by Regina Cornwell

"Can You Digit?" at Postmasters (March-April,96)

Measured by the way we judge the onset of styles, trends and movements at the twilight of the twentieth century, when speed and compression are keys to the game, it's taken a very long time for a sizeable number of artists to begin to engage with computers in their art. It is finally happening in our decade. It took a fascination with immersive Virtual Reality--with its awkward graphics but convincing simulation of an environment we can move around in--and even more, the Internet, to bring artists to the mouse, keyboard, and stylus. Yes, CD-Rom has helped, too, but it may ultimately be more of a nuisance or simply takes its place as just one more form of digital storage better for research and business purposes, than for art-making. Perhaps it will soon abdicate its role to digital video, or to other formats of the future. Already much of the artistic aspiration about the CD-Rom has been channeled toward the Internet.

So, in the art world, what are the wares and what's in the windows? Windows it is--whether we think of Microsoft's, the Mac equivalent, or the way most of the computer's output is reduced to the small "windows" of monitors. Think, too, of those many small windows within the display windows which galleries and museums may be on their way to becoming--sites for the latest work by artists playing with software, mimicking the multimedia industry, caught in the mirror of yet another obsessive iteration on the media in one of its many, many forms. The dream of postmodern populists may come true--that galleries and museums will attract a more general audience, which is less trained in art. But will the populist vision metamorphose into a bad dream--or even a nightmare?

In New York this past season, two gallery shows in Soho set the tone. At Code, a "multimedia" group exhibit at Ricco/Maresca last fall, the gallery teemed with visitors. I heard a gallery staffer exlaim how wonderful it was to see so many children there. Preparing the next generation of buyers, perhaps? If so, what will they buy? Code's centerpiece was a virtual environment, Osmose, for which visitors eagerly awaited their appointed times to be outfitted in the wired garments of VR. The gallery's enthusiasm for this work by Char Davies (of SoftImage, a Montreal-based software firm) was apparently shared by curator Barbara London of the Museum of Modern Art, who had the artist appear in her "Video Viewpoints" series. While a cut above many VR installations, Osmose is nonetheless laced with a hefty dose of intellectual pretension. Its imagery of leaves and trees shares a home in virtual space--or, if you prefer, virtual nature--with a text of computer code and words by Martin Heidegger and Gaston Bachelard, all drowned in New Age audio. The gallery also housed monitors mounted in a circle playing CD-Roms and other digital materials; some of the programs requiring prodding by a mouse, others running passively, while videotapes showcased glossy computer graphics that aspired to the state of art, but rarely attained it.

Moving forward five months to the nearby Postmasters Gallery, the contrast in physical layout is stunning. Walking into Can You Digit?, I was struck by the solemnity of the oval arrangement of 23 monitors, mice available where needed, and headphones insuring tranquility in the hushed and darkened gallery. Twenty-two different works represented in the oval of monitors were complemented by a pair of work stations, two wall projections, and The Dead Souls, Janine Cirincione and Michael Ferraro's goofy 3-D projection feigning non-immersive virtual reality. In a smaller, adjacent gallery an installation calledVariations on Cryptography, by i/o 360, seemed to have so fully embraced its subject that it lost this audience-member with difficult-to-decipher projections and reflections. The hush in the gallery suggested the cathedral-like atmosphere of an old-fashioned modernism in which viewers were expected to spend time with works--pondering them, moving on, and returning. It was to the credit of the show's curators, Tamas Banovich and Ken Coupland, that they designed an installation conducive to seriousness, but it was in stunning contrast to the show's unfortunately silly title. More to the point, it was in even sharper contrast to so much of what we saw on the screens.

As I walked around and looked at each piece, probing with a mouse where called for, I heard, in response to someone's bewildered query about the nature of the show: "It's subversive, questioning the medium, pushing boundaries." I only wish I'd agreed with this characterization of all the things these works were not--expressed in all-too-familiar cliches about contemporary art. Here, in the crowded but very respectful setting, we found windows alive with tricks redolent of off-the-shelf software, uninspired variations on games, (more) cartoonish creatures, New Ageism (again) rearing its awful head; in short, designers showing off their
latest electronic ploys, sometimes to comment on multimedia itself. Unfortunately, such appropriations were made not to critique nor to examine, but to showcase a world of clever little inventions, and even cleverer conventions familar from the converging entertainment and computer industries. The window-screens of Can You Digit? expressed very little difference between art and the mosaic of industries we call "multimedia."

A few things stood out. The two-screen Parallel Doubt on the Distinction Between Truth and Beauty by Erwin Redl is intended to be seen on two monitors facing one another on opposite walls, each showing the face of a Japanese actor appearing on split screen as the color slowly changes along with the audio. Unfortunately, Parallel Doubt was poorly installed on opposites sides of the oval bank. Alan Keahy's screen saver, HolisticSofa, projected large, was witty and simple. Simplicity can be winning and even--simultaneously--low end. Witness Tirtza Even's small collection of narrative fragments, City Quilt. Using Quick Time video, Even softly plays with space and emotion, attempting to eke out a dynamism through a little bit of interactivity.

Is it odd to criticize a show for being too large? I don't think so if we ask what function quantity serves. Why were many than 30 particpants included when their works were often little more than exercises, and sometimes very incomple ones at that? Why so many windows with so little to show in them? Size does not necessarily equal comprehensiveness or breadth, as Can You Didit? demonstrates. These are issues for the gallerists at Postmasters--or for any gallery or museum choosing to exhibit digital art en masse.

To artists I'd pose these questions: Why the obsession with the computer and its bags of tricks? Technicians do what you're doing, but they do it better. We used to criticize modernism for its self-reflexiveness. Your work doesn't even approach this genuinely interesting level, but still manages to share modernism's worst, even pathological, tendencies in that direction. Why has entertainment become a value and its products models for art--especially when a computer is involved? Why does emulating, rather than criticizing the mass- and multi-media pass muster these days? When will we see more artists finding new themes and ideas made possible through the computer, its interactivity, and its telecommunications potential, rather than repeating a tired round of concerns about technology and media itself?

Yes, works like those presented in Soho do attract audiences. True, there is little, if anything to sell--a subject worth reams of electronic space--but for now, exhibiting computer-works brings galleries a certain cachet and concommitant media notice. But did the kids come because they wanted to see more computer games? Are some of the adults there because they know how the technology works and find it comfortable and reassuring? Other adults are still at the "gee whiz" stage of computer culture. When they get beyond it and their children become bored with such low-end art games, they will depart for the next hot, new theme park offering them more. Then it will be time for the art world to cultivate another kind of audience. Or, perhaps to move on and to think again--or think for the first time--about the profoundly difficult issues involved in making art with a computer.

Regina Cornwell is a New York-based writer who specializes in issues around art and technology. E-mail her at

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