Sunday, February 22, 2009

Singular Antiquity 9: Tzortzaki on Virtual Reality

Virtual reality is eye candy capable of seducing even the most serious of academics. Its resemblance to contemporary media (video games, animation, cartoons) makes it useful in teaching heritage to young students. "The Journey through Ancient Miletus" had such pedagogical objectives when displayed in the virtual reality theater of the Foundation of the Hellenic World. This private non-profit cultural organization is funded by Greek businessman Lazaros Efraimoglou, who founded the center in 1993. As its Greek name makes more evident, Κέντρο Μείζονος Ελληνισμού, the organization is committed to the dissemination of a Greater Greece, both chronologically and geographically. Its focus on the Hellenism of Asia Minor, for example, is evident. Given a state monopoly on archaeology, the Foundation of the Hellenic World is idiosyncratic. Virtual reality has been one of its strategic objectives, including the Tholos, an IMAX-type of theater, where a virtual reconstruction of Miletus (in Asia Minor, Turkey) was displayed.

The Foundation's Digital Miletus is the subject of Delia Tzortzaki's essay,
The Chronotopes of the Hellenic Past: Virtuality, Edutainment, Ideology," in Singular Antiquity: Archaeology and Hellenic Identity in Twentieth-Century Greece, ed. Dimitris Damaskos and Dimitris Plantzos (Athens, 2008) pp. 141-161. The article situates virtual heritage in theoretical debates over reality, narrative and ideology. Although a little convoluted in its social-scientific vocabulary (diagrams, cognitive concepts, invented vocabularies), the essay lays out all the ramifications of such a project. Unfortunately, the author does not bring into her essay any comparative material outside of Greece. The most direct examples that come to mind are reconstructions by the Getty Museum (Trajan's Forum) and James Packard (Pompey's Theater). These are examples that have scholarly ramifications with the weight of proof and the risk of criticism. What seems to be missing in the Miletus reconstruction is the element of scholarly authorship and accountability. One nice thing about the Foundation of the Hellenic World is that it has given jobs to a large number of unemployed Greek archaeologists. But as employees, I am afraid that they may have receded too much into the background and lost their voice; but you can't cut the hand that feeds you.

The Foundation of the Hellenic World is currently exhibiting a virtual reconstruction of the Athenian Agora. It would be interesting to hear whether Tzortzaki would disucss Athens differently from Miletus. Unlike Miletus, Athens has been the subject of a long tradition of fantastic reconstructions. Some would argue that modern Athens itself is a virtual reenactment of classical Athens. Leo von Klenze's drawings of the Athenian Agora speak the same language as the virtual reconstruction, except that von Klenze got a chance to materialize Athens (and Munich). Unlike Miletus, Athens has been a phantasmagoric topos. Like Rome and Pompei, Athens enters international dreams (from Neoclassicism to Hollywood). Personally, I find the virtual activities of the Foundation of the Hellenic World slightly unoriginal, mimicking western museums (like the Getty), using expensive computer software (that state organizations cannot afford to pay licenses for) and plugging into visual languages already defined by the discipline of animation (Silicon Valley). The Athenian Agora has been the subject of archaeological investigation by the American School since 1931. John Camp (excavation director) and Richard Anderson (project architect) were consulted in the reconstruction. I would be curious to know about the interface between archaeologist, architect and programmer. But these are issues at the input not the output of virtual reality. Tzortzaki gives us much food for thought for the output.

Digital reconstructions of Miletus or Athens will soon become undermined by the monolith of Google. Just as Google is digitizing every book in the world, it is also venturing into historical reconstructions. Rome is first. For nearly 30 years,
Bernard Frischer (University of Virginia) has been consulting with Google's first historical city. The first version contains 7,000 buildings, 250 of which are extremely detailed (based on 1:1 scale models built at the labs of UCLA). The Rome Reborn project, of course, has its 3D predecessor in the model of Rome at the age of Constantine, housed in the EUR Museum. Unlike digital Miletus and digital Agora, Google's model will be the subject of criticism and improvement. "The great thing about digital technology," said Frischer, is that it can be updated constantly and "supports different opinions." Dissent of opinion about Greece culture does not seem to be the Foundation of the Hellenic World's primary mission. For more information about Google's venture, see Elisabetta Povoledo, "Exploring Old Rome without Air (or Time) to Travel," The New York Times (Nov. 13, 2008), p. C11.

For additional reviews from Singular Antiquity, see here.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States