Projected onto one wall is Turbulence, a video piece by Jon McCormack, one of Australia's top computer-animation artists. Strangely beautiful flowers are metamorphosing into organic shapes as ambient sounds pulsate through the air. "There are different levels of depth in this work," says McCormack, activating his digital landscape via a touch-screen monitor in the centre of the room. "It can be seen as a simple poetic piece, or an exploration of arguments for and against evolution." Never mind the "survival of the fittest", enter a brave new virtual world of perfect life-forms created from digital DNA.
And that's just one of over 20 installations on show at a dozen venues in Manchester and Liverpool - a chance to escape into a cyber-world of video projections and animation, computer-generated images and websites, CD-ROMs and single-screen works. And, apart from entry to the Museum of Science and Industry, it's all free.
This year, the theme is Escaping Gravity. "It identifies both the attraction and the potentially dangerous momentum of new technology as we exit the 20th century," say the festival's organisers, the Foundation for Art & Creative Technology (FACT), and the artists have accordingly sought to capture the mixed feelings of anticipation and anxiety, fantasy and uncertainty, with which we are approaching the millennium.
Over at the Manchester City Art Galleries, the American Tony Oursler's hideous animated dolls express a sense of social confusion: a tiny video projector is switched on, and their little stuffed-pillow faces come alive. In Hysterics, a psychotic screams and whimpers without cease.
There's more humour at the Bluecoat, where Roderick Buchanan, from Scotland, is busy questioning European identity. He worked with young people in Helsinki and Merseyside to deliver Notes on Pronunciation, a humble video piece in which everyone reads out a list of names from different nationalities, stumbling and giggling over awkward sounds.
"It happened about an hour ago," says English artist Graham Gussin when I arrive at the Cornerhouse to see Fall, his huge video panorama of lakes and mountains. Apparently, "it" only happens twice a day - it being a sudden explosion in the lake - and I've missed it. "Well, can't you fix it to happen now?" I ask. "Yes, but I'm not going to," retorts the artist. A nod to Nicholas Roeg's film The Man Who Fell to Earth, Fall is about the sensation of anticipation.
Too impatient to wait, I pop downstairs to Julie Myers' grotesque pantomime, Nosey Parker - an audience-participation piece (created for the Internet) in which we all become voyeurs and accomplices. There are four characters: "Donald is a friend of a friend," explains the artist. "He's a drag queen from King's Cross. And that's me with the moustache playing the part of the Prince." By clicking on various options - ie "Shall I go for the usual, or try a threesome with Buttons and the Barman?" - you can ensure that the show really ends with a bang.
Lyndal Jones, meanwhile, from Australia, has melded sex and machines. In Spitfire 1.2.3. (at the Bluecoat) you don a pair of headphones, watch a video of a spitfire bombing across the Cambridge countryside, and imagine yourself in the cockpit, courtesy of engine sounds and accompanying ambient music. You then cross the room and hear, via infra-red sensors on your cans, the caressing voices of women of many nations revealing their sexual fantasies about the heroic pilot. "The average lifespan of a pilot in the Second World War was only seven and a half hours," says Jones, whose own father flew a Spitfire. "These men were sexual icons, but most of them died."
"I have reduced this world to a single ornament," boasts the Amsterdam- based Jaap de Jonge of his Crystal Ball, a sphere (resembling the top of a roll-on deodorant) set within a wall at the Cornerhouse. Spin it, and a kaleidoscopic image of live global broadcasts and a babble of sounds whizz past - an engaging, if startling, portrayal of a world suffering from information overload.
If you missed Bill Viola's enthralling video projection, The Messenger, at Durham Cathedral or on its recent tour, it's well worth the puff up the hill to Liverpool's Oratory to see it. A piece of pure spirituality, it meant more to me than any sermon. Emerging afterwards into the sunshine, I was filled with an awareness of human mortality, and walked back downhill a bit confused, but utterly positive about video.
'Video Positive', to 18 May. Info: 0151-707 9533 or http:// www.fact.co.uk/VP97.htm