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On Wednesday, Nov 20, I attended a panel discussion on "Painting in the Age of Digital Manipulation" at Artists' Space in NYC. Mark Tribe, director of the new media website rhizome.org, moderated, and each of the four panelists, Claire Corey (image below), Millree Hughes, Sherry Mayo, and Fabian Marcaccio, showed slides and fielded questions. The panel was a clash of cultures, to some extent, since rhizome.org exists within an infrastructure of funding and exhibition spaces largely distinct from the "gallery world" that the four panelists inhabit. Tribe's opening remarks contained an intriguing word choice. He described the panelists as painters using digital tools, as opposed to technologists making paintings. This immediately made me wonder "Who would be in the latter category?"

I'll go ahead and answer my own question and say that John Maeda and Golan Levin, programmer/artists from the MIT Media Lab environment, immediately spring to mind as "technologists making paintings." Their inclusion might have made the panel more meaningful, but it was frankly more enjoyable looking at work by technological autodidacts who really know how to push (virtual) paint around. Interestingly, although all four panelists are concerned with output, printing their work on canvas or other materials for ultimate display in galleries and museums, they all used multimedia tools--CD, DVD, digital animation--to show it to the audience. During these presentations, their work was indistinguishable from much new media art. One's respect for Corey's and Hughes' work really deepened when you saw animations of their work-in-process. Corey's DVD took viewers through 25 stages in the development of one of her paintings, and it was amazing how radically the piece changed from one stage to the next. Hughes, who uses Flash as his primary paint program, showed an interactive game where an unseen button pusher makes random combinations of colors, sizes, and spatial orientations; Hughes works the "byproducts" of the game into his creative process.

Hughes also read an eloquent prepared statement, in which he discussed the activities of the digital painter in the context of the "contingent reality" of the Internet, where every opinion is given weight and facts are hard to separate from hearsay. He distinguished the digital painter's choices in making art from the consumer's choices online (the former being infinite and problematized; the latter being determined largely by checking boxes in multiple choice forms). Sherry Mayo made a similar point later when she analogized computer art to early video art, which subverted the conventions of commercial TV by making the tapes longer than most people's attention spans, through odd cropping strategies, and so forth.

After the four articulate presentations, I felt like groaning when someone in the audience asked the (predominantly abstract) artists on the panel, "Can each of you say how you're addressing the issue of content of your work?" Beneath this question lies a very tired, conservative accusation: that pictures of people, places and things have content and abstract art does not. All the artists patiently (re-)answered the question, even though they'd been discussing content for the previous hour. Tribe also raised a rather old-fashioned issue, half-apologetically (considering his stake in new media), when he asked (of all but Marcaccio): "Do any of you miss pushing actual paint around?" The consensus was that the artists didn't. Tribe also asked if the four artists felt they were the vanguard--if they felt more historically important--being the first to use a new medium. No one was trapped in that kind of pomposity, but of course they are more courageous and enterprising to move into an area that has minimal collector support.

- tom moody 11-22-2002 11:41 pm [link]