‘Cryptogram’ and ‘Demedusator’: Zoltán Szegedy-Maszák

The objective of this essay is to introduce the leading Hungarian media artist, Zoltán Szegedy-Maszák, through his latest two web projects dealing with cryptography (Cryptogram) and virtual reality (Demedusator). Zoltán Szegedy-Maszák is an associate professor at the Intermedia Department at the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest where he teaches interactive computer art. He is also a researcher for the Center for Culture and Communication.

In Hungary, there are more and more visual artists dealing with the new media, even though there are not many institutions where they could either educate themselves or present their media art work. It was the internet that made it possible for these artists, for the first time, to present their work without any kind of administrative or institutional control. Instead of doing fancy multimedia work, Hungarian artists have started to produce web-pieces which use the internet in a creative way.

Zoltán Szegedy-Maszák graduated as a painter from the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts. Perhaps because of this, his observations as a visual artist are mostly focused on images, the digital pictures and renderings displayed by analog devices such as monitors, printers, and projectors. At the Academy, Szegedy-Maszák gradually gave up painting and started to work with media technology, especially photography, video and the computer. His interest in media technology manifested itself also in his installations and performances. The expressionistic way in which Szegedy-Maszák pointed to the image-destroying capability of video was likely a continuation of his early painting experiments. In his first computer-related installations he turned to the formal logic of digital imaging.

'Cryptogram'.After graduating from the painting department at the Academy, Szegedy-Maszák continued his studies at the Intermedia Department and started to deal with computer images. His habit of using cheap computer games which had to be programmed by using very low level (assembly or machine code) languages seemed to mandate that his interests would eventually turn to the visualization of formal algorithms. Through his work with the computer, Szegedy-Maszák has always been familiar with the idea of interactivity. Therefore, when the internet and the world wide web appeared, they presented obvious challenges for him and he started to create artworks especially for the web. His first completed project was Cryptogram (www.c3.hu/cryptogram), which has been exhibited many times in different versions of networked installations.

Cryptogram is partly the result of Szegedy-Maszák’s experiments with “creative misinterpretation,” with which it also deals on a systematic level. Since digital data structures are “compatible with one another” ­ images can be converted to sound and vice versa, using exact formal logic ­ why not create an encryption system which converts text into virtual sculptures, and back?

The first version of Cryptogram was shown at the “Butterfly Effect” exhibition in Budapest in 1996. The installation invited visitors to type into three dimensional space, creating a communal Cryptogram as a kind of encrypted guest book that could be accessed through a simple virtual reality system. The encryption was made using one common key object: a draft model of a rearing horse built after Leonardo’s sketches for his huge “Cavallo”, which was never realized. The choice was symbolic and practical: Szegedy-Maszák’s aim was to emphasize the immateriality of the cryptograms in contrast to the uncast, destroyed clay colossus of Leonardo, as well as fulfill the need for an organic figure to provide a mysterious spectacle that would be independent of the texts typed by the visitors.

One of the reasons why Szegedy-Maszák developed a web-version of Cryptogram was that at the time (January 1996), issues such as cryptography, privacy, free speech, and censorship were hot topics among the rapidly growing net community. It was the time when hackers demonstratively cracked the Netscape browser’s security system, and when Philip Zimmermann (author of PGP, the most popular encrypting system used in email) was under investigation by the US Government for his alleged violation of export regulations for cryptographic products.

The internet version of Cryptogram represented an artistic response to these discussions and activities. Cryptogram makes it easy to see what is missing from other cryptographic methods: namely that the evidence of communication remains hidden as the avatar of the encoded message changes from text to virtual sculpture. Communicating through cryptograms has not only the advantage of encryption; apart from cryptography (the art of cryptic symbolization), it also encourages steganography (the art of hidden communication). The exchange of messages through virtual sculptures encrypts the very fact of the exchange, especially since to unsuspecting outsiders the sculptures appear to be artworks carrying aesthetic values rather than practical information.

The Cryptogram-initiated acquire the skill, after some practice, of understanding the most common encrypted messages in the form of “sculptures” without decrypting the latter. In this way, the community possesses its own virtual world, leading to the paradox that in aprogressive, typographic culture, a close connection is established between the elements of a language and the indicated virtual objects, similar to the language of pre-typographic communication.

Before describing Szegedy-Maszák’s next important net project, the Demedusator, I should point out that in the rapidly changing world of software and hardware, it is impossible to dismiss a piece of webart by declaring it “finished.” Any website that wants to maintain its interest to surfers has to be changed often in order to provide something “new”. At the same time, the rapid technological development of the internet constantly forces the net artist to be in a state of flux, testing out new software in this continuously shifting environment where the emergence of new technologies and software can lead to surprising results.

With Cryptogram, Szegedy-Maszák began to use VRML just before it became a standard application. The knowledge of VRML also led him, in cooperation with Márton Fernezelyi, to create the Demedusator (mediated media) project (www.demedusator.c3.hu). The Demedusator is a shared virtual world that is essentially developed by its visitors. Any (creative) participant can “publish” his or her creations, complete with sound, streaming images, and pictures, by placing them in a 3D world that can be explored by every surfer on the web. Visitors can reflect upon the content of their creation by uploading something close to them, or they can create “a village of their own” by uploading its parts as contents placed in the same 3D area.

In 1945, the engineer Vannevar Bush published an essay entitled “As We May Think”, in which he described in great detail a machine (The Memex) that is generally regarded as the literal blueprint for the net and the world wide web. The “infostructure” Bush sketched out ­ including a proposal for what is now known as hypertext ­ was destined to become reality in what we know now as the internet. But the vision Bush described is far more sophisticated than what we refer to today as the “web”: Memex, Bush’s virtual computer, is a container that can handle any kind of information (“multimedia data”) by providing a complex, customizable “linking system” with various “trails” that are created by its users. The browsers of the 1990s lack many of the linking features of Memex, such as the open and customizable “trails” that are virtually impossible to implement in basic HTML.

Szegedy-Maszák’s Demedusator recirculates the questions posed by Bush’s Memex. Szegedy-Maszák’s explorable 3D world is based on a database which keeps track of all uploaded files, their locations, links, trails and attributes. The VRML file received by the visitors is generated on the basis of this well-organized data, offering the possibility of downloading subsets of the entire world. Objects far from each other in their 3D locations but connected by links/trails can thus be embedded in a “subset-world” where the related pieces of information are located next to each other.

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