Remediation: Moving Towards the Digital
by Johannes Birringer
Ken Gonzales-Day the Bone-Grass Boy: The Secret Banks of the Conejos River
Christiane Paul Re-media: Net Art Pieces
Vine Street Studios
March 1 - April 1, 2002
Collaborative Project 2002: A Collaborative Installation by Artists, Architects, Designers and Critics
Blumenthal Sheet Metal
March 1 - April 1, 2002
Fraser Stables Interfaces - Andreas Muller-Pohle
Topek building, Houston, Texas
March 1 - April 1, 2002
When I reviewed digital art shown at FotoFest 2000 (Breaking the Frame, SPOT: Volume XIX, Number 1), I criticized the ill-informed curatorial approach to new genres that use digital technology for interactive installations, real-time media and internet-based art. This year I came away with the impression that the directors of the International Month of Photography made a decision to give considerably more weight to emerging practices by contrasting its major presentations of classical photography with an unprecedented number of mixed media and Internet art installations. Although I missed the rainy opening night performance of the Video-Truck, which a group of international artists had conceived as a "moving" installation of videos cruising the downtown streets, I was astonished by the sheer magnitude of media works exhibited at a number of sites, most prominently at Vine Street Studios, Blumenthal Sheet Metal, Topek Building, DiverseWorks, Lawndale, CAM and Rice University. Even in commercial galleries, for example Sicardi Gallery's show of the Narcisos series by Oscar Munoz, it is no longer unusual to see photographic artwork exhibited along with video and mixed media processes that manifest contemporary interests in the ephemer-ality or instability of the medium. Selectively gathered from the large number of works I saw, a few responses to some of these contemporary issues follow below.
One way to address the critical issue of temporality is to confront photography or the production of images as a system and look for the inevitable pressures towards deterioration, disposal and entropy within systems. Andreas Miiller-Pohle Entropiais a haunting n-minute black-and-white video projection of close-ups of an image-shredder. As we watch the dance of the crushed particles, the video loop comments ironically on the "transformation" of discarded photographic materiality.
Also at Topek Building, Miiller-Pohle showed Face Codes, his recent series of video stills that combine portraits of Japanese people with the underlying digital code now imprinted at the bottom of the stills in Japanese characters. What is conceptually intriguing about this recombination is the reference to the old medium of photography or portraiture now linked, perhaps irreversibly, to the computer's role in coding data, processing information. The implication of course is that all media (daguerrotype, photographs, moving images, sound, graphics, text) can be digitized and become computable. If the photographic image is a surface representation still referring to something "real" in the world, new media objects composed of digital code are numerical representations whose discrete, quantified data is subject to innumerable algorithmic manipulations. Mtiller-Pohle's work suggests that the "face" as a surface value is imminently replaceable.
Another form of entropy can be found today in video artists' use of the loop. Derived perhaps from earlier experiments in closed-circuit video and sound feedback (the conceptual media art of the 19705), the current preference for short, infinitely looped QuickTime movies or digital video projections is not only a reflection of the seamless repetition in the technological structure of sampling, modulating, mixing and remixing that characterizes the seemingly endless flow of techno music. It also reflects hardware limitations of storage and real time processing, thus precipitating the particular temporal form. The loop is recursively self-reflexive and points to the semiotic properties of medium and content. Whereas DJs sample their tracks to generate a trance-like rhythmical repetition and a constant reconfiguration of the sound material, visual artists often use the loop form to manipulate the surface of the image or generate a meditative or obsessive-compulsive micro-cinema of hovering stasis that is the opposite of traditional narrative cinematic illusionism but also differs from the sequential, narrative perception we often have of the numerous prints that constitute a photographic exhibition as a whole. Ken Gonzales-Day's series, The Bone-Grass Boy: The Secret Banks of the Conejos River, performs a conceptual loop, standing the postmodern distrust of narrative illusionism on its head with its completely fabricated historical "frontier novel" as a digitally constructed illustrated book of events that could have taken place but never did, stills of virtual episodes from the Mexican-American War into which Gonzales-Day inscribes himself, with the subversive humor of camp, as both hero and heroine.
Oliver Wasow's series of Cibachrome prints, on the other hand, creates synthetic landscapes and fantastical architectures that are as patently unreal as they appear meticulously, beautifully composed and rendered (in Photoshop).
The artist is clearly interested in the garish virtuality of the scenes as "places that don't exist but appear as though they could," as he suggests in his notes on the exhibit. The digital craft of the surface makes the images echo the compositing techniques of advertising, while their content also resonates with Disneyland and science fiction. Wasow's prints speak the language of fake photorealism, commenting on the constructed immediacy and transparency that underlies a long history of realism and perspectival representation. But they also re-mediate the genres of collage and photomontage, thus multiplying the signs of mediation that characterize the contemporary "hypermedicay" of interface design.'
In a separate room of Wasow's exhibition there were actually four computer screens displaying some of his manipulated nature landscapes as screen savers; titled Still Moving, Wasow presents them as ambient loops that might be looked at or perhaps just used as a pleasant way to illuminate a room. Either way, they are tautological and become redundantly obvious as digital commodities now, including the little joke in one of them showing a pastoral landscape with blank, white advertising billboards. In the Cibachrome print these blanks remain blank; in the screen saver you see a small-animated loop of a fiery explosion on one of them. Wasow's work is like his site-specific digital animation project Somewhere Else(with Nancy Dwyer) first installed in Las Vegas' Freemont Street Vault stretching over four city blocks. Here it is transplanted into a small corner room and running as an eight-minute loop, thrives on such entropic ironies. The "Vault"piece is a commercial jingle planted into commercial space purporting to parody the logic of the commercial.
The issue of how spatial and temporal montage in loop form can challenge our perception is more interestingly addressed in another installation, Fraser Stables' two-channel DVD projection Double Garage Scene of a domestic scene between two men in a garage. The visual architectonic of the parallel loops is fascinating: the images compose two symmetrical halves of a complete picture that consists of a slow circular panning shot around the centrally located car in the garage. Spliced and recombined, the film loops are projected onto two light-boxes in a dark room, and as soon as one enters one is hooked into the strange scene in which a young man in a leather jacket urges his buddy to leave, "let's go now. let's just go ... look at me." His pleading fades in and out of the soundtrack that is dominated by the other man who, seated behind the steering wheel, is blissfully singing an Italian aria. The recorded circumstances of this scene are so strange that it takes a while to comprehend the fictional content of this small movie as well as the spatial construction of its ever-moving circular perspective. Stables succeeds in captivating us with an unresolved narrative tangibly experienced as a slow vortex, the continuous rotation of the camera's point of view.
Nothing quite as sensual or complex was offered in Charles Cohen's Buff, an installation of three videos next to a wall of pinned-up digital ink jet prints of the same material. The video loops show appropriated porn, with the heavy breathing on the soundtrack intact but the sex partners voided from the scene by digital manipulation that turns the bodies into flat, two-dimensional white-outs. Some viewers may find the thwarted voyeurism of these abstracted scenes funny and entertaining, and the choice of content for the loops surely speaks to the fact that porn and video games dominate the market of this form. But apart from reducing the video-material to the mundane banality of its background wallpaper and furniture, "Buff'is devoid of any conceptual or political point of view.
Exploring the political dimension of today's visual culture, especially the process of collapse or convergence of the media into each other in the digital realm, would have been an unavoidable curatorial task, I think, as the new audiovisual regimes implicate mechanisms of power and knowledge. Art Jones (DiverseWorks) and Christiane Paul. Re-Media: Net Art Pieces brought together group shows that examined decentralized social space, the network, and mediated relationships in our technological reality for which the "virtual" is a euphemism. The environments created by these two shows could not have been more different, however. The Diverse-Works gallery was transformed into a rave-like jumble of sounds and sights, a heavy-metal showroom of video monitors and computer screens pulsating with the kind of psychedelic energy that VJs Virus and Alec Empire generated in their video footage of DJ Scanner's live mix in an underground club. Unfortunately the club was in London, but the videos framed the entrance, and soon one found oneself surrounded by a curatorial effort to recreate the performance atmosphere of techno as a space for expenditure and the multiplicitous rhythms of all media. Curiously titled Word, Jones presented installations and interactive CD-ROMs by 17 artists ranging from DJ Spooky's music-video on virtual architecture to Jennifer Reeder's digital self-manipulation as eroticized android and Gabriel Cyr's equally blurry deconstruction of gay pornography, from Michael Galbincea's aggressive sampling of Hip-Hop lyrics and comics to Jon Cates's appropriation and transcoding of everyday media into low-resolution, nearly dysfunctional graphics. Several works explored language and text/voice recognition systems, and Word also mixed and remixed samples from its own installations into a continuous video/sound projection thrown at a central screen. It thus created the hyperme-diated and intertextual pandemonium its curator had intended. But his idea of "everything speaking to and about everything" lacks a political analysis of the recombinant architecture that here only pretends to create a live rave or collective being-in-the-body. Rather, it creates a kind of video-arcade in which the continuous flow of sense perception is substituted by isolated consumption of individual stations that are not meaningfully interconnected into a distributed system nor truly interactive.
3. Interactivity and Real-Time
Claude Closky's elegant white cube installation, +1, at Blumenthal Sheet Metal likes to poke irreverent fun at technological presumptions of interactivity, and his arithmetical joke might as well frame this last section. Addition, numeric succession and representation of digital code, interactive behavior, expectations of communication and frustration at the utter lack of content as all these aspects enter onto the equation of the user's experience in this room that houses a white table with a mouse and a computer desktop projection. If you click the small rectangle with +1, the number that's already visible in the center of the screen increases by one unit. When I left the room, I had moved 82110 to 82170 and was satisfied. Before entering Re-Media at Vine Street, I encountered MANUAL'S astoundingly meditative double installation of The Image and found myself spending several hours in front of one of the large-scale digital projections, Big White Pine. Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom, well-known collaborators and explorers of the relations between nature, culture, and technology, here present a programmed still-frame digital animation system that evolves slowly (over nine hours daily) as a real-time sequenced performance, drawing from the large database of over 1,600 digital stills the artists took of this forest over a period of nine weeks. The experience of the extremely slowly, almost imperceptibly morphing images is riveting; the running timecode at the bottom heightens my awareness that this seemingly still image of the natural environment is subject to time as well as the incessant calculations of the computer program. It is a beautiful, disconcerting paradox, because of course the software with its real-time synthesis does not understand temporal change in nature at all. MANUAL offers a profound rumination on "time code" and the mortification of the natural landscape so often rendered fixed and idealized in aesthetic representation.
Re-Media: Net Art Pieces pulled me out of my trance: I enter into a quiet library-like room with narrow tables for the interactive workstations (with keyboards, flat screen monitors). I am alone, noticing that all the screens are also plugged into video projectors: the surrounding walls glow with the interface configurations previous visitors had left behind. So I begin the labor of learning the interactive navigation each internet piece requires, and write down the website addresses for each work so I can play with them at leisure from my home computer. Of course it is redundant to install net art in an exhibition, since their function as on-line distributed "sites" makes them accessible at any time and from any computer with a network connection. Nevertheless, curator Christiane Paul has written an excellent contextualizing essay for the FotoFest catalogue, distinguishing art that uses digital technology as a tool (for the production of more traditional art objects such as video or photography) from that which uses it as a medium with its inherent dynamic and interactive possibilities of real-time data transmission and distribution. Although providing the conditions for real-time on-line performance between remote sites was not within the scope of FotoFest, Paul wanted to demonstrate the ways in which a traditional exhibition can open up physical space to virtual space. She opted for one-to-one relationships in the interfaces (mouse/keyboard/screen), installing seven interactive net art pieces that use hypermedia and databases but are also committed to extending the notion of the photographic medium.
On the most mundane level, this extension happens in Lorie Novak's web site, Collected Visions (www.cvisions. cat.nyu.edu/), which invites the user to submit images to a growing archive of family photographs and create photo stories. A large database is used to let us ponder different modes of capturing the memory of family. In Heath Bunting and Olia Lialina's Identity Swap Database (www.teleportacia.org/swap/), you are invited to play with virtual identity exchanges and examine concepts of online "physical" identity. This interface is theoretically more interesting than in actuality; the search engine didn't work well and, alas, I didn't bring my digital photo. Jenny Marketou's SmellBytes (www.smellbytes.banff.org) has a web cam installed, so here the interaction with the site's agent, Chris.053, is more promising, as it takes my photo to run it through a complex analysis, breaking down facial structures into bytes that are correlated to a determination of my smell in the Odor Lab. The visual process of the software's analysis is fascinating to watch on the screen/projection, but results are withheld (to be emailed later). The site, despite its humorous appeal, has political overtones because it parodies a form of invasive data surveillance that may soon be the order of the day.Mark Napier's" Bots (http://potato-land.org/cbots), reminiscent of digital collage in the tradition of Exquisite Corpse, is a distressingly funny site allowing the user to create strange, cartoon-like corporate creatures out of body parts. Amy Alexander's The Multicultural Recycler (http://recycler.plagia-rist.org/) also uses digital montage, but her sources are altogether different, culled from a number of live web cams in different locations around the world. You can select the cameras on these sites, while the software generates the composite image without you. Interactivity here stops at that might have allowed a different kind of investigation of these location shots and their visual relation to other place-images. The emphasis seems to be, again, on the fun part of being able to do this in real time, and leaving your "artwork" in a"Recycler Gallery." No further critical insight into the operations of such live-captured surveillance images is proffered, but it's implied that these data are cultural objects or ready-mades. The question of how we enter into virtual space and communicate with others is addressed more deeply in Tina LaPorta's " Remote_corp@REALities"(http://184.108.40.206/exh_comart/lapor-ta). Offering a remix of web camera images of people connecting on-line to CU See Me sites, QuickTime movies of interviews with them, and extracts from on-line chat room conversations (text scroll), LaPorta lets me listen to some astonishing statements that might contribute to an ethnographic study of social behavior in virtual environments.
Finally, Marketa Bankova's NYC Map (www.nycmap.con) is a highlight of sorts, impressing us with an extraordinary amount of urban images and impressions of New York City collected in a site that becomes a virtual map. By clicking the arrows on the map you can choose where to walk or spend the night out, and the real-time compositing of layered scenes, soundtracks, and small diary texts written by Bankova betrays a keen sense of the medium's hypertextual fluidity, informational scope and visual intensity. Bankova's site is the most challenging one to navigate and also foregrounds the hybrid nature of a medium that is a multisensory space, each image a link or journey to another story or acoustic experience. Interactive media and on-line art ought not to be reduced to mouse clicking and browsing or watching the program's reactions. The entire set up for this Re-Media exhibit was too studious and didactic, the chosen works largely tepid, lacking diversity and the more radical underground edge that net art still has in the global world of corporate-owned media. New technologies do not only remediate older media: a new shared consciousness of the multisensory, dynamic and unpredictable interconnectedness in interactive environments needs to be fostered, and FotoFest's curators may need to develop a greater sensibility for the plasticity of hypermedia.
1. Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999. pp. 31-44.
JOHANNES BIRRINCER IS A CHOREOGRAPHER/MEDIA ARTIST AND ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF ALIENNATION Co.