1971: Alan Sondheim’s “4320”

Since 1970, Alan Sondheim has been playing with 3D. A visit to his website http://www.alansondheim.org/ –which is less website than a low-tech bulk online server-list of the contents of Sondheim’s eccentric yet consistent art-research output– reveals an astonishing array of diverse unsorted and unsearchable materials spanning decades. Sifting through the links is akin to searching someone’s desk drawers: ancient and new file formats press up against each other, innocuous stubs of text share space with complex renders. All this reflects the complex dynamic scope of Sondheim’s intellect and his irreverence. In a document enigmatically labeled jp.txt, yet entitled “Virtual Reality 1971”, Sondheim introduces and reproduces a brief segment of text from his early experiment “4320”:

[In 1971 I created a videotape called “4320” using Charles Strauss’ pro-
gram for hypercube projection at Brown University. The machine was a Meta-
4, controlled by keyboard and joystick. Two women (Andrea Kovacs and Beth
Cannon) sat at the console in turn, and attempted to control the projec-
tion – driving it first orthogonally, to produce a cube – driving the cube
orthogonally to produce a line – and shrinking the line to a point. The
women “inhabited” 4-space. I reproduce part of the dialog ….]

1. “Ok, drive that back into three-space now. Wait, it’s still moving in
four.” “I’m losing control, there’s a bending –” “Try the lower console.”

2. “It’s doubling for some reason, looks like you’re sliding along another
axis somewhere.” “It won’t stay still for me. Hold it. No. There, hey
where’s that coming from?”…

Scrolling further through the same unformatted document one encounters a set of brief quasi-psychedelic parables on geometry, desire, jokes and hypertext. The references in this elusive jq.txt document do not reveal when they were written; conjecture occurs. Indebted (perhaps) to William Burroughs, if Burroughs had read Vannevar Bush and ingested Ted Nelson, the stories function as elliptical entrances into a torrent of output (machine poems, rants, theoretical landslides) that Sondheim has released onto zines, diverse listservs and discussion groups. A sample:

The first Lieu runs as .htm, cutting/incising into the textual body; it is
lieu.htm. The second Lieu substitutes language for html, transforms other
sections of the texts, results in a breathing-apparatus. The first places
text between < >, as with a block of granite, sculpted away; intermediate
sections between and are visible. Formally, using locates comments, but browsers tend to ignore extraneous uninterpret-able commands.

Funkhouser connects Sondheim’s “4320” to poetics

In 1970 Alan Sondheim … began to explore the effects of 3-D graphics on language … Sondheim’s videotape “4320” documents (with video and audio) two users’ experience with [this 3-D] … The text resembles a multivoiced poem. (Funkhouser. p 139-40)

Funkhouser also identifies the crucial connectivity of this conceptual-computational intervention to poetics and then emphasizes its uniqueness:

Such an approach to working creatively with computers was unique at the time: most works were coded so as to produce programmatic texts rather than producing an immersive experience that could lead to verbal responses. (Funkhouser. p 141)

Sondheim’s site also contains occasional .mp4 files documenting the ongoing impossible-yogic contortions of endless renders. The preliminary impulse (“4320”) of Sondheim in 3D has evidently continued, extending into avatars mapped onto dancers’ body (from bvh files) in extremely erratic (polygon Francis Bacon without smears combined with an absence of inverse kinematic constraints) poses.

Click on the image to see a Sondheim movie uploaded on 24-Jun-2008 12:46:

Alan Sondheim, screengrab from Faced.mp4
Alan Sondheim, screengrab from Faced.mp4

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