Breaking the Frame
by Johannes Birringer
Art wired international march 3—april 8, 2ooo o'kane gallery, university of houston - downtown and art gallery/library, university of houston - clearlake houston, texas
A glimpse of the future? A foreboding of digital art exhibitions to come? ArtWired International's casually suggestive invitation card displayed a green-tinted close-up of an electrical socket, its holes smiling at the viewer with a friendly face as if the entrance to the wired world of the Internet promised a few good tales and a kiss. Or was this version of the smiley face a bit treacherous, like a blind date? In the context of the FotoFest's International Month of Photography, the presence of digital images should come as no surprise. Surprising, rather, was the dearth of progressive video and interactive multimedia art installations amongst the sprawling net of exhibitions in the city of Houston.
With traditional fine art photography taking center stage, the question of photography's relationship to the moving image media and the new computer-assisted and online artforms gains a specific critical momentum if we look at the curatorial challenges posed by media that cannot, or should not, be framed and hung in the traditional manner. The FotoFest co-founders, Fred Baldwin, president, and Wendy Watriss, artistic director, have in fact encouraged "breaking the frame" and extending photography's reach to abandoned downtown buildings, storefronts, restaurants and the street, thus performing modest situationist interventions into the urban infrastructure. The outcome of this can be debated because FotoFest's curatorial agenda was hardly radical or focused on particular urban, social or economic issues intrinsic to changing concepts of local and global public spheres. Rather, photography appeared to support the downtown revitalization, lending thebusiness district artistic flair while generating its own map, so to speak, of a gigantic festival of images, shuttle service included (for the tourists). Committed to internationalism, the Houston festival also interacts with festivals elsewhere in an international consortium (festiva-loflight.org).
Tourism and education intertwined, the map of FotoFest 2000 directs the viewer to, potentially, more than 100 exhibition sites which, again potentially, could link diverse cultural communities through the flows of information and inspiration provided by the medium. The map implies constant movement; it is a network of sites that is based on a conception of interfaces, communication, drifts and random access. In reality, of course, each site "houses" art and locks it up, framing the prints and carefully hanging them under its spotlights.
I speculated that digital art could not possibly be compromised so disastrously, as it doesn't depend on a physical gallery or museum space. ArtWired International was initiated and organized by Ann Trask (O'Kane Gallery, UH-Downtown) andMartin Wnuk (Art Gallery, UH-Clearlake) and shown simultaneously at both locations. Featuring 34 artists (mostly from the U.S.), the show was juried by MANUAL (Suzanne Bloom/Ed Hill), local artists who have experimented with digital media for many years. I do not know on what basis they selected the artists from the pool of the 70 or 80 works that were submitted, but they posted a brief, modest note saying they attempted to show work "that illustrates our belief that so-called 'digital art' is as diverse in its manifestations as any art medium even though it is not, in fact, a distinct medium in itself. Basically, computers have allowed for the expansion of existing media by providing a whole new set of extremely powerful and exciting tools." The curators claim that the purpose of ArtWired International was "to acquaint the viewing public with new artforms and to give digital artists an opportunity to exhibit their work as it was intended to be seen."
Unfortunately, no information was provided to acquaint the viewing public a bit more thoroughly with the contemporary contexts of digital culture, electronic imaging technologies, online art and various interactive design and installation practices. There was no information about the artists, their production processes, tools, platforms and output preferences. I suspect that perhaps none of them would have liked the way their work was exhibited in Houston. The curators mention that the components of ArtWired included digital movies and CG animation, videotapes, CD-ROMs, image files stored on ZIP disks or diskettes and "computer-generated prints."
Some of the folders I was able to open included Read Me! files with detailed technical notes and specifications on how to install and execute the interactive programs. Not all of the programs worked. The teleconferencing between the two galleries planned for the opening night had to be canceled. During my first visits, I found O'Kane Gallery closed but stumbled upon an Apple monitor in one of the offices. It told me "to follow the directions on the screen or just watch and enjoyArtWireed show.”
I later realized that the downtown campus was undergoing extensive renovation; the gallery had moved to an awkward and cramped balcony space on the fourth floor. When it reopened, some works were shown on an iMac and a video monitor perched high under the ceiling. All the "hard copies" (prints) were installed in the two university galleries (except Weihong's ambitious, 180 feet long Chi-Line installation of digital prints on transparent film, which was mounted on the Clearlake campus library windows). Moreover, the still images from the show are accessible on a CD-ROM "catalogue" identical with the Director program running on the ArtWired Web site by Wnuk (www.cl.uh.edu/ hsh/fotofest/Artwired.html).
I find it hard to make sense of this exhibition project because it presents itself as a conceptual muddle while also betraying a lack of technological knowledge and aesthetic sensibility towards electronic media. The latter would seem to be a basic precondition for mounting a successful and challenging exposition of "new artforms," while the conceptual differences between the cultures of the Internet (online art), interactive art and installation are fundamental for our understanding of the new interface conventions and the distributed content of digital art information. I will address these differences and the emerging parameters of interactivity as I offer modest introductions to the aesthetic content of selected works fromArtWired. The experience of such content resides precisely in the different interfaces, and the curatorial shortcomings of ArtWired can perhaps be made productive if we reflect on the relations between old and new media and explore the distinctiveness of new digital parameters.
The majority of the works displayed in ArtWired bears an obvious relationship to art photography's production process, printing, framing and mode of presentation on the gallery wall, except that the "original" image material, captured on35mm black-and-white or color film, digital videotape or scanned from a preexisting photo, transparency or slide, has been modified and processed in the computer with graphic software systems such as Photoshop or Painter. The work in the darkroom has been replaced by the processing, collaging and reworking of digital information on the computer screen. Theonscreen images of Kathryn Vajda, Phillip Pass, Paul Berger, Peter Patchen, Prince Thomas and Hans Staartjes show a strong painterly quality with luminous colors and striking compositions.
Vajda's Untitled and Pass' The Art of Diplomacy also reveal the pleasure these artists must have in the creation of complex layerings and surreal montage effects in their architectural scenes. Others play with inversions and various filter effects or, in the case of Sheila Pinkel's Site/ Unseen or Colette Veasey-Cullors' Childs Play 4, utilize image-text combinations that betray a compositional affiliation with graphic design and advertising. Not surprisingly, some of the work is abstract or fantastical, other images seem indebted to familiar photographic conventions of social documentary (Pinkel, Susan Kirch-man, Dwayne Carter, Norwood Viviano, Liz Lee), landscape (Katie Miller, Zoe Sheehan Saldana), still life (Viviano) or erotic portraiture (Shannon Raske's Lolita series). Berger's Card-Plate #10 is a mosaic of many small images arranged in a rectangle, and their appearance on the screen makes these inserts look like "windows" that open out to the visual clutter of aninterface-saturated world.
ArtWired's CD-ROM catalogue and Web site, composed as a Director movie, runs its inexorable course, one image pagedissolving into the next, making the exhibition as a whole appear to consist of layers upon layers upon layers of visual facets, virtual stories, a kind of graffiti that can be erased and reappear the next day. Conceptually, it is helpful to think of the onscreen images as digital information in a highly fluid state; these images don't seem fixed like the older media or art objects. They don't aspire to objecthood but are subject to change, further modification, conversion, and different output options, frames to be reframed, a part of the morphing motion-graphics we encounter daily on the Internet.
The digital revolution, to some extent, happens within the plasticity of the frame. Compositing allows to seamlessly manipulate and bind elements within a frame that may come from radically separate sources. And as we learned from the fabricated special effects in Hollywood movies, we will grow accustomed to the emerging genre of fake documentaries and virtual realities, built, bit by bit, from the computer's software capabilities to render the fantastically real and to create things that in essence do not exist. These images have a screen life.
I first saw ArtWired on the Web site, and the curators easily could have provided us with the URLs to visit the artists' own sites on the Web. Instead, the galleries chose to present "hard copies" of the screen images. The physical installation of the works proved to be a letdown, partly because the output transfer to print (ink on paper or canvas in most cases except Saldana's intriguing transfers to the quilt medium of cross-stitch linen) can weaken the resolution and strength of color, andpartly because the hard copies, mounted under glass, deprive the images of the sensory information the user gains from the more direct screen interface.
Video and installation
Rather than emphasizing the problem of degeneration here, digital printmaking implies a transfer process to a differentmedium. As in the output of digital video from the computer to magnetic video tape or enlarged projection, the transfer may alter digital information in discrete, material ways, not the least of which is the context of its social reception. To viewa dark, grainy video with muffled sound in a brightly lit or noisy room is not very appealing. Some contemporary videoinstallations, such as Shirin Neshat's Rapture or William Kentridge's History of the Main Complaint (both on view in CAM's Outbound exhibition) surely require enclosed, cinematic spaces for their projection to facilitate response to their emotional content. Other videos may work better in the trance-like environment of the techno club culture. Installation environments for digital art need to focus on the parameters of physical interaction with the medium, especially if a work asks the user to become immersed and to navigate the sensory experiences within the sonic, tactile and visual interface.
At ArtWired, little if any navigation design was explored. The muted presence on a single classroom video monitor of Vonda Yarberry's Vision of Hildegard, Denis Summers' The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even ... More, and Bart Woodstrup/Matt Biederman's Pixave added to the dreary look of the 2-0 format prints in O'Kane Gallery. The 3-D quality of the videos, implied in Summers' digital animations, and the densely layered textures, superpositions and soundtracks ofPixave and Hildegard, were barely perceivable due to the poor quality of the remastered VHS tape. There were two attempts at 3-0 installation, Kirchman's Mothers, Daughters, Sisters (iris prints, ink jet printed books and cutout figures) and Pinkel's Site/Unseen: Guards at the LA. County Museum. The latter added a pair of shoes on a box to the prints on the wallthat render the museum guards invisible and then tell us, with the pointed finger of a Hans Haacke, about the plight of the underpaid workers. Kirchman's sopho-moric cutouts and books filled with lengthy private e-mail correspondences about illness in her family seemed no less embarrassing and self-indulgent. Finally, the curators' decision to exhibit a video copy of one of the most interesting interactive CD-ROMs (Monk@Sea) made nonsense of the whole concept and design of interactive digital art.
Like Marilyn Waligore's fascinating minimalist animation piece, Nagasaki, and Ron Geibert's complex, mysterious and oftenhilarious doublespeak interrogator v.1.5, Keith Roberson/Regina Frank's Monk@Sea is conceived as an interactive installation that invites the user to take time and investigate the visual and auditory structure of the work, trying out thefeedback loop and the sensory and narrative associations it entertains.
Nagasaki is a small work, requiring less time to peruse than the meandering hypertext of Geibert's doublespeak that both delighted and angered me (when it got stuck or derailed in its strange "processing" logic of numbers and words). Browsing the works was done via the now utterly familiar mouse-and-key-board interface at the PC. Apart from Geibert's and Waligore's, there were other interactive Director movies and animations whose content I found less stimulating (Vonda Yarberry's Loq@//fy; Sonya Wilkinson's Little Boxes; Robert Bowen's Now U C It, Now You Don't) or simply trivial (Roswell Angier's Jack 6- Helens Book of Changes and Fumiko Chino's Cathy).
The interactive installation for Monk@Sea, according to the artists, requires a video projector and a remote keyboard that functions like a musical instrument/encoding device. At O'Kane the work was simply dropped onto the little iMac desktop, thus altering the spatial distancing between "code" and image. When I enter its interactive parameter, I see a small white band of code running across a black field, and a gentle female voice beckons me to activate her: "Hello, hey, type me, I'm hanging on your words, I can't move without you!"
After hitting the keys, the scanned image of Caspar David Friedrich's romantic painting of a solitary monk looking at the vast ocean appears, his tiny figure dwarfed by the immensity of the horizon. Then the image dissolves, and I see German textile and performance artist Regina Frank, clad in a long black dress, standing on the bottom right of the projected seascape, while another close-up of her inserted on the left side shows her in the anguished twitching motion of a near-freeze frame — she is caught in the tiny space or delay between code that triggers her motion, trapped in what couldappear to be an increasingly frightening stranglehold, because I recognize, as I begin to play with the keys, that I am in fact weaving the white band around her body and engulfing her further. The cinematic film collage is beautiful; I notice the perpetual motion of the clouds on the right, and each time I hit the letters of the alphabet (spoken and sung as musicalnotes in Frank's German voice), I move her tiny figure on the bottom right towards the center and then the left side window where her larger image is writhing like a captive prisoner. On the top of the landscape I see the scrolling letters I type, both in alphabetic language and in encryption (an older, World War II military ciphering communication code).
In the concentrated space in which this drama unfolds, I barely have time to reflect; I become entranced with the musical language I compose, and then suddenly I hit a point when the transmission is corrupted. A warning signal appears and Frank unwinds from her tight band like a mechanical puppet, flung out into the sea. I pause to take stock of the associations that crowd my mind, but there's her voice again, like a siren call," hey, type me ... ." Frank, who is internationally known for her performance installations of dresses she encodes with random communications captured from the Internet, has here created a delightful, critical allegory-loop, on a digital platform (designed by Roberson), for our intricate net condition that links language, digital code and romantic vistas of cyberspace to structures of dependency that are perhaps much less comforting that we would like to believe.
I tried to hint at the differences between static 2-0 digital prints, digital video, 3-0 multimedia installations, interactivedesigns and the fluid culture of the Internet, and regrettably ArtWired neither included online art nor addressed some of the aesthetic and political questions of contemporary cyberculture. It thus missed a real opportunity to connect the fledgling local discourse on digital technology in the arts to the wider world of net projects — inside and outside a given local exhibition — as well as the critical debates on new media art, electronic information, copyright, random access and distributedcontent. The jurors, whose provocative if sometimes overintellectualized new work on the boundaries of nature and digitalculture (Time Out Of Joint) was seen at Moody Gallery and who entertain a "Digital Image Forum" on their Web site, inexplicably left the installation of ArtWired in the hands of inexperienced curators, with disappointing results. It is to be hopedthat FotoFest 2002 will probe the intersections of art and digital culture more deliberately. •
Johannes Birringer is a choreographer/media artist and artistic director of AlienNation Co. He is the author of Media and Performance: along the border (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press) and Performance on the Edge: Transformations of Culture (Athlone Press).