Digital graffiti

For three days beginning Nov. 12, Reno will be a hub of the world’s digital arts community

Joseph DeLappe is the main organizer of Prospectives.09, a digital arts festival.

Joseph DeLappe is the main organizer of Prospectives.09, a digital arts festival.


Projected onto the wall of a gallery, like a movie screen, is a computer image from the online virtual community Second Life: Two naked feminine avatars passionately embracing. Elle Mehrmand and Micha Cardenas, who bear better-than-passing resemblances to their virtual onscreen counterparts, approach the stage in front of the projection and begin disrobing.

The onstage artists strip to their undergarments and attach heart rate monitors. A fluctuating rhythmic pulse—the artists’ heart rates—can be heard in the gallery. Flashing lights in the chests of the onscreen avatars signify that the same pulse beats there at the exact same rate. Mehrmand and Cardenas embrace, locking lips and enfolding limbs. The connection between the images onstage and onscreen are unmistakable, as their hearts beat as one.

“Our performance is a mixed reality performance,” says Cardenas. “So we’re performing in real or physical space and virtual space at the same time. … Even though nudity has been part of art as long as there’s been art, it still pushes people’s boundaries to see naked people and to see live nude bodies.” The performance piece challenges viewers’ expectations of traditional gender roles in sexuality—in part because Cardenas is transgender.

“For me as a transgender girl, does that mean that if I like girls I’m gay or I’m heterosexual? It’s just not that clear. I don’t identify really as a lesbian or as a gay person, I just identify as what I am.”

The piece is a part of a series of collaborative works by Mehrmand and Cardenas exploring the ways technology affects human relationships. This piece touches on the idea that in virtual communities, like Second Life, traditional gender boundaries are blurry or nonexistent.

“Second Life is a place where people are having sex as cats and dragons and bunnies,” says Cardenas. “It’s not really clear if someone’s a homosexual or a heterosexual if they’re a cat having sex with a dragon.”

Artists of tomorrow

Mehrmand and Cardenas have performed this piece, titled “technésexual,” in a variety of venues and will perform it at the Nevada Museum of Art on Nov. 14 as part of Prospectives.09, an international digital arts festival organized by the University of Nevada, Reno.

Prospectives.09 is a sequel of sorts to the 2006 Reno Interdisciplinary Festival of New Media. Joseph DeLappe, a digital media art professor at UNR and the primary organizing force behind both festivals, says he was happy to ditch the bulkier title of the first festival in favor of Prospectives, a name he says references the variety of perspectives represented in the festival—there are about 35 participating artists from all around the country and as far away as Chile and Sweden—and the potential for new ideas and new talent to emerge from the festival, as the majority of the artists are relatively young graduate students. And “prospecting” is also evocative of Nevada’s mining legacy.

DeLappe says one of the primary aims of the festival is to “help put Reno on the map as a place where things like this can happen.”

According to DeLappe, the majority of local art, as good as it might be, is still rooted in traditional media. This festival gives art lovers—both at the university and in the community at large—the chance to experience what DeLappe calls “the artists of tomorrow working today.”

The number of artists involved and the diversity of the works makes this an event with the potential to overwhelm. Fortunately, it’s been divided up into five thematically distinct elements, each with a unique venue. Most of the events are free, and all promise to be out-of-the-box.

Thurs., Nov. 12
10 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Joe Crowley Student Union Theater, UNR

This free opening day event will be one of the more traditional—and academic—events of the festival. Artists will present artworks and discuss their ideas in a symposium format. Presenters include Aaron Reed from the University of California, Santa Cruz, the author of interactive digital novels Blue Lacuna and Whom the Telling Changed—works that take the concept of Choose Your Own Adventure books deep into the 21st century.

Real life and Second Life collide in “technésexual,” a digital/performance piece by Elle Mehrmand and Micha Cardenas.

Thurs., Nov. 12, through Wed., Dec. 16
Sheppard Gallery, Church Fine Arts, UNR
Opening reception on Thurs., Nov. 12, 6 p.m.

Sven Goyvaerts’ piece Self-Portrait might at first appear to be a video loop of the artist presented like traditional portraiture, but, in a twist straight out of a Harry Potter book, the portrait is able to interact with gallery visitors because it’s actually a live webcam feed of the artist. It’s a piece that combines technology with an endurance performance—the artist plans to be remotely present during all gallery hours—to create a contemporary twist on an ancient art form.

Self-Portrait is just one of the artworks that will appear in the Sheppard Gallery portion of Prospectives.09. In addition, art and music undergraduates from UNR will be exhibiting digital work in the Front Door and McNamara galleries of the Church Fine Arts building.

Project: A/V
Fri., Nov. 13, 7 p.m.
Fleischmann Planetarium and Science Center, UNR

The Planetarium portion of the festival is the only part that isn’t free, but at $6 for general admission and $4 for students, children and seniors, it’s certainly not unreasonably priced. This portion of the festival will consist of full-dome planetarium video projections, the presentation of electronic music compositions and a site-specific audio-visual work by Los Angeles artist Mattia Casalegno.

Casalegno’s piece is intended to capitalize on the unique properties of a planetarium setting.

“It’ll be like a sensory deprivation tank in there!” says DeLappe, with clear excitement.

Sat., Nov. 14, 2 p.m.
Prim Theater, Nevada Museum of Art

This portion of the festival will include Cardenas and Mehrmand’s performance of “technésexual,” and other performance-oriented artworks, some of which incorporate elements of dance, music and video. It’s free, but tickets are limited and available at the NMA and Sheppard Gallery. Because some material might not be suitable for minors, the performance is limited to ages 18 and over.

Online gallery of internet-based artworks, games and portfolio sites.
Opens Nov. 12, archived permanently on festival website

The final portion of the festival is the one most unique to digital arts—artworks that exist entirely on the internet. Jason Nelson of Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, has created a videogame—a platform game like, say, Donkey Kong—constructed out of screen grabs from familiar websites, like Google, Yahoo and the Huffington Post, and loose drawings that look like the classroom doodles of a bored student. Fragments of text and sound combine to create a surreal, oddly addictive experience. It’s called “i made this. you play this. we are enemies.”

If Halo 3 is like a giant Hollywood blockbuster, “i made this. you play this. we are enemies.” is like a personal, idiosyncratic, independent arthouse movie. In fact, videogames, gaming and play form a sub-theme of the works in the show.

DeLappe says the connection between digital art and digital games is intrinsic.

“What makes digital arts different from other arts is interactivity,” he says. “That’s the basic attraction.”