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New York- and Paris-based artist Jackie Matisse (granddaughter of Henri Matisse) has been making and flying long-tailed, Asian- style kites for decades. Her interest in kites began around 1962, inspired by two events. One was seeing a solitary kite flying in an empty sky over Harlem while she was on her way to La Guardia airport. The second was her purchase of a Thai “serpent” kite she saw displayed in a tiny box in a store window. Advertised to be 22 feet long, to her surprise it actually was, and, as she said, it “flew with unbelievable ease.”

This kite and the image of that lonely kite in Harlem got her to thinking about kites as a means of artistic expression, as a way of sculpting the air and drawing in space with both line and color. Soon she began making kites with tails as long as 35 or 40 feet. She also began adding various colorful abstract designs to their tails and heads. As a young person Jackie Matisse lived in Paris and New York and early on met many artists including the Surrealists as well as Fernand Léger, Piet Mondrian, and Jean Dubuffet. Her openness to kites certainly shows an artistic sympathy to the Surrealists, who flouted conventions and admired both naïve and children’s art. Like the Surrealists, Dubuffet, who took it upon himself to instruct her about art when she was a young girl in Paris, also had an interest in the art of children and the insane.

And there was Alexander Calder, an artist of whom she was personally very fond, as she was of Joan Miró. Her kites echo Calder’s interest in a sculpture based on movement and change, just as they reflect Miró’s almost naïve, childlike isolation of colorful forms against a simple background.


Jackie Matisse, 2001


Through the leadership of its producer/founder, Ray Kass, and its volunteers (students of Virginia Tech University and Francis Thompson, graduate student of The School of the Arts), the Mountain Lake Workshop administers the "Art That Soars In and Out of Space" project.

In early January of 2001, Ray Kass and the Mountain Lake Workshop asked Jackie Matisse to develop another space for her innovative work -- a virtual environment hosted by Virginia Tech's University Visualization and Animation Group and School of the Arts. Over many months, a collaboration with the University of Illinois' Tom Coffin, Shalini Venkataraman, Dr. Jason Leigh and Amsterdam's vitual environment at SARA gave birth to the "groundbreaking" programming required to transform a virtual reality CAVE into a vistor's playground. Using the infra-red connected "goggles" they wear and a "wand" they hold, a visitor in the virtual reality CAVE controls their experience with Jackie Matisse's kitetails, created by three-dimensional projections in front of them, to the right and left of them, and below them.

Upon completion of the first phase of the virtural reality artwork, "Art Flying In and Out of Space," Jackie Matisse agreed to visit Virginia Tech for nine days in April of 2002 which included a public kite-making workshop with guided tours of "Art Flying In and Out of Space" at VA Tech's virtual reality CAVE, an exhibition of Jackie Matisse's air and underwater kites and mobiles at Virginia Tech's Perspective Gallery, and a private workshop where Jackie Matisse created new kites with workshop volunteers.

The public kite-making workshop resulted in over 100 participants of all ages each constructing with Jackie Matisse at least one kite and experiencing the virtual reality kites within the CAVE. The initial response of the virutal reality kites was so strong that the core group, Jackie Matisse, Ray Kass, Tom Coffin, Shalini Venkataraman, and Francis Thompson agreed that futher development of the piece should proceed. Since then the project has undergone another virtual reality phase completion, invited collaborators from around the world, and continues to grow in its creative process.

"I make and fly kites to play with color and line in the sky. My kites play games with the light, hide and seek with the clouds. They push and pull on the wind. They challenge the birds. My hand grows longer and longer until I feel I am somehow in contact with that immensity into and out of which all things come and go. The kite itself is a reference to the human: so fragile and yet so strong. It is also a reference to constant movement, sinuous movement, the movement of dreams and childhood. A child on the street rarely walks in a straight line. It plays while it goes, in and out, around and about. That is what birds in flight do. That is what my kites do. I wish to create "sky works" however ephemeral. Kites are an instrument for this. They put line and color into the sky and sculpt the air. They play game of freedom." -Jackie Matisse

The granddaughter of Henri Matisse and the stepdaughter of Marcel Duchamp, Jackie Matisse makes kites that are launched into the air, submerged underwater, or summoned in virtual reality. "Since the 1970's, Jackie Matisse has joined with other kinetic (kiter) artists to define their sky and sea works-historically, as part of a 2,500-year-old tradition that starts in China as participatory/kinetic/performance art. She is a significant presence in the artworld: the keeper of the Duchamp archives, an artist nourished and even influenced by her legendary forebears, and a spirited orignial in her own right. Suzi Gablik has said that "Jackie Matisse's art is exquisitely cosmic with its strange wild fluttering of freedom that is like a star falling to earth."

Kites Flying In and Out of Space

Written by Tom Coffin in consultation with Ray Kass and Francis Thompson

Jackie Matisse’s “Kites Flying In and Out of Space” is the first high bandwidth art piece ever created. Exhibited at the iGRID2002 Conference hosted by SARA in Amsterdam, Netherlands, September 23rd – 26th, 2002, “Kites Flying In and Out of Space” utilizes a “Grid” model for real time steering of calculations on computers distributed over high-speed networks. Each of the 12 kites appearing in the piece utilizes up to 15 megabits per second. This art piece uses a total of approximately 180 megabits per second in calculating the forms and theoretically could utilize even more. CAVEs around the world could potentially view this application through a connection to the Starlight high-speed networking program. The kite structures are so complex to simulate that a distributed computational model using processors on multiple machines is needed. “Kites Flying In and Out of Space” enlists servers distributed across the globe in Chicago, Canada, Japan, Singapore and Virginia to calculate its forms. Each of these servers “stream” a single kite to SARA in Amsterdam where they are then displayed in a CAVE.

A participant in the CAVE presentation can manipulate the kites and control the wind. When a person injects wind into the scene, messages are sent to all the servers. These messages contain information regarding wind direction and strength. The servers then calculate the modifications to their individual kite structures. That information is then streamed back into the CAVE. This process is called real time distributed over a high-speed network. This “grid” model has never been used for art prior to “Kites Flying In and Out of Space.” It is an example of “Grid” computing, resulting in an original work of art. “Kites Flying In and Out of Space” is a collaborative art piece initiated by the Mountain Lake Workshop of the Virginia Tech Foundation in 1999. Jackie Matisse was invited to participate in an experiment in virtual reality using her imagery.

Jackie Matisse speaks of the piece: “These kites are evolved from my use of the sky as a canvas and from my need to use movement in my work. The square head is a homage to Malevich the Russian suprematist painter of the black square. The kites have very long tails, which are derived from a Thai serpent kite which I lost over a forest and which flew with unbelievable ease. It had such lift and in my mind it became a flying carpet and with it I could travel in the air. I began making tails and this enabled me to put color and line into the sky. I have always been interested in the connection between art and science. Since my kites were very hard to fly in all conditions, I experimented with alternative spaces such as underwater, video, and now virtual reality. The networking has enabled me to compose and fly many more kites than I would have been able to fly in real space.”

The movement of the kites uses a physically based simulation technique called “mass spring” model. A mesh of approximately 250 points constructs each kite. The movement of the mesh translates to the movement of the kites.

“Kites Flying In and Out of Space” is scalable computationally as well as geographically. It is a very good test of high-speed networking because the application requires a multicast enabled network to accomplish communications. The kites have become a visual metaphor for network performance. The kites have different sections and the movement of these sections indicates the size and latency of the network data. A fast and smooth moving kite represents a good connection. A slow and jerky moving kite indicates a network connection with a problem. In this way, network performance can be visualized.

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