Performance artist Laurie Anderson is so close, it's difficult not to reach out and touch her. There's no need to be standing near the Knitting Factory stage where the new-age singer is performing. In fact, you can be across the street or even across the globe: All you need to see her perform songs from her latest album is a computer and a modem.
Welcome to the state-of-the-art 1995 New York Music Festival, a one-week explosion of youthful multimedia activity, which ended Saturday, July 22.
This event, which featured 360 bands and took place at 15 clubs throughout downtown Manhattan last week, is unique because, for what is believed to be the first time, live broadcasts reverberated from computer screens as well as concert halls.
''This is a revolutionary event, the first time that a music festival has been this involved in presenting itself electronically,'' says Ian Rhett, on-line director of the festival. ''This started as a local music seminar 15 years ago, but now with an Internet presence, we have transformed it into an interactive global event.''
The festival's main sponsor, Apple Computer, set up a World Wide Web site on the Internet for people to see the latest music and technology without leaving the glare of their living-room monitors.
''We had over 100,000 hits on Tuesday alone, meaning that users made that many requests for information on our web site,'' says Mr. Rhett, who adds that users plugged in from as far away as Germany, Japan, and Singapore. Demand for festival information was so intense that there were times when users could not interact with the site. The enormous amount of information available to users of the web site was the main reason for the tie-ups, Rhett notes.
During the festival, web-site users from Berlin to Beijing received constant updates from 15 laptop-toting correspondents at each of the club venues. Users also had the opportunity to view instant photographs taken by correspondents with Apple's QuickTake cameras.
Instant photographs? Amazingly, correspondents used this high-tech digital camera to take a slew of concert pictures, which were then plugged into their laptops, explains David Pakman, Apple's executive director of festival operations. Correspondents then opened the camera (no, it does not expose the roll) and looked at what images they wanted to upload to ''web central,'' located in the basement of one of the festival's clubs, the Knitting Factory.
''I would describe this place as controlled chaos,'' says Rhett from the nerve center of the festival. ''This,'' he says, pointing to a room full of PowerPC 8100/80s, ''is where access to the web site is controlled.''
Festival organizer and Knitting Factory owner, Michael Dorf, says that the web central adds a whole other dimension to the multimedia experience. ''Staring at your monitor is no longer just a passive activity,'' Mr. Dorf says. ''People can interact with the web site and each other and also choose what they want to see.''
Once the images reached the computers at web central, Rhett (or as he prefers, the ''webmeister'') picked out which photos to post onto the web site, similar to which camera a television producer wants to use in a scene.
The techies at web central were also able to provide web-site users with live broadcasts of a handful of performances. The sounds of Laurie Anderson and the Emergency Broadcast Network were fed onto the web site so people could see slow-motion images of the live shows. Rhett says people with modems that run at 14,400 bytes per second (BPS measures how fast a modem can transfer the information to your computer) have access to the performances.
But Dave Flack, the editor in chief of the San Mateo, Calif.-based Open Computing magazine, says it isn't feasible to transport live broadcasts to home users yet.
''What they are doing is pushing the envelope in trying to deliver technology that currently does not work very well,'' Mr. Flack says. ''Presently the technology is there for those who have access to it, but that technology is not available for the consumer in the home.''
Many Internet users currently need a long time to download these live feeds, Rhett admits. Flack compares the download process as being ''similar to when you are recording a program on your VCR and playing it back later.''
While the average home user might not be able to link up directly to these live shows, Flack says that high-tech computer companies already have a device in place. It is called the Integrated Systems Digital Network (ISDN) and gives users the ability to run up to 112,000 BPS, giving a higher-quality audio and visual presentation.
''Once the telecommunications industry installs all those fiber-optic cables, everyone will be able to access this form of technology,'' Flack sums up. ''Current phone lines in homes are just too small to make it a real possibility.''
Flack says Apple wants to spark interest in buying ISDN among people who sign up on the site, so that they can use this state-of-the-art technology at home. The cost to install an ISDN card into a computer is $3,000, Flack says.
Dorf has even bigger and more ambitious plans for next year; the buzzword for the festival is ''24-7.'' Dorf says he wants the festival to be in 24 time zones around the world simultaneously, meaning there would be performers belting out ballads from one city in each time zone at all hours of the day for one week.
''This allows us to beam live performances to large screens throughout the world; so a band can play at the Knitting Factory at 10 a.m. and be watched by hundreds of people in Japan who are going out for the night,'' Dorf says. ''I know this is hard to believe, but I can probably get more artists to play in the morning than at night. It is such a fresh, lively time of the day.''
The other festival organizer, Andrew Rasiej, goes one step further. ''For next year's festival, two bands, one in Hong Kong and one in New York, will be able to play with each other.''
Mr. Rasiej imagines clubs as ''the town halls of the 21st century,'' a place for people to showcase the latest tools of technology. ''This is definitely an experiment for all of us where we are pointing to the possibilities of the future - and the possibilities are endless.''