A Digital Artist's Portrait of Economic Darwinism

John Klima's ecosystem2000 uses animated birds and trees on a giant screen to represent the turbulence of global markets

By Spencer E. Ante

About 10 minutes after meeting John Klima, I witness him gleefully trying to break the law. I'm standing in the Brooklyn living/working space of the 35-year-old new-media artist who created ecosystem2000, one of the most interesting pieces in BitStreams, the Whitney Museum's exhibit of digital art, running through June 10. The studio is chock full of computer parts, tools, and drawings, and I can see the Brooklyn Bridge through the large windows in the front of the loft. Wearing black jeans and a flannel shirt, Klima is fiddling with a transistor and a miniature video camera aimed at a fish bowl, part of an older art project called Go Fish. A menacing oscar circles inside the bowl.

Klima tells me the video camera can overwrite the local TV broadcast signal. How? Turns out that he has hooked up the camera to a 20-foot-long wire radio antenna that broadcasts the video signal within a 500-foot radius of his Williamsburg apartment. In between cigarette drags, Klima gives me a handheld TV to see the trick in action. It's late morning, so there's a soap opera playing on Channel 4, the local NBC affiliate. He presses a button on a switch, which triggers the broadcast signal, and moments later, the oscar image pops up over the soap opera. "It's totally illegal," says Klima, chuckling. "It's no fun unless you overwrite the signal."


A still from John Klima's ecosystem2000 digital animation

Ecosystem2000 is a totally different project. It doesn't break any laws, but it's infused with a similar subversive spirit. I visited the Whitney before I met Klima to check out ecosystem2000. The project, which occupies a whole room, looks like a giant video game. Klima's canvas is an eight-square-foot screen. Flocks of different kinds of birds fly around a virtual world with tree-like structures and various surfaces. A joystick in front of the screen allows a viewer to navigate through the universe.

It all looks sort of familiar, like a video game -- until you read the project's description on the wall and realize that the birds represent different currencies, and the trees are symbols for stock-market indexes around the world.


  Thanks to a real-time data feed from the CNN Web site, the ecosystem constantly changes depending on what's happening in the capital markets on a given day. The more volatile the currency, the more active the flock. When the daily volatility of a currency exceeds twice the annual average, the flock feeds on the tree representing the country's leading stock-market index. And if the volatility exceeds three times the yearly average, the flocks attack each other.

It was a relatively calm day in the markets when I saw the exhibit, but the project still conveys a sly and playful commentary on the Darwinistic nature of global capitalism. "John's work is remarkable," says Christiane Paul, the Whitney's adjunct curator of new media arts. "Not too many people are coming from a gaming context or writing their own code."

Klima is a geek at heart. He has always been interested in video games and computers, but as an artist, he's a bit of a late bloomer. He was born in Redondo Beach, Calif., and grew up in Albany, N.Y. In 1980, when he was 15, he got his first computer, a Radio Shack TRS-80, and started writing computer games. He attended the State University of New York at Purchase and in 1987 earned a Bachelor's of Fine Arts in photography.


  After college, Klima moved around a lot, living in New Orleans, Chicago, and Seattle. He rekindled his interest in programming when he used a computer to design some furniture. To support himself, Klima did some freelance programming for Microsoft, and when he moved back to New York in 1994, Dun & Bradstreet hired him as a freelance database programmer.

That's when Klima started getting more serious about art. He began working on a variety of paintings, photos, and multimedia projects. He didn't show any of his work until two years ago, when he landed a piece in the Williamsburg Art & Historical Center. The project, called Zodiac, is a calendar and clock based on the Chinese zodiac. Since then, he has fully committed himself to his artwork -- a decision that didn't come cheap. "I've gone from making a six-figure salary to being pretty poor," says Klima.

Most artists fund their projects through grants, but Klima convinced Zurich Capital Markets to pony up the money for ecosystem2000. Zurich Capital is a four-year-old division of Zurich Financial Services Group, a $37 billion insurance and investment company. Randall Kau, the CEO and chairman of Zurich Capital, met Klima through a mutual friend.


  Kau was interested in acquiring art for Zurich Capital's New York office, and the two hit it off. Together, they cooked up the concept for ecosystem2000, and Kau gave Klima $6,000 to make it happen. "Part of what I was trying to do was create a youthful image for the company," says Kau, who installed a separate version of ecosystem2000 in the company's office. "Art was the way of defining our culture."

Like most pieces of software, ecosystem2000 is a work-in-progress. Klima is laboring on a new version that will allow Zurich Capital workers to create their own creatures in the system. It will be done in about two weeks and then put on display in the cafeteria of Zurich Capital's office in New York's financial district. Subversive art in a multibillion dollar company? That's even better than getting network airtime for his pet fish.

Ante covers the Internet and e-commerce for BusinessWeek in New York

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