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John Klima

Terrain Machine

John Klima, Earth, 2001
John Klima, Terrain Machine, 2002 John Klima, Terrain Machine, 2002 John Klima, Terrain Machine, 2002
The Foundation has supported the research required for the prototyping and technical development of Terrain Machine. This virtual navigation device simulates the features of the Earth’s surface using precise scientific data. The project pursues the research begun by John Klima to converge environmental parameters for 3-D visualization with components of the physical world.

EARTH (2001), a project presented at the biennial of the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York, New York, U.S.A.), pioneered the techniques used by Terrain Machine to position Internet data on a model that pushes back the boundaries of the traditional rectangular screen.

EARTH features a navigation module that enables viewers to explore the various layers of data collected by the satellite Landsat-7. These images, mostly culled from on-line files, are projected on a spherical screen. A logical follow-up to EARTH, Terrain Machine recycles the same topographic data. From these data, Klima extrapolates a sculptural equivalent of the 3-D simulated environments in video games and scientific visualization models.

Terrain Machine relies on the combined action of a motorized mechanism and a computer module that manages databases and software. The device modulates the Earth’s terrain on a small scale in keeping with the desired topographic coordinates. The physical installation includes a series of triggers attached to rods that viewers can move using a control lever. The up and down movements of the rods create surface features as in a pin screen. A latex skin stretched over the set of rods adds to the illusion of the undulations, mountains and other bulges making up the Earth’s surface. Finally, a computer synchronizes satellite images (from Landsat-7) with the terrain created by the skin.

The kinetic effects of Terrain Machine are produced by a clever diversion of the digital code toward analogue signals. A processor translates the corresponding algorithms into topographic coordinates in the form of an electric current switching on and off. Motors powered by this current are subjected to the rods and produce the appropriate terrain. Given significant differences in elevation, the mechanical components sometimes have a delayed reaction of a few seconds corresponding to the efforts needed to climb a particularly steep terrain. This slight delay enhances reality by producing a strict causal link between the computer procedure used and the results subsequently generated.

During the first phase (the structured programming of the interface), Klima compiled and organized the data required for the device to run smoothly. The second phase entailed producing a working prototype of the mechanical component. The artist’s Web site provides an update on research findings and on the development of the prototype. (1)

Vincent Bonin © 2004 FDL