[iDC] The Art Formerly Known as New Media

Judith Rodenbeck jrodenbe at slc.edu
Thu Oct 6 22:28:36 EDT 2005

Addendum to REFRESH! comments:


In my "brief" sketch of the conference I totally forgot to mention the
concurrent exhibition held at the Walter Phillips Gallery at the Banff
Centre. I'm sure someone will have taken umbrage, but honestly, I only saw
the show at the opening, and though I meant to go back and have a better
look there wasn't a spare minute & so a second viewing (for some works a
first viewing) didn't happen. That's too bad, because it was a pretty good
show; smart and self-consciously symptomatic, which was, er, refreshing, I
guess. This show, "The Art Formerly Known as New Media," curated by Sarah
Cook and Steve Dietz, was, as Cook put it at the opening, kind of an "alumni
show," assembling a selection of works done by artists who have at one time
or another been in residence up there. 


What the curators say: 


"In the last decade we have moved from a predominately scopic to an
overwhelmingly data-based culture, in which we are interactors not just
voyeurs. Nevertheless the important questions of art revolve around meaning
not means and especially, what it means to be human. As we face the prospect
of carrying in our wallets biometrically-unique forms of identification, the
question arises - what defines us as bodies, what is bodily experience?"


Techno-panopticism, data saturation, cooptation, the threat of what Marcuse
would have called one-dimensionality were certainly either worked through or
acted out in several of the works I did get to see. These ranged from the
techie--large projections onto the architectural surrounds, database
projects, and a radio narrowcast of the reading of Linux code by a
computer-generated "female" voice--to the low tech-a nominally electronic
"re-do" of 19th century galvanic experiments with dead frogs, a stereoscopic
tour of Banff, a set of documents relating to the patent of a device for
falling in love, a bunch of photocopies...


Most effective for me, to my own surprise, were two pieces rather romantic
pieces, one by Catherine Richards and the other by Maciej Wisniewski. The
first was a performative installation of a thick glass (?) platform with a
3-D image embedded in it and, if a viewer so desired, with copper sheeting.
This a viewer could volunteer to be wrapped in, and it was Richards's claim
that shrouded thus in copper the viewer would, probably for the first time
ever, be shielded from ambient electromagnetic radiation. When the heavy
transparent plinth-like platform on which this shrouding was to take place
was unoccupied it showed a 3-d (with glasses) image of a ghostly copper
shroud. In its inert form the piece was less effective, but just before I
left the opening I went back for a second look and there was a form wrapped
in copper on the bed wiggling its toes: spooky! And I was very taken with a
large projection by Maciej Wisniewski, 3 Seconds in the Life of the
Internet. What was particularly lovely about this moving image was that it
was projected onto the opening into the second large gallery space, i.e.
wasn't totally flat on one wall but rather ran around the opening, over it,
and onto the wall beyond; also, the piece scrolls text and colors that
initially seem random but gradually demonstrate a kind of poetic coherence
that I didn't have enough time to completely decode. Although we're not
allowed to say such things these days, I found this work very beautiful, and
I would have liked to watch it for a much longer time than the few glimpses
I stole during the opening speeches.


Oother pieces I thought were interesting, but in qualified ways. The
technical solution to the audio of the Linux reading (by radioqualia?), for
instance. The piece itself was less interesting to me, but the big plastic
parabola hanging from the ceiling and the way it provided for a relative
sonic cocoon was cool and a very nice (curatorial?) visual touch. A crazy
table of xeroxes and a blackboard on the wall were the contribution of
irrational.org, and though I didn't have time to really look at the "piece"
(was it only one work?) I liked that the curators had inserted it into their
"new media" category and I wanted to know more. And in the very back of the
gallery an array of microphones promised some kind of interactive thingie
where users' voices would control something on a screen, but it wasn't going
when I was there-too bad, because it looked intriguing.


Less successful, at least for my taste, were those pieces that failed to get
out of the box. This problem is one video artists have struggled with in
various ways at least since Joan Jonas made Vertical Roll; it seems to be a
real problem, too, for certain kinds of database works. This was the case
with Shu Lea Cheang's work based on the Brandon Teena story, and the piece
by Francesca da Rimini. I only looked at the first-or tried to look, rather,
because my navigations failed to really get it to go anywhere. The piece
itself may have been pure genius, I don't know. But to view it you have to
mouse around ye olde single-user Mac screen, which at my advanced age I find
tedious, given that I seem to spend half my working life doing that. I'm
sure the curators deal with what they get. But it would be nice to see
artists work with curators to get off the damn screen, out of that kind of
privatized single-user, single-face-screen time, and think about some more
adventurous display alternatives, e.g. projecting the work on the wall or
reconceiving mousing-even if the content of the piece remains the same. In a
way it was important to have these works in the show in this format, as a
nod to the box, but I got bored fiddling with the piece and moved on. The
other work that really didn't happen for me was the galvanic frog. This
piece involves a dead and wired-up frog in a tank (formaldehyde?) and, at
the other end of the room, a computer set-up that displays a live image of
said dead frog captured by overhead camera. The user is given the onscreen
option of stimulating either the right or the left leg via mouse click.
Click, and the frog kicks left or right because, ta da! the computer is
wired to said frog. Ick! What made this piece fail for me was the wiring of
the frog. All you're doing is opening and closing an electric circuit via
mouse click. In fact, technically you could have the mouse not attached to
the computer at all but merely rewired with a battery, no? Much cooler, or
ghouler, would be to have the frog stimulated wirelessly via, say, your
technerd RIM device or, if you were a serious REFRESH! old guard, your
disco-playing Treo. Now THAT would have been something!


I'm just pulling out a couple of things that I found thought provoking (and
the wall projection was just plain nice). To do the show justice would have
required a much longer visit, without crowds. What I can say is that the
surrounding discussion of the show seemed very smart and healthily skeptical
about new media discourse, and that this was evident in the array of works,
from the quasi-romantic patent piece (in the same space as the New Linux
Eve) to the database work (symbolically deconstructed in the next room by
the lovely irrational.org photocopied mess). And while I found certain
projects were compromised by their delivery mechanisms what was encouraging
to see also was that very little of the work done at BNMI and presented here
was tucked tidily in the box. Dietz made a point of noting the title of the
show as a critique of the bagginess of "new media" as a designation. (He's
posted his remarks on a blog somewhere.) And I think this was nicely
addressed in the variety of works in the show, from paper to code, and in
the ways in which at least some of those works addressed themselves to the
body, to a kind of frontier romanticism about embodiment, and to myths and
realities of "networking."


In any event I look forward to reading other impressions of the show, and of
the conference.


Judith Rodenbeck


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