Art for these Technological Times
A slightly raised platform sits in the middle of a dimly lit room at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, with numbers "floating" on its surface. Projected from above, the numbers are multi-colored, single-digits of the familiar font of digital time as seen on microwaves and VCRs. They are of various sizes, and move along the platform at different speeds. When a number "hits" the platform's edge, it bounces off---Pong-like. Visitors are invited to stand on the platform, and when they do, the numbers glide up and over their shoulders. You can "hold" a number in your hand, and if you gaze down long enough, you can convince yourself you are standing on the surface of a deep sea, with phosphorescent numbers for fish.
A digital sea? Or is it a large screen-saver? This work by the Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima, called Floating Time, sits in the museum as part of an ambitious exhibition called "010101: Art in Technological Times."
010101 opened one minute after midnight on January 1, 2001---technically, the dawn of the 21st century---and will remain open until early July. The name is a kind of pun-for the year and the binary number system that's the foundation for all things digital. The show includes more than two dozen installations and projects, with some 35 international artists, architects and designers represented both in the physical show and on a companion Web site. That part of the show is linked at www.
The exhibition's broad premise is that art reflects time and place, and that if Van Gogh's world was one with sunflower fields in southern France, if Fernand Leger's paintings reflected the aesthetics of the machine age, then what are today's artists to make of an age comprised of bits and bytes, networks of networks, and integrated circuits? Like it or not, this an age composed of zeros and ones, and if artists are going to explore it, they'll need a different vocabulary, and in most cases, a different medium. Indeed, the exhibition's few oil paintings---that most conventional of mediums---looked antiquated, even if the inspiration was new.
But on the whole, 010101 is both contemporary and astute. These works get at some truths of this technological age that have eluded the Tech Museum---the Silicon Valley's museum of technology---that sits on the southern end of the San Francisco Bay in San Jose. Where the Tech is concerned with the science of technology, SFMOMA, as the art museum is called locally, has gotten closer to the wacky, all-pervasive experience of technology in our everyday lives. The works by and large paint a bemused picture of an era where innovation takes place not just with gears and steel beams, but with lines of code and millions of tiny transistors.
Smart, funny anarchists
Like Leger and other visual chroniclers of the industrial age gone by, the artists of 010101 aren't pessimistic about a silicon-enabled world. If they're not reveling in it, they're at least having a good time. Humor is a big component here---an important ingredient that technology-oriented museums---and many observers---have mostly overlooked. Many of the works are a reminder that some of the best technologists are smart, funny anarchists at heart---people who would choose a Penguin as the mascot for an operating system. The people who work on Linux and the artists who contributed to this show have a lot in common.
Consider, for example, John Maeda's Tap Type Write, which was originally designed with the artists' young daughters in mind. The work incorporates a Macintosh programmed to do strange things with letters when the keyboard is tapped: letters expand and contract, summersault, and fly. And each click of a key sounds suspiciously like a mechanical typewriter.
Roxy Paine's SCUMAK (Auto Sculpture Maker) is a machine that extrudes fire engine red polyethylene into dripping globs of plastic, each one different, that look vaguely like cooled lava. The complexity of this work---It takes hours to complete one glob---coupled with the sophisticated, computer-controlled extrusion machine itself, amounts to a parody of computer-aided manufacturing techniques. As the catalog notes, the work also suggests a future in which machines mass-produce unique artworks, "conveniently replacing artists, whose messy lives" and creative blocks can sometimes intrude on the supply chain. (What gallery owner wouldn't be tempted to replace a flesh-and-blood, moody artist with a reliable machine? Simply plug it in, add some polyethylene pellets, and it delivers art on demand, without complaint, for punishing hours, for a reasonable return.)
Shirley Tse has created a polystyrene work of another sort, using the ubiquitous vacuum-formed packing material and bubble wrap left behind after a computer, monitor, or printer has left the box. Her Polyworks is a post-modern sandcastle, preserving the molded shapes of the throwaway material as building blocks.
One of the most striking pieces is by Shanghai artist Hu Jie Ming, whose The Fiction Between 1999 & 2000, is a floor-to-ceiling labyrinth of screen captures from the Web and network television taken during the first 24 hours of the year 2000. The images, all done in monochrome, are printed on tall curtains of transparent film and convey the deluge of information, much of it unadulterated junk, in this information age.
Heike Baranowsky's Auto Scope is a one-hour video loop of the terra incognita on the outskirts of Paris---offices, roads, walls. Baranowsky shot the video from a side window of an automobile, and it has a passing resemblance to the outskirts of Tokyo as seen from a train. The original image was then quadrupled, two of those reversed as a mirror image, and all four images projected side-by-side on two adjacent corner walls. The result is a kaleidoscopic pattern, more interesting than the original. Or are we just looking at the original in the wrong way?
Craig Kalpakjian's Corridor is a more ominous landscape: a computer generated, photorealistic image of a round corridor viewed as an endless tracking shot. The windows are reflected on the seemingly scrubbed floor, and one can imagine the endless rows of cubicles just beyond the wall---a gleaming vision of corporate hell.
While computer imagery is hardly a new medium, Jochem Hendrick's Eye certainly employs a new input device: a head-mounted eye scanner that converts eye movement to pen and ink drawings that look as if they were done by an artistically inclined seismometer. Drawings including hand, faces, objects, and the path traversed by the artist's eyes while reading the entertainment section of the San Jose Mercury News.
Some of the artists have experimented with conventional 2D images, the kind that are hung on the wall---but with a twist. Andreas Gursky's 99 Cent is a wall-sized digital image of a store in which everything costs less than a dollar---shot from near the ceiling to reveal each aisle and its row of neatly stacked merchandise, intensely colored, looking like psychedelic ocean waves. Gursky uses imaging tools to correct to distortions of perspective, alter proportions and consolidate multiple images. The result is perhaps a statement on the global economy, or a comment on mass consumption. Another image is of a massive, impersonal atrium in a Taipei hotel.
Web-based works include Mark Napier's Potatoland, a collection of projects produced by the artists since 1995. It includes Web Shredder, which displays Web pages minus the HTML tags. Michael Samyn and Auriea Harvey have created a three-part, online epic entitled, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus---which appears to have something to do with the artists' own romance: they met online.
"I don't understand modern art"
Appropriately enough, 010101 is sponsored by Intel Corp., which has followed in the footsteps of IBM and its long record underwriting arts of all kinds. But here, the connection between art and technology is very close. This may be one art exhibit in which hardware engineers and programmers are in as good a position to evaluate as well as any art critic. Not that every visitor was comfortable with the content. On a bench in the middle of one room, two middle-aged men sat looking perplexed. "I must admit that I just don't understand modern art," one of them said. He sounded defeated.
But from the engaged looking faces of others, that seemed a minority opinion. I spoke with one man in his younger 20s, a student at the San Francisco Art Institute who had moved west from Chicago---and looked as enthralled as a kid on a first-time visit to Disneyland. We spoke outside at a sound installation called Ping (a reference to the Internet program), by Chris Chafe and Greg Niemeyer, which is based on Chafe's work at Stanford University's Center for Computer Research. The installation is based on pinging websites from a database, to which visitors can expand via a keyboard. Tones are generated based on the millisecond delays of information traveling from one intermediary computer to another. Outside, eight speakers, with associated lights, surround a large metal wheel that controls the sound's orientation.
So what does it mean to create art in these technological times? The essays in the show's catalog grapple with that question. John S. Weber, one of the five curators, argues that technology has not so much produced a new movement, but given artists a wider palette of media in which to work. Curator Adrienne Gagnon sees the works as a way to help people "comfortably control the integration of technology into daily life," rather than blindly adding technology until the boundary between our living and digital lives disappears altogether.
David A. Ross, the museum's director, says that the show is not about technology or high-tech design, but about work self-consciously carried out "in the shadow of the digital age." Ross thinks the works help express the nature of this era we inhabit. Despite the exhibit's name---010101---he doesn't think that the mere notion of the term "digital" is sufficient. Instead, he suggests that the work of contemporary artists can do more to illuminates these times than dictionary definitions or the ponderings of historians. "This time-honored approach to our search for the zeitgeist follows the logic of the Korean artist Nam June Paik, who prophetically noted in the mid-1970s that what was called for was not cybernetic art, but rather art for cybernetic times."
Curator Benjamin Weil: The Changing Landscape for Art
Benjamin Weil is curator of media arts the San Francisco Museum of Modern Arts and one the five principal organizers of the 01010 show. Born in Paris, he was director of new media at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, and was the co-founder and curator of ada'web, an exhibition space that presented artistic projects on the Web from 1994 to 1998. In the early 1990s, Weil helped set up one of the first electronic kiosks for artists to interact with each other--- a project that evolved into the Thing.
- What was the goal in setting up 010101?
- There were an enormous number of exhibitions produced to celebrate the 21st century, but all of them looked backwards. The idea of 01 was to start looking at what was going to happen in the future---to explore where we stand in terms of art production today, what issues are being addressed in the work of the most prominent and interesting artists, what relationship do the artists maintain with the landscape as we define it by technology.
- Do you think a person needs an art background to appreciate the exhibition? Would a software programmer come away with something different?
- I believe it's not necessarily geared to one or the other, but as a museum exhibition, is meant for the broad public. The show is labeled and conceptualized as "art" since it's happening in a museum. We were very conscious about addressing the blurring boundaries between various forms of cultural production, ranging from architecture and design, to sound, to the more visual arts. You don't necessarily need to look at it from the perspective of technology, although it might help, or at least that background might generate a different understanding.
- But do you need to know about painting to understand art that is made with such material?
- I don't think so. Maybe you will understand it in a different way because you will look at the brush strokes and focus a lot of attention to the technique. But at the end of the day, this is not what it is really about. The show is addressing the way artists are relating to the landscape, which has been changed and altered by technology. Technology has altered our relationship to distance, to time, to what's real and not real, to what's manipulated and what's not manipulated. In other words, technology has altered the states of reality. If you look at something like 99 Cents [a massive digital image of a discount store], it's all about distorted perspectives, which is something that you can easily create with any image treatment program on your PC. You don't even need a high end machine to make that happen. It's also about how technology has permeated our environment, with chips residing all over the place---in the phone, the computer, my Palm Pilot, my toaster, my car. The exhibition reflects an awareness of a technology that has permeated our living environment, as humans, whether urban or not. You can't escape it.
- And these artists, rather than trying to escape technology, have embraced it. That makes for a different kind of visual experience.
- You could say that this exhibition is trying to reflect the changes brought by technology in the way you engage with art---which may be different from the way you engage with a two-dimensional picture on the wall. Some of these works require a physical interaction, or even a complete re-understanding of the relationship you'd have to a still image on the wall. With some works, you enter a URL or submit the bar code from your driver's license, or sit in a room that modifies the level of melatonin in your body. There's an enormous amount of work in the show that is immersive. The Brian Eno piece, for example, is very low tech, except that it has 10 CD players that are on shuffle mode. That's as immersive in my mind as the piece by Char Davies [which employs a virtual reality helmet], which in turn is as immersive as the Rodney Graham piece depicting two images of a helicopter roaming over you. Or, to a certain extent as immersive as the floating time installation by Tatsuo Miyajima, which is projected on a blue screen with floating numbers. There's this relationship to art which is very different from more classical exhibitions where you do not touch or interfere, but merely "worship." This is also part of the question that artists are asking today: What is our relationship to art? Is it modified by the environment in which we live? The answer is obviously of course, because everything has changed. Our relationship to everything is different. So this is also part of the problem presented by the show. Artists are trying to lead us to reassess the way we relate to art. The video tour by Janet Carter is an amazing example of how our perception of art has changed. She has written a script for a story that unfolds in the museum itself. You, as a viewer, are giving a video camera with a viewfinder [in which to view a tape], and a set of speakers---and the screen on the viewfinder becomes an interface for the story. That story guides you from the bottom to the top of the museum. You are in the same space that this work of fiction took place, so there's a constant back-and-forth between what you see in the viewfinder, which is a story she's telling---and the here and now. It's a remarkable piece in that sense. It really sums up what this exhibition is trying to do---which is to offer a perspective on how art, like everything else, is being affected by the ever increasing permeation of technology in our environment.
- What feedback have you gotten from people who have seen the show?
- The general sense is that people are sometimes taken aback and surprised, but most of the time are really excited about what they are experiencing. If you walk in the galleries and look at the way people interact with the work, you realize that this show is making them feel more comfortable about the fact that they don't need to be educated scholars to understand the work. The show is both disconcerting for everyone and exciting for everyone.
- Is 010101 in some ways redefining the museum itself?
- It certainly will have an impact on the way the museum operates. A companion exhibit called Point of Departures on the top floor is looking at how technology is changing museological practices---such as electronic equipment that enables visitors to have access to information. These are experimental devices and very much in beta testing, but the idea is to see how in the future you'll be able to walk into a museum and the whole museum will become an interface.
- There's a little PDA that you can borrow for a tour of that part of the exhibition. The device contains information about each and every work that's on display. You can choose to be provided with layers of information pertaining to the work, they way it has been arranged, and why this work has been put together with that work. The device is a pocket PC displaying video and HTML.
- Is the next step beyond CD tours?
- Exactly: we're experimenting with a completely interactive in-gallery docent program. If it proves successful, we definitely plan to expand it. The program is very much informed by the idea that some people want information and others don't. Some people want more information, some people want less information. Some people want more detailed information about technique. Some people want more detailed information about the meaning of the work. The idea is to layer information so that each and every experience can be had in the museum, around the art works that are on display.
- Is it a coincidence that 010101 has a large number of Asian artists represented?
- It is not a coincidence. We have deliberately tried to bring in as much as we could from other parts of the world. While we have not enough representation of Latin American art, and to a certain extent, of African art, we did insist on having more than just Northern American or European art, which people here are well acquainted with. We are in an environment that is global now. You can't really understand culture if you don't look at it from a multicultural perspective. These are the influencers from a lot of places in the world, and in putting the show here in San Francisco, which is very open to the Asian influence, it made a lot of sense for us to push this idea. This is what, in my opinion, American culture is all about.
- Have we become such a global world that the work of an Asian artist is indistinguishable from an American one, in the sense that the point of reference of being Asian may disappear?
- You may be right. Maybe the Asian-ness is not as evident. In the case of Miyajima, what I think is really interesting is that he starts his investigation from a global convention, which we all call "time," then tries to address the idea that time is completely different from one culture to the next---even though it's a convention that we all abide by. That's what his work has been about for quite a while---how do we relate to this idea from one culture to the other, even though we all count time the same way.
- Is there something particularly Japanese in that piece?
- The relationship to time in Japan is very different from the one that there will be in the Western world. That's the premise that he's operating from, at least from what I can understand of his work.