MONTAGE - The Ghost in the Machine

by Hans Starrtjes

Editor's Note: Montage '93—the "International Festival of the Image "— was held for the first time in Rochester, NY in July, 1993. Organizers described its aim as revealing "the fusion of art and technology." The festival, dedicated to the latest advances in digital imaging, included sixteen shows incorporating photography, film, two-dimensional and three-dimensional electronic imagery, as well as interactive media installations. Scheduled events included performing arts, trade show exhibits, educational events, and also featured virtual reality. President of Montage '93 was Nathan Lyons, director of the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester. Sponsors of the proposed triennial event included the City of Rochester, N. Y., Eastman Kodak Company, Xerox Corporation, Bausch and Lomb, Chase Manhattan Bank, N.A. Citibank, Greater Rochester Cablevision, Mobil, Polaroid Corporation, and Rochester Telephone Corporation.

Struggling, with the question of reality, Descartes concluded he could only be sure of the existence of his mind—"I think therefore I am.” The mental and the material worlds were totally separate for Descartes, and the difficulty of explaining the connection between mind and body became known as the "ghost in the machine" dilemma. A reality tinkerer such as virtual reality inventor Jaron Lanier (one of the major personalities at Montage '93), might have solved Descartes' problem by placing a virtual reality helmet over the philosophers head and turning the ghost into a machine or the machine into a ghost! At any rate, during his lecture at the Eastman Theater, Lanier proposed making reality an academic question, or at least blurring the lines of what we consider "real" by introducing a new artificial and computerized "reality" in a body suit, with simulative sensations of sight, sound, and touch.

Lanier’s talk confirmed in me the strong feeling of trepidation and excitement I had arriving in Rochester. I was excited about seeing the new possibilities of expression and attending conferences dealing with themes, and effects of this new technology on art and artists. In the back of my mind, however, Ifelt hesitation; computer imaging, 3-D pics, holograms and virtual reality often do little except dazzle and impress. In terms of exhibitions, a clear propensity towards the former could be found in the shows at Eastman House (The New Images, organized by Ginette Major and Hervé Fischer) and at the Strong Museum (Perspectives, Proximities, Perceptions: Expressions in Three Dimensional Graphic and Electronic Media, organized by Lance Speer.) These shows were brimming with startling images, including holographic and three-dimensional male and female nudes that leapt out into your arms, interactive videos for viewer participation and poly-chromatic computer collages. It's interesting how the most startling of technical feats can leave you walking out of a museum with a totally hollow feeling.
On the other hand, Iterations: The New Digital Imaging at the Memorial Art Gallery (curated by Charles Stainback, associate director of exhibitions al the International Center for Photography and Tim Druckery, a well known critical writer on digital imagery) was without question the perfect encapsulation of the Montage digital and electronic mandate. This show, with interactive works such as Graham Weinbren's piece Sonata, English artist Keith Piper’s multi-screen video piece Tagging the Other (1992), and Alan Rath’s Challenger (1990), revealed the boldest strides into a new artistic territory, albeit a territory that could be fraught with curatorial disaster.
The complexity of the equipment involved must have presented considerable logistical headaches for the organizers. Some of the artists themselves had some major difficulties. A case in point was Ken Feingold’sChildhood/Hot & Cold Wars (The appearance of nature.) It was comprised of a TV screen with a superimposed pair of clock hands, and a clear sphere in the foreground (representing the Earth) which the viewer could turn to change the display. Tucked in a dark comer, the machine remained lifeless despite the efforts of the figure crouched next to it, intent on a pair of soldering clips underneath a small spot light. Bombarded by all the technical wizardry shown here, the viewer might not be blamed for thinking at first this was a performance piece. Graham Weinbren's Sonata (a clever visual allegory about a Freudian dream) was out of order on my second visit; on my first, Iwas only able to view the exterior of the installation. "Interaction”, was impossible because a young boy (a Nintendo addict?) could not be budged from the touch-sensitive TV screen. This was a disappointment for met Weinbren made some of the most interesting and engaging comments about interactive an at one of the lectures at Eastman House, and is at the forefront of this new art.
Among the glitch-free exhibits was Rath’s piece Challenger. It was a sight and sound installation comprised of an ever-changing row of large red LED numbers and letters, seven television monitors representing the seven astronauts, and a cage of hovering ping-pong balls. Footage included J.F.K’s famous speech about the space program. The landing on the moon, and of course the news commentary during the Challenger explosion. The cold technology of the installation itself lent irony in our faith in fail-proof systems. Tagging the Other, an angry piece by Piper, was mainly comprised of four video screens with continuous and confrontational footage of identification photos. Although it was obviously a comment on racism, it was also about surveillance and loss of human dignity, less subject to equipment failure, the more traditional digitally-manipulated fine art pieces banging on the walls included thoughtful and quite well known pieces by Michael Brodsky, Esther Parada and Manual.
Without a doubt, the main attraction at Montage was virtual reality. The technology expo at the Riverside Convention Center had as its central attraction the present manifestation of the Lanier dream. I was as curious as anyone to try out these famous virtual reality helmets. Needless to say, Iwas not the only one with this brilliant idea. When I arrived, business executives were twirling around in gyroscopic cages wearing squared visorless helmets; it was a very odd sight. A monitor showed what they were seeing; a waving, pixilated, serpentine tunnel with dolphins darting in and out of the screen. (Perhaps an ideal slot machine for a bored child at a local supermarket.) The scientific uses of this technology are extensive. One of Lanier's first contracts was with NASA, which uses, virtual reality in various simulative situations. The possibilities are limited only by the sophistication of the data, and by making the sensory input seem as real as possible. Lanier foresees unprecedented future refinements that could offer a more seamless sensation; a design tied more directly into the human nervous system with devices that "flood the sense organs."
Thankfully, Montage was not all technology, and primitive communication still existed. One of my most memorable experiences was listening to Joanna Frueh (professor and feminist art critic at the University of Nevada) at the State University of New York at Brockport. Her stirring speech (which included some beautiful a cappella singing) entitled Love and Prophecy examined our relationship with the technological world. The biblical prophecy of doom and a "shocking and unproductive future" in our culture, is a main fuel for technology. “Technology,” explained Frueh, "is the system by which society provides itsmembers with practical things that they need and desire…Love and prophecy are knowledge applied to human beings’ ways of doing things. Most people don’t think of love and prophecy as practical, but love, or lack of it, orders intimate and political relationships amongst people." Frueh added, the love of "practical things” today has brought about the triumph of technology and an inevitable effect on social and cultural relationships. Today “technophilia has triumphed over art." The flagship of technology, the computer, has been "fetishized." Now "computer students get enamored with the machine and forget about art. Information which includes images,” she warned, “issimply hidden ideology.” The counter force, according to Frueh, is "love." "Love is the heart of the seemingly dismembered body of reality…where human flesh is indiscreet...joining people in sex, romance and familial, national, and global ties." Love "rotates the earth on its axis."
There was little of the love Frueh spoke about in Dawn Dedeux’s Urban Warrior, but it was one of the most moving and jarring shows at Montage, and an admirable revelation of the courage of this white female artist. It was a complex multimedia installation benefiting from a run-down warehouse locale (the Hallman’s Chevrolet warehouse.) The autobiographical confessions of African-American, New Orleans criminals and killers were blind out through loud speakers onto a derelict side street. Inside the warehouse was a corrugated metal structure with a series of wrought iron doorways that led you into individual rooms or "cells" with "comfy chairs. Once inside the rooms, you could watch video loops of autobiographical details of lives of young crack mothers and Uzi-wielding gang members. In one room, an elderly white couple viewed a street-side shooting scene while seated in two living room chairs—not much different from being at home. This, however, was a half hour of excruciating detail of a dying victim, with his family and acrowd gathered round him. Dedeauxuses the viewer's voyeuristic interest in gang violence at a double irony. Eventually, the viewer is lead to the central element of the show, the Hall of Judgment and the Tomb of the Urban Warrior. These are like Dante's Inferno surveillance cameras. At the end of the hall is a full-length portrait of Wayne Hardy (former gang leader) as P’an-Ku, the Chinese God of Fate and Chaos, holding a dartboard at waist level. The image is printed on translucent mylar and outlined with brush strokes of gold. The Tomb of the Urban Warrior holdsa beautiful series of the Hardy Boys(Wayne and his brother Paul) in various ancient and modern mythological guises, with titles such as: Baal: Babylonian God of Destruction, John Wayne, The Frog Prince: Kinder Gentler, McEnroe; Class War, Nike: Cross Dressed. One of the last rooms in this show was a testimonial entitled Hope. It included footage of women inmates singing songs of redemption in the gospel tradition, of a reformed juvenile offender, and of a street celebration for Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards. But there was very little in the way of hope for resolution of racial issues in this show. It was more of a wrenching exorcism that erred a little on the side of gratuitous violence with the videos shown, and the side of over-beautification with the Hardy Boys.
Notice that the word "art" in the Montage '93 slogan “the Fusion of Art and Technology” is sandwiched in the middle of two technological words. This is a rolling indication of the state off the arts and our culture today. Artists, as all other people, get caught in the obsession with the latest technical innovations, but artists should be among the individuals able to step aside from the fray, to trust emotions and a sensitive eye; otherwise they risk becoming unwitting participant. Marvin Minski, professor of media arts and sciences, at the MIT media lab, has said: "We are entering into a century in which you are connected to the world, to the virtual world, and much more intimately than you are connected to the real world. Our connection to the real world is very thin, and our connection with the artificial world is going to be more intimate and more satisfying." These mellow words can easily seduce one. They undermine the complexity of a real world, which human beings are constantly striving to understand. These words originate from our present day mechanistic and dualistic mentality which, in turn, can be traced back to thinkers like Descartes, who first separated the self from nature. Getting wrapped up completely in the world of computers might well be a form of escapism that encourages a disconcerting submersion into Self, and a lack of concern for nature.

Hans Staartjes is a photographic artist of Dutch nationality, living and working in Houston. He is studying for a Masters of Fine Arts degree at the University of Houston.