Empyrean, New Media Notes
Melinda Rackham Interviewed by Saoirse Higgins,
Art Bulletin, Vol 18 No 98, AAI, Dublin, 2001, p23-25, ISSN 07905858

Melinda Rackham, award winning Australian digital artist talks to Saoirse about her 3D virtual environment ‘Empyrean’ and her thoughts on the future of virtual space.

Melinda Rackham (melinda@subtle.net) is an artist and writer based in Sydney, Australia, who has been working online since the mid 1990's in her domain www.subtle.net constructing imaginary and hypertextual sites. Melinda's web practice draws on divergent sources and she is currently undertaking a Phd in Virtual Media at College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales. Rackham has published online and in print and recent conferences includes Contagion in Australia, Invencao in Brazil, and Consciousness Reframed in Wales. Her award winning web works have been included in Beyond Interface, Arco Electronico, Gram, Perspecta99, Transmediale2000, Art Entertainment Network, The Montréal Biennale and Body Bytes. She recently received the Faulding Award for Multimedia at the Telstra Adelaide Festival and the Soundspace Award at the Stuttgart film festival this year for her VRML website ‘Empyrean’. She is also a finalist in the Leonardo New Horizons award.

S: Can you give us a short description of your website ‘empyrean’?

Empyrean is a soft space constructed in Virtual Reality Modeling Language, a parallel universe containing seven intertwined e-scapes, etheric arenas beyond space and time, realms of the spirit, yet totally contained within the screen and within the body. It is a space with no attachments to offline reality, a place of emptiness - of hungry voids. Immersed in this world of gaps and intervals, one transverses otherworldly, yet oddly familiar domains.. feeling one's way thru this immersive environment by in-tensions and strange attractions by locating differing viewpoints; by contemplating order, truth, beauty, strangeness, charm, chaos, and void.

Navigating empyrean's multiuser electronic scapes with organic avatars is a sensory journey mirroring internal and external relations through the poetic texts, intricate soundscapes, and subtly transparent images and textures created for occupation on the internet. empyrean also currently exists as an offline installation, and as a documentary video, streamed from the web site.


S: What do you mean by multiuser electronic_scapes? Can you tell us a bit more about how they work and why you chose to make your site multiuser.

My last net.art work carrier dealt a lot with the idea of the net being a living organic viral entity - empyrean is an outgrowth of that as it allows multiple users to go to a web site and interact inside an art work, to become part of the empyrean. There are many other types of electronically constructed spaces like chat lines, moos, the Palace, or Active Worlds, but empyrean has a different agenda, which is to provide a space that isn't about "real" life, its totally about inhabiting electronically constructed spaces.. which I call "soft scapes", on their own terms. Empyrean itself is growing as it goes.. developing in several stages - empyreanAlpha shown in Montreal was a single user world , empyreanBeta at Stuttgart is an online multiuser scape with avatars, empyreanHybrid in Amsterdam will be for single users accompanied by avatars and there are further stages that I'll talk about later.


S: You use avatars-what exactly is an avatar (what happens in your site when they interact)?

At the moment the avatars - which are your physical representation in the empyrean - don’t have any inherent functionality other than visibility, they are very cute, with names like "big pickle" and "miss fluffy", and they have no human characteristics whatsoever. Right now users can communicate with each other thru a text interface on the net site thru a vnet server, but as the avatars develop to maturity they'll only interact through sound and gestures. They will squeak, squawk, blink , swell up and go opaque when angry, gurgle, giggle, blush, etc to communicate with each other, and they will have invisible "attractions" to other objects in the scapes scripted in. Using ways other than text to make ourselves understood has the advantage of being not tied to a dominant language group, age limits, or educational factors, which to me is really important in an artwork.

S: The forms on your site are the opposite of what you expect from typical 3d. They are extremely organic and ethereal. I found the site contemplative and peaceful to navigate through.

What were your intentions for the user- what sort of experience were you hoping to achieve?

I am interested in making work that really lives within the realms of computer environment, rather than trying to recreate, or make some poorly matched copy (which is what virtual means) of hardspace reality. This space is potentially the same space as occupied by my imagination, and I don’t want it filled up with shopping malls, military hardware, ye olde village greens, or himbo and bimbo silicone sculpted avatars. I wanted a much more corporeal and sensory and intelligent environment in which to spend my time, so I wrote one - from the responses I get to empyrean other people want this sort of alternative exploratory space as well.

S: What is ‘familiar’ about this virtual space for the user-you say it is ‘oddly familiar’?

S: Can you explain the internal and external relations within the space?

It's oddly familiar as the imagery and forms are derived from very ordinary things, but everything is transposed, the whole almost transparent container for the empyrean cosmos itself is textured from a rock sample. Some zones contain investigations of our internal body spaces -most literally the beating heart in the "truth" scape or the blue green neuron/starfish like creatures in "void". The world itself taps into our knowingness of the whole cosmos in which we reside on our tiny planet as being an organic expanding living entity, and there is interplay of micro or macro space that we know well from fractal patterns. There's also the theoretical and psychological factors - when we are in a new environment we look for markers to make sense of it. - something to anchor us, or a horizon line to orient ourselves against. empyrean tends to disrupt this by simple means like making the texts follow the viewer position so there is no right way up, but it also places guideposts so you can't really get completely lost.


S: Is the sound important in the world? Do you use the sound to navigate in any way?

The sound for empyrean was designed by Mitchell Whitelaw, an Australian sound artist and digital media theorist, who I felt was both aesthetically and theoretically in resonance with the intent and the content of the site. In these VRML scapes the sound is spatialized and attached to objects, which are mostly moving and often set at different pitches, so in a sense you could navigate by sound if you had the right soft and hardware. Each zone has a distinctive soundscape, like the glassy crunching and grinding spheres of "chaos", or the frenetic cellular skating rink in "charm". On my desktop and laptop it isn't quiet as sensitive as it could be, but in future museum/festival installations more emphasis on the sound quality and spacialization is definitely the direction in which empyrean is heading.

S; Do you think sound is a neglected part of most digital media art- why do you think that is? Is it only because of the file size restrictions or is there more?

There split between sound work and visual work I think is partly to do with the education system and the primacy of vision myth, rather than any compression or bandwidth issues. (although I often have to close my eyes when I am in a concert hall to hear more clearly.) I was educated as a visual artist working in 3d sculptural spaces and after discovering the web and making my first few net.sites which were totally silent I realized that there was something missing -the silence was very uncomfortable - so I started to work with sound designers. Digital media is filmic and sound is imperative for immersion and atmosphere as we are multisensory beings we make up so much information about the spaces we inhabit based on other sensory input.

S: You give us a choice of forms to view the world- text based, vrml, multi-user, video, video stream. What is the idea behind this? Does each form have something specific to say?

VRML is often perceived as a difficult technical arena inhabited by programmers rather than artists where you have to install unstable pluggins with Xplatform difficulties, and as well people have been proclaiming "VRML is dead" for a number of years. Its funny because I had that perception myself before I was seduced by the language in 1999 when I used it in my carrier site, but because I think it has tremendous potential on the net and wanted to make a complete work with it I have tried to give people as many ways in to the work as possible. There is single user, single zone, multiuser and multi zone options which all allow people with different soft and hardware capabilities at least into some areas of the site, and the video stream is a good way to see into VRML without having to go there. I actually also love the pixilated washed out aesthetic of real video where you have to make up so much visual information - fill in so may gaps with your imagination.

S: Why video, which is not interactive?

The offline video itself acts as a documentary of the site, and for the same access reasons as above I'm interested in showing it in film festivals, gallery contexts or installational spaces where technology access may be difficult. I'm also wanting to play the constructed video loop against a live multiuser net connection - its sort of like the difference between talking to a bot and a person in a chat room - without really worrying about which is "real." The voyeuristic sit back and be navigated thru virtual space experience of the video is just as authentic an experience of the work as any other, and it could be achieved live online as well by a scripted viewpoint animation within the world itself - totally controlling 13 minutes of viewer time. But the video has the capacity to take net.culture to different audiences.


S: What are your views on 3D webspaces as a form of digital art. A smaller percentage of the population can see these type of sites compared to 2D webart. Do you think it is perhaps an elitist form of webart which goes against the ideas of the net?

Well the net itself is elitist in terms of world population where only a tiny fraction of people have ever even seen email, but yes I do tend to agree, and this is why I have diversified the project. However I believe the direction of the net is towards 3D and everyone is scrambling for the standard now, and doing this sort of work is exploring possibilities of net interaction for the future. As this work is happening in stages, and isn't due for total completion till late 2002, I'm gambling that it will be totally straightforward to view it by then. Of course the whole thing may have to be rewritten as software changes, which is a problem every net.artist constantly faces with browser and pluggin upgrades that aren't backward compliant like the disastrous Netscape 6.


S: What is your opinion of the webart and interactive installation art around at the moment?

Do you think sometimes digital artists can forget their audience a little and become ‘self indulgent’ with the interactivity….that digital art online may be lacking in content and quality?

Gee I think interactivity is really a bit overrated. In any work there are only so many options and they are all already scripted. In VRML the user defines the worldview, and navigates where they want and trigger responses, but ultimately the world itself is already defined by the author in a finite set. Which is ok.. but the thing that is lacking in my opinion is content, and this has to do with the upgrade push. Constantly learning new versions of software really precludes playing with it, never having time to fully explore digital media as a craft, or to expand, push, or break the damn thing. Photoshop art and Flash art and Dreamweaver art get to prevail, the artist then only gets to use an option that someone else has already scripted. In any other area of art practice it would be totally unacceptable to have new tools imposed on you every 6 months -there's only so long you can do that then you look for alternate ways to work, and as the net is a relatively new medium what we've seen so far is still work in its infancy. The "Force Fields' show at the Hayward in London last year was a great example of the origins of kinetic or interactive work where a lot was self indulgent and boring ..and some like the incredibly simple "Spazio Elastico" (Gianni Colombo, 1967 ) has stood the test of time; being inside that installation was like standing in an early vision of a CAVE.


S: What do you think the future is for online environments/ webart?

I get a little pessimistic when I see the marginalization of art on the net like corporate domain name challenges like Etoys, Leonardo and countless others, but with the dot.com stock dive I think there is another phase of the net just waiting to happen, and I'm not sure what it is. As the backbone is carved up, and as more portal, legal, royalty and censorship regulations enforce artificial boundaries and stop the free flow of data, more and more lagoons will appear, and perhaps as they become putrid festering swamps devoid of all input, some new hopefully benign life forms will emerge from the electronic primeval slime. I'm not sure - maybe net.art mutates to our mobile phones and our playstations, perhaps we could go back to CB radio, but the best network.art experience I had this year was someone beaming a poetic text piece to my palm pilot .. person to person net.art.


S: What other projects are you working on now / exhibitions….?

Empyrean is my project for the next few years along with writing my PhD thesis. The work is showing as an installation in hybrid<life>forms: Australian New Media Art at the Netherlands Media Art Institute in Amsterdam 30 March to 12 May 2001, and over the European summer it will be at festivals in Switzerland, UK, and North America. The video has just finished showing at Tricky Women - International Women's Animated-Film Festival in Vienna and will be at the next Sarajevo Winter.

The immediate future of the project is to get the work running in the Wedge - a VR environment in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, which may be networked on a high performance inter-city link with other VR spaces. The longer term goal is to connect the VR space to the net so that users online, at home, can interact with users in empyrean VRspace within the museum, which nicely feeds back into my theoretical interests around the nature/culture of identity in immersive spaces.


S: How do you see your work developing-more 3D or another type of space?

I was a sculptor/installation artist before I slipped into the web.. and after working with the challenges and restrictions of the net for a long time - I can fit 6 years work into 15 megs of server space - I'm looking to bring my work more into hard spaces as I'd like to be able to physically touch what I make again. However I have no firm ideas - my practice, like my life, just seems to grow in strange directions that I hadn't really seen coming. I like the idea of working in architectural space and I see myself working with groups of people with complimentary skills. I very much like the film /video genre as well.. who knows.. never say never is the only certainty.


Thanks, Melinda for the interesting insight in to your work and good luck in your future artwork and exhibitions.




To view the Empyrean website:


For more information on Melinda’s work:


For more information on Mitchell’s work


Stuttgart Film Festival 2001:


Montreal Biennale 2000


Leonardo New Horizons Awards:



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