Postcard FROM NEW YORK

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The Independent Culture
VIRTUAL CITY: When the producers of the film Synthetic Pleasures threw a premiere party at the Tunnel club, the invitation included a notice that the party, of course, would not actually be at the Tunnel. The Tunnel, as everyone knew, had been shut down weeks earlier, following the amazing discovery by police that drugs had changed hands on the premises. The nonexistent location of the party was an ideal prelude to the film whose subject is people who dodge reality by inhabiting hi-tech fantasy worlds, including glass-domed ski resorts in Japan, and surgeries where people have themselves injected, prodded and inflated until, voila, they're dead ringers for the Mona Lisa. No, having a party noplace came as no surprise; what was surprising was that anyone in this town would pay $8 (pounds 5) to watch two hours of virtual reality when it can so easily be had for free.

Hollywood is chasing New York, and New Yorkers are starting to wonder if they live in the place that is being filmed. There are film trailers in Central Park, trailers in the subway, trailers in Brooklyn. Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke smooch in Tompkins Square Park (don't worry Uma, it's just a movie); Paltrow dances on banquettes at Jet Lounge; and Julia Roberts hurls her bra to the wind at Hogs 'n' Heifers.

First New Yorkers got television (virtual life). Then the internet (virtual knowledge). Then the cybercafes (virtual dating). All of this virtuality was fine as long as some tempering reality was left. But sometime during the last year a corner was turned.

Cyber-video exhibits keep opening all over town. At the Guggenheim, "Mediascape" sucked in passersby for months, with its vertiginous installation of white walls, flickering screens of light, and taunting disembodied sounds. One room projected a loop of the artist Bruce Nauman shaking his head back and forth for about half an hour, while chattering the inane monosyllable "Brrrr". If a child did it for a minute, you'd smack him. Uptown at Lincoln Center, another exercise in aural and visual torture pulled in victims to the "Brain Opera," where visitors stumbled through an "interactive" obstacle course of computerized gadgets producing a hideous, random symphony. The most dangerous encroachment, though, occurred at the Franklin Furnace in Soho, where humans were bodysnatched and sound-bited for virtual art's sake - a multimedia installation called "Voyeur's Delight". It was not long before the crowd collectively fled the installation and sought safety on the street outside. Two hundred strangers spilled out on to the dark, cobblestones, staring at each other in the blaze of light that leaked out of the museum door and, feeling reluctant to go, lingered, talking and flirting, in a way that wasn't that virtual at all.

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