Champing at the Bit

John Haber
in New York City

BitStreams and Data Dynamics

Gallery-Going, Spring 2001

Imagine again those very first talkies. Performers stand dead upright, facing the enormous screen with the same fascination as their audience. They sing just a little too defiantly, as if to make extra sure of their medium. They speak a little too cutely and too loud. I picture the film-makers at once too certain and too puzzled—like students of media, art, and technology for decades to come.

Consider two shows of computer art now at the Whitney, "BitStreams" for digital displays and "Data Dynamics" for works that take input from viewers. Then step back a moment, into the galleries, to look at some art with no special reference to the Net—or does it? Gary Hume, William Eggleston, Peter Sarkisian, and others all had me imagining the future. Art that reaches hardest for a high-tech breakthrough may well feel upheavals and create their own the least. John F. Simon, Jr.'s Color Panel v1.5 (Whitney Museum of American Art, 1999–2001)

Why 2K?

Does the Whitney sound a bad note right away? It just came off its look at an American century, another reminder of old empires and the Y2K problem. Nor can I blame it entirely. New art, after all, always promises to make extra demands on viewers. Artists put pressure on one's historical knowledge, critical thinking, and imaginative freedom. Only now one faces hardware requirements as well. Wait till a PDA enters a Biennial.

At the Whitney, digital art crosses far too often from readymade to cliché. It crosses just as easily from a new medium to the same old story, like so much that strives for both art and science. It may have little choice, because the brave new world thrives all around us, both in everyday life and in fine art. Mark Napier's large panel, for example, translates the movement of museum-goers into shifting signs. Can it compete with monitors over the bar at a trendy midtown restaurant I could name? Can museum displays compete with huge public countdowns of the millennium or the national debt?

Of course, emerging artists could try not to compete but to acknowledge—or to undermine—the whole idea of public display. They could challenge, too, the imaginary or virtual museum. Or they could upgrade the old dream of an artist's personal expression for a medium that invites user participation. Too often, "BitStreams" opts for none of the above. Before long, I could have been browsing computer ads, coveting not the work but the hardware. How about those big flat panels with all those colors?

I give the Whitney a lot of credit for trying. Inside the museum, powers of 2 go up on trial, and the museum has, thoughtfully, made tough questions possible. Works get ample space, and wall labels (repeated in full in a free handout) describe each one. Maybe the single piece or two per artist adds to the show's facelessness and fatigue, like a postscript to last year's biennial. But maybe, too, it never had a chance.

The problem starts the moment one gets off the elevator. I liked the wall-length exhibition title, set amid columns of of harsh lights, so much that I hunted for a label. Crawling along with a dozen others into the wall space behind it, I assumed that the same work continued. Actually I had encountered simply the installation, and each headset before me represented a different audio artist. Worse, the long row takes the bite out of each one. Although they range from John Cage's circle to techno-pop and music for a magnificent, culture-determined Shirin Neshat video, they come off as one happy vibe after another. "New Age" here has exactly the wrong meaning.

Elsewhere, artists contribute to the blissfully corporate impression. John Klima turns Dow Jones events into blissful clouds, and Jon Haddock's digital manipulation erases personal tragedy from familiar news photos. Perhaps in a different show, one could see these very artists as commenting on the medium itself. The Whitney, however, stresses their using it, like a high-tech high-wire act. Color Panel v1.5, ingeniously programmed by John F. Simon, Jr., never repeats its changing images. Yet I might have been watching an overpriced screen saver.

Mixed media and mixed messages

Spot another side of the plain old establishment? Think first about those early movies. One knows that changes were afoot, not just in the artistic risks but in the way that one imagined the world. Change is hard to see, however, just as holding film up to the light shows only a series of still images. No wonder critical insights stirred by any new media at once tower further than art and yet look just as quaint.

The medium is the message. It brings one back instantly to a world of hippies and Howdy-Doody. Decades before, critics sounded just as much lost not in a new discovery but in a passing moment. Some looked right past Cubism and saw no more than a movie, mistaking its reconstruction of space for the extra dimension of time. To another and far greater critic, a changed consciousness seemed at hand. But was it?

For Walter Benjamin, the great Marxist, art looked chastened. In "an age of mechanical reproduction," a work's exhibition value could complete the job it had begun under capitalism. It could tear apart the cult value that had reined from the first cave rituals. Just as an individual in the marketplace could look within and learn to distrust authority, so one could look at the now-reproducible object and see none of the "aura" of fine art. And sure enough, movies and TV really did take over after all, and the medium did become the message. In Abstract Expressionism art did find a dimension of time, and with Pop Art or color field its space did shrink very much like "the box."

Something, though, fails to fit. Here I am, when one can speak of a cult film, because today's cult is the avant-garde. And here I am, pursuing computer art into a high-profile museum. Besides, Modernism had already altered, if not created, today's idea of privacy long before computer networks. From Dada to appropriation art, artists have pulled the same tricks to unsettle things, and they keep angering politicians and the public all over again. Can computer art make a revolution while digitally appropriating the same old world?

The computer starts the same cycle of naiveté and change all over again. Copies of the Old Masters may no longer always aspire to forgeries. Some get downloaded off ever-slicker, ever-slower Web sites. Museums themselves host more than a few.

Meanwhile, the dominance of image and authority over individuals stretches further than ever. The medium is once again the message, just as museum curators are taking it for the essence of a work of art. No wonder that art in every medium must reflect awareness of the computer.

The programming language of home

Meanings, in other words, have a way of altering as they emerge, in art and technology as in writing. Jacques Derrida, the philosopher, put dissemination at the heart of language. Words keep finding other words and new listeners, and each time the old rules go out the window. What was once a play on words speaks the language of home. Perhaps books, not the computer will remain the ultimate popular art.

So when does a discovery spell an upheaval in the whole business of dissemination? When does the computer start to change the way that one imagines? I have a special interest in asking, since you are reading my words online. In art, however, things get even messier. "The medium" traditionally means materials, and "the medium is the message" sounds suspiciously like Clement Greenberg's good old-fashioned formalism. Did oil painting signal a new medium in Marshall McLuhan's sense as well, while acrylics did not, and how can I know?

Art at the crossroads: it sounds uncomfortably like the old debate in science, on whether it makes sense to term a breakthrough a new paradigm. Downstairs at the Whitney, in "Data Dynamics," one encounters the same puzzle with interactive media. Maciej Wisniewski claims to offer the Internet's "subconscious." As another museum-goer typed bonjour, though, I saw floating ad logos—and more clouds.

Marek Walczak and Martin Wattenberg confront a disorienting technology with the metaphor of home. Expectantly, I entered into Apartment some rather distorted Emily Dickinson: "Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me. The cabin held but just ourselves and immortality." She wrote carriage and had her own piercing way with punctuation. I instead pictured a cabin in darkly beautiful woods, just for me.

I got instead much the same barren floor plan that had stared back at me all along. Across the schematic rectangles duly floated all my nouns, parsed as mechanically as everything else. As everywhere these days, technological demands and conceptual limits went hand in hand, and I could see no escape. I felt I really had come home—in time to leave for the office.

I have run through the show quickly and hesitated even to name names. It flatters me to think that I use criticism to share appreciation instead of to dump on artists. It also seemed to fit the Whitney's struggle over the anonymity of the electronic age. And that anonymity comes with a disturbing lack of privacy. Besides, I was in a hurry. I wanted to seek traces of the same new media elsewhere entirely—in abstract painting, traditional video, unretouched photography, and the dogged human risks of performance.

Fireworks, sort of

I therefore hit another busy day in Chelsea. Poured, monochromatic abstraction from four continents was transforming galleries into bank lobbies. At a particularly chichi space, one artist piles high yet more shards of industrial waste. Chakaia Booker's tires form gentle spirals and reclining nudes, as if unsure whether last year's trends can earn back the investment without aping modernist elegance.

Others, like Jim Shaw, carry on the usual bad-boy dreams. Paul McCarthy again makes me believe that Dave Letterman invited Jackson Pollock as special guest. Dressed in prosthetic thumbs and noses, the better to dismember him by, McCarthy spins out videos of wild, pointless gestural self-damage. I smiled, but not at Pollock's shed flipped 90 degrees, a knowing glance at the Modern's mock-up the year before. No, I focused on Santa Chocolate Shop. Hey, I had the joke of comparing drip painting to poured Hershey's years ago—and here online!

James Nares's Cold Was the Ground (photo by the artist, 1999)As more than one artist pushed realism to abstraction, I wondered if I had set my brain for too few colors or the wrong file format. With Gary Hume's sad faces and plant-like forms, lines grow sharp, transitions in color and tone extreme. With James Nares, who also worked in film, I must have hit the Resample button by mistake, too. Nares simulates in oil a gigantic loose brushstroke, as if he hopes to recover the loving calligraphy that Robert Rauschenberg had erased, Cy Twombly or Sol LeWitt had exorcised, Gerhard Richter had covered up with a squeegee, and Roy Lichtenstein had once parodied on the same scale. Each won me over with a flattened charm that I had best not question too deeply or caress too long.

Has painting made Fireworks instead of fireworks? Photography, too, gets unaccustomed insight from sometimes distracting virtuosity. William Eggleston, often linked to the birth of color photography, borrows the computer's curious mix of crispness and grain. He reframes in rich color the detritus of the American southwest along Route 66. William Eggleston has given up modernist ambiguity for proper postmodern ambivalence, like Walker Evans seen through computer graphics. In gorgeous shifts between pronounced close-ups and distance shots, he poises scenes of ordinary life between danger and despair.

With Peter Sarkisian, I blinked all over again. His projections turn an entire room of supporting, concrete pillars into something transparent and yet shimmeringly metallic. Down each one slides a naked figure, head held aloft and arms extended. His bodies readily suggest the pleasure of free fall or diving, while stuck in an impossibly narrow space.

As with past shows, Sarkisian knows the visual impact of sound. Murmurs of small talk from every side blend into an inaudible murmur. One strains to make sense of it all, just as one strains to pin down the quite unpredictable intervals of projection. Video now, too, seems a far colder and yet more personal medium.

Remaking memories

These shows taught me something remarkable: I no longer know for certain when art reflects the computer and when it creates the fictions and visions on which new media thrive. I have been enjoying Christina McPhee and her digital prints more even than her last paintings. I have had the privilege of contributing notes myself toward a virtual arts community and exhibition space, Entelechs. But have they truly left painting behind?

In turn, my PC pursued me everywhere downtown—and not just in manipulated photos. I saw parties with space aliens, dead celebrities assembled into stiflingly formal photos, and teenagers seeking outdoor pleasures in a polluted landscape. Computers have entered art's head somewhere else entirely, too. Did I expect actual computer games or an old-fashioned peep show? I was looking in entirely the wrong medium. Take painting for starters, as with Nares.

New media bring fresh discoveries, but indirectly, and in their train they remake memories of the past. I began this review with movies as they never quite happened, for by then decades of photography had created a zone of comfort for their vision. The very idea of "the medium" had to catch on bit by bit, as people learned to tell handy devices from a whole new realm. The puzzle begins again today, with digital techniques and shifting uses of old media. Which have the power to create audiences, and which can merely create works of art? Works of art and the imagination may well turn out to take the lead after all.

Derrida might come in handy in another way, for he had a way of deconstructing differences. And here you thought that a medium promises to disseminate further, to break the old bounds. Artists, I should remember, know the personal computer all too well, from day jobs chained to cubicles and design screens. Conversely, computer-based art takes so much speed and power that it lies beyond the reach of some artists and viewers.

In other words, the computer returns art to the same old establishment, a world of pricey galleries and powerful museums. Surely Bill Viola has manipulated images for years to the point of bombast. Surely Nam June Paik, Gary Hill, David Reed, Sue de Beer, Eyebeam, and others have entered the mainstream, and Amy Greenfield deserves to belong here as well. In their different ways, they have long explored the physical presence and contents of a TV monitor and videotape. By now, others can only listen quietly and learn.

All I can say for certain is that I do not know in the end just how media will change art and perception. Moreover, once technology enters the way people think, or perhaps see themselves in software's mirror, no one can say which will take the lead. As a cultural critic like Benjamin had to know, film audiences had to accept in advance the notion of perfect reproductions before film could turn it against them. Chuck Close even claims to have spawned computer art with a painted grid and a defiant eye. The moment of insight, creativity, and individualism is going nowhere faster than ever, and it rests on ever-shifting ground.

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"BitStreams" and "Data Dynamics" ran through June 10, 2001, at The Whitney Museum of American Art. Chakaia Booker exhibited at Marlborough downtown through March 24, Paul McCarthy (who also showed at The New Museum of Contemporary Art through May 13) at Luhring Augustine through April 7, Gary Hume at Matthew Marks through April 21, James Nares at Paul Kasmin through March 17, William Eggleston at Cheim & Read through April 14, and Peter Sarkisian at I-20 through March 31. Christina McPhee's Inscapes was still in development in 2001, but no less impressive for that. Related reviews look at "Ghosts in the Machine" and "Thinking Machines."


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