PALO ALTO DREAMIN': Towards a New Digital Expression(ism)
by Tom Moody

(originally published in Art Papers, November/December 2001, pp. 20-24)

In the first year of the new Millennium, a wave of U. S. museum exhibits showcased the computer in art. "010101: Art in Technological Times" at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, "BitStreams/Data Dynamics" at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and "Digital: Printmaking Now" at the Brooklyn Museum of Art featured painting, sculpture, photography, prints, and video made with (or influenced by) the ubiquitous appliance, along with Internet-related projects. The rhetoric accompanying the exhibits recalled the hopeful, futuristic phrases of the dot-com era. Artists working with digital media "challenge our everyday perceptions of color, form, sound, space, and time," declared the Whitney. "Neither art, nor those who make it, show it, and look at it can ever be the same again," predicted SFMOMA. "Go digital," advised the Brooklyn Museum.

"BitStreams" (including its Internet component "Data Dynamics") was the most cogent of the shows, focusing on artists using the computer as a primary medium, rather than just a newfangled printing device, or a metaphor. (*) During its three-month run, the curators filled the galleries with flashing lights, eerie droning sounds, and interactive gadgets; visitors may have thought they'd wandered into the Exploratorium, or an arcade. Yet for all the fun of these toys, the exhibit failed to stir much excitement. Too many images lacked punch or presence. Too many animations recalled software demos. Too many projects seemed incomplete, as if the artists had followed the letter but not the spirit of Jasper Johns's advice to "take something, do something to it, and do something else to it." (Subtract information from photo in Photoshop. Print photo. Frame.)

The sad thing is, there's still a good exhibit out there waiting to be done. These are exciting times, not because artists are showing us the future but because they're finally making work that doesn't scream "computer art" (or at the very least, because they're successfully hybridizing digital ideas with other forms). Unfortunately the "BitStreams" curators fell into the trap of making it a "tech show," full of spanking new consumer products and entertainment for the kiddies, seemingly unconcerned that, in the art community, at least, such exhibits have had limited impact (remember kinetic art? holography?). Instead of flouting viewer expectations, looking for disobedient, ecstatic, Dionysian uses of the computer--stuff close to the spirit of art, in other words--they emphasized the analytical data-crunching that everyone already knows it does well.

The most interesting story about the computer is how it's misused as an art-making tool: how a device originally designed to make smoother curves, cleaner sounds, and crisper copies turned out to be even better at chopping reality into bits, rearranging it beyond recognition, and "dirtying it up." This methodology thrives outside the art world, in the dynamic title sequences of films like David Fincherís Se7en, in the scintillating "vocal science" of New Jersey garage producer Todd Edwards, and in the disorienting Adobemania of drum-and-bass flyers. It also lives in the collages of Albert Oehlen, in web projects like jodi.org, and in the expressionistic drawing and painting of Marsha Cottrell, Claire Corey, and Matt Chansky (more on them below). (**) Yet despite the inclusion of a few token lo-fi pieces, the Whitney gave this narrative short shrift, in favor of the one we know and expect to hear: the story of the computer as a purveyor of artificial realities, a kind of "augmented brain" for humanity.

Let's consider a few examples from "BitStreams." In John Klima's large interactive video projection ecosystm, 2000, flocks of imaginary birds swoop and bank through virtual, primordial cloudscapes, accompanied by ominous musical chords. Animated roughly at the level of a Sega game, the fanciful, streamlined "birds" recall pterodactyls and helicopter seeds, but are essentially just bodies with wings. Responding to data from a live Internet feed, the flocks grow or shrink in size as worldwide currencies fluctuate, and "attack" each other when markets become agitated. Using a set of Playstation controls, the viewer can fly among the flocks, in observation mode only, and switch on or off the data, which appears as charts and graphs superimposed on the screen.

What most viewers don't know is that Klima has worked as a programmer for Dun & Bradstreet and Turner Broadcasting, and that he created the piece as a commission for a financial-products company CEO. The connection between money and interspecies warfare was suggested by the executive's view of markets as "natural phenomena." (Since when did artists start getting ideas from bankers?) (***) Yet this grand Darwinian vision is probably lost on most people goofing around with the control buttons. In William Gibson's vision of cyberspace in Neuromancer, 1984, the console cowboy actually knows how to read the abstract symbols representing encrypted data. Here, the viewer just zooms around in a big video game environment, having a clueless blast.

In The Top Grossing Film of All Time, 1 x 1, 2001, Jason Salavon does something technicians are often guilty of: using the computer to perform a task just because it can. This chromagenic c-print was described in the exhibition guide as a digital "portrait" of the film Titanic: "Each...of the film's 336,247 frames has been digitally averaged according to its predominant color," it said, with "the frames...arranged in chronological sequence to produce an all-over abstraction that allows [the film] to be literally encompassed in the blink of an eye." Yet that abstraction tells us next to nothing about the film's content, and isn't compelling enough to be an ironic comment on gratuitous high-tech. Scanning the rows of tiny, horizontally arranged squares, suggesting a contact sheet or microscopic thumbnails, about all the viewer can do is ask inane questions like "Is that flesh colored band where Kate and Leo were having sex?"

*"010101" included non-computer-based work--e.g., Sarah Sze's dismantled Jeep Cherokee, and an ambient installation by the computer-hating Brian Eno--under the vague rubric of "technological times." "Digital" focused on digital printmaking, which is a mere sideline for artists like Jim Dine, Kiki Smith, and Chuck Close, who are better-known for working in other media.

** www.jodi.org is a low-tech meltdown of typography, computer game imagery, and multi-layered cyber-detritus. Jodi (Dirk Paesmans and Joan Heemskerk) have also done downloadable pieces that mangle the web pages by reading their code in the 'wrong' way. Cottrell was included in the Brooklyn Museum show; but none of the other artists mentioned were in "BitStreams" or "010101." Pictured above: Tom Hingston, Kid Loops Sleepwalk EP cover (detail)

*** David Colker, "Net Works," Los Angeles Times, April 19, 2001.

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