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"Primerio" and the dilemma of categories

Among other things, my recent attendance at 5Cyberconf in Madrid reminded
me that the responsibility for interpretation lies not only with the critic
and curator, but also with the artist.

Making art is, among other things, signifying. As artists, we must take
responsibility for the significance of the messages we set loose. In order
to do so, we must understand, at some level, both the history of the
practices we are engaged in, and the context in which our practices take
shape. While we may work intuitively, employ aleatory techniques, and
convey ideas in evocative and open-ended ways, we must maintain at least a
secondary awareness of the sources and implications of the signs we deploy.

In his paper on breakage and mischief in virtual worlds, Perry Hoberman
quoted Alan Kaprow, with whom I studied: "Artist refers to a person
willfully enmeshed in the dilemma of categories who performs as if none of
them existed." I really like this definition. It accounts for the
contradictedness and complexity of contemporary artistic endeavor. Kaprow
wrote the Manifesto from which Perry quoted in 1966, the year I was born. A
few years earlier, Kaprow had set out to become the most Modern artist in
the world. In many ways, Kaprow's attempt describes a cusp in the history
of art, a border zone between late Modernist and early Post-modernist

Kaprow recently published a collection of his writing titled _The Blurring
of Art and Life_, and I think Art and Life are two of the categories he had
in mind when he wrote his Manifesto thirty years ago. In his work (which is
sometimes delightful and often quite boring), Kaprow managed to produce and
explore a liminal zone, expanding the Art/Life border into a space of
attentive action and playful inquiry. But Kaprow's historical significance
stems as much from his ability to read his own work and export the
conceptual ramifications of his experiments into the world of critical
discourse as it does from the work itself. Kaprow was able to speak and
write about the art of his time in a way that set an example for artists
who have followed him. Kaprow's enmeshment in critical categories began as
an awareness, extended through practical inquiry, and found a certain
completion in written discourse.

This line of thought formed part of the conceptual ground against which I
viewed "Primario," an interactive 3-D multimedia piece that was on view at
5Cyberconf. Made by three Madrileno designer-artists, it runs on a
Macintosh with Silicon Eyes 3D display technology (thousand dollar glasses
equipped with LCD shutters that sort out stereoscopic images and give the
illusion of space).

By clicking on indicated hot zones with a mouse, the user moves through a
series of animated 3D models accompanied by a musical sound track. The
models represent a hybrid of Pre-Columbian symbology and contemporary
techno design to produce a kind of Aztec-alien aesthetic.

I found it very difficult to engage "Primario" beyond the level of cool
graphics. Moving through tunnels of evocative imagery and hovering over
phantasmagorical chasms, I was unable to get past the well-rendered facade.
It seemed to me that the work was speaking a language I had never learned.

When it was over, the makers asked me if I liked it. Yes, I liked it, but I
wondered what it was about, or more precisely, where it was coming from. As
I spoke with them it became clear that the Pre-Columbian symbols they were
deploying were just as exotic and mysterious to them as they were to me. In
fact, they asserted that they were "freely mixing" different cultures to
produce a global space that brings back "shamanic" and "mystical"
traditions. Cyberspace, they insisted, is not in the Internet, which is too
slow. Their goal is to produce a cyberspace that can resucitate lost
traditions in the "holotropic" depths of 3D worlds.

Upon consideration, the ways in which "Primario" appropriates,
decontextualizes, and remixes Pre-Columbian motifs with Medieval European
imagery and contemporary techno graphics seems both irresponsible and
mundane. While one of the consequences (or causes) of postmodernity is a
hovering historical amnesia, the new-age dream of an unfettered global
spirit-culture has all the pleasant qualities of an inner-ear disorder.
"Primerio" left me out-of-balance and nauseous, longing for a hint of
awareness, some clue that these ambitious young digital artists were
enmeshed in the categories they were ignoring.