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Art in the electronic era
by Kim Bradley

Digital gurus from around the world recently congregated in Barcelona to take part in "Art in the Electronic Era: Perspectives on a New Esthetic," a 3 1/2-day conference sponsored by the Goethe Institute's local chapter, Barcelona's provincial government and a slew of international institutes. Claudia Giannetti, director of Barcelona's L'Angelot Association for Contemporary Culture, designed the theory-laden program, which mainly featured Europe's electronic elite, including Edmond Couchot, research director of Arts et Technologies de l'Image in Paris, Siegfried Zielinski, director of the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne, and Peter Weibel, who curated Ars Electronica in Linz for many years and is currently director of Neue Galerie am Landesmuseum in Graz, Austria. Artists on the roster included pioneering interactive art pundit Jeffrey Shaw, experimental filmmaker Malcolm Le Grice and video-installation artist Antonio Muntadas.

The illustrious speakers delivered beautifully prepared lectures that no doubt impressed their peers but often went over the head of this layperson. Yours truly shied away from talks given by biochemistry theorists and physicists. And my eyes glazed over when Irit Rogoff began ruminating on "cultural the Freudian sense" and "the history that we do not know we know."

Fortunately, Rogoff, who is the Marie Jahoda International Professor for Gender Studies at Bochum University, Germany, treated us to segments of Body Missing, a video piece by Canadian artist Vera Frenkel. Body Missing is an engaging part fictional spoof/part historical documentary about the Nazi art theft and artists who decide to replace (through forgery) the stolen art treasures. Originally a six-track channel video shown in six different rooms of the legendary Offenes Kulturhaus in Linz, Austria, there is also a web version of Body Missing.

The conference's more ponderous lectures were offset by lively debates which took place during the question and answer periods. One particularly memorable exchange involved free-wheeling Mariano Maturana, webmaster of Mundo Latino (an extensive directory of Spanish-language services), who caught heat for the off-hand manner in which he claimed that the Internet represented "freedom" for him and for artists in general.

One of the best talks was Jeffrey Shaw's "The disembodied re-embodied body." The artist's own interactive artworks served to illustrate his overriding concern about the virtual experience: how to maintain a sense of the body and its relationship to art. In two early works, Shaw used the "straining human body as a formal component" to provide viewer-participants with what Shaw calls "pseudo-tactile access" to what they see. In The Legible City (1989) the viewer mounts a stationary bike placed in front of a screen and pedals "through" a projected virtual city. In Revolution (1989), the viewer pushes a steel bar in order to trigger images on a screen (depending on which direction the bar moves, the viewer sees either a grist mill or documentary footage of various political revolutions).

My personal favorite was Shaw's Disappearance (1982), comprised of a video monitor resting on a forklift. The entire forklift spins around, aping the pirouette of a music box ballerina shown on the video screen. The forklift also moves up and down, while the video traces the ballerina's image from head to foot.Disappearance presents a comical and ominous pairing of a graceless mighty machine and the twice-removed "re-representation" of a human body trained to move with machine-like precision.

Also of note was The Golden Calf (1994), a flat monitor screen placed on a white pedestal. Depending on how the viewer holds the screen, an image of a golden calf can be observed -- in its entirely and from all angles. With The Golden Calf, it's no longer necessary to walk around the object of our veneration to "take it all in." The work makes the experience of purported spiritual value seem more problematic than ever. Currently Shaw is working with two other artists on a project (to be exhibited at the ICC Intercommunciation Center in Tokyo in April) designed for The Cave, a virtual environment said to be the most complete in existence. In response to questions about the challenges the virtual cave presents, Shaw quoted Guy Debord: "Life can never be too disorienting."

Shaw is also director of the Institute for Visual Media, a European research center where professional artists produce new, technologically advanced work. The Institute itself forms part of the government-sponsored Center for Art and Media Technology in Karlsruhe, Germany (the same company that underwrites the Guggenheim SoHo's technophilia). Currently comprised of two institutes, the ZKM is slated to open two museums this October in a renovated turn-of-the-century former arms factory: the ZKM Museum of Contemporary Art, and the ZKM Media Museum, which will boast the world's largest collection of media artworks, including video art, video installation and new media.

Like many of the multi-faceted professionals at the conference, Arlindo Machado teaches (at Sao Paulo University), curates, writes, and produces (he has made his own multi-media CD-ROMs). In his presentation, he addressed the question of whether artists who use computers and new media need to fully understand the working intricacies of their tools.

Arguing that the best work in the electronic realm is often made by engineers rather than artists, Machado placed emphasis on the fact that machines (camera, computer, etc.) are designed for a generic user. An entirely "innocent" image cannot be made, he claims, because the scientific principles used to create the machines will largely determine the image the artist produces. Machines are designed to repeat their functions; we're glad that a washing machine always does the same thing, but in the case of a "semiotic machine" like the computer, Machado claims, the artist's role is inevitably reduced to a mere functionary.

Machado insists that the most interesting electronic art somehow reflects what happens inside the computer, and he urges artists to transgress its possibilities in order to create a new kind of image. He cites Nam June Paik's approach, in which the artist enters into a dialogue with video technology, with an unpredictable outcome. Machado suggests that artists try to challenge the sanitizing regularity of digital formats by somehow introducing into them the qualities of irregularity and disorder that characterize art's most complex, richly evocative images (and for that matter, he says, organic processes). Moreover, artists should attempt to overcome the notion of the finished work and learn to create works "in potential."

Machado also spoke of the difficulty of identifying what constitutes first rate-electronic art, a problem that is aggravated by our illiteracy with respect to the electronic image. We are unable to decipher the new images and therefore lack the criteria to evaluate them. The electronic public is largely unable to discriminate between a work of true originality and a good example of a well-used program.

Machado's point -- that mere enthusiasm for and exposure to new media is not enough to gain any proficiency in it, either as a viewer or as an artist -- was well taken. But how are people supposed to acquire and learn how to use this new knowledge? In fact, my gripe with "Art in the Electronic Era" and similar endeavors is that there seems to be no practical application for the ideas expressed in them. This is a serious problem in Spain, where little else is offered to the average viewer aside from egghead university courses, gonzo festival-marathons such as Art Futura (which largely serve as advertising vehicles for a slew of cyber-businesses) and pricey international gatherings for the erudite.

Ideally, such international get-togethers would provide golden opportunities to discuss and exchange ideas about educational efforts and other services geared to overcome this immense information gap. If anyone doubts that this kind of practical planning is urgently needed, I can only say that most of the locally produced art presented by Barcelona's learning centers in conjunction with the conference was, in a word, awful.

The worst event (possibly the worst I have ever attended) was a multi-media performance organized by the city's purported top techno-center, the Audiovisual Institute of the Pompeu Fabra University. Armed to the teeth with lavish electronic gadgetry, the two deathly white, black-leather-clad members of kónic theatre unleashed a deafening, obnoxious barrage of electronic noise. Their gestures -- the woman made jerky, quasi-mechanical movements; the man seemed to do little more than connect sensors to himself -- were billed as "interactions with sound-images" (through specially-designed equipment, their skin came into contact with the audio-visual components).

Another example of what's being taught in our schools: Joseph Català Domenèch, professor of Information Sciences at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, presented a delirious discourse about concepts of time and space entitled, "Technical Thought and Liquid Space (the genesis of modern paranoia)." In his lecture, Català Domenèch careened from one thinker to another (C.G. Jung, Charles Sanders Peirce, William Burroughs) trying to establish how and when the idea of space as a solid that could be cut into pieces evolved into a fluid-like space. Those who imagined space as liquid include Thomas De Quincey (in his Confessions of an English Opium Eater), Jean Cocteau (in his film Orpheus, the protagonist descends into Hades by entering through a mirror that dissolves) and Walt Disney's animation studio (with its treatment of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland).

According to Català Domenèch, the architecture of the machine also shifted from solid, monumental forms comprised of separate elements which reacted against one another by striking, penetrating or lifting, to today's subtle, invisible, fluid forms that work together as energetic units. Shortly after reminding us that in 1945, George Gabriel Stokes' explanation of the nature of space was generally accepted (space is like wax, it remains rigid against fast forces, but yields to long-term pressures), Català Domenèch turned his thoughts to modern paranoia, which he notes is contemporaneous with the advent of the movie projector.

Instead of the individual projecting her or her own fears into fantasies, he or she found "the guidelines for organizing his or her projections" in the movie screen. Thus individual dreams (here Català Domenèch seemed to use fears, fantasies and dreams as interchangeable terms) became collective ones, and the dreams themselves acquired owners separate from the dreamer (apparently leading to collective psychosis of the paranoid variety).

After such hallucinogenic twists and turns in his presentation (which I've had to re-read four times to unravel!), Català Domenèch suddenly funneled his disparate notions into a thought-provoking summation. The movie projector, representing the machine's old aforementioned paradigm, left all its working mechanisms exposed to the audience. Projector, ray of light and screen presented the viewer with a clearly marked relationship between machine and image.

With television, that relationship disappears; machine and image become confused with one another by the viewer. "The machine has penetrated into the mind," signals Català Domenèch ominously, "it has become encrusted in it, signaling the symbiosis that will later become represented by the cyborg." Today, with the creation of virtual reality, the machine "disappears from sight." Instead, the viewer becomes completely enveloped in the machine (with the gloves, special cyborg suit, visor, etc.), and by doing so, one is permitted "total illusion -- hallucination." One is able to penetrate into the new [liquid] reality Català Domenèch has been speaking about -- an invisible, ocean-like space.

In short, maybe our drug-crazed forerunners were more ahead of the time than we gave them credit for. They were, literally, "spaced-out."

In conjunction with the conference, an 140-page Spanish-language edition book featuring 17 essays by the conference participants was published, Arte en la era electronico: perspectivas de una nueva estetica, Claudia Giannetti, ed. (1997, ACC L'Angelot & Goethe-Institut, Barcelona).

Also presented was a locally-produced CD-ROM,Opus 1, which includes two interactive artworks: Fuge/Lemoine by Sylvia Molina and Ovum by the artists group Proyecto Beta. Produced by ACC L'Angelot and Proyecto Beta, with support from the Goethe-Institut Barcelona.

KIM BRADLEY is an American art critic living in Barcelona.

Jeffrey Shaw,
The Golden Calf,

Jeffrey Shaw,
The Virtual Museum,

Antoni Muntadas,
On Translation:
The Transmission
, 1996.

Proyecto Beta,
Ovum, 1997

Proyecto Beta,
Ovum, 1997

Proyecto Beta,
Ovum, 1997

Sylvia Molina,
Fuge/Lemoine, 1997

investigation on netart :: - 2005