The Digital Visions of Kevin Mack
by Bruce Lyons
“You Never Know What”Hollywood,CA(Hollywood Today)2/20/12/—Did you ever wonder who might be behind the staggering visual effects that now light up our movie screens? I bumped into one member of this rather elite squad of creative techno wizards by a happy accident last October at a SIGGRAPH event at WEMO Studios in Santa Monica. WEMO was announcing an ambitious project called “theblu” designed to recreate the earth’s oceans on the web by using the latest digital graphics animation technology with “Makers” from all over the planet joining up for a celebratory, global, ‘immersive-interactive’ ‘virtual collaboration’. One of the speakers at “theblu” event and a participant in the digital graphic animation project itself was Academy Award winning visual effects supervisor and fine artist, Kevin Mack – a man with a vision – who once said that when he is not creating art with the latest digital tools, his favorite subject is discussing the future of digital art. For Kevin, digital media and its proliferation in film, the Internet and other forms of new media is changing all of us: the way we do things, how we see things, how we communicate things and how we know things. He believes it may even change the way we structure society itself through a social and technological engine he calls the “hybridization of means” that contains the essence of both evolution and creativity. He believes the collaborative, interactive and social nature of this new media, (virtual media) – may well engender better adaptations and more efficient strategies while also generating a new interconnectedness among ever larger groups of people that could decentralize a system that has long valued the principles of stratification and individual privilege. However this works out, it does seem true that more and more creative tools are shifting into more and more creative hands. Moreover, this ‘emergent creativity’ is becoming increasingly visible. Since around 1979 or so, Kevin Mack has been an integral part of this creative-evolutionary engine and the “emergent collaboration” that is running it.
“Engines of Evolution”He is a walking history book of the digital revolution – the latest revolution to shake not just the movie industry but also the military, communications networks, social media, education and science – a revolution that has also taken hold in the world of fine art. His tireless imagination is fueling several fires at the same time. The quickest way to introduce yourself to Kevin’s own digital fine art is to visit his website at www.kevinmackart.com There you will find a feast of nearly 70 works to ponder, works that are now breaking the surface of a turbulent virtual realm that has been gestating for some three decades. You will also find illuminating commentaries in his own words. And you can catch two pieces: a sculpture called “Helical Happenstance” that can be printed out as a 3D object -
“Helical Happenstance”- and an astonishing surreal work called “The Riddle” at a gallery in Pasadena (FlowerPepper Gallery & Bookstore) from February 11 to April 11.
“The Riddle”“The Riddle” is a delight, inviting immediate commentary beyond its entertainment value alone. It seems to me it is representative of Kevin’s ‘emergent philosophy’ – a philosophy that is forever fluid, evolving, never crystallizing and is probably not a philosophy at all. Kevin loves to conjoin elements and styles we would normally not see together in objective space, but that take on a life of their own in the human imagination and the virtual space it employs as its medium. In his own introduction to this little slice of virtual drama he says this: “In a transhuman future, an exoskeletally augmented green suitor has journeyed from afar with his trusty red star, to obtain an audience and possible courtship with a mystical feminine entity somewhere in the translucent pink forest. The suitor recoils from the unexpected reception by the indigo guardian cat squid …” He goes on from there. It is as if the zeitgeist of European Surrealism were meeting the icons of American Comic Books to become digital animated cartoons – all in wonderland. Kevin is the magic rabbit who has popped us through the dream hole.
“Only the Cage Remains”On the surface of it Kevin is an unusually unflappable personality whose gift for intricate articulation at many levels seems to be floating in a virtual ocean that extends to infinity. Of “Only the Cage Remains”, he notes that: “It explores the idea of anthropomorphism and the nature of life, death, consciousness and existence.” I suppose one could also add that in this beguiling piece: ‘It is the mystery of relationship that alone can bring meaning to the void.’ But that is just my opinion. Kevin’s circle of calm supports an amazing capacity to articulate the ambiguities and enigmas of any subject on earth – both verbally and artistically – from technology to theories about consciousness; from fine art to religious knowledge; from quantum theory to theories about aesthetics, perception, cognition, social organization and even mathematical complexity. Naturally such articulate diversity is reflected in his virtual art. During our interview – in an outdoor cafe in Santa Monica on a particularly pleasant day, a ZOOM recorder jammed in my hand – we pretty much left no stone unturned. Mack is a dedicated family man who has the legacy of art flowing through his bloodstream and it shows. Moreover, he is married to artist Snow Mack, whom he credits with making no small contribution to some of the most stunning visual effects that took all of us by surprise in Vincent Ward’s pioneering work, “What Dreams May Come”, for which Kevin shared the Academy Award in 1998 – a film that guides us ingeniously into the breathtaking vistas of the afterlife. Without any question, in my mind this was the boldest film of that time – and with Kevin’s incredible gift for creative problem solving, it opened an important door to the future. More recently, he has seamlessly adapted his skills to Steven Daldry’s emotional revelation “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”, now up for Best Picture at the 2012 Academy Awards, where what was required this time was ingenious subtlety, the diametric opposite of the visual extravagance demanded by “What Dreams May Come”.
“Mr Crazy's Complex Agenda”Referring to his ilk as “migrant film workers”, he recounted that one of his most important early breaks came when he was still a painter. He worked on James Cameron's “Abyss” for a full year. Cameron is known to drive a hard bargain. His attention to detail is perhaps the most exacting in movie history. It is not easy to get these kinds of jobs and keep them. For one thing the technology has been in a state of revolution for years. It takes an order of genius to know how to interpret the direction new digital tools and programs might take and how they can be integrated into the overall vision the director is trying to promote. Patience? Scope? Tolerance? Inventiveness? Grace? Unassuming frankness? A tireless spirit of collaboration? By juggling these gifts, Kevin has participated successfully in movies ranging from “Apollo 13” to “Fight Club” to “Vanilla Sky”, “A Beautiful Mind” and “What Dreams May Come”, to name just a sampling. Once we had found a large umbrella to shut out the direct sunlight that heated up the little cafe in Santa Monica, a smorgasbord of thought began to spread out in front of us. I realized quickly that this was a man whose perception is tuned to the microcosm – the quantum scale universe of photons, electrons, single units of electric charge and the molecular subtleties of living cells that lie close to the teeming void. He is sensitive to interactions that occur at distances less than 3 or 4 nanometers. He is right to be concerned about the destructive power of the Sun. With his digital tools he is now able to simulate molecular structures to help researchers see into the galling mysteries of cancer. Even a cursory perusal of his art lets you know that this is a man who is as familiar with destruction as he is with creation. His calm seems to be spread out around his art like the wings of Abraxis. But between those wings the battle between all the opposites rages: yang and yin, male and female; light and dark; beauty and chaos; life and death; love and rage; burning ambition and infinite stillness.
“God and the Devil Argue Over the Details”When I asked him when he knew he first wanted to be an artist he replied, without hesitation, that he had always wanted to be both scientist and artist. Little wonder that he is so interested in the mysterious laws of cognition, perception and the unprecedented enigma of human imagination – the navigation system that Kevin takes with him when he steers his creative instincts into a virtual infinity. Even CERN, the birthplace of the World Wide Web and home to an extraordinary particle accelerator, has discussed with Kevin the possibility of digitally animating the basic principles of Quantum Mechanics to make those enigmas more accessible to the public. Kevin is no stranger to the strangeness of modern physics. Again and again physicists have argued over the interpretation of the details, such as the famous Uncertainty Principle of Heisenberg, which Albert Einstein resisted for as long as he could. Kevin's first affection seems to be rendering these strange debates with digital tools – which is to say the manipulation of light-generating electrons in a computer. He aptly names two works: “Complexity Argues with Reason” and “God Loves a Math Joke”. “Complexity Argues With Reason” “God Loves a Math Joke” The uncertainty relation asserts, fundamentally, that in the world of the very small ‘God is a Gambler’. But for Kevin Mack he is also a Jokester. In the end, human reason cannot explain either the creation or destruction of energy. But in “God Loves a Math Joke”, you can also see a small, shiny car that has just been in a wreck, or has been committed to a chrome-laced junkyard. What was supposed to run with engineering smoothness – in the name of “Progress” - has been shattered into an almost Dali-esque beauty and a neo-surreal paroxysm of shiny absurdism. The accident has not yet settled down. It is so shiny and so unexpected that even God himself cannot help laughing. All carefully laid plans are prone to the unexpected in today's world – including different ways we can interpret the art of Kevin Mack.
“Trans Vision Division”Note the faces that emerge from this complex virtual scape. If you saw “What Dreams May Come” you might recall the purgatorial sea of heads trapped in mud that Robin Williams had to clamber over. In this work you even find things that look like “attractors” that self-organize out of the chaos or turbulence once portrayed by the Taoists some 7 centuries ago. Some of Kevin’s sculptures have also unintentionally caught the spirit of ancient Taoism. (see “Sponge Dog”, “God Dog Log”, “Dancing Glass Notion”.) Kevin may look like a physicist, but just below the tempered surface we quickly discover a man burning with the creative urge to transform art, people and the world. His fire is not frenetic but it is intense. He once said that he yearned to produce works of art that psycho actively transport people to a new realm – direct metamorphosis if you like – a place where the self can burn with illumination.
“Beyond the Curtain”His urge to pioneer the digital universe is immediate and relentless. His imagination is his faithful Pegasus. It is where he wants to be – riding that winged digital horse through untold folds of digital space – spaces yet unnamed – some of them made of the purest magic – by means of exotic instruments that seem to spew out recaps of Taoist silk born from the bellows of Lao Tzu. Abstract becomes concrete and then twists back again into something abstract as if simulating the mystery of imagination itself when it interacts with the chemicals of our neuronal wiring system. “Spider Brain Lab Accident” “Hypno-cognitive “Neurosymphonic Mechanism” Self-Reflection” Behind the cool surface that can interface with anyone from mad scientists and finicky academics to idiosyncratic movie directors, is a molten fire that defies the notion of its own extinction. Pioneers alter the way we see things. They can bury the familiar in the twinkling of an eye.
“Emergent From Void”In this spirit, Kevin Mack is the quintessential modern man. When I look at his digitally generated Fine Art I see the offspring of the marriage of all these domains emerging with electronic profusion from the teeming vacuum. His mind loves borders that are not borders – turbulent frontiers that yield quickly to someplace else. He loves the profusion at transitions – where all the drama happens: a mobius quest of shiny connectors that entertain as they come and go – chrome conduits that slice through reason and transport us with speed to unknown realities where something extraordinary happens.
“Mall Where”Psycho-active deliverance? Fun? Virtual magic? Maybe. But it may also be simulating laws of behavior not yet identified as the imagination advances with the tools it invents. Science is only as good as the questions it asks. The artist is uniquely equipped right now to 'paint' the answers. “Wouldn't it be ironic”, Kevin once suggested to a graduating class of art students, “if artists were the ones who one day came up with the cure for cancer?” Digital ingenuity? The sculpture “Icosolucent Loop Structure” is particularly ingenious. The icosahedron is one of the 5 great Platonic Solids in traditional geometry. And feedback loops are one of the prime principles operating in contemporary “systems theories” - feedback loops that self-amplify near the core within a self-organizing membrane from which emerges the initial ingredients for a self-sustaining organism and consciousness itself.
“Icosolucent Loop Structure”“God Dog Log” is especially endearing as it looks like an anemone that can be found crystallized at the bottom of a shallow sea. And “Dream Lion Morphogenesis” is remarkable.
“God Dog Log”
“Dream Lion Metamorphosis”When you look closely you can see multiple, variegated life forms and gestures as if they had been lifted from a Roman Arche de Triomphe – all clambering and moving and climbing and gesticulating – a time warp of evolutionary striving which finally heaps up into the first proud prance of the regal lion – the symbolic ‘end point’ of the evolutionary process. This virtual sculpture is a masterpiece and ought to be supporting a contemporary fountain in front of some bank or monolithic, corporate headquarter in need of vital movement. These works have emerged from 30 years of digital gestation going back to the late 1970's. What can we expect to see 30 years from now? I suspect Kevin Mack has his digital binoculars in place and is already scanning the horizon. “Exalted Reflection Ritual” Kevin Mack The Blu “Love Of Our Ocean” The Evolution of Technology, Art & Communication Digital Seeds to the Future By Bruce Lyons Venice, CA(Hollywood Today)10/19/11/-=- In the late afternoon I drove to Wemo Media Studios (www.wemomedia.com) in Venice to attend a sneak preview of an ambitious – even revolutionary – immersive, interactive, online digital animation project, sponsored by SIGGRAPH, called “The Blu” (www.theblu.com). “The Blu” is the heart-child of Neville Spiteri, co-founder – with data guru Scott Yara – of Wemo, a company with a passion for the World Wide Web, for 3D computer graphic animation, for story-telling and for communication, all topped off by a special reverence for global, human connectivity. For Yara, “The Blu” “represents the first time for the Internet itself to find its own form of storytelling, a shared media experience at a scale that the world has not yet seen.” And like a growing number of people around the planet, the folks at Wemo Media share an incomparable love of our oceans – a love that transcends “trending” itself – compelling them to find a way to give something back through the digital universe. In Spiteri’s own words, “The Blu” is a love letter to the world. Our oceans and their exquisite habitats are that important.” This is a company that aspires, thinks and breathes globally, quite as if they have already arrived where a long-awaited paradigm shift had only promised to go without actually getting there. What I was being shown was a preview of what will come after the company’s formal announcement of the project later this month. It was tantalizing and exciting at the same time. It works likes this; Wemo has built a platform that will allow makers around the world to sign up, log on and create “assets” – i.e. sea creatures, sea environments, etc. – that will be uploaded into “The Blu” servers. Those assets will be used to recreate the Earth’s complete marine environment – online. Eventually, the public will be able to log on and interactively experience the environment. Just as exciting, each public user will be able to purchase assets with which to create their own little corner of the ocean – much like “Farmville” or “The Sims”. Each maker will be paid every time someone buys one of their assets – and a percentage will be donated to organizations that work to protect the world’s waters. Though I’m a big fan of 20th century works like Fritjof Capra’s The Turning Point, The Web of Life and The Tao of Physics, once zapped by Spiteri’s 21st century zeal, I quickly realized I had some catching up to do. It became evident that this company, with its outstanding, highly focused team of online platform builders, is on a global mission, the aim of which is nothing less than “to create the ocean on the Web.” For Wemo, “It’s an interactive world where every species and habitat is a unique work of art created by a developer or 3-D artist somewhere in the world…” We are asked “to picture tens or hundreds of millions of people, connected thru the Web experiencing, art together at the same time… In the case of “The Blu”, the art is inspired by the ocean and the rich variety of species there.” Another participant, Joichi Ito, director of the Media Lab at MIT, loves “The Blu” because he likes projects that pull together elements we would normally not see together, such as “the biology, the activism of conservation, the beauty and sort of grassroots participatory maker thing” into one great space that unites all the things that interest him. For another participant, Andy Jones, the Academy Award winning animation supervisor on Avatar, the overall concept of a “global environment that’s socially growing on its own is a really big idea”. “The Blu” was not designed to be merely a passive experience – though users are free to take that approach – but has been created to allow a person to take control of the tools and explore, change environments, and - if one wishes – attempt to make a creative contribution oneself, to become a member of Maker Media. Is that cool enough? The ocean needs global attention now. There is no argument about that. It is changing its acidity as it absorbs more and more human-generated carbon. It is losing species and it is losing habitats. It is becoming more polluted. These are hard physical realities. But, as esteemed oceanographer Sylvia Earle – who calls the ocean the “Blue Heart of the Planet” – has long urged, we need all manner of means, including film, television and the Internet to help bring the oceans of the world into the sphere of international awareness – a shared awareness that does not lapse. But I never imagined a project like “The Blu”, a project that not only promises to bring stunning art into the world in a way that has never happened before, but that also arouses a conversation which – on Tuesday the 11th – seems to come right out of The Blue itself. The conversation is for children. It is for adults. It transcends all nationalities. Moreover, it is creative and presents digital artists everywhere with a universal, open-ended challenge: to help create this digital kingdom inspired by and based on the ocean itself while interacting with the creative work of others with whom you can form an open-ended connection within a shared Maker Media environment that introduces us to the universal, interdependent complexity of all environments everywhere. It is no surprise that educational institutes are as interested in “The Blu” as the illustrious artists who now exist in ever greater numbers around the world. As Spiteri emphasizes, Wemo is interested in the people who are at the creative end of the tools and processes that they work; “The Blu” as much about intrinsic value as it is about profit- sharing or production. It is not production for its own sake. As soon as Neville Spiteri took the floor the conversation started and bang! – there was no looking back. You could hear in his impassioned voice that the web is on fire, everywhere, as if the world has reached a threshold – a threshold that has started to rock and roll only to spontaneously combust – in that matrix where fire and water meet and marry – and when they do we are never the same again. We’re in it together – straight over our heads – and we cannot turn back. No one is excluded: neither rich, nor poor, nor any class in between. The World Wide Web reaches the most secret factions on Earth as well as the most public. A turning point is a turning point. We all turn together. Like an experiment in particle physics, it is irreversible – all nostalgia notwithstanding. There is no way to turn back the clock, the hand of which has just clicked again. But the World Wide Web offers a unique opportunity that differs from the revolutions of the industrial age. It offers the possibility of creative action, conversations that advance by a hybridization of views, thought-experiments, strategies and ultimately, means. Kevin Mack, the Academy Award winning VFX artist (“Vanilla Sky”, “What Dreams May Come”, “A Beautiful Mind”) and one of the illustrious participants in “The Blu”, calls this phenomena the essence of both evolution and creativity. After a short, fascinating history of all the developments that had sparked his interest in digital animation and communication on the Web, Spiteri pointed out something that I had forgotten. The Web is a mere 20 years old. Yes, a mere 20. Spiteri mentioned the Web’s birthday, announced by Tim Berners-Lee on August 6, 1991 from CERN, the massive particle accelerator in Geneva, Switzerland at the border of France. What irony! Physicists created the Web! It started with something called ‘hypertext transfer protocol (http). The scientists wanted a way to transfer large amounts of data among themselves without physical movement. They also wanted to be able to store it. That takes electrons, and we all know how universal electrons are. We can think and do gymnastics because of electrons. We email each other because of electrons. We breathe because of electrons and consciousness switches off and on in the brain’s domain because of electrons. Computers perform their magic because of electrons. We can stand and jump and run instead of collapse into gravitational piles of mass because of electrons. The physicists also wanted data to go out to the world. So one of the most secret of all societies – as when building the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos – had become, by the time the web was born, the group most interested in universal communication, the spinal fluid of any healthy democracy and, perhaps Spiteri’s first love; communication that connects people. Because, says Spiteri, “At the end of the day, right, it’s not really about technology, right, it’s about people. At the core of social media… there’re people at the ends of these devices, right? And what the Web really does is, it allows people to connect with each other in unprecedented ways.” And is this interconnectivity not the birthplace of a global, emergent empathy, even if it has only managed to catch its first breath? What young thing on this Earth does not have to be nurtured and carefully tended? The web has altered our sense of time and space and even distance. We can use it to view our collective home, this Blue Planet, in a whole new light. We do not need to make the same mistakes that we have made over and over up to 1991. The Web has the capacity to let us see these mistakes in advance. Strategies can be shared instantly; foresight can be amplified and sharpened. Wrong action can be avoided. This is not wishful thinking, all abuses of the Internet notwithstanding. It is a fact that interactive communication has the power to resolve and clarify the mind. Since history seemed to be in the air on Rose Blvd, I could not fail to notice that the Web’s “birth” date, August 6, 1991, was also the 46th Anniversary of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, a bomb dubbed “Little Boy”. Between Little Boy and Fat Boy – dropped on Nagasaki three days later -100,000 people died outright. It is easy to see August 6, 1945 as a turning point in the collective human psyche no matter how long it has taken to absorb the calamity. James Cameron managed to recreate an immersive 3-D facsimile of a comparable but updated horror, when he and his team, headed up by Andy Jones, depicted the destruction of the great and sacred tree in the game-changing cinematic masterpiece, Avatar. The fall of that tree is an experience that reverberates in many of us to this day – but it was an experience that exists only in the hearts and minds of the viewer. It took city after city around the globe by proverbial storm without so much as rattling a fish bowl. But it allowed us all to experience, as if first hand, the ever-present potential for senseless destruction when civilization succumbs to ruthless tactics driven by the titanic power of greed in all its forms. It is therefore no surprise that Jones, who won an Academy Award for Avatar, is also on board “The Blu”, a project that grows cooperatively, interactively, creatively. What a way to approach problems. What a way to interact with Nature herself. In 1945 the aftermath of Little and Fat Boy’s destructive force in Japan imposed a limit on human action. This limit has been reinforced by all wars since 1945, including the Cold War with its brutal logic called Nuclear Deterrence – later dubbed MAD or Mutually Assured Destruction as ever more powerful nuclear weapons were brought into the world by legions of highly trained physicists. But nothing has quite matched the initial shock of August 6, 1945. So one might consider it to be a provocative coincidence that August 6, 1991 was the date on which the World Wide Web was officially announced. Moreover, it was free. It was open to everybody. It is a collective reminder that out of the ash of catastrophe the Phoenix has the stubborn capacity, once again, to spread out its wings. We had to wait 46 years, but it was a pair of wings worth waiting for! They envelop the whole planet with the ever-present potential for human beings to start the conversation that will redefine the human race. Where will it fly to? Wh