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Aug. 15, 2002 Press Contact: Josh Schonwald
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Can C3PO play clarinet? Online version of Devices of Wonder exhibit wins Webby award

Some might see an irony in the Devices of Wonder Web site winning a Webby award in the weird category. The site is an online version of Devices of Wonder, an exhibition at the Getty Museum co-curated by Barbara Stafford, the William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor in Art History, which earlier this year drew rave reviews both locally and nationally.

The Webbies, the leading international honors for consumer Web sites, designed this category to honor “sites so forward thinking they seem strange or abnormal when viewed without the future in mind.” Yet most of the items in Devices of Wonder are centuries old. To explore the long history of virtual reality and multimedia, Stafford and Getty curator Frances Terpak collected centuries of contraptions that project images, play music and reveal secrets. The online exhibit of optical devices, robots and thinking machines, produced by Vicki Porter of the Getty shows that the internet is just the latest twist in a long story, already in full swing in the 16th century. So why do these dusty machines seem so “weird” to the internet’s cutting edge?

The weirdness of Devices of Wonder may come from the way it stirs up some sources of the modern world that were once widely popular but are now almost universally forgotten. The exhibit reveals that reality-modifying machines like the magic lantern and the Cabinet of Wonders were not secret, but well-known and influential in centuries past. Stafford and Terpak argue that early multimedia is just one part of a long history of virtual reality only now being uncovered, and the Web site itself is an example of that tradition.

“If we want to understand how technology is shaping our thought now we need to uncover its real history,” Stafford says. “The root question is the very concept of media and mediation: why people, in different parts of the world and in various epochs, insert a lens, mirror or monitor between themselves and their environment.” Our desire to extend our senses and intensify reality has a long history that can cast new light on current questions.

A recent controversy illuminated by the exhibit is David Hockney’s hotly debated thesis that classic artists “cheated” by using ancestors of the camera to help them render reality. Far from being a mere gimmick, Stafford argues that early image projectors helped create the modern approach to reality itself by capturing seductively realistic images of reality, making realism into a new ideal that artists aspired to. While Hockney’s ideas were widely disputed, a long history lies behind them, one that Devices of Wonder playfully documents.

“There’s a cognitive value in realizing that no media ever really dies,” Stafford explains. “The devices uncover a whole history of visual thinking and practices that changed what was possible. You could suddenly project what you wanted to see–an amoeba, the circulation of blood in a frog–onto a wall. This made new social practices possible: there were lecturers and demonstrators and audiences, a whole series of intermediaries, like today’s talking heads and tech pundits, to interpret what these images revealed. The devices made religious and moral points: microscopes and telescopes demonstrated the existence of worlds bigger and smaller than our own. Once people could use multiplying spectacles to see like insects, though multifaceted eyes, they realized that while they didn’t see the world this way, someone else does: it’s a way of wondering what it might be like to be truly different. This happened at the same time as the discovery of the New World: people were experimenting with other ways of seeing through other cultures as well.”

The rediscovery of these machines is only beginning to have an impact. Links between old and new media exposed in the exhibit are still being explored, from the 17th century sunspot-tracing machine to NASA photomontages of the moon. “There’s a continuing desire that runs through this history, a desire to bring what is elusive and above us down to earth. We’re still here looking up, wondering about what’s beyond. But the bottom line is that reality has long had a competitor.”
Last modified at 04:07 PM CST on Friday, August 16, 2002.

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