz
  • Bill Viola
  • David Tudor
  • Woody & Steina Vasulka
  • Bill Fontana
  • Laurie Anderson
  • Michael Naimark
  • Alan Rath
  • Jim Campbell
  • Joel Slayton
  • Jeffrey Shaw

Weeks 8 - 9 Hypermedia

Definition: Hypermedia - The non-sequential linking of information, events, and discrete media.

We will discuss the evolution of hypermedia and the non-linear association of information resulting in the collapse of traditional spatial and temporal boundaries. We will begin with Vannevar Bush's seminal investigation into the concept of the hyperlink through his design of the Memex in 1945, the prototypical multimedia workstation. This will be followed by Ted Nelson's coining of the term hypertext in the early 1960s, in which non-linear associative thinking was applied to human-computer interaction, concluding with Alan Kay's creation of the graphical user interface and the first hypermedia system for a personal computer at Xerox PARC in the 1970s.

Assigned Reading for 10/11

• Vannevar Bush, "As We May Think," Atlantic Monthly, 1945

Question for reading: What is it about Bush's article that suggests that someday information systems would function "as we may think," how might they simulate human thought patterns?

Assigned Reading for 10/18

• Ted Nelson, Computer Lib / Dream Machines" 1974
• Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg, "Personal Dynamic Media," 1977

Thoughts for readings: Both Ted Nelson and Alan Kay speak of personalizing the way we work with computers and with media. Nelson speaks of the "Dream Machine," a fantasy amplifier for creative use, and Kay talks about a "meta-medium," where the computer can process any kind of information and become a medium for any number of applications. How have you incorporated the computer's capabilities in your own work and how has it transformed your ideas.

Week 10 Midterm Project Presentations

Week 11- Complete Midterm Project Presentations

Weeks 11 - 12 Immersion

Definition: Immersion - The experience of entering a multi-sensory representation of three-dimensional space.

We will explore the evolution of virtual reality and 3D virtual space: multimedia as an immersive experience that engages all the senses. We will overview the research of artists and scientists dating back to the 1950s, including Morton Heilig, Ivan Sutherland, Myron Krueger, and Scott Fisher, who have pioneered the tools and aesthetics of virtual reality, stereoscopic imaging, and telepresence, leading to the creation of digital, immersive environments.

Assigned Reading

Read for Nov. 8:

• Morton Heilig, "The Cinema of the Future," 1955

Question to consider: How does Morton Heilig's Sensorama extend the notion of the "suspension of disbelief?"

Read for Nov. 15:

• Ivan Sutherland, "The Ultimate Display," 1966
• Scott Fisher, "Virtual Environments," 1989

Weeks 13 - 14 Narrativity

Definition: Narrativity - Interactive, branching forms that lend the user control over the narrative, diminishing the traditional primacy of the author's voice.

This final investigation focuses on the reshaping of narrative with new nonlinear, interactive, and electronic forms of media and communication. We will discuss the pioneering interactive media art of Lynn Hershman, text-based virtual realities (MUDs) as discussed by Pavel Curtis, and video artist Bill Viola's critique of emerging new possibilities for artistic creation in the context of interactive, immersive, and hypermediated forms. This analysis includes a survey of the installations of Bill Viola from his 25th year retrospective exhibition.

Assigned Reading

• Bill Viola, "Will There be Condominium's In Dataspace?," 1983
• Lynn Hershman, "The Fantasy Beyond Control," Art and Technology, 1990
• Pavel Curtis, "MUdding: Social Phenomena in Text-Based Virtual Realities," 1992

Final Project

Write a 1500 word essay or hyperessay exploring the future of computer-based multimedia and telematics, and their impact on the arts and culture. What is the content of the interactive artwork and how does telematics enable the artist the engage the larger social context, perhaps even alter that context. In order words, how does the new media bring about the age-old desire of the artist to extend aesthetic inquiry into the outer world where ideas become real social action?

Use specific examples of artworks we have discussed, essays we have read, concepts we have explored, to describe how the medium has become a powerful means for staging events, situations, processes, that bring the viewer into a participatory role with the artwork, and with other participants.

Some examples to think about:

Michael Naimark's "Ifugao Question Journal"

Antonio Muntadas, "The File Room"

"Life Sharing"


Pavel Curtis' "LambdaMOO"

The Future is Under Construction

Definition: Future of multimedia - A telematic society collectively producing an expanded intelligence and knowledge through new forms of art and social engagement through digital technologies.

"Human intelligence? Its space is dispersion. Its time, the eclipse. Its knowledge, the fragment. Collective intelligence realizes its reintegration... Through the intermediary of virtual worlds, we can not only exchange information but think together, share our memories and our plans to produce a cooperative brain." -- Pierre Lévy, from Collective Intelligence

This final session brings together a selection of scientific, artistic, and cultural theorists whose writings have influenced our perception and understanding of new media, its socio-cultural impact, its technical possibilities, its artistic implications. Roy Ascott, Marcos Novak, and Pierre Lévy agree that through the pervasive assimilation of networked media, there will be new potential for aesthetic, scientific and social transformation.

Assigned Reading

• Roy Ascott, "Is There Love in the Telematic Embrace," 1990
• Pierre Lévy, "The Art and Architecture of Cyberspace", Collective Intelligence, 1995

Week 15 Final Project Presentation
Assignments and Grading

Weekly assignments (20%)

Weekly assignments will consist of summaries of readings, artworks and discussions.

Midterm Project (20%)

Each student will write an essay focusing on key concepts presented in the course.

Final Project (50%)

Each student will do original research and present the results of a paper or hyperessay exploring the future of computer-based multimedia and its impact on the arts and culture.

Attendance and Class Discussion (10%)

Everyone is required to participate in class discussion.


Assigned reading

All reading will be from the instructor's "Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality," (co-edited by Randall Packer and Ken Jordan), as well as the companion Website located at artmuseum.net. The book is available in the MICA bookstore.

Additional Bibliography