Computers: More theorists than you could shake a stick at: Rupert Goodwins floats in organic creme de menthe after a meeting of art and artifice at London's ICA

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Bruce Sterling, author of The Hacker Crackdown and cyberpunk novels, Islands in the Net and Schismatrix, ambled onto the stage at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in central London on Sunday and set out one vision of the future - we will all end up as 500-year-old disembodied brains afloat in an orbiting swimming-pool of organic creme de menthe.

But there is a long way to go, he said: 'People in total immersion virtual reality are a pitiful sight. With that headset on, they bumble around in an abandoned husk of a body, hallucinating like crazy. You can easily kill them with a stick.'

Computers and art have had a durable if quarrelsome relationship. After the computer-generated poetry and random bleeps of the 1950s and 1960s, things have settled down with sumptuous populist images on MTV and in films such as Jurassic Park. The interesting stuff comes when people and computers interact en masse - and with upwards of 20 million people on the Internet, the global information network, and virtual reality percolating to the desk top, the intellectual community has a whole new world to talk about.

The two-day conference at the ICA last weekend brought together artists and technologists, science-fiction writers, and cultural theorists. 'Seduced and Abandoned, the Body in the Virtual World' took on the task of examining the concepts of personal identity in the new technology - no small deal when philosophers are still in armed conflict over the old stuff.

Whoever you are, it is certain that someone is watching you, Sterling said. British spooks, he warned, are five times more scary than American spooks and if the US government had tried to propose the UK's planned bulletin board controls there would have been blood on the network.

The real changes, he warned, will come when the security agencies get complete access to all private digital communications or everyone starts using data encryption 'that only God can break'.

More caveats came from artists who had spent time on the Compuserve network's CB chatlines, pretending to be people of varying gender. After a few moments playing a role, most people slip back into their normal, sexist selves, it seems. Be a woman, and you will attract a lot of attention; be a middle-aged male and you are left alone to do what you want.

Christine Tamblyn, a feminist conceptual artist, showed an interactive CD-rom exploring women's relationship to technology. As film clips from Blade Runner and 1950s' B movies flickered past, she expounded on the fascistic nature of interactive software and the visual interface's inherent espousal of male control - only to undercut this by commenting on how cheap the CD-rom medium was for developers like her, compared to film or video.

In the main conference, one video projector blew up and another choked on the wrong sort of tape; one speaker's radio microphone died while another in some technician-infested back room came alive. As one cynical student remarked over the lunch-time pine kernals and vino bianco: 'If this sort of thing doesn't work, who's going to hand over their entire being to a box of chips?'

Some people could not even face the lightest of meals after a mischeivous piece of pre-lunch scheduling involving a French artist called Orlan. Impatient with the pace of change in VR, she had undergone a series of cosmetic surgery operations to alter her image and arranged for a video link of the event.

Thanks to the wonders of the close-up lens and local anaesthetic, she showed a video in which she had given a live commentary on an operation in which her eyebrows were enlarged with an implant: there was masses of blood, and knives flashing round her eyeballs. Or so I was told over lunch, by a woman who gazed without eating at her cannelloni and tomato sauce; then ordered a green salad.

Cyberspace's finest hour came in the ICA Theatre, filled for the occasion by Apple Macs. Several special services had been provided on the Internet for the occasion, including an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) link to the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada, and a room in a Virginian 'MOO', an on-line game where players can talk to each other. Novice 'netsurfers' dutifully absorbed the acronyms - IRC being a multi-user computer chatline and the MOO 'a virtual space designed to promote the exploration of post-modern theory and practice, a place for intellectual meandering. Here, we mix the unstable 'real world' of post-modernity with the solid virtuality of MOOspace.' In other words, a multi-user computer chatline.

The more savvy soon made their excuses and left the on-line discussion to run ad hoc tours through the World Wide Web. This network of interlinked documents is becoming one of the most important information resources on the Internet, not least because the tools to access it look and feel like modern software: a page is displayed with some words highlighted in blue and by clicking on one of those words a new document is retrieved.

Although the modem links out of the ICA were not fast enough to really show off the embedded pictures, graphics, movies and sound that World Wide Web documents can contain, most people cottoned on to the idea in seconds and the potential shortly afterwards.

When the technology worked, it showed glimpses of wonderful things afoot. Paul Sermon, a visual artist, showed a video of a work he had produced in Finland: two beds 500 miles apart, linked through the telephone network and television cameras and projectors on the ceiling. As he explained, sharing a bed with someone is the most immediate and least technological form of communication, yet when the other person is just a projection, it becomes a potent illustration of the paradoxical intimacy and isolation of electronic interaction. The image of the (female) Finnish Minister of Culture sharing a virtual bed with a gaunt young English artist made the tabloids in Finland.

The best interaction came in the bar after the conference. In one corner, a group of pony-tailed technos waved arms and tried to explain modems and TCP/IP to a bemused but fascinated cultural historian, while in another, a curious hacker attempted to follow a heated argument about narrativisation and theories of gender in contemporary French philosophy, until at last E-mail addresses were exchanged and their corporeal owners headed out into the rainy London night completely virtualised on Abbot Ale.

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