The first piece documented in InfoART's CD of work that premiered at the
1995 Kwangju Biennale in Korea is called "Flora Petrinsularis," by
Jean-Louis Boissier. According to the technical notes, helpful for
coming to an understanding of what the work actually looked like, he
used a Quadra 800 with a RasterOps video card 24STV, a computer monitor,
a book consisting of excerpts from Rousseau's Confessions, and a video
camera fixed exactly 51 inches above it all.
The idea is this: as the subject turns the pages, the camera "sees" what
page is showing, and triggers corresponding video images on the computer
screen, offering what Boissier says is "an interpretation of the
Confessions that refers exclusively to the text itself." On the CD the
whole thing is represented by a split-screen view of water in a brook
which, when clicked, changes to a pretty young woman undressing herself,
sort of looking at you, and breathing heavily.
I think this is what semioticians call a gap in meaning. Most of the
pieces on the InfoART CD feel similarly remote in their digital
manifestation, as if they were documents of a vanished continent of
congenital gadgeteers, sexed up a little for promotional purposes. What
was it like, you wonder, to be there? The gap between iterations,
between gallery existence and subsequent digital documentation,
exaggerates these pieces' status as elaborate one-off prototypes,
placing them firmly as singular and authentic artworks.
Much of the other work is more abstract than Boissier's. There are
laser-light spectacles, create-your-own virtual underwater creatures,
and more. They all look very complicated to set up. Some of the pieces
are so elaborate they remind me of those sepia filmstrips of Victorian
flying machines: beautiful, ungainly, ultimately useless. Whence the
pleasure of much of the work. This is art, right? It's supposed to be
"useless." These ad-hoc assemblages of equipment and display devices
bespeak a will to turn business and new media tools to other purposes,
to turn the spectacle on itself.
Paul Garrin's White Devil experiments with turning the spectacle on the
museum-goer. He put two rows of monitors face-up in a pit surrounded by
the type of wrought-iron fence fashionable in exclusive suburban
neigborhoods. When a visitor approaches the gates, a white pit bull
screams viciously, moving from screen to screen, tracking her movements.
The unseen surveiller becomes visible here, literalized into a frenzy of
muscular paranoia. This is what technology often does for artists; it
makes hidden things visible, it helps us understand information in a way
that becomes more than the sum of its parts. Technology intimates new
insight; the mere juxtaposition of disparate textual devices often
appears to offer a whole new slant.
Then I made the mistake of reading Cynthia Goodman's embarrassing
introductory reminder that "the paramount concern today is the manner in
which [computer artworks] are networked and transmitted." Hmm. None of
these works speak to their own distribution, perhaps the obstacle most
responsible for the slow death of many artists' excitement over video
technology in the late 1960's, noted in Goodman's introduction as the
forerunner of new media art. This is too bad, because I can't think of a
more consequential or urgent problem for new media artists.
Much of the liberating effect of audience participation in art, still
much in evidence at the Boston Children's Museum, in many works here
appears to have dissipated into a precious kind of proof-of-concept
excercise. Even Steina Vasulka, whose "Violin Power" may be my favorite
among these pieces, speaks of a potential "mastery" of the video medium,
admirably ignoring the zillions of dusty home video tapes that clutter
living rooms across the planet. Home video – certainly the most
popular and arguably the most anti-corporate use of the medium – has a
certain contemporary mastery of its own, but totally disconnected from
the avant-garde. Real people are really using video and other modern
media all the time, every day. Usually the video camera doesn't have to
be fixed exactly 51 inches above anyone's head.