– with kind permission of Computer Generated Imaging magazine (UK) –
Ten years ago the first International Symposium on Electronic Art (ISEA) took place in Utrecht. This year ISEA came to Britain for the first time, divided between Liverpool and Manchester. My guess is that the phase we are now in is best described as implosion. We are beyond the expansive phase of “artists exploring technology”. Like the software upgrade that reaches a plateau of novelty add-ons going nowhere, today`s installations and web sites stake their claim through spiced up content. The consensus – from this event at least – would be that eye-candy matters less than social “commitment”. At previous ISEA conferences – Montreal 95 was the apotheos is – a hushed euphoria greeted the first major VRpieces – Jeffrey Shaw, Brenda Laurel, Char Davies. These were visionary works, breakthroughs into uncharted cyberspace. They were optimistic and holistic in ambition, free of the irony and caginess of the post-modern. Maybe they were New Age. At the time there was some disquiet – what of cyberspace for dogs? someone asked. Critics wanted a dirtier cyberspace, not just real time but real world.
In Liverpool the standard format was the video installation – one or two video projectors, a mouse on a pedestal. If you`d expected something like immersive Tekken 3 but with chimes, kaleidoscopes, and Tai Chi instead of all that fighting and racial stereotyping, you would have been way off. These installations had their humans and cyborgs, but standing still like static specimens in a low-end slide show. To qualify as being critically engaged (what in the conference was called the cultural critique) you must allude to an “issue” or two – the body, gender, identity, race, genetics, surveillance, colonialism, sinister technology. Whether this leaves you with bubbling creativity or the tedium of stereotyped thinking is a matter of opinion. Confused by a laborious touch-screen that simply triggered a CD of projected videos called “Black Box” , and then produced sound without vision, or vision without sound, and fizzling, jerking images at that, you look for a loose cable. What is supposed to happen is explained on the wall. It`s a “powerful and poignant reminder of the fragility and uncertainty of our increasingly technological existence”. If it doesn`t work it must be art. That used to be the excuse. Nowadays if a CD can`t get the point across pretty smartly I`m not hanging around.
‘New Media’ artists need a better feed-back loop telling them how much is actually getting through to an audience. They compete with slicker commercial products, and also with an art mainstream where communication is all. One room at the Bruce Nauman video exhibition at London`s Hayward Gallery had these monumental heads projected on the wall – the same person – chanting the same phrases over and over. That was sublime stuff, the real thing. No back-up text with planted insights required. The most exciting and extreme work at Liverpool was produced by the Austrian group Granular Synthesis. They performed in the Cream Club ambience where sound and visuals approach pain thresholds, with low frequency audio and an array of six manically vibrating and strobing images of a woman`s face. Lasting forty minutes the blast of electronic sound and the looped video of the woman – like a psychotic image, catatonic, frantic, unable to make contact – builds to a crescendo and then gradually relaxes. It had much in common with Nauman`s confrontational close-ups. Keith Piper and Gina Czarnecki showed works in this same late nineties genre, skinhead hi-tech, grainy humans stripped bare and stared at by an impassive video.
The twin conference themes of Revolution and Terror made more sense when I found the ‘Revolution’ bar with the Lenin decor. This signalled that the radicalism had less to do with cultural cleansing than with novelty pizza. Electronic artists used to be rare and isolated specimens, and if not revolutionaries they were at least idealists driven by curiosity. Gone are the programmers with pebble-glasses, the pioneers who had to build their own machines, the originals with something truly weird to show – like Stelarc. Now it`s the turn of the digital professionals – media studies lecturers, cultural scouts commissioned by the Arts Council, a scattering of artists and self-styled anarchists who talk of funding strategy and web avatars. They are the primary – and it sometimes seems – the only audience. It is like a convention on comedy that has forgotten how to laugh. There`s no mini animation festival, no sense of visual adventure, just a book stall groaning under the weight of critical texts. Only when lecturers showed student work did you catch a glimpse of the reckless vitality, bad taste, and outrageous extravagance that drew most of us to computer graphics in the first place.
On the plus side the really inspired works looked very much better for breaking free of the thought control. Kevin Atherton, whose background is performance art and is now part of small VR set-up at Chelsea, presented Gallery Guide, a parody tour of an exhibition called four artists and a toilet at a virtual Serpentine Gallery. The clever part was how the rudimentary 3D could model something like a cube of smoke blown by fans, or a slide projection of clouds, just the sort of thing that routinely prompts a monologue on the semiotics of space. Steve Mann (http://www.wearcam.org) also has roots in performance. His idea is to be a mobile web-linked surveillance system. In his ‘virtual’ presentation – he was in Toronto where it was 4.30 a.m. – we saw what he saw, with cameras strapped to his head. His normal technique is to go shopping wearing his personal surveillance system and check out the store`s systems. Invariably the security staff try and stop him videoing their cameras, which prompts him in turn to communicate via mike and net with his “manager”. It`s a beautifully thought out and wildly disproportionate response, a genial act of vengeance.
Perry Hoberman`s “System Update” installation at the Cornerhouse, Manchester, was a classic of interactive art, like playing Rubik Cube with furniture. A dozen primary coloured boxy shapes are full-scale models of beds, sofas and tables, laid about on a circular platform. The same shapes recur as toys on a turntable, and also as 3D forms on the monitor. A projected video combines all versions as overlapping layers. It`s hard not to get involved, experimenting with different lay-outs and correspondences – you can also swivel any of the platforms around. If other people are playing you can be a wrecker or a collaborator. Like a game it`s an exercise in role play, and you get engrossed without feeling you are being pressured to interact. It aerates all sorts of ideas about controlling and mapping objects. There`s no heavy agenda, just the simple three-part structure unravelling like a fugue.
(CGI magazine Nov. 98)
- James Faure Walker, artist, London, UK