Morpho Power at SIGGRAPH

Sean Uyehara August 16, 2006

The 33rd annual conference and exhibition put on by ACM SIGGRAPH — the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Graphics and Interactive Techniques — took place in Boston earlier this month. I was on-hand to watch animation, check out new media art exhibits, and learn about the latest techniques in interactivity. I did all of that, but at the same time there were bits of amateur ethnography to do, bouts of heatstroke to survive, and lots and lots of eating taking place.

The bulk of SIGGRAPH attendees are engineers and academics. If you are a computer scientist, animator or researcher or developer of graphics or design techniques — especially if you are looking for a job — this is the place to be. But, if you are there for something else, it’s a bit like looking into the close-knit world of what I started calling “the Dockers demographic.”

It probably is an exaggeration, but it felt like 75 percent of the conference-goers were men, which was of interest to me when the best piece of art I saw there was the very popular and hyper-phallic Morpho Tower created by female Japanese artist Sachiko Kodama. The tower is a little difficult to explain, and is absolutely mesmerizing. It comprises an electro-magnetic spiral that is steeped in magnetic fluid. Sound in the sculpture’s vicinity interacts with the magnetic flow of the sculpture, and alternately, the fluid around the magnet runs up the spiral and forms spikes — made out of liquid. When ambient sound around the magnet dissipates, the fluid suddenly looks much more liquid-like and runs down the spiral. It was fun seeing all these guys gathered around it, oohing and ahhing at this fascinating, tiny maypole.

The opening party and cyber fashion show were of similar research interest. The party was held at Boston club The Roxy, and when 5,000 people (i.e., 3,500 men, 3,200 pairs of Dockers) showed up, naturally they realized they were over-capacity. No one was turned away, however. Instead, everyone stood in the 98-degree, humid Boston night for up to an hour before leaving. I managed to sneak in, and saw a pretty kick-ass line of fashions. My favorites were the Ketai girls, whose get-ups were made entirely of cell phone covers, and included modified earphones and a sort-of robotic dance routine. Following the fashion show, the DJ dropped the proverbial needle and everyone “got down” or at least stared at the hired dancers on pedestals.

Apart from the trade show floor, which is mind-blowing if for nothing else than the amounts of money on display, the Electronic Theater is SIGGRAPH’s big attraction. This year the show began with the largest-ever working Etch-a-Sketch. In order to create shapes on the thing, the audience had to work in collaboration. It was fun. And the animation shown afterward was great too. A few of my favorite pieces, like “458NM,” “Tread Softly,” and “Carlitopolis,” will be showing at the SF International Animation Showcase in October at SFMOMA. One of my absolute favorites surprised me. It is the trailer to a video game “Warhammer: Mark of Chaos.” You can see it online, but it isn’t quite the same as seeing it on the big screen, which absolutely blew my mind. It was just that kind of thing. Everything there was a bit off-balance and unexpected. So it shouldn’t be too surprising that my favorite movie at the conference was a trailer for a video game.