Drawn to the Light - Montage 1993
by Charles Wiese
Montage '93 was a promising and seductive glow on the horizon. I work with digital media to produce my own artwork, and so my expectations for the Montage festival were understandably high—at last, a city filled with digital art! Little did I suspect what awaited me.
The "Iterations" show at the Memorial Gallery was by far the strongest of the curated shows. The range of artworks exhibited spanned from Jim Campbell's haunting interactive videos which evoke issues of memory, history, and self awareness to Manual's' ongoing photographic/video installation dealing with culture, technology, and deforestation. Keith Piper’s installation of digital video was a breathtaking barrage of montaged voice, text, video, and graphics spread across four synchronized monitors. Embedded in this artwork are expressed concerns of the role technology can play in the determination and structure of personal identity. Here technology was focused to accomplish the goals of the artist rather than producing the often-lurid displays of technological excess seen elsewhere. The show effectively pointed out a number of meaningful directions that the artist may choose from when working with digital media. Significantly, each of the artworks on display stand as strong examples of the potential that such tools offer.
The Eastman House and Strong, Museum both chose to showcase the various expressions possible using digital media. The diversity contained within these exhibitions created some serious problems. One unfortunate consequence was to create the effect of' a trade show exhibiting new technologies for advertising displays, rather than an art exhibition. The hodgepodge of works could only be categorized under the general thematic of the technological tools used to produce them. I did not sense an incisive exploration of a new digital aesthetic, or of subjects that may draw strength from their chosen methods of production. The artworks seemed to be more about the medium and not enough about what could be expressed with it.
Claims are made for the advent of a new set of aesthetics. That somehow, the use of a particular medium mandates a new basis for judging the quality of artistic expression. It would seem a convenient way to argue a lack of sophistication that may be found in a body of work—to resort to claims for a new aesthetic—and one that seems to distance the work from the critical discourse that awaits all artistic production. Further assertions that the computer and graphics software provide new possibilities forcreating images were not consistently demonstrated in the exhibitions. The use of text and diagrams, collage, and montage are not unique to digital art. One can find these same tools plied by both the Dada artists in the earlier part of this century and contemporary artists, all using “traditional” methods of production. Asserting a new aesthetic seems premature. It may be proven in time, certainly the potential is there.
I wonder at the possible reasons for the uneven quality of the curated shows at Montage. I have pondered the relationship between firelight and the animated glow of the computer monitor as one explanation. It is not a relationship of utility alone, but the flames can also set spark to the imagination. Could it be that the animated field of the computer monitor captivates in a similar manner to a dancing flame? Or might it be a consequence of the passive relationship that many have developed when viewing television or the cinema (to which the glowing screen of a computer monitor beats striking similarity?) Key to the success of either is a form of acceptance of what is displayed. One suspends aspects of their critical eye in order to engender an involvement with what is broadcast. To enter into the glowing image of television and cinema in this manner is to open oneself to a form of seduction. Similar problems may await the digital artist. Seated before the computer monitor one's critical faculties may be challenged by the learned passive acceptance of a glowing screen.
I have seen artists approach a new medium and recreate its stereotypes in the process of learning it. This occurs despite a sophisticated aesthetic sense in other media. Many of the works on display at Montage suggested that they were created by those still enthralled by the possibilities that digital media affords. Expressions of beauty, intelligence, and wit could also be found in Rochester, but you had to look for them.
Perhaps one of the values of Montage was to show the state of expression found in artworks produced with digital media. What I saw there were pockets of hope. From the vantage afforded by the best artworks, I saw a landscape of possibilities, one that I expect to be exciting and rewarding. But I also saw an all too common problem. Many seem still trapped within the glow of their computer monitors, and like moths drawn to the flame, their efforts seem more a result of that kind of entrancement than of artists who understand and command their medium.
Charles Wiese is a Houston artist.