Creating Synthetic Identities in I'Myth: Zapping Zone

Diana Domingues
NTAV Lab, Universidade de Caxias do Sul
Caxias do Sul, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil
Master's Programme in Communication and Languages, Universidade Tuiuti
Curitiba, Paraná

Eliseo Reategui
Computer Science Department, Universidade de Caxias do Sul
Caxias do Sul, Rio Grande do Sul

Abstract. This paper presents an interactive and immersive installation that combines physical objects, virtual reality concepts and artificial intelligence to generate a hybrid place that blurs the limits between virtual and real. Mutant narratives emerge from representations of legendary individuals, or ‘myths,’ through categorised terms and virtual images. Genetic algorithms control the evolution of a population to generate new individuals with original features and images. These images are rendered in real time, using a proprietary graphics library that exploits functions such as dynamic meshing, morphing and blending, allied to lighting and texture synthesis.


Interactive art establishes a crossover platform between art and science, bringing new investigative elements for both artists and scientists. Cyberart, with its use of interactive systems, shares an interest in complexity theory with contemporary scientific investigation. It is important to consider that technological discovery should be examined according to its philosophical, social and technical implications for culture. Scientist Ilya Prigogine states that humanity is in transition because science is in transition [12]. The science of complexity supplements the creativity of artists with fundamental insights into nature and its laws. This is a biological view of culture and human sciences that challenges categories and aesthetic models related to stability, equilibrium and certainty. Recent projects privilege the creation of non-deterministic worlds founded on concepts such as instability, evolution and the capacity to adapt, promoting a type of internal interaction that Edmond Couchot calls the ‘seconde interactivité,’ or second interactivity level [3]. The framework of complexity calls for methods in which the artist's creativity and the inventiveness of the scientist explore emerging behaviours of computational systems. Consequently, we envision the use of the computer no longer as a tool that responds to the first level of interaction with simple questions and answers. Our collaborative practice attempts to incorporate the use of cyberspace, the architecture of computers and networks and computer programming that gradually gains in autonomy and intelligence. The construction of scientific and artistic facts with shared knowledge and the possibility to offer new sensorial experiences invites artists and scientists to work in a collaborative way. The intention is to expand the limits of the systems, provoking the orthodoxy and pragmatics of science with the dialectics of the principles of freedom in art. The premise is that the enrichment of the territory of art can be enhanced by the solid bases of scientific inventions, opening limitless frontiers through evolutionary computing systems.

Our present project, I'Myth, has challenged us to create an interactive-immersive system that explores real and virtual worlds and the notions of instability, evolution, self-organization and global connectivity. To paraphrase Ellen Ullman, this field of investigation, also defined as ‘possible biology,’ involves the creation of software that has the qualities of living systems [14]. In the fields of artificial life (A-Life) and artificial intelligence (AI), computational systems lend particular qualities to the posthuman era. In A-Life, creative projects with evolutionary genetic behaviour simulate life, generating a synthetic ecology in virtual worlds [13]. In AI, researchers combine neuroscience and connectionism to try to model brain mechanisms using artificial neural networks and multi-agent systems that simulate the human capacity of reasoning. The adaptive potential of associative processes can be exploited aesthetically and poetically in complex computational environments.

In the posthuman era, it has gradually become evident that our senses can be expanded by technology, particularly by cybernetic models and interfaces based on feedback and bio-feedback [5]. Christopher Langton defines life in terms of accidents and evolutionary paths through many possible courses in the systems that evolve as life forms [8]. Artificial complex systems are making diffuse the boundaries between natural and virtual worlds. A-Life accentuates these changes based on processes of mutation, self-replication and adaptability. The concept of emergence based on genetic algorithms triggers narratives for a certain creative context where the accidents of the system determine states of self-organization. A-life-influenced art projects exploit the concept of fitness, which in science means the capacity of a living being to adapt to a certain situation. Edmond Couchot indicates that computational environments developed in the second interactivity level are controlled by endogenous processes in programs able to perceive and adapt, evolving in a way similar to living systems [3]. On the other hand, the presence of interfaces that enable real-time interaction leads to situations that the theoretician calls exogenous processes, where external actions send orders to a system that interprets them and responds accordingly [3, p.155].

In all circumstances, art is no longer working with tools and machines, but with the notion of systems. The main qualities of emerging realities are autopoiesis, self-organization, adaptation and evolution. We define emergence as an implicit term in the notion of complex systems that manifests the appearance of properties or qualities not seen previously, resulting from the action of a number of elementary units. Autopoiesis incorporates the role of the observer in the definition of the system for the coupling of computational and external environments [9].

Mixing Real and Virtual Worlds

I'Myth is a cyber installation constituted of a physical space to be inhabited by the entire body, giving visitors the opportunity to interact with physical objects that relate to myths such as Marilyn Monroe, John F. Kennedy, Princess Diana, Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, Elvis Presley, Vincent van Gogh, Ayrton Senna, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Franz Beckenbauer and Madonna, among others [Figure 1].

The title I'Myth: Zapping Zone, or ‘I Am a Myth’ is intended to invite the visitor to explore the universe of the myths and get closer to them in a zapping zone with multiple associative possibilities among physical and immaterial informational elements. We have opted to work in all moments with the poetics of excess, incorporating fragments of sound, textual and visual information through different computational systems, generating an overload of elements from everyday life. These elements take us to portions of a collective memory of myths and characters of our culture, triggering associative processes. Inside the room, a zapping zone is activated in which the body is totally involved in the environment. The participant's capacity to remember and to associate things traces a constant feedback loop between real and virtual worlds through material objects and immaterial elements represented by the abstraction of computer code. Each object contains in its physicality all its symbolic force, which is activated by representational processes using information systems. The experimental nature of the situation places the visitor in a feedback circuit of paradoxical notions where the identity of the myths can be constructed through elements that are ephemeral and permanent, mutating and stable, analogical and digital, music and noise.

Technically, this work can be classified as a cyber installation with several material and computational components. The interaction takes place through several emergent states of abstraction, from the materiality of physical objects to the abstraction of words, passing through 3-D modelled geometric objects and the computer code displayed on three additional monitors. The results obtained with the images are self-revealing in an unveiling process of the construction of their morphogenesis.

Ecology of Icons

The visitor starts the interaction by selecting real objects and presenting them to a bar code reader as in an offering ritual. The corresponding myths are represented through texts, images and sounds. The stages between real and virtual can be categorised in a type of ‘ecological theory of the image’ [11]. As far as the images are concerned, the installation draws upon the tradition of Joseph Kosuth's conceptual work One and Three Chairs, which consists of a real chair, a photograph of the same chair, and a dictionary definition of the word ‘chair’ [1, p.80]. I'Myth traverses several levels of an iconic scale, which starts with the real objects and proceeds through analogical 2-D photographs presented as static images, videos and neon silhouettes to 3-D geometric models with stereoscopic visualisation that enhance the illusion of reality. We consider this last form of representation as the maximum abstraction of the mathematics behind the computer programs employed to render the images in real time. The visualisation of the code responsible for the composition of the images is another level of abstraction beyond the symbolic meaning of the words used by Kosuth.

The installation can also be analysed by levels of emergence corresponding to the feedback cycles between participants and the system. The relationship of external and internal worlds constitutes a new type of organism with its own dynamics that configures the life of the environment. When the visitor ‘offers’ objects to the bar code reader [Figure 2], several processes are triggered. A database composed of words taken from the biographies of the myths is activated, starting processes that lead to different emergent outcomes.

First Outcome

The selection of myths by the offering of objects to the bar code reader interface initiates a big-screen projection of photographs of the mythic individuals on a three-dimensional cube in constant rotation. The first image of one of the myths is displayed and then ‘contaminated’ by the image of a second myth, which little by little becomes clearer and clearer until it takes over and the other image disappears. The fusion of the myths' faces generates morphs from identities as diverse as those of John F. Kennedy and Che Guevara, or Marilyn Monroe and Mother Teresa.

Second Outcome

The myths are represented within the system through a set of terms organised in a database in different categories:

Exploiting the idea of global connectivity, the selection of a myth initiates a Web search using some of the associated terms, retrieving sentences from the planetary memory and placing them in a different context with a totally new meaning. These sentences are displayed on top of the myths' photographs projected on the large screen [Figure 3]. This same process may be activated by sending a message to the myths using an SMS service through an ordinary cell phone. The message is employed as an entry for a web search, and the responses retrieved are again projected on the large screen.

Third Outcome

Real-time renderings of 3-D objects associated with the myths are projected on the large screen on the right-hand side of the room, which can also be seen in Figure 3. An attractor system is responsible for the dynamics of the 3-D objects, handling collisions and the morphing of the objects, which generates new visions of emerging hybrid forms. This screen is visualised in stereoscopy, letting the virtual objects come into the physical space to create a contrast with the physicality of the things that populate the room. A proprietary computer graphics library called NTAV Roaming renders the objects using mechanisms such as dynamic meshing and blending together with the synthesis of texture and light.* This library was also used in the prior works INSN(R)AK(R)ES qand TRANS-E: My Body, My Blood [2, 7].

Fourth Outcome

The sound system in the room is controlled by a mechanism which selects fragments of songs, sounds, noises and speeches for each myth. These sounds are played according to the interaction of the user and the selection of various myths.

Fifth Outcome

Contrasting with the physicality of the actual objects spread across the room, computer monitors present raw data being manipulated by the system in order to control the interaction with the user and to generate the synthetic images. Figure 4 shows some of the monitors positioned in different places in the installation.

Sixth Outcome

The visitors may see themselves as a myth by visualising their own pictures amalgamated with other myths' faces. To start such a process, the visitor can take a picture with a cell phone and send it to a computer server that handles the photograph and displays it on the rotating cube on one of the large screens.

Seventh Outcome and Emergent State

The nouns, adjectives, verbs and places associated with the myths are presented to the visitor on a touch screen. By selecting a set of terms that may define what brings someone to become a myth, the visitor activates an evolutionary process [Figure 5].

Through the application of genetic algorithms, a novel generation of virtual beings with different combinations of features is produced. Two operators have been used to generate new individuals:

We describe an individual here as a virtual entity (potentially a new myth) represented by his/her set of features (nouns, adjectives, verbs and places) and 3-D modelled objects. A function to determine the fitness of a virtual being evaluates how adapted this individual is in the population of myths. In our case, this function has been defined as the Euclidean distance between the representation of the new being and the features that the visitors selected as significant for a myth. By choosing certain objects and terms, one can manipulate which characteristics should be considered as more important. Such a process allows the spontaneous evolution of the population in a representation that resembles DNA chains, susceptible to branching and recombination [10]. Following principles of genetics and natural selection, the variations can improve through their reproductions and, after a certain time, represent optimised solutions according to the fitness function. In other words, genetic selection makes organisms that are better adapted to respond satisfactorily to a given situation [6].

The fittest individual generated by the evolutionary process is selected for presentation. The photographs of his/her progenitors are displayed on the screen on the left, while his/her 3-D objects and set of terms are projected on the other screen, in the middle of a profusion of characters representing the identities of other myths. When the highlighted words collide, new terms are created and incorporated into the system's database.

Our future challenge is to develop synthetic individuals in adaptive morphologies and narratives to reveal social behaviours inherent to humans, such as courage, speed and aggressiveness.

Final Comments

In this paper we present an installation resulting from collaborative work in which mutant narratives emerge from representations of mythic figures in human culture through categorised terms and virtual images. Genetic algorithms control a mechanism that enables the blending of identities and the evolution of a population with original features and images.

The combination of computer graphics with virtual reality and evolutionary computing has revealed a fruitful approach in the creation of a system that mixes real and virtual worlds. From this perspective, one can assume that technologies may enable the expansion of consciousness in a symbiosis of organic and inorganic life. Accordingly, collaborative practices between artists and scientists trigger the developments of new disciplines and push the boundaries of isolated ones through joint efforts in works that combine art, computer science, biology, cognitive sciences and other fields.


NTAV Roaming was developed by Research Group ARTECNO - NTAV LAB: New Technologies in Visual Arts. Universidade de Caxias do Sul/ CNPq - Brazil. Technical Artistic Coordinator: Profa. Dr. D. Domingues UCS/CNPq; COMPUTER SCIENCE: Gelson Reinaldo - UCS (lead programmer); Gustavo Lazzarotto (consultant programmer); Maurício Passos - IC FAPERGS (assistant programmer); Alexandre Lorenzatti - PIBIC CNPq; Dr. Eliseo Reategui - DEIN; ARTS AND COMMUNICATION: Eleandra Cavali - IC CNPq; Elisabete Bianchi - UCS; Luiz Oliveira - BIC UCS; Paulo Vega - PIBIC CNPq; Mona Carvalho - BIC UCS; Solange Baldisserotto - UCS, Felipe Egger - volunteer; Ana Kalinoski - AT CNPq.


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About the Authors

Diana Domingues is an artist, professor, senior researcher and coordinator of the NTAV Laboratory of New Technologies in Visual Arts - University of Caxias do Sul, Brazil. She holds a post-doctoral degree in virtual reality and digital interactive images from ATI, Paris VIII. She is a senior researcher of CNPq, the National Council for Scientific Development Brazil, developing art/science collaborative work. She has published three books, most recently Art and Life in the 21st Century: Technology, Science and Creativity (São Paulo: UNESP, 2003) and several articles related to cyberart in books, journals and magazines including Leonardo, Digital Creativity, Collection Esthétique des Arts Médiatiques, UQAM and others. Diana Domingues is a member of editorial boards and committees of several publications and organisations, including Leonardo Media Art History, ISEA, Banff Advanced Research, UNESCO DigiArts and Digital Creativity. She has also received many grants and prizes such as the First Leonardo Global Crossings Prize, 2004 and the 2000 UNESCO Prize for the Promotion of the Arts at the 7th Bienal de la Habana, Cuba. Diana Domingues has participated in about thirty personal exhibitions and 130 group exhibitions with networked and cyber installations, virtual reality and caves. She can be contacted at

Eliseo Reategui has a PhD degree in Artificial Intelligence (AI) from the University of London, England. After the completion of his PhD, he worked at the Laboratoire de Productique at the University of Bordeaux, France, using AI techniques in the modelling of manufacturing systems. In France, he also worked at the R&D department of Kalisto Technologies, using intelligent multi-agent systems in the development of computer games. He was also an AI consultant for the company Cognition in Paris, France, working in knowledge management projects for companies such as Peugeot/Citroën and Thompson. He has published papers in major international conferences (such as SIGGRAPH, AAAI, ICCBR) and journals (such as Artificial Intelligence in Medicine and Applied Intelligence), in areas involving artificial life, machine learning and reasoning. Eliseo is currently a lecturer and researcher at the Department of Computer Science at the University of Caxias do Sul, Brazil. He can be contacted at

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