Your Name Is MUD

John Haber
in New York City

Virtual Gallery-Going: Spring 2002

Digital art has a way of looking dreadfully old hat. But could its challenge to the visual arts come in more than meets the eye?

A discussion at the Guggenheim Museum with three digital artists sounds the same old, same old complaints—and some all-too-familiar remedies. Somehow, though, John Klima, Mark Napier, and John F. Simon, Jr. make them urgent as well. Meanwhile in Chelsea, Kirsten Geisler allows them to grow as quiet and insistent as the buzzing of fly. Kirsten Geisler's Fly Top (Interactive DVD/touch screen, Von Lintel Gallery, 2002)

Who pays for software?

Art has always thrived on paradox. When it comes to computers, though, the paradoxes pile on fast. A medium so new should not come off so trite. The visual arts ought to look more visually intriguing. Art that begins as symbols in a digital language should have the shock of conceptualism, and digital art rarely does. So after all that, what can make it interesting?

Consider a panel discussion at the Guggenheim. I had casually dismissed all three of its artists a year before, in shows of bits and bytes at the Whitney. I could not even recall that I had seen two of them again, at this year's Whitney Biennial. And here they were challenging me afresh.

I mean not just the challenge of their art, but also how badly they feel the need to defend it. John Ippolita, curator of new media at the Guggenheim and the panel's moderator, makes it clear that the same problems come up in selling digital art. Why, he asks, do galleries show such reluctance to handle it? He had an answer ready, too: they cannot sell it when they can no longer define an art object.

Art, he argued, has a cultural privilege all its own. Dealers, buyers, and acolytes like me line up for museums, all look to the art object for a cluster of related ideas. They turn to fine art for its aura, its tangibility, its uniqueness, its authenticity, and its lasting perfection. But software lives everywhere and nowhere. Anyone can copy it or change it—and then sell it as one's own.

Oddly enough, Ippolita's story came with a happy ending. It followed, he reasoned, that software can strike a blow against the culture of art and ownership. If the middleman makes all the big bucks anyhow, artists may as well give their work away. However, Klima, Napier, and Simon are not buying. And a fourth panelist, Michele Thursz, a dealer, literally is, or at least she is out locating buyers.

To add to the confusion, Ippolita's questions make digital art seem little more than one more long-suffering, unappreciated corner of modern art. The artist defenses sound familiar, too—but familiar from the world of software and its copyright protections in what the International Center of Photography calls "Public, Private, Secret." On top of that, their passion for interactive work overturns both what I had seen and what I had heard. Every term, every argument, and every image has a familiar, even stale air. But does a paradigm shift mean no more than their changing alignment? Before I explain the parallels and divergences that I have just mentioned, consider what the panel really does for a living.

Both sides now

Long after it had become the establishment, modern art still confuses the public and gives fodder to politicians. Video can seem as distant as the 1960s or the very core of a Biennial, but it may still sounds strange to call this art, let alone a tradition. Yet computer art really is news, and still it raises hardly an eyebrow. No wonder my review a year ago frankly misses the point. Take the Guggenheim's featured artists.

Klima turns real-time data into intricately layered, three-dimensional images of the Earth. Yet they barely compete with academia's overwhelming production of scientific models. Napier recasts mouse clicks and Web surfing as true multiuser environments—nothing as trivial, he seems to insist, as Cory Arcangel with his Super Mario roadshow. Yet the user choices have a way of blending together, like a communal lava lamp. Simon estimates that his grids permit 4.3 billion permutations on a computer screen. Yet one could swear his small, colored squares came free as a screen saver back with Windows 95—or perhaps on TV at the 1964 World's Fair.

Conversely, their work looks different the moment one tries to explain what one sees. Then again, that confusion about just what constitutes the visual is part of what makes computer art so modern.

A year ago, Klima had spun clouds out of Dow Jones averages. I found the translation of capitalism into one more prettified consumer good all too soothing. Or could that have been the point and the provocation? Either way, by turning to Earth data, he ups the ante. He still looks at clouds from both sides now without letting go of painting's most sentimental illusions. However, what one knows pierces through what one sees.

One has the sense of zooming in smoothly from atmospheric changes to the smallest of virtual neighborhoods. The representation seems not just appropriate to the data this time. It also makes a model, in science or art, clearly a collusion between creator and viewer. It translates into technical terms an age-old question: just when does a work leave the artist's hands and take on a life of its own? With Klima, a mouse click brings art's flights of fancy down to virtual earth.

Klima sells not just the art object, a fancy application, or something in between, but also continued support in turning the mirror on nature. A flat panel, after all, can serve as a mirror, too. The data and data sources will change, and he enables their continued integration into the software. The promise of lifetime tech support would have made sense to painters under commission to the Vatican. Perhaps, as at the Sistine Chapel, historians will one day argue over what constitutes restoration as opposed to radical remaking.

Authority figures

Napier, too, suggests that interaction between artist, image, and audience trumps what one sees. He also makes the interplay a lot more fun, good reason to check out his popular Potatoland site.

Shredder, an "alternative browsing experience," lets one enter a URL of one's choice to see it dismembered. Landfill lets one dispose of more "unwanted" data in a digital "composting system." Some screens look lovely piled and shredded, html climbing into huge gray wallpaper, output descending in columns of colorful scrap. Another bit of free interactivity lets one create one's own flag. The dull results suggest that one should leave design to artists, but cumulatively they make it clear that no artist has a monopoly on symbols and their human associations.

When it comes to work for sale, Napier offers access not unlike AOL—to software and to other people, with a stripped-down version for free. One enters Waiting Room like a visual chat room, with the conversation already in progress. The menu gives one a choice of drawing tools. Click with a shape, and it may fill with color in ways one had not imagined. It also finds itself quickly surrounded by the responses of others, eager to recapture the space. The simple outlines and surging colors look too soothing for words—or for art—but they spark intense competition.

In each case, the pleasure turns less on the imagery, which veers from found to trite, than on issues of control. Shredder or Landfill lets one wreak revenge on the big guys. A flag of one's own has personal meaning because politics too often does not. As Napier put it in a workshop, also at the Guggenheim, even to ask whether this is art turns on "power struggles in the work." With each click of Waiting Room, "now it has become art."

Conversely, Napier takes pleasure in letting go, because paradoxically it makes him that much more a modern artist. Describing the issue of interactivity versus authority as about "the physical nature of materials and how we relate to that as human beings," he sounds like Clement Greenberg pleading for self-reflective art against kitsch. Napier in fact says that comparisons of Shredder to Pop Art and appropriation puzzle him. Like Robert Smithson in the 1960s, he thinks instead of process art, sand painting, and Jackson Pollock on a wider scale.

Ironically, Napier's predictable, tedious images and their fascination with authority turn on an unpredictable "network of conversations." As with "action painting," conversation extends to the medium, too. Does he see something as he works, beyond lines of code? Yes, but the image may "go in a different direction, depending on what the software allows." A user, too, may find that the struggle over the work involves letting go. As I clicked on his hypergeometric authority figures, I hardly knew whether to negotiate a space for private imaginings or to fight for one.

Erasing differences

Klima and Napier leave me skeptical but intrigued, as I try to juggle product and process. John Simon may thus far have less success. His process lies entirely behind the scenes and the product sits all too still. As Greenberg asked, he attains "objecthood," but at his latest show, I most envied the wrong object—the gigantic flat-panel monitor.

Simon's survival tactics also turn on physical objects for the computer age. He shows off flickering squares for prestige, but he sells pink, translucent plastic strips. At the Guggenheim's panel, he held up tchotchkes the size of the cute little stuffed animal on my window sill—or a PDA. At his gallery, he puts up window hangings as tacky and thoroughly familiar as holiday displays. His strategy also resonates with the world of commercial software. When a publisher puts up a Web site, look for an accompanying textbook, with perforated pages and a CD sealed into the back cover to prevent resale.

For all three artists, new media have changed everything and nothing. Even the problem of selling art or software sounds exhausted. It reenacts the dilemma of Modernism amid a crassly commercial gallery scene. It reflects the agonies of the software industry, too. My own day job, in science publishing, puts me up against users reluctant to pay for Web resources—and smart enough to make copies.

Software and the software industry have answers, too, and artists know it. Microsoft has protected Windows XP so well that one cannot reinstall it if the computer dies. Can artists be far behind? These three offer updates and technical support, freeware and full versions, institutional sales to museums and hand-held ancillaries. The thumbnail image above represents an edition of twelve, and purchases come not just with a DVD, but also with the touch screen and DVD player. Not a bad way to get one's home ready to watch new movies as well.

Or consider the obstacles to selling that Ippolita raises. Modern art has always had those concerns. From early photography to Andy Warhol, it has left one puzzling over a work's reproducibility and its very identity. Action painting and performance fall between conception and product. Earthworks and installations degrade. Minimalism returns to the gravity of a physical object, but it exists only through the viewer's interaction with the object in a larger space. Appropriation dares one to alter a work of art, to trash it, and to sell it as one's own, like Erased de Kooning.

Modernism has not exactly been complaining either. Willem de Kooning happily or reluctantly selected a drawing for Robert Rauschenberg to erase. From Walter Benjamin to Rosalind E. Krauss, critics have celebrated the death of fine art's aura, but the market continues glibly along. Besides, if galleries resist handling new media, they have always stuck to a well-defined profile. A market prefers brand identification, and more than a few dealers genuinely love their artists. Then, too, they may not want to cope with the hardware costs.

Technology and commerce

Nor will giving art away upset the system. It instead reinforces the status quo. It looks at the struggle for recognition and reward, declares a victory, and leaves. It transfers power to curators like Ippolita, with the time and means to surf the Web, key into the latest word of mouth, and lend it their imprimatur. It promises what Marx derided as primitive socialism, with the artist paying the bills.

Artists—and at least one critic I can name—already survive from day jobs, and they have good reason not to like it. For one thing, they want and need to be seen. Galleries expose people like me to art for free. They draw crowds, with spaces and equipment that not every studio artist or online visitor can replicate. No browser or child of Napster can generate the same recognition—especially for software complicated enough to reside on a CD or network drive.

For another, artists want gratification. They want the rush of creating something just for oneself and having someone else want it on the wall. With the computer, as Napier put it vividly, painting can then descend from the wall, too.

Above all, artists need money—the means to spend more time making art. A job takes an almost debilitating amount of time and energy. Sure, one learns from it, and no doubt Web artists who program for a living learn even more. But, hey, every experience feeds art, and F. E. Church still kept a safe distance from an active volcano in Brazil.

Artists who have it in them will keep going, as indeed did Ippolita's father, a forgotten painter who left a huge opus at his death. That piety, however, may never make up for others who cannot. Can you name perhaps the first drip painter or tell me what happened to her? Regardless, Sunday artists have shorter careers, and it takes time and experience to grow. Gerhard Richter refuses to exhibit work from before age 30.

This matters more than ever with software art, which is having to get through a childhood of its own. (One can see the appeal of the digital world's democratic impulse in iheartphotograph.com.) New media mean changing technologies, evolving audiences, and the easy temptation to take technical wizardry for art. I bet Andy Warhol made a lousy commercial artist. I fear that software artists do all too well on the side. Worse, they, like other artists, will become teachers, feeding the academic boredom of the 2002 Whitney Biennial.

The buzz of new art

Software looks old-fashioned because art's old traps will not go away. I do not celebrate the system, which quashes and distorts human responses at every turn. On the one side lie phony assurances of freeware and free play. On the other side lie the market, the aura of art, and institutionalization of the avant-garde. As Ippolita notes, the Senate may extend copyright lifetimes, threatening the creative person further yet.

Only the game keeps changing, and I do not mean a video game. Each of these artists pushes the limits of the visual, even as their visuals let me down. As the system absorbs each threat, it does so by turning art back on its past, where it has room to feel and to provoke. If I trust Klima, art really does beat life. He offers lifetime service, and I have already voided the warranty on my month-old home computer.

New media take the problems, images, and conventions from software and from art of the past. It offers nothing new but their alignment. And that is what constitutes its novelty. New art may not even have one solution, because the solution will vary according to the needs of the work and the artist's intentions—tearing at the alignments of the present, recasting those of the future. Klima wants to maintain and control his map of the world as NASA changes its URLs. Napier wants his work to change in ways that he can never foresee.

My favorite software art this spring never tries to escape traditional art or interactivity. It has never entered the Guggenheim's workshops or the Whitney's retrospectives. Kirsten Geisler fills gallery walls with touchscreens. At eye level and the size of one's hands, they imply the fixity of an object and the intimacy of one's physical presence. They evoke a dialogue with the artist—or with someone and something unseen.

Some indeed display her face, and her features respond ambiguously to one's touch. All but shaven of hair, like an icon from pre-Western art, she plays on woman as something seen and as something touched, as something worshipped and something submissive and grasped.

I like better, however, the disorienting scale of others, which present a mere housefly, as colorful and three dimensional as a fantastic natural history connecting biology and art. Again, as one touches, it moves. It represents something one fears to touch, except perhaps to squash, and then it brings that object seemingly to life. One commands and inherits its fragile motion, as if one heard it buzz before death. Like fine art or interactive software, it belongs to one's response—and then it takes strange flight. One day, perhaps, new media will deserve the buzz.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

"Collecting the Uncollectable" took place April 9, 2002, at the Sackler Center of The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Mark Napier held a workshop there May 6 and exhibits his work with Potatoland.com and at Bitforms. John F. Simon, Jr., showed at Sandra Gering through June 8 and maintains his own site as well. Kirsten Geisler's "Virtual World" ran at Von Lintel through May 18.

 

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