MACHINED MEDIA: MAINTAINING A DELICATE DIGITAL BALANCE BETWEEN PERFORMANCE ART AND PERFORMANCE MARKETING IS A WEIRD AERIAL ACT AT ANTENNA TOOL & DIE.

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Art and commerce collide on Antenna Tool & Die's reel: Microsoft commercials flank a poetic, slightly obscure Converse spot. From the CD-ROM magazine Blender comes an animated interactive promo for Levi's Jeans for Women and a video art demonstration on how to create a Rolodex with sausages. The sausage demo makes it easier to believe when co-founder Hank Corwin says that making money is incidental at this New York multimedia shop, which earned its name because the word antenna was engraved in the sidewalk outside its first office. "I think there's equity in an art house that's not motivated by commerce," says Corwin, the editing stud who cuts for Oliver Stone. He spun off Antenna in 1994 as a division of his New York studio, Lost Planet Editorial.

"In the future we won't have 2-D outputs for visuals," Corwin predicts. "And I wanted a way to explore new mediums." And while he admits his wife frets that Antenna doesn't turn enough of a profit, Corwin says, "that's exactly why it's so exciting." Corwin may be a guiding spirit of the studio, but editing films like Natural Born Killers and JFK only allows time for the occasional stint at Antenna with music or directing jobs.

Fellow founders Vinnie Ray Fugere, 26, an artist and former assistant editor, and Peter Semmelhack, 31, a musician and programmer, have steered this new-media think tank from its inception, developing a business of experimental screen savers and CD-ROM interfaces into a growing number of commercials (they're represented by Reactor Films, Los Angeles), digital brand consulting, such as projects for Disney's online ventures, and music videos, something that Fugere is eager to pursue after directing a video for a Reprise Records band called Ditch Croaker.

But as many commercial projects as they take on, Fugere and Semmelhack insist they want to keep a close tie to their performance art roots. In March they put on a typical show at The Kitchen in New York, in which workers created a musical composition by constructing blocks that emit various sounds within a sci-fi tool and die shop setting. "We inhabit a very strange place," muses Semmelhack. "We work with artists and we also work with the commercial world, and both worlds are completely enamored of each other."

Somehow, Antenna has wound up in the middle. "It's confusing because we don't want to be perceived as one or the other," Semmelhack adds. "We'll do broadcast commercials because it's fun and we make money at it. It also gives us a chance to interject some of our feelings and aesthetic into those commercials. We also like to work purely artistically, outside of the realm of money. We want to maintain that balance, and it's a fairly delicate balance because the commercial world wants to pigeonhole you."

The Antenna reel doesn't make classification any easier, being subdivided into TV, Interface and Action sections (action being directing). About the only common denominator to Antenna's work is its recurring digital palette. For instance, in the Microsoft branding campaign, which makes tooling around Microsoft programs and the Internet look as breezy as stepping onto an amusement ride, Semmelhack created the graphics and twisted the coding in Microsoft's Excel program, usually reserved for stuffy spreadsheets, and created animation with it. "We were showing ways the software could come to life and ways to push the programs," says Wieden & Kennedy CD Michael Prieve. "And it would be great to stay true to that."

Semmelhack was also unafraid of the PC technology, Prieve points out, which is a rare trait among designers. Similarly, the Levi's for Women insertion in Blender uses Antenna technology called Pixel Soup; as a clip from an animated Levi's for Women commercial plays in a small square on the monitor, a user can drag the square around the screen, creating a pattern of overlapping frames, the image inside advancing as the commercial plays.

"I thought it was just an interesting way of using the computer as a canvas," says Todd Moritz, digital production manager at TN Technologies, San Francisco, (the digital arm of FCB), who was impressed when Fugere visited with a portfolio. "They have such a fresh way of looking at things." And incidentally, some of Antenna's earliest "artware" is beginning to finally pay off. A distributor recently sold out Antenna's Kickstand screensaver software in two days at a trade show that sells merchandise to art and museum stores. Kickstand, which was developed in 1994 and has sold 5,000 copies to date, will feature a variety of artists, starting with Jenny Holzer, whose provocative text arrangements crawl across the computer screen like a digital ticker tape. "We call it an ambient art installation," says Fugere, noting they're also working on a Web-based version for Holzer. Speaking of the Web, besides its own site (www.atdc.com), AT&D has done design work for Time Warner and the Whitney Museum, among others, and is about to start a Web design project for the Jewish Museum.

Mixing media is at the heart of what Semmelhack and Fugere do, and it's something they've always done. Fugere was a multimedia major at Ithaca College in New York, integrating film, visual arts and sculpture; Semmelhack graduated from Brown University in 1987 with degrees in economics and computer science, where he also played keyboards in a band and wrote two scores for independent films.

Upon graduation, he worked at Oracle before moving to New York and teaming with Corwin and Fugere, who was working at Lost Planet. "I've always wanted to use computers and music together," Semmelhack says. "When Antenna formed, it started to become a reality." But bringing in clients hasn't always been a reality. "Our most successful projects are people who want to talk to us because of our feelings and outlooks," Semmelhack explains. Things like the spot Corwin directed for Converse, which never aired, illustrate that attitude. The spot intercuts b&w verite-style and distressed basketball footage with fuzzy, silhouetted shots of birds on branches. "That's his personal vision," Fugere says. "I think the idea is to break some of the codes about the ways things are done. If you imagine it in a pod with all these glitzy commercials, then this would slam in there with its quietness."

Antenna's approach is "totally appropriate for the '90s," says John Carlin, executive producer at Red Hot Productions, who worked with Semmelhack and Fugere designing the interface for The Beat Experience, a Voyager CD-ROM done in conjunction with a show at the Whitney Museum. Carlin is currently collaborating with Antenna on an interface for an upcoming CD-ROM called Dead Meat, which chronicles the work of artist Sue Coe, known for her paintings of slaughterhouses in Europe and the United States.

But getting agency people to understand Antenna's services requires a greater leap of faith. It's something that continually frustrates Corwin, who says he's disappointed by the lack of response from the ad community. "I'm tired of

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