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Memphis Flyer Morethanjustpictures@art.com

By Cory Dugan

JANUARY 11, 1999:  The world has changed less since the time of Jesus Christ than it has in the past 30 years,” Charles Peguy said famously in 1913. The last fin de seicle era, about which Peguy spoke, saw the advent of (among other things) the phonograph, the electric light, x-rays, the movie camera, the automobile, radio, and the airplane. Peguy’s remark has since been stolen, paraphrased, updated, and misquoted countless times – although other wags have observed (pretty accurately) that most non-medical advances since have been the result of engineering rather than science. No matter its source, technology is technology and it continues to shape and reshape itself and those of us who use and are used by it.

This comes to mind not just because of the impending, overhyped turn-of-the-millennium. In the past few months, there have been a few inklings locally that maybe, just maybe, there is a burgeoning recognition afoot that technology – and especially computers – may have some impact on art.

In the recent “Visualizing Digiteracy” exhibition at the Memphis College of Art, curator (and artist) Brian Bishop made note of the fact that half a millennium ago oil painting was a new technology. He might have added that art at that time, partly due to the resultant naturalism of the new medium, was on even footing and often partnered with science. The studies of anatomy and geometry, for example, were advanced tremendously in their infancy by artists.

Somewhere along the line, artists lost interest in science and new technology. Maybe they learned what they needed to know and decided they didn’t need to know any more. Maybe they just accepted the role of image-maker and bought into the romantic mythos that went along with it. Philosophy won out over physics.

Photography threw art for a bit of a loop for a century or so. It could be argued that abstraction was partially a result, a reaction to photography and its easy, mechanical ability to record the real world. Art did not embrace this new technology; it ran from it, castigated it, and – as evidenced by recent exhibits of Degas’ photography – studied it in secret. The craft of art – the handiwork, the talent, whatever name it took – was still vital to the concept of high art. Technology, damn it, was never going to replace that. Photographers probably couldn’t even draw; how could they be artists?

We still cling stubbornly to that handiwork ideal. Bishop’s coinage of “digiteracy” may have involved an understanding of computer technology but, as an exhibit, it involved no actual computers. We were offered images inspired by technology, such as Christopher Wool’s abstract patterns based on photocopy smudges – but Wool’s ingenious work is more about nihilist decoration than technology per se. The opposite end of the spectrum was offered by Su-ee Wooh’s computer-generated surrealist fluff; can we all just admit that Photoshop is the airbrush art (as in vans and T-shirts and Yes album covers) of the ’90s and move on? In between, Bishop included paintings based on computer drawings and conceptual “posters” printed from an artist’s project on CD-ROM (I’d rather have had a computer available to browse the contents of the disc).

Shortly after Bishop’s exhibit at MCA, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art mounted a Saturday-afternoon symposium on “Computers and Art.” (Seems like they could have timed the exhibit and the symposium to coincide, but this is Memphis, after all.) I was unable to attend, so I contacted Brian Groppe, the creative director at Towery Publishing and a member of the symposium panel. According to Groppe, the panel covered topics of graphic design and traditional two-dimensional picture-making with the use of computer software. Sounds good for what it was – and it’s high time that graphic design got a little credit for expanding a few boundaries where fine artists feared to tread – but it still left something lacking.

We talk about technology, but when it involves art we still feel compelled to hang stuff on the walls. Why? Neither the MCA exhibit nor the Brooks panel discussion was really about technology; the conversation is still about pictures. Why has no local museum or gallery mounted an exhibit of real, true technology-based artwork? The kind that at least requires an electrical plug?

Even video has been ignored. At a time when the hottest and liveliest names in the international art world include video artists (such as Gary Hill, Bill Viola, Matthew Barney, and Tony Oursler), the most contemporary exhibit the Brooks has mounted in years is a collection of etchings (process developed in the 15th century), lithographs (process invented in 1798), and cast bronzes (process discovered circa 3500 B.C.) by an artist who died in 1995.

But, you know, technology doesn’t really need museums to show us its art. Maybe, hopefully, someday we won’t either. The Web has been called a lot of things – a global neighborhood, a global marketplace, a global living room, a global playhouse. Could it also become a global museum? Positioned right in the middle of our living room and playhouse and neighborhood? I’m probably not the first person to notice that the difference between museum and mausoleum is aol. I’m not sure what that means (and I in no way endorse that particular online service) but I think Nostradamus must have predicted it.

Is the future of art on the Web? Not completely, of course. And not in the traditional sense, not in the way that most museums and galleries use the Web now. Check around and you’ll find that clicking on any art site will probably be pretty similar to clicking on any kitchen faucet manufacturer’s site. Photos and text explaining the photos. The same thing you can get in printed catalogs, except the resolution isn’t very good and reading the copy can give you a headache.

The future of art on the Web involves something different, something usually avoided or ignored in the local (and most national) discussions of art and contemporary technology (i.e., computers) – art which is created for and exists nowhere else but the Web. Art that takes full advantage of the technology heretofore reserved for graphic designers and computer geeks. Art that is created with Java and Shockwave instead of pencil and paint. You can’t buy it, you can’t hang it on your wall, you can’t even see it in a museum or gallery. It does not physically exist. It is art as ether and idea and fleeting image, as word and message and maybe sound.

There are no doubt thousands of sites out there, posted by individual artists, that no one will ever find. The Web is like the real world in that way – one can’t just expect to find art by accident or in the white pages of the phone book. You have to go through a gallery. In the case of the web, that means a sort of cyber-gallery, a clearinghouse site that publishes artists’ web projects.

Some of the major museums, such as the Museum of Modern Art (www.moma.org), have a small selection of artists’ projects on their Web sites. MoMA currently offers up six art projects, none of which are particularly interesting, being either too text-intensive or too dependent on simplistic visual gimmicks.

Much better and more naturally in tune with the sort of art that lends itself to Web technology is the Dia Center for the Arts, which currently hosts 13 artists’ projects at its site (www.diacenter.org). Fantastic Prayers, a collaboration between writer Constance DeJong, video artist Tony Oursler, and composer Stephen Vitiello, is interesting only for its historical status as one of the first Web projects (first posted in March 1995); it is very slow, already outdated in its technology, and its attempts at interactive narrative are clumsy and confusing.

Also of some documentary interest at Dia’s site are Komar and Melamid’s The Most Wanted Paintings and Prometheus Bound, a project by Tim Rollins and K.O.S. which records the production of the collective’s work based on the Aeschylus drama.

Claude Closky’s Do you want love or lust? is an engaging parody of magazine/self-help quizzes, which takes the participant through a series of questionnaire situations, each of which requires a response and then leads to another (seemingly random) question, with no conclusion or cumulative score at the end of the tunnel.

The most challenging (and most Web-centered) pieces at the Dia site are Kristin Lucas’ Between a Rock and a Hard Drive and Diller + Scofidio’s Refresh. Lucas’ work is an extraordinarily clever comment on the Internet and the processes and etiquettes involved. The different pages in her piece represent “waiting rooms” for Web surfers, places to symbolically wait for the next JPEG to download, for your browser to make contact with the next URL, or just for a slow modem or network to chug to life; Lucas calls them “temporary housing for the despondent virtual citizen.” Each waiting area is represented by a central symbolic photo – a parking lot, an airport concourse, a shopping center, a lobby, a service station – surrounded by a hybrid keyboard. As the viewer moves the mouse across the keys, sound effects and snippets of conversations are summoned forth, and graphic word balloons pop up with fragments culled from actual “chat rooms.” Clicking on “keys” may produce simply a typewriter click-clack or signal another random voice or ambient traffic noise. Between a Rock and a Hard Drive is a fascinating site, exploring issues of online isolation and virtual community with humor and a detached sort of poignancy.

Refresh, by architects Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, mines similar isolated territory; instead of cyberspace, it explores office space. Each page of its project focuses on a specific locale within a generic office situation – the cubicle, the break room, the water cooler, the security office, etc. The composition of each page involves 11 stills (staged with actors) and one live (unstaged) broadcast; a timeline runs across the bottom of the page, with each photo linked to a specific time of day. Interacting with each picture opens both a detail and a brief text that fits into an overall (fictional) short-story narrative. There are multiple levels to Refresh – the human dramas of designed space, the taboos of voyeurism and exhibitionism enmeshed with the banal preponderance of legal surveillance, the timed routine/ritual of contemporary existence. Can an exploration of the mundane be interesting? Surprisingly, yes. And uncomfortably familiar.

The Dia Center is one of the more enlightened museums around, so it isn’t too surprising that it had an early Web presence or that its current site is advanced (and continues to advance) far beyond its real-world counterparts and colleagues. Outside the real world, though, are sites that exist only on the Web, only to provide exposure for Web-based artwork. The best I’ve found thus far are äda ‘web and Stadium – not only do they provide a home for some of the most intelligent and evocative projects, they also provide some very elegant and well-designed host Web sites.

The äda ‘web (named for Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron and – with Charles Babbage – a designer of the difference engine, the first computer; Ada is also a programming language, likewise named for Lovelace) Web site has been around since 1995, when it launched a project by Jenny Holzer, titled Please Change Beliefs. Holzer’s piece is still available for viewing; while her famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) truisms would seem tailor-made for hypertext, the piece now seems dated, badly designed, and simply annoying.

These days, äda ‘web maintains over 20 projects at its site. Some are useless, ranging from boring essays and manifestos to lazy cop-outs that ask the viewer to make his/her own art or write his/her own story or (I’m not making this up) send in a photo of him/herself washing dishes.

The Web is understandably a natural home for conceptual art – the granddaddy project is Douglas Davis’ The World’s First (and probably) Longest Collaborative Sentence (http://math240.lehman.cuny.edu/art) which was originally posted in December 1994, asking viewers to add their words. Myth has it that it was programmed to reject periods so that it would remain (at least abstractly) a single sentence; hackers have since allegedly interfered and ruined the original intent. Still, it is unreadably engrossing to just scroll the pages. It may not accurately live up to its title anymore, but Sentence is impressive in size alone (the site is now almost six times larger than that of Amazon.com) enough to shame its legions of cheap, add-to-my-site imitations.

Meanwhile, back at äda ‘web. The sort of process that conceptualists drool over is found in On Translation, a project by Antonio Muntadas. The idea is charmingly simple and circular: Beginning in English, a sentence – “Communication systems provide the possibility of developing a better understanding between people; in which language?” – is sent to Japan for translation; it is then sent to Germany to be translated from the Japanese, then to Pakistan to be translated from the German. The process continues through 20 different languages, until it comes back to English – as “A certain means of research could raise the standard of international activity through the medium of communication. The particular problem, which I have in mind, is the accessibility to a rapid system of mutual education.” One needn’t be a linguist to appreciate the design, both theoretically and visually.

The äda ‘web site has a number of flashy (and flashing) projects that deal with such diverse topics as consumerism, paranoia, and sado-masochism. Julia Sher’s Konsent Klinic actually touches on all three, with varying results – it is at times witty and seductive, at others inane and confusing. Similarly (and linked), her Securityland has passages of sharp satire and unsettling imagery, but ultimately loses itself in a snarled and repetitive structure.

The best project at äda ‘web is not even by an artist, but by novelist Darcey Steinke (Suicide Blonde, Jesus Saves). Her Blindspot is a bewitching and brilliant experiment in illustrated fiction. The brief story – a woman is at home alone with her baby, afraid of an imagined (or is he?) intruder, while her husband is probably with another woman – is housed within a structure of split frames, simple Java animation, and a few basic sound effects. The result is a masterful tour of astute parenthetical narratives and effective pop-noir visuals.

While äda ‘web can get a little over-dramatic and garish at times, Stadium (www.stadiumweb.com) is a truly lovely place to visit and offers a quiet stable of highly literate and stimulating projects. Louise Lawler’s Without Moving/Without Stopping adapts late-19th-century technology to the end of the 20th, translating the concept of optical-illusion zootropes to digital virtual reality. With scenes of plaster copies of classic sculptures in storage, filmed panoptically in a Munich museum and digitally imported into QuickTime VR, Lawler plays subtle (and purposely ambiguous) captions against the easily mouse-manipulated panoramas. The artist draws a surrealist correlation from the technique, but this viewer finds a more thoughtful, analytical stance – originality versus mass production, considered thought versus canned response, all of it going around in circles.

Fidget, a piece by Kenneth Goldsmith and Clem Paulsen, is an exercise in conceptual excess made hypnotic and, yes, beautiful. On paper, the idea is both tedious and trivial (and one can download the complete text if one so desires): a record of every body movement Goldsmith made in a particular 13-hour period. In language like “Right hand clenches. Thumb rubs knuckles. Fist to right shoulder,” we can read about every nose-pick, butt-scratch, and yawn. For the particularly masochistic, there is also an audio reading available.

But in visual form, as a Java applet elegantly designed by programmer Paulson, Fidget is entrancing. Each bland phrase is aligned to a mapping system that matches itself to the viewer’s computer clock and reacts to mouse clicks and drags. Each phrase gradually appears out of the background color (which can be reset by the viewer, as can the type color and size and degree of “fidgetness”) and moves across the screen in a mechanical dance with other phrases, above or below, behind or in front, until it again fades into the background and disappears.

John Simon’s Every Icon, like the conceptual process of Muntadas’ On Translation, is more fun to contemplate than to observe. Visually, Simon’s piece is simply a 32x32 grid whose squares incessantly blink in different patterns of black-and-white. Conceptually, it is a Java applet programmed to complete every possible pattern permutation and combination within the grid. Even if the process was more than momentarily interesting on a visual level, the viewer could never see the piece in its entirety – it is estimated that, at today’s average computer processing speed, the process will take at least a hundred trillion years to complete.

Site-specificity has been a concern of contemporary artists for the past generation; with the advent of the Internet, even “site” takes on a new, more ephemeral meaning. The artwork found at these sites defies even the notion of space as we understand it, existing without any limitations of the physical world (except for the computer) or even the constraints of time.

The major problems with Web-based art at present are those of the technology itself, and of the inequality of computer and Internet equipment. Viewing is too often interrupted and inconvenienced by the prerequisite of downloading yet another necessary piece of software. Images and, especially, videos are sometimes painfully slow. Commonly used applications and programs – such as Shockwave, Java, QuickTime, and RealPlayer – are not always compatible with all machines and operating systems; Shockwave Director, in particular, can be maddeningly buggy and undependable.

None of the Web-art projects I’ve found yet match the wizardry of the best computer games, but then artists have notoriously low budgets – many are likely unpaid for their online artwork. The medium, however, offers artists the promise of options heretofore unimaginable. The ability to combine photography, text, video, sound, and – yes – good old handmade pictures within a multilayered and multileveled format offers a potential that, like the Web itself, would seem to know no limits. Except for our own lack of imagination as audience, critics, curators, and art institutions.


The Web sites listed in the accompanying article are only a small sampling of those available. A few others of interest include:

ArtNet (artnetweb.com/projects) – The projects here are by and large amateurish, but the site offers some good links to better projects.

Vuk Cosic (www.vuk.org) – Very clever and simple work by artist Vuk Cosic. Check out History of Art for Airports and ASCII History of Art for the Blind.

The Thing (www.thing.net) – Memberships are available in this multi-art site, complete with BBS and chat, but guests are invited to take a number and help themselves to a donut.

JodiWeb (www.jodi.org) – Subtitled “an experience concerning space and a lack thereof.” Mainly a series of electronic patterns that can quickly become rather tedious.

The Spleen (www.mcad.edu/home/faculty/szyhalski/Piotr4) – Elegantly designed, sometimes abstruse explorations in language, photography, and graphics. Created by artist Piotr Szyhalski, faculty member at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

The Place (gertrude.art.uiuc.edu/ludgate/the/place/placez.htm) – Another university faculty site, by artist Joseph Squier at the University of Illinois. Autobiographical and poetic, combines photos, drawings, and text in an excellent design. Also has links to works by students.

The File Room (www.ncsa.uiuc.edu/SDG/IT94/Proceedings/Arts/brenner/roussos.html) – One of the first Web pieces, created by Antonio Muntadas as an archive on censorship in 1994. Now (supposedly) accessed via the University of Illinois Web site. Good luck; usually not available.


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