The CyberArts flyers said that Geometries of Power, an online multi-user event, would run from 2-5 pm. This was a typo. The program only went live at 3 pm.
The mistake was lucky; we got to see Thiel and Houshmand’s stunning Beyond Manzanar. The piece was a large screen projection of a virtual reality composed from the overlapping realities that really leave you shaken: the internment of Japanese-Americans in the deserts of California during WWII, and the clear and present danger of Iranian scapegoating, turned ethnic persecution, turned worse (note: this piece developed and debuted before 9/11). One visitor at a time used a joystick to manipulate her experience --everyone else watched quietly-- within a virtually composed Manzanar. The piece worked by poetically layering transparent walls, photos, found texts, and sounds. The California landscape became the hills of Iran, olden day photos became present-day images of the lineage of naturalized Americans, and the pleasure gardens of one culture morphed into the gardens that were built at each internment camp, those wrenching monuments to wasted labor, trust, and dreams. And, we experienced all this from within the highly wrought, rather colonial setting of the Goethe-Institut!
Once it began, Geometries of Power was less moving. Each Boston user sat at a computer console showing a landscape of a handful of skyscraper shapes. Our interfaces were identically pre-stocked with images of political leaders, and recognizable ‘terrorists’ of Middle Eastern descent. Each user could click and drag and image to one face of a building. The terrorist images didn’t stick and instead floated motionlessly inside the landscape of power, emitting a low-grade “osamabinladen, osamabinladen, osamabinladen.” Each pol image said, “You’re either with us or against us.” We had a mirror group in real-time Munich, also manipulating the buildings. Different users grabbed different images (we could also take them from google’s image searches), and each moved through the landscape independently. After about fifteen minutes of this, I found that while the trappings of the settings changed, the gestalt did not. We moved on.
"Beyond Manzanar and other projects by Tamiko Thiel: Virtual Reality as Political Art" was on view until May 5th at the Goethe-Institut Boston located at 170 Beacon St., Boston .
All images are courtesy of the artist and Goethe-Institut Boston.