A cryptic taste of the electronic future

IN one room your body ``becomes'' a musical instrument as hidden sensors convert your movements into a Brahms waltz or a Chopin nocturne. Next door you step onto a chessboard and the floor lights up, while a screen overhead plays a match ostensibly affected by where you stand. In another room, a computer helps you write Japanese haiku or a story in the style of Baudelaire. Welcome to Centre Pompidou's ``The Immaterials,'' a state-of-the-art electronics show three years in the making. It is designed to make museumgoers question such heady themes as the substance of reality, origins of creativity, and maintaining humanness in a computer era. If that sounds a little heavy for your average museum show, consider the central theme: Neither matter nor material things are what they seem to be.

The show ``is trying to make us sensitive that something is changing very deeply,'' says co-director Thierry Chaput. Mr. Chaput and French philosopher Jean-Franois Lyotard led a team of scientists, philosophers, and writers in creating this 61-site maze of computers, sculptures, flashing sets, and exhibits, from the familiar to the fantastic.

That something, he says, ``is our very notion of reality.'' Our increasingly complex, techno-electronic capabilities -- from body scanners, lasers, and holograms to computer appliances and video -- extend our senses in wonderfully useful ways, he says from an office overlooking Parisian rooftops. But they also manipulate and confuse us in ways no one has yet been able to measure. A fundamental reason for the exhibit, he says, is to get people to question those effects. Enigmatic exhibits

Organizers and curators wanted the show to be very different from the ordinary -- to mirror our signpost-less journey through the postmodernist era. There are no directions through the rooms that honeycomb around each other and are open on many sides. The few francs' admission price includes wireless headphones playing a track that complements an environment of total disorientation: first the echo of breathing, then reverberating voices reading snippets from essays by such writers as Samuel Beckett and Hans Christian Andersen, then droning music that continually slows in tempo.

It's all a way to do justice to what organizers call the great postmodernist challenge -- in the words of museum president Jean Maheu, ``to lift the veil that interjects itself between reality and spirit.''

The exhibit, he says, ``is in fact an essay in the literary sense of the word, in order to offer something different from those the public is accustomed to seeing.''

To support his point that ``the material and the real are no longer immediately graspable,'' Chaput points to deceptive images created by realistic three-dimensional holograms in the show. To illustrate that new languages have supplanted old, he points to computer scanners that reduce a view of the body to a language of numbers. The numbers are diagnosed by computer, he says, circumventing traditional modes of medicine and human interaction. There is also an exhibit that explores issues of conception and parenthood now that science has made it possible to conceive outside the womb.

That all this takes place in an art museum has ignited considerable controversy in the French press. But this is another of the organizers' intriguing points. In the same way that traditional forms of art confront the onlooker with new ways of seeing and feeling, these exhibits flaunt the excesses of video and computerdom to help viewers question the profound changes technology makes in such basic activities as learning, shopping, and communicating. Infinite options

Continue on to the ``Theater of the Non-body.'' Five marionette-size stages sit behind glass in a semicircle. Each has a tiny still life, dramatically lit -- such as an empty stage with a pair of shoes on it, or a tiny nighttime cityscape with lighted windows. Cryptically, through the headphones come the words, in French, of Beckett (from ``For two hands get again''): ``. . . he'll never say anything anymore, he won't talk to anyone, no one will talk to him, he won't talk to himself, he won't think anymore, he'll go on.'' There are no directions explaining the message or where to turn next. The only way to get through the exhibit is to wander. Whenever you move a few feet, the sound track changes. There is a feeling generated here of infinite options, calling upon the individual to draw upon his own resources to make discriminating choices. Some viewers are clearly daunted by the prospect. A Belgian woman said, ``If this is the future, I'll take the past.'' Others feel a new sense of freedom. A Frenchman said, ``computers may be impersonal, but they will give me back my time.''

Other titles are cryptic as well: Site of the Undiscoverable Surface; Site of the Invisible Man; Site of the Labyrinth of Language. One, the Site of the Pre-cooked and Pre-spoken, includes a Japanese sleeping cubicle with a display of various kinds of freeze-dried, frozen, and precooked foods.

Less bewildering is a fitting room where futuristic shoppers may try clothes on a computer image of themselves, altering styles and sizes with the push of a button.

``What interests us with technology and electronics is how all this material changes us,'' says Chaput. ``The things we are questioning are very basic, not only our way of creating . . ., but our way of expressing ourselves in our environment.''

This kind of questioning isn't new, critics say. Much of the technology in the show has already been seen -- particularly in Japan and the United States -- and much has been written about its possible side effects.

But despite this slight naivet'e, criticism for its heavy doses of surrealism, and the danger of viewers becoming merely enamored with much of the gadgetry, the exhibit has attracted adjectives no less than ``astonishing'' from both sides of the Atlantic. If it doesn't help its viewers decide what is ultimately real and what isn't, it at least makes them aware of how many ways technology can translate objective reality. At the very least, the consensus seems to be that it is one of the few organized attempts to make the common man both experience and question the place of technology in 20th-century life. The exhibit runs through July 16.

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