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John O'Brien


Inez van Lamsweerde, “Me Kissing
Vinoodh (Passionately),” C-print on
plexigalss, 1999. From the “Bitsteams”
exhibition currently on view in New
York at the Whitney Museum.

Victoria Vesna, David Beaudry and
Gerald de Jong, "Community of People
with No Time," installation (exterior),
included in the current "Telematic
Connections" exhibition at Art Center.
Since the advent and general absorption of digital media and the relative peripherals supporting transmission and display of these image/sound forms, how these techniques will change the models we have for making and understanding contemporary visual art have become increasingly urgent. We have reached the point in the West where the digital format has become an everyday necessity. Yet for the fine arts, it is not as clear what this means. As New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman noted in his anything but glowing review of the pioneering Whitney Museum exhibitions, Bitstreams and Data Dynamics exhibitions, ". . .there is no denying the inevitable and multiple implications of the big message here, which we discount at the risk of sheer stupidity: Technology is changing how artists, especially young ones, make all types of art and, in turn, how we experience it." What I have been wondering is whether these changes can be mapped in primary and secondary derivations and what kinds of projected innovations can be inferred from what has already come about? Is there already a marked result emanating from the dissemination of the digital or are we still in mid-data stream, waiting to reach the broadband on the other side before anything will have really changed?

Certainly the way in which all the major art presentation and art education institutions in the West have jumped into the digital forum makes the changes inevitable, if less predictable than those spawning the changes might have desired. Examples of the unpredictability that come to mind include multiple conversations with research University faculty seeking personnel even modestly acquainted with the latest hard- and software applications needed for their upcoming class schedules.

The fact is that for the first time in a long while a radical and basic technological innovation is inverting the control which art tradition has held over the visual present. In times of great social change, like the industrial revolution or the world wars of the last century, when the images of art mutated into the first avant-garde, the primary art techniques remained those of the past. This is no longer true. Digital applications such as Photoshop or Final Cut Pro allow for visual art or "art" to be generated outside of any academy. The digital domain has spawned a number of new image forms which are not clearly characterized in any genre (i.e. net art, interactive entities like computer and role playing games, and low res digital video projects). Proliferation of the visual has superseded the enforced scarcity common to traditional notions of a fine arts canon, a ubiquitousness that applies particularly to video and film. It is time to step aside (there is not enough distance to step back yet) and try to observe possible patterns.

One primary change underway, it seems to me, is contained in the word "gamut." A word which I didn't have much to do with until Photoshop and outputting prints became a part of everyday life. The gamut, or selection of computer generated colors, has been most effectively explored and utilized in design, both static and web based; but as of yet it hasn't really been accounted for in the fine arts world. Acrylic paint modified the way in which post-war painters colored their canvases. Now it is a backlit LCD color screen with a million colors (including many out of gamut or unprintable ones) that is doing so. The question is: how is this new dimension of color going to enter into the world of painting? Will the constant perception of this color fundamentally change our way of relating to the humors and emotions of color? Will this gamut just stay out of painting as the LCD viewing screens on which they can be conjured up become larger, flatter and less expensive? Maybe our understanding of color will simply become altered, necessitating an accommodation from within the practice of painting.

I have yet to see the kind of change I am describing, but I have seen the denial of this shift in perception. It is present in the reduction of painting to an academic study of monochromatic surfaces, and it is present in the displays of multiple monitor color swirls doing their best to avoid looking like a particularly athletic screen saver. In both of these extremes, there is a submerged desire to separate out and control the differences in modulating color. Neither approach deals with the change in color that constant contact with monitor screens will effect. Hints of what may be to come can be found in the quirky abstractions of artists like Ed Moses and Steve Roden in L.A., Carl Fudge in New York, and Fabio Marcoccio in circulation internationally.

Printed text has been a constant of Western culture since the late medieval period. The advent of the printing press established norms of common literacy and has been the vehicle for the transmission of information ever since. This is a very strongly rooted model and, although it is ridiculous to assert its imminent obsolescence, it is easy to imagine that some hybrid form of imaged and hypertext connected formatting will in time achieve primacy in the world of communications. This is a second primary change now underway.

Without rapid, broadband connections readily available throughout the world a hybrid Internet-based information source lies in the future. However, in teaching, research, and from within a controlled network of linked computers, the generation of exchanged information is beginning to take on the look of multiple-read accessing, image bearing, and bulletin board communicating models. Especially as more and more young people are brought into contact with research on the web, it is quite normal for them to generate documents having the same feel for space, visuals and multiple access points as those they experience in their education. Hypertext (the computer-based narrative form in which clicking on highlighted words link one piece of information to another) has not delivered the immersive experience that was once hoped for; and hypertext fiction continues to be more experimental than popular. In time, however, the continued presence of video gaming, animation, television, film and computer games in entertainment culture will build the bridge from the written to the seen text. Paradoxically, conceptual art appears to be losing out the most from this transformation. As a primarily text-based art style, one could imagine concept art as benefiting most from the changes in language transmission which the digital allows. But the opposite is occurring. Museums, as well as viewers, are turning more and more to the less orthodox styles for pleasure and erudition. The large presence of image/text sources from cartoon and hip hop culture into the Hammer Projects series at the UCLA Hammer Museum, to cite one local institution, bears witness to this.

Barry Magee (Twist), installation detail, mixed media. Magee’s “Hammer Project” appeared at the UCLA Hammer Museum last year.

Margaret Kilgallen, installation
detail, mixed media, 1997.
Kilgallen’s “Hammer Project” appeared at the UCLA Hammer Museum last year.

If digital color and text-image hybridization are now effecting the making and understanding of contemporary art, how various approaches to artmaking might be altered by the digital wave in the near future is subject to broad speculation. For example, I am hoping for the rescue of video art, through digital tinkering, from the sad and boring subservience to armchair Marxism and art school gestures to which it has long been held captive. The introduction of time- and earth-based art forms to ever larger audiences, where these forms might be contextualized beyond the rarefied art object upon which the art world bases an aspect of its commerce can also be imagined. And what impact might digital technologies have of behaviorally based art, art that recontextualizes banal or everyday activities? Today this type of work has become, alternately, a gateway merely to academic standing, or a rather bland and doctrinairre exercise in fashion.

The ephemeral means of art production that have for the most part been relegated to the second tier of art presentation, production and sales such as performance art, time-based art processes (video, animation, and film for example), lengthy textual projects, earthworks and installations all benefit from a new mode of transcending the limits of their duration. Admittedly they will exist in an altered, sidereal state, but they may now become accessible in some form, thus changing the boundaries of their ephemeral nature. With this change comes a new venue: the monitor. With all this work going online, will the ability of traditional museum or gallery venues to draw viewing crowds be affected? Is the best site for new digital art the personal viewing screen? Can a projected image of same in a darkened room hope to effect the magic of viewing as well as that of the single well-lit artwork over the course of a scheduled exhibition?

An image from the Guggenheim
Museum’s Virtual Museum
project by Asymptote Architects.
As this silent debate over the site change occurs, another development merits consideration: the convergence of art, commerce, travel and entertainment in the new internet emergence of the realm of the visual. More and more web sites dealing with the arts from a museum and/or gallery standpoint have had to contend with the costs of maintaining a sophisticated and smoothly functioning web presence, even in light of what may often be a very limited viewership. Casting about for strategies of attracting and keeping web surfers, more and more sites have begun to forge a language which will better enable them to clarify changes as they are undergoing them. On the whole, however, contemporary art remains out of the mainstream of contemporary digital phenomena, a fact which I regard as a weaknesses of the contemporary art world. And it stems in good part from sectarian interests delineating what is and isn't regarded as art. But, in art, the breakdown of any proscriptive formulation is a positive event. Thus it is delightful to read the digital plans outlined by one of the purest institutions for the arts in the United States, the Guggenheim Museum.

A written statement by Matthew Drutt (of the Guggenheim), and Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture, (of Asymptote Architects) about the new Guggenheim in cyberspace, the Guggenheim Virtual Museum, states that "By combining the richness of this tradition with the potential offered by state of the art digital technologies, Asymptote aims to create a new architectural paradigm. The Guggenheim Virtual Museum will not only provide global access to all Guggenheim Museums and their services, amenities, archives, and collections but will also provide a unique and compelling spatial environment to be experienced by the virtual visitor. In addition, the virtual museum is an ideal space for the deployment and experience of art and events created specifically for the interactive digital medium where simultaneous participation, as well as viewing is made possible for an audience distributed around the globe. As envisioned by Asymptote Architects and the Guggenheim, the Guggenheim Virtual Museum will emerge from the fusion of information space, art, commerce, and architecture to become the first important virtual building of the 21st century."

If, like me, you read this "new architecture of liquidity, flux, and mutability predicated on technological advances and fueled by a basic human desire to probe the unknown" to mean art & art tours & art books & art collecting & art speak & art visits & etc., etc., then you can begin to see the potentially rich, or fraught, convergence I am addressing. These changes are afoot. To not take notice them could risk elevating naiveté to the level of a life style. Author and multi-media theoritician Norman Klein once told me in conversation that all shared contemporary public life, whether ritual or organizational, tended towards the "theme park." He calls them "scripted sites" and understanding that this change will continue to restructure our pre-digital order may be the most important formulation for us to grapple with.