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Jed Perl, art critic for the New Republic, is a scold in the old Hilton Kramer, "art's-going-down-the-toilet" mold, but reactionary criticism can be useful for focusing your thoughts. He gives "BitStreams" at the Whitney serious consideration, and then comes to the same conclusion that the NY Times and Village Voice did: so-called "computer art" hasn't arrived yet. Here's his pitch: "Art has for centuries now been more or less a realm unto itself, dominated by technologies which are distinctive precisely because they are throwbacks to a time when just about everything was handmade. The computer artist means to merge two distinctive modern sensibilities, two very different ways of thinking about creativity. Artistic thinking is cyclical. Scientific thinking is progressivist. The desire to bring technologies derived from the fast-forward world of science into the world of art is a perfectly understandable one, but it is a utopian desire, a desire to reunite what was long ago broken apart. Computer art remains a sort of pipe dream. It's the pipe dream of the moment." Perl is confusing artistic motivation with curatorial aspiration here: if you read the hype on "BitStreams," it's full of future-centric utopian claims (that's what my satirical 1969 news clipping makes fun of), but if you look at the art, you find that most of it is neither forward nor backward-looking, but focused intently on the present. My main problem with the show, in fact, is that it's too full of sound-bite-friendly, grad school-style critiques of "power relations" or "the media" (an eternal '80s nightmare from which we can't seem to wake up). Having said that, however, I don't think you can accuse the artists of using the computer just to be current. Most of them are doing so because it allows them to say things they couldn't say by more antiquated means. Worshipping the future may be problematic, but saying that art must always cycle back to the cave painting era is just as obnoxious.
Back up to the Whitney tonight for a panel on digital sound art. (I'm working on an article on "Bitstreams" and other recent digital shows, so a lot of the notes are going here). The panelists played excerpts from their work and/or performed, and then fielded questions.
Elliott Sharp used a small microphone attached by a cable to his laptop to make a pocket symphony of white noise/metal machine music. He held the mike in the air to pick up room sounds, twirled it like a lasso, dangled it over the keyboard, and hummed into it, but the sounds coming out of the speakers bore no resemblance to the sounds you'd expect to be produced from such activities. He constantly clicked buttons on the laptop, changing the texture of the sounds as he performed, from clicks to roars to feedback honks--all very downtown and "no wave" and enjoyable.
John Hudak presented "nature sounds as minimalist music": field recordings of crickets time-stretched into ambient washes. The lecture part of his segment was so timid and halting that I noticed the critic next to me writing "MINIMALIST SPEAKER" in her notebook.
The highlight of west coast artist Pamela Z's segment was a brief demonstration of the "body synth": a group of sensors attached to her arms that turned muscle flexion and extension (i.e. dance movements) into synthesized hiccups, trills, and Art of Noise-style vocal stabs. This could have been bad, but it was quite charming and unpredictable. Marina Rosenfeld played a live recording of her 17-woman band Sheer Frost, consisting of 12 guitar players (hitting the fretboards with nail polish bottles in accordance with a strict score of basic "moves") and 5 laptop players reinterpreting the performance in real time. This wasn't so good--it reminded me of Fred Frith's late-'70s experimental period when he was using a light bulb as a slide and refusing to do anything virtuosic.
Last, the inevitable DJ Spooky (with shaved head) treated the audience to a mad whirl of self-promotion (passing out stickers and LPs), name-dropping of French critics and American jazz musicians, and video-game style graphics from his laptop. The guy really talks the talk--"the net mirrors the street; as above, so below," "architecture is frozen music," and so forth--but does he walk the walk? I liked one loop where a brief flurry of typography on the screen was accompanied by steroid-enhanced Smith Corona sounds, but I was not convinced by his manifestation of "dub architecture": wireframe images of a 3-D graffiti tag writhing above glass-and-aluminum balconies. He brags about his club dates but he's really a creature of museums, wowing curators with drum-and-bass and hip-hop quotations. I would have enjoyed him more if he wasn't so pedantic: "Have you ever heard of [so-and-so]? You haven't ? Well, he invented the record sleeve!"
I made my debut at the Whitney Museum today. Well, in the sense that anyone could who attends the "Data Dynamics" portion of the "BitStreams" exhibition. Maciej Wisniewski's netomat (TM) wraps around three walls and projects large, floating, overlapping images (and text fragments) on a floor-to-ceiling scale. You sit down at a keyboard and type in a word or phrase, then netomat searches the web, pulls up words and pictures corresponding to what you typed, and blows them up to enormous size on the darkened gallery walls. This is real Exploratorium, Montreal Expo '70-type stuff, of limited artistic interest but fine for fifteen minutes of farting around. The brochure describes the software as "a new audio-visual language designed specifically to explore the unexplored internet," but that's just hype. Essentially netomat is a search engine, not that different from Google; instead of giving you a list of "hits" it goes directly to the sites and starts grabbing words and pictures. The program then enlarges the sampled content, colorizes it, layers it over other content, and causes the sampled snippets to creep inexorably around the walls. Also, there is another terminal nearby, so it's possible for you and another viewer to display two sets of information and have a slow-motion "image duel" (which sounds exciting, but it isn't really). When I came in, the walls were full of Jennifer Love Hewitt photos and various unrelated ad banners. I lamely typed in "Frankenstein" and about four minutes later, pictures of Boris Karloff and Gene Wilder began to surface (the program also found a really poorly-rendered boltneck that reminded me of a Jim Shaw drawing). The woman next to me didn't speak English well but quickly caught on, typing in "Wharhol." I suggested deleting the "h," and soon images of Andy appeared, superimposed over Boris. Opportunistically I typed in "'Tom Moody' +artist," hoping a choice pic might show up; instead I got the words "Op Art in the 90s by Tom Moody (originally published in VERY Magazine #3)" (which I recognized from the Abaton Book Company website), printed in purple and emblazoned across thirty feet of wall. Unfortunately the museum was closing up, so I didn't get a chance to use "katie holmes nude naked no clothes" (an actual search request from a site that logs such things) to test the kidproofing software.
I was shocked--shocked--to learn of science fiction author Philip K. Dick's "treachery" toward his Marxist lit-crit champions, back in the '70s. According to an indignant article by Jett Heer in Lingua Franca, Dick received these people into his home, benefited from their insights into his work, and then ratted them out to the FBI! In a series of letters to the Bureau, Dick complained that critics Fredric Jameson, Peter Fitting, Richard Pinhas, and others were pressuring him to put Commie messages in his stories. The quoted letters are frankly hilarious, and as far as we know, led to no files being opened on these individuals. The article gives a few reasons why Dick might be paranoid (apparently the FBI tried to recruit him to spy on students in the '50s) but minimizes the fact that the letters were written during the most unsettled and drug-damaged period of his life. What's disturbing about the article is not Dick's "disloyalty" (he never asked the academics for their Marxist spin, or swore an oath to the Left)--it's the fickleness of the critics he supposedly "betrayed." After legitimizing his work with weighty-sounding observations about his "conception of reality[,] which mystifies the actual reality of the capitalist mode of production and the resultant repression and alienation," and so forth, a couple of them are now retracting their praise, on the grounds that he's not ideologically pure. Only fellow science fiction novelist Thomas Disch, who has written brilliantly about Dick (and was himself the subject of Dick's FBI correspondence), has the generosity to shrug off the episode, putting it in the proper context.
The picture below is from the home page of Mitsuki Ishinokami, a modern-day Giappetto bringing little-girl puppets to life. Although clearly geared to Japanese pedophilic fantasies, Ishinokami's pictures are amazing in their craftsmanship and ability to inspire paternal affection (I don't want to sleep with these girls, I just want to take them out for a Slurpee!). While Takashi Murakami's SUPERFLAT exhibition at LA MOCA dispenses early 21st Century, Modernist-friendly japonisme (the worst kind of patronizing colonialism, when you think about it), the work of Ishinokami and his fellow doll-makers falls squarely in the Western, Renaissance tradition of 3-D modeling and perspective; in fact, I'd go so far as to say it's kicking the collective ass of Pixar, ILM and other so-called state-of-the-art Hollywood shops. Think of the human kid in Toy Story--whose skin looks like pink felt and whose face is largely kept out of the frame--compared to the lifelike skin tones and expressive range of Ishinokami's creations. While still strangely robotic, the Japanese 3-D anime princesses (seen in Japanese magazines such as Virtual Beauty and websites such as Ishinokami's) are much more intriguing and "real" than Annanova, Lara Croft, and other cut-and-paste Western cyber-babes.
A quick overview of three shows I saw today:
Most embarrassing is probably Sean Landers at Andrea Rosen. A film critic said recently "You know a movie's in trouble when it includes a scene with one or more characters tied to a chair"; you could say the same about artists riffing on art history. Landers is doing big dumb Picasso paintings, with smeary impastos and monotonous cloisonne outlines around every facet and figure. I talked to a few of Landers' Yale-ophilic defenders, and they're justifying the show as "Sean coming to terms with the fact that he'll never be the biggest." Yuck. One thing it proves for sure, that's how much George Condo hurt his career by moving to Paris in the late '80s. If he'd stayed in New York those seven or eight years, channeling Picasso in show after show (as he did in Europe), even someone as oblivious as Landers would know how thoroughly "done" this strategy is.
I've been on the fence about Steve di Benedetto's work the past couple of shows; it's seemed overworked and fussy, not sure enough of what it's about. The new work at Baumgartner is good, though. Just when you think a painting couldn't get any more dense with organic, barnacle-like detail, suddenly a section opens up with a dynamic starburst or taut abstract fugue. The primordial octopus-from-another-dimension, which I felt he was hiding in earlier paintings, here unfurls its tentacles defiantly. The paintings nicely balance the gothic decrepitude of Ivan Albright with the futuristic energy of Matta, without being an overt homage to either.
Last, Rita McBride's show at Alexander & Bonin--at the opposite end of the form/content/materiality spectrum from di Benedetto's--is also top-notch. Very clean, mint green, geometric-looking sculptures are based on the exact outlines of arcade video games. No signage, no joysticks, just the stripped-down, squared-off essence of Xevious, Libble Rabble, and Ms. Pac Man (or so I imagine). I could see a recent UCLA graduate doing this sort of thing poorly, but McBride is a whiz with materials. The consoles, built entirely of porcelain-coated steel, have the blank-but-comforting surfaces of '50s refrigerators. The rest of the show--featuring other minimalist-type works modeled on awnings, HVAC vents, and parking garages--is good, but the video games really stand out.
New York painter Kara Hammond has a new show opening April 18 and running through May 16, 2001 at Joseph Rickards Gallery, 1045 Madison Avenue (between 79th/80th). She made her debut at Bronwyn Keenan Gallery a few years ago, and is known for her weirdly calm depictions of obsolete space technology, strip malls, and views from suburban freeways. The sense of charged emptiness in her paintings recalls Stanley Kubrick's cinematography: the image below could be Georgia O'Keeffe and Charles Sheeler trysting in the Pod Bay. This 4 x 4 foot, oil-on-wood piece is called Space Station, it's dated 2001, and remember you saw it here before it got reproduced in Time Out!
From a recent essay by William Gibson on Japan (and more particularly Anglo-Japanese cross-pollination, since the article's for The Guardian):
"I like to watch the Japanese in Portobello market. Some are there for the crowd, sightseeing, but others are there on specific, narrow-bandwidth, obsessional missions, hunting British military watches or Victorian corkscrews or Dinky Toys or Bakelite napkin rings. The dealers' eyes still brighten at the sight of a tight shoal of Japanese, significantly sans cameras, sweeping determinedly in with a translator in tow. A legacy from the affluent days of the bubble, perhaps, but still the Japanese are likely to buy, should they spot that one particular object of otaku desire. Not an impulse-buy, but the snapping of a trap set long ago, with great deliberation.
"The otaku, the passionate obsessive, the information age's embodiment of the connoisseur, more concerned with the accumulation of data than of objects, seems a natural crossover figure in today's interface of British and Japanese cultures. I see it in the eyes of the Portobello dealers, and in the eyes of the Japanese collectors: a perfectly calm train-spotter frenzy, murderous and sublime. Understanding otaku-hood, I think, is one of the keys to understanding the culture of the web. There is something profoundly post-national about it, extra-geographic. We are all curators, in the post-modern world, whether we want to be or not."